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Rabbi's weekly Blog

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

 

 

An investment with immediate returns

I was never in a remote African village, nor have I ever been in the lesser developed areas in India. But from reading, hearing and watching programs about these places, I have learned that people there can be happy for a whole day if you give them one apple. If you give them two apples, they will be happy for two days. And I don’t mean the Apple Company. In our successful and advanced Western world, where people have much more than an apple or two, people lack happiness.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Menachem-Av. “When Av comes in, we decrease in happiness,” said our sages in masechet Ta’anit. But we shouldn’t forget that one can decrease only something that exists already; something that does not exist cannot be increased, just like it cannot be decreased. Therefore, even during the Nine Days, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple, we first have to put some happiness into our lives, and only then will we be able to adjust its level to these days, as Chazal said.

In one of the Rebbe’s talks in the winter of 1992 (5752), he explained in the simplest way why it’s worthwhile for us to put happiness into our lives. Here is what he said – in my own words:

Why is it worthwhile to be happy? Because then you will be both ben Olam Hazeh (destined for This World) and ben Olam Haba (destined for the World to Come).

How do we know you will be ben Olam Haba? The Rebbe mentions in his talk the famous gemara in masechet Ta’anit 22 about Rabbi Broka who met Eliyahu Hanavi in the market and asked him: “Are there people here who merit the Next World?” Eliyahu Hanavi pointed at two Jews there and said: “Those merit the World to Come.” Rabbi Broka approached them and asked them, “What is your occupation?”, and they answered: “We are happy people, and we make sad people happy.”

In other words, do you want to merit Olam Haba? Be happy, make others happy, and, if necessary, do some standup comedy for them. 

How about meriting Olam Hazeh, This World? Here, the Rebbe says one clear sentence: “By way of happiness he becomes a true ben Olam Hazeh; his life in This World is a real, happy and successful life.” The Rebbe also explains simply how it works: “The nature of happiness is that it acts on and permeates all a person’s matters. When a person is happy, he lives a happy life, with a happiness that affects all his deeds. This happiness brings success to all his actions and his entire life – as one can see for oneself.”

One more small thing: the returns on the happiness arrive immediately – not in a decade and not in a week, and not even in an hour. A person who decides to be happy at this moment, will become happy immediately, right now, and those around him will feel it immediately as well. 

Try this at home. 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

the varied customs of our people

I grew up in Kfar Chabad, which, by definition, is a village where all the residents are Chabad Chassidim. It was and is a wonderful place to live – a place of Torah and Chessed. All the people there are Chabadniks, so that I almost never found myself among Jews who were not Chabad Chassidim. There was only one person in the village who wore a Shtreimel on Shabbat – it stood out among all the fedoras – but he, too, was a Chabadnik.


Only when I was seventeen years old and went to learn in a Chabad Yeshiva in Jerusalem did I become acquainted with the vast and wonderful variety of Jews, the varied and wonderful foods that had been brought from all the different places of exile to the holy city, and, of course, the special customs of the many Jewish communities. For the first time, I saw that the Chabad customs were often different from those of other communities. It was then that I also understood the importance of preserving one’s customs. The love and connection and I felt towards the Chabad customs that I had acquired in my parents’ home and in my teachers’ homes crystallized into the most solid pillar of my life.


One of the more noticeable points of difference was, without doubt, the issue of joy on the Shabbatot Bein Hametzarim – the period of national mourning about the destruction of the Temple. I had come from Kfar Chabad, where the joy is actually accentuated on those Shabbatot – and Chabadniks know how to be happy. And here I saw communities in which the Lecha Dodi was sung to the same tune as the Kinot – the lamentations said on Tisha B’Av – and in which people wore less respectable clothes than usual, because of the mourning. For a curious person like me, it was absolutely fascinating. I remembered that the Rebbe would always increase the joy on those Shabbatot, and in his lessons he would explain this, using something of a one-plus-one logic. Since one is forbidden to mourn on Shabbat, and since one should not lessen the usual joy, so it won’t look or seem as if we are less joyful because of the mourning, so surely we should be joyous.


