Printed from ChabadBasel.com

Rabbi's weekly Blog

A simple and important casing for life

 We all love to talk about stories of mesirut nefesh – heroic actions of Jews who went all the way – about wonderful closeness to the Creator, amazing Torah learning or a rare and special good deed. But the truth is that none of this would be possible without the “simple” framework of everyday mitzvahs, those that an observant Jew doesn’t feel very special when he performs them.

You know, I was raised on stories of Jewish heroism. As children of Russian Chabad families going several generations back, my wife and I were suffused with stories of lofty acts of observing the mitzvahs personally as well as of preserving the Jewish spark for the Jewish people as a whole. I have already told you a significant number of such stories; some of them I will tell in the future, and the truth is that they are not only stories, but already part of my life and my family’s life. They are deeply embedded in us.

As the years go by, I understand that the stories of heroism are just the picture. I now understand that in everyday life, and especially when the Jewish people are living a comfortable life, Thank G-d, it is necessary to create a simple casing – and be meticulous about maintaining it.

The simple framework of life starts with praying three times a day in a shul, continues with regular daily Torah classes, and goes on to ordinary good deeds, such as visiting the sick in person or by phone, and a little Gemach (project of gemilut chesed – helping others) on the side. This way of life is usually not exciting; it has nothing of the fire and enthusiasm of stories of endangering one’s life for the sake of mitzvahs. There’s no story to tell, and it won’t receive many “likes”, as we say today. But it has the ability to maintain us as G-d-fearing Jews.

Perhaps because this frame is comparatively dry, it has less movement and turmoil. But that’s what a frame needs: less movement and upheavals and more order and stability.

I don’t know if that’s what Chazal meant at the beginning of parashat Ekev, when they remarked that one must observe the mitzvahs that “a person steps on with his heels”, in other words, observe the “light” mitzvahs. Perhaps because of the frame’s “simplicity” it is considered a mitzvah that a person steps on unthinkingly.

Personally, I am not at all sure what is a “light” mitzvah and what is a “serious” mitzvah. As far as I’m concerned, this is a subjective definition dependent on one’s style and personality. For instance, the framework I just mentioned – there are those for whom it is the easiest and simplest thing to do, and for others it is the most difficult and challenging.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Shehakol Nihyah Bidvaro

 There are moments in life that become engraved in one’s consciousness, something like a video clip saved on the video player in the brain. I have a number of those, and one of them came to mind when I was learning this week’s Parasha.

One of the most famous verses in the Bible appears in this week’s Parasha, Parashat Va’etchanan: “And you shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” As familiar as this verse from Kri’at Shema is, so too is the question that comes up when one studies it: The verse commands us to love Hashem, our G-d, with all our hearts, and the question is, how can one command the heart? Is it possible to force a feeling? Will my heart fill instantaneously with love to the Creater at the moment that I say “And you shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart” – just because I was commanded to feel that way?

Here is what the Rambam (Maimonides, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, Chapter 2) says about this: “What is the way to love and fear Him? When a person observes His great and wonderful deeds and creatures… immediately he loves and praises… and has a strong desire to know the Great Hashem.”

In other words, there is a command to love Hashem. How should you observe it? How can you create love? Just look at Hashem’s wonderful deeds and creatures and the love will come… Simple, isn’t it?

And here we come to that video clip that has been sitting in my brain for 18 years already.

I was touring with some friends at the Niagara Falls. We stood there, amazed at the wonder: the tremendous power of the water, flowing this way since Creation. When you stand on the Canadian side you can see the Falls in all their beauty, power and glory; your heart skips a beat and you are struck speechless.

At that point, a group of tourists arrived with T-shirts emblazoned with “Motti Tours – Touring in America in Hebrew”. Not that without the shirts I wouldn’t have known, even from afar, that they are Israelis. Their “Wow!” was quite loud, and then, as they were expressing their wonder at the sight, one of them, who was holding a cup of juice in his hand, placed his hand on his head and said out loud, “Chaverim (friends), when you come here and see all this, it is impossible not say ‘Baruch Atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam, Shehakol Nihyah Bidvaro (Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the World, that everything came into being by His word.” And all of us roared together, “AMEN!!”

That was the moment when I understood the Rambam. I suddenly saw, live, how observing “His wonderful, great deeds and creatures” bring a person to “immediately he loves and praise.”

These days my family and I are vacationing a bit in the mountains of Switzerland, beyond the vacation and the accumulation of strength and resources to continue, there is in the spectacular beauty of the mountains the same call Shehakol Nihyah Bidvaro.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

What’s better – a history book or a newspaper?

 They say that if you want to know how bad things are, read newspapers; and if you want to know how good things are, read a history book. This is true in many senses, but not, of course, in all of them.

