ChabadNewOrleans Blog

I Have Discovered the Truth!

Our sages tell us that the signature of Hashem is “Emet” – truth. Since truth by definition, is consistent, we can see Hashem’s “signature” stamped on things that are consistent. In reality only Hashem is “truly true.” Created existence, especially of a physical nature, is in constant flux. Science tells us that we start dying at the moment of birth. There is erosion and decomposition of physical matter. Our emotions and ideas can also change. We have ups and downs. The only Being that is consistent and unchanging is Hashem. As the verse states (Malachi 3:6), “I am Hashem, I have not changed.”

Our sages further explain that this “signature of truth” is evident in the letters of the Holy Tongue, with which Hashem communicates to us. They demonstrate this by pointing out, that the first letter of the Alphabet is Alef, the middle letter is Mem, and the final letter is Tav – together those three letters spell Emet.

Now in the past 47 years, I have come across this concept many times. Often when reading this, a niggling thought at the back of my head bothered me. Mem is the 13th letter of the 22 letters of the Aleph Bet. Rudimentary math tells me that 13 is not the middle of 22. However, it never bothered me sufficiently to pursue the issue. (I have, on occasion, been accused of lacking curiosity in some aspects of life.)

This week, my son Sholom showed me a stack of articles that were authored in the 1980s by my father-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Stone, for a women’s magazine entitled Di Yiddishe Heim - The Jewish Home. My father-in-law had the great fortune, that his articles for that magazine were edited by the Rebbe. In one article he references this idea of the three letters of Emet being the first, middle and last letters of the Aleph Bet. The Rebbe placed an arrow to an asterisk at the word “middle” and inserted the following point. Mem is the middle letter, only when we include the five final letters, thereby bringing the total to 27 letters. (There are five Hebrew letters that are written differently when they appear at the end of a word.) When the final letters are inserted into the Aleph Bet, Mem becomes the 14th letter, which is the middle letter of 27. As we say down here in New Orleans – “true-dat.”

So the beautiful thing is that one can learn new things every day. Ain’t that the truth!!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Beautiful Army

In this week’s Torah portion, when reading about the Exodus, the children of Israel are called Tzivos Hashem, (literally the legions or army of Hashem). The root of Tzivos is Tzava, which we usually define as army or military legion, as in Tzahal – Tzeva Hagana L’Yisrael – Israeli Defense Force.

However, when we dig deeper into the etymology of the word, we find two other possible applications of Tzava. One (taken from Job 7:1) is a designated time or limited context. The second is related to the word Tzivyon – which means beauty or harmony.

Chassidus takes the three applications of the word and fuses them into a lesson for us in our service of Hashem.

The defining trait of a soldier is discipline. Translated into Jewish life this is what we call Kabbolas Ol – obedience to Hashem. A soldier knows that they must have heightened focus on carrying out the orders of the Commander regardless of their personal mood or opinion on the matter at hand.

Furthermore, the instructions must be carried out with precision and attention to every detail. For example, lighting Shabbat candles on Wednesday or even Friday night after sundown, is not carrying out the orders of the commander. We have to be attentive to the designated times and detailed circumstances included in the orders. It also teaches us that the our way of connecting to Hashem, is through the Mitzvahs as they are carried out in a practical fashion – within the parameters of time/space – in other words, regular everyday life.

Finally in order for an army to be successful, there must be a harmony and unity amongst the ranks. This is why we begin our morning prayers by taking upon ourselves to fulfill the Mitzvah to “Love your fellow as yourself.” When we are in harmony and feel connected to each other, the success of our mission is guaranteed.

Hashem is very invested in our success on the battlefield of life. In fact, He directs significant resources toward our path to victory. Sometimes it comes to us in the form of material resources. At times it comes to us as a new custom in Jewish practice or a discovery in the area of Torah development. At times it comes in the form of an inspiring general – a Jewish leader who is capable of uplifting the morale and energy of the troops.

This Shabbat is the 10th of Shevat, marking 71 years since the passing of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe and 70 years since his successor and son-in-law, our Rebbe, formally assumed the leadership of Chabad. Like real generals the Rebbes devoted themselves to boosting the morale of Hashem’s army and infusing us with renewed energy and devotion to the cause. May we finally realize the ultimate victory – the final redemption through the coming of Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Person of the Year: 2448

It was the year 2448 (on the Hebrew calendar). The Time Magazine editorial board was gathered to discuss who to name as Person of the Year. The Exodus was in full throttle progression. The editor-in-chief brought up the obvious candidate, Moses. He has been a catalyst for major change in the world. He is bringing freedom to the Hebrews. He is humbling the tyrant, Pharaoh.

One snarky member of the committee interjected, “Why not consider Pharaoh? I bet you he has been on as many front covers this year than anyone else.” This sparked an outraged response. “What? Feature the villain instead of the hero? Pharaoh has been enslaving the Hebrews for generations.”

Mr. Snarky replied with smug self-righteousness, “And Moses is not a villain? Look at what he has brought upon the Egyptian citizens? Plagues and all. What have they done to deserve this? Maybe we should name the Egyptian Citizen as Person of the Year for all they have endured?”

A more level-headed member of the committee coughed politely, “Ahem, the Egyptian people have been willing enablers of Pharaoh’s designs on the Jews. Not mention the benefits they received from the slave labor. Perhaps we should think about the Hebrews as the Person of the Year? Maybe this will get a reparations discussion going in Egyptian society.”

In the meantime, someone else wanted to know why there were only male candidates up for discussion. “Maybe we should consider Princess Batya or Miriam the Prophetess?” The led to a long conversation about male privilege in society.

