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ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Zooming for the Glory of G-d

I am going to go out on a limb and assume that Chinese-American businessman, Eric Yuan is probably not a religious man. When he founded Zoom, he most likely did not have in mind that it was being made for the glory of G-d. It is further likely that the development of most internet technology is intended for the following two purposes - commerce and entertainment, and of course, profiting from commerce and entertainment. Did they know that deep down it was fulfilling the passage in Ethics of Our Fathers Chapter six, “Everything that G‑d created in His world, He did not create but for His glory. As is stated (Isaiah 43:7): "All that is called by My name and for My glory, I created it, formed it, also I made it."?”

Now technology has been used extensively for promulgating religion and Torah teaching. Tools like email, the World Wide Web, and social media platforms have enabled promoters of Torah to reach incalculably more people than before. Video streaming platforms have propelled Torah’s teachings to the furthest reaches, geographically and conceptually. People could be wherever they were and access a class, a lecture, an inspiring video and the like.

In this COVID lockdown era, Zoom and similar technological platforms have been the lifeline for people to stay in touch with their families, companies, friends, and their religious communities. We have prayed on Zoom, learned Torah on Zoom, and attended life cycle events – baby-namings, Bris ceremonies, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, funerals and shiva calls – all on Zoom. We are so “zoomed out” that I heard someone mention the other day that instead of saying Zei Gezunt (Yiddish for “Be Well”), people have been saying Zei Gezoomt…

But this past week Zoom unwittingly reached a new level of “doing the L-rd’s work.” This year’s Kinus Hashluchim (shluchim conference) was forced by COVID to be virtual. Being that the five day conference would cater to people from all time zones, it was decided to have an unprecedented element of the conference. As night fell in Australia last Saturday, a Zoom farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) began. As Shabbat ended in each time zone, more and more people joined from their respective locations. It was intended to last for 23 hours, until a few hours after Shabbat ended in Hawaii, the last Chabad location on the spectrum. But something unique happened. As Hawaii was wrapping up, Australia and the Far East were waking up and the rejoined. Then Asia and Europe jumped back on when they woke up. By the time it was Sunday morning in New York, the Farbrengen was still going full force. When Zoom’s maximum of 1,000 participants was exceeded, a link was created to allow others to watch a streaming link of the event. The spontaneous global conversation just kept going and going. People logged in when they had an hour or two and continued to inspire each other. It came to an end last night after 130 hours of non-stop farbrengen. As Shabbat was approaching in Australia, it was time to wrap it up.

I have no doubt that the name of Hashem was glorified this week like never before, by this beautiful display of unity, love and ongoing inspiration. Eric Yuan, you da man. You just need to figure out how to allow more than 1,000 devices to login at the same time. Of course we look forward to the time when we will be allowed to gather in person. But in the meantime, this global 5 day farbrengen was like no other!!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Future is Now and Forever

I recently read an interview with Michael J. Fox, whose foundation has raised nearly one billion dollars for Parkinson’s research. He was talking about his new book is entitled The Future is Now, and this quote jumped out at me. “The good thing is that there’s always a future. Until there isn’t. The future is the last thing you run out of. The moment until you shut down you’ve got a future, and then you don’t.”

Clearly his intent is that one must make the most of the present thereby ensuring that one’s future is meaningful and productive. (All a play on the “Back to the Future” concept.) This is a powerful message coming from a person that has successfully battled a debilitating disease for three decades. Each of us can take some inspiration from his rallying cry.

Yet, as I read the quote, something left me with a sense of discomfort. I thought about it and then realized that what bothered me was the notion that at the moment of death one ceases to have a future. Contrast that with the name of this Parsha – Chayei Sarah – the Life of Sarah, which opens with her passing, and yet is called “The Life of Sarah.” Our sages derive from this, that the righteous even in death are considered alive. How is this so? Because their lives are not defined solely by their physical accomplishments and presence, rather, their lives are primarily defined by the spirit. It is the message and example of faith and love and awe of Hashem along with caring for others, that lives on long after their physical death.

