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Rabbi's weekly Blog

And I am dust and ashes

This week’s Parasha, Vayera, is full of wonderful stories: Avraham’s hosptality, Sarah’s laughter upon hearing that she will become a mother at age 90, the tragedy of Sodom, Lot and his daughters, Sarah and Hagar (episode II) and of course, Akeidat Yitzchak (The binding of Yitzchak). Definitely a fascinating Parasha. The stories in it contain directions for every human being as to what to do and what not to do.

Personally, what grabbed me most in this entire Parasha were three words spoken by Avraham; and I recommend that every human being say them every morning.

When Hashem told Avraham that He’s planning to destroy Sodom and Amorah, Avraham beseeched Him to have mercy on them. I wrote “beseeched”, but the truth is that he simply “nudged” Hashem again and again, like only he knew how to do. Right before he began to make his request, Avraham said three words: “And I am dust and ashes” (in Hebrew, “Va’anochi Afar Va’efer”). In other words, Avraham’s starting point was that he was not a superior patron coming to help, with the hopes of receiving some compliments for doing it on the way. Avraham was coming from a place of great humility and modesty: Who am I and what am I? Dust and ashes! So every human being is superior to me, and, that being so, I really do respect and appreciate every human being, so my help and giving are offered out of respect and appreciation.

If I am dust and ashes, then I can find room in me to have mercy and make a request even on behalf of the people of Sodom.

This attitude is important not only for accepting the other person and containing him; this attitude is of great significance for the person himself, as well.

Three times a day we pray and say, “And my soul will be to all like dust. Open my heart to your Torah.” The Baal Shem Tov’s explanation of this prayer is: If you want Hashem to open your heart to His Torah, you must first understand, grasp and agree that your soul is like dust to everything, because modesty and humility are the fertile, plowed and planted soil that is the basis for entering the world of Torah.

This is true for Torah and Mitzvahs and it’s also true for everything we do every day, and even for our very existence and lives in this world. A person who knows to get up in the morning and say to himself, “And I am dust and ashes” can be assured that today will be a better day, simply because “dust and ashes” expects less and therefore is less hurt and disappointed when problems come up.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

What really influenced the results of the elections in Israel?

What interests me most on the day after elections, in general, and in Israel in particular, is the attempt to analyze the various campaigns. There are many variables with quite a few components that bring about the results of elections, and it’s fascinating. I’m fascinated by it because it teaches us about historical processes and about people’s psyches – what motivates us to act, and what puts us to sleep – and the main thing is that one can learn a lot about how to act and what to do when one wants to succeed.

Three parties had great success in the elections held this week in the Holy Land, and I have already heard professional pundits saying that one can also say that only three parties actually had orderly, well-organized, proactive and efficient campaigns.

One can find many similarities between these three. I am not a professional pundit, but I think that it is quite clear that Shas, Religious Zionism and the Likud simply did a “Lech lecha” (walk, go).

Yes, it is true that they also identified painful issues that their target audience cared about such personal security and the high cost of living and they pressed those buttons hard, but, in my humble opinion, what mainly worked was that for four months they simply traveled all over the country, met the people, spoke with them, to the point that it looked that they were actually pulling people out of their houses.

And there was something else very significant, perhaps the most significant: Binyamin Netanyahu didn’t leave any loose ends; he tied up all the loose ends in his camp, and, as people say, didn’t leave anything to chance. 

What do I learn from this?

Sometimes it seems to us that it is enough to shout slogans, that a post in Facebook will do the trick, that a status or a story will be enough, that one sermon or statement is enough to influence people. It is apparently true that these have an effect, and especially as someone who writes from time to time and gives sermons from time to time, I definitely agree that these have an effect. But, and that is the main lesson, it’s not enough if you want to really make a change, transport, touch and influence the world. You have to travel, get moving physically, meet the people, speak with them on the phone, come to them in person, analyze the situation, renew old contacts and do away with new ones, coordinate, tie up loose ends, and move; simply move. 

Perhaps that is the reason that that is the first commandment our first Patriarch received in parashat Lech Lecha, and really, the entire parasha we will read tomorrow deals with a massive campaign of Avraham Avinu, consisting entirely of going from one place to another. He went through the entire land, meeting the people in person. Here are a few of the psukim: Avram went, Avram passed into the land, Abram journeyed on, Avram went down to Mizrayim, he (Avram) proceeded on his journeys from the Negev to Beit El, etc. etc. He made a surplus vote agreement with Lot and even got involved in wars as needed.

