ChabadNewOrleans Blog

How Holiness Lives

When you hear the word Kedusha - holiness, what come to mind? Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh – Holy Holy Holy, L-rd of Hosts? The Aron Hakodesh - Holy Ark? The Beit Hamikdash - Holy Temple? Shabbat Kodesh – The Holy Sabbath? Ir Hakodesh – The holy city of Jerusalem. Kedoshim - Holy souls who gave their lives to sanctify G-d’s name? A holy Rabbi? An other-worldly meditation that makes a person’s spirit soar beyond the doldrums of daily life?

These are accurate. Etymologically, Kadosh means something set aside from the ordinary, generally used in an exalted context. Yet, we find something fascinating in the Torah, which is even more amplified by Maimonides.

The Rambam wrote a 14-volume code of Jewish Law entitled, Mishna Torah. Each volume has a unique name. The volumes that we are currently studying is titled Kedusha – Holiness. Based on the above assertions about holiness, one would presume that this volume deals with the loftiest areas of Jewish life, foundational beliefs and practices. In actuality, it covers two areas of Jewish law, eating and marital intimacy. The same is true for Parshat Kedoshim in the book of Leviticus that deals a lot with everyday life as directed by Torah. Tangentially, this caused ignorant foes of the Jewish people to describe Judaism as a religion obsessed with the kitchen and the bedroom.

Why does a holiness doctrine spill so much ink about what we eat and who we sleep with?

The answer to this lies in the mystery of G-d’s purpose for creating the universe. G-d desired that humans transform this world of concealment into a dwelling for Him. This cannot be done solely through lofty pursuits that pull us away from everyday life. Instead, we must also infuse the mundane, the corporeal, with holiness. It is not enough to be holy when wrapped in a Talis praying in the Synagogue. It is not enough to be holy when delving into the Wisdom of G-d’s Torah. It is not enough to be holy on Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and other Holy Days of the year.

We know holiness is real when it defines how we behave in the kitchen and the bedroom. We know holiness is real when it shapes our business practices and social lives. G-d declared, “Make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell within them. G-d wishes to dwell within each of us, and in every element of our lives. Of course, our Synagogues and Study Halls are a sanctuary for G-d. We know the Sanctuary of our lives is real when that holiness spills over into the rest of life. The kitchen is a Beit Hamikdash. The bedroom is a Beit Hamikdash. The office is a Beit Hamikdash.

How does this fit with the etymology of Kadosh? It is about “setting aside” and elevating the ordinary and rendering it extraordinary. This is one of the reasons that the Rebbe objected to term used for non-observant Jews in Israel – Chiloni. The literal meaning is mundane or absent of holiness. There is no such Jew. We are all inherently holy and living on a trajectory of injecting that holiness into wherever we are found.

Shabbat Shalom my holy brothers and sisters! Best of luck in our shared quest for discovering and infusing holiness into every aspect of our lives.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

My Take on the 10 Commandments Controversy

Louisiana’s mandate to place a Ten Commandments placard in state funded school classrooms is at the top of the news cycle right now. I am by no means a legal expert or a constitutional scholar, so any comments I offer are strictly in the context of the Torah angle on this question, primarily as elucidated by the Rebbe’s insights on related matters.

I do not believe that the first amendment intended to remove G-d from public discourse. We must certainly protect against the encroachment of one religion on the rights of others. Yet, that doesn’t mean G-d is a dirty word, or that G-d centered morality should be taboo. For a broader treatment of this issue, please see an article I wrote two years ago on a related matter:

Regarding the Ten Commandments issue, there are several points to consider. Firstly, while we Jews are in possession of the original iteration of the passage known as the Ten Commandments, other faith traditions have a different way of listing them than we do. This is primarily due to the fact that we consider, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” to be commandment number one, while it is not regarded as its own passage in most or all of the Christian versions. (Not surprising seeing that they were not slaves in Egypt…) They end up splitting up one of two later passages to compensate for the lost first passage. So, any standard issue placard would end up having to choose one version over another, and that is problematic.

(As an aside, in Hebrew they not referred to as “Mitzvot” - commandments but rather as “Dibrot”, meaning passages or statements. Technically there are more than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments… but that is for another discussion.)