We are going to begin to read the chumash of Devarim, a full chumash written just as Bnei Yisrael were about to step into the Promised Land, moments before Moshe Rabbeinu was going to say good-bye to the nation and to his personal dream to enter the land. Thinking about this brought up the above saying in relation to the love of the land.

If we open the history books, we will surely see that throughout the generations Jewswished to immigrate to the Land of Israel. The love of Eretz Yisrael is evident everywhere. But what if we open newspapers? Let’s say, a paper from yesterday, or last week, or this past year? What will we see? What is the situation today?

Eretz Yisrael is in much turmoil; demonstrations and protests abound.

For someone looking from the outside, and to me, a person who lives in the exile, definitely considered to be someone looking on from the outside – it looks very bad. There is no other way to express this. It just looks bad. So much so, that I would think that people will not want to immigrate to this land, so full of arguments and shouting, so divided and angry. It really does look like that sometimes. But it’s interesting that, in reality, people are still immigrating from all over the world, including from first-world countries.

Yesterday I was in Berlin with my 15-year-old daughter, Baily, for the screening day of the “Naaleh” program of the Jewish Agency, an excellent program that has been operating for 18 years already and enables Jewish youth to continue their high school studies in Israel, the goal being to strengthen the connection between the youth and their land, their nation and their Torah.

At this point I must praise the Jewish Agency and its staff, which are doing wonderful, well-organized and orderly work, in spite of the Corona, which changes our plans so frequently.

In normal times, Berlin is a matter of a morning flight and then an evening return flight, but in these Corona Times we drove for almost 9 hours in each direction, stopping on the way and even staying somewhere overnight. And yet, when I entered the hall where the teenage girls and their parents were gathered, I was deeply moved. I saw people from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, unquestionably first-world countries; countries where it is really much easier to live in than Israel. Jews, as well, live good lives there: they have institutions and communities, recognition and equality from the government etc. I looked around: here we are, people from all ethnic backgrounds and sectors and all are talking excitedly about their desire that their children be involved Jews, Jews who know the language of their forefathers, who know their way of life and their land, our homeland; Jews who will in the end want to be Israelis.

So at least from the viewpoint of the Jews of the Diaspora, I saw with my own eyes that history is no better than the present reality.

If there is such love for the Land of Israel, all we have to do is to improve the situation regarding the love of the nation of Israel, of other Jews, and then certainly these days will become days of joy and happiness, and we will witness the complete Redemption, soon.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

a stop or a journey

A dear Jew, whom I love and respect very much, called me this week. He is over 60 years old and is about to purchase a large business in a new place where they speak a foreign language. Quite a challenge, an initiative coupled with a vision and much courage.

He called me to set a time to meet with me and receive a blessing for his business. He is a believing Jew and he understands that the business and the investment are a vessel for G-d’s blessings. Therefore, together with careful and orderly business planning, he wants to make a plan for a blessing. We will sit together, talk about the mezuzahs to be installed, about a tzedakah box in the office, about a ma’aser (tithe) to be given to charity and about his willingness, in principle, to employ and give a livelihood to people close to him as much as possible. And, of course, after all this, we will write a request for a bracha from the Lubavitcher Rebe and send it to the Ohel – and ask that it be read there and also torn up there on the Rebbe’s grave, as is the custom, going all the way back to Calev ben Yefuneh.

Among other things, my friend mentioned that he is rather old to be starting a new business – “don’t forget that I am already sixty-something years old.” I responded spontaneously, telling him, that he still has fifty-something years until 120. But then I added: “Look, in America, the presidential candidates and the president himself are all seventy-something years old!”

Now, on Erev Shabbos of parashat Matot-Masei, knowing that he reads my letter every week, I wish to add a few more sentences:

Parashat Masei tells us about the travels of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. Forty-two journeys, spread over 40 years. The truth is that these were not journeys but rather resting places. The Torah is actually listing 42 places where Bnei Yisrael camped in the wilderness, but it doesn’t call them chanayot (resting places), but rather masa’ot (journeys).

Look: everything that we go through in life can be defined as a stop or a camping place, or as part of a journey. This is significant, because what we define as a stop or a resting place will stop us and our spirit from continuing forward. And what we define as part of a voyage, not only will not stop us, but will even serve to give us the strength to continue our journey.

Clearly, the Torah chose the second option. In this week’s parasha it defines the resting places of Bnei Yisrael as journeys, because every resting place in the journey was not a stopping place, but rather another stage in the journey to the Promised Land.

