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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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