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Rabbi's weekly Blog

to respect a thief

 I know, one must be careful not to speak about the more negative aspects of human beings, but since we are standing right before the Shabbat of Parashat Mishpatim, the Parasha where we received the mitzvahs relating to interpersonal relationships and ethics, I thought there is room for some critique.
Facebook is filled with good deeds – chock full. Every minute a new initiative appears – fixing an air-conditioner for a Holocaust survivor, helping a woman whose house burned down, saying Tehillim for someone who is ill etc. etc. But, as mentioned, there are also unpleasant phenomena. And the most prominent ones, in my opinion, are talkbacks that insult the writer personally, instead of relating to what he wrote.
If someone wrote something sarcastic, not nice, even offensive, we can answer him to the point, respond to his words, argue if necessary – but we must not insult the writer personally! And that includes refraining from expressing a “professional” opinion regarding the state of his mental health and “blessing” him vigorously.
In this week’s Parasha, the Torah says that a thief who steals a sheep pays back four times its worth, and one who steals an ox pays back five times its worth. Rashi brings the statement of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, who explains this law thus: “Hashem maintains the dignity of His creations. [For] an ox, who walks on its own and the thief is not degraded by carrying it on his shoulder – the thief pays five times the amount. [For] a sheep, which he carries on his shoulder – he pays four, since he suffered degradation due to it.” In other words, the fact that the thief had to degrade himself and carry the sheep on his shoulder in public lessens his punishment.
But, wait a minute – we’re talking about a thief. Why is Hashem concerned for his dignity? He decided to steal – he should suffer the consequences of his actions!
Friends, he didn’t write a post; he just stole – simply stole something that doesn’t belong to him. And the Torah commands us to maintain his dignity.

The Rebbe explains that this explanation is very appropriate for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, for it is about him that the Gemara says in tractate Brachot; “They said about him, about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, that no person ever managed to greet him before he greeted him first.” If someone is quick to greet any person in the street, that shows that he really and truly respects every person as he is, regardless of his deeds, ethnic origin or religion. It makes sense that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai should be the one to find a way to respect even a thief.

Friends, we have what to learn from him.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The Holy Thief

 A childless couple came to the Rebbe – I don’t know which Rebbe – and asked for a bracha that they would have children. The Rebbe refused to bless them. They came again and again and the Rebbe wouldn’t relent. “Why, Rebbe, why?”

“Listen,” said the Rebbe, “I see with my spiritual powers that if you will have a son he will be a thief. I don’t want to bless you with a child who is a thief.” The future mother shed tears and pleaded: “Bless me, Rebbe. I promise you I will love the child even if he will be a thief. Bless me!”

The Rebbe blessed, the child was born and grew up to be a thief. Already from age four he was emptying pockets and drawers. When he turned twelve, his parents couldn’t stand the shame and the complaints of the townspeople anymore. He stole from everyone, from every place, and everyone suspected him. He knew how to steal better than anyone else before him. They returned to the Rebbe: “Rebbe, we can’t take it anymore. True, we promised we would accept him as he is, but this is getting unbearable.” “Leave your tachshit (wayward child) with me and returned to your home,” said the Rebbe.

A few days passed, and the Rebbe called in the child and said: “Listen, there is an important family that has lost all its money. They are embarrassed to tell others of their difficult situation. They are afraid that it will damage their good name and the matches of their children. I have to give them money without their knowing and without anyone else knowing either. And here’s where you come into the picture. You have the right talents for this task.”

The boy’s eyes lit up – there is none better than him! He sneaked into the family’s house, put the money in the right drawer and left without leaving any tracks. The Rebbe, on his part, kept giving him tasks, and actually turned him, step by step, from a bad thief into a good thief. And the main point was that the child saw that he could use his special nature for the good, for positive things, to do good deeds and chessed.