 

On the 11th of Nissan, 5732 (1972), when the Rebbe turned 70, he related to this and said that he was asked whether he will retire from his work because of his age. As usual, with much clarity and sensitivity, the Rebbe said that a person has to examine himself according to how he feels and not according to his age as recorded in his passport. In his words: “There is no need to look at the passport, but rather at the personal feeling.” And so, if a person feels young and capable, he should not be put off by the number written in his birth certificate.

A person’s journey must not stop as long as he is capable of continuing. Above, I brought an example from the American presidential candidates. And now I have an example and a model from Chabadniks who went off to be shlichim and actually started a new career at the age of sixty-something:

In 5749 (1989) my wife’s grandparents, Rabbi Netke and Tzippa Barchan z”l went out to serve as the Rebbe’s shluchim in Riga, Latvia. They were at retirement age already but they chose to go out on a shlichut in spite of what was stated in their birth certificates.

This week we heard that their children, Rabbi Eli and Chasya Neimark, their daughter and son-in-law, are following their lead and going out as well to a shlichut in Hanover, Germany, where they will be part of the activities of the Chabad House there. For them, too, the number in the passport says “Go rest”, but they have chosen not to rest but rather to continue on their journey.

 

Wishing them success!

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Simchat Torah sends regards

 It is somewhat refreshing when the week’s parasha deals with the holidays or mentions them. This way, a Jew can be in the middle of Tammuz and, with Rashi’s help, return to Simchat Torah.

It is more than just refreshing, I learn from this that the Torah is always relevant, and if the daily Chumash reading reminds you of Simchat Torah, take from this something into your day, your life.

“It is hard for me when you leave,” is an expression that I assume many of the readers are familiar with in connection with Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Rashi in his commentary on the verses that discuss the offerings brought on Shmini Atzeret defines the last holiday of Tishrei as a day on which after we have been close, holiday following holiday from Rosh Hashana till the end of Succot, Hashem asks us, Bnei Yisrael: “Stay with me one more day because it is hard for me when you leave.”

So how is this connected with the middle of Tammuz?

I think there is a very important message here. We are in the period of Bein Hametzarim (also known as the Three Weeks), days that emphasize our exile from our land and home, days in which we feel the pain of the destruction of the Temple even more than usual. And here, in the midst of these days, Rashi reminds us that Hashem is waiting for us, looking forward to seeing us, and that actually He is in constant distress from our being away from Him.

And what does a child who is far from home need more than the knowledge that back home people are waiting for him and missing him?

 

Mashiach now!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A lion always remains a lion

In an interview with Natan Sharansky, he described an interaction that took place in the Soviet interrogation room: “I sat in front of these poker-faced interrogators and told them a joke about communism and the communist rule – it was a funny joke. When I finished laughing, the interrogator said to me: ‘Don’t forget that you’re still not free.’ I laughed and said to him: ‘Look, I told a joke – a funny one. You made an effort not to laugh because you are forbidden to laugh about yourself and about communism, whereas I not only told the joke, but laughed as well. So tell me, please, which one of us is freer? You or I?’”

I was reminded of this when I learned the Rebbe’s commentary on the blessing Bilam gave the Jewish People against his will: “[Israel] crouched and lay down like a lion and like a lion cub.” He calls the Jewish People a lion, because a lion, even when it is lying down, is still a lion. There is a Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch, in the laws of damages, that a person who owns a lion is liable for any damage the lion does, even if it is trained and domesticated. The reason for this is that even if a lion is trained and domesticated, no person can really have full control over it, because a lion remains a lion.

The Rebbe explains that Bilam is speaking of the time when we are still in exile. The situation does not allow us to be a “free” lion that can walk and run, eat and drink and live its life as it would like to. It’s rather like being a Torah-observant Jew in the Soviet Union, which meant living in constant danger. Bilam, in his prophecy, said that this people, the Jewish People, even when it is in exile, and seems to be crouching and laying down, is still a lion. Even then, no one has any real control over its spiritual freedom, its soul. Because a lion remains a lion.

So the next time you say to yourself: I want to but I can’t because it’s hard, because someone’s making it difficult, because it’s impossible – remember that 3300 years ago already a non-Jewish prophet said, “[He] crouched and lay down like a lion,” And a lion always remains a lion.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

When R. Mendel gave himself credit

 One of the most special Chabad chassidim in the last generation was R. Mendel Futerfas z”l, whose yahrzeit is today, the 4th of Tammuz.

R. Mendel was a clever man, who knew how to face the world straight on.

As much as the people around him held by him and, already in his youth, respected his opinion and his virtues, his acquaintances and students can bear witness to the fact that he did not consider himself highly – not in the modern psychological sense of “low self-image”, but in the sense of true humility.

And yet, when necessary he did give himself credit.

