ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Is Balak a Top-50 Name?

If you had to compile your top 50 list of Jewish names, I highly doubt that Balak would make the cut. Yet, in the hyper-exclusive list of (54) Torah portions the name Balak was given to one of them. Who was Balak, and why was he immortalized by naming a Parsha after him?

Balak was the king of Moab, who hired Bilaam the sorcerer to curse the Jewish people. So, the question grows stronger, why would we name a Parsha in our Torah after a Jew hater of the highest caliber? How does Balak merit to join this select club of historical figures after whom a Parsha is named?

Balak’s story represents the most powerful transformation in history. He engaged Bilaam to pronounce the harshest curses and condemnations upon the people of Israel. When Bilaam actually opened his mouth to speak, the sweetest and most complimentary verses flowed.

To give a few samples…

“For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”

“He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the L-rd, his G-d, is with him, and he has the King's friendship.”

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”

“A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth.”          

The name Balak reminds us of the powerful love Hashem has for us. He took the intentions of our greatest enemies and flipped them into uplifting words of inspiration. As the Torah states: (Deut, 23:5) “But the L-rd, your G-d, did not want to listen to Balaam. So, the L-rd, your G-d, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, for the L-rd, your G-d, loves you.”

In fact, the only direct reference to Mashiach in the Five Books of Torah, is in the prophecy of Bilaam.

3,500 years after the story of Balak and Bilaam, they are remembered as the losers whose plans were foiled by Hashem. Even more importantly, the name of Parshat Balak awakens within us, a strong yearning for the time when Bilaam’s prophecy about the “end of times” will be fulfilled, as a star shoots forth from Jacob and a staff arises from Israel. May it take place in the immediate future.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Don't Be a Wise Guy

My maternal grandfather passed away over 22 years ago. Just this week a cousin shared a video of a talk he gave in 1987 at a Farbrengen (gathering) in Brooklyn commemorating the date of the Rebbe’s arrival in the USA. Although it was a video of a talk from 35 years ago, there was a story there that I had never heard before. I love that technology has allowed me to continue being inspired by my grandfather all these years later.

(It recalls something that someone, who was not a friend of Chabad, said in 1994 about the Rebbe. “A video accessible Rebbe does not fade easily.” JEM (Jewish Educational Media) has been working on preserving the thousands of hours of audio and video of the Rebbe, along with myriads of photographs. The video, audio, and photo files are a treasured resource to all for whom the Rebbe is a source of inspiration.)

The story that he shared took place in the Spring of 1940. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe came to the US shortly before Purim. A suitable place for a Shul and living quarters was being sought. In the meantime, the Previous Rebbe and his family were staying at the Greystone Hotel in New York City. For Passover, a family in New Jersey placed their spacious home at the Rebbe’s disposal. When he got there the community organized a welcome. One of the speakers was a community leader who was somewhat duplicitous in his support for the Rebbe’s activities in the USA. Using flowery language, he compared the Rebbe to a Torah scroll that is revered by all.

(Some background information: According to Jewish law, if a question arises during Torah reading about the validity of a letter in the Torah, we call a child to tell us what letter he sees. For example, say the leg of a yud appears to be longer than usual, making it similar to a vav, we would call a child and ask him to tell us what he sees. That would determine whether the letter is valid. There is a caveat. The child should be neither foolish nor clever. Meaning, he must be sophisticated enough to identify the letters properly, but not knowledgeable enough to know what letter is contextually supposed to be there.)

Back to the story: The Previous Rebbe replied to the man’s seemingly complimentary speech, “To give an opinion about a Torah scroll, one must be neither too foolish nor too clever.”

My grandfather explained this to mean, that when one seeks to appreciate the role of a Rebbe and the Rebbe’s guidance in one’s life, one should not be too much of a “wise guy.” We must have the “intelligence” to recognize the value, while not allowing our “sophistication” to inject cynicism or skepticism into the equation. When we do what we are supposed to do with a sense of devotion, this opens channels of blessing into our lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin 

Everyone's Rebbe

This coming weekend we mark the anniversary of the Rebbe’s arrival in the USA in 1941, and just a few days later, the 3rd of Tammuz is the date of the Rebbe’s physical passing in 1994. The Rebbe represents so many different things to different people.

Just a quick look at some of the books that have been written about the Rebbe or his philosophy and perspective on life, reveals an exceedingly broad spectrum of emphasis.

Social Vision by Phillip Wexler presents an analysis of the Rebbe’s take on shaping social structures and ideals.  Open Secret by Elliot Wolfson looks at the Rebbe’s innovative fusion of mysticism and pragmatic application. In the Moment of Truth (B’rega Ha’Emet in Hebrew) by Ehrlich and Elituv details the Rebbe’s intricate and ongoing communication with Israel’s leadership. Positivity Bias by Mendel Kalmenson presents the Rebbe’s fierce devotion to optimism and its ability to change how we live. Inclusion and the Power of the Individual by Ari Sollish presents the Rebbe’s pioneering approach to inclusion and individuality. The Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin is a comprehensive biography that offers a glimpse into the Rebbe’s influence on a highly diverse range of people and ideas. Spiritual Education by Aryeh Solomon highlights the Rebbe’s theory and practice of education. The Rebbe’s Army by Sue Fishkoff provides insight into the global impact of the Rebbe’s emissaries and institutions. These are just a few examples.

