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Three Russian Words

Vinek is the name of the nice Pole who took Devora and me on last Motzai Shabbat through the streets of Warsaw. Vinek is a wise man, about 55 years old, who understood pretty quickly that serving as a driver for Jews in Poland could provide him with a good living. I saw that he understood his clientele quite well when I got into the Toyota Sienna that he had imported privately from New York. “The chassidim from America love this car. I bought it from a Jew in Boro Park. Look – it even has a sticker with a holy text in Hebrew”, he said, pointing to a Tefillat Haderech (prayer for the traveler) sticker appearing on one side of the windshield.

Vinek knows what each traveler is looking for – who wants to see the remains of the ghetto, and who wants to view the cemetery or any other noteworthy place in Poland, which, as is known, is full of Jewish graves.

When Rav Shalom Ber Stambler introduced us to him and told him to take us to the places that the Chabadniks want to see, Vinek understood very fast.

There are two such sites in Warsaw. One is the place where the wedding of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin, took place. “Zhe hupeh”, as he puts it, is actually a yard of a residential building that has replaced the Chabad yeshiva in Warsaw. There, the chuppah of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin took place on 14 Kislev 5689 (1928), today, ninety-one years ago. From there he takes his Chabad tourists to another street, where the wedding meal hall used to be.

Vinek does not understand why we are so excited about standing and sometimes dancing as well near a place where something once stood and today is no longer. I can assume that not only Vinek doesn’t understand – plenty of other people with heads on their shoulders don’t understand us either. But we don’t have to explain anything. We know that in this place Hashem prepared the salve for the wound. Here Hashem planted the seeds of the revolution in Jewry that the Rebbe brought about, twenty years and one war later.

The 19th of Kislev, 5689 (1928), a few days after the wedding, and they were already in Riga, still in their Sheva Brachot week. The father of the bride, the previous Rebbe, turned to his secretary, R. Chatche Faigin, and asked him to please send a telegram to a chassid who lives in Rostov, where his father, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, was buried. “Ask that someone there read the telegram that I will dictate to you on his grave,” he requested. The content of the telegram consisted of only three words in Russian: “His will was done.” But my father explained to me once that the translation should be “His desire was done.” Meaning, that the Rebbe, The Rashab, very much wanted this shidduch to take place, that the son of Rabbi Schneersohn of Yekatrinoslav should marry his granddaughter.

While I was still in Vinek’s Sienna, I thought that the mailman of Rostov who delivered the telegram containing three Russian words probably did not understand what it was that he was delivering. The Soviet Union was in the midst of Stalin’s somewhat insane arming of the U.S.S.R. and industrialization projects. The rest of the world, and especially the United States and Germany in its wake were facing the beginning of the Great Depression of 1929. The world was being shaken up – above the surface and below. What meaning could there be in three Russian words being transmitted from Latvia to Russia, from Riga to Rostov?

But several years passed. The world in general underwent a deep shock and the Jewish world came close to being destroyed. Throughout the world, Jews preferred to forget about their Judaism. To be a Jew during this period was a burden. The common expression used by people was “It’s hard to be a Jew.” And precisely at that time those three words in the telegram from twenty years ago surfaced. The dream became a reality. The young man from Yekatrinoslav took upon himself the leadership of Chabad Lubavitch, continuing the same task of his father-in-law the Rebbe, and realized the purpose of his father-in-law’s father, the Rashab of Rostov. The young man became the most famous and the most influential Jewish personality in the Jewish world after the Holocaust, an influence that continues to this day – an influence of good deeds, chessed (loving-kindness). An influence of Jewish pride wherever a Jew might be.

So nice Vinek doesn’t understand, and a few other people also do not understand. But I know that I stood in the place where the seeds of the revolution were planted: No longer a heavy, sad Judaism; no longer shame and burden, but rather happy Judaism, happy Jews. It is not hard to be Jew. It is joyful and good to be a Jew.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

 

The Principals or the Supplement?

 This week, two parents of small children came to see me. They had come to Basel for employment reasons, “relocation,” as it is called. They do not define themselves as religious, but they try to eat only kosher food. The main thing is that their Jewish identity, as well as that of their children, is very important to them. “In America we lived in a Jewish area – Jewish schools, Kashrut stamps on almost every product, and a very strong presence of Jewish life,” In Europe this is much less so, especially when people come for a short time: because of the language barrier, the children go to English-speaking schools and not necessarily to the excellent Jewish school we have in Basel. “We are suddenly concerned about our children’s Jewish identity.”

I admit that I was stirred by meeting them and by their concern. It was so sincere and pure; the “pintele yid” was speaking from their hearts.

It didn’t take long for them to explain to me that they expect me to find a solution for their children’s Jewish education. I agreed, and offered them everything there is in Basel in general, and in the Chabad House in particular. But before I did that I told them what I learned from the weekly parasha, parashat Vayetze. Yaakov left the protected environment of his parents’ home, where Judaism was present and very much alive, and went, alone, to his uncle Lavan Ha’arami’s house. He was there, alone, for twenty years. Got married alone, built a large family alone, and ran a fine Jewish home alone.

How did he do it? How did he succeed?

I think that the very fact that he was alone in a foreign land caused him to succeed. Sometimes, when we are living a cushioned life, we take everything for granted, and when we go to a different place, suddenly we have questions that we never asked before.

