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Rabbi's weekly Blog

What are the Ten Commandments all about?

If you were asked to give a one-word definition of what the Ten Commandments are about, what would you say?

This week, I spoke with a young man who said: “I know that this week we will be reading the Ten Commandments. I know they are considered very important. The whole world, and certainly the Jewish People, consider the giving of the Ten Commandments to be the moment of Hashem’s revelation to the Jewish people. I also know that on Shabbat, when we will read the Torah, you will bang on the bimah, and everyone will understand that they are supposed to stand in honor of the reading of the Ten Commandments. But how does this influence my life today?

“I believe in Hashem, I don’t make idols, I keep Shabbat, respect my parents, don’t murder or steal, don’t covet either. I am, after all, a normative person. What are they, then, for me today? So I have to improve here and there? Okay. Upgrade my acquaintance with the laws of Shabbat, improve in honoring my parents, make more of an effort not to covet? Okay. But is that all?”

In response, like any good Jew, I asked him the question above: If you were asked to give a one-word definition of what the Ten Commandments are about, what would you say?

Together, we reached the conclusion that perhaps we might say that the Ten Commandments are all about “vitur”. There is no good translation for this word in English. It’s a form of “giving in”, or “relinquishing”, but willingly, voluntarily. In this case, being willing to relinquish our immediate responses, our natural tendencies and inclinations.

It means relinquishing fear, in favor of faith; relinquishing the desire to do something on Shabbat, for the sake of Shabbat; giving up important things for the sake of honoring parents, relinquishing the desire to write something nasty that will reward one with pleasurable attention from others, for the sake of “Do not murder”; the desire to trick someone, for the sake of “Do not steal”, the natural tendency to covet, in favor of “Do not covet”; one’s bodily desires, for the sake of “Do not commit adultery.”

Relinquishing my basest tendencies, in favor of my most sublime ones.

In the language of chassidut this is called “bitul”, which means, in general, to be willing to negate the animal aspects in me, in favor of the divine ones.

What’s wonderful about it, is that while at the beginning there is a feeling that you are lessening yourself with every relinquishment and bitul, slowly-slowly you discover that the opposite is true: The more you minimize the animal side and enable the divine side, the bigger and more significant you become. 

So what do you say? What are the Ten Commandments all about?


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

when my teacher threw me into the water..

I was seven years old when I started taking swimming lessons from the swimming teacher, Chaim. It was at the municipal pool in Lod. At age seven-and-a-half I already knew how to swim, and all I needed was to learn how to dive into the deep water. I was the youngest of the students and I still remember the bit of fear I felt as I confronted the deep water. I only remember a bit, because it lasted only until the teacher threw me into the water, yelling, “Don’t forget to make a Shehakol (the blessing on drinking water)!” 

Jumping into deep water is an existential fear that every thinking person has. I am sure that Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to jump into the deep water moments before the Splitting of the Sea, was afraid. Especially since he hadn’t gone through Chaim’s swimming lessons…. 

Halachically, too, it is not so clear that he was obligated to endanger his life in such a situation.

So why did Nachshon jump in, anyway?

The Rebbe explains in this context a very basic thing regarding the essence of life for a Jew:

We don’t seek Mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice). In spite of how special Mesirut Nefesh is, we do not have a goal to die or suffer for the sake of Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name). The goal is to live a Jewish life; the goal is to learn Torah and observe the Mitzvot. And yes, the goal is also definitely to reach every Jew and Jewess and take care of them, wherever they are. 

And if this work demands Mesirut Nefesh from us? We will not be put off because of it. If for the purpose of obeying we have to jump into the stormy Sea of Reeds – we will jump, in spite of our natural fear. Nothing will stop us from trying to attain the goal.

That is what Nachshon ben Aminadav did while facing the sea: “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain,” said Hashem. If the way to that mountain, Mount Sinai, goes through the sea, we will go through the sea! Because the sea will split in the face of such determination.


This message was the Rebbe’s main message when he spoke on the 10th of Shvat, 5711 (1951). Those were fateful moments for the small and battered Chabad movement, the moments when the son-in-law of the Rebbe who had passed on a year earlier agreed to take upon himself the leadership of the Chabad movement. And he said then: “The goal is to be concerned like Avraham Avinu for every Jew, and if Mesirut Nefesh is needed by the way, that too, exists.” We will not seek it, but we also will not recoil from it. 


