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Rabbi's weekly Blog

The name of the game

 A few weeks ago, a yeshiva boy called me up to consult with me. He is happy in the yeshiva, and he is learning quite well, but every once in a while he has days when he feels that he is not really connected to the yeshiva and to what it has to offer. Sometimes the learning and the davening really touch his soul and he feels that they are part of him, and sometimes this feeling disappears. He continues to learn and to daven, but he does it on automatic drive. Even during a hitva’adut, which naturally tends to connect, he sometimes feels a part of it and sometimes he just sits and waits for it to be over.

“Please advise me how to cope with this,” he requested.

“I have no advice for you,” I replied, “but I have a prophecy. This challenge of good days and days that are not so good is going to be part of your life till 120, be’ezrat Hashem in good health. Try not to get confused by it. Go forward knowing that there will always be ups and downs. For more than forty years I have been coping more or less with what you describe. That is the way we were created, and that is the name of the game.”

I didn’t have a quote for him at that moment, but this week I saw something that the Rebbe said on Shabbat Bereishit (the Shabbat when we read parashat Bereishit), 5742 (1981): “What is to be learned from the general story about the sin of the Tree of Knowledge is that the general work of man is that he has a yetzer hara  (evil inclination), and his job is not to be cowed by it; on the contrary, he should vanquish it. Of course, the work of battling the yetzer hara is a greater and more sublime work than working in a situation where there is no need to battle the yetzer hara.”

Shabbat Bereishit marks the end of the month of holidays, a month of spiritual elevation, when we detach somewhat from this material world. Practically, too, the many holidays keep us busy with davening and festive meals. The content and essence of the Yamim Noraim and the holidays also raise us up to great heights. Shabbat Bereishit is the bridge between this month full of spiritual abundance and the colorless winter routine, especially since Shabbat Bereishit is always the Shabbat on which we say Birkat Hachodesh for the month of Cheshvan, the month that symbolizes that routine. It seems that the Rebbe said what he said at the hitvaadut as preparation for the descent from the holidays. For a full month he had been raising them to heights, holiday after holiday, hitvaadut following hitvaadut – and then the climax of Simchat Torah, of course. He was now telling them: Friends, prepare yourselves. The next battle of perfecting your character in particular and serving Hashem in general is just around the corner. For, just like Adam Harishon, we have inclinations. Like him, we too have challenges and problems to cope with. Our job is not to be cowed by them.

There was only one thing that I asked the young man to do, at the end of our conversation: “Do yourself a favor. Do not define yourself by these negative feelings. Do not tell yourself: I don’t belong, I am not connected, I am not worthy. This is simply not true and therefore you would not be fair to yourself if you said this. Do tell yourself: I am a good Jew with a yetzer tov and a yetzer ra. I am a yeshiva student, a chassid, true to my purpose and a Torah Jew even on those days when my inner struggle feels a bit too much for me.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The Krakow gangster

Max Redlich was Krakow’s Jewish gangster at the end of the 1930’s.

Max Redlich almost never went into a shul – neither he nor his cohorts – but on Monday, the 22nd of Kislev 5700, December 4th, 1939 he did go in; an Einsatzgruppen unit forced him to enter the old Stara Bozhnitza synagogue.

 

They didn’t meet him by chance. They had singled him out, precisely because he was the Krakow Jewish gangster.

 

They gathered in that shul a group of religious Jews who prayed there regularly, together with a group of Jews who were not synagogue goers as a rule. With their bloodstained hands they opened the holy ark, removed a Sefer Torah from it, and ordered everyone to walk by it and spit on it – not on the mantel or the gartel, but directly on the holy letters of the Torah, inked on the parchment. I have no way to comprehend the pleasure those German beasts received from watching the Jews being humiliated this way.

 

There was no way to avoid it. The spittle was supposed to land clearly on the parchment.

 

Jews going by the holy ark in a line – that was a familiar scene from the hakafot of Simchat Torah. But the hakafot of the Einzatzgruppen… Oy.

 

 As mentioned, they had no choice. The strictly religious and those that weren’t – one by one they went by and spit, brokenhearted, on the Sefer Torah. All of them – except for Max Redlich. He refused to spit.

 

The Krakow gangster faced the Nazis and, with his head held high, said, “I have done many things, but this I will not do.”

