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In Defense of Jewish Pride

An immigrant Jewish salesman from the 1950s related this incident to his children. “I was traveling by bus from town to town through the south. Suddenly a couple of rednecks got on the bus and started to speak disparagingly about Jews. Their words became increasingly malevolent. I felt very afraid and threatened.” His son asked, “What did you do Papa? How did you handle the situation?” The salesman replied, “I just sat in the corner and pretended I wasn’t Jewish.”

Throughout the ages, Jews have been faced with an existential question. Is it better to blend in and lay low about our Jewishness? Will that save us from persecution and/or gain us acceptance to the societies in which we live? Or, is it advisable to be open and proud of who we are and what we stand for?

Many opted for the first path. Family names were changed. Westernized first names were taken. Visibly Jewish garb such as yarmulkas were left at home or removed altogether. Jewish practices and observances were marginalized, especially when they conflicted with participation in society. How can we keep Kosher if that will keep us out of restaurants and important social functions? How can we keep Shabbos if that will prevent us from participating in valuable events? And so on and so forth. Did it help? History tells us that just when we think we have succeeded in convincing society that we are a part of them, they provide us with an ugly reminder that they still consider us to be an “other.” It may take some time, but in the end that is what happens.

On the other hand, when Jews are steadfast and openly proud of who they are and principled about their values and practices, they ultimately engender respect even from those that resent them. It may take some time, but in the end that is what happens.

In this week’s Parsha, Bilaam, one of history’s greatest anti-Semites, tries everything he can to portray the people of Israel in negative light. In the end, he could not help but speak admiringly, albeit begrudgingly, of their fine qualities and principled devotion to their identity. He examined them with a proverbial magnifying glass to try to find flaws. The more deeply he looked, the greater his respect grew for them.

When Jews take pride in who they are, and demonstrate devotion to their values and principles, that gains them the respect and ultimately, the admiration of those around them.

My friends, every day is Jewish pride day. Every week is Jewish pride week. Every month is Jewish pride month. Every year is Jewish pride year. Hold your head high, keep your spine straight, and be a proud member of our people!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

 

The Shtreimel and the Kibbutz

A Jew who hailed from Galicia (a region in Poland) once came to the Rebbe. He was very taken with the Rebbe’s scholarship, charisma, and spiritual stature. He declared to the Rebbe boisterously, “Lubavitcher Rebbe, with your holiness and leadership qualities, you could have tens of thousands of Chassidim who are adherents of other Chasidic sects. They will all come streaming to you as their Rebbe. But you will need to start wearing a Shtreimel (fur hat). We Jews from Poland and Hungary could not conceive of a Rebbe without a Shtreimel.”

The Rebbe smiled and replied. “These Jews that you speak of already have a Rebbe. How many Kibbutzniks will become my Chassidim if I start wearing a Shtreimel?” In other words, the Rebbe pointed out to him, that a Shtreimel is not going to help attract Jews without a spiritual direction in life. As for the others, they already have a direction and leadership, albeit of a different nature.

Yet, in a brief comment on this week’s Parsha, the Rebbe offers an insight into the role of Moses and relates it to his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe.

We know that for the 40 years in the wilderness, the Jews experienced three constant miracles. The Manna came to them in Moshe’s merit. The water flowed from the rock in Miriam’s merit. The Clouds of Glory protected them in Aaron’s merit. When Miriam and Aaron pass away in this week’s Parsha, there is a brief interruption of the water and the clouds, but in the end, to quote the Talmud, “They all returned in Moshe’s merit.”

The Rebbe explains, that while Moshe’s primary thing is Torah, (represented by the Manna – food for the soul), when needed he can even provide water and clouds (which represent other spiritual needs). Speaking as a chasid of the Previous Rebbe he said, “A chasid should always know, that his Rebbe can be a conduit for all of Hashem’s blessings.”