Today we know what that small number of Chassidim did not know then, that these moments were historical and significant not only for the Chassidim, but for every Jew and Jewess who live anywhere in the world where there is Coca Cola.


This week we marked the 10th of Shvat. The Shabbat is the Shabbat of the Splitting of the Sea, and that, then, is the message: when one acts with determination and a willingness to jump into the water, the sea splits. 


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Every Chabadnik knows

Every Chabadnik knows by heart the first sentence that the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, said on the 9th of Adar, 5700 (1940), immediately upon disembarking from the ship at Pier 94 in Manhattan: “America is no different.” (in Yiddish: America is nicht anderesh.)

The simple meaning is clear. This was a clear and sharp message to the Jews from back home – from Poland and Hungary – telling them that in America, too, one can walk around in a long coat and a broad pair of tzitzit. America is no different; here, too, it is possible and even imperative to keep Shabbos and learn Torah.

If I may be allowed, I think there is a deeper and even revolutionary aspect that can be seen in speeches and talks of the Rebbe since he accepted upon himself the leadership of Chabad on the 10th of Shvat, 5711: America is not different not only from Warsaw and Krakow; America and everything it represents is not different from Hashem. It is not a separate reality, G-d forbid. Modernization and broad horizons, technology and openness are not different and distinct entities. Not only because these can be used for the purpose of holy and positive goals, but because in reality that’s why everything was created!

Hashem created the world with endless abilities and possibilities. As time goes on these are revealed, stage by stage. Some of them seem impure or negative, but the Rebbe’s message was that a Jew who knows how to use a horse and wagon to serve Hashem will also know how to use a car and an airplane; and he who knows how to use a letter and a postcard for positive goals, will know how to do the same thing with WhatsApp and Facebook. Because this is the truth: America is no different; the goal is the same goal. It’s only the means that have been upgraded.

Friends, this coming wednesday we will mark the 10th of Shvat, it is the day on which the great Jewish revolution began, based on the words “America is no different.”


May we be successful!


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

we are at the end of the story

I like Parashat Va’era very much – not because of the plagues and the many miracles it tells us of – not at all. I like it particularly because of a conversation that takes place between Moshe Rabbeinu and Hashem, a conversation I find to be most fascinating. 

At the end of Parashat Shemot Moshe Rabbeinu approaches Hashem and makes a strong claim: “Why have you done evil to this people, why have You sent me?! From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people! But You did not rescue Your people!”

This is the firmness and even audacity of a true leader, a leader who has taken over the responsibility for his flock, and is willing to do anything for their sake – even confront the Creator of the world. 

In this week’s Parasha, Hashem answers him, and explains to him very nicely: “I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov… and I have also established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan… and also I have heard the groan of Bnei Yisrael… and I have remembered My covenant.”

To me it all sounds something like this:

“Dear Moishe, I feel your pain. I understand your deep rage; I also understand the great frustration you are expressing when you say, ‘From the time I came… to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people.’ But you must understand something: the story of which you are the hero now did not begin today, not even when we met by the burning bush. 

“This story began already with Avraham, even before Yitzchak was born. I made a covenant with him. I informed him of all the stages of My plan: You will have a son, the Jewish People will come from him, I will exile them to Egypt. They will suffer there for many years, and then I will come to save them miraculously; they will leave Egypt with many possessions, and in the end will reach the Promised Land.

“So you see, Reb Moishe, that you have arrived towards the end of the story, and that is why you are complaining. If you would have known the entire plan, you would also know that the hardest moments, those that you complained about, are actually the last moments of suffering. Starting tomorrow I will begin to strike the Egyptians and immediately the next stage will come: ‘I will take out… I will save… I will redeem… I will take… I will bring.’ Don’t worry: everyone, Jews and Egyptians alike, will know that I am Hashem in the land.”

I always learn from this story to our days. Always, when there are hard times, when there is terror and murder, and hatred that arouses a bit of fear, I remember Hashem’s words to Moshe and say to myself: Wait a minute: up there He has an orderly plan. It’s a long story that began many, many years ago, and we, today, are already facing the it’s concluding part; we are very close to the end of this saga known as exile. 

One only needs to keep on believing, and do a bit more, and then we, too, will merit to see ‘I will take out… I will save… I will redeem… I will take… I will bring’ to rebuilt Jerusalem, with the Third Temple standing, when the Mashiach comes. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Do you need your name?

Do I need my name for myself? 

