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They Are Not Entitled to Their Own Facts

There is a quote attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This week I read two op-eds about Purim and the war in Gaza. Each of them, in my opinion, is guilty of the entitlement to their own facts. 

One op-ed expresses a discomfort with the extent of “unjustified” killing at the end of the story resulting in the deaths of 75,800 citizens of the Persian Empire. Esther appeals to the king to avoid calls for a cease-fire, resulting in the killing of the last 300 people in Shushan on the second day of fighting. The author then goes on about how this applies to the war in Gaza.

(I can just imagine the 21st century style media reports of that event. “The Aggagite health ministry reports 75,800 deaths, mostly women and children. This is a disproportionate response, when on the Jewish side not a single death is reported.”) 

The second op-ed expresses a discomfort with the enactment of a jubilant celebration following the killing of said enemies. The author then goes on to invoke one the most oft misappropriated Midrashic teachings, that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, G-d rebuked the angels for singing praise for their destruction saying, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you are singing praise?” This Midrash, says the author, is a Rabbinic criticism of Moses and the people of Israel for rejoicing over their enemies’ destruction. While this op-ed is more nuanced in opining that the Jews of the Persian empire practiced self-restraint, it is still critical of the celebration that followed. The author then goes on to compare it to the war in Gaza.

The comparison of the three instances (Egypt, Persia, Hamas) is apt in that they demonstrate the degree of senseless hatred toward the Jewish people, resulting in fruitless attempts to destroy us.

The Egyptians had just been decimated by the 10 plagues. Yet, they somehow thought it was a good idea to chase the Israelites. What were they thinking? Did they really believe that the G-d Who wrought the plagues upon them would be caught napping at the Red Sea? Yet their hatred for the Israelites overpowered their common sense.

The Persian loyalists to Haman, should have known that they were destined for destruction after seeing what happened to their leader, Haman, and how the king gave the Jews permission to defend themselves. Yet they persisted in taking up arms against the Jews on the day designated by Haman months earlier, because their hatred for the Jews overpowered their common sense.

Hamas knew that they were waking a sleeping giant with the October 7 attack. Yet their hatred for the Jews outweighs their concern for their own people, as is evidenced by their endemic use of civilian shields.

In reality, the Purim story is an excellent lesson on how to deal with those who wish to harm us. The 75,800 casualties were Haman loyalists who were determined to attack the Jews come what may and were killed in an act of self-defense. Had they not been eliminated; they would keep coming back to attack over and over again. Considering that the Persian Empire had 127 provinces, spanning from India to Africa, 75,800 casualties is a small number. It represented only those combatants who took up arms against the Jews. Even those last 300 in Shushan were of that ilk, which is why they needed to be eliminated. Copy and paste to Gaza.

With respect to the Midrashic criticism of singing praise over the destruction of the enemy applying to Moses and the Jewish people, nothing could be further from the truth. The Song of the Sea that the Israelites sang that day, serves as a central part of our daily prayers, and is read in the Torah every year on the anniversary of the event, the seventh of Passover. The Israelites, and for the matter the Jews of Persia, were not celebrating the downfall of their enemies, but rather the elimination of the threat against them through G-d’s salvation. Copy and paste to Gaza.

We hold ourselves to a higher standard, as we should. But that should not be allowed to evolve into “alternative facts” influencing the critical decision making process.

May G-d bless and protect us all and put an end to this threat against our people, thereby eliminating the potential of any further unnecessary civilian deaths. May He Who makes peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel, and let us say Amen.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Is It Appropriate To Rejoice This Purim?

This year Purim presents a major dilemma; are we allowed to rejoice and be happy considering the circumstances in Israel? How can we celebrate knowing that hostages are being held in Gaza? How can we be happy when thousands of our brothers and sisters are putting their lives on the line in combat to defend Jewish life? How can we rejoice while 100,000 thousand Israeli households are in a state of evacuation?

On the other hand, can we afford not to rejoice and celebrate? Can the world stand for a reduction in positivity that is produced by our Purim joy? In fact, one could argue that we must rejoice twice as much to make up for those hostages, combat soldiers, and evacuees that may not be able to celebrate this year in the way they are accustomed.

Perhaps we could distinguish between frivolity and joy driven by holiness and substance. My senior colleague, Dr. David Kaufmann OBM would encourage college students to come to Chabad for holidays so they could “party for the heaven of it” rather than for the “...of it.”

How indeed do we party for the heaven of it? One of the Chassidic life hacks for this issue is called a Farbrengen. A farbrengen consists of a joyous camaraderie infused with caring and inspiration. It is a coming together of souls to share in each other’s joy and striving for a better life. Loving and uplifting words are imparted in an atmosphere of brotherhood, accompanied by melodies that can lift the feet or cause the heart to soar.

A central feature of a Chassidic Purim is a Farbrengen. This year more than ever, we need to lean in and access these opportunities for elevated rejoicing. Purim 2024 with Chabad will offer ample opportunities for Farbrengens. Beginning with Saturday night after the Megillah reading. Continuing with a Sunday morning breakfast Farbrengen. Finally, Purim in the Circus at Slater Torah Academy will round out this very important Purim celebration.