Once, R. Mendel Futerfas met one of his beloved students, one of the heads of the Or Temimim Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, Rabbi Tuvia Bolton, and it seemed to him that his face was not shining very much. “Is it possible,” said R. Mendel, “that a chassid won’t feel happy?”

R. Tuvia tried to apologize and mentioned the reasons behind his unsmiling face at that moment, but R. Mendel didn’t accept the apology and said:

“You know that I was sent, due to my many sins against the Soviet regime, to the “lager”, a work camp in Siberia, and spent quite a few years there.

“It was very difficult for me to keep Shabbos there, but I was successful in doing so, and I don’t give myself credit for that.

“It was difficult for me to eat only kosher food, and there were times when there was nothing to eat except for non-kosher food, and, Baruch Hashem, I held on and didn’t contaminate myself with forbidden foods, and for that too I don’t give myself credit.

“There is only one thing that I give myself credit for: that in all those years when we were in such a depressing place I never fell into sadness, and not even bitterness. Only for that can I give myself credit.”

 

May these words be for his ilui neshama (elevation of the soul), and may we be successful in dealing with this challenge.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

what Chassidim or Chassidut are?

If you ask the average person in the street what Chassidim or Chassidut are, he or she will probably say that “they are people who are happy, people who dance and sing.” Others might say that they are “Lebedike Yidden” – lively Jews. Even among intelligent, knowledgeable people, I often find that many don’t really have much of an idea as to what Chassidim are, and what Chassidut means.

Joy and dancing are wonderful things. As a Torah-observant Jew I think that these simply have to be an integral part of Jewish life. But the joyousness is merely the result of the teachings of Chassidut. Through them, one can access a rich inner world. A person who learns Chassidut acquires a new, different outlook, a deep and hidden one, on almost everything in his life – and first and foremost, on Torah and Mitzvot.

The books “Likutei Torah” and “Torah Or”, and, of course, the Tanya, open the door to a deeper meaning of one’s life and one’s goals in this world, giving a different perspective on prayers, the Torah, the Mitzvot, the holidays and Shabbat. Every Biblical personality acquires a new aspect – a different, internal one, sometimes the complete opposite of what the simple revealed text seems to imply. For one who learns Chassidut, Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher) is a completely different person from the Moshe Rabbeinu of the non-Chassidic learner. And the same is true of the forefathers – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and so on.

Why am I mentioning this this particular week? Because in this week’s Parasha, Shelach, the difference between the revealed Torah and the hidden Torah peaks. In the Parasha, we read about the “spies” – twelve princes who were sent to check out the land. And when they returned after 40 days, ten of them spoke negatively about it, decided on their own that there is no chance of conquering it, and even incited the people against Moshe Rabbeinu! This act of theirs is never forgotten – and the poor Children of Israel had to roam the desert for 40 years because of it.

According to the Inner Torah – Chassidut – the spies are viewed as elevated, pure and holy people. All they wanted in life was to cleave to Hashem and His Torah, to ascend in their holiness and Torah observance. But they understood very well, that once they settled in the Land of Israel, they would be dealing with the realities of cattle, fields and trees, wheat and bread – the everyday life familiar to us all.

It might be a good life, but would not be easy under such circumstances to engage only in matters of purity and holiness, the Torah and the Mitzvot. Especially when one compares it to their situation in the desert, where they received the “Man” from heaven every morning, and water from Miriam’s well. The spies made a simple calculation that spiritually it would be better for the nation to remain in the desert and not enter the Promised Land.

Their mistake, according to the teachings of Chassidut, was that in the end the goal is to live spiritual Jewish lives within the framework of this material world. For, unlike other religions, Judaism believes in connecting the material and the spiritual. And therefore, the desert might be a nice place for spiritual endeavors, but the main thing is to enter a settled land, to plow and to sow, to work and to earn a living, and in the midst of this demanding everyday life to be a proud and upright Jew, who finds time to attend a Torah class during the week.

Someone once said to me in yiddish: “Es is shver zu sein a Yid, aber es loint sich – it’s hard to be a Jew, but it pays…”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The humility of winners

 Rabbi Elimelech Firer was once at the Kotel at pre-dawn. Those are the only free hours of one of the busiest people in the world. Suddenly he heard cries and heartrending weeping. “Tatte, Tatte,” a man was shouting, without being able to utter another word.

Rabbi Firer, who couldn’t stand hearing the crying, went over to the man and said: “Reb Yid, what happened? Why are you crying like this? Tell me! I promise I’ll help you as much as I can. But please, stop this crying!”