Believe it or not, when I’m sitting alone in a room or in my office, working or learning, the word “Zalmen” doesn’t come up. It could be that way for hours, perhaps for a whole day. If I am alone, without a telephone or email, I don’t need my name; I really don’t use it!

In the teachings of Chassidut it is explained that that our name is not us, but rather something external, a tool that we use when we want to be in contact with the world. My name is my identity, but my identity is not necessarily me. The name is the title, or perhaps the outer coating, and yes, it tells the world in a moment who I am, but it is not me. 


The weekly parasha is called parashat Shemot. What is the connection between the word “Shemot” and the central story of the parasha – Yetziat Mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt? 

Bnei Yisrael – the Children of Israel – went into exile. They were subjugated, beaten and tortured. According to Chassidut, Mitzrayim means a narrow place, an enclosing border. The Egyptians wanted to limit the Jewish People, to narrow their options, to prevent them from being who they really were. They tried to break their spirit with force, and the truth is that they almost succeeded. But only almost – because in spite of it all, even when they were subjugated and suffering, they remained Bnei Yisrael. They were not lost. 

How did this happen?


The verse tells us: “And these are the names of Bnei Yisrael who were coming to Egypt.” If we want to, we can read this using a chassidic approach that says that only their “names” went down to Egypt. Only the external coating was subjugated and was in a tight place and within boundaries, but their souls and personalities remained free. 

When I feel I am in a tight place, when there is someone or something that is limiting me or burdening me, and I am looking for a way out, it is worthwhile to try and see if my entire spiritual and material entity is really in an exile of difficulty or tightness, or not. Because if it is not – and it probably is not – then with that knowledge I can lift myself up out of the tight place and move from exile to the redemption – both personal and general. 


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

What are you more – an Efraim or a Menashe

When Yaakov Avinu blessed Menashe and Efraim, he said, “By you shall Yisrael bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Efraim and like Menashe.’” And since then, that is how we bless our children – the same way we were blessed by our parents – that we should be like Efraim and Menashe.

The Rebbe brings here a wonderful explanation, one that clarifies the essence of this blessing:

Menashe symbolizes Yosef’s connection with his past, his roots, the house of his father. When Yosef named Menashe, he said, “G-d has made me all my hardship and all my father’s household.”

Efraim, on the other hand, symbolizes the present and the fertile result of Yosef’s exile, as Yosef himself defined it – “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

There were two things that gave Yosef the strength he needed while he was alone in his exile: a. the constant emotional connection to his father’s home – “Menashe.” b. The goal to be fruitful and successful particularly in his land of suffering – “Efraim.”

These two things were very significant and important for Yosef during his life – and both things are significant and important in every person’s life, with all its changes and fluctuations.

In order to survive and to succeed in remaining a faithful Jew as well as a fertile person in every place and in every situation, a person has to, on one hand, maintain and strengthen his emotional connection with his roots, with his father’s home, with his Father in Heaven. On the other hand, he has to understand and internalize the goal to be fertile even in the many different situations in “the land of his suffering.”

For some of us, “Menashe” is the dominant factor – the connection with the ancestral home, the Father in Heaven. But there are those for whom it is the concentration and focusing on the goal, on the present and the future that are more dominant personality traits.

But both things – both “Menashe” and “Efraim” are necessary for every Jew, wherever he is. Therefore, that is the best blessing for our children: “My G-d make you like Efraim and like Menashe.”

So it really doesn’t matter what you are more – an Efraim or a Menashe; the main thing is that they are both with you along your way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

 

When was the last time you played “hide and seek”?

Remember the game “hide and seek”? When was the last time you played it?

The trick is to hide so well, that the seeker won’t find you; if he finds you, you’re “out”. 

But that is not the worse thing. Do you know what is worse than being found? Having no one look for you; that’s far worse. When you are hiding and suddenly realize that no one is searching for you, you feel just terrible.

So when recently have you played “hide and seek”?

I’ve noticed that we play “hide and seek” quite often in this life.

Almost always, when someone is hiding from you, or acting coldly towards you, it is not because he wants you to stay away from him, but because he wants you to seek him even more.

But before I go on, I must clarify: Of course, I am not talking about some unknown stranger, but rather about people we are in touch with, sometimes daily. 

How do I know this? The truth is, I know it from myself. In all honesty, I can see that when I behave distantly towards someone close who has annoyed me or hurt me, it is not in order to refrain from contact with him; my real goal is that he should make the extra effort to approach me.