What do you think: Does this make sense?

And a moment before the “Shabbat Shalom” – this is not a political post; there is no need to comment on it politically.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Noach’s ark or Titanic?

There are some wise sayings that immediately go into the “cut out and save” drawer in my mind. Here’s one of the best ones: 

“The Titanic was built by professionals; it collided with an iceberg and sank after only four days of being afloat. Noach’s ark was built by amateurs; it lasted for the entire Flood.”

Noach spent 120 years building the ark. For 120 years he faced all the wise and enlightened people of his generation alone as they laughed at him and mocked him. 

The Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (108b) tells us that, “The righteous Noach would rebuke them with harsh words, and they would belittle him. They would say to him: ‘Old man, what is this ark for?’ and he would answer: ‘Hashem is going to bring a flood upon you.’”


The truth is, when I think about it, that if someone here in Basel would build an ark and tell me he is preparing for a flood, I don’t think I would belittle him, but I would probably send him for psychiatric testing.

But Noach was not moved by what the world was saying. He had a goal, and he went about achieving it. 

And if the world laughs? Let them laugh!

People think he’s crazy? They can go ahead and think what they like. 

The Creator of the World had given him a task to perform – and he was going to do it, no matter what!


Friends, every one of us has a goal and a mission in life, suited only to him. That goal is the reason he was born and brought into this world. Because if I was not personally needed, I wouldn’t have been born. Hashem trusts us – “Your faithfulness is great,” we say every morning. He believes in us. 

Perhaps we just have to learn from Noach to be focused and goal-oriented; to do what our Creator wants us to do, even if the experts, the wise men and the enlightened sneer at us. Otherwise, there is a chance that our ship will encounter an iceberg, just like the Titanic.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Who is wise?

“Who is wise? He who discerns what is about to come to pass.” That is how the Gemara in tractate Tamid (32a) defines the wise person. In its simple meaning, this saying means that the wise person who can analyze situations can foresee the outcome of any situation.

The inner aspect of the Torah (the Pnimiyut, as it is known) gives this aphorism another, different meaning – almost the opposite: the truly wise person is not the one who foresees the future, but rather one who sees the past, namely, the supreme spiritual root of what is in this world; by identifying that root, he can know every creature’s complete and true essence.

How is all this connected to Parashat Bereishit? Adam HaRishon named the  creatures according to their essence. For instance, he identified the root of the ox with the “face of the ox” that is part of the Merkava (the Heavenly chariot) described in the book of Yechezkel. (This is a Kabbalistic concept based on the visions of the prophet Yechezkel, who saw the chariot of the Alm-ghty, and on it the faces of various animals – a lion, an eagle, an ox and a human being.) Similarly, he identified the root of the lion with the “face of the lion” that appears in the Merkava, etc.

The Rebbe explains the Adam HaRishon not only gave the creatures names, but by the very fact that he provided a material creature, made of flesh and blood, with a name from the spiritual realms, he was the first to connect the upper worlds with our lower, material world.

We are all descendants of Adam HaRishon, and we all inherited from him this wonderful ability to connect the upper and lower worlds. This, indeed, is also our role in the world – to bring holiness and spirituality to the material and the mundane, to refine it and to infuse it with holiness.

How does one do this? By doing Mitzvahs and good deeds. How simple…

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

for if I’m not here, who is here?

 Hillel Hazaken (the Elder, who lived about 100 years before the destruction of the Second Temple), the head of the Sanhedrin and one of the greatest Torah sages of all generations, used to dance in the Beit Hamikdash at the Simchat Beit Hashoe’va, the nightly celebrations held during Succot.

It says in the tractate of Succah (53a) that “It was said about Hillel Hazaken, that when he was rejoicing in the Simchat Beit Hasho’eva he would say, ‘If I’m here, everything’s here! And if I’m not here, who is here?’”

In other words, if I come to the Temple to rejoice, then holiness and the Divine Presence are here. And if I’m not here, it is as if there is nothing in the Temple; for what is the Temple worth without the Jew?

The Ba’alei Hatosafot (sages who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries) explain that Hillel was referring not only to himself, but to the entire Jewish People. When all the Jews are here, everything’s here. In other words, they are the ones that, by coming to the Beit Hamikdash, provide it with its content and meaning.