And why be more joyous than usual? Here the Pnimiyut – the inner aspect of the Torah – comes to the fore and teaches us: Shabbat is the representative of the future redemption in our lives, so much so that the future redemption is called “a day that is all Shabbat”. A Jew who observes the Shabbat comes out of a week of everyday material living and in one moment – upon lighting the candles – ascends to a dimension of spirituality and holiness. This is just like the true and complete redemption, for when it will come, speedily in our days, we will leave six thousand years of material exile and enter the spiritual seventh millennium.


So, if we are happy on every Shabbat, because it is like the World to Come, so in order to bring the redemption into our lives on the Shabbatot between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’av, we need much more happiness than on an ordinary Shabbat.

How wonderful are the varied customs of our people.


Shabbat Shalom,

Mashiach Now!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Shem Hachiluf and Shem Hama’alah – ever heard of them?

Shem Hachiluf and Shem Hama’alah – ever heard of them?


Sefer Hama’amarim (Book of Essays), written by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn in Yiddish (there is a translation as well), is a wonderful book with easily understood Chassidic sayings. In it, it is mentioned that there is a difference between the two times in the Torah when it says, “Your name shall no longer be…” Once, it is in connection to Avraham Avinu, when a heh was added to his name – “Your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham.” The second time is in connection to Yaakov Avinu, when he received the name Yisrael: “Your name is Yaakov. Your name shall no always be called Yaakov, but Yisrael shall be your name.”When it comes to Avraham, from the moment his name was changed, he was no longer referred to by his former name, Avram; whereas in the case of Yaakov, the Torah continues to call him by both names – sometimes Yaakov and sometimes Yisrael. 


In Sefer Hama’amarim, the Rebbe teaches us that Avraham is a “changed name” – Shem Chiluf. In other words, it completely replaces the former name. But the name Yisrael is Shem Hama’alah, meaning, it is a step up from the former name, but does not replace it. 

The difference between them is as mentioned in the Gemara in masechet Nedarim (32b): Avram in Gematriya is 243, symbolizing the fact that in his service of Hashem he had reached the level of controlling 243 out of his 248 limbs, and then Hashem added the letter heh, which expresses his achieving control over five more limbs that are especially hard to control, such as eyes and ears. Since then, he becomes Avraham = 248. 


In contrast to that, the name Yisrael is coming to express another way of serving Hashem – indeed, loftier and different, but an additional way, and not coming to take the place of the previous way. The name Yaakov symbolizes the service of a slave, as it says, “And now, hear Yaakov, my slave.” A slave does anything his master tells him to do, but not always with feelings of love and heart-penetrating joy. The name Yisrael symbolizes the service of a son, as it says, “My son, my firstborn, Yisrael.” A son serves his father with love and inner joy. 

That’s what it says in parashat Balak: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling-places, Yisrael.” The service of a slave, Yaakov, is practical and important, but external; it doesn’t penetrate. Therefore, it is like a tent, an external cover. The name Yisrael, on the other hand, represents the service of a son. It is an internal service that arises from the heart of the person. Therefore, it is like a dwelling place – it dwells in the innermost parts of his heart and soul. 


The service of a son is indeed loftier than that of a slave, but both of them are necessary. Sometimes we wake up in the morning full of joy and excitement connected to the feeling of holiness and mitzvot, and we do our work with heartfelt enthusiasm, like a son who serves his beloved father. But there are times when we get up feeling weakened and lacking desire to serve, and yet, we still get up and do what has to be done, even if it is without much joy and enthusiasm – like a slave serving a master. 


Therefore, on the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days), we beseech Hashem: “If like sons, if like slaves. If like sons, have mercy on us like a father has mercy on his sons. And if like slaves, our eyes turn to you that you should favor us.”