The man, who was praying tearfully, stopped and said, smiling: “Reb Melech, I am not distressed and not in trouble. These tears are not tears of pain, but rather of extreme happiness. I am crying out of gratitude. I have seven children, all healthy, all set up in life, and today – yes, today – I married off my seventh daughter. When the sheva brachot at the wedding ended I hurried to the Kotel to thank Hashem. I’m sorry, but I was overwhelmed. I could not stop my emotions from overcoming me, and that is the reason for the crying and the tears, the shouting and the exclaiming. I am calling out from gratitude and joy. Look – these are tears of Mizmor letodah – a psalm of thanks – for all the good that Hashem has done to me.”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotcha (read outside of Eretz Yisrael this Shabbat), There is a commandment to sound the trumpets, a double commandment.

The trumpets are to be sounded at moments of difficulty and crisis, when the nation is facing a battle with an enemy who is threatening it; in this situation, the role of the trumpets is to arouse the nation to pray to Hashem and repent, so that He will stand by them in this war. “When you go to wage war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound short blasts of the trumpets, and you shall be recalled before Hashem, your G-d, and you shall be saved from your foes.”

The other occasion on which one is commanded to sound the trumpets is at times of joy and victory. “On a day of your gladness… you shall sound the trumpets.” Here, too, the trumpets are not only an expression of joy, but, like in a crisis, a call to arouse prayer and repentance, submission and humility in face of the Creator.

Like that Jew who came to the Kotel, crying tears of thankfulness and joy.

This is very, very important. Because we tend to raise our heads haughtily when we succeed. And that is dangerous. These are the moments when a person might forget his place, fail to note the fact that everything – everything – could have gone wrong, and he is to thank Hashem for all the good and normal in his life.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

mikvah for mikvah

Natan is having a bar mitzvah this coming Shabbat. We are, naturally, excited and making the necessary preparations, but there is one thing that is bothering us a bit: we are not sure that we will be able to go to the mikvah. How can a Chabad boy have a bar mitzvah without going to the mikvah? I am praying that we will find a solution for this, too.

So there may not be a mikvah, but at least we have a good story about a bar mitzvah and a mikvah.

Natan’s grandfather, my father-in-law, Rabbi Mordechai Gorelick, became bar mitzvah on the 4th of Shvat 5717 (1957). They were living in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and the bar mitzvah hitva’adut took place in their living room. Luckily, my father-in-law’s father, Rabbi Mendel Gorelick, had already been released from the Soviet Gulag after spending ten long years there, and he was able to participate in his son and grandson’s celebration. It was early evening and the first of the guests showed up – R. Feivish Genkin.

Feivish was a simple Jew in its full meaning. He wore a cap on his head and had a full beard – and that was when most of the chassidim were afraid to grow a beard. But R. Feivish was a simple Jew who didn’t ask questions. When they had to bake matzahs secretly, he was the one who took care of the harvesting of the wheat and the grinding. He had golden hands and could fix and work out everything without resorting to strangers, who were not to know about the bakery. He had another important job. There was a secret women’s mikvah in the basement of a Jewish Bukharian family on Khochomaskiya Street, and R. Feivish was in charge of it. He made sure it was clean, orderly and warm. He also guarded it so that no man would enter it, no matter how important he was, as a chasid or otherwise.

So, R. Feivish, the first person to enter the Gorelick home, came over quietly to the boy and said to him: “Motik, have you been to the mikvah today?”

“What mikvah?” asked the bar mitzvah boy. “It’s freezing today, minus a few degrees centigrade. It’s impossible to immerse oneself in the mikvah in the middle of January.”

“Come with me quickly,” replied Feivish. “Don’t say anything to anyone – not even to your mother or father. We will go and come back quickly, and no one will notice.”

It was dark; white snow and frost covered the ground as they went together, Feivish Genkin and Motik Gorelick. One, an old-time chassid, and had already showed his devotedness to Torah and mitzvot when he served as a soldier in the First World War; and the other, a boy who had just become bar mitzvah.

“Listen, Motik,” said Feivish. “You are becoming Bar mitzvah. Remember that you are a Jew, keep the Torah and mitzvot that you just accepted upon yourself and don’t be impressed by anybody. We are Hashem’s soldiers.”

The mikvah was ready and warm. Feivish waited outside, the boy immersed himself quickly, and they returned shortly to the bar mitzvah celebration, without anyone having noticed their absence or their return.

Years passed. Motik became R. Mordechai Gorelick, one of the most important people in the Nachalat Har Chabad neighborhood in Kiryat Malachi. Feivish, too, came on Aliyah, on his own, as his wife Chasya had passed away back in Samarkand. They had had no children.