The Beit Knesset is like the Beit Mikdash in that sense. What is a Beit Knesset without a Jew? For if I’m here, everything’s here. And if I’m not here, who is here?

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch voiced a similar idea about the Hakafot of Simchat Torah:

The Torah wants to go around the Bimah, but since it has no legs, the Jew becomes its legs. And if the Jew is not here, how will the Torah dance?

Friends, in the next day’s we will be celebrating Simchat Torah.

Come dance and rejoice, because Hashem is waiting for us. The Torah trusts that we will come. The Shul needs us – for if I’m not here, who is here?

Chag Same’ach,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The Menorah on the Roof of My Volvo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because Succot is the holiday of unity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unity, not uniformity.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

 

Do we fear or believe?

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

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


Why are we so anxious when Yom Kippur approaches?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

My failings and me

As the High Holy Days approach, I’m hearing more and more people expressing feelings of being downhearted: I’m not doing things right, I’m not moving upwards, I’m not good, I’m not worthy.

I hear these sentiments from friends who come to consult, as well as internally – that is, these are my own sentiments, about myself. I told a friend who said such things this week that I hear a confusion between the definition of the act and the definition of the actor, between the doing and the doer.

I have no problem with your examining your deeds, your actions, defining them as good or bad and treating them accordingly. But there is a big problem if you define yourself according to your deeds, and thus define yourself as good or bad and then treat yourself accordingly, which means, of course, self-flagellation – that is, general despair, which harms your desire and ability to attempt to fix and improve matters – because it is a futile effort, right?

Remember, our actions will never change the fact that Hashem chose us to be His partners in repairing this world. He chose us to be his partners in that we will be parents to our children – his and ours – and take care of their physical and spiritual needs. He chose us in that he gave us money, counting on us to use it for acts of charity and kindness. He gave us life and good health, and He trusts us that we will use these to do good in his world to His creations.

And if He trusts us, He knows what He is doing.

I trust Him.

It is not only important that we remember this – it is critical. Because sincere and true self-assessment is the foundation of our lives. Only if we assess ourselves correctly will we be able to recognize our mistakes and faults without falling apart completely as a result, and only if we recognize our faults will we be able to repair and improve ourselves.

It’s not me saying this – it’s the Rebbe who says this. Here is a quote from him, from slightly more than forty years ago, Sunday, the 6th of Tishrei, 5742 (1981):

When a Jew is busy with the labor of teshuva (repentance) and does his best to fill in whatever he has omitted from his labors, he must be careful not to let his spirit fail, chas veshalom, as a result of seeing the faults in his labors.

And, as the saying of our rabbis, our princes, goes: The same way you should know the faults, so too you should know your ma’alot (strong points).” And here there is a wonderful distinction: When speaking of the strong points, it’s “your strong points”, and when speaking of the faults – it is “the faults”, not your faults!

And the explanation of this is according to what it says in the Zohar on “And a soul that sins…” – read as a question:

A Jew in himself is not connected to sin at all, and even when he stumbles and sins chas veshalom – it is not a fault in himself, rather it is something from outside himself that has attached itself to him. In other words, since he is in this materialistic and corporeal world, and his role is to fulfill Hashem’s mission of “Fill the land and conquer it” – in other words, to do and act in the world – so when he is wrestling with the evil one, this materialistic and corporeal world, it could be that something of the materialism and corporeality of the world adheres to him. and therefore, even though it’s a fault, it is not his own failing, because this fault is not coming from him, but from the reality of the world around him. 

And therefore, he does not become dispirited, chas veshalom, as he knows that the fault is something external that has adhered to him.

(Torat Menachem, 5742, Part I, p. 53).


Wishing all of us success,

Shabbat Shalom,

Ktiva v’chatima tova, for a good and sweet year,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

“measure for measure”

On Monday, the 12th of Tammuz, 5653 – 1893, at six in the evening, the bar mitzvah Se’udah (meal) of Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn – who was to become the sixth Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty – was taking place in the town of Lubavitch. During the meal, the father of the boy, Rabbi Shalom DovBer, turned to his son and said: “It is customary in Chabad that every Rebbe turns to his son on the day of his bar mitzvah and says to him, ‘Ask a question.’ In other words, present me with a question, and I will answer it. And so, Yosef Yitzchak, ask a question.” 

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (known as the Rayatz), recorded the next few moments in his diary:

“I asked my father: In the Siddur it says that ‘it is proper to say before davening, “I take upon myself the positive mitzvah of You shall love your fellow like yourself.” Why was this statement placed before the davening?’