The religion editor suggested that the G-d of the Hebrews be featured. “First of all,” came the rejoinder, “this is supposed to Person of the Year. Besides how can we feature someone who has no image that can grace the front cover? Finally, we don’t even know if this G-d exists. Perhaps it is all a part of Moses’s conspiracy to overthrow Pharaoh for trying to kill him years ago, while blaming it on an imaginary G-d.”

The night wore on and the discussions became more heated and less practical. The production team downstairs was waiting for a decision so they could go to print. As the sun came up, the unpretentious head of the production team decided to take matters into his own hands. Time Magazine 2448 featured Moses as its Person of the Year. That decision proved correct when in the subsequent days, Moses led millions of Hebrews out of Egypt with their heads held high, followed by the dazzling crossing of the sea a week later.

In fact the Hebrews (or people of Israel) established a holiday to remember these events, where they talk about Moses, Pharaoh, Batya, Miriam, the Egyptian citizens, the Hebrew slaves, and of course, G-d Al-mighty. Indeed Passover is our festival of freedom.

Legend has it that in a room on the second story of an old building in the ancient capital of Egypt, there is a table that has a group of talking skulls around it still debating who should be the Person of Year for 2448.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Can You Opt Out Of Being Jewish?

Much of everyone’s energy this week has been focused on the COVID surge, vaccines and the unrest in Washington. So I will take the liberty of redirecting the focus away from them to something that has the potential to be more inspiring.

We began to read the book of Exodus this week. Did you know that as many as four of five Israelites did not participate in the Exodus? We think of the Exodus as being engraved into the identity of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yet, up to 80% of them did not leave Egypt. How could this be? Why would this happen? Why was G-d so selective in determining who deserved to be liberated? Finally, and this is much closer to home, who’s to say this won’t happen again at the time of the future redemption very soon?

There were plenty of nasty folks that managed to get out. There were idol worshippers, rabble rousers and others. That sets the bar pretty low. What was wrong with the other 80% that makes them even less deserving?

The Rebbe explains, that it was the promise of liberation that Hashem made to our forefathers, which defined our loving relationship with G-d. Parents are willing to put up with a lot from their children. But if the (adult) child denies the relationship, there is not much left to do. Similarly, the 80% of Israelites that did not make it out of Egypt (they died during the plague of darkness), were the ones who did not accept Moshe’s announcement that Hashem was going to liberate them from Egyptian slavery. They refused to believe that Hashem would keep His promise to Avraham. In effect this was a denial of the relationship. So there was nothing for them.

So does that mean that in 2021 a Jew that declines to believe that Hashem will redeem us from this exile is going to face a similar fate? Emphatically not! The Rebbe goes on to differentiate between the time of the exodus and our present time. The key difference is what took place at Sinai.

When G-d declared in singular form, “I am the L-rd your G-d,” thereby designating us as His people collectively and individually, we no longer have the choice to opt out of being Jewish. We can (foolishly) choose not to do anything Jewish. But we cannot choose to not “be” Jewish. That choice was made by G-d. We can kick, scream and protest, but it will be for naught. Who we are, will either haunt us or uplift us (or a little of both,) for all time. In fact the prophet Isaiah (27:12) assures us that “you shall be gathered one by one, O children of Israel.”

So we now know that “no Jew will be left behind.” Let’s embrace that and share it with every Jew with whom we interact. This is our destiny and we should make the most of it!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Chazak - Redefining Strength

This Shabbat we conclude the reading of the book of Genesis. It is our tradition that as we conclude the reading of one of the five books of the Torah, we declare: “Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek – Be Strong, Be Strong, and We Will Be Strengthened.”

Nine months ago, towards the beginning of the pandemic, we concluded the reading of the book of Exodus and at that time we declared Chazak from our homes. While many Synagogues have reopened to some degree, we are still far from normal (whatever that means…). Many have still not been able to return to communal Jewish life.

What this means is, that we will have declared Chazak on all five books of the Torah in this pandemic era. What kind of strength are we drawing or proffering during this time? We are all so vulnerable. We seem to be the opposite of strong. What kind of strength can we offer each other from a distance? We have zoom Shiva calls. Zoom Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and other simchas. Where is the Chazak? What is the Chazak?

And yet, who said Chazak has to be defined the way we would conventionally define it? If we have learned anything from this Covid business, it is that we have had to reframe our definitions of most things in life.

During this pandemic, Chazak is watching people be there for each other under trying circumstances. Chazak is the dedication of our healthcare heroes and frontline workers. Chazak is seeing the dynamic, ironclad faith of people whose loved ones, or they themselves, have been dealing with the worst the pandemic has to offer. Two names come to mind. Rabbi Levi Goldstein, who was touch and go for months, and today is home sharing his story of strength with others. The second is Sarah Dukes. Her husband, Rabbi Yudi Dukes, is still fighting for his life. She has been a fortress of strength for him, her family and everyone in her circle. You can search for her posts on Facebook. They are a stand-alone doctrine of faith and strength. May Hashem bring him a complete recovery speedily.

Of course, we beg Hashem to bring us the kind of Chazak that doesn’t need a magnifying glass or philosophy major to appreciate. All we want is Tov HaNireh V’Hanigleh – Open and Revealed Good. But in the fleeting phase of challenge that we face, we must draw strength from the redefined Chazak.

May Hashem bless our world with the Chazak that we can all relate to. May Hashem bring healing to all those that are ill. May Hashem send us the complete and final redemption through the coming of Moshiach.

Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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