In this week’s parsha Yitro comes to the desert and says, “Blessed is Hashem.” It says in the Zohar that the Torah wasn’t given until Yitro came and said “Baruch Hashem.” Why did they wait for Yitro? What did Yitro bring that others didn’t?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that in order for the Torah to act on the whole world, both the good and the bad, for and against, it was necessary that a person who was the priest of Midian should come – someone who had worshipped every type of false god and was deeply familiar with all of them. Then he comes and says: “I have seen everything. I have gotten to know them all, and I am coming to you this day and telling you: “Blessed is Hashem of all the gods.”

Because the height of influence is when one sees the good in the bad, when one is able to select the good from the bad, and make it holy.

The priest of Midian did it his way. The Rebbe in the story did it with the boy who was a thief.

That is the novelty of the Giving of the Torah. This is also the power we were given together with the Torah. And when we see something bad and negative, we must remember that within it there has to be some good that is worthwhile extricating and elevating.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

I Saw Live Fish

 Yesterday afternoon I landed in Kennedy Airport. The process of getting out of the terminal was unusually long, because exactly then a flight from China (and Corona-land) had landed. I arrived at the Ohel (the gravesite) of the Rebbe very close to sunset. I wanted to go in before sunset on that Wednesday, but then I saw the extremely long line, all the way to Francis Lewis Boulevard, a line that had started to form 24 hours before then.

That was the 10th of Shvat, and we were noting 70 years since the Rebbe became the head of Chabad. Thousands from all over the world had come here for one day or more in order to be with the Rebbe on this day. They were standing there with me, all of them with books in hand, all of them with white, closely-written pages in their hands. All those pages began with the letters peh and nun, the first letters of the expression pidyon nefesh (literally: soul redemption; a prayer accompanied by a donation).

I don’t know what they wrote in their pidyon nefesh, I don’t know what they were requesting and what they were reporting. But one thing is clear to me: All of them, with no exceptions, wrote to the Rebbe that they were there in order to continue forward, to act more than they had acted until now, either inwardly or outwardly towards the world – but forward.

Because if there is something that the Lubavitcher Rebbe always says and demands it is to go forward, to do more, not to stop, not to rest, not to relax – just to continue walking.

Even then, a moment after he became the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe did not give his new flock of chassidim a moment to breathe. Rather, he said immediately: “Now listen, Jews! In Chabad in general there was a demand that each and every person should labor on his own, and not depend on the Rebbes.”

Live fish swim against the current. Yesterday I saw thousands of live fish.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

I Was In Darkness Too

Many times I have gone through the plague of darkness.

Some people might say that everyone experiences various periods of darkness. Usually they mean physical and material darkness – poverty, or, G-d forbid, a loss, grief; illness or pain.

In my mind that is not the definition of darkness; rather, that situation has much light. Because when a person sees and is aware of the low place he is in, then he is experiencing light. He sees. While he is coping with difficulties and pain, his eyes are open to the darkness, so he has light. Like the Jewish people who indeed were still slaves of Pharaoh, not free, but the Torah says about them that they “had light in their dwellings.” Because they saw and understood their situation, and when a person understands and knows his situation, even if it is miserable and painful, then this is light and not darkness.

Darkness is when we are in a life situation and don’t even know that it is darkness, don’t even know that there is such a thing as light, and therefore, of course do not dream that it is possible to go from the darkness to light.

Often I encounter a person who tells me about his marriage, or about how he handles life and I, looking on from the side (and it’s so easy to look on from the side…) am instantly aware of the darkness he’s in, and I understand that he is experiencing a “plague of darkness” and doesn’t even see that he’s in the dark. For if he would see the darkness he’s in he would not be willing to tolerate it. He would not be willing to receive crumbs instead of a loaf of bread. Right now, he thinks he is feeling great, but that is only because the darkness is preventing him from realizing that there is a loaf of bread here, and he is receiving only crumbs from it.

It is the same with our spiritual lives. Almost every Chabadnik can point to one particular hitva’adut in which he woke up and saw for the first time that he is in darkness. Sometimes it is just one single sentence that the Rabbi or the teacher said in that hitva’adut that awakened him.