It was Monday, the 1st of Tevet, 5741 (1980). R. Feivish was leading the morning prayers in the Chabad Shul. It was the yahrzeit of his father, R. Efraim. Suddenly, during the chazarat Hashatz, R. Feivish collapsed and died on the spot. R. Mordechai Gorelick was there and he heard him say “Atah kadosh veshimcha kadosh” – You are holy and you name is holy, and then he heard the thud of R. Feivish’s body falling to the ground.

Wait – it’s not over yet.

Later on in the day, R. Mordechai was standing together with many others in the Shamgar funeral home in Jerusalem, waiting for the completion of the tahara of the body, so that they could proceed with the funeral. Suddenly the door opened. One of the Chevra Kadisha people peeked out, surveyed the unfamiliar crowd and asked, “Mikvah, mikvah?” “Mikvah, mikvah!” replied R. Mordechai immediately.

It turned out that immersing the deceased in a mikvah after the tahara had been performed cost extra money, and the Chevra Kadisha person knew that the deceased was childless and wanted to know if someone from the crowd would be willing to pay for that service. And yes, indeed, there was someone who paid. It was the bar mitzvah boy who with the question “Mikvah, mikvah?” found himself all at once back in that cold and dark night in Samarkand in 1957, and paid R. Feivish back with one mikvah for another.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Mazel Tov!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

You Count

 Last Wednesday the Jews of Switzerland received a pleasant surprise. The Federal Government of Switzerland (known as the Bundesrat) announced that starting from next Friday the synagogues will be open again. In other words, this coming Shavuot we will be able to return to the synagogues.

It is important to note that for more than two hundred years there have been open and active synagogues in Basel. Even during the Holocaust synagogues did not close. And now they have been inactive for over ten weeks, including Pesach. So these are definitely important and good tidings.

Besides the limitations connected with hygiene, social distancing and the prohibition of group singing, we were asked to check how many people can fit into every open space, and every worshipper will have to register ahead of time and let us know that he is coming. We have to count all those who come to daven, and authorize them one by one.

There is something special about counting. The very counting of a specific item means that we are giving it a place and meaning, certainly when we are counting human beings. Without him we would be five, and with him we are six. Moreover, often we categorize people according to their wisdom, wealth, beauty, dress, good-heartedness etc. In every society there are people who supposedly are not important, and are therefore not counted. In Israel, when a person wants to say that he is not considered significant, he will say “they don’t count me.” When we want just the number, it makes no difference at all if the person is wise, or wealthy or respectable; when it comes to the numbers he is counted as one, just like everyone else.

For instance, with Shavuot approaching, the shuls of Switzerland will count the number of people attending services without any reference to the person’s essence, beyond his being a Jew above the age of 13.

This is not the first time we are dealing with the counting of Jews before Shavuot, the holiday of the Giving of the Torah.

Parashat Bamidbar, which we will read on Shabbat, deals with the counting of Bnei Yisrael, and every year it is read before Shavuot, to tell us precisely that: that the Torah belongs to everyone equally. When we come to receive the Torah we do not examine people according to their virtues or faults; the important point is their very existence.

The same way that in order to say kaddish we need ten Jews, and it doesn’t matter if they are called Moshe Rabbeinu, Mordechai Hayehudi or Zalmen Wishedski, so too with everything connected to the Torah’s belonging to Jews: there are no differences between us.

“Due to His love for them, He counts them,” says the first Rashi in parashat Bamidbar, when he approaches the issue of the counting of Bnei Yisrael. How does counting express love? Simply, that counting tells the person being counted: You are important to me because of your very existence, regardless of your wisdom or achievements. This is an honest, clean, pure and real love.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Supply Lines

 

Last week, the world noted the victory of the Allies over Germany in the Second World War 75 years ago.

Many things led to this victory, and the main thing that is usually stressed is the staunchness of Soviet and British citizens, soldiers and leaders. Indeed, these people faced a well-developed, organized, uninhibited war machine and stood up to it heroically.

But there was something else, there – something very significant that stopped the German conquest – and that was the issue of supplies. Germany had hundreds of thousands of soldiers stationed thousands of kilometers from Berlin, and had to keep them well supplied with an unbelievable amount of equipment such as clothes, food and fuel, without which an army cannot continue to exist. The more they conquered and the further they were from their land, the harder it was to get these supplies to them.

The Allies, on their part, invested great efforts in interfering with the supply lines to the front – on land, in air and at sea.

Germany lost the battle in Stalingrad, among other reasons because Russia cut off the supply lines to the front, which was two thousand kilometers from Berlin, and Field-Marshal Rommel was stopped at the gates of the Holy Land, among other reasons because the U.S. and Britain managed to cut off the long supply lines needed in order to feed the soldiers and the tanks.

It is not for nothing that there were huge battles around large ports such as Tobruk in Lybia.

