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A Sliver of Jewish Art History

Some of you may have noticed the recent addition of a lovely piece of artwork at Chabad House. It is a large painting by the late Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman that was given to Chabad House by my grandmother, Mrs. Dusia Rivkin, may she live and be well.

Today there are a number of Chassidic artists who are well known. Following WWII, there were two Chassidim who ventured into the world of painting. The older one was Hendel (Chenoch) Lieberman, and Zalman Kleinman, who was a generation younger than him.  

My grandmother has an appreciation of art. Over the years she commissioned several paintings by these two artists. Hendel Lieberman was her first cousin and was very close to the family. Last week, in a conversation with me about this Kiddush Levana by Zalman Kleinman, she shared some interesting history into some of the artwork that she had.

In anticipation of my grandfather’s 70th birthday, she called Zalman Kleinman with the idea of painting a large scale Kiddush Levana scene. (Kiddush Levana is the monthly blessing that is recited under the moonlight as it nearly completes its waxing.) At first he was hesitant; but after stating a few stipulations he agreed to undertake the work. When it was finally complete, it was a true masterpiece. I was living with grandparents at the time, and the new painting transformed the living room. Following the completion of Kiddush Levana piece, Kleinman went on the do several more of that scene modeled after my grandmother’s original idea.

Moving back in history to the late 50s, Hendel Lieberman was a middle-aged, struggling artist who had lost his wife and children to the Nazis. The Rebbe uplifted him and encouraged him to rediscover himself through his artistic talent. (For more on that see www.chabadneworleans.com/395099.) My grandparents too were struggling to provide for their family on the shores of the USA to which they had arrived in 1947. But to support their cousin Hendel, they bought a few of his works. (I still remember the painting of a rooster staring down at me from the top of the stairs of their third floor.) For my grandfather’s 40th birthday, my grandmother decided that she wanted Hendel to create a painting of the Rebbe for their house. Hendel was very reluctant. As a chasid he was concerned that he wouldn’t get it right and it would be disrespectful to the Rebbe. My grandmother described a concept to him to which he latched on. It was a full length picture of the Rebbe walking while holding his siddur, with light emanating from all around him. Following that commission, several others wanted similar works and it became a concept that people found intriguing.

What I found moving was, that my grandmother does not regard herself as a deep thinking chasid, yet this concept of wherever the Rebbe walks light emanates from him, was something that resonated with her clearly and she was able to translate that into an art concept.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

No Elitist Leadership

What is the leadership role of a Rabbi? To please the board… To give a good sermon… To pay attention to the top donors… To teach and inspire the greatest minds of the community…

When G-d tells Moses about his successor as the Rebbe (leader) of the nation of Israel, he frames Joshua as one “who can relate to the spirit of each and every individual.”

Of course he must appeal to the intellectual bent of the scholars. Certainly he must continue to inspire the committed members of the community. He absolutely has to know how to navigate the board and the big donors. But if he forgets about the little guy, the guy who sits in the middle seat of the third to last row of the Shul, then a successor to Moses he is not!

True Rabbinic leadership is reflected in the ability to truly care and engage every person on their level. To the intellectuals it means scholarship. To someone else it is inspiration. To a third it means showing interest in their business affairs. Men, women, and children of all ages, must all feel that the Rabbi understands them and is tuned in to their needs and spiritual interests.

This concept also filters down to all individuals as they prioritize their lives. When we think about the aspects of ourselves to which we pay the most attention in our quest for self-betterment, this same dilemma can arise. We may be tempted to expand our knowledge base and push our minds to the limit of their capacities. We may be tempted to develop our sense empathy or other elements of our emotional character. Along the way, the nitty gritty details of our day to day actions and choices, may fall by the wayside. We become like the Rabbi who only wants to lead the scholars or the wealthy folks. The “little guys” in our lives are the seemingly insignificant opportunities that come our way for choosing what Hashem wants over what might feel good in the fleeting moment.