There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, but that is already the second or third stage. The first stage is to have “light in one’s dwelling” – to know that one is indeed still in Egypt, subject to Pharaoh, but there is a light shining that says, “Hello, you are living in darkness.” And then, I am sure that a healthy person will not rest until he achieves freedom and live in light.

 

Good luck!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Aharon’s Staff

Every public person finds himself in a situation where he must speak harshly to someone. And not only public personalities: almost every person who is in contact with other people (namely, most of us), and especially teachers and parents, face this dilemma.

These days there is a lot of talk about “unconditional love”. And it is true: we must love our children unconditionally. And not only must we love them, but we must also express that love. But the problem is that sometimes one must also rebuke. Sometimes one is supposed to use the maxim of smol dochah veyamin mekarevet – the left hand should push away and the right hand should draw near. How does one do that correctly? Does it contradict the idea of unconditional love?

The Rebbe brings from the parasha, parashat Va’era, a two word concept, which defines and explains things at the same time: Aharon’s staff.

Aharon Hacohen is a symbol of love; he loved peace and pursued it, loved people and brought them closer to Torah. It is not for nothing that the entire Jewish People mourned him for thirty days after his death. Rashi elaborates: “The entire Jewish People. The men and the women, because Aharon pursued peace and brought about love.”

But Aharon also had a staff. A staff symbolizes a difficulty, or a blow, and Aharon knew to use it as well when there was a need to be firm. But this was Aharon’s staff: a staff of love, hardness, and firmness of love.

Said the Rebbe in Likutei Sichot 26: when one is dealing with another Jew, the way to go is “the right draws near”, out of love for the Jewish people, as was the custom of Aharon Hacohen, who “loved peace and pursued it, loved people and brought them closer to Torah.” As the Ba’al Hatanya writes, the correct way is to use “ropes of love”.

But sometimes there is no choice. As an educator, a public personality or a parent you understand that the only way to act right now is to strike “verbal blows”. And then one should remember that the staff should be Aharon’s staff. It has to come from a place of true love. Only that way can one rebuke another; only that way can the rebuke really have an effect.

May we remember this at moments of anger and frustration.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Dvora’s Grandmother

This time I want to tell you about a woman who passed away this week: Mrs. Tzippora Barkhan, zichrona livracha, my wife’s grandmother and my children’s great-grandmother. We are in the habit of extolling the special people, the dreamers who have made their dreams come true, those who have unusual aspirations that they actually implement, the successful entrepreneurs.

But not today.

Today I want to tell you about a chassidic woman, who was born to an illustrious Chabad family in one of the centers of Chabad Chassidism and was raised there: the city Kremenchug in the Ukraine. She met her future husband in Samarkand during the war and afterwards lived in Riga, Latvia, until coming on Aliyah in 5729 (1969).

She was a simple and honest woman whose wishes were “only” that her children would be chassidim and G-d fearing. Her husband, the famous Rabbi Notke Barkhan and his friends kept the embers of Riga’s Judaism alive devotedly during the terrible years of Stalin’s terror regime. But not she – all she did was establish and maintain a strong Jewish and chassidic home – simply, without Messirut Nefesh, just with the plain knowledge that this is the only way.

For twenty years they lived in the Holy Land after years of waiting and hoping to be redeemed and to leave the Soviet nightmare, and were an inseparable part of the Chabad community in Lod. In 5749 (1989), only two years after the Soviet Union crumbled as part of Gorbachev’s Perestroika, she left with her husband to become the Rebbe’s emissaries in Riga, Latvia. She was sixty-three years old at the time. Her children had their own families in Israel, and she packed up her life and went back to the “nightmare” she had left just twenty years earlier. If you would have asked her, she would have said that here too there was no self-sacrificing in her deeds – it was just the way to go, and she’s a Chabadnik who does what has to be done, what the Rebbe requests.

She was so simple and standard that in every meeting with her grandchildren she asked them mainly about how they were making a living. She asked that they buy themselves apartments, because every person needs an apartment and financial security, because one must work and one needs money.

