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We are not anti-anti-Semites

I tuned in to the first two segments of the NCJW series on anti-Semitism, where were quite edifying. The first presenter, Dr. Gil Troy, said something that caught my attention. He was addressing the idea that Jews must not allow themselves to be defined or obsessed with those that hate us. He quoted someone (I cannot recall who) as saying, “We must be defined by Sinai rather than by Auschwitz.” I did not have the opportunity to ask the presenter how he applied this idea, but I will share mine. This was a very succinct way of summarizing an idea that I have argued for many times, including in this forum.

In fact, this week’s Torah portion tells us as much. Moshe instructs the Jewish people, “But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children. The day you stood before the L-rd your G-d at Horeb…” This passage has been immortalized as one of the six remembrances that we recite each day. (For more on that www.chabadneworleans.com/2263399.)

What does it mean that we are meant to remember something? The Hebrew word Zachor is a present tense active verb. It implies constancy. Of course we need to remember Auschwitz. In fact remembering what Amalek did to us is one of the six remembrances. It is not a stretch to apply that to the Holocaust. Of course we need to be aware of anti-Semitism around us in the present forms (from all sides). But that should not be what defines us as Jews. Our mandate for what defines us as Jews was given at Sinai. It is a mandate to promote light and lovingkindness.

This mandate is invigorating.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to believe in one G-d, who is the source of all that is good and moral in this world. To demonstrate a certainty in a system of morals that is not relativistic.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to be an honest and trustworthy person, not because of what someone else might think of you, but because that’s who you are supposed to be.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to be (at least) equally as devoted to our spiritual development as we are to our material growth.

It is to live and be a shining example of what it means to truly care for others, just because they were created in G-d’s image.   

It is to live and be a shining example of how a lowly human can have a passionate relationship with an infinite G-d.

We are a force for positivity not just a response to negativity.

I end with an appeal to the hearts of the readers of these words. Yesterday, I lost a classmate and friend. R’ Shimon Potash, with whom I spent several years in Yeshiva, died suddenly leaving a wife and six children behind. His health history did not allow him to take the steps needed to financially protect his family in the event of this tragedy. My classmates and I are trying to raise some money to provide his family with a little bit of breathing space while they grieve over their heartrending loss. I invite the members of our community to join me in this mitzvah. Please let me know if you would like to get involved. This is a truly just cause. May the merit of our Tzedakah bring comfort to the family and blessing to all those who participated. May Hashem grant our world the healing and comfort we all need through the coming of Moshiach speedily.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Loving Rebuke

There are two general approaches to offering rebuke. One is where the person offering the rebuke is looking to hear his own voice or satisfy a need to “do something about a situation” regardless of the outcome. The second is where the person offering the rebuke cares so deeply about his fellow that he seeks to help him better himself. In terms of impact, there is not even a doubt that the efficacy of the second approach is far superior to the first, and that its results are significantly more enduring.  

In Chassidic lore it explains, that to rebuke, one must first “pare his fingernails” so as to ensure that there is no wound to the other in the process. This is also to remove any self-serving interest from the process, making it entirely about the welfare of the other. This comes along with making sure that the dignity of the other person is maintained throughout and that the words are delivered in a loving manner.

The model for this approach is Moshe in this week’s Torah portion. He begins his final message to the Jewish people by gently reminding them of the instances when they rebelled against Hashem during their 40 year desert sojourn. Rashi is quick to point out that Moshe rebukes them in a subtle manner by merely alluding to their transgressions, by means of location or a nuanced detail of the occurrence. The Rebbe takes it a step further and points out, that the manner in which Moshe chastises, serves to actually minimize the extent of the transgression rather than play it up for dramatic emphasis. In short, there is no fire and brimstone in his delivery.

Why? Rashi explains, “Mipnei Kvodan Shel Yisrael – so as to maintain the dignity and honor of the people of Israel.” In other words, Moshe’s choice of words convey his love and respect for the people to whom he speaks.

The Rebbe concludes by highlighting the connection to the time of year that we read this parsha – the Shabbat before Tisha B’av. We have often discussed, that love and unity is the means by which we reverse the cause of exile and destruction – namely, baseless hatred for one another. The antidote is love and respect. Even as we rebuke a person for a transgression it is done with love and care to maintain the dignity of the other.