While scholarship and character development are important, the true test of a person’s growth and devotion to Hashem is at the level of action. A complete person is one who can focus on growing in all areas, while at the same time connecting the dots at the bottom line.  

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Snake on a Pole

We hope and pray that everyone will get through the upcoming storm without harm. There will likely be significant rain in New Orleans on Saturday. Services will be held as usual. We do encourage people to use common sense when determining the extent of their attendance.

In this week’s Parsha we read about the plague of snakes with which the Jewish people were punished. Upon the people regretting their evil ways, Moshe prayed to Hashem to remove the snakes and this is what happened. “The L-rd said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live. Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.”

Incidentally, there is good reason to accept that this story is the origin of the snake on a pole serving as the symbol of healing.

The sages of the Talmud comment, “It is not the snake that healed. But rather, when the people gazed at the snake above, they turned their hearts in devotion to G-d.

If this is so, why bother with the snake altogether. Just tell people to turn their hearts to G-d. Furthermore, later in history this copper snake was used in idolatrous ways.

Chassidus explains, that the snake reminds us of the evil within ourselves and the universe. It is the symbol of the force that seeks to turn us away from the will of Hashem. By placing the snake on a pole and raising it high, this serves as a reminder to us that evil (Satan, Yetzer Hara) is actually only a force that G-d employs to give us free will. In reality the Yetzer Hara itself does not want us to listen to the temptations it places before us. When we recall this by looking at the snake raised on the pole, this inspires us to double down on our prayers and efforts of devotion to Hashem and the fulfillment of His will. This infuses us with the strength that we can and must overcome the internal and external pull to defy the will of Hashem. With the help of Hashem coupled with hard work we can succeed.

Shabbat Shalom and stay safe!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

25 Years of Alive and Stronger

25 years is a long time. It’s long enough for a “generation” to be born and grow up. This Shabbos marks 25 years since the Rebbe’s physical passing on the 3rd of Tammuz in 1994. As I reflect on this, I realize that I was born less than 25 years after the passing of the Previous Rebbe (1950). I do not relate to the Previous Rebbe as a person who is of “my times.” Yet as I look around the world of Chabad today, I see thousands of young men and women, boys and girls for whom the Rebbe is a major presence in their lives. They live as Jews with his inspiration. Their striving in life is to fulfill his directives by devoting their lives to bringing people closer to Hashem. They are willing to pick themselves up and set up shop in some small town or remote country as the Rebbe’s Shluchim (emissaries). This is all despite the fact that they never met the Rebbe or heard him speak in person. Notwithstanding this, they relate to the Rebbe as a person who is real and thriving and whose influence on them is ongoing and transformative.

The Rebbe once expressed himself about his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, that although he had passed away 35 years before, over those 35 years he became more alive and stronger with each passing year. We can say with certainty that over the last 25 years the Rebbe has become more alive and stronger. The fascination of the Jewish and secular world with the Rebbe also grows. In recent weeks and days four new books were published about the Rebbe and his teachings. With titles like Social Wisdom, Positivity Bias, Dear Rebbe and One by One, they cover an interesting range of topics that the Rebbe addressed and the broad range of people with whom the Rebbe interacted.

As I watch my own children grow and develop into Chassidim of a Rebbe they never met, I realize that he is more real for them than almost any character that dominates the daily news of our society. The Rebbe’s influence on them has provided them with meaningful and hyper-focused lives. It has molded them into people who think about others even at a very young age. They have a worldview that is shaped by the Rebbe’s wide-ranging insights into every conceivable issue. Finally, they are active participants in the drive to bring our world to a state of Redemption. I am grateful to Hashem for gifting our generation with the Rebbe.

We eagerly yearn for the time when the void in our hearts and lives will be filled and we will be reunited with the Rebbe. But for the brief moment until that time comes, we plow forward to continue bringing the Rebbe’s message of hope and empowerment to the world.

Shabbat Shalom from New York
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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