Tzippora Barkhan passed away at the venerable age of 94, with more than one hundred and thirty descendants mourning her. She merited to see her “standard” wishes come true. All her descendants are chassidim and G-d fearing Jews and this is a blessing, of course, and a merit that is not to be taken for granted, certainly not then, in Soviet Russia. And between us, not today either. And yes, she lived to see that they are all working and earning a nice living, and that too is not an insignificant thing.

May we all merit such a life!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Yes You Can

The Creator of the World arranged things so that every week I spend quite a few hours on the phone with people who are at a crossroads in their lives, or are undergoing some crisis or other. Some of them are rabbis or shluchim who are encountering a challenge in their public lives and some are just ordinary people trying to cope with the challenges of life, like all of us.

It doesn’t matter if the challenge relates to the public, or to a single person, parenthood, marital life or coping with a disease; the most significant move on my part is to bring the person to the recognition that there is a way out from the situation he is in, and that the key to that is in his own pocket. It is not easy, and it has to be based on the firm faith in Divine Providence that leads a person on a path that is uniquely his. But one thing I know for sure: From the moment a person reaches the conclusion that there is some way out and that he is capable of changing his fate, both his present and his future, then the door has begun to open and one can begin to walk on, usually very slowly. Sometimes these are almost invisible steps, but they are steps indeed.

The sons of Yaakov in general and Yosef in particular are the poster boys and the model for anyone who is facing challenges and crises, ups and downs. Almost everyone coping with something (and who isn’t?) can find a meeting point between Yosef’s story and his own life and identify with him.

There is much to learn from Yosef’s life, from the moment he lost his mother and on to his relationship with his brothers, his being taken to Egypt under painful circumstances, his rising to a position of royalty and his facing his brothers again. The firm belief that “It is not you who have sent me here but, rather, G-d” seems to have been the central theme of his life.

But there is something more: Before his death, Yosef used the phrase “pakod yifkod” (Hashem will indeed remember you); it was actually a code that he was giving them, a code that would one day be used by the person who will redeem them. ”I am about to die, but G-d will surely remember you and bring you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Avraham to Yitzchak and to Yaakov.” And, indeed, when Moshe came to redeem them he spoke that phrase – pakod yifkod, and when he came to take Yosef’s coffin out of Egypt, he said once again, “for he (Yosef) had firmly adjured Bnei Yisrael, saying, G-d will pakod yifkod – surely remember you.”

I hear in this code a message that Yosef was giving, saying, there is a clear goal in your coming down to Egypt, and I am handing you the code of redemption. Why was it important to him that they know there is such a code? Because the very fact of knowing that we have a way out is so powerful, that it has the strength to make us proceed with our heads held high even in the moments of difficulty, and in that way we can change our situation in the present as well.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A miracle or a test?

A few weeks ago I asked Hashem for something very pertinent to my life. Based on what I was taught long ago, I was willing to give something as well. In other words, I knew that in order to request a blessing from Hashem in some important issue, I must give something important and pertinent well. I am not talking about money; I am talking about a good and influential resolution that effects my daily functioning. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to break a habit.

And so, I stood in the Rebbe’s ohel, asked and promised to give something not so easy in return.

But then I noticed something interesting, even fascinating. From the moment I made the resolution, I began to run into barriers and obstacles, known in Chassidic circles as “meni’ot ve’ikkuvim” – things preventing or delaying the keeping of this resolution. I told my wife about my resolution, so that I would have her support, and together we saw, time after time, how I would run into difficulties and barriers. The feeling was as if I was facing a strong force that had a special interest in preventing me from fulfilling my promise.

My request was not for something medical or financial, and I didn’t promise anything of the sort either. I asked for something spiritual, and my resolution also related to spiritual matters, or something that influences my spiritual growth. The “difficulties and barriers”, what we call nisyonot – trials – were mainly in the realm of bein adam lamakom – matters between me and Hashem.

I almost gave up. But, fortunately, for several weeks I have been studying the Chassidic essay “To those that fear You, you gave a banner (nes)to be raised high”, which the Rebbe taught in 5736 (1976) a few months before I was born.

