ChabadNewOrleans Blog

When In Rome, Do As G-d Does!

Following the failed Bar Kochba revolt in the second century, there was a period of intense persecution of the Jewish people at the hands of the Romans. One of the great sages at the time was Rabbi Masia ben Charash. He elected to move to Rome and establish a yeshiva there, which attracted a very large number of students from all over the world, including the holy land.

Rashi cites a popular teaching that Rabbi Masia would share often as a commentary on the Exodus narrative. When the time came for G-d to fulfill his promise to Avraham of Redemption for his descendants from Egypt, the children of Israel had no merits by which to be redeemed. As Ezekiel states, “but you were naked and bare.” In response, G-d gave them two mitzvot, the blood of the Passover offering and the blood of the circumcision. In the merit of these two mitzvot they were redeemed.

Why was this such an important teaching to share “often” to these students of Torah in Rome? Why would a Rabbi move to Rome altogether and establish a Yeshiva there? He was trying to convey a powerful lesson from which we can take inspiration until this day.

One might think that G-d only desires the deeds of the those who are living righteous lives in a righteous environment. On the other hand, a Jew who wandered off to “Rome” is a lost cause. So, the Rabbi emphasized that when G-d saw his children naked and bare of merits, He gave them Mitzvot with which to cover themselves. To stay in a holy environment and be a good Jew is insufficient. One must go to Rome and do as G-d does. Find a Jew who is “naked and bare” and clothe him with good deeds.

The Rebbe shared this interpretation and added that his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, once commented on the verse in Isaiah, “If you see your fellow bare, you shall cover him,” if you see a fellow Jew who is spiritually bare, cover him with Tefillin, cover him with Tzitzit.

As we mark the Yahrtzeit of the Previous Rebbe next Wednesday, along with the day that our Rebbe assumed the leadership of Chabad, we reflect on just how much they embodied this approach. The Rebbe sent thousands of couples to “Romes” all over the world to ensure that no Jew would be “naked and bare” of merits in anticipation of our imminent Redemption. The Rebbe echoed Rabbi Masia and declared, “No Jew will be left behind.” When Mashiach comes very soon, Jews in every nook and cranny of the globe will have been touched by this effort to lovingly reach each of them.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Neutralizing Our Inner Pharaoh

Pharaoh is regarded as one of the most wicked biblical figures. Aside from the enslavement and insidious persecution of the Hebrews, there is a deep-seated element of corruption in his character.

Let’s take a step back into history. Joseph is the viceroy or Egypt. He presents Jacob to Pharaoh. Jacob offers Pharaoh a blessing from G-d, that the Nile River should rise at his approach and overflow onto the land. The Nile was the source of Egyptian livelihood. All irrigation of crops came from the Nile. This blessing was a game changer for Egypt. It is G-d’s benevolence bestowed upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people at the behest of Jacob.

Fast forward to the time of Moses. Pharaoh has since declared himself a G-d. His deification stems from the overflowing of the Nile at his approach. As the Haftarah relates, Pharaoh proclaims, "My river is my own, and I made myself."

What Chutzpah! To take a blessing from G-d through Jacob and claim it as your own. This is Pharaoh. The ultimate presumptuous ingrate.

Yet are we that different? We all know that it is “the blessing of the L-rd that brings wealth.” Still, we strut around proclaiming how our successes are due to our own cleverness and might. We take the blessing from Hashem in our lives and essentially give voice to the notion that, "My river is my own, and I made myself." As the saying goes, “I am a self-made man and I worship my creator.” We conveniently forget that “It is G-d that gives you strength to make wealth.”

Even when it comes to good things like Torah study or giving Tzedakah. We are more motivated by how others perceive us than by what is right. We attain a bit of scholarship and insist on the respect of others. We give Tzedakah so that others can view us as philanthropic.

There is a little Pharaoh in each of us that requires neutralization. That ego driven presumptuousness. The lack of gratitude to our Source of blessing. The sense of personal accomplishment and self-congratulatory smugness.  