We are supposed to learn from history. Military experts learn the stories of campaigns in order to improve their own campaigns and become more efficient. And every human being can – and should – learn from history how to improve his handling of the world and make it more efficient.

I am assuming that everyone is advancing all the time, whether in business or in public service, studies or personal, emotional and internal growth. All of us, at one time or another, conquer (or at least wish to move forward and conquer) various aims in life, and here one should stop and examine the state of our supply lines: To what extent do I know what I have already accomplished? Sometimes it is worthwhile to pause for a moment in order to maintain what one has already, before storming the next goalpost.

What is the problem? The problem is that it is not exciting to maintain and examine what we have already achieved; it’s much more exciting and stimulating to move on.

Here is a simple example. I was learning Gemara with my son, the aim being the study of a certain number of pages. We advanced very quickly, but then we stopped for a moment and examined the “supply lines” – did we still know well what we had already learned? Did we still remember how we got there? So we stopped and checked and discovered that there was work to be done. What we learned had not yet been well absorbed, and we realized we must review the material. The review was slower, and sometimes more difficult, but it is clear that without it our so-called accomplishments would have been worthless.

So it is, as well, in public service and business activities. The chances of a fast-growing business to survive long-term are not so great. It is necessary to stop and examine, strengthen, maintain and thicken those supply lines leading to the front.

So it is too when it comes to emotional and personal growth and advancement. A person who has invested in correcting his character traits, in strengthening his emunah (faith), in acquiring good traits etc., will roam around in Hashem’s world feeling great joy and happiness, but if he doesn’t stop every once in a while to examine and maintain what he has already achieved, he probably won’t hold on long-term. 

Do I have to add that the same is true for diets, or is the principle clear?

 

Shabbat Shalom to all,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Not only think it – but say it! Emor!

 The time was 1:30 pm in New York, the Shabbat of Parashat Emor, 1982 (5742). Thousands of Chassidim were crowded in there – some sitting, most standing. The Tefillah (services) had just ended, but no one had time to get home and make Kiddush. They must have heard Kiddush from someone in 770 – the Rebbe’s Beit Midrash (study hall). Their eyes and ears were wide open. This was a Hitva’adut (spiritual meeting) with the Rebbe. The Rebbe proceeded to speak in Yiddish for about 6 hours straight, except for a few breaks for singing.
He quoted from all parts and levels of the Torah, and explained them. And yes, he mainly was “Doresh.” No – he did not say a Drasha (a sermon); rather, he made demands (Drishot)! With the Rebbe there were no merely beautiful words of Torah – they always came together with a demand that people act. There was always a stubborn, very contemporary message in what he said.
This time, on Shabbat Parashat Emor 1982 (5742), the main theme of the Hitva’adut could be summarized in one word: “Emor.”
“Emor” is in the imperative. You are commanded to say; and say continually. (The Rebbe said inYiddish: “Halten In Ein Zagen.”
What should one say? Say favorable words and speak of the merits of your fellow Jew. The Tanna (Mishnaic scholar) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia, said in Masechet Avot: “Judge every person favorably.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe said: It is not enough to judge your fellow Jew favorably in your thoughts; you must express it in spoken words.
Not only think it – but say it! Emor!
And one more thing: When you say it, say it gently and pleasantly. The verse doesn’t say “Daber,” but “Emor.” A Dibbur comes with harshness; an Amirah comes with gentleness, softness.

Why must one speak? Why isn’t it enough to think?
The Rebbe brings two reasons:
A. Give your friend some pleasure. If you think good things about him, tell him so.
B. Judging favorably exposes merits. When you judge your fellow Jew favorably, you will be revealing, arousing and lighting up his noble abilities, the merits and the good that are in him, even though at the moment he is in a situation where you have to make an effort to think positive thoughts about him.

My friends, speech is powerful, and this week we are commanded to use it for the good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A Free Sermon?

 Once upon a time there was a holy rabbi, who would never give a drasha (sermon) without pay.

His prices weren’t high, and he wasn’t exactly a materialistic person. He was a holy Jew by the name of Rabbi Mendel Borer, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov; the Baal Shem Tov himself called him “the holy rabbi, a special one in a generation, a man of G-d.” And yet, he would not give a drasha without getting paid up front.

This sounds strange when you’re talking about a Jew on such a high level, but he had a fascinating explanation: “Who am I to rebuke another Jew? What right do I have to do it? When the Temple stood, there was a prophet who was commanded by Hashem to bring His word to the people, and also to speak harshly if necessary. But today, when we don’t have such orders, I am willing to speak and give my opinion about various behaviors of others only if I am obligated to do so.