 

He was the first to be killed, and after that they killed all the others and set fire to the shul.

 

Max Redlich is my hero on Simchat Torah. He proved that the Sefer Torah belongs to him no less than to any other Jew, and, when the moment of truth came, even more than to any other Jew.

 

The holy gangster of Krakow is looking at the whites of our eyes and saying, with his head held high: The Torah belongs to all of us. It doesn’t matter what you are called by people and what you do every day; the Torah is yours. This book belongs to all of us.

 

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The Menorah on the Roof of My Volvo

At the time, I had an old Volvo station-wagon, to which I attached a large menorah that I had managed to get in Israel and had had transported, with much effort and expense on my part.

It was my second year in Basel, and I saw this menorah as being a significant accomplishment. And so, I parked my Volvo next to the shul and went in to daven Shacharit, happy and excited.

But then, a Jew some thirty years older than me approached me, looking angry, with a readymade speech, which he delivered in direct and rapid German: “I don’t like the menorah on your car. It is not suitable here. I do not think it encourages respect towards Judaism.”

I was rather naïve; I knew that there were those who object to my activities, but I didn’t think that a menorah on a car, emblazoned with “Happy Chanukah” greetings, would create problems.

To tell the truth, the situation was not easy for me. It is no fun to be criticized, certainly not in such a vociferous way, and that after all my efforts. At first, I thought to answer the man with equally vehement words, but Hashem helped me and I stopped, took a deep breath, looked in his eyes and said: “Just look: you oppose it adamantly, and I am fully in favor of it. You don’t like the menorah on the car, and I am very happy and love it. And yet, we are still friends, divided in our opinions, but loving each other in our hearts.”

I still remember the surprised look he gave me. He was ready with a suitable response to the reaction he thought he was going to get, but now he was left open-mouthed. And then, with a broad smile, he said: “I wish you good health, young Rabbi. What is going to be with you? We can’t even fight anymore, like Jews.”

Why am I telling you a Chanukah story on the day before Succot?

Because Succot is the holiday of unity.

The festival of Succot is the festival during which we unite four different – and even diametrically opposed – species and make a blessing on them. Moreover, halachically, we cannot make that blessing without tying all four together.

In three words, all that we are asked is to maintain “Unity, not uniformity.”

We are not required to be uniform; but we are definitely required to live in peace and quiet, in love and interpersonal unity.

Sometimes it seems to me that we are becoming more and more narrow in our opinions, without being able to contain any other opinion or thought, and certainly not a diametrically opposed one. But that is not the truth.

The truth is, that we are much better than that. We can certainly accede to this demand that the holiday of Succot makes of us, and remain friends, in spite of the differences of opinion among us.

This is the time to bring out this light, to enable ourselves to hear a different opinion and to listen to it with love.

Unity, not uniformity.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

the Polish Jews

The writer Yair Garbuz once wrote ironically that the Polish Jews don’t believe in G-d but are mortally afraid of him. I’ve already mentioned once before that my grandfather used to say that in every joke there is some joke. So I look at myself and ask: Am I a bit like the Jews in that joke?

No, I am not Polish, and I am definitely a believing Jew, but when Yom Kippur comes, am I motivated by fear, or perhaps even mortal fear?

Why are we so anxious when Yom Kippur approaches?

When we prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur, when we go to pray like angels, dressed in white and fasting – what do we want to achieve?

Of course, we want to be written and sealed for a good life, but is this all we will ask for?

Of course, we beg that we will receive good decrees, but will we be satisfied with merely continuing to have a good life?

Of course, this year we are emphasizing the prayer of “Prevent a plague”, but is that all? Is that all we will ask for? Prevent a plague so that we will be able to once again get on an airplane without wearing masks?

If the answer is yes, then we are a bit like those in Garbuz’s joke.

I think I have my own answer, but it’s mine. I invite you, my dear friends and readers, to find your own answers to the question of what do we want to achieve on Yom Kippur.

We are in the Ten Days of Repentance. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Tshuva (meaning “return,” but also “answer”) as well, so perhaps we will find the answer to this question, too.

 

From a loving heart, I bless everyone with Gmar Chatima Tova, with visible and revealed good.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Getting personal

 

This time, I’m going to tell you some personal things, a bit of my inner life.