Sarah our matriarch passed away nearly 4,000 years ago, and yet millions, if not billions, of people continue to live with and be inspired by her exemplary life. Little children are familiar with her life story as if she were a grandmother living in their homes. Adults analyze and try to find applications from her wise words as though they had just heard her speak them on a Zoom event last night.

So to reframe the quote, “The good thing is that there’s always a future. And then there continues to be. The future is the thing you never run out of. The moment until you shut down you’ve got a future, and then you continue to have one.” The only condition for achieving this is that you have to live the kind of life that lives on even after it is over. The Future is Now, and forever.

This weekend, Shluchim, emissaries of the Rebbe worldwide are joining in a virtual Kinus – conference. The Kinus is usually held in person and includes the largest sit down kosher dinner in New York City. This year, the pandemic has moved the Kinus online. As always, we invite you, our communities and friends, to join us for the Virtual Grand Event, scheduled to begin at noon on Sunday (CST). You can watch it at www.chabadneworleans.com/kinus.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Start the Healing

This has been a contentious week for the American public. No matter which candidate you support, there has been enough frustration to go around. The contentiousness has highlighted the ferociousness of the suspicion and disdain with which the sides regard each other. The accusations and attacks on the character and ideals of the other party have been elevated to a frenzied pitch.  

Take all of that into account. Reflect on how unworthy you think the other side is. Consider how wrong you believe them to be and the kind of destruction of our society that you envision coming from their approach to governance.

Now that you have really brought into sharp focus how deplorable and contemptible they are, consider the following moral dilemma. If you got word that G-d had a plan to rid the planet of the scourge of your opponents by bringing death upon them all, how would you react?  

We all share a forefather, Avraham, who was faced with this very dilemma. He was informed by G-d, that his neighbors to the east, the inhabitants of Sodom and Amorah, were being singled out for obliteration. These were the most deplorable people around. They were immoral on every level and by every definition. The legislated meanness into their laws. They outlawed helping others. They killed people at whim. The boundaries of morality within human intimate relationships were entirely eradicated by their society. They took pleasure in the pain of others. One might think that Avraham would throw a Sodom destruction watch party and dance a jig at the news.

Instead, he put his credibility with G-d on the line, to challenge G-d on the decision to destroy those people. He begged and pleaded with G-d to save them. Ultimately the judgement of the True Judge prevailed and they were destroyed. But Avraham goes down in history of the one who was willing to stand up and express concern even for people that were most contemptible by all standards.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. No matter what we think of the other side, they don’t sink anywhere close to the depths of depravity that was Sodom. Let’s emulate our father Avraham. Take the opportunity to reach out in true friendship to someone from the other side. Express empathy with their way of thinking even while disagreeing with them. We cannot wait for the people at the top of the ideology camps to do this for us. While that would be nice, it is unlikely. But for us regular rank and file folks, let’s begin a grass roots movement of caring for each other even when we don’t think much of the other person’s ideals. If each of us made this move, you would shocked how quickly the fissures in our society can begin to heal in a meaningful way.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Becoming a Progressive

After Zeta’s first eyewall passed over us there was a period of intense calm within the eye of the storm until the second one arrived. As we are surrounded by the chaos of so many disturbances, Zeta, Covid, the elections, the economy and whatever else may be churning up your life right now, we need to find that place that can function as the eye of the storm, within which there is intense calm. That niche is generated by our faith in G-d that somehow all of this is for the best and we are in His hands.

Yesterday morning I was outside surveying the area around our home and a neighbor passed by. Of course, we got talking about Zeta and how busy this hurricane season has been. She is an academic with a background in linguistics. She jokingly observed that people think Zeta is the last letter of the Alphabet because of the Z, but it is an early letter in the Greek alphabet. I said that for those of us that read Hebrew we know that Zeta is like the Zayin and there are many more letters to go. We both laughed and emphatically expressed the hope that we are not going to read it that way with this year’s storm names.