The good news is that there is also a little Moses in each of us. A Moses that stands up to Pharaoh and says, “Let My people go so that they may serve me.” A Moses who calls Pharaoh's bluff at the river, demonstrating that he is just a regular dude fully dependent on G-d’s benevolence.

The story has a happy ending. Our inner Moses leads us to freedom from our inner Pharaoh on the path to the promised land of a meaningful relationship with Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

An Interview with Simone Levine

I recently interviewed Ms. Simone Levine, who is running for Criminal Court Judge, Section A, on March 25. As many of you know, one of my capacities as a Rabbi is prison chaplaincy. I was intrigued to hear more about Simone’s ideas surrounding criminal justice. What I found particularly interesting was her refreshing approach to dealing with criminal cases. If I understood it correctly, Simone’s judicial philosophy pivots on this idea: “It is not enough to assess the crime when rendering judgement, we must also assess the defendant.” (More on that in the interview.)

As Rabbis we were always taught that when a person comes with a Halachic question, the Rabbi must answer the person as much as the question. I believe this is similar to what she is espousing with regards to criminal justice.

I will preface my questions with MR, and Simone’s replies with SL. It goes without saying, that this should not be seen as a political endorsement. I am simply sharing a discussion that is of interest to the Jewish community. Each of you should consider the issues and vote your conscience.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

MR: Tell me a little about yourself.
SL: I moved to New Orleans 12 years ago to marry and start a family. I have two sons. I am a member of Shir Chadash and Touro. I am an attorney with experience in New York in both defense and prosecution. Locally, I worked at the Office of the Independent Police Monitor. Following that I was a director at Court Watch NOLA. We tried to advance the idea that courtrooms were the purview of the citizenry. For folks to know what is happening in their courtrooms, we had monitors in the Criminal, Municipal, and Magistrate courts. We issued reports to the public. We developed a relationship with media and clergy. We would break down issues in a way that would help courtrooms implement best practices. Then I moved to the District Attorney’s office, with a focus on violent crimes prosecution. I have brought my kids to court during school vacation. They have experienced my dedication to public safety and criminal justice reform. As an Assistant District Attorney, I have devoted myself to the balance of fairness and justice, an approach I wish to bring to the Criminal District Court.

MR: Tell me about the position you are running for and what motivated you to do this?
SL: I feel the community needs someone who will be fair, protect public safety, and look at all sides of the situation. An attorney’s relationship with the judge should not dictate the type of justice a person receives. Many judges are good, but we need someone who isn’t swayed by clout or political machines. One need not to know someone to get a fair shake. I am also a crime victim. Crime victims can also receive or fail to receive fair justice based on who they know. Additionally, often defendants are former victims with leftover trauma in their system. I feel strongly that we need to take all of that into account when judging a case. For many of the victims they are unable to receive the help they need. They either hurt themselves or someone else. I worked on the effort to get money into the trauma recovery center at University Medical Center, enabling people to receive mental health care after being victimized by a crime. This disrupts the circular system of victims becoming perpetrators.

MR: Is there a Jewish principle or value that moves you to pursue this line of work?
SL: Tikkun Olam, of course. Also, I have a piece of art in my office at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, with the passage of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Working in the DA’s office is a rare opportunity to have your goal be “the pursuit of justice” and finding truth. The task is not to get a conviction but to find truth.

MR: How do we balance the need to implement serious changes in the criminal justice system, especially sentencing reform, with the need to have an effective system to deal with crime?
SL: Corruption plays a role. When attorneys can obtain a different justice because of who they know, that is not a fair system. So, a fair system is the first step. Who the lawyer is should play no role in the judge’s decision. Having a strong unbiased system will change the attitude of the community. Balancing between who needs jail and who needs rehabilitation is the next step. It should be about the person, the specific case, the risk level, not only about the sentencing range for the crime category. We need to consider the age of the person. For example, retaliatory violence is more often perpetuated by younger persons. With an older person, the risk of recidivism drops considerably. We must think both short term and long term. We must consider the safety of community and the individual. A judge must be unbiased and neutral.

