ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Who Are You Really?

How do you view your Jewish identity? Is it like clothing that you can remove and change at will? Today you wear the blue shirt, tomorrow it is the green one. Or is it an inseparable part of you, like your skin, or perhaps even a vital organ such as the heart or the brain?

Is our Jewishness an aspect of who we are, among many? We have our professions, our social affiliations, our alma maters, our family dynamics; and we also have our religious/ethnic/cultural identities as Jews. Or is our Jewishness the definition of our identities, upon which all other aspects of ourselves are overlaid?

Our sages employ the metaphor of a letter of the Torah to describe the identity of each Jew. That can go two ways. When a letter is inked onto parchment, the two entities fuse together. However, the ink and parchment are essentially distinct from each other, and can even be separated. The ink may fade or be scratched off, leaving the parchment unaffected by what was once there but is now missing. The other option is to engrave a letter onto stone. When that happens the letter and the stone are inseparable. One cannot erase the letter without impacting the stone.

Chassidus maintains that our Jewish identities are like the engraved letter. We can never lose our identity. It cannot even fade. All that can happen is that some dirt gets caught in the grooves of the engraved letter and must be removed, thereby revealing what was intact beneath it the entire time.

Now the question becomes, can we live our lives in such a way that our Judaism is engraved within us as well? This is the meaning of the opening verse of this week’s Parsha – “Im Bechukotai Teileichu.” Bechukotai is translated as my suprarational commands, the Mitzvot for which we have no compelling explanation beyond obedience to G-d. However, at its root, Bechukotai is related to the Hebrew word for engraved, “Chakuk.” This means that Hashem is imploring us to view our commitment to the Torah and Mitzvot as engraved within us, something which is immutable. When we experience our relationship to Torah and Mitzvot as “engraved,” there is nothing that supersedes that commitment, nor is there a space or time in our lives that is not shaped by Torah.

This is a life that is not conflicted or compartmentalized. All aspects of the person’s life are in harmony because they are defined by the underlying identity and commitment that is at the core of everything we do and experience.

This commitment brings the promise of blessings from Hashem stated in the parsha. “I will walk among you and be your G-d, and you will be My people.” “I will turn towards you, and I will make you fruitful and increase you, and I will set up My covenant with you.” “I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit.” “I will grant peace in the Land.”

May it take place speedily, Amen.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Obsessed with Jews

Disclaimer: This is not a political commentary.

This week I read two news stories (among many) that struck me as absurd. It seems the world has gone “meshuga.”

One was an article that reported on a certain member of the US Senate accusing Israel of creating “the worst humanitarian disaster in modern history.” Not sure how he defines modern history, but I can think of a few disasters that he may want to consider. The Holocaust, Soviet oppression, oppression by China, North Korea, Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, Darfur, and Syria, just to name a few.

The second article quoted a Hamas spokesperson complaining to Reuters about the ICC prosecutor seeking arrest warrants for both Israeli and Hamas leaders. He objected on the grounds that the warrant, “equates the victim with the executioner.” He is absolutely correct in a technical sense, just not in the way he intends it.

Why is the world so obsessed with this conflict? Why are so many who are usually dispassionate when it comes to other conflicts and crises, suddenly up in arms regarding Israel. We did not see this degree of obsession against Hamas following the attack on October 7. A million deaths and a refugee crisis in Syria; the world is silent. 800,000 dead in Rwanda; crickets. Uyghurs are being slaughtered in China; nobody gives a hoot. Etc., etc., etc.!

The are less UN resolutions addressing all those conflicts combined than the ones calling out Israel.

We cannot say that it is about the Palestinians, because nobody says boo when they are mistreated by Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arab countries. In fact, Egypt has a solution to protecting civilian lives in Gaza, but hardly a peep at their sealed checkpoint.

So, it must be an obsession with Jews. Only when Jews are involved in the conflict does it become a big deal. It appears that the world puts us on a pedestal and wants to hold us to a different standard. (This does not mean that I in any way agree with their misguided conclusions about the current conflict in Gaza.)

What’s the deal? What are we to make of it? What are we to do about it?