I know this from myself and from my nuclear family. Being here, I know every moment that I am personally and directly responsible for the Jewish education – certainly for the Chassidic education and especially for the Chabad education – of my children. Unlike my friends who live in Chabad communities that can (maybe??) depend on the Chassidic school, on the Chabad teacher and even on the atmosphere in the home and in the Lubavitch shul to give his children their Chassidic education, I cannot trust the school, the teachers, nor the environment. They are all wonderful, good and honest, but my children will not receive what I received in my childhood in school, in the street and in shul, unless I devote myself to it personally. This knowledge in itself is what makes me devote time and thought and to give myself and from myself for what is important to me, and I would like to know how to give more.

Yaakov looked around and understood pretty quickly that if he wouldn’t educate Reuven and Shimon, no one else was going to do it for him. And perhaps – so it seems to me – that was the secret of his success.

“Before I offer you what I have to offer your children,” I said to the worried couple, “it is important for you to know that one of the reasons that Hashem made sure that you would come to live here is so that exactly this would happen: that you are opening your eyes and understanding that something has to be done, because nothing will happen by itself. In your previous place the environment provided the basis for your children’s Jewish identity, and you were the supplement. My suggestion today is that you start to do by yourself, and we will give you the support. You will be the principals in this matter and we will be the supplement, and not the other way around.”

If you ask me, this suggestion is suitable for every family, of every type and social circle, no matter where they live: to remember that we ourselves are the principals, and the environment is the supplement, and not the other way around.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Thank you for that flat tire!

 “Zalman, your car is being towed!” You have to admit that that is one of the most annoying messages a person can get. Add to that that it was happening not in the country I live in, that the car was rented and that the day was a very busy one. Not fun.

This happened last Sunday. I was in New York for the World Annual Conference of Chabad Shluchim. The car I had rented was parked on President Street in a good place. As mentioned already, this was a Sunday, which is the policemen’s day of rest. But this was also the day on which the central banquet – the evening summarizing the Conference – was taking place; and President Street was the starting point for the buses that were to take the thousands of rabbis to the banquet hall. Therefore, probably for reasons of security, the New York Police Department wanted the street cleared of all cars. And in New York, as in New York, nobody asks questions. Police tow-trucks simply towed all the parked cars straight to a local police yard.

And so, not only was my car going to be towed, but I would also have to find out which yard it is in, pay about $300, and who knows if after all this I would make it in time to the banquet.

Rushing out of the red brick building, the Beit Midrash of the Rebbe, known as 770, I was talking myself: “Don’t let this ruin the day for you. Accept it all with love, it’s not so terrible. Even if they towed it already you’ll find it and get it back, after paying the necessary payment. Accept with love. Everyone is healthy, everyone is feeling well. That’s the main thing. May it serve as a kapparat avonot (atonement for my sins).” When I reached the wide street I saw that it was closed off, almost empty of cars, and two police tow-trucks were towing those that remained. The street was empty – except for my white car, which was where I had left it.

I ran to it happily, and saw the reason why it hadn’t been towed – one of the back wheels had a respectable looking flat tire. I lifted my eyes up the Heaven and said, “Ribbono Shel Olam, thank you for this flat tire!” “What a miracle it is to have this flat tire”, I continued to say to myself, as I changed it with the help of the shaliach in Beit Shemesh, Rabbi Shraga Dahan. We did not know each other, but he hurried to roll up his sleeves and help me with the jack, as we stood there in the rain. “I would have been searching for the yard, roaming around for several exhausting hours and spending money needlessly in order to release the car. This flat tire is a particularly sweet miracle!”

When we had finished, and I had parked the car on a different street, I realized that if I would have had a flat tire without having been threatened with towing, I would probably have gotten angry and upset about it. And now, instead of getting angry and crying, I was happy and thanking Hashem for this very flat tire. And who knows how many other times in my life Hashem arranged such “flat tires” in order to save me from greater problems?  We must thank Hashem for everything, if only because Hashem plans man’s steps, and our Rabbis have taught us that nothing bad comes down from Heaven.

The Prophet Yeshayahu said in his prophecy about the end of days, “And you shall say on that day, I thank you Hashem because You were angry with me.” In other words, when the Geulah comes we will see that all the difficulties we endured during the exile were for the good, and we will even thank Hashem for them and declare: “I thank You Hashem because you were angry with me.” I was privileged to experience something like this this week, when I was thanking Hashem for my flat tire.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

My Mendel’s Advice

From the moment I leave on a trip with my children, especially when I am alone, I focus almost totally on them. In other words, they have all of my attention. This includes some very simple and perhaps obvious things, like telling them about every step I take, from ordering the first Uber to letting them look for the gate and finding their own seats on the airplane, all the way to sharing with them the contents of an email or SMS that I have just written (as long as it is not private or secret, of course). On Wednesday afternoon I set out with twelve-year-old Natan and eight-year-old Mendel on a trip to New York, to participate in the Annual Conference of the Chabad Shluchim from all over the world, known to us as “Kinus Hashluchim”. On Thursday morning we left very early (they had gotten up at 4:00 am already. Thank you, jetlag…) and went to the Ohel – the Rebbe’s resting place. There we studied, prayed and also wrote a letter and went in to pray by the Rebbe. We talked and learned, and I told them that unfortunately I am not managing to write my weekly letter. Sometimes it comes easily, and sometimes less so, and today it was simply stuck. A while later, as we were learning, Mendel said to me: “Abba, write about this, about what we just learned.” And so, I have listened to his advice and am sharing with you what we learned, from Mendel’s angle: We learned the pasuk from Tehillim “You gave to those who fear you a banner (nes) to be raised high,” with the word nes meaning nisayon – a test. In other words, the Creator gives those who fear Him tests and trials in their lives, knowing that they have the ability to cope “for truth’s sake, selah” – in the merit of Avraham Avinu (koshet selah being a reference to him and his deeds, see in the ma’amar). By the very fact that Avraham triumphed in the many difficult trials sent by the Creator, he opened a conduit for us and gave all his descendants the strength to withstand their trials and challenges as well. When I asked Mendel whether he had understood, he explained that it’s like him not much liking to daven, certainly not to daven at length, but now that he knows that Avraham Avinu succeeded and that that success gives him strength, he is convinced that it will be easier for him. He made this declaration and I didn’t argue with him – not because he’s eight years old, but because I too use this technique when I encounter a test, and it most certainly helps. Shabbat Shalom from New York, Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Youth Minyans