Is this manipulation? I call it “hide and seek”.

It’s true in all types of relationships, even with our children, when they sometimes are angry with us or push us away. The idea is not that we should indeed stay away from them, but that we should continue to seek them. They are not distancing themselves from us – rather, they are hiding. 

This is true mainly of marital relationships. Often the woman will withdraw from her husband – with a show of words, sounds, tears and perhaps also with rebuke. And the husband, with his masculine tendency to see things technically, responds by retreating and running away. But the truth is that she is just hiding and digging in, and her true desire is that he not run away or distance himself, but, rather, fight for the relationship and search for the way to become even closer; she wants him to show some manly courage, overcome the seeming rejection and approach her anyway. 

True, sometimes one has to be creative in order to find the right way to approach the other person anew, but the attitude should be to approach and not to turn tail; to come closer, not to shy away.

So when was the last time you played “hide and seek”?

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, it happens. Yehuda understands that the “Master of the Land” is playing “hide and seek” with them. He understands that while he is acting coldly and harshly, he is actually seeking closeness. He is rejecting them with harsh words and even unpleasant actions, but really all he is asking is that they not give up on him, not leave him and go away once again.

So Yehuda approaches him. Vayigash Yehuda.He gathers together all his lion-like courage, and, head held high, he approaches Yosef – and, just moments later, Yosef cannot control himself any longer, and bursts into tears. 


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Be Yosef

“Every week one should live with the weekly parasha, and learn from it for our lives. Sometimes one has to delve deeply into the words of the commentators and put some effort into studying it in order to understand what is being said and its connection to our lives, but in the parashas of Vayeshev and Miketz, which deal with the life of Yosef Hatzaddik, there is no need to expend effort and delve deeply. If we just translate the story into Yiddish or into any other language we understand, one can acquire from Yosef instructions and guidance as to how a Jew is supposed to behave.” This is how the Rebbe started his discourse on the weekly parasha on Shabbat parashat Vayeshev, 5728 (1967). 

Following that introduction, the Rebbe continued to describe Yosef’s trials and travails in flowery language (tzuros un churbanos) – how he was sold as a slave, and as Yosef himself described it, “For I was surely stolen from the land of the Hebrew.” He was torn away suddenly from his father and grandfather, and from his natural environment in general, and he had to learn skills, ways of life and methods of survival that were foreign to him. 

His grandfather, Yitzchak, who had lived in a protected environment most of his life, certainly never needed this kind of life wisdom. Even his father Yaakov, who had been alone in Lavan’s house for 20 years, didn’t have to cope the way Yosef had to. For Yaakov, even though he was in Charan, from the moment that he built his home with his wives and children was in charge of his life, at least in regard to everything connected to his private home. He ran his house as he saw fit, to the point that he could say, “I lived with Lavan and observed the 613 mitzvot” (Rashi). But Yosef for many years did not have a household of his own – he didn’t even have a private abode at all. At the beginning he was a slave in the home of his master, and afterwards he was in prison and so on. 

And all this through no fault of his own. He went through trouble after trouble. His situation got worse from moment to moment. First he was in the pit, then he was sold to the Yishmaelim and the Midyanim, and they sold him to the Egyptians. Try to imagine how slaves used to be sold, and imagine a seventeen-year old lad, orphaned and pampered, all alone in a strange land, and finally bought by Potiphar. I would expect him to be resentful and sad, in despair, bitter. But no. Yosef got up every morning and worked faithfully for his master, not like a miserable wretch, but like a successful person, and he was, indeed, very successful. But the troubles didn’t leave him. Again, in the same way, not only did Potiphar not thank him for his work, but he even threw him into jail even though he was innocent – and even more so, he was thrown into jail because he didn’t want to abuse his master’s trust in him. Did he become bitter and resentful in the jail? Not there, either. There, too, he arose every morning like new and did what he thought was the right thing and was very successful at it, to the point that he became the manager of the jail. And the story repeats itself; he helps the king’s cupbearer by interpreting his dream, and he has only one request: Mention me to Pharaoh. Not money, not gifts – nothing that will cost you anything or necessitate any effort. But the cupbearer forgot about him the very next morning. 

