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Rabbi's weekly Blog

Naso 5774

 

The Na’aseh Venishma Syndrome

 

Dear Friends,

 

This past winter, a couple came into my office. He is Israeli, she’s a European Jew. They were thinking of getting married and had come to find out about the procedure.

When I started to explain to them what is expected of them, the husband-to-be said that he already knows everything. His cousin’s friend had become a Ba’al Teshuva, his brother had been to Uman two years ago, and his grandfather (of course!) had been a Rabbi.

I just smiled to myself and said, “The Na’aseh Venishma (we will do and we will hear) Syndrome.”

“Na’aseh Venishma,” he repeated. “That’s what the Jews said on Mount Sinai, right?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Na’aseh Venishma is what we said when we received the Torah. But the Na’aseh Venishma Syndrome is what you are doing right now.”

And so, maintaining a pleasant demeanor, I told him of the interpretation that we have attached to Na’aseh Venishma. Originally, as we know, it is an expression of obedience to Hashem and unconditional acceptance of the Torah. But we, over the years, have turned it into “First we’ll do what seems right to us, and then we’ll hear what you have to say.”

Luckily enough, the young man understood me immediately, and from then on listened seriously to what I had to say.

I myself experienced the Na’aseh Venishma Syndrome, when I first bought a closet from Ikea. As a proud Israeli, I didn’t think that I needed to take lessons from the Swedes of Ikea. I put together the closet – “did” it – and then, when I noticed that it was somewhat wobbly, I opened the instruction booklet and “heard” about the mistakes that I had made. Taking apart the closet and starting all over again, while muttering my frank opinion of the Swedes, taught me the hard way that one must first hear, first listen, try to understand, and only then – do.

Friends, the Shavuot holiday is approaching. “Everything that Hashem said, we will do and we will hear,” the Jews said then. “Na’aseh Venishma” we too, will say on Shavuot, when we will come with our offspring to hear the Ten Commandments being read and to receive the Torah anew for the 3,326th time. But please do not confuse Na’aseh Venishma with the Na’aseh Venishma Syndrome.

From a loving heart, I hereby bless all of you that you should receive the Torah joyfully and internally – “Besimcha uvepenimiyut,” as we say.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

Bamidbar

Dear Friends,

This week I am going to tell you about an interesting scientific phenomenon that exists in the Negev, the southern region of the Holy Land.

My friend, Dr. Tamir Klein, a young scientist, works in the Botanical Institute of Basel University. In his doctorate, he reported about a unique phenomenon that has caused quite a stir among other scientists, and has even received angry responses from some older ones, who don’t quite believe his findings.

In the northern Negev, north of Beer Sheva, there is a Jewish National Fund forest – the Yatir Forest. It was planted in the 1960’s by new immigrants from North Africa. The idea was simply to provide them with some kind of employment – in this case, forestation. Forty years have passed; the planters are no longer there, but the trees, Jerusalem pine trees, are still there. And here’s the phenomenon: this is the only place in the world where trees grow in spite of severe desert dryness. They grow almost without any water, and have actually developed a mechanism that enables them to stay alive and even grow in spite of the lack of moisture.

Dr. Tamir Klein, a proud Jew, brings scientists from all over the world to Israel, so that they can see this amazing phenomenon. “Forty years in the desert” he calls it.

The book of Bamidbar (“In the desert”) that we will begin reading this week also tells of an amazing phenomenon. It tells of people who spent forty years in the desert, and created life for themselves. The Torah was given in the desert; the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was built in the desert, and they even got to know G-d in the desert.

Everything has a reason, and one should learn from everything, certainly when it is written in the Torah, because the Torah is a book of teaching and instruction. The Rebbe says that the Torah was given in the desert, so that in all the following generations, up to this very day, a person should know that even in the dry and barren wilderness one can plant and build, and things will continue to grow and develop. When a person reaches a place that is Jewishly a desert, or if he is in an emotional desert – wilderness, or emptiness – he must know and remember that even in the desert one can build a Mishkan for Hashem. The Torah and Mitzvot, life and vitality can be brought even to the desert.

Like the trees, people too have an inner mechanism – the Jewish soul – which will enable them to continue to grow and develop anywhere. And like with the trees, with people too, experts will come and say that it’s impossible: this is a hot, dry, barren area. But Parashat Bamidbar will always be here to say to us that “the Negev, too, will bloom.”

And I say: My friends! Go and engage in forestation!

Shabbat Shalom Umevorach,

Zalmen Wishedski

 

Bechukotay - Lag BaOmer

 

Dear Friends,

 

“A Freilicher Rebbe” (a happy Rebbe) – that’s what the Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch, used to call Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Of course he was a happy rebbe; he was happy and made others happy. In his burial place in Meiron over half a million people will be jumping and dancing during the 24 hours of this coming Sunday. Rabbi Shimon will made people happy in every corner of the world where there are Jews – some of them participating in parades of brotherly love, and some of them in events involving music and fire – and it will always be a combination of light, warmth and joy.

