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Burden or Privilege?

Over the past several weeks I have had several discussions with people about the question of whether Jewish obligations are a burden or a privilege. If, to paraphrase Pirkei Avot, against our will we are formed, born, live, die and give an accounting before G-d, then why should we not see it as a burden from which we cannot even opt out?

A Jew once came to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the foremost Halachic authority in post-war USA, and asked why so many Jewish immigrants to the US had such a hard time keeping their children connected to Jewish observance. He replied, that many of them struggled. Often a father came home every Friday, and he was just fired from his job for keeping Shabbos. If his reaction was “es is shver tzu zein a yid – it is difficult to be a Jew” then the children absorb the message that Yiddishkeit is a burden, of which they want no part. But if a parent, despite all of the challenges, declares “es is gut tzu zein a yid – it is good to be a Jew” then that attitude would be conveyed to the children.

To use an analogy. Two men were carrying equally heavy sacks on the road into town. One was sighing and kvetching the whole way. The second was whooping with joy and couldn’t contain his excitement. The first man had a sack filled with rocks. The second’s sack was filled with diamonds. The same weight, different attitude.

If we see serving Hashem – our Jewish obligations - as a burden, then sure, we’d want to opt out as soon as possible, or at the very least, decreasing the burden with minimal devotion. If, however, we view our Jewish obligations as the greatest privilege, then our sack, albeit heavy, is filled with diamonds. The more the better. Instead of saying I wish I could opt out, we consider how much was invested in us by Hashem to enable our success.

It’s all about perspective…

As Elul comes marching in, let me wish each and every one of you to be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year of health, prosperity and spiritual meaning.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

It's All About Control

Both this parsha and last, reference the mitzvah of Tefillin. There are actually two mitzvahs, the arm Tefillin (shel yad) and the head Tefillin (shel rosh). When the Torah instructs us regarding Tefillin, it is framed in a curious manner. To quote (Deut, 6:8): “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for totafot between your eyes.” With respect to the arm Tefillin there is an active command (you shall bind). For the head Tefillin, there is a passive command (they shall be). This difference is also reflected in the blessing that is recited over each one respectively. For the arm Tefillin the blessing ends with “commanded us to put on Tefillin” (active). While the blessing for the head Tefillin ends with “commanded us concerning the mitzvah of Tefillin” (passive).

The commentators derive from this, that the Mitzvah for the arm Tefillin is the momentary act of putting them on (binding). Whereas for the head Tefillin the Mitzvah is fulfilled for the entire duration of time that they are upon us. Why the difference?

One of the meanings of the Mitzvah of Tefillin, is to empower us to gain mastery over our thoughts and desires. For this reason we place the Tefillin near the heart (desires), and on the head (thoughts). Tanya explains at length, that few people are able to achieve full control over the nature of the desires that come to them. That being said, everyone, he argues, is capable of being in full control of their thoughts, speech and actions. To clarify: Most people cannot dictate what sort of desires arise in their heart. However, when an inappropriate desire does come to a person, they can choose to redirect their thought process to something else that is appropriate.

Yet despite our limitations, we are encouraged to try to master even the direction of our desires. So each morning we bind the tefillin on our arms, thereby fortifying ourselves in the moment to work toward that goal. There the Mitzvah ends. The Tefillin on our heads are to empower us to control our thoughts. This is an ongoing and constant obligation. As such, the Mitzvah is also ongoing for the duration of the time that the Tefillin are upon us.

This is called mindful living. Every moment of a person’s life is meant to be directed in a positive and G-dly manner. These special Mitzvahs help us to strengthen ourselves to achieve mindful living.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Grammar of Love

I would like to take this opportunity to extend good wishes to my father, Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, upon his upcoming 70th birthday. Our sages associate this age with a passage in Psalms 92. So our wish paraphrases the words of King David, “May you, together with our mother, flourish like a palm, grow as a cedar, and develop with age while remaining fresh and well sated (materially and spiritually).”

If you would like to make a donation to Chabad of Louisiana in honor of Rabbi Rivkin’s birthday, please go to www.chabadneworleans.com/donate.

This Parsha contains the Shema, during which we are commanded to love Hashem our G-d. The Hebrew term for love is Ahavah. Our tradition offers several deeper perspectives into the root of the word Ahavah.

The first is that it comes from the word Hav – meaning to give. The alef functions as a prefix with the root being hav. To love is to give. When you love someone, you give to them without expectations. Love is not about getting; it is about giving. If we love Hashem, then we must think about what we are giving to Hashem. The Torah tells us, that we give by following Hashem’s instructions, including those enumerated in that very same passage.

Another approach is that the root is Avah – meaning to desire. The hei functions as a letter that emphasizes the degree of desire. The sound made by a hei (similar to an H) is the sound of breath coming from deep within the heart to the outside. In this instance, to love is to desire a connection with the other. In the case of Hashem, it is to desire to have a connection with Hashem instilled within the heart. This is achieved by a person deeply contemplating that the G-d of Creation, my G-d, is the Infinite G-d of Transcendence. When that notion becomes ingrained within a person’s psyche and consciousness, it entirely transforms the way that person goes through life.  