So passed a few years of disappointment from the world: suffering, humiliation and shameful behavior of people. I would have expected him to give up on this world, to run away from people and go live alone in the desert. But no, Yosef continued to run his life as he saw fit. And the reason for that was that Yosef had grown up in a home that had taught him one central thing: that everything that happens in the world comes from Divine Providence, and everything has a reason, and as he himself said to his brothers when they were afraid that he would pay them in kind: “it was not you who sent me here, but G-d.” When a person lives with such a deep awareness, nothing that happens to him can knock him down. 

This is the central message for anyone who reads Yosef’s life story. Everyone has the possibility of collapsing, giving up and being sad as he tries to cope with difficulties and challenges, and there is also the possibility of lifting up one’s head, looking forward and understanding that everything has a reason and a goal – like Yosef did. 

In the book “Hayom-Yom” for the 1st of Cheshvan, the Rebbe spells this out even more: Since Hashsem said to Avraham Avinu “Go forth from you land etc.” the secret of beirurim (extracting) started, and by the decree of the superior Providence, a person goes his ways in the places where the sparks that need to be discovered by him are waiting for their salvation. 

Be Yosef.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

When our Son was supposed to fly to a summer camp

One of the children that Hashem has entrusted us with, so that we will educate him and raise him for Torah and Chuppah and good deeds, is a particularly sensitive one; I would say he is naive and pure. When he was supposed to fly to a summer camp in a different country for three weeks, we were very concerned. Flying alone (though we did make sure that he would be entrusted to a flight attendant, but he was really flying alone) and staying in a strange place for three weeks seemed to us to be too much for him. Who knows what other children would be there – would they hurt him, and if so, how would he respond? Suffice it to say that it reached the point that we considered not sending him. But then we understood that that would be a mistake, because we won’t be able to protect him forever. It might even cause him harm in the long run, for sooner or later he will have to go out and face the world. And the world outside, as everyone knows, does not always welcome you with a red carpet. We understood that we had no choice – we must let go and allow him to cope alone. Difficult – but that’s life.


We had some deep conversations with him, being careful not to blacken the world and life for him. We explained to him situations that he might encounter. We described to him situations of insults, laughter, mocking and others that he might encounter. We did all this in order to hear from him how, in his opinion, he should respond. I told him stories from my own life and childhood, how I had been hurt, and difficult days I had had, and how I had responded. The principle idea was: you are the one who decides what will hurt you and what not; you are the one to decide how to respond to an attack or an insult, and always, always, before responding, even before you burst into tears or are badly insulted, you should go aside and have a cup of water, calm down and tell yourself: I won’t let anyone or anything ruin the day for me!


Every year, when parashat Vayetze comes around, I think about this. Rivka and Yitzchak send Yaakov from Charan, called by Chazal the “Charon af” – anger – of Hashem. It is enough to be somewhat familiar with Yaakov’s dear uncle in order to understand that his stay in Charan was going to be very challenging for a “wholesome man, a tent-dweller” like Yaakov. And what did they send with him for the journey? What emotional strengths did they give him? How much did they worry about him for so many years? Spending 22 years far away and alone is not an enjoyable three-week summer camp. 


True, living with Esav had hardened him more than a bit. There are those who will say that his mother, when sending him to impersonate Esav and receive the blessings, was really teaching him how to get along with cheats such as Lavan; after all, who knew Lavan like she did? He also learned Torah and observed the mitzvot, and that is surely strengthening; and then there were those ascending and descending angels who accompanied him on his way. 


And still, I thought that there was one essential thing in Yaakov’s education, and that was the fact that he came from a home that did what seemed right, without relating to what the surrounding culture had to say. His grandfather, Avraham, was the person who invented the famous Jewish Chutzpah. He never got to know Sarah, but he surely heard stories about her courage in going with Avraham to an unfamiliar land – one couple facing the whole world. He saw his father, Yitzchak, behaving proudly and confidently towards Avimelech. And his mother – from age three she knew to choose right and not to be impressed by what the rest of the world had to say. Growing up in a home like that meant growing up with an inner strength that no wind could sway. 


And indeed, when we read the rest of the story in the Torah, there are no surprises. Life in Charan was very challenging for Yaakov. “Whether it was stolen by day or by night,” he said, describing in four words his life beside his uncle; but he got through it all courageously and successfully.


What happened to Yaakov happened to many thousands of his offspring throughout the generations. His handling of the situations was and still is and inspiration for the following generations; it would be good to take it on as an inspiration for us, too. 


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

No child is born evil, and Esav, too, was not born evil

 In this age of WhatsApp various proverbs are passed around within the groups. It is always fascinating to me to watch the power of mass media: according to the number of times that you get these words of wisdom from different sources, you can understand the extent to which they touched, amused or merely interested the public.