“And so, when I am given a few coins for the drasha, then I am obligated to speak. Why? Because according to the Torah I am obligated to provide a living for my household. My profession is that of a darshan. In other words, the tool by which I provide a living for my family is the drasha, and when I am paid for it, I am not allowed to refuse. Moreover, I must speak, and I am performing a mitzvah.”

The Rebbe brought this story on the 21st of Av, 5744 (1984), asking and indeed calling out in pain to the people not to rebuke and not to speak harshly about another Jew or with one, as long as Hashem Himself has not requested that one do so.

The Rebbe was actually saying: Do not choose for yourself the doubtful honor of being the one who castigates and berates, the one who criticizes and emphasizes the bad. Speak good, not bad.

Rabbi Beni Wolf, who died last Shabbat in Hanover, was an ordinary, standard Jew – the most ordinary there is. Not especially holy and not a wondrous tzaddik. A G-d-fearing Chassidic Jew; of course, a shaliach of the Rebbe, but unpretentious. In the matter of rebuke and criticism, he was very special, at least in my opinion. He was very careful not to hurt people, not to say biting comments. He did not spend his time rebuking others. In truth, as much as I can recall, I do not remember him as being one of those who were busy criticizing and warning.

On this Shabbat, when we read parashat Acharei Mot Kedoshim, including the passuk “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” I wish to take upon myself and to suggest all my dear readers to stop and think before we speak about another person, before we write to someone, before we click on “send”, and make sure that the message is in keeping with “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A precious stone

 The fifteenth volume of letters of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s father-in-law, is full of wonderful, special letters that the sixth Chabad Rebbe wrote to his daughter and son-in-law, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his Rebbetzin.

Personally, I learned a lot from these letters regarding a father’s relationship with his children. Highly recommended.

In a letter from Tuesday, 5 Elul 5689 (1929), about eight months after the wedding, the father-in-law, the Rebbe, wrote to his son-in-law: “Take a good look at the fine margalit that G-d gave you for many days and years, and everything good in the material and the spiritual. May Hashem Yitbarach give you chochmah, binah vada’at (wisdom, understanding and knowledge) to understand this matter well, [reaching] the real truth.”

A margalit is a precious stone, a gem, and it seems that the young groom, the future Rebbe, did not understand what his father-in-law meant about it.

Five months went by, and the father-in-law once again writes a letter to his son-in-law, and again, at the end of the letter he adds: “And about the good gift, the precious margalit, you still don’t know what I mean, or have you already solved this riddle?”

After a month, during Shvat 5690, the son-in-law answers his father-in-law: “The quality and essence of the good margalit, I have yet to understand its meaning, what it is.”

Another month went by, and on the 25th of Adar 5690, the birthday of his daughter, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the father-in-law reveals to his son-in-law the solution to the riddle: “The good margalit that G-d gave you is my daughter, your wife, may she live (and that’s what I meant in my letter, but you didn’t read my words carefully).”

Often we do not know to define the people around us as gems.

“When you come to the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will place a tzaraas affliction upon a house in the land of your possession.” So it says in the weekly parasha, parashat Tazria-Metzora. If we pay attention to the style, we see that Hashem is telling of a gift that He will give us. And what is the gift? “A tzaraas affliction.”

Really? Is this a gift?

Rashi adds that this verse is a besorah – a piece of good news, no less. “I will place a tzaraas affliction – it is good news for them that afflictions will come upon them. Because the Amorites hid caches of gold in the walls of their homes during the forty years that Yisrael were in the desert, and because of the affliction, [the owner] will demolish the house and find them.”

When Bnei Yisrael came to the land for the first time, the caches were material ones, but, in my humble opinion, there is still an eternal and relevant message here for us, today more than ever. You see an affliction, you see tzaraas. I am telling you that there is good news here – a hidden treasure. Search for it. It is possible you will have to demolish something in order to do this, but you have hidden treasures waiting for you. Don’t miss finding them.

The entire world is coping with the affliction of the Coronavirus. It has forced us to stay at home, and now we have two options: one, to see it as an affliction, as a tzaraas, and nothing more. The other option is to read Rashi again, learn and understand that we have been forced to withdraw into our homes in order to search – and find – hidden treasures.

We have a rare opportunity to get to know our children on a deeper level, to see them more – physically, and that way to become familiar with them and understand them and their needs in all dimensions. We have the possibility of deepening our relationship with our spouse – to endless depths. Is the whole really greater than its parts?

I think that, more than anything else, we have been given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop our personal mad race of life, to stop and examine ourselves: who are we without the suit and the tie and what they represent?

Who are we when we are alone, only with ourselves?

What meaning do we have when we are less vital to others?

I am sure that there are treasures here. We have gems at home. I haven’t found all of them. I’m still searching – and hoping not to demolish too many things on the way.

Good luck!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.