Beyond this, there is also a theological question of whether all the Ten Commandments are universally applicable. It is safe to argue that according to Jewish law at least one of them (Sanctify the Sabbath) was given exclusively to the Jewish people. While the message of Shabbat as affirming a belief in creation has universal application, the practice of Shabbat is a uniquely Jewish heritage. In fact, we say in our prayers on Shabbat “You have not given the Sabbath to the nations of the world... You have given it in love to Your people Israel, the descendants of Jacob…”  

The alternative might be a placard displaying the Seven Universal Noahide Laws. After the flood G-d issued a universal moral code to Noah and his children that would be forever incumbent upon all of humanity. These seven principles are the true bedrock for all future moral and lawful societies.

For a comprehensive explanation of these principles, see Seven Laws for a Beautiful Planet:

In brief they are: 1. Rejection of idolatry. 2. Prohibition of blasphemy. 3. Respect for human life - prohibition of murder. 4. Respect for marriage - prohibition of sexual immorality. 5. Respect for property rights – prohibition against theft and dishonesty. 6. Respect for resources – prohibition against cruelty to animals by eating of an animal while it is still alive. 7. The obligation to establish a moral justice system.

Yet, in an instructive letter to President Ronald Reagan in 1982, the Rebbe did connect the Seven Noahide Laws to the “universal moral code of the Ten Commandments.” Here is an excerpt of that letter.

“By focusing attention on "the ancient ethical principles and moral values which are the foundation of our character as a nation," and on the time-honored truth that "education must be more than factual enlightenment - it must enrich the character as well as the mind, while reaffirming the eternal validity of the G-d-given Seven Noahide Laws (with all their ramifications) for people of all faiths - you have expressed most forcefully the real spirit of the American nation.

More than ever before the civilized world of today will look up to the United States of America for guidance as behooves the world's foremost Super Power - not merely in the ordinary sense of this term but even more importantly, as a moral and spiritual Super Power, whose real strength must ultimately derive from an unalterable commitment to the universal moral code of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is this commitment to the same Divine truths and values that, more than anything else, unites all Americans in the true sense of E Pluribus Unum.”

So, while technically the Ten Commandments may not be universally relevant, and it may be problematic to display them due to the discrepancy in how they are listed according to various faith traditions, nevertheless it is valuable for Americans to otherwise recognize that our moral foundation is the commitment to Divine Truths articulated in the passages we call the Ten Commandments.

We yearn for the time, the era of Redemption described by Maimonides when, “The one preoccupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d… as it is said: “The earth shall be full with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the sea!”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin    


Stuck on Mt. Sinai?

It was a day or two after Shavuot during the lifetime of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. He was approached by an aide with a question concerning the administrative affairs of the Chabad movement that he led. The Previous Rebbe replied, “I have not yet descended from Mt. Sinai; I cannot deal with this issue right now.”

Most of us didn’t necessarily feel like we climbed Mt. Sinai to begin with over Shavuot; and we certainly don’t feel like we are still “up there” now that the holiday has ended. Yet, the story can give us some things to contemplate as we transition from the holiday to “everyday life.”

Do we sufficiently appreciate the greatest contract that was ever made between Al-mighty G-d and humanity?

Do we sufficiently appreciate having been addressed directly and individually by G-d, Who declared Anochi, I am the L-rd your (individual) G-d?

Do we sufficiently appreciate that the term Anochi implies that Hashem inscribed himself into the Torah, and by learning we can connect directly to Him?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the empowerment with which the Torah imbues us vis-à-vis our impact on our universe?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the power of a Mitzvah post Sinai, and the connectivity that it affords us with Hashem?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the moral clarity offered by the Torah, the word of the Creator?

Do we sufficiently appreciate the sheer breadth of wisdom contained within the Torah, from Scripture to Talmud, Midrash, Kabbala, Legal Codes, Ethics and Philosophy, Chassidic thought, all accessible to us if we just commit the time to study?

Do we sufficiently appreciate this most wonderful gift that Hashem gave us on Shavuot, and continues to give us each and every day?