I encourage you to join one or all of these events and party for the heaven of it this Purim. We look forward to celebrating with you!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A 2,400 Year Old Response to October 7

On October 7 an enemy of the Jewish people set out to “to annihilate, murder and destroy all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on one day.” They took the lives of over 1,200 of our people that day. They have stated in no uncertain terms, that their intent is “that every day should be October 7 for the Jews” until they are all gone.

How do we respond to this unabashed declaration of intent to make the world “judenrein” (to quote another historical “friend of our people”)?

As “people of the book” we look to the Torah for the answers to life’s questions. After all, Torah means instruction, and Torah is called the Torah of life, light, and truth.

Let us examine an earlier similar instance in our history. The book of Esther relates that 2,400 years ago a sworn enemy of the Jewish people named Haman attempted to implement a “final solution” against us. What was his thinking? What made the Jews vulnerable to his hateful intent at annihilation?

Here is how Haman presented his request to King Achashverosh of Persia. “There is one nation dispersed and divided among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation and who do not obey the laws of the King. It is not in the King's interest to tolerate them.”

On one hand they are “one nation,” a singular people who reflect the Oneness of the Al-mighty. On the other hand, they are divided, they lack unity. In addition, “they do not obey the laws of the King (Hashem).” Haman observed how many Jews gleefully participated in the King’s feast, gorging themselves with non-Kosher food and wine, just happy to gain acceptance in Persian society. He figured this would make them susceptible to his schemes.

What was the Jewish response to Haman? One would think that they would immediately mobilize the “powerful Jewish lobby” flinging “Benjamins” all over the place to thwart the evil decree. Instead, we find an entirely different set of priorities determining the Jewish response. Only after these priorities were addressed did the Jewish people access their “protektzia” in the form of Queen Esther.

These priorities were expressed in four ways.

The first was by Mordechai. “But Mordechai would not kneel or bow.” Mordechai demonstrated that a Jew does not give in to the arbitrary immoral demands of an enemy. He stood strong for his beliefs and principles.

The second was by Queen Esther. “Go and gather all the Jews who are in Shushan and fast for my sake, do not eat and do not drink for three days, night and day. My maids and I shall also fast in the same way. Then I shall go to the king, though it is unlawful, and if I perish, I perish.” If you are trying to utilize your beauty to convince the king about something, a three day fast is not the smartest beauty hack. Yet, Esther knew that the key to salvation is a spiritual one, and only then will the “powerful Jewish lobby” be successful.

The third was the by Jewish people. Although a decree of annihilation hung over them for nearly a year, not a single Jew in the Persian empire considered disassociating themselves from the Jewish people to save their own skin. They stood with a fortitude of self-sacrifice for the sake of their Jewish identities.

The fourth was by the Jewish children. The Midrash teaches that Mordechai gathered twenty-two thousand Jewish children, prayed with them and taught them Torah. Suddenly, Haman arrived and threatened to harm the children. The children declared, “We shall stay with Mordechai, no matter what!”

There is nothing new in 2024. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Principled stand.
Spiritual strengthening.
Devotion and Self-Sacrifice.
Jewish Education.
The only difference is that we hope for a salvation this time that is permanent with the coming of Mashiach and the final Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Take Care of Number One!

One of the most challenging ethical dilemmas that we face is: What do we do when helping others comes at the expense of our own spiritual benefit? How do we prioritize our own wellbeing vs. our obligation to help others?

The Zohar relates a curious anecdote, that upon deeper analysis, provides us with the solution to this dilemma.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was expounding on the secrets of Kabbalah when he noticed Rabbi Yosi, a member of his inner circle of mystics, distracted and tuned out. Rabbi Shimon sensed that Rabbi Yosi was “pondering worldly affairs” and made the following observation. “(Since you have turned your mind away from contemplating Torah to thinking about worldly affairs,) your visage is incomplete and there is a letter missing from your name.” Rabbi Yosi refocused and turned back to the mystical secrets, upon which Rabbi Shimon commented, “(Now that you are back to the mysteries of the Torah) your visage is whole and your name is complete.”

What worldly affairs could a sage such as Rabbi Yosi possibly be pondering? He wasn’t playing the stock market or worrying about the price of oil. The Rebbe explains that he was thinking about a communal matter for which he was responsible. Although helping others is a worthy cause, nevertheless, his Torah study was being neglected and was lacking. To the extent that his spiritual countenance (his visage) was diminished.

The question is, how could “his visage become whole and his name complete,” when he missed out on the time of his study due to his communal commitment? Even if we accept the capacity to improve moving forward, there is still something missing from the past. About this the Rebbe suggests, that when one puts one’s own spiritual benefit aside for the sake of helping others, Hashem blesses his own spiritual endeavors to multiply exponentially. So, while in the moment it is a “diminishment,” as soon as you refocus, you will be made retroactively whole through Hashem’s blessings.

The Rebbe asked a man who was embarking on a charitable enterprise, “Why did G-d create the heart on the left side of the body?” In Kabbalah, the right side represents chesed - kindness, so the heart would be more suitably situated on the right side. The Rebbe replied, “since a person should always be thinking about how they can help another person, the heart is to the right of the person one is facing, rather than on one’s own right.  

Indeed, Hayom Yom quotes an early Chassidic adage, “Love a fellow-Jew and G‑d will love you; do a kindness for a fellow-Jew and G‑d will do a kindness for you; befriend a fellow-Jew and G‑d will befriend you.

So, take care of number one, and Hashem will take care of you!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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