May we merit to achieve Ahavah in both ways, thereby enjoying a profound relationship with Hashem and a meaningful life.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Ultimate Pleasure

Pleasure is a vital component of the human condition. We experience it on many levels and in many forms. In fact, the capacity for pleasure may be one of the most dominant faculties of the human being. It is a powerful motivator, and a compass in decision making process.

Let’s talk about various sources of pleasure in the life of a person. At the lowest level it would be pleasure that originates from a physical experience, such as the pleasure of tasty food and the like. A deeper level of pleasure might be experienced through music that moves a person deeply. Taking it to the next level, there is the pleasure associated with emotions, perhaps from doing something kind for another or expressing love to another. Maybe it comes from reading or seeing an emotionally moving narrative.

The most uniquely human pleasure is the pleasure of the intellect. When one hears or reads something that is intellectually stimulating this can be a source of deep pleasurable experience. When one make an intellectual discovery, whether a solution to a complex problem or a new dimension in a field of interest, this can rock the person’s world in a pleasure sense.

Within the pleasure of intellect, there is the pleasure of Torah learning. What makes Torah even more special, is that it also causes pleasure for the soul. King David in Psalm 119 writes 176 verses of praise for the Torah and Mitzvot. Each one expresses a dimension of our relationship with Torah and Hashem. Verse 97 he declares, “O how I love Your ">Torah! All day it is my discussion.” For a Jew, the greatest pleasure of all should be in the study of Torah.

I heard that once after the Rebbe finished sitting Shiva (during which one is halachicly restricted in the area of Torah study), he came back to his room and opened a volume of the Talmud to begin studying immediately. One of the members of the Rebbe’s secretariat said that he was inhaling the Torah like a person coming up for air after being underwater.

In addition to the intellectual pleasure and fulfillment, there is also the soul connection that one forges with Hashem through learning Torah.

In this vein, Chabad is happy to offer you a pleasurable experience at Project Talmud Summer 2019. It is being held tonight (Thursday, August 8) from 7-9 pm at the Btesh Family Chabad House (Uptown). Two guest lecturers will be sharing inspiring and uplifting talks. The first topic is, “The Heavenly City – The History and Sanctity of Jerusalem. The second topic is, G-d’s Toolbox – Discovering the Energy of the Universe in the Alef-Bet.

We look forward to seeing you there tonight.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Evidence of Russian Collusion

They have discovered evidence of Russian collusion! Relax; take a deep breath. I am not talking about 2016. I am referring to a recently discovered audio clip of a phone call between New York and Moscow in 1986.

First some background. As we all know, following the Communist revolution, the Soviets clamped down considerably on religious practice and education. For seven decades Judaism was kept alive in the Soviet Union by a network of underground activities overseen by Chabad chassidim. There were several opportunities for Jews to leave the USSR. but the vast majority remained trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The Rebbe remained in constant contact with the Jews of the USSR by means of coded letters and smuggled communications by visitors. Some visitors were even brave enough to film movies of the Jews in Russia and their messages for the Rebbe. (See the film Embers for more on this – www.chabadneworleans.com/1057926.)

One of the individuals who traveled to Russia frequently was Rabbi Berel Levy – the founder of the OK Kosher agency. As a Kosher supervisor he had access to the Soviet Union for business purposes. Shortly before Purim in 1986, he was directed by the Rebbe to place a phone call to Reb Getche Vilensky, a top figure in the Chabad Russian underground.

Rabbi Levy, using two operators, reaches Reb Getche by phone and tells him that the Zeide (grandfather – the Rebbe’s code name) wants to know why Kalman Meilach (Tamarin – another active Chabad chasid) was refusing to take insulin. The phone call lasted about 7 minutes, most of which was Rabbi Levy making sure that the message was understood. In the course of the conversation Rabbi Levy emphasized that the Zeide wants to know from Kalman Meilach himself why he is not taking the insulin. He asked him to tell a certain person who was going to be visiting Russia soon thereafter, and that she would get the message to the Zeide.

I cannot even fathom how much that phone call cost. Yet the Rebbe was so concerned about this single yid stuck in the USSR that he went to great lengths to find out what was going on. Several weeks later two bochurim (one was the brother of Mrs. Nemes) were traveling to Russia to arrange Pesach activities, and they were instructed to get a letter in writing from Kalman Meilach on why he refused to take the insulin. It turns out Kalman Meilach was worried about the insulin containing porcine products. This in itself is amazing. He was willing to risk his health over this issue. (It turns out that there is no halachic issue with it; but he was not certain in Russia.)

May we merit to have a fraction of the Rebbe’s Ahavas Yisrael and Kalman Meilach’s yir’as shamayim.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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