A beneficial phenomenon has appeared within the Chabad communities in Israel in the past fifteen years: youth minyans. In almost every place where there is a well-established, long-time community of Chabad Chassidim, shuls for young people have popped up, one after the other. The truth is that it’s not just a phenomenon; it can be said to be a healthy, positive development, involving a lot of growth.

The minyans soon become shuls and these go on to become wonderful young and dynamic communities.

As is the way of the world, at the beginning many of the old-timers were wary of the phenomenon, and wondered what the future of these prayer-houses would be. After all, they said, it is important for the younger generation to daven with the older one, so the young people can see and learn how and what to do.

Between the lines one could sense that the doubts of the older generation extended beyond this, except that they said it quietly, if at all. The young people who initiated this movement were considered a bit “modern” by the old-timers. This was expressed in their way of dress – not necessarily black-and-white during the week – and their interests, which at least at the beginning were not exactly detailed Gemara study or reflected light vs. direct light (concepts in chassidut). These concerns and others were the basis of their apprehension. I was already living in Switzerland when the phenomenon began. I observed it from the outside, like a journalist, and I also heard the pros and cons expressed by my friends. I followed all this quietly, and was not at all worried. I knew this was a good development, and would in the future be considered the most significant growth in the Chabad communities in the last generation.

Why? Because I knew the people involved and I knew that what they want and pray for their children, boys and girls, is that they will grow up as chassidim, having fear of Heaven and being learned. And what a person asks for regarding his children, that is what he really, really cares about. Moreover, that is what really defines him.

On Shavuot 5722 (1962), the Rebbe spoke about this in connection with Bnei Yisrael receiving the Torah only after they said, “Our children will be our guarantors”. When they said, “Our prophets will be our guarantors”, or “Our forefathers are our guarantors”, it didn’t work, because when you say that your father or prophet will be the guarantor, you are actually removing the responsibility from yourself. You are not obligated – you have no influence or responsibility when it comes to your father or prophet. And the main thing is, that this doesn’t teach us anything about what interests you and what you care about. It certainly doesn’t define you and your hopes. But you say, “Our children will be our guarantors”, this is already the expression of a direct commitment. And the main thing is that it shows that what interests you is that your children will observe the Torah in the future. It also defines you, because what you really hope for and wish for your children, that is what you really care about and what really touches you.

In this way the Rebbe there explained the definition of Akeidat Yitzchak as a test of Avraham. Yitzchak was 37 years old at the time of the Akeida. If he would have wanted to, he could have easily overwhelmed his father, who was 137 years old, and run away. If so, this was a test that Yitzchak passed successfully. And why is it considered the greatest test of Avraham? The explanation is that it is easier for a person to harm himself then to harm his children. It would have been easier for Avraham to offer himself up than to offer his son. In offering his son, he showed his complete loyalty. So too, when parents say that their children are guarantors for them, so even if for themselves they would have been lax, for the children they want the best.

After all, all of us in the end want our children to fulfill our dreams for ourselves…

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

This is how you treat your friends?

If I had only one Jew attending my Schul, only one coming to my classes, and only one coming to my activities, and it was the same one, I would do everything so that he would remain with me. I would take care of all his needs to the best of my ability, help him on every occasion, ask him how he is once a day, and once a week send him a link to a new song of Yishai Ribo that just came out that week.

But look what the Master of the World did. He had one – and only one – Jew in the entire world who had found Him, who believed in Him, who went with Him in face of the whole world, to the point that he was called “Ha’Ivri” – the one on the other side – because of this. But the Master of the World wasn’t so impressed by this and instead of helping him and supporting him He had him go through all the troubles that this world has to offer. From a fight with his parents and family, through moving to an unknown land, famine, exile, his wife being taken twice. He had no children when everyone around him was pushing full baby carriages, and when He finally gave him a son when he was one hundred years old, He told him to offer him up on an altar – the Akeidah.

So I ask, where is the logic in all this? You have one single person who believes in You. Why do You do everything to make him leave You?

This question arises in my mind every year as we approach parashat Lech Lecha. What is interesting is that the explanations I have given myself over the years have changed, or perhaps have upgraded over the years.

When I was young, maybe because that was before I myself met with the trials that Hashem, May His Name be praised forever, prepared for me, I was satisfied with the explanation that these were “trials”. Hashem was testing man, and Avraham, the first Jew, was the poster boy for this. He went through ten trials, each one of them very difficult.

At a later stage in my life, perhaps when I was myself coping with challenges and trials, my answer was: That’s the way it is. That is Hashem’s way. That is the way of the world. Everything positive and holy that a person does has to be accompanied by difficulties and challenges.