With the elections looming this week, there is a lot of talk about progressives. What does it mean to be a progressive? The Torah’s definition of a progressive comes from the opening verse in this week’s Torah portion. But first an intro from Zachariah 3:7. There is a contrast between Mehalech (one who walks) and Omed (one who stands). Chassidus interprets that verse in the following manner. Omed refers to angels. They are called stagnant, or those who stand, not because they don’t move, but because they do not progress. As they are created so they remain. Mehalech refers to the soul of man. We have the potential for growth and progress. How does one live up to the moniker of Mehalech?

In this week’s Parsha, G-d tell Avraham, “Lech Lecha – walk, go, progress to you.” That is a strange instruction. Go to you? How do you go to yourself? The Rebbe explains that Lech Lecha is Hashem telling Avraham to become who he really is, a Mehalech, a progressive. There are two thrusts in this journey of becoming a progressive. One involves self-discovery – identifying the G-dly speak within us and channeling that power into serious growth and development. The other thrust is applying your self-discovery into change that benefits others and advances Hashem’s plan.

We have been a nation of Torah true progressives for nearly 4,000 years now. Just a little further and we will propel our world over the threshold of redemption!!

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom – a Shabbat a good health, safety, (hopefully electricity,) and tranquility!

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Stop! Please Stop!

In a democracy of any sort, elections are very important. Every four years we are told that this upcoming presidential election is more important than ever. Perhaps this time that is not even an exaggeration. Each of us has a constitutionally protected right to express our political opinion and to advocate for it in discussion with others. I am all for people exercising that right.

However, I (along with billions of other humans) have been observing a disturbing trend when it comes to political discussions. This trend holds true regarding in-person discussions, but it even more prevalent and virulent when it comes to online discussions, and on social media. Instead of the discussions remaining in the realm of ideas and concepts, they are increasingly turning into personal conflicts. I get that people are passionate about the issues and their candidates, but that does not give license to wholesale insult anyone that disagrees with you. This is a massive problem, even among close friends and family members. People are unfriending each other, not just on Facebook, but in real life.

There is a verse in Isaiah (55:7), “Let the evil one abandon his way and the man of iniquity his thoughts.” The Tzemach Tzedek (third Chabad Rebbe) taught, that the Hebrew word for iniquity can also be vowelized to mean “strong willed.” A person must not go around believing and declaring that my way of understanding is the only way. We always need to consider the view of another. It does not mean we have to agree, but at least respectfully consider the other view.

We are at a point where a large percentage of those engaging in political speech on social media or elsewhere, are so convinced of the infallibility of their opinion, that they do not even give the other person the respectful courtesy of actually paying attention to what they are saying. Even as we listen to others, we are usually just absorbing their words for the purpose of a rebuttal, or even worse, to use their words against them in an insulting manner.

I am going to go out on a limb and opine, that America will survive the results of this election one way or the other (just my opinion – fee free to disagree). But the fallout over the nastiness and the divisive dialogue (not among the politicians, but) between people, threatens to have more ominous ramifications for society and humanity as a whole.

So by all means, express your opinion, advocate for your side, electioneer for your guy, and even use hyperbole or other forms of persuasion. But please, don’t get personal. Don’t insult your friend, your brother, sister or cousin, your neighbor, or your fellow occupant of planet earth.

Finally, take a moment to open your ears, your mind and your heart to the perspective of another. Two people can observe the same phenomenon and perceive it in diametrically opposite ways. Our perception may be colored by personal experience, family history, or some knowledge and insight that we possess. The other people also have compelling reasons that are driving their perception.

Remember that on November 4 (or whenever the election results are finalized) we still have to share our lives and our society with the other folks. Let us not poison our ability to do so. Concerning Torah Proverbs (3:18) states, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” May we indeed have Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Keep on dancing with the Torah

Last weekend we celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that emphasizes how precious the Torah is to us. Even though the Torahs are wrapped up and covered during the dancing, indicating that we all share an equal association with the Torah, yet, the ultimate goal is to translate the celebration into a new enthusiasm for the study of Torah.