Indeed, while the Rebbe never wore the Shtreimel, countless Jews who were associated with other religious Jewish ideologies and disciplines, came to embrace the Rebbe as their Rebbe.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Become a Miracle Worker

In the 1960s a Hillel director brought a group of Jewish students for a meeting with the Rebbe. They took the opportunity to ask many questions about Chassidus, Chabad theology, and the role of a Rebbe. They were fixated on the miracle working aspect of a Rebbe. The Rebbe patiently answered their questions, explaining each issue to their satisfaction. As they were getting ready to leave, the Rebbe said, “Would you like me to perform a miracle right now in front of you?” They were very excited to see what would unfold. He continued, “If each of us in this room undertakes to improve something in our Yiddishkeit and begins to implement it, this will be the most wondrous of miracles.”

While there are many mind-boggling miracle stories of the Rebbe, this one conveys more of what defines the Rebbe’s approach to life than any other. Miracles are nice. But everyday transformation is even more powerful. It’s one thing to suspend the laws of nature and ride the transcendent wave through life. It’s another thing entirely to change life within itself. Let’s make the regular every day a miracle by infusing it with divine energy. We can witness such miracles as the splitting of the sea and the ten plagues, and be left unchanged. On the other hand, hard work and elevating the daily grind, brings about true change.

This week a Facebook group called Humans of Judaism posted this story: https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=365045314988934&set=a.265020441658089.

In it a fellow named Rich Lee shares that he had an encounter with a couple he identifies as Levi and Mirel (they are my cousins). Levi “randomly” asked Rich if he would like to put on Tefillin and he agreed. While saying the Shema, Rich had a moment of connection with his recently deceased son. The miracle is the Levi reached out. The miracle is that Rich agreed. The miracle is that thousands of viewers will be uplifted and perhaps inspired to do something Jewish by the story. These are the Rebbe’s miracles.

This Sunday, the third of Tammuz, as we reflect on the Rebbe’s continued leadership, we must resolve to channel that energy and continue making miracles. These everyday miracles are what will bring our world past the ultimate finish line with the coming of Mashiach very soon.

Please join us Monday evening at 6 pm, for a special global event that we will be showing on the large screen at Chabad House. Unfazed: Lessons of Resilience and Self-Empowerment from the Rebbe. If you wish to watch it from home it can be accessed at www.chabadneworleans.com/unfazed.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Chassidic American Values

On Monday, June 23, 1941 the US Congress voted to expand the holiday of July 4th as a paid holiday for all federal employees, extending the scope of the federal holiday declared previously in 1870. On that same day, the SS Serpa Pinto docked at Staten Island, NY carrying, among many, two very important passengers, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin, then daughter and son-in-law of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe. It coincided with the Hebrew date of Sivan 28 eighty years ago. Immediately upon the Rebbe’s arrival, his father-in-law placed him at the helm of three central Chabad institutions that had just been established. These three institutions became the foundation for what Chabad would accomplish over the next 80 years.

The Rebbe usually spoke of this day in the context of the role these newly established institutions played in transforming the American Jewish scene. In fact, in 1991, in connection with the 50th anniversary of his arrival in the USA, the Rebbe received a congratulatory letter from then President George H.W. Bush. The Rebbe replied to the president (the full letter can be viewed at www.chabadneworleans.com/3720323) and wrote the following:

“I welcome especially your remarks, my dear President, as a tribute to the Lubavitch Movement which I am privileged to head. That it has grown and flourished in this country is a testimony to the conducive climate and responsive human nature that combine to ensure that all positive efforts are abundantly fruitful.

By Divine Providence your kind letter was dated on the morrow of the anniversary of the Nation's birthday. It is well to remember that the founders of this Nation considered Independence Day as "a day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to Gd Al-mighty." By Divine Providence also my arrival in the United States in 1941 coincided with the declaration by Congress that year, making July 4th a legal public holiday.”

The Rebbe saw the ideals and culture of the USA as a favorable environment for the success and development of the Chabad movement. The spirit and fundamental values upon which the USA was founded are fertile ground the teachings and inspiration of Chabad. Indeed, Chabad enjoyed phenomenal growth in and from the USA.

As we reflect on this special anniversary next week, we should commit ourselves to furthering the activities that the Rebbe began 80 years ago, thereby bringing our world to complete and final Redemption through Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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