Please join us for our virtual farbrengen Saturday night for an expanded discussion on this topic. May Hashem take note of our love for each other and reverse the exile – bringing us to redemption very soon.

We would like to welcome Rabbi Levi and Sarah Partouche to our community. Levi has accepted a position as a Chaplain in LCMC medical system. We wish them much success in all of their endeavors.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin  

Taking Care of Father

We know that the Torah is very precise. Even proximity of passages is meaningful and instructive. In this week’s Parsha we go from a highly dramatic passage to a seemingly ho-hum passage. Moshe, knowing that he is going to pass away soon, appeals to Hashem that a qualified succession plan be implemented. Hashem tells Moshe that Yehoshua (Joshua) will be the next Jewish leader, who will shepherd the people across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Moshe enthusiastically embraces his successor and confers some of his own spiritual power upon him. We then transition to Moshe instructing the Jewish people about the daily and seasonal offerings. Seems to be somewhat anti-climactic.

Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of the passages and explains using the following parable. A princess on her deathbed encourages her husband to look out for their children after she dies. The husband then turns to his wife and begs her to urge the children to look after their father upon her passing. Similarly, Moshe, on his deathbed, pleads with Hashem to make sure that the children are taken care of by appointing Joshua. To which Hashem rejoins, please urge the children to remember me. In this context Moshe instructs the Jewish people to remember the daily and seasonal offerings – to which he refers as “the bread for Hashem.” As if to say, through bringing the offerings we are taking care of Hashem’s sustenance. The proof is, that Hashem declares that the bringing of the offerings give him the “nachas” – the pleasure of His wishes being obeyed.

We have not had a temple or an altar for nearly 2,000 years. How then have we been “taking care of” our Father for all this time? Our sages proclaim, “Prayer has replaced the offerings during the time of exile.”

This ought to light a fire under our prayers. Prayer is not just our opportunity to ask Hashem to fill our needs. It is also our way of showing Hashem our love for Him. Prayer is referred to in Talmudic and mystical teachings as “the service of the heart.” Certainly, in the big scheme of things, Hashem does not have “needs.” But Hashem has decided that our service is meaningful and valuable to Him. In this sense, Hashem yearns for and eagerly anticipates our prayer. He wants to be lovingly connected to each and every one of us. So kids, make sure you are taking care of your Father!!

This past Tuesday, we held our donor appreciation event on Zoom. Click here if you would like to see a video of the event - https://youtu.be/9_gF-wMaWvA.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

When Negative is a Positive

Covid-19 testing is all the rage right now. As one of the most important weapons in the arsenal of our battle against the virus, communities are stepping up their testing in a big way. (So much so that there is a (hopefully temporary) supply chain issue right now…)

So what happens? You go and they jab the long swab up your nose and then you wait for results. What is the desired result you want to hear? Negative! Imagine that “negative” is actually a positive. How could negative be a positive? Simple. The negation of a negative is a positive. But it is really a positive or just a neutral non-negative? I will leave the answer to that question to the theorists. I would like to focus on a parallel situation wherein the negative actually was a positive.

Forty years into their journey through the Sinai desert (wilderness), the people of Israel were finally approaching the borders of the Promised Land. They had defeated the two powerful kings, Sichon and Og, who were hired by the neighboring nations to serve as the last line of defense against the Israelites. Balak, the King of Moav, is freaking out. His nation is in panic. The Yiddish are coming! He goes and hires the most powerful sorcerer of all time, Bilaam, to pronounce curses against the people of Israel to ensure their defeat.

The Torah describes how time and time again, Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jewish people are thwarted and what comes out of his mouth are some of the most profound blessings in the Torah. Couched in beautiful poetry, Bilaam, our hated enemy, eloquently depicts the greatness of our people, the depth of our relationship with Hashem, and our role in the destiny of the universe.

Here is a sampling of his words: “For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” “He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the L-rd, his G-d, is with him, and he has the King's friendship.” “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel… He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.” “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.”

In the end the greatest negative, our antagonist Bilaam, became a positive through Hashem’s intervention. As Deuteronomy 23:6 states, “But the L-rd, your G-d, did not want to listen to Bilaam. So the L-rd, your G-d, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the L-rd, your G-d, loves you.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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