For almost thirty years, on the days before Rosh Hashana – and when I was still single, on Rosh Hashana itself – I was by the Rebbe. I was 17 years old when the Rebbe passed away, so for most of these years, “being by the Rebbe” meant being near his grave in the Ohel and in his beit midrash, known as 770. But essentially the two mean the same thing.

As the head of a Chabad House, the days before Tishrei with all its holidays are some of the busiest days of the year. But the fact is, that not a year has gone by when I haven’t found myself by the Rebbe, usually on the Shabbat before Selichot. And when I couldn’t get away for Shabbat, I would come just for one day, and sometimes even for a few hours. That’s the way it is: A new year is about to begin; I am the head of a family, the father of children, so this is the time and the place for me to stand and beseech, to plead for myself and for those who sent me, for a good, healthy year, a good parnasa (living) and a pure Jewish life.

The corona has forced us to change our habits. Much of what we were used to do, we don’t do anymore. Small weddings, Zoom bar-mitzvahs, virtual classes etc. I accept all of this with love, and even quite easily, but that was up to the pre-Rosh Hashana trip to the Rebbe. I find it very hard to accept not being able to go.

I find myself missing the experience rather frequently and singing “Tiku bachodesh” under my breath.

Tiku bachodesh” is a niggun that tells the story of a simple chassid who returned to his village after being by the Rebbe for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, somewhere in the Ukraine. He was a simple person when it came to his knowledge and intelligence, but a fierce Lubavitch fire burned in his heart. When they would be sitting together with some schnapps a bit of pickle, his friends would ask him: “Nu, tell us – what happened by the Rebbe? Tell us over a ma’mar in chassidut, or a few words of Torah or a speech the Rebbe gave.” But the Chassid had nothing to say. Not only did he not understand what the Rebbe had said, but he barely heard anything in the crush in the Rebbe’s beit midrash.

This might have hurt; perhaps it bothered him; but that was not the main thing.

The main thing was that he had been by the Rebbe. It was as if his soul had been refueled with all the spiritual energy it needed to continue on, to get through the next year. While they were trying to get him to say something, he began to sing a sad niggun, a niggun that tells of the trip and the arrival, the joy and the pain, the bitterness and the yearning – a niggun that speaks of the connection between a Rebbe and a chassid. There are six words in the niggun, six words that are the first words of the three deep and profound ma’amarim that the Rebbe had said during the High Holy Days: “Tiku bachodesh”, “Bachodesh hashvi’i”, and “Shuva Yisrael.” He did not understand the content of the ma’amarim, but he definitely grasped their essence, and he expressed it in the niggun of “Tiku bachodesh, Bachodes Hashvi’i, Shuva Yisrael.”

There is no consolation in the niggun, but there is a feeling of connection – and that has worth too.

For those of you who would like to experience the niggun, here it is, in the pure voice of my son Natan. click here

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Independence

 Before last Pesach I was very troubled by the fact that we wouldn’t be able to make a Pesach Seder for our community like we do every year. The Pesach Seder is a special evening. My family and I devote much thought every year to making sure that whoever sits with us at the Seder will feel comfortable, benefit from everything that a Leil Seder can give, and yes, that the special Pesach food will taste good! I always knew, more or less, who was coming, and when they would come (Friends, I even know who comes late and how late). I know who likes to sit next to whom. I know our beloved community, and here we are, with no Pesach Seder in the Chabad House. What will be? How will people celebrate the holiday by themselves? I was worried.

But it seems that reality triumphs and most people simply “celebrated independence” and ran their own Pesach Seder. People joined a Zoom of a model Seder, learned through YouTube or the Internet site of Chabad how and what, and made a kosher, pleasant and happy Seder. I’m sure the food tasted good, too.

I was embarrassed that apparently I didn’t have enough confidence in people that they will know to run their Jewish life by themselves, but the Corona proved differently. The Corona forced all of us to take upon ourselves the responsibility, and I learned to give the members of the community more credit.

Now that Rosh Hashana is approaching, I am much calmer. The meal of Rosh Hashana night is the meal that is most attended in the Chabad House in Basel – every chair is taken. I know how important this evening is to all of us, but this year we will not be able to have that joint meal in order not to endanger anybody. The prayers will be arranged so that people will sit in keeping with the Corona regulations, but the meal – not.

