ChabadNewOrleans Blog

A Life Unhindered By Death

Three theologians were discussing the issue of when life begins according to their respective religious doctrines. While two of them were debating whether it is at conception or at birth, the Jewish one declared, “Jews do not consider a fetus viable until it graduates from medical school.”

This week’s Parsha contains a glaring question that stares you in the face from beginning to end. The name of the Parsha is Chayei Sarah (the life of Sarah), while the Parsha begins with Sarah’s death and burial, continues with the comfort that her son Yitzchak finds in his marriage, and ends with Avraham’s remarriage and subsequent passing. Where in any of this is the life of Sarah? Every single element of the Parsha seems to be exactly the opposite.

Sarah’s life was devoted to her shared mission with Avraham to make the world a G-dly place by teaching people about Hashem. She was also fiercely protective of the welfare of her son Yitzchak, and the future of the nation that would issue forth from him. Each aspect of the Parsha is a fulfillment of her mission. The purchase of the Machpelah cave as a burial plot for Sarah, was the first formal foothold of the Jewish people into what would eventually become the land of Israel. Yitzchak’s marriage to Rivkah, the first Jewish marriage in history, heralded the beginning of our nation’s birth. Avraham’s passing, saw Yishmael defer to Yitzchak, thereby confirming Sarah’s prophetic insistence that Yishmael not be allowed to negatively influence her son. So, in actual fact, the entire Parsha is the life of Sarah, a life unhindered by her passing.

This weekend, Chabad Shluchim from around the world gather for our annual conference. Since I am unable to be there in person, in our era of virtual alternatives, I was able to benefit by watching the live stream of the meeting that began yesterday. I found it very uplifting that the theme of this year’s conference revolves around the mandate that the Rebbe gave us as his emissaries, the last time he addressed the conference in 1991. He declared that our task is now to prepare ourselves and the rest of the world (via our communities) for the coming redemption through Mashiach.

The energy with which the theme is infused this year might lead one to conclude that this is an idea that was just conceived in the last few months. Yet, it is a mandate from 30 years ago. In fact, this week marked the bitter milestone of 10,000 days since the 3rd of Tammuz, 1994, the day that the Rebbe’s physical presence was taken from us. But it is like Chayei Sarah – the life of Sarah, which continues and increases in strength through those who carry on her life’s mission. So too, the Rebbe’s mandate and leadership continues and increases through the work of those inspired by his teachings, with ever-expanding dedication and wonderous accomplishments.

May we merit the realization of this mission very soon with the complete and final Redemption!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Connecting Everything With Love

What is the ideal dynamic of a relationship with G-d? What is the most effective approach to motivating ourselves or someone else with respect to our Judaism? There was a time when fear was an accepted approach to keeping people on the straight and narrow path. This method may have even been somewhat effective, though it can be argued that fear alone has major limitations as a motivator.

I recently read an interview with an educator from a very religious institution, talking about guidance he got from the Rebbe in the 1960s. Today we cannot just lay out a list of “don’ts” or speak of negative consequences for failure to follow the religion. We must educate with love. We should focus on the beauty of Judaism and foster the student’s appreciation of it.

There is a passage in the Zohar where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai offers various opinions in answering our opening question. He then concludes with his own take on the best method of conveying Judaism. “We connect everything with love.” He goes on to cite several passages from Tanach to prove this.

In fact, there is a narrative in this week’s Torah portion that expresses the same idea. Speaking of Avraham Hashem declares (Gen. 18:19), “For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the L-rd to perform righteousness and justice.” Rashi comments, “For I have known him: an expression of love.” He then goes on to elaborate. “…if one loves a person, he draws him near to himself and knows him and is familiar with him.”  

When we love Hashem, we want to become more familiar with Him and what He wants of us. When we know Hashem loves us, we become aware that fulfilling His will is in our benefit as well. With love as the foundation, everything about our connection with Hashem is more passionate and vibrant.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Three Generations of Service

King Solomon states in Kohelet 4:12, “A three-stranded cord will not quickly be broken.” The sages of the Talmud comment, “The Torah returns to its host.” This means that when three generations of a family are faithful to the study and practice of Torah, the Torah wishes to remain where it is welcome. We say in our daily prayers that the covenant of Hashem with one who studies and practices the Torah is that, “My spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your children, nor from the mouth of your children’s children.”