The Chabad Rebbes would make the following declaration at the conclusion of Simchat Torah: “V’Yaakov Halach L’darko – and Jacob went on his way.” This was an encouragement to take all of the inspiration of the holiday month and translate it into an energy that uplifts everyday life.

Quite often we make idealistic resolutions. The challenge is to pragmatize those ideals and apply them into action. On Simchat Torah we dream of a renewed commitment to Torah study for the coming year. Then the holiday ends and we find it challenging to make those dreams a reality. At times, what a person needs, is an opportunity to present itself that will enable one to make that transition from “if only” to “absolutely.”

I would like to share with you an opportunity here in our community to quench your desire for quality Torah learning. The Jewish Learning Institute has developed another tantalizing course entitled “Secrets of the Bible.” This course takes six intriguing Biblical narratives and dissects them using the knife of Jewish mysticism and Chassidus. Stories like Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, Noah’s Ark, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, the Golden Calf, and the Korach Rebellion, are guaranteed to capture your attention. As always, the inner dimension of these stories will leave us with much food for thought and incisive insights into our own longing for self-improvement.

The six-week course will be offered beginning in early November at Chabad Uptown, taught by yours truly (Rabbi Mendel Rivkin), and at Chabad Metairie, taught by Rabbi Mendel Ceitlin, starting the last week of October. Each location will offer an in-person option as well as a separate Zoom option. Chabad Uptown classes will be held on Wednesdays and Chabad Metairie will hold the classes on Tuesdays. Details about registration, pricing, and exact schedules will be released in the middle of next week, G-d willing. The first class will be free and open to the public in both venues with rsvp required.

Do not let this opportunity pass you up! Don’t allow another year of empty Simchat Torah dreams to go by. Grab hold of yourself and make the commitment to participating in Secrets of the Bible this fall/winter. We look forward to sharing this adventure with you.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Don't Let the Grinch Steal Sukkot!

This Grinch named COVID-19 has stolen our Jewish holidays in 2020. None of them were able to be observed in a “normal” manner. We had solo Passover seders. Shavuot with no gatherings. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with many people avoiding in person Synagogue services. We have been Zooming all around the world without getting off of the couch for 6 months.

Now Sukkot is here. This is the one holiday that COVID cannot take from us. In fact Sukkot must be observed outdoors in the Sukkah. What we know about this virus informs us that outdoors is a safer environment than indoors. So do not allow the Grinch to steal this one from you. Be part of a Sukkot celebration. Build you own Sukkah and celebrate. Join us for Sukkah Fest (see below for details) or reach out to Chabad of Metairie for a personal visit by the Sukkah on Wheels. Let us know if you would like to get together in our Sukkah to perform the Mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog and grab a bite to eat.

There is a fellow in Brooklyn who built a Sukkah that is a block long. He is trying to help people who need a Sukkah, but due to COVID do not want to be in a small cramped environment. In fact the Talmud says that when Mashiach comes, G-d will construct a Sukkah that is large enough to hold the entire Jewish people at once.

What we take from this is that we can be safe while at the same time be united and enveloped together by our Sukkah. We made our Sukkah a little bigger in the hope that we can host people in a safe way as well.

Wishing you all a safe and happy Sukkot!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

Yom Kippur and the No-Kvetch Zone

Before Yom Kippur people commonly wish one another to have an easy fast. This is a very nice sentiment, as refraining from eating and especially drinking for over 24 hours is not so simple. Yet at the same time, I am somewhat bothered by the kvetching about the fast during Yom Kippur itself. I know that Jews are “Born to Kvetch” (as the saying goes), but somehow I would hope that we could rise above it for just this one day a year.

There an axiom from one of the Chabad Rebbes about Yom Kippur – “On Yom Kippur, who even wants to eat?” In other words, Yom Kippur is about entering a sublime space in our spirituality. The reason for not eating on Yom Kippur is not to punish ourselves for sinning, but because it is such a holy day, infused with such intense spirituality, that eating is out of the question. Yom Kippur is like experiencing heaven on earth. Yom Kippur is a day of the Neshama.