At the end of this week’s parasha, the parasha of Ki Tavo, Moshe Rabbeinu grants the entire nation independence. Moshe describes concisely how until now Hashem did everything for them: took them out of Egypt and fought their wars for them, and he even goes into detail about how Hashem took care of them in the desert, clothes and shoes included: “I walked you for forty years in the desert, your garments didn’t wear out, and your shoes did not wear out”. And, finally, like a mother sending a child away from home, he asks the People to be responsible and take care of themselves: “You shall observe the words of this covenant, so that you will succeed in all that you do.”

It seems that Hashem is asking something similar to this during these Corona times: Use all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained over the years, and do it yourselves.

In any case, it is much easier to purchase honey, an apple, a pomegranate, a date and even a fish-head than to kasher the house for Pesach. So if we managed on Seder night, I am sure that we will manage on Rosh Hashana as well.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A Kingdom of Gevura

I sat there, in the room for problematic travelers near the Border Control of the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, like a defendant in the dock.

 

It was last Wednesday, 7:00 am. I wasn't alone there. My son, Natan, was with me. We were on our way to the Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch Yeshiva. Natan was supposed to start his studies there and thereby fulfill what the Mishnah says, "Exile yourself to a place of Torah."

 

Like all good Swiss residents, we had checked everything ahead of time. We had gone over all the rules and regulations; we had spoken over the phone with the people at the Russian Embassy in Switzerland and gone over all the details with them, and only then did we set out on the long journey.

 

The journey is indeed long these days, because in this time of turmoil there are no direct flights from Switzerland to Russia during the week. We had a stopover in Turkey, spent half a night in the Antalya airport, and finally reached Russia.

 

The Russian official was very nice. He spoke broken English, and smiled a lot. "Big problem," he said. Somewhere there was a problem that was preventing us from entering the country. I tried to talk, to smile, to ask; I even called up my lineage. I told him that my father was born here, and that my great-grandfather was the rabbi of the Marina Roscha Synagogue until the War. But only a Western boy like me would think that such words would have any influence whatsoever on a Russian border official.

 

We were sent back on the next flight to Antalya.

 

"The Rebbe said about America that it is a 'kingdom of chessed (kindness)," said my brother-in-law. "Russia, on the other hand, is a 'kingdom of gevura (strictness)". In a kingdom of chessed  there are logic, explanations. It relates to what you have to say; someone listens to you. In a kingdom of gevura, there are no such things. That's the way things are, period.

 

Dear friends,

 

If I may be open with you, I will tell you that I had a pretty difficult experience. In addition to the difficult journey and the money that was wasted, I was simply insulted. I felt helpless. I was forced to accept the verdict as is, without my being able to argue or at least to receive some kind of explanation. The truth is, such feelings were enough to make me fall apart, but apparently the education instilled in me by my parents and teachers was stronger than all those feelings, and the belief in Divine Providence and in the passuk "A man's steps are from Hashem," were enough to calm me down and enable us to accept everything with love and keep on smiling.

 

There is not much of a message in my letter today. There is, though, a deep expression of thanks to my grandfathers and grandmothers, and, of course, to my dear parents, who apparently managed somehow to instill in my very being the simple faith in Divine Providence and the good old Jewish way that tells you to accept everything with love, and that Hashem will always pay up.

 

There is also a request and a prayer that I, too, will be able to continue and pass on to my own children this simple faith.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The king on the balcony

 We have been living in our present apartment for more than a decade. All that time, there has been a long and narrow balcony running along the northern part of the apartment. For more than a decade we have barely used it. We considered it ugly and impractical. But then the Corona came and we were shut up in the house and the porch became necessary as a place where we could be outside and breathe some fresh air. Only then did we realize the fact that we actually have a balcony – a bit narrow, not so comfortable and maybe not pretty enough, but a balcony, nevertheless. So one fine day we went to Ikea and bought some artificial grass, an outdoor table and chairs and a chaise longue, and there we were, with a useful and comfortable porch, pleasant and bright, and used almost daily.

So, for ten years we had a balcony and didn’t know it.

Why am I belaboring you with a story about a balcony and artificial grass?

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul. Like every chassid, I have learned and taught, since the previous Shabbat, about the month of Elul, about the light and the special Divine abundance that shines on the world during these days, about the powerful revelation that will be manifested in the world on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

We learned about the King being out in the field – how, during Ellul, Hashem is like a king who has gone out to the field to meet his subjects and greet each and every one of them with a smile. All we have to do is come close to him and accept what He gives us, and thereby prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana, when the King will once again be seated in His royal hall.