This week something unprecedented in the New Orleans Jewish community is developing. For years now there have been Rabbinic teams of two generations in our community. We are happy to share, that with the appointment of Rabbi Yossi and Mushka Cohen to the Chabad of Louisiana team, this brings a third generation into service to the Jewish community. They will be involved in a new effort of community engagement.

If you know someone in the community that is not currently engaged in Jewish activities or that may appreciate connecting to a young Rabbinic family, please share that with us. They are eager to hit the ground running to make sure that every Jew in New Orleans has the opportunity to connect to his or her Yiddishkeit!

The institution of Shlichus that the Rebbe and his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, launched in the 1940s, is now into its fourth generation. I am privileged to be the son and grandson of the pioneering generations of Shluchim. To witness my children continuing on this path, is something for which I am very grateful to Hashem. We are blessed that the Rebbe entrusts us with this remarkable responsibility and privilege of caring for each and every Jew.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Keeping Up With the Joneses and the Schwartzes

Sometime in the early 1950s my grandfather, Rabbi Sholom Gordon OBM, brought a group of Bar Mitzvah boys from his Hebrew School in Newark, NJ to the see the Rebbe. The Rebbe asked one of the boys if he was planning to continue his Jewish studies next school year. In typical American Jewish fashion of the time, the boy replied in the negative. The Rebbe asked why. He explained that none of the kids on his block were going after their Bar Mitzvahs either. The Rebbe asked him which topic in the Torah he enjoyed learning this year, to which he responded, the story of Noah and the Ark. The Rebbe pointed out, “If Noah had done what all the people of his block were doing, then there would have been nobody left for G-d to save. Only because he did what was right, despite it being unpopular, do we have human history as we know it.”

Then the Rebbe asked the next boy the same question. He too gave the same answer and reason. When the Rebbe asked which Torah topic he enjoyed, he mentioned the story of Avraham. The Rebbe pointed out the Avraham was called the Ivri (Hebrew), which means that he was on a side opposite of everyone else. While the whole world pursued foolish fantasies of idolatry, Avraham discovered and preached a faith in Hashem. “Imagine if Avraham had done what everyone else on his block were doing, then there would be no Jewish people. Only because he did what was right, despite it being unpopular, do we have a Jewish people and a Judaism today.”

Keeping up with Joneses, or even with the Schwartzes, is not always the path to pursue. We must have an inner moral compass, that empowers us to do what is right, despite it being unpopular. Obviously, we must be pleasant to those around us. There is no room for condescension or feelings of elitism. Just doing the right thing!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Don't Be Obsessed With Trash

How many of us here in the NOLA area have associated the sound of a garbage truck on the block with unmitigated joy and celebration? The debris left from Hurricane Ida, along with the disruption to trash pickup service, have made trash talk a rival to Covid and the weather as the most discussed topics. Now, garbage is a reality of life. We all produce it, and we all need it to be removed. However, it is not supposed to be the aspect of life that takes front and center of our consciousness. Garbage production and removal should be an area of life that just happens quietly. When it becomes a noisy focus, we know that something is not quite right.

This is true in our spiritual lives as well. As imperfect humans, we all produce some soul trash. As folks striving to heighten our relationship with G-d, we engage in trash removal. Sometimes that is a smelly job that leaves us feeling gross while we do it, but the cleanliness that follows is heavenly. As long as this process remains on the back burner of life, we are good. When garbage becomes an obsession, when we know that something is not quite right.

The primary focus of life, the topic of our spiritually targeted conversations, should be about positivity. We should be excited about light and holiness. We should be celebrating Mitzvahs and our opportunities to make the world a better place. Garbage should be relegated to the pails, the bins, the trucks that make their rounds in the predawn hours, the sewer system. These are all critical components of life, without which we are doomed to misery. But let’s keep them in their proper place, and not allow them to seep into the rest of life, leaving us wondering why life smells like New Orleans after a category 4 storm.

L’chaim to a sweet-smelling year of 5782, where garbage is back in its rightful place in the hierarchy of life!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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