One of the more special ones, which appeared repeatedly last week, says: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s obvious why this is going from group to group, for who of us is not fighting a battle that only he knows about? Who doesn’t have a challenge that is his alone?

I thought about this in the context of the story of Yaakov and Esav, who are born in this week’s Parasha. I don’t know about Yaakov, but Esav certainly would have agreed with this sentence, and would done a “cut and paste” with it.

Both of them were born in a special, elevated household. The two of them were together already in Rivkah’s womb, and even started to fight there: “The children agitated within her.”

Chazal tell us that each one of them pulled in a different direction. Yaakov’s nature was to be “a wholesome man, living in tents”; he felt pulled to any place where there was good, holiness and spirituality. In contrast to that, Esav was a person who “knows hunting”; he felt pulled towards anything material, earthly – and to evil as well.

No child is born evil, and Esav, too, was not born evil. He just came into the world with a challenge very different from that of Yaakov. The role of Esav in the world was not to do evil acts – not at all. No – Esav came into the world with the special goal of dealing with this material world, sifting through it, correcting it, bringing it to a state of holiness. He also received special tools: “A man who knows hunting”. That is a man who has the ability to hunt down materiality, pick out the good from the bad, as one picks out the wheat kernels form the chaff covering it. This is a sublime role, but not at all easy, apparently.

Yitzchak Avinu knew the sentence spinning through WhatsApp. He knew that Esav was fighting a war that no one else knew about it, and he was kind to him. “Yitzchak loved Esav because game was in his mouth”. Yitzchak recognize Esav’s potential. He knew that he had the power to hunt, and he understood that that is his challenge, so he loved him, accepted him and tried to be there for him so that he would succeed in his task in this world.

Friends, we should learn from Yitzchak.

A moment before we judge people, badmouth them or condemn them, it would be good to remember to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

When the Rebbe got confused

She belonged to the Vishnitz chassidut and lived in Bnei Brak; her sister belonged to the Satmar chassidut and lived in Williamsburg. The period was the late 1980’s, when the relationship between the Chabad and Satmar communities was at a low ebb. Both Williamsburg and Crown Heights are neighborhoods in Brooklyn, quite close geographically at least, and nowadays they are emotionally close as well, but back in the 1980’s the distance between the two communities was huge. 

She came from Israel because there was evidence that she might have a malignant growth, and the specialists recommended that she go to New York to be examined further. But really, there was another reason for going to New York. She knew that every Sunday the Lubavitcher Rebbe sees people, and anyone who wants to can come without prior registration, stand in line, say what is troubling him or her, receive a dollar for tzedaka and bracha, and, mainly, have the Rebbe’s full attention for those few seconds or minutes. 

She very much wanted to go to the Rebbe and ask for his blessing. She had children at home who needed her to be healthy, and the Rebbe’s blessing was no less – and perhaps more – important to her than the tests that would be performed by the expert doctors in New York.

And so, on Sunday, a few minutes after her brother-in-law, her sister’s husband – left to go to shul, she approached her sister and made her request: “Come with me to Crown Heights; take me to Lubavitch.” Her sister refused – she can’t. It was unthinkable in those times of division between the two groups. Her husband was an important person in his community – how would he be able to show his face in public if it would become known that his wife had gone to ask the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a bracha? There was no way that he would be able to accept this, and it would be impossible to go without telling him, impossible! How would she face her husband if she deceived him and kept such a thing from him?

But the Vizhnitz sister was insistent – her life was hanging in the balance, and she pleaded with her again and again, until the Satmar sister gave in and agreed to help her. 

They stood quietly in the long line, hoping not to meet anyone they knew – so deep was the estrangement then. And then they were standing in front of the Rebbe. The lady from Bnei Brak told him that she had been diagnosed with “the machala” (the illness, code word for cancer), and she was asking for a blessing. Her sister was standing next to her. The Rebbe listened, gave her a dollar to give to tzedaka and blessed her with the usual blessing: “Bracha and hatzlacha (success)”. The Rebbe then gave a dollar to her American sister as well and said to her: “Refuah sheleimah ukrova (have a full, speedy recovery).”

“You see, he got confused,” said the American sister to the Israeli one. “It’s a pity we came. I deceived my husband and in the end the Rebbe made a mistake: he gave you the regular blessing and me – the blessing for recovery.”