“’When a father has many sons,’ my father answered me, ‘his main pleasure is seeing that they are all united and love each other. Davening is asking Hashem for one’s personal needs, both material and spiritual, and before asking, we should give our Father in Heaven some Nachas, some pleasure, and therefore it was decided that one should accept upon oneself the positive mitzvah of loving other Jews particularly before davening.’”

And the Rebbe continues to write in his diary: “I’m telling this so that you will understand what a father must give his son, and what guidance he should give him on the day of his bar mitzvah.

“Simply put: Before you ask for something from Hashem for yourself, give Him something for his children. It is logical, it is fair, and it works!”


In the month of Elul, the month of compassion and Selichot (prayers for forgiveness), there is an emphasis on the mitzvah of Tzedaka. Here is what the Rambam says when he speaks about the Teshuva – repentance – that one should engage in during the High Holy Days (Hilchot Teshuva, 3:9): “All of Israel have the custom of giving much Tzedaka and doing many good deeds.”

Why Tzedaka? What’s the connection between giving alms to the poor and the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? 


Well, this is where I remembered Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s answer to his son on the day of his bar mitzvah: During Elul and the High Holy Days, when we come to plead for ourselves and for our children and request an abundance of blessing, good health, a good livelihood, Nachas from the children, happiness in the home – we should first give Him something from ourselves. Hashem treats us using the principle of “measure for measure”: When we give to His children, he gives to us, and when we give a lot, he showers much good upon us. It is logical, it is fair and it works! 


Shabbat Shalom and K’tiva V’Chatima Tova,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

field-workers vs vineyard workers

R. Yeshaya Zusha Shubau z”l, my grandmother’s father, also known as the “Boyder Rav”, was the rabbi of the Marina Rosha synagogue in Moscow. On the first day of Succot he would get up early, immerse in a Mikvah, study Chassidut and prepare to perform the mitzvah of taking the Four Species. When the time came, he would hold the Lulav and Etrog in his hand, and would leap and dance as he made the blessing “Asher Kidshanu Bemitzvotav Vetzivanu Al Netilat Lulav. (Who sanctified us with his Mitzvot and commanded us to take the Lulav.)” 


Once, his friend, who was standing next to him, also a rabbi, turned to him and asked him somewhat cynically: “The Boyder Rav, why are you dancing?” “What do you mean?” responded the Rav. “I just made a Bracha (blessing), and I was so excited that I danced.” 

The friend wanted to tease him and said, “I just made the Bracha of Asher Yatzar (the blessing made after using the bathroom), and I didn’t dance…”

“Nu,” said the Boyder Rav, “If you were to make the Asher Yatzar blessing once a year, boy, would you dance…”


In Parashat Ki Tetzte it says, “When you come into your fellow’s vineyard, you may eat grapes as is your desire, to your fill,… When you come into your fellow’s standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand…”

The Torah tells us to allow a worker who is working in a field or vineyard to eat of the produce while he is working. 


Interesting: while regarding the vineyard it says “as is your desire, to your fill” – as much as you want, when talking of the field the language is more limiting: “you may pluck ears”. Not an expression of abundance, but rather of a measured amount, as much as you can hold in your hand. 


The Rebbe explains that these verses hint to two types of service of the Creator. 

Field-work, in which one labors over the basic and vital needs such as wheat, symbolizes the person who does whatever is necessary and vital in his service of Hashem, but not beyond that. 

Tending a vineyard, in which one is working with pleasure-causing things such as grapes, symbolizes the person who serves Hashem joyfully and enjoyably, perfecting his acts and making improvements (within the permitted boundaries); going beyond the basic law. 

We all know “field-workers”, people who observe the laws of the Torah properly, but somewhat dryly, without happiness and enthusiasm, without getting excited or going beyond the minimal requirements. The result is like bread that comes from a field: it feeds a person but does not provide the pleasure and the juice that a fruit has. And then there are the “vineyard workers” who bring happiness and enthusiasm to their observance of Torah and Mitzvot. They search for ways to improve the act, and get excited about performing it. The results are like grapes that have grown in a vineyard: juicy, and full of sweetness and pleasure.


Like the employer of the worker, so too the Creator allows his workers to take and eat as they labor; in other words, He supplies us with our needs and opportunities so that we will be able to serve Him, keep His Torah and observe His Mitzvahs. 