The entire essay deals with the trials and tests that come upon man during his life. It delves, step by step, into the depths of the human being’s nature on one hand, and into the types of tests on the other. The Rebbe speaks about tests that are seemingly real, and about those whose source is in our thoughts and imagination. He also suggests approaches regarding how to cope with what one encounters. Not everything in the essay is easy; not everything is immediately understood and internalized. Most of the time, it is worthwhile to study the words again and again, but in the end, if one is coming from a truthful approach, the ideas penetrate and influence one, and become a source of internal strength when facing the difficulties and barriers.

The essay teaches not only ways to cope; primarily, it lets us understand that the tests that we are given are actually gifts, as David Hamelech said, “you gave your fearers a nes” – meaning a nisayon – a test. Later on in the essay he connects to it the next passuk in Tehillim, “So that Your loved ones be released”. In other words, if you will understand correctly the gift that is embedded in the test, you will reach the level of being “released” – you will extricate yourself from your current situation and be able to grow more, taller, and move on to the next stage.

This week, Baruch Hashem, I got through the challenging test, and when I danced in front of the Chanukah candles and sang “about your miracles (nissim), and wonders and salvations” I suddenly understood these words differently. “About your nissim” – meaning the nisyonot – the tests You gave us; it is they that advance us and elevate us one more step in our inner service, and with Hashem’s help we will merit salvations, “so that Your loved ones be released.”

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski


We live on a mountain slope

Sometimes I feel that the hardest part in my personal work, in working on myself and growing personally and spiritually, is the natural demand to continue to go up.

Sometimes, when we are at the bottom of a hole in the ground, and we climb, and climb, and climb further, we get a feeling of accomplishment, especially when we look back and see where we were and where we are now. A wonderful feeling of satisfaction. But then, we glance ahead, and we know that we still have a way to go, and often this is a very difficult moment. One would like to sit still for a bit, rest up in peace. But no – life in general and spiritual life in particular demand that we move forward.

We are living in a time when everyone wants to move forward. The world is full of coaches and trainers in every realm. It seems that all types of trainers have work, and that is a good sign – a sign that all of us want to become better – at work, or in our marriages, perhaps in our personal lives or in our social connections, and above all, in the spiritual work of Torah and mitzvot.

Whoever has already worked on himself, certainly recognizes that moment in which he understands that he must climb another rung, but he lacks the strength for it. The head understands that one needs to advance, but the heart just wants a bit of quiet time.

On the passuk in parashat Vayeshev, where Tamar is told “And it was told to Tamar, saying, behold, your father-in-law is coming up to Timna,” Rashi is puzzled by the use of the expression “coming up” in relation to the city of Timna, and brings a quote from Shoftim about Shimshon Hagibor that indicates that one would go down to that city, as it says “And Shimshon went down to Timna”. As a result, Rashi determines that the city of Timna was situated “on the slope of a hill – from one side one went up to it, and on the other side one went down to it.” Because when a city is built on a mountain slope, those who live there know that there are only two possibilities to reach it or even to walk within it: either go up or go down. One cannot just walk straight. Jerusalemites know what I’m talking about.

In the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, after his wonderful rational explanations of Rashi, there is a section called “The Wine of Torah”, the secrets, and in it he explains each matter according to the Chassidic teachings. And so, in Likutei Sichot, part 10, after explaining Rashi, the Rebbe brings the “wine” that reveals secrets and explains that really all of us live in Timna; all of us live all the time on a mountain slope, so we have only two choices: to go up or to go down. There is no middle option.

I try to remember this whenever it is demanded from me to climb one more rung in the ladder of personal growth, and I am lacking the strength for it; my heart wants to stay in place. But then I am reminded that I am walking on a mountain slope, and if I don’t go up, I will go down.

This connects to Chanukah as well – of course! On Chanukah we light the candles according to the opinion of Beit Hillel, adding one every day. We are not satisfied with the number of candles we lit last night, so every day we add another. We increase kedusha – we don’t decrease it.

Shabbat Shalom, and a Happy Chanukah, filled with light!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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

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