In the evening, when her husband came home, he saw immediately that something was wrong. “Don’t be angry,” she said to him. “We went to get a dollar from the Lubavitcher – I couldn’t say no to my sister – and really it was a waste of time; in the end the Rebbe got confused”. And she told him about the switched blessings. Her husband’s expression became very grave. He was a serious person, and he said immediately, “Come with me. we are going right now for tests in the hospital. Ture, you shouldn’t have gone, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe never gets confused. If he wished you a complete recovery, then it is you who needs it.” The tests did, indeed, show the beginnings of a serious illness requiring immediate treatment.

Her sister’s tests, as you can probably guess already, showed that the growth was benign and that she was perfectly healthy. 

I remembered that story this morning – early Thursday morning – when I stood in the ohel of the Rebbe, praying for myself and for those who sent me. I wasn’t alone. Every few minutes men and women came and went. Some stayed for a few minutes and some for longer; some said Tehillim, and others just prayed from their hearts; some were reading out their request, and others were carrying many requests with them. One was sobbing, and another was praying softly; one was praying with his eyes closed, and another leaned her head on the headstone, and everyone there – everyone – knew what the Williamsburg sister’s husband knew – and that is why they were there and that is why I was there as well.


From the World Conference of Shluchim, I wish you Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The question that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was asked most?

What do you think is the question that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was asked most?

Last week I met a friend who had had a few chats with the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l. I admit that that is something that I would have liked to have experienced as well. The friend shared a number of fascinating stories with me, and one of the most special ones was about Rabbi Sacks asking him the above-mentioned question: “I give speeches hundreds of times a year; I meet scores of people of all types; what do you think is the question that people ask me most?”

The friend made a few guesses, but the rabbi smiled and said, “Well, this is the question: ‘Rabbi Sacks, do you remember me?’”

Amazing, isn’t it?

It turns out that we are interested in many things and topics, and we learn a lot, but it seems that there is one basic thing that we all need: We want to be remembered; in other words, we want to be noticed and remembered, to be important to someone, certainly if he is on the level of Rabbi Sacks.

As I’m writing this, what comes to mind is that my mother, who was a teacher and a principal in the Beit Rivkah High school in Kfar Chabad for forty-eight years, always says that that is the most common question she is asked by her former students, young or old, some of whom were her students ten years ago and some forty years ago. They all ask the same question: “Hamenahelet (Principal), do you remember me?”

The parasha we will read tomorrow in the Torah is parashat Vayera, the parasha in which Hashem reveals Himself to Avraham.

I don’t know how many of us turn to Hashem sometimes and ask, “Do you remember me?” I assume that if we were close enough to Hashem, or felt close, that is what we would ask. And this is the point at which every Chabadnik is reminded of the story about Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn of Lubavitch, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, also known as the Rashab. One year, when he was four or five years old, on his birthday, he entered the room of his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the third Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, in order to be blessed. And as the child entered the room, he burst into tears and said, “Why did Hashem reveal Himself to Avraham and not to me?”

This child, who, as mentioned, later became a Rebbe, had just learned the weekly parasha of Vayera, and had read or heard that Hashem reveals Himself to people, and here He is indeed revealing Himself to Avraham Avinu, so he too wanted to have such a revelation. Perhaps this is a type of “Do you remember me?” of tzaddikim

I have two things to say by way of a summary: The first relates to bein adam lachaveiro – mitzvahs that concern interpersonal relationships. One must look around, understand and remember that people want us to remember them – especially people who have some kind of connection to us – just like we want them to remember us. 

The second thing relates to bein adam lamakom – mitzvahs that are between man and his Creator. The truth is that we are close enough to Hashem to really and truly want Him to reveal Himself to us, even though it doesn’t come as naturally as it did to a scion of family of Rebbes. Nevertheless, we do have this desire, this yearning to come closer, to experience a spiritual revelation, to feel that Hashem is close to us. And if this doesn’t happen, we are allowed to ask: “Do you remember me?”

Shabbat Shalom, 


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Release control

 

I once participated in a teachers’ course sponsored by the umbrella organization of Swiss Jewry – SIG. At the time I was a teacher in the Basel community, the IGB. In one of the workshops the facilitator tried to teach us to work together, to trust each other, so that we can become a good team. He divided us up into pairs, and each time asked one of the two partners to stand behind the other’s back and be ready to catch him when he falls back. From the other he requested that he allow himself to fall back without looking, just trusting his friend to catch him. Does this sound easy? Maybe. But it is very difficult. I think no one managed to do that, certainly not the first few times. (Even my partner in this task, Dr. Yuval Rubin, did not succeed in throwing himself back. And the truth is that I was very surprised by this, because I was the one who was supposed to catch him…).