True, we are a combination of body and soul, and our job is to elevate the body rather than neglecting it. True, that we are earthly inhabitants, and our task is to elevate the earthliness rather than ignore it. True, that for a Jew, eating properly with the right intent is a means of serving Hashem. However, in order to achieve those goals on the other days of the year, we need to have one day where we levitate above it all. We have one day where the body is sidelined. We have one day where physicality is suppressed. With the inspiration of this one day, we are able to come charging powerfully back toward those goals for the rest of the year.

So let’s institute a “No-Kvetch Zone” this Yom Kippur and enjoy the meaningful experience that it is intended to be.

On a different note, Hurricane Sally took aim at Chabad of Pensacola, leaving them with major damage. Let’s help them rebuild their facility and their community. www.charidy.com/pensacola.  

Wishing you a meaningful Yom Kippur and an easy fast!!
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Religion & Politics

Everybody and their grandmother has an opinion of whether religion and politics are a good mix. For me, I avoid taking public stances on political issues, because my “job” is to encourage people to enhance their relationship with Hashem through Torah and Mitzvot, without getting involved in the distractions of political differences between folks.

That being said, I want to wade ever so slightly into the religion and politics connection strictly for the purpose of drawing a parallel. One of the certain things about politics, especially in our time, is that it evokes strong passion. Just take a peek at any social media platform, and you will find people passionately declaring that if you vote for this one, you are literally disavowing your G-d, your people, your family and the future of the universe. Then you will find people proclaiming the exact same thing about the other candidate. Even the people that are dispassionate about politics or the current political climate, are passionately dispassionate. They want ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with any of it.

Now politics is important and political decisions have ramifications – “elections matter.” Yet in the broad scope of things, our relationship with Hashem is so much more important. The ramifications on our lives, the universe, and history are far-reaching.

I would love to see people demonstrate the same passion, as they respectfully and tastefully discuss how important Judaism is to them, or how valuable it is to have a life of connection with Hashem. Not in a way of putting others down, but rather in a way that encourages others to explore that relationship with Hashem in their own lives. Talk about what excites you about something you studied in the Torah. Talk about how special it is for your family to celebrate this holiday or observe that tradition.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the high holidays of 5781, let’s get really passionate about Yiddishkeit. This will enhance our own experience of the holidays, and convey a powerful positive message to those around about what is important.

“As water reflects the face, so does the heart of one man reflect another.” (Proverbs, 27:19) Our expression of love and passion towards Hashem will generate a reflection of Hashem’s love and passion towards us. This brings with it the blessings of good health, prosperity, nachas, peace and meaningful spiritual growth for us and all of our loved ones.

Shana Tova Umesukah – wishing you a good and sweet year!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Feeling Judged and Loving It!

One of the things that most people least appreciate is the feeling of being judged by another. In fact when a person or a group is deemed to be non-judgmental, that is a compliment of the highest order. So it is no wonder that some folks might be a bit uncomfortable with the notion of Rosh Hashanah being Yom Hadin - the Day of Judgement. Let me share why I think that rather than being uncomfortable with it, we should actually embrace it!

The problem with being judged by another is that the other doesn’t know our circumstances and is not aware of the state of our mind and heart. All they see is the external action and result. Furthermore, and maybe even more important, we cannot know for sure that the other loves us and wants what is best for us. Even if we are convinced that they do, that love and caring would rarely, if ever, be as powerful as the love we have for ourselves along with the ability to put our faults and shortcomings in context. So it is possible that even the judgement of a loving parent, a close relative or friend, can make us uncomfortable.

However, when the one judging us knows us even better than we know ourselves, and loves us far more that we are capable of loving ourselves, then we have nothing to worry about. Such judgement is solely for our benefit and can only bring superbly positive results.

King David echoes this sentiment in Psalm 27, which we recite twice daily during Elul and all though the holidays. He proclaims, “Though my father and mother have forsaken me, the L-rd has taken me in.” Even in a situation where the judgment of one’s own loving parents leave one with a sense of being forsaken, we know that “Hashem takes us in.”