In Chassidic language these are called “meni’ot ve’ikuvim” – things preventing us from acting, and slowing us down. And that helped. Every time I had to cope with a challenge I remembered Avraham Avinu and said: Avraham went through more difficult trials than I have, but it was worth it.

This week I asked myself the same question, and internalized something new. I would invest in the only man who believes in me, so that he won’t leave, because I am thinking about myself, about what’s good for me, about my life project. And so, I’ll do everything so that he will continue to believe in me and continue walking with me. But am I thinking about the person who is with me?

But Hashem does think about the benefit of the person, and in this case, about the good of Avraham. And so, He knows that in order to produce from him the best – to realize his powers, to realize his potential in order to make him a much higher quality person in every sense, there is only one way: to put him through challenges and trials. Because every challenge and every trial and need to cope upgrade a person ten times more.

When I read the pasuk about Avraham “And He believed in Hashem”, I read the word emunah as meaning emun – trust. Avraham trusted Hashem fully. He had complete faith in Him, knowing that all the challenges and trials are to make him a much better Avraham. Because that’s the way it is. Every challenge that we face cleans something in us, purifies us. Every trial helps us be a bit less materialistic and more spiritual, more able to give a true assessment as to what is more important and what is even more important than that.

I am curious to know what I’ll write about this in another five years.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

it´s my Birthday

Sometimes when I come into my office on Monday mornings, I understand why I cried when I was born. Not because life is difficult – it isn’t. And not because the tasks facing me are daunting – usually they are reasonable. It’s just that when I see the list of tasks and jobs, sometimes all I want is that someone else will do the work, or that it will be done by itself and the responsibility won’t be mine. And then I understand why I cried.

Babies cry after birth, because they don’t want to be independent; they don’t want to be a separate unit from their mothers. They prefer that someone else eat for them, sleep for them and be dressed for them. They want to be covered and protected. As adults, as well, we prefer to be safe and covered, under the auspices of someone big and warm, who will make sure we are enwrapped and protected.

I had a birthday yesterday – Thursday, 2 Cheshvan. And this brings me to think: What is a birthday? What am I taking note of? What am I really celebrating? There are those who celebrate their accomplishments so far. I’m happy with them, but that does not seem to me to be a Jewish approach, and certainly not a Chassidic approach. First of all, because generally we don’t celebrate and note accomplishments so much – what, after all, have we done that is so great?! And mainly, because the past is less interesting to us. What is interesting is what more we have to accomplish, what more has to be done and fixed, how to bring more light and warmth in the future.

So what are we celebrating and noting?

More and more I understand that a birthday is the day on which we once again celebrate our being independent units, possessing tasks and unique goals that come together with strengths and abilities, which will enable us to accomplish what we were chosen to do. Today, several decades ago, at a certain hour, I was born to my role on earth. This is a source of great joy. But like every great happiness in the life, it comes with tears. Parents cry at their children’s weddings. They are not crying out of sadness, but out of happiness. They are crying over the girl who is setting off on her own journey. They are crying over the son who will have to cope alone with the world. But, with all that, they are certainly happy that this moment has arrived. I was once at a Jerusalem wedding in which the groom was happy and danced. Suddenly I saw next to me a Jew, holding kugel in one hand and soda water in the other. An older Jerusalem Jew who enjoyed making a Yiddishe krechtz every few minutes. He said to me in Yiddish: “Do you know why he is dancing that way? Because he doesn’t know what’s waiting for him the day after sheva brachot end. But nu, the kugel is worth it.”

A birthday is a day on which we take note of Hashem’s choosing us to be independent people with roles and goals, together with our having free choice. A birthday is a day on which I should look at myself and my environment, and see if there are realms and things that regarding them I am still not an independent unit. And when I say independent unit, I mean someone who takes responsibility over what is supposed to be his responsibility, and manages these things and leads them on, correctly. In his speech on the 12th of Tammuz 5731 (1971) the Rebbe encouraged every person to go out and do more for other people and for their surroundings. Among other things, he defined the role of the head of the family as the president and leader of the family.

Many are familiar with the gemara in Masechet Eruvin 13b: “Our sages learned: for two-and-a-half years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were divided in their opinion. Some said: it is better (noach)for a person not to have been created, more than to have been created. The others said: it is better for a person to have been created, more than not to have been created. They decided finally: It is better for a person to not have been created, but now that he was created, he should examine his deeds, and some say, handle his deeds.”

The classical commentary for this says that Beit Shamai and and Beit Hillel disagreed over what is better for a person: to be created or not? But we can also relate to the simplest meaning of the word “noach” and understand that it would have been more comfortable for a person not to have been born – it is much more comfortable to be protected and covered, with someone else doing what needs doing. And that is also the final conclusion. But at the end they said, that if you were already created and born, get up and do the following two things: a. examine your past deeds, and learn from your past, b. survey the deeds you have not yet done, examine the future, look ahead.

I will be courageous and talk about myself. By nature I tended to let things flow and manage with them somehow. I needed a good few years of awareness and self-work in order to understand that emerging into the world, a true birth, means to face life head on and to begin to manage and lead. To head a home with a clear, Jewish, Chassidic agenda; to create an atmosphere of joy and optimism with fiery faith; to broadcast stability, clarity and trust.

Not everything can be done by oneself. I made use of studying, reading and also of learned professionals.