We are so used to trusting ourselves and controlling our lives that we are not capable of letting go and agreeing to give up control. 

As the years go by I learn how much we really do not control our lives, how, in the end, there is somebody or something much greater than ourselves who runs our lives and if we will just be able to surrender and agree to let go bit, it will be easier and better for us – and in addition we will enjoy more happiness and contentment in our lives. I am speaking from experience. 

“Go for yourself from your land and your place of birth and the house of your father to the land I will show you.” This is the first task in the Torah, given to the first Jew by the Creator. There are endless explanations, commentaries and messages connected to this passuk. They are all wonderful, but sometimes one ought to just read the passuk in its simplest meaning. It says here clearly: Start your journey without knowing where you are going. Throw yourself back, knowing that I will catch you. Release control and trust Me. 

This of course does not mean that a person should sit and do nothing, G-d forbid; or that he should not think and plan ahead or prepare himself for the near or distant future. Of course not. A person must work, study, prepare himself, plan what has to be planned. But what should be at the base of his life, his plans, his calculations and his dreams is the knowledge that in the end the control is not in his hands. If something goes wrong on the way, is altered, exchanged for something else or even cancelled, give in to it. Trust Hashem that everything is for the good and He will show you the way.

And if there is a challenging moment, one can always sing the prayer of Rabbi Meir of Apta, as put to music so nicely by R. Avraham Shabtai Hacohen Friedman: “Master of the Worlds, yadati – I know that I am in Your hands alone.” 


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Not everything is good to see

 Before Succot I posted a picture of me examining Etrogim. The goal was marketing and nothing more – on my table were dozens of sets of the Arba Minim (Four Species) and the picture was designed to attract buyers.

A friend of mine whom I love and respect sent me a message as follows: “As the Rebbe’s shaliach, it is probably hard for you to examine Etrogim; after all, the Rebbe taught us not to see the black spots.” I smiled and sent him back a suitable emoji.

The Shabbat of parashat Noach, is my bar mitzvah Shabbat. Yes, my birthday is on the 2nd of Cheshvan. When I sat by R. Abba Levine z”l, the perfectionist Torah reader in the central shul of Kfar Chabad in order to learn how to read the haftara of parashat Noach, we didn’t call it a bar mitzvah Shabbat, but two decades spent in Basel have accustomed me to noting the parasha as my bar mitzvah Shabbat. Well, after Noach comes out of the ark and sees that the world has been laid waste, he drinks a bit too much. His sons come in to cover him, and then the Torah emphasizes that two of his sons approached him walking backwards so as not to see their father’s nakedness: “And they walked backwards and covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned backwards and they did not see their father’s nakedness.” Twice it says “backwards” and twice it is repeated that they did not see his nakedness. 

This was not done without thought, nor was it meaningless – it was their choice. They chose not to see their father in his weak moment. Their choice is an instruction to us, an instruction of how to live our lives. 

It is possible – indeed, it is much easier – to see the bad; it is interesting, it is compelling and sometimes it gives us a good feeling: We feel we are better people when the failure or weakness of the other is evident. 

But it is also possible and much more worthwhile to avoid seeing the bad. It’s a bit drier, less interesting; sometimes one has to change the subject or move from where one is standing at that moment, but it leaves us cleaner. 

Noach’s sons knew what they were coming to do; they understood what they were dealing with; but they decided to walk backwards and not to see, in order to show respect to their father as well as to stay clean themselves. And mainly, so that this one-time event will not stain their father’s being. As with the Etrog, if we want to, we can see the black spots, but then we’ll lose seeing the beauty of the Etrog

I have a birthday, and that is what I am wishing myself: that I should merit seeing the good in the world, the beauty of the other person. May Hashem grant me chochma, bina and da’at (wisdom, understanding and knowledge) to know when to avert my head and not see what one doesn’t have to see, so that the other person’s beauty will shine. 

I wish the same to you too, my friends and readers.

From experience, it does wonders to all the types of relationships we have in this world.


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A wish or a decision

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

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 B”H 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 with hashem helping me. 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 that hashem believes 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

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