MR: Do you think that a judge’s ability to be tough on crime when needed is hampered when the judge is not of African American ethnicity?
SL: I have a strong history with the black community, many African American members of my community encouraged me to run. I have a strong background because of my professional history working toward fairness in criminal court and safety in the community. While at the Office of the Independent Police Monitor one of the things that I did was monitor the interviews of the police officers who had engaged in use of force incidents against civilians. We ensured that nothing would be swept under the rug by the department in these investigations. I also monitored NOPD disciplinary cases. By doing this we offered another set of eyes providing protection against departmental retaliation for whistleblowing and discrimination. It was another avenue to ensure fairness.

MR: What make you unique in this race that people should consider casting their vote for you? SL: I have done the work. I have been in the community. I have had courage in encountering obstacles to reform and making a healthier and stronger system. I bring that courage and clear sightedness to this election and the bench. I think that to get real reform, making sure the community is heard is part of the job. It takes a lot of work, which I am willing to do. I have never done a job “part time.” I strongly believe that we can have a system that is both safe and fair. A system where victims too, have a voice in the process, and each case is seen as unique.  

MR: You asked for help in getting the Jewish community to vote in this election. What motivating message do you have to achieve the goal?
SL: Jewish people have had a history of working with the African American community that has allowed the Jewish Community to see the importance of an unbiased judge that prioritizes public safety and ensures fair and unbiased justice. Jewish people have been targeted, giving us the empathy to understand that unfair process and disparate impact occurs at all levels of the system.

Do What Daddy Did

The legendary 18th century Eastern European Jewish jester, Hershel Ostropolyer was very poor. He once came to an inn and asked for some food. The proprietress sized him up and determined that he couldn’t afford to pay, so she refused to serve him. He said to her, “If you don’t give me food, I will have no choice but to do what my father did.” Alarmed by the prospect of what this maniac of a father might have done, the lady brought him a bowl of soup. After finishing the soup, he asked if there was any other food. The same story repeated itself and she ends up bringing him, chicken, potato knishes, vegetables, and compote. As he wipes his mouth after polishing off the last of the fruit while thanking her for the meal, she hesitatingly asks him, “So what did your father do when he wasn’t given all those things?” He replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Why, he would go to sleep hungry, of course.”

A few weeks ago, my brother, Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, shared an idea. Jacob was away from his parents for 22 years, thereby losing the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah of honoring parents. As a result, his own son, Joseph, was separated from him for 22 years. However, if we do the math, Jacob was actually away from his parents for 36 years. In addition to the 22 years, he also spent 14 years studying in the academy of Shem and Ever. (For more on that academy, see Why were those years not included in the reckoning of the time Jacob was separated from his parents? The answer is, when a Jew studies Torah, he is honoring his parents and their heritage. Even if they are not physically in the same place, they are connected to the same ideal. Therefore those 14 years were not regarded as separation.

The following weekend, the American Association of Hematology met in New Orleans. One of the attendees, a young doctor, stayed with us for Shabbat. Manny (name changed to protect privacy) had recently become more committed to Jewish observance. He is a 3rd generation hematologist. His father is, and his grandfather was, very prominent in the field. But when it comes to Jewish observance, he is the first in several generations to make a serious commitment. While his parents are supportive of his journey, they have trouble relating to some of his newly embraced principles and priorities. This has been a struggle for him.

After dinner, we chatted about his journey and some of the challenges that he is facing. I shared the abovementioned idea about Torah study being a connection to our ancestors. He was very moved and shared with me a dream that he had a few days earlier. In his dream, he saw his late grandfather, who was, as mentioned, a prominent doctor, albeit less involved in Jewish observance. He vividly dreamt that his grandfather called to him and saying, “come Manny, let us go to the Beit Midrash to study Torah together.”

Ultimately, whether in this world or the next, every Jew comes to recognize the value and centrality of Torah learning to a Jew. Torah connects us to Hashem, to each other, and to the generations that came before us.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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