In the past few years I have been privileged to be in close contact, to listen to, to suggest and sometimes even to guide many family men or community leaders who were coping with crises, emotional earthquakes or merely being stuck – some of them medical situations and some of them economic, and mainly emotional. The people who were able to change (Baruch Hashem, the vast majority of them) were those who understood and internalized that when Hashem gave them a task to do, He also gave them the tools to do it, and they must lift their head above the water and begin to lead.

That is my central message on my birthday. A birthday signifies emerging into the world as an independent unit. That is the moment in which a person becomes a miniature leader. And so, it is possible and even necessary to be born again a bit more all the time, and certainly on your birthday. Like with every birth, it might come with pain and cryng, but all this is nothing compared to the true joy that will follow.

One more thing; I once heard a wonderful sentence from Rabbi Yossi Jacobson: the perfect people are only those that I don’t yet know well. That is most probably the truth. We are not perfect, but we are good, and mainly, we can be even better in every realm of life.

On my special day I am blessing all my dear readers: May Hashem fulfill all your heart’s wishes for the good, in the material and the spiritual, in the visible, revealed good. And the main thing is that you should all merit to the complete and real Redemption soon, in our days.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski


A wish or a decision

“Happy New Year” is not a wish; it is a decision.

I have told this dozens of times in the past month to anyone who has come to the Chabad House in Basel.

I fully believe in it. True, we wish each other a Happy New Year; that is important and even great! But when it comes to ourselves we should not let it remain as just a wish; we should be proactive, in faith and in actual action, in order to make sure that this coming year will be a good one in every way.

Before the holidays we forgave others, and ourselves as well. There are many who said, “I forgive myself.” This is important and even great, but its proper place is at the end of the year. When one is about to begin a year, the forgiving should be set aside together with self-pity, and one should get into a mode of movement and action.

To enter such a mode means to take everything that we have received during the holidays, especially Succot and Simchat Torah – the lightness and the joy – put it all in a bowl and make up a dish of energy, joy, lightness, faith and trust.

The Chabad Rebbes brought into the world a special declaration and message for Shabbat Bereishit, a declaration that encompasses much and is particularly suited for the first Shabbat after the holidays, the Shabbat after which we finally return to our routines. “The way a person places himself on Shabbat Bereishit, so will be all year.” In my opinion, we’re not talking mystical ideas here, but rather technique. A person who approaches the reishit, the beginning of the year’s routine with a mindset of “I can’t, I won’t succeed, I have no money and no ability. I have no time and no chance at all,” there is no doubt that that is what his year will look like, too.

On the other hand, a person who at the beginning of his year approaches it with proactivity and even a declaration such as “This year I am going to fix my economic situation, no matter what. I’ll bring stability and joy to my family and household. I have the ability to do so. I intend to invest some time this year in my child who is having slight difficulties in school, so that by the end of the year have him on equal level with his classmates, and I know I can do that. This year I will bring my marriage to a high level of love, fellowship, peace and friendship, because I can. When I want something, I make sure to get it.” I have no doubt that someone who comes with such a proactive approach will indeed achieve whatever he wants to achieve in the coming year.

Practically speaking, this is not easy. One must invest time and effort, and labor in order to advance, improve and grow. But if we believe in ourselves and our abilities, if we believe that we can overcome all the challenges facing us, then surely we will come out on top. One thing I’m sure of: Hashem certainly believes in us, otherwise he wouldn’t have given us all this responsibility in our lives.

A Happy New Year is not a wish but rather a decision – as a certain American once said: “Yes, we can!”

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Concentrate of joy

A simple Jew once approached the Admor Hazaken (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, the founder of Chabad) and asked: “Rebbe, what is it about this festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah that makes us dance and be so happy?” The Rebbe thought for a moment and answered: “Shemini Atzeret is like a sweet concentrate that one prepares and keeps in a jar in the kitchen. When one needs some, one takes just a bit, mixes it with water, and then the food or drink are sweetened by it. So, too, are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: They have in them concentrated joy, and it is from them that we take joy for the entire year.”

When I read this I understood that if the dancing and the great rejoicing are like a concentrate, then the more of the concentrate we have – both in quantity and in quality – the more joy we will have – both in quantity and in quality – throughout the year. And between us: Is there anything that we need more in our lives than joy?

So I ask you, seriously, does one need anything more than that in order to drop everything else and just dance?

Take my piece of advice: There’s such a thing as drinking a “L’chaim”. It’s not vodka or whiskey, nor is it beer or wine. It is simply a “L’chaim”, because we drink a small cupful and wish each other, from the bottom of our hearts – “L’chaim!” This “L’chaim” has in it the ability to help a person relax a bit, dance and be happy. And if one cupful doesn’t help, one can always try again. From experience, I can tell you that it works.

Chag Same’ach to all Jews,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A stormy soul in my Sukkah

It was about ten years ago. A man about 50 years old, dressed in an expensive suit, with a full head of hair and a pipe in hand, walked into the Chabad House in Basel. He had come to purchase the arba minim. I didn’t know him – didn’t know whether he was Jewish or not. I did know that he lived in a village on top of a Swiss mountain; I also knew that his name was Serge.

I welcomed him and together we went to the room where the lulavim and etrogim were kept, so that he would get a chance to examine them, and so that I would get a chance to examine whether he was Jewish or not, and in general try to understand why a person living on top of a mountain needs arba minim?