And just as it says in the Parasha: A field-worker who serves Hashem dryly, only because that’s what he’s supposed to do, receives from Hashem only a measured amount of wheat – enough, but not more than that. 


Unlike him, he who serves Hashem with happiness and pleasure, as if he were picking grapes in a vineyard, merits to eat “as his desire.” Hashem grants him an abundance of good, to his fill. 


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski


A wilde chaye

“A wilde chaya” – “a wild animal” – is an age-old expression used by the proverbial Yiddishe Mama, every time one of her children (not to mention one of her neighbor’s children) is being, shall we say, a bit too mischievous. 

The truth of the matter is that this is a logical statement – there are significant similarities between human beings and animals.


What’s interesting is that in this week’s Parsha (weekly portion), the Torah compares man to something from the plant kingdom – a tree. “For man is like a tree of the field.” 

Why? 

The resemblance between human beings and the animal kingdom is much more apparent than their resemblance to plants. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever hearing someone chastising a child by saying to them, “You’re a wild plant!”

In other words, what is the message of the Torah to us, when it compares us to trees and not to animals?


The Rebbe explains that there are different levels of resemblance. There is the external, superficial resemblance, and there’s also an internal, essential resemblance.

Let’s go back to the Yiddische Mama. Another age-old tradition is that when a baby is born, she immediately notes that “his right ear is just like that of his late great-grandmother,” and “His nose is just like his grandfather’s,” and so on. But as the years go by, deeper, more fundamental similarities come up: “He’s quick-thinking – just like his father,” or, “He has a good heart, like his grandmother, who fed all the hungry people in the shtetl.” In other words, it’s not the external resemblance, but mainly the internal similarities that are noted.


A tree has one clear, essential characteristic, and that is its constant connection to its source – Mother Earth. The minute a tree is chopped down, it cannot grow any more; it cannot live. An animal, on the other hand, seems detached from its source; it seems to be independent, unconnected.


The Torah’s message in the verse “For man is like a tree of the field,” is: Know that your resemblance to animals is superficial and external. But your resemblance to a plant, a tree – that is the internal, real resemblance. Like the tree, you too must always be connected to the Source of your life!

And the Jew’s Source of life is Hashem, the Torah and Mitzvot, his soul, his people and the Land of Israel, and, of course, his family – father and mother. Yes, the Yiddische Mama.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Alone, or alone with Hashem

For a few weeks now, at 7:30 every morning, a 14-year-old refugee from Ukraine has been coming to me to learn Torah.

He is a good boy from a good family. He grew up in the Chabad community in Odessa and until the war he learned in the Chabad yeshiva in Dnipro. When he met me, he had been separated from the yeshiva and his friends for a few months already, and when I offered to learn chassidut together, he jumped at the opportunity as if it were a new iPhone I was giving him. “Oy, how I want to learn some ma’amar,” he said, and didn’t see that I was overcome with emotion at his response.

I admit that when I offered this to him, I thought it would be once a week at the most, but no – he wanted to learn every day, and if I can only do it at 7:30 in the morning, so he shows up at that hour every morning. 

We learned the ma’amarEichah yashvah badad (How has she come to sit in solitude)”, which the Rebbe said on the Shabbat of parashat Devarim, 1971 (5731).

The ma’amar compares, opposes and connects between the simple meaning of the passuk and the chassidic commentary of the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.

The simple meaning speaks of Jerusalem, sitting alone, in solitude, and as Rashi says: “empty of its inhabitants”. 

The Chassidic commentary speaks of badad as referring to being alone with Hashem and connects it to the passukHashem badad yanchenu (Hashem alone guided them)”.

Wow. What a huge difference between the commentaries. One speaks of someone who is alone, deserted, desolate, with no one with him in the world. And the other speaks of someone who has reached the spiritual level of feeling the closest possible to Hashem. Only with Hashem. Only Hashem guides him.

The first feels deserted; the second feels gathered in, embraced, as in the passuk “Hashem will gather me in.”

In the ma’amar, the Rebbe explains at length how it is precisely the moments of sitting in solitude are those that bring man to a state of feeling Hashem guiding him. How when a person does what he needs to do even when it is difficult, when he is almost incapable of doing it, when the exile is at its height – that is what brings upon him and to him the revelation of being led only by Hashem. 