Throw in several hundred volumes of the Rebbe’s published teachings, compilations of individual interactions that people had with the Rebbe, over 40 volumes of correspondence in multiple languages, 7 volumes of the Rebbe’s personal journal discovered in his desk drawer, dozens of volumes of adaptations of the Rebbe’s teachings into various languages, and extensive oral and written biographical materials, you are left with a big question: Which of these tells the Rebbe’s real story? How could he be so many different things to so many different people? How can the person who is laser focused on the scholarly analysis of Rashi and Maimonides, also be hyper aware of the inner workings of Israel’s security situation? How can a person who oversees thousands of institutions and is involved in matters of global significance, make an unassuming visitor feel as though their issues were the most important in the world? I could go on, but I think you get the point.

The answer lies in a verse (Numbers 27:18) in which G-d offers Moses an insight into the nature of the person who would be his successor, Joshua. “Ish asher ruach bo – A man within whom there is a spirit.” On this our sages comment, that Joshua was a man who related to the spirit of each and every individual. A true leader, one who is a Moses, is someone that can relate to every person on their terms. One who has “his hand” in every issue and matter that pertains to the welfare of his flock.

Underlying it all is a profound love for each and every person, and a desire to connect them to the Source of Life, Hashem, by bringing individual and collective Redemption to all. May this desire be realized very soon.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin  

A Lesson from the Smoky Haze

The news and images of the Canadian wildfires and the impact it is having on the air quality and visibility are quite alarming. Vast swaths of the US and Canada are affected, and the smoke has even reached as far as Norway.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything one encounters in life should be a catalyst for a lesson in the service of Hashem. The smoke generated by the wildfires recalled a Biblical instance where smoky haze played an important role. The Torah states regarding the moment preceding Divine Revelation at Sinai, “And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the L-rd had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently.”

The word for smoke in the Holy Tongue is Ashan. The three letters of that word (ayin, shin, nun) are an acronym for three words, Olam (world), Shana (year), Nefesh (soul). The earliest Kabbalistic work, Sefer Yetzirah, teaches that these three words are the basis for all of existence. Olam represents space. Shana represents time. Nefesh represents those who inhabit the universe that is defined by space and time. Throughout Jewish philosophical teachings we find ideas categorized via these three concepts.

For example, On Yom Kippur the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies as part of the service of the day. The moment of his entry to the Holy of Holies was a convergence of the highest levels of Olam, Shana, Nefesh. The entry of the holiest person into the holiest space on the holiest day of the year.

The Rebbe argues that the centrality of “ashan” (smoke) at the giving of the Torah compels us to consider how important it is to maximize all three concepts alluded to in the word “ashan” as it relates to the study of Torah.

Olam – Space: We must bring the study of Torah to as many spaces as possible.
Shana – Time: We must increase the quantity of time spent on Torah study.
Nefesh – Soul: We must raise the quality of our Torah study by infusing it with more energy, thereby also increasing the quantity of our knowledge and depth of understanding.

Increasing in these three aspects will certainly improve our daily conduct and personal character, as Proverbs 6:23 states, “The Mitzvah is a candle, the Torah is light, and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” This in turn brings Hashem’s blessings into every aspect of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Rare Mitzvah - Kvelling in NOLA

There are 248 positive Mitzvahs. Nearly half are not applicable nowadays, in absence of the Temple, a monarchy, the Sanhedrin and so forth. Of the ones that are applicable, several are very uncommon, such as the redemption of a firstling donkey. A Mitzvah that is performed a bit more frequently is Pidyon Haben - the redemption of an Israelite firstborn.

However, there are many parameters that narrow the potential for this Mitzvah to be observed. The firstborn must be a male (as it commemorates G-d saving the firstborn Israelite males from the plague of the firstborn in Egypt). His birth cannot have been preceded by a previous pregnancy. His birth cannot have been by c-section. His father cannot be a Kohen or a Levi. His mother cannot be the daughter of a Kohen or a Levi. I am not a statistician, but, due to these rules, the percentage of families that actually perform this Mitzvah is pretty low.

In our family (the extended New Orleans based Rivkin family) we have never had a Pidyon Haben. This is because we are Kohanim, and therefore all my siblings are precluded from this Mitzvah, as either the father or mother of the baby are from a Kohen family. This has been true of the next generation (our married children) as well, up until this point. This weekend will be the first time a Pidyon Haben is celebrated in our family. My nephew, Schneur Schapiro, and his wife Devorah had a firstborn baby boy last month. Neither Schneur’s nor Devorah’s father is a Kohen or a Levi. So, their son is eligible for a Pidyon Haben. While my father, as a Kohen, has officiated at many a Pidyon Haben over the years, this will be the first opportunity to do so for one of his descendants. A rare mitzvah indeed. Mazel Tov to the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and the entire family.

This week marked the end of the school year here in the New Orleans area. I had the opportunity to attend a graduation and a closing ceremony for Slater Torah Academy. Each of these events should be a source of pride for the New Orleans Jewish community. We should “kvell” at what this educational institution is producing. Children who are knowledgeable in Judaic and General studies, with a deeply positive awareness of their Jewish identity, respectful and caring, developing into good citizens and good Jews. Each of the graduates spoke eloquently about their educational experience. The younger children articulately shared the lessons they had acquired throughout the school year. Once could sense the palpable caring and connection between the staff and the students. The partnership between Slater Torah Academy parents and educators, and the rapport they share, is very evident. For photos see, or

Jewish education is the key to Jewish continuity. We need the partnership to expand to the greater New Orleans Jewish community so that our community can continue to be a beneficiary of an institution such as Slater Torah Academy.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all those that extended warm wishes and blessings to me in connection with my reaching the half century mark! May Hashem bless us to be able to share happy occasions together.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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