3,336 years ago, we stood at the foot of a mountain somewhere between Egypt and the Promised Land. G-d announced to us for all to hear “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Maybe we need to take a page from the antisemitic playbook of obsession with Jews. Let’s get obsessed with who we need to be as a “Kingdom of Priests” and a “Holy Nation.” Have we been trying too hard to assimilate? Have we been sufficiently focused on the role that G-d has conferred upon us to be “a light unto the nations;” a role model of morality and holiness? When we try to escape our identity, we get reminded in the least preferable manner. We can either garner obsessive respect or obsessive hate and resentment. We ultimately determine whether Jew is a designation of admiration or a title of scorn.

The anniversary of that declaration by G-d at Sinai is coming up in a few weeks. We must embrace our status as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.” Royalty has standards. Holiness has structured parameters. Just Jew It!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Education: Indoctrination or Empowerment?

The opening verse of this week’s Parsha has G-d telling Moses, “Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them.” It then goes on to give the admonition to the Kohanim to avoid ritual impurity associated with a corpse. Rashi cites the sages to explain the double expression, “speak to the Kohanim and say to them,” that this is to instruct the adults that they must educate the minors about this principle.

What can you teach a three-year-old Kohen about ritual impurity? He does not understand the underlying reasons for this command. He can merely be taught that “the boys in our family don’t engage in these behaviors.” As he gets older and learns to appreciate his special status, he can begin to understand why he must behave in this way.

There is a school of thought that maintains that giving a child religious instruction is indoctrination. Rather, they argue, wait until the child grows up and he or she can choose on their own whether they wish to pursue this religious doctrine and discipline.

Personally, I believe that this could not be further from the truth. Parents that neglect to share values with their child, especially religious values, are putting their child at a moral and behavioral disadvantage. Instead, I view an education based on Jewish values and morals as empowerment of the child. We are teaching them behaviors and values that will establish them in good stead for life. Would those parents say the same about teaching their child how to put on their shoes, or with regards to toilet training? If we believe that Jewish values are imperative for ourselves and our families, we must begin imparting them even at the earliest age by way of behaviors.

Yesterday I decided to demonstrate this by experimenting with three of my children. My two-and-a-half-year-old asked me for some water. I said to him, “What do we say before drinking the water?” He rattled off the blessing that we have been training him to say. Did he understand why he must say the blessing or what it means? Not at all. He just knows that this is what we do.

Later in the day, I was talking to my five-year-old and I asked him, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” He replied, "To put another brick on the Beit Hamikdash.” (To help bring the Redemption.) I asked, “But why do we have to specifically make a bracha before we eat or drink?” He said, “Because it is a Mitzvah.” I replied, “Why is making a bracha before eating a Mitzvah”? He answered, “Because Hashem said so.” I asked, “Why does Hashem tell us to make a bracha before eating?” He said, “Tell me.” So, I explained, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.” He was happy to learn and understand.

An hour later, my seven-year-old asked me to help her get some water. I asked her, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” She replied without hesitation, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.”

We see empowerment developing within these children. They relate to the value at an age-appropriate level. The two-year-old knows the behavior. The five-year-old has a vague idea of the value behind it but has not fully grasped it. The seven-year-old has it down pat.

I often hear from guests at our Shabbat table, how impressed they are with our children’s knowledge of the Parsha and Judaism in general. They feel like these 5 or 7 or 9 year olds are more advanced than they are. I explain that this is not an indication of their intelligence (though I think they are all brilliant, thank G-d…), it is an indication of the early start they have been given on absorbing these behaviors, values, and ideas.

Our enemies have always known that “if there are no kids, there will be no goats.” It is time that we learned this lesson and ascribe the highest priority to educating our children in the values and behaviors of Judaism, thereby ensuring successful Jewish continuity.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Is Judaism Too Intrusive?

Did you know that there are 51 mitzvot in this week’s Parsha. They address areas of life such as eating, marriage, business, agriculture, social responsibilities, body care, family dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and much more. And that’s just 51 of the 613 total number of Mitzvot in the Torah.

There are different ways of viewing this phenomenon. It might seem like Halacha - Jewish law is a little too intrusive. It could appear that religion is being used to control the masses. Why does it matter what I eat? Why does it matter what I do in the privacy of my home? How can the method for tying my shoelaces be of interest to G-d? As long as I am a good person and don’t harm anyone else, why should G-d care about my personal choices?