Our Sukkah was already standing in the yard. “Come see the Sukkah,” I said, and went into it. He followed me but then stopped suddenly. The moment his feet touched the floor there, he jumped out of it, backwards. Quietly, he asked: “Am I allowed in the Sukkah?” and then added in English: “I am a sinner. Am I allowed to enter it?” As surprised as I was from his words, I was alarmed at his face. He looked very disturbed.

There’s no such thing in Judaism as a “sinner.” In Judaism one may have sinned in the past, or perhaps will, G-d forbid, sin in the future. Defining a person as a sinner, so far as I know, comes from Christianity. We sat down opposite each other and he began to talk: “I grew up in Paris. My mother was Jewish and my father was not. My mother’s name was Mazal and she grew up in a very religious home, but hated religion. She made sure to prevent us from having any contact with Judaism. I – I have a stormy spiritual soul that gave me no rest.

When I was 12 years old I knew there was something called a bar mitzvah, and I began to search for Jews. I entered a synagogue on Rue Pavée, and asked for help. Rabbi Chaim Rotenberg greeted me very nicely, heard my story, and immediately arranged that I should learn together with his son Mordechai, who was about my age. Twice a week I would come quietly to the synagogue and learn Torah; my soul expanded and was satisfied. These were indeed hours of pleasure.

A few weeks before the bar mitzvah my mother discovered that I had been going to the synagogue and announced that I had a choice: the synagogue or my home. “If you continue to go to the synagogue you will have to leave home. Make your decision!” I was a 12-year-old boy. What could I do? I gave up the synagogue, and didn’t go there anymore. I also relinquished my soul. But my soul gave me no rest.

Several years went by and one day I saw a parade of Jews holding the Israeli flag and singing “Hava Nagila”. I was entranced – and followed them, joined them and became part of them, without knowing that they were Messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus. I continued from there to study religion and now I am serving as a Protestant pastor in that village on the mountain. At least I’m a Protestant and not a Catholic…”

“And why do you need the arba minim?” I asked him.

“Two years ago I went on an organized tour for religious personnel to the Holy Land. We were supposed to tour the country, visiting mainly in historical places and places that are held to be sacred by all religions. We were staying in a hotel in the Christian Quarter in the Old City. Towards evening, when everyone went to rest, because the next day we were to go on an intensive week-long trip throughout the country, I tossed my suitcase into my room, and went quickly to the Western Wall. You understand? I’m not like them. I’m called Yitzchak ben Mazal! I reached the Kotel and suddenly burst into tears and asked again and again, “Master of the World, will you take me back?” I don’t know how long I cried – perhaps an hour or two.”

As Serge was telling me all this, he was crying. So was I, as I listened to this sweet but suffering soul.

“When I returned to Switzerland I began to search for Judaism. I found a website of Chabad named “Ask Moshe”, where one could get answers to questions immediately from a human being, all the time. I asked and asked endlessly. As time went on I bought tefillin and a siddur, and every morning I shut myself up in my office in the church, put on tefillin and pray. This year I bought myself a folding Sukkah. I want to observe the mitzvah of Succah, and the mitzvah of arba minim as well.”

Serge left, and I once again understood what Rabbi Shalom Ber Schneersohn said to R. Monye Moneszon a wealthy person, who wondered why the Rebbe was so full of praises for the simple people. “Why are you making such an issue of them?” He asked. The Rebbe answered: “They have advantages!” Said R. Monye, “I don’t see them.” He himself was a great diamond trader. The Rebbe asked him if he had brought a package of diamonds with him. “Yes, I brought it with me,” answered R. Monye, “except that when the sun is shining one cannot look at diamonds.” Afterwards R. Monye took the package of diamonds and spread them out in a different room, pointing at one stone that was beyond marvel. The Rebbe said to him: “I don’t see anything special about this stone,” to which R. Monye replied: “You have to a mavin.” The Rebbe nodded. “A Jew is a marvel, but one has to be a mavin.” (Sefer Hasichot 5705)

 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A Year of Growth

How many good wishes for the new year have you received already? I receive them all the time, and it is actually nice to get them. I also received a decorative arrangement that wished me everything at once: a year of abundance, riches, happiness, nachas, health, prosperity, love, joy, growth, a good living and success.

Since I’m such a nudge, I asked the sender: “What among all those good wishes that you sent me is the most important to you?”

The answer was immediate, clear and sharp: “Health! Everything else is a bonus.”

Health is indeed important. So I thought and also wrote to him. But in my opinion the most important wish is “growth”: spiritual, emotional and personal. “Growth without good health? How?” I was asked. I don’t know if I am right, but I answered according to what I feel: “If I have remained the same person I was last year, so what purpose is there in my merely surviving?”

“Right, of course one has to go forward. But without good health we are nothing,” was his response, thus expressing the Jewish survivalist approach, common in Israel, which says “The main thing is health.”

“I don’t know what’s better,” I answered. “A healthy person who does not grow spiritually or a sick person who does?”

For some reason he agreed with me, and I understood that I have a short and to-the-point weekly letter for the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana.

And so, I say to you, my dear readers: The coming year is upon us and we are all praying, hoping and wishing others a good, sweet year, a year of good health and joy, a good living and nachas from the children, but everything – everything – will be worth many times more if we do not forget to grow spiritually, emotionally and personally, as well as in every other dimension.

May we be successful!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Do we really know how to forgive?

 Do we really know how to forgive?

Are we really capable of forgiving, of mechilah (absolution) and selichah (forgiveness)?

I am asking in all seriousness – for sometimes I am not sure.