To further strengthen this point, he brings the chassidic explanation of the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was the humblest person ever: It was because he knew the tests and trials of our generation, on one hand, and on the other hand he also knew that this generation would observe Torah and mitzvahs – and that is what brought him to humility. In the language of the ma’amar: “And as it is known, the explanation of ‘And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth,’ and even more so when he saw the generation of the ikveta demishicha (the last generation before the coming of the Mashiach), when there will be a multitude of concealments and hidings [of Divine Providence] etc., and yet they will learn Torah and observe mitzvahs and in a way that increases light, this understanding caused humility in Moshe.”

The boy and I talked about this – that often one can clearly see how it is especially the very difficult moments that connect us to emunah, faith, because these are moments when we really have no one to lean on except our Father in Heaven. 

And then realization dawned: Sitting in front of me was a child who has been separated from his yeshiva and his friends – and that is what pushes him to come every morning to learn, with the aim of achieving a state of Hashem badad yanchenu. I didn’t say this to him – I just was once again overwhelmed emotionally.

Am Yisrael chai!


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Going through a fliegelach period?

“Hi, good evening, did the fliegelach period last a year? Two years?”

So surprised me last night a friend whom I coached a few years ago, helping him along with listening and advice. 

It took me a moment, but pretty quickly I understood that he was referring to something I must have told him in one of our talks – about a certain period in my past during which our means were very limited and because (or thanks to the fact that) there is no option of an overdraft in Switzerland, we went through a period of austerity. Among other things, for our Shabbat meals we had chicken wings, as they are the cheapest of all chicken parts.

I understood that Shabbat is fast approaching, and that he would be having to make do with fliegelach this week. “It was a time of austerity,” I replied. “You eat what you have.” “Actually, you eat what you cook,” (the Hebrew equivalent of “As you sow, so shall you reap”) my friend answered wittily, expressing a certain degree of self-flagellation, or of taking account, but certainly blaming himself: How did I reach such a state?

“Hashem cooked with us,” I replied, and tried to remember whether that is what I thought at the time as well, or whether that thought was just after-the-fact wisdom and faith.

And so, the following words are intended for you, my friend of last night’s correspondence:

I am not worried about you. I know you and your abilities. You have taken some brave steps, and brave steps naturally involve risk, otherwise they don’t demand courage. You endured a few blows, but in my opinion, at least, they were just a slap on the wrist (or wing?...). Another bit of letting go of the self-blame, and the fliegelach will become your wings, as you spread them and soar. 

I don’t remember clearly what I felt when I had to cut down on expenses, but I do remember clearly a courageous two-way discussion with my wife, in which both of us decided to face reality. We agreed: Right now, we must tighten our belts, but with Hashem’s help we will learn the situation and rise from it. I clearly remember that we did say that it was a lesson that we must go through.

On this Shabbat, we will be reading parashat Ekev, which includes the passuk describing the mann that the Jewish people ate in the wilderness as a form of suffering and test.

“He (Hashem) afflicted you and let you hunger, and He fed you the mann that you did not know, nor did your forefathers, in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that comes from the mouth of G-d does man live.”

And a few psukim later, Moshe Rabbeinu emphasizes once more: “He Who feeds you mann in the wilderness, which your forefathers did not know, to afflict you and test you, to do good for you in your end.”

One can think small and say: Yes, such a way of thinking is a fool’s consolation; it’s just the resistance felt towards accepting responsibility and so on, if you want to beat yourself up and heap blame upon yourself. But one can also look at it from the viewpoint that the purpose of the fliegelach that Bnei Yisrael received in the wilderness was to give them a lesson for life.

And it doesn’t have to be one or the other; it could be both:

To understand that Hashem is cooking something with you, together, to make you know that man lives by everything that comes from Hashem’s mouth, and at the same time not to remove from yourself all responsibility, and to continue to create vessels that can receive heavenly blessings.

To view the fliegelach as a test that will “do good for you in the end”, and at the same time to invest effort to reach that good soon.

It is not easy, but it seems that that is the way.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

the right to pray

Sometimes, when I approach Hashem to pray to Him, a thought goes through my mind, saying, “By what right are you requesting anything?” I’m not talking about ordinary, everyday prayers, but prayers when faced with difficulties, when one is finding it hard to cope, when one is in serious distress.

With Hashem, after all, there’s no room for acting. We don’t fake piety; we don’t boast emptily about what we don’t have, and we don’t even tweak our CV’s. We approach prayer with the clear understanding that He knows what we are thinking deep inside, so how and in what merit do we really dare to ask?