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

a story of a Brivaleh

This is one of the stories of heroism that I was raised on. Mother and son were imprisoned in the same Soviet prison, on different floors, their cells one on top of the other. I heard, as well, that they corresponded with each other, as prisoners do, using a thin piece of thread that went up and down between the windows. What I was curious about was, what did they write to each other? What does a mother, who has been sentenced to death, write to her son who has been sentenced to “only” ten years of exile to Siberia? 

I knew that we were talking about Momme Sarah )Great-grandmother of Sarah Grוzman from Basel(, a tremendously brave woman, possessing courage that was beyond reason, which came from a sincere willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of preserving the spark of Judaism. Her picture, in all her various disguises, was hanging in every police station throughout the Soviet Union. She personally saved hundreds of men, women and children; she had more names and passports than she could remember. And here she’s in jail, with her young son imprisoned on the floor below her. The inmates mail messages to each other; one can only write a few words. What did she write to him?


I found a description of all this in the writings of her son, R. Moshe Katzenelbogen z”l, known to all of us as Moshe Sareh’s: “The inmates invented a system of throwing notes up and down by tying them to a thin thread. After they would throw the thread, on the end of which was a “Brivaleh”, they would bang on the wall to notify the others, so that the piece of paper would reach its destination. I remember that one time my mother asked me if she can daven the Shmoneh Esreh of Mincha (afternoon prayer) of Shabbat in the morning as well, because she remembers it by heart, and doesn’t remember the Shmoneh Esreh of Shacharit (the morning prayer). I remembered that strictly speaking it is possible to do so, and that’s what I answered.”


Brivaleh – a little note, passes somewhere in a Soviet prison in Tbilisi from floor to floor, from a mother sentenced to death, to a son who has been sentenced to ten years. And what’s in that little Brivaleh? A simple question put by a great woman – can she say the text of Mincha as Shacharit.


How could that be? How could it be that in such a Brivaleh that will be the question that troubles her?


The answer lies in the Chassidic approach to the first Pasuk of Parashat Chukat: “Zot Chukat HaTorah” – This is the decree of the Torah. There are several grades and levels of connection between the Torah and a person. I will quote two of them mentioned in “Likutei Torah” (a basic book on Chassidut, written by the Ba’al HaTanya), on Parashat Chukat: 

a. The written letters – like material letters written upon parchment. The letters are ink, which is something different and separate from the parchment, and which had no connection to the parchment beforehand, but afterwards, when he writes the book with ink on the parchment, they combine and become one. 

b. But engraved letters – they are part and parcel [of the stone] and they are really one with the stone they have been engraved in. 


It seems, then, that for Momme Sarah the Torah and Mitzvot were engraved on her soul, on her heart, and when Torah and Mitzvot are connected to a person by way of engraving, they cannot be separated. The Torah and the person are “part and parcel and they are really one”. So, when the letters of the Torah are engraved upon a person’s heart like letters engraved on a stone, then even when he or she is sentenced to death and has a Brivaleh tied to a thread going between the prison cells, the question will be whether it is permitted to daven Shacharit by using the text of Mincha. 


Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Freud vs. the Rebbe

“Freud dug into the soul of man and came up with mud; chassidism dug into it and found gems and pearls.” So said the Rebbe to someone in a personal meeting in his room, what we call a yechidut.

To my understanding, there is no opposition here to Sigmund Freud in particular; what there is, is a demand aimed at the whole world. If you peered inside the soul of a person, a friend, or a relative, and yours as well, and found mud and dirt, then you weren’t looking right; you hadn’t reached the root; you hadn’t peeled enough away, you hadn’t touched the point.

It’s okay if at the beginning one finds mud; it makes sense that one doesn’t see the diamond right away. Even in the best diamond mine in the world one has to dig and sort, clean and refine. But all that, on condition that we remember all the time that we’re sitting on a diamond seam, because otherwise we will think that it is indeed just mud, and we will give up. 