So embrace the opportunity to be judged by the One Who loves you and knows you more than anyone out there including yourself. It can be a most rewarding experience.

May G-d grant each and every one of us a Shana Tova – a good and sweet year of health, prosperity, meaningful spiritual growth and nachas. May Hashem bless our world with healing and peace through the coming of Moshiach speedily.

For a list of Rosh Hashanah services and options at Chabad Uptown, go to www.chabadneworleans.com/highholidays2020.

For Metairie: www.jewishlouisiana.com/highholidays.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Relinquish Control

As many of you know, I have served as a prison chaplain for over 20 years. It is not often that I hear from the folks that I visit after their release. This week I had the pleasure of communicating with a man that I have come to regard as a friend over the years that I have been visiting with him.

He was serving a lengthy sentence which was exacerbated by the fact that he refused to testify against others. He had been challenging his sentence for over 9 years. With each visit, I observed the great strides he was making as a Jew and a person. Unfortunately COVID-19 precluded me from visiting, and we had not seen each other since February. Appeal after appeal was denied. As each door to freedom closed, the chances seemed slimmer and slimmer that he would not have to serve out his full sentence of another 10 years. When the final appeal was denied, he felt a sense of being let down by G-d. He drew strength from the Jewish literature that he had, and determined to change his mind set and attitude toward Hashem. He sat down that evening and contemplated all the positive things that Hashem had given him in life. He then offered a sincere expression of thanksgiving to Hashem. He concluded his prayer by saying, “Hashem, I am putting this all into Your hands. Whatever You do is for my good.”

The next morning he got a message that his case manager wanted to see him. He walked in and she asked him if he had someone that could come pick him up. He was taken aback and asked her what she meant. She informed him that the judge discovered a brief that had been omitted from his case file when she was deciding the appeal. Now that she read it she decided to release him, and because of COVID, it would be effective immediately. They had never heard of such a thing and yet it was real. It was so unusual, that the halfway house to which he was released, insisted on keeping him for an extra few days in case they would discover that it was a mistake and he would need to go back to prison.

When we spoke, we mused over the amazing fact that as soon as he relinquished control to Hashem, there was immediate transformation of his situation from misery to joy, from imprisonment to freedom.

May each of us discover the spiritual strength to similarly relinquish control to Hashem, coupled with a sense of profound gratitude for the abundance with which He has already blessed us. May we all merit to see Hashem’s open and revealed blessings in our lives as He showers with a good and sweet new year.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Good Old Days

Last month a member of our community placed a greeting in our Jewish Art Calendar that I found to be quite unique. I am not going to give the person’s name without their permission but you can see it when the calendar arrives. The greeting reads – “Chadesh Yameinu K’kedem.” This is a quote from chapter five of Lamentations which means, “Renew our days as of old.” I do not profess to know what the intended message was in the greeting. Perhaps there were multiple applications. But I would like to spend a moment on what we might derive from the words.

One of the things we hear constantly during this “twilight zone” of a time in which we live, is the yearning to go back to “normal.” Some say there will only be a “new normal,” implying that we can never return to what once was. In general people like to engage in nostalgic reflections about the “good old days.” “Back in the day” things were much better or much different. We didn’t have to deal with this or that…

Are we really looking forward merely to return to the “good old days?” Do we not have greater aspirations for a universe improved beyond what once was?

Let’s take a look at the original quote and what it means in that context. The Prophet Jeremiah is expressing the sentiment of the Jewish people following the destruction of the First Temple. He proclaims in their voice, “Restore us to You, O L-rd, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.” Some commentators explain, that the people were yearning for the time before the destruction, when they had a glorious temple and an opportunity for great closeness to Hashem. Others offer the explanation that they were yearning for the “days of old” – meaning the era of the Exodus from Egypt when G-d initiated the relationship with the people of Israel.

Kabbala often defines the term Kedem (which we define – as before – days of old) in the context of Kadmon, primordial. In other words, it is not just what once was, but rather deepest potential for what could ever be.