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Rashi describes prayer by commenting on Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayer, and on the way he also answers our question.

The parasha opens with Moshe Rabbeinu’s beseeching Hashem to allow him to enter the Holy Land. “Va’etchanan (I implored) Hashem at that time,” says Moshe, and Rashi explains: “Va’etchanan – [the word] chanun always implies a matnat chinam – an undeserved gift. Although the righteous could cite their good deeds, all they ask for from Hashem is an undeserved gift.” And little me clings to this idea, is encouraged and understands that imploring Hashem and requesting things from Him is, in its essence, a request for a gift that we have no right to ask for. And therefore, whether you have merits or not, you can ask and beseech. 

Rashi goes on to speak about the power of prayer in every situation. Here, Moshe Rabbeinu is asking and imploring even though it has already been decreed by Hashem that he will not enter the land. Therefore, he opens his speech with the words, “You have begun to show Your servant…” Explains Rashi: by saying that, Moshe is saying to Hashem that Hashem began to teach him the power of prayer in any situation.

And then we reach the sweet conclusion of Moshe’s prayer: “for what power is there in the heaven or on earth that can perform [anything like] your deeds and Your mighty acts?” and as Rashi expands this prayer: “You are not like a flesh-and-blood king, who has advisors and associates who protest when he wants to act with lovingkindness and contrary to His usual traits; there is no one who will protest if you forgive me and annul your decree.”

So we see that even the great Moshe Rabbeinu, the person who brought the Ten Plagues on the Egyptians, split the sea, brought down the Tablets of the Law and spoke to Hashem face-to-face, as it were, in the end, when he needed a salvation, he prayed like a Yiddische Mama praying for her children. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

 

The trial of g-od

At age fifteen, Eli Wiesel was already in Auschwitz, so writes Robert McAfee Brown in his introduction to The trial of god, a play written by Eli Wiesel. A teacher of Talmud made friends with him in Auschwitz and insisted that every time they meet, they should study together – Talmud without writing instruments, Talmud without paper, Talmud without books. That will be their act of religious defiance.

One night, the teacher took Wiesel with him back to his barracks, and there, in the presence of the young man as a single witness, three Torah scholars – learned in the Talmud, halacha and Jewish law – sued G-d, having formed a Torah court of law.

The court case lasted a few nights. Testimonies were taken, evidence gathered, conclusions reached, and in the end all of these culminated in a unanimous decision: The Holy One, Blessed Be He, Creator of heavens and earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humanity. And then, after what Wiesel describes as a “deathly silence”, the Torah scholar looked up at the sky and said, “It’s time for Ma’ariv,” and the members of the court went to pray the evening prayers.


My friends, this meeting point between the pain and mourning of a Jew in Auschwitz, and the firm belief and hope for a better future expressed in prayer, is most fully experienced this Shabbat, the Shabbat when we read Parashat Devarim.

Shabbat parashat Devarim is the last Shabbat before Tisha B’av, and this year it actually falls on the ninth day of the month of Menachem Av, with the fast postponed to Sunday. We have been mourning for three weeks already – not having haircuts, not listening to music, and, from the beginning of the month of Av, not eating meat, not drinking wine. But then Shabbat comes, and mourning is forbidden on Shabbat. On Shabbat we make kiddush on wine as usual, and eat the usual Shabbat foods, as if we are not in a period of mourning. 

It is a mixture of pain and joy.

It is called “Shabbat Chazon” – for two reasons: One, because the haftara from the book of Yeshayahu opens with the words “Chazon Yeshayahu”, and in it Yeshayahu laments the sins of the nation and its leaders and rebukes the people for their lack of integrity in their bringing of offerings. He also warns the people of the terrible punishment that awaits them: “Your land is laid waste, your cities consumed by fire.” The other reason for calling this Shabbat “Shabbat Chazon” is because on this Shabbat the upper levels of every Jew’s soul can view (chozeh) the future Beit Mikdash (Temple).

Past destruction and future building reign together.

And maybe – maybe – this is an integral part of our essence as a nation. We will always connect past and future, destruction and rebuilding, mourning and joy. Perhaps this is part of the secret of our survival and existence as a nation; we have never wallowed in pain and mourning, but rather always knew to lift our heads, grit our teeth, and move forward. 

Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

 

 

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