Eighteen years ago I participated in a Shalom Bayit evening for young couples. The main speaker was Rabbi Mendel Gluchovsky shlit”a, the rabbi of the Chabad community in Rechovot, Israel. The speakers, Rabbi Gluchovsky included, spoke at length. But I remember only one thing that I have been thinking about since that evening. The Rabbi spoke about giving in. In marriage one must give in, and forgive. Without that, it won’t work. And what that means is to really give in and forgive.

Someone asked that evening: “What does ‘really’ mean?”

The Rabbi waited a moment, and then answered in his American accent: “There is a way to measure it. If in the next fight or argument that you two have you remind him of how you yielded in the previous fight and say, ‘And then too I gave in’ and the like, that is a sign that you never really yielded – you just repressed and hid your feelings. See – the fact is that in a moment of pain and tension that “giving in” came out of hiding, alive and well.”

Forgiving is something that we ask for and also grant others. I ask for forgiveness from a friend whom I might have hurt and I also forgive a friend who asks me to do so because perhaps he caused me pain.

The month of Elul is called “the month of rachamim (mercy) and forgiveness.” This coming Shabbat is called the “Selichot Shabbat”, because on motzai Shabbat the Ashkenazim start saying Selichot. We turn to Hashem and ask that He grant us forgiveness. This is the time in which we are busy with thoughts of selichah and mechilah. Hashem is omnipotent and I have no questions about him; I am sure that he can forgive. It is not for nothing that as part of the Selichot we quote the verse from Yeshayahu: “If your sins are like scarlet they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become white as wool.”

But ordinary people – are we really capable of forgiving and forgetting or will there always remain something of it inside us, which will awaken every time the subject will come up? And if so, how does one achieve true selichah? Maybe there is even a shortcut…

 

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A guardrail for undue pride

One of the good things that come with age is humility.

I don’t mean the humility in the sense that the word is usually used, which is humility in face of other people. That, actually, does not always come with age, and sometimes the opposite happens. I mean humility in face of the world, in face of the processes that we see, in face of Hashem.

The attribute of pride has earned many condemnations, and in my opinion justly. In this week’s parasha, on the passuk “You shall make a fence for your roof,” the Rebbe says that in terms of a person’s spiritual labors, this means a fence in front of the attribute of pride. If the simple meaning is dealing with the roof of an ordinary house, which needs a guardrail constructed so that no one will fall, when it comes to serving the Creator, the roof symbolizes rising up and feeling proud. And pride, as everyone knows, must have a railing and a fence that will limit it and prevent a person from falling as a result.

Usually, when we speak of pride, we imagine a person looking down his nose on others; perhaps even an arrogant person, who thinks and feels that everybody owes him something and that he is above everybody else. This is true, of course, but that is the easy form of pride. It can be seen clearly, and it is rather simple to know what to fix and how, because it is all out in the open. (By the way, usually we see this in another person and not in ourselves, but that is already a different topic.) The other form of the pride, the pride in face of the world, in face of the processes that take place in this world, which is really a pride in face of Hashem, the Creator of the World and its ruler – that is harder to identify. It’s a slippery attribute; the person doesn’t feel that he’s being arrogant.

For instance, if a person is working on a new project – a business one, or a social one – it is clear to him that if he does everything correctly and according to the book, he can expect that the result will be perfect. But life is not like that – there are always surprises, and then one can see if he is proud or humble. A person who relates to the world with unwarranted pride will get angry, will take it to heart and perhaps even fall into despair: I did everything right, so why isn’t it succeeding? But the humble person, the one who has already learned a thing or two in life, will accept the events with submission, maybe even with a smile, and say: “Well, everything is under Hashgacha Pratit (Divine Providence). I guess it still needs to percolate some more. Maybe there is a need here for a longer “cooking” period. And in general, no one owes me anything. The proud person might be angry, perhaps he will scowl and usually he will give up. The humble will take a deep breath, go off for Mincha and Maariv and start again the next day. Here comes the mitzvah of the guardrail – if you are like a roof, make yourself a guardrail.

So too in serving Hashem. The proud person will despair every time he stumbles and does an aveirah or engages in some forbidden pleasure. The humble person will feel pain, but will continue onward with the knowledge that he wasn’t born a tzaddik and that that’s the way of the world: failing is part of the process of serving Hashem.

The Admor Hazaken writes in Chapter 27 of the Tanya that if someone is saddened by his status and lowly spiritual condition, that means he is a proud person “who does not know his place, and therefore will feel bad that he is not on the level of a tzaddik.” A humble person is a person who knows his place, and someone like that, even if it hurts him that he did an aveirah or fell in some other way, will not fall into sadness and despair, because he knows that that is the way he was created: with a good inclination and a bad one. He knows his place. And the Admor Hazaken writes on in the Tanya that “therefore, a person’s heart should not despair and not feel so bad even if he spends his entire life on this war, because perhaps that is what he was created for, and this is his work.” In my opinion, this is the guardrail that a person should create for himself: not to fall into sadness and despair.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Soul Hunger

You know that sometimes you engage in emotional eating? It usually happens when the heart is suffering from emotional overload, and then we search for chocolate or ice cream, or both of them together, in order to calm down some inner discomfort that we can’t identify. A brave, wise and open person will know to look inward and will see that he has within him some sort of deep emotional hunger and the chocolate and ice cream do indeed help, but only for a short time, a very short time.

One doesn’t always have to fight it; usually the very recognition that it is emotional hunger already influences the internal feeling of fullness favorably. And the main thing is that the person knows that after he finishes the ice cream and the chocolate he has some emotional work to do.