And yes, sometimes one needs a professional, an expert, who can examine the find and determine that these are indeed diamonds, and not mud.

The Rebbe was a professional, an expert. The Rebbe examined the soul of man and found the beauty and the purity, the richness and the good. He reached the gems. 

Tomorrow is the 3rd of Tammuz.

The 3rd of Tammuz is the yahrzeit, the hillula of the Rebbe. There is much to learn from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. For every realm of life there is the Rebbe’s original approach, his clean and pure view, the surprising message (how didn’t we think of this before?). And sometimes it seems to me that everything is based on that message. Because when we have the sense to see the good, clean root of every person, ourselves included, then in every single thing in life, and especially in our connections with other human beings, the approach and the response, the speech and the action, everything will emerge from a deep and clean place in us, and so will certainly touch the other person and reach the deepest, cleanest place in him. 

This is not just another positive view; it is not just a focusing on the half cup that is full; it is the view of the one and only truth. Diamonds, not mud. 


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A Finnish surprise

On Wednesday morning I boarded a Finnair flight from Zurich to Helsinki, together with my good friend, Rabbi Chaim Drukman from Luzern. Helsinki is a very beautiful city, but that was not the reason for our trip. We took this 2400 km, two-and-a-half hour flight in order to celebrate together with our beloved friend, Rabbi Benyamin Wolff and his family, as he dedicated the Chabad House in Finland.

I have known Benyamin for more than twenty years. 

I have known the devotion of his wife Ita and how much their children love the shelichut. Our children are friends of theirs. 

As a shaliach, I know very well what they are coping with and how huge and significant this moment was; I felt that the simcha, the happy occasion, was my own. 

I knew that they have been shelichim of the Rebbe in Helsinki for nineteen years already – more than once, I received regards from them, from people who had been hosted by them or had just passed by. 

I had known that they had purchased a building.

I had also known that the building was named after Sami and Charlotte Rohr z”l. I remembered how Sami told me, when he visited Basel, about his special connection with Rebbetzin Ita Wolff, going back to when she was a one-year-old and arrived in Bogota, Colombia, with her parents, Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin and Rivka Rosenfeld, who had come to serve as Shluchim there. 

But, much to my surprise, there was much that I did not know.

I did not know that they are not the first Chabad shluchim in Finland.

I did not know that their children are not the first children of shluchim to be born in Finland.

I did not know that seventy years before they went there, in 1930 (5690), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad Rebbe and the father-in-law of our Rebbe, sent Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu Shwei z”l to Finland, and for five years he illuminated Finland with Torah and chassidut, giving Torah classes to children and adults – Benyamin and Ita met one of those children when they arrived in Finland.

And the biggest surprise of all: I did not know that Rabbi Shwei was Rebbetzin Ita Wolff’s great grandfather! His son, Rabbi Izik Shwei z”l, was actually born in their place of shlichut.

With goosebumps from the surprise, I stood there, looking at the Wolff children, and suddenly understanding that they are fifth-generation shluchim. A fifth generation of people who in the definition of their essence are dedicated and fully devoted to the Jewish People, to each and every man, woman and child. They are not the first in their families to be born into a life of shlichut, and neither are their parents; in fact, their great-grandfather was also born into a life of shlichut – and in Finland, just like them. 

There was one more thing that I realized only when I was already on the way back to the return flight to Zurich. I realized that we had been in Finland, met hundreds of people, and didn’t hear one word about NATO, nor about Putin. Instead, we heard a lot about love and about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. People spoke about their love for Rabbi Benyamin, Ita and their children. The speakers mentioned the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who inspired the construction of this great and important edifice.

The President of the Jewish community in Helsinki, Mr. Yaron Nadvornik, connected the two things when he said with much feeling that of all the rooms in this impressive building, what he liked most was the wall upon which the picture of the Rebbe hangs and the inscription above it: “Make things warm and bright for others; God will make things warm and bright for you.”


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski



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