The Rebbe in a letter to then president of Israel Yitzchak ben Zvi, writes, “From the time I was a schoolchild—and even before—a vision of the future Redemption began to form in my mind: Such a Redemption that all the suffering of exile, the persecutions and mass destruction will finally be understood. And understood in the fullest sense, with a complete heart, to the point that we will look back and say thank you to G‑d for all that we went through.”

Clearly, it is not sufficient for us to return to “normal” because then the experience will have been wasted. Somehow we are meant to come out of an unusually challenging experience with a renewed perspective on what is valuable. We are supposed to grow and be stronger. And from a spiritual standpoint, to quote the Maharal of Prague, “real change can only come about when the old paradigm disintegrates and the renewal forms “over the ashes” of the old.” It is vital for us to seek growth from our end coming from a challenge such as the current times. At the same time we are to expect from Hashem’s end, that something incomparably greater emerge on the other end of the challenge.  

Speaking of nostalgia, I invite you all to join me and two of my closest friends from Yeshiva as we get together in a virtual discussion about Rosh Hashanah next Thursday. See below for more details.

I sign off with a wish for the new year, “Chadesh Yameinu K’kedem” renew our days, not just like the good old days, but greater than we could even imagine.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Bloody Mitzvah

Yesterday I had the privilege of being a blood donor. Now, as much as ever, a good supply of blood is needed to ensure that lifesaving transfusions can be performed when necessary. In addition, the testing on donated blood may be able to aid the effort to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

You might ask why I refer to this as a privilege. Why not a responsibility? It is actually both. If one is medically qualified to do so, one should feel the responsibility. But it is also a privilege since it is a Mitzvah helping another and aiding in the saving of life. As I lay on the chair during the process, I reflected on two news stories that I read in the last few years on related topics.

Early on in the COVID situation, it become clear that plasma donated by those who recovered from COVID, could be very useful in developing therapeutic procedures to deal with the disease. While millions of people have had COVID, the highest percentage of people to come forward to donate plasma were observant Jews.

See here for a few articles on the topic. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/covid-19-mitzvah-orthodox-jews-donate-blood-plasma-thousands-n1232656

https://forward.com/news/national/444562/coronavirus-convalescent-plasma-orthodox-jews-hasidic/

In recent years, there has been a lot in the news about living kidney donors. I read a 2017 statistic, that 15% of living kidney donors were “Orthodox” Jews. This is an astounding statistic. Jews make up only 2% of the US population. Those who are classified as “Orthodox” make up only 10% of that. So we are talking about a statistical non-entity and yet they make up 15% of living kidney donors. (I use quotation marks around the word Orthodox because I have very little use for labels – but I have to use the terms that are out there for the purpose of this discussion.)

See here for more on the topic. https://www.chabad.org/news/article_cdo/aid/4251073/jewish/Rare-Kindness-Kidney-Donor-Rabbi-Donates-His-Liver.htm

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/to-save-a-strangers-life

http://kidneymitzvah.com/

https://www.renewal.org/

What is motivating all this? Walking the walk is way more impactful than talking the talk. When you believe that there is a mandate from Hashem to help others even at a reasonable cost to yourself, you are motivated. This is Tikkun Olam in action. This is loving your fellow as yourself in action. May Hashem bless our world with true healing so that these ideas become obsolete. May Hashem bless each and every one of us with a good and sweet new year, filled with health, prosperity, nachas and meaningful spiritual growth! May he send us the Redemption and the coming of Moshiach speedily!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Our Glorious Future

This past Monday we marked the Yahrtzeit of the Rebbe’s father, R’ Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, who passed away in 1944 while exiled in Kazakhstan. He served as the Rabbi of Yekatrinaslav (Dnipro) in Ukraine for many decades, where he worked tirelessly in defense of Judaism and the Jewish people in the Soviet Union. He was arrested before Pesach in 1939 and eventually he was sentenced to 5 years of exile in Chi’li, a hamlet deep in Kazakhstan. After being banished to Chi’li, he was eventually joined by his wife, Rebbetzin Chana, who remained with him until his passing. She kept a journal, which was published and translated a few years ago.