Maybe just thinking about these ideas can propel us back up that mountain for a moment. As we make our way down and look towards the horizon of life, we walk with an uplifted heart, a lighter step, and resoluteness of purpose knowing that tools for success are securely in our hands.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Tribute to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky

This week the Chabad movement and the Jewish world suffered a major loss, with the passing of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. To read more about him

His official title was vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. But he was much more than that. In 1970 the Rebbe identified Rabbi Kotlarsky as a person that can serve in a capacity of trustworthiness and responsibility. His remarkable people skills, his ability to assess a situation, his expertise in developing partnerships with philanthropists, and his absolute devotion to the Rebbe’s cause, put him in position to serve as the Rebbe’s liaison to communities around the world. He was the advance scout for the Chabad movement, forging connections that would enable a Chabad center to be established in a particular location. His interest in each Chabad center and the Shluchim couples who staffed them continued long after those initial years of development. When the Kinus Hashluchim (annual Shluchim conference) started in the 1980s, he was the driving force behind it. Today it has become one of the premier Jewish events of the year, drawing 6,000 attendees. Rabbi Kotlarsky is synonymous with the event.

He was a master fundraiser, who used his skills to create partnerships that would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for Chabad institutions and initiatives. Organizations such as Chabad on Campus, Chabad Young Professionals, CTeens and CKids, Chabad on Call, Chabad in the Former Soviet Union, Chabad in the Far East, Chabad in Africa, are all the beneficiaries of his vision and organizational skills, not to mention the access to the funds needed to launch each of them. His caring for the Shluchim families led him to establish funds to help them in their personal lives, with their simchas and their times of need.  

He was a person who simply cared for others. While globetrotting on behalf of the Rebbe, he was able to maintain personal relationships with innumerable people. He truly rejoiced at the good fortune of his fellow; and was sincerely pained by their suffering or loss. Over the last 50 years he was personally involved in helping individuals with a wide variety of issues, ranging from conflict resolution to financial crisis to family health challenges. His home was wide open to guests. His son-in-law shared that he once observed a visitor to their Sukkah, one of dozens present at the table, who had no idea who his host was, ask Reb Moshe to move because he was sitting in his place!

Rabbi Kotlarsky was my father’s childhood friend. He was the person who traveled with my father to New Orleans in advance of the establishment of Chabad of Louisiana in 1975. He introduced my father to the initial supporters of Chabad, whom he had met on an earlier visit to NOLA, people like Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld, Maurice Handleman, Joe Nelkin, Sam Katz, and Israel Goldberg, just to name a few. He would reconnect with them on subsequent visits to New Orleans. Amazingly, although he did the same for hundreds of communities around the world, he had a knack for remembering names and faces. He would often inquire about their wellbeing when he saw one of us in New York. He returned to New Orleans many times for our family Simchas, a bris, a bar mitzvah, a wedding. When New Orleans hosted the Southeast Regional Conference of Chabad Shluchim, he participated in the conference. He would come to every family simcha in New York without fail, even when he was battling the illness that would ultimately take his life.

Rabbi Kotlarsky facilitated the connection between the Rohr Family and Chabad at Tulane, resulting in the Rohr Family Chabad Student Center.

After Hurricane Katrina, he facilitated major grants to Chabad of Louisiana, enabling us to help the many people that we did following the storm.

Following Hurricane Ida, when the Shluchim of Louisiana were fully immersed in hurricane relief efforts, he saw to it that each of us would be assisted in dealing with the damage we confronted in our homes. I wrote him an email on behalf of our group thanking him for taking an interest in our personal lives. I was in New York a short while later and met him at a wedding. He thanked me for what he called “the appreciated, though unnecessary, note of thanks that I wrote to him.

This is just his connection with Chabad in Louisiana. The amazing thing is that there are hundreds of other communities that shared similar experiences with him.

I can declare with confidence that in the last 30 years, there is not a single individual who done more to advance the Rebbe’s vision and mission than Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. His passing leaves a great void. His friendship and caring will be missed. His family and colleagues have undertaken to continue his legacy of devotion to the Rebbe’s cause and the Rebbe’s Shluchim. These efforts will be headed by his son, Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky. May Hashem grant them unimaginable success. May we soon experience the realization of that vision with the coming of Mashiach speedily.

If you would like to be a partner in the campaign to continue his work,

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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