This parable of the Admor Hazaken (the first Chabad Rebbe) is touching and wonderful, but I find myself thinking: Okay, but where does all this light touch me? Where do I feel it? Is there any other meaning to it, beyond the fact that the Admor Hazaken wrote so?

And then I remembered our porch. I remembered how it was here all this time, but we didn’t know how to experience it or enjoy it until the Corona forced us to open our eyes – literally – and our minds as well, to recognize that it exists, and as a second stage, to buy grass and a table so that we can feel, experience and enjoy this wonderful abundance known as a balcony.

Have you understood this?

This brightness that lights up the world during the month of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im – the High Holy Days – is like a porch. It’s there all the time, but for some reason we ignore it. We don’t open our eyes and hearts to see that it exists. The first step is to know to open one’s eyes, one’s heart and one’s mind.

The second stage is to prepare and organize a place within us where we can welcome this light and abundance of the “king in the field”. Yes, like the artificial grass and the Ikea table. How? When a person approaches prayer seriously and solemnly, at that moment he is enabling the King to visit him, because the feeling of wanting to improve and be close that accompanies the more solemn prayers, is in itself a visit from the King. So too with teshuva (repentance) and tzedaka (charity); when I examine my deeds and want to correct them, so the approach and the willingness to do more is the warmth of the King Who is nearby. The more we do these things, the more we experience them, feel them – the more we will be in that place. Oh, I forgot to tell you that we also bought a gas grill for the porch. Because when there is a will and willingness, one can extract much more from one’s resources than one ever thought possible.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Sir Moses Montefiore of our generation

 Sami Rohr z”l used to say that when he was an industrialist in Bogota in the 1960’s, meshulachim would often come there from Israel to raise money. His friends, all of whom were Holocaust survivors like himself who had rebuilt their lives in Colombia, would complain: “Who are all these rabbis who come here every day to ask for money?”

At this point in the story Sami would smile – he was a Galician Jew who remembered regimes that persecuted Jews by taxing them unfairly: “I used to say to them: I prefer that a hundred rabbis should come here, and not one person from income tax.” In Yiddish it sounds better: “Mir iz lieber hundert rabbonim, vi einer von der steier.

Parashat Re’eh, which we will read tomorrow, is the parasha where the mitzvahs of tzedakah are mentioned, the mitzvahs of giving: ma’aser (tithes), providing for a Jewish slave when he completes his six years of bondage, opening one’s hand and heart to the poor. All of these are discussed at length, and always using a double verb: Aser te’aser (You shall surely tithe), pato’ach tiftach (You shall surely open [your hand]), naton titen, ha’anek ta’anik. It is clear that in this parasha the Torah is asking us repeatedly to open our hearts and hands, and, as Rashi says about naton titen (“You shall surely give”): even one hundred times.

The story I told about Sami Rohr z”l is not just a joke or a witticism. Sami Rohr really behaved that way. I think Sami Rohr was the Sir Moses Montefiore of our generation. Wherever you go in the world, in almost every community his name appears somewhere – on a building, or on a parochet (curtain on the Torah ark), on siddurs and chumashim or on an institute devoted to Torah learning. Because when he learned the psukim “You shall surely open” and “You shall surely give”, he understood them simply: even one hundred times. Literally.

Many people give tzedakah, but not everyone has the merit of being called a ba’al tzedakah.

A ba’al tzedakah is a person whose essence is giving tzedakah. There are those who give tzedakah to things that speak to them. One gives mainly to soup kitchens; another mainly to yeshivas; one likes to give mainly to hospitals, and his fellow gives mainly to organizations that assist people in distress. A ba’al tzedakah gives to everyone. He is simply everywhere.

By the way, one doesn’t have to be a millionaire in order to observe the mitzvahs of “You shall surely open your hand” and “you shall surely give.” These days, people are always asking us to participate in somecrowdfunding or another. Each person has his own personal “favorite”; not every case do we find interesting or touching. But if we remember “You shall surely open your hand” and “You shall surely give”, we will make the effort to participate in the crowdfunding, even when it is not necessarily our favorite charity.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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

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