Malkie and I are privileged to have children named for R’ Levi Yitzchok and Rebbetzin Chana, who we view as our “spiritual grandparents.” Reading her diary was very poignant for me, helping me gain further appreciation for their sacrifice. It also heightened our recognition of how special it is that even under such trying circumstances he was able to produce profound scholarly writings, most notably in the realm of Kabbala.

In one of her diary entries, Rebbetzin Chana describes Pesach of 1940, their first in Kazakhstan. The previous Pesach they had been separated as he was in prison. She talks about how difficult it was to find proper lodgings – when just two weeks before Pesach they were evicted for using too much water to clean their space. She depicts her 4 hour train journey to a “nearby” town that had a greater concentration of Jewish exiles, so that she could get Matzah and a new tin pail in which to cook. They managed to find a Jew to invite as a guest to their Seder. Finally she describes the actual Seder. The three of them were sitting together, while Kazakh peasants were scoffing at their “celebration” just outside the window. They had almost nothing on the table. Everything but the Matzah was makeshift. Yet the Rav led a spirited Seder replete with singing and lengthy discussion that lasted until 2 AM. He talked about our glorious past. Though the present was not so gratifying, he talked about our hope for a glorious future.

80 years later, while we are not facing as grim a situation as they experienced, people are worried about the present. There is the pandemic, the economy, anti-Semitism, the state of our country and the world. People are worried. As Jews we must know that, first of all Hashem is in control. So therefore we have nothing to worry about even in the present. Secondly, even as the present doesn’t appear to be rosy, we have our hope and assurance of a glorious future.

As we prepare for the upcoming Jewish New Year of 5781, we pray that Hashem blesses each of us and all of us together, with open and revealed good. A good and also sweet year, so good that we can actually taste the goodness. May this be the beginning of our glorious future.

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Have a Heart

In 1991, the legendary Jewish musician Moshe Yess collaborated on an animated Jewish Sci-fi film called Roburg. The quality of the animation was so-so, but the plot was interesting. It was about a CIA project to create an AI bot that they named Roburg. Why? Because there was a malfunction in the processor that caused the communications to switch to Hebrew sometimes. So they gave the robot a “Jewish” name, Roburg. At some point in the story, Roburg escapes from the lab in Arizona and hitches a ride to Brooklyn, where he convinces a Rabbi to teach him Torah. Upon learning about Tzedakah, he has a strong urge to help a little girl get the money she needs to have a life saving operation. When his handlers catch up with him, he agrees to go back to the lab on the condition that they allow him to keep studying Torah, and that the US government will pay for the girl’s operation. In the end his Rabbi says to him, “Roburg not only have you studied Torah but you have also shown that you have a heart.”

In truth AI cannot have a heart. Even the most sophisticated and advanced developments of AI can mimic emotions and pick up on inflections, but it cannot truly have a heart. On a side note, this week a Facebook algorithm banned a Chabad Rabbi in Manhattan from the social media platform, accusing him of COVID-19 misinformation. His sin? He wrote the following, “The cure for COVID-19 is to be found in this week’s Torah portion.” The algorithm having no heart, could not pick up on the nuanced difference between that statement and real misinformation. (Alright, maybe the supervisor could have done a better job programming the system.)

“Having a heart” requires being a real person. In fact, the Torah tells us over and over again how important having a heart is. In last week’s Parsha as well as in this week’s Parsha, the phrase “know with your heart” is repeatedly used. It is not sufficient to have an intellectual awareness of G-d. It is not enough to know in your mind that you need to be concerned about the needs of others. We must know with our hearts. The emotions cause us to be invested in that of which we were intellectually aware. This balance of mind and heart is the ultimate perfection of human achievement. In our relationship with Hashem and our commitment to the Torah, the intellect gives us the capacity for sustainability and the emotion gives us the capacity for being invested and passionate.

The importance of having a heart balanced with having a mind, is a recurring theme in many ethical and philosophical disciplines of Torah. So, “have a heart” and enjoy your Yiddishkeit.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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