There is also soul hunger. The soul is hungry for some nutrition. There are many ways to feed the soul. One of the easier ones is, simply, food. When a person eats in order to accomplish something positive by the eating itself, he is extracting the G-dly spark that is embedded in the food, and with it he feeds his neshama, his soul. Of course, this is true if the food is kosher. One cannot extract the G-dly spark that sustains non-kosher food by eating it.

When one is choosing food for the soul, it is preferable to choose a plant, a fruit or a vegetable. On the famous pasuk from parashat Shoftim, “For man is a tree of the field,” Chazal say, “This teaches us that a person’s life is only from the tree.” This is puzzling, because we also eat food that comes from animals, preferably medium/medium well, and there are those that I know personally who eat mainly meat.

In Chassidut it is explained that the meaning is not how much and from where man chooses to get his sustenance, but from where will he receive higher quality spiritual food. We have learned that “Not by bread alone does Man live, but by everything that emanates from G-d’s mouth does Man live.” According to Chassidut the meaning is that it is not the bread that is sustaining, but, rather, Hashem’s speech. The G-dly spark in the bread is what sustains you. And since the G-dly spark in the vegetable world, the emanation from G-d’s mouth that sustains the growing plant, comes from a higher root than that which sustains the animal, then vegetarian food feeds the soul better. And when Chazal said that the life of a person comes from the vegetable world, they are saying exactly that – that from the vegetable world he will receive better nutrition. It is superfood for the soul, or, to put it differently: start eating lettuce.

One way or another, a bit like with emotional hunger, the very knowledge and recognition that we are eating in order to satisfy the hunger of the soul is enough to put us in a better place, because then we will relate to everything we put into our mouth as something spiritual, with a goal, and not just another satisfaction of a desire.

 

May we succeed!

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The Path to Wealth

 A Jew of German background heard the rabbi in Schul, on the Shabbat when parashat Re’eh is read, mention the pasuk, Aser te’aser - You shall surely tithe the entire crop of your planting, the produce of the field, year by year.” He listened carefully. The Rabbi brought the wonderful conversation between Rabbi Yochanan and his young nephew, the son of his sister and his friend and famous challenger, Reish Lakish.

Rabbi Yochanan said to his nephew: “Say a pasuk.”

The nephew then quoted the pasuk of “You shall tithe…” and asked his uncle, “What does the expression there, aser te’aser?”

“It means: tithe so that you will get rich (aser bishvil shetitasher),” replied Rabbi Yochanan. In other words, a person who is careful to give his tithes is promised that he will be wealthy.

The young boy didn’t let it go at that (see the beauty of the Gemara, which considers it legitimate for the young nephew to argue with his great uncle, Rabbi Yochanan): “How do you know that?” How do you know that a person who tithes indeed becomes wealthy?

Rabbi Yochanan replied: “Go try it.” Give the tithe and test Hashem.

The nephew still wasn’t satisfied: “Is one allowed to test Hashem?”

Said Rabbi Yochanan: “You are right. Ordinarily one should not test Hashem. But in anything connected to ma’aser, it is permitted.” And he brought, as proof, the pasuk from the Prophet Malachi, where Hashem says, “Test me.” “Bring all the tithes to the storage house… Test me if you will, with this, says Hashem Tzva’ot; see if I do not open up for you the windows of the heavens and pour out upon you blessing without end.”

So, said the Rabbi in his Shabbat sermon, whoever brings tzedaka to the Schul has Hashem’s promise that he will be rich and get back at least ten times what he gave.

On Motzai Shabbat, when the Rabbi was still putting drops of wine into his pocket for mazel and bracha, the Jew knocked on his door, holding an envelope that contained one thousand dollars. When the Rabbi finished counting the money in Yiddish, this Jew said to the Rabbi: “You said this morning that I will get ten times that amount, right? I’m expecting to receive ten thousand dollars in return.” The Rabbi became alarmed and said, “Listen, see, I meant that…” But the man was already out the door, happy with the promise.

For three weeks the man pursued the Rabbi: “You promised me ten times the amount. You said Hashem promises wealth. Where’s the money?” This – for three weeks. Every time the poor Rabbi would see this man in the street he would immediately cross the street or turn around and hide until he was gone.

One day, the Jew chased after the Rabbi. The Rabbi tried to run away, but the Jew caught up with him and said, “Kvod HaRav, listen: Hashem paid me back. Today I made a deal and earned ten times the amount. I wanted to tell you that you were right.” And then he continued in Yiddish: “Hashem’s word is reliable, but he doesn’t quite stick to schedules.”…

I heard this so-Jewish story from my friend, R. Benny Ben Ami z”l, who passed away suddenly around this time of year, two years ago. Whenever Benny had a chance, he would give tzedaka, more than the conventional amounts. He would give happily and with a full heart; and his heart was as wide as his shoulders. His broad grin and his laughter appear in front of my eyes whenever I think of him. I have a feeling that he tells this story in Gan Eden as well.

We are not supposed to observe the mitzvot in order to receive the reward for them, but even if we do so, Hashem’s promise still stands. The Rebbe once wrote on this topic: “In spite of the fact the mitzvahs in general, tzedaka included, should not be done for the reward, but rather because Hashem, the Creator and Master of the World commanded us to do so, still, Hashem promised aser te’aser – that you will become wealthy both materially and spiritually.”

And anyone who is not sure of this is told by Rabbi Yochanan: “Go try it.”

 

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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