Looking at it from a different perspective… G-d created us and the world around us and knows exactly what is needed to live an optimal life. Do we question the user’s manual of a car when we are told to use unleaded fuel only? Would someone say, “even though General Motors tells me that leaded fuel is harmful for my car… my car, my choice?” Do we call the doctor intrusive when we are advised of lifestyle choices to improve our quality of life? Would an astronaut question any of the strict requirements involved in space travel? Would we rip the label off the mattress despite the stern warning that doing so is illegal? (Ok, maybe not that one.)

Furthermore, as the name of our Parsha (Kedoshim) indicates, G-d is providing us with a “holiness doctrine.” If you want to live a holy life that is G-dlike, these are the instructions for accomplishing your goal. When we are talking about G-dly living, there is nothing that is superfluous or arbitrary. Every movement that I make, every word that I utter, every thought that I consider, has a role in this life of holiness. As such, rather than feeling intruded upon by all these Mitzvot and laws, I feel privileged that G-d cares so much about me that He shared with me what it means to live G-dly.  

So Halacha – Jewish law is a guidebook for living 24/7/365. There is Halachic input for every single aspect of life. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in life that is not governed by Torah’s illuminated, life-giving path of truth.  

If you are intrigued by this idea and would like to learn more about it, a four-part series on how Halacha informs difficult medical decisions is beginning this coming week. Decisions of Fate, our JLI spring course launches this Wednesday. Feel free to try out the first class on Wednesday night at 7 pm, no commitment required. If you would like to register for the course, go to We are also offering a Thursday lunchtime class downtown at the offices of Egenberg Trial Lawyers. This course offers both CME and CLE credits. Chabad of Metairie is offering this course on Tuesdays. For more information,

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

We can’t just kvetch, we must also sing!

It was a strange Pesach dynamic that we just finished this week. Against the backdrop of the hostages, the war in Israel, the assaults against Jews around the world, including in American “Institutions of Higher Learning,” and the cacophony of condemnation of Jews and Israel for daring to engage in self-defense, celebrating a festival of freedom seemed to be a stretch. As one Israel meme put it, “The Chag is not “sameach” and the Seder is not “beseder.”

On the other hand, we are a nation that celebrates our intrinsic freedom at the soul level for millennia, including under the most challenging of circumstances. Furthermore, the miracles of G-d’s protection throughout this war abound.  

So, we celebrated Pesach. We sat at the Seder. We ate the Shmurah Matzah and drink four cups of wine. We recited the passages in the Haggadah. The question is, did we do more kvetching or more singing? When we read V’hi She’amdah, reciting “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!” did we emphasize the first half of the sentence, or did we emphasize the second half?

On one hand, we should be wringing our hands over the vicious and vacuous protests that are taking place on college campuses around the country. (Tangent: It is high time for a serious conversation on the value our society ascribes to the “college experience.” If this is what our universities are producing, we may want to rethink the trillions invested. Instead of teaching young people how to be thinking and productive members of society, they are turned into mindless zombies, blindly following the social mores du jour, even when those values are immoral and destabilizing.)

On the other hand, have we talked enough about the amazing miracles that took place in response to Iranian attack. Each of the weapons they launched was capable of wreaking mass casualties and destruction. That every component of the missile defense system, including the assistance of the “friendly” neighboring countries, should go off without a hitch, is a miracle of the highest order. Experts in the field have observed that even 90% success would have been off the charts. Imagine the destruction that could have been caused by the remaining 10%. To quote the “paper of record” in 1967, “It is a miracle of Biblical proportions.”

We must not let our guard down, and we must valiantly triumph against the scourge of antisemitism. We must do everything within our power to win the war and bring the hostages home. We must also project positivity and remain focused on praising G-d for the miracles that He does for us.

We can’t just kvetch, we must also sing!

Earlier this week Mrs. Rosina Slater passed away. She was a holocaust survivor who lived in Israel for years and then moved to New Orleans, where she was a successful businesswoman for decades. Rosina did not have children. In 2018 she made a very significant gift to Torah Academy to ensure that Jewish children in New Orleans would have a place to receive an education based on Torah values. The school is now known as Slater Torah Academy. The students and alumni knew her as Bubby Rosina.

The Baal Shem Tov once instructed a childless couple to invest in the education of their Jewish community, quoting this verse from Isaiah 56:5, “I will give them in My house and in My walls “yad vashem” (commemoration), better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.”

Through the sweet sounds of children learning Torah in New Orleans, the memory of Rosina (Raizel bat Shlomo) will endure as a blessing in our community.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin    

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