In tractate Shabbat (33b) it is told, that when Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, came out of the cave where they had been hiding for 12 years, they saw people plowing and planting. They were puzzled: “These people are setting aside eternal life and engaging in temporary life?” Every place they laid their eyes on was incinerated on the spot. A Heavenly voice came out and said: “Have you come out to destroy my world? Return to your cave.”

So they went back and sat in the cave for another 12 months. When they came out again, they saw at dusk on Erev Shabbat an old man running and holding onto two sprigs of myrtle. They asked him: Isn’t one sprig enough for you? He answered them: One for “Zachor” (remember) and one for “Shamor” (observe) [Shabbat]. Rabbi Shimon then said to his son: See how much the Jews love the Mitzvot!

I understand their puzzlement. After 12 years of only spiritual endeavors – Torah and prayer day and night, the mundane activities of plowing and sowing seemed almost like a travesty. And that brings about the question: How can a Jew, who has such a holy, G-dly soul, involve himself in the physical world?

But they received a message from Above: You need another year in the cave, in order to take note and internalize, that the goal is not to separate between the material and the spiritual, but to connect the two. The task of man in the world outside of the cave is to bring the spirit to the material world, to sanctify the physical world and to purify it. When you look at it from that angle, you will see the beauty of the fragrant but material sprigs of myrtle that are brought in order to honor the Shabbat. You will see the sweetness and the purity in the face of the old man who is excited about picking two sprigs of myrtle for his wife.

Rabbi Shimon is a happy Rebbe, and we simple Jews should be happy Jews. Joy and happiness, my friends, lie in the simple things – so simple, that sometimes we don’t pay attention to them, because G-d is in the small details.

Happy Lag Ba’Omer!

Shabbat Shalom,

Zalmen Wishedski

Behar 5774

 

Dear Friends,

 

In a village in Poland there was a much-respected scholar. Among other things, he succeeded in convincing everyone that he was the most humble man on earth…

The Rabbi of the Shtetl went to meet this learned man and said: “Your honor, I have a question. You are a scholar, and you most probably knew what is written in the book of Bamidbar, chapter 12: ‘And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any person on earth.’ The question is, if you are the most humble person in the world, how does this work out with the verse about Moshe?”

The scholar answered him with a perfectly straight face: “Yes, I know that verse, and I have the same question. I don’t have an answer to it.”

Said the Rabbi to him: “If you have the same question, I already have an answer…”

Unlike that scholar, it is clear that Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher) was not putting on an act of being humble. It is also clear that Moshe Rabbeinu was aware of his special status, including that of being the leader of a people chosen by the Creator. He knew  that he was “Moshe Rabbeinu”, and the question is, how could he, in spite of all this, still be the most humble person on earth?

The Rebbe provides a simple explanation: When Moshe looked at other, ordinary people, he thought to himself: “It’s true that today, in my position and status, I am in a different, more important, more meaningful – and infinitely more sublime – place. But I received all of this as a gift. I was born into the family of Amram and Yocheved, without my having chosen it. I am a Levite – also without my having chosen it. Even my being the leader – Moshe Rabbeinu – was a choice Hashem made, against my will. If Hashem would have chosen someone else and given him the possibilities and opportunities He gave me, it’s possible that that person would have done everything better than I have.”

That way of thinking was what prevented him from feeling any sort of pride, and made him the most humble of people.

The two sides of Moshe’s personality – recognizing his stature of being Moshe Rabbeinu with all that that implies on one hand, and true and honest humility on the other hand, are a life-lesson for all of us.

This idea is expressed in the name of this week’s Parasha as well, Parashat Behar (Sinai).

Har Sinai, too, has two aspects to it: a. It is a mountain, meaning it stands high and tall. b. It is a low mountain (every Jewish child knows of the “fight” the mountains had, based on the Midrash on Tehillim 25), not showy or impressive like other mountains, certainly not to be compared with the mountains surrounding us here in Switzerland. In other words, it is a mountain, but merely Mount Sinai, nothing more.

The fact that the Torah was given by Moshe on Mount Sinai shows us the way to lead our lives. On one hand, a person must certainly acknowledge his virtues, his positive traits, his talents and even his accomplishments. On the other hand, like Moshe Rabbeinu, he must remember that much of what he has is made up of gifts that he has received. His place of birth, his family, his personality and talents. Thinking about all this balances a person in his life, and affords him a bit of modesty. This is true in work relationships, in family life – and generally.

In serving Hashem, in observing the Torah and keeping the Mitzvot, that’s what it is like: Sometimes one must be a tall, strong and proud mountain. Sometimes, and maybe most of the time, one must be modest and humble. Sometimes there is a need for Jewish pride – without being embarrassed and without being moved by someone who might be mocking our way of life or finding it funny. Sometimes, and perhaps usually, one must behave with humility and be careful to avoid pride and loftiness.

In other words, one must find the correct balance between the mountain – loftiness and pride, and Sinai – the humility and modesty so necessary if one wants to be a good person, both when it comes to interpersonal matters and when it comes to one’s relationship with the Alm-ghty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Zalmen Wishedski

Emor

 

Dear Friends,

 

In Basel there is a young mother, a very special and gentle person. Every time we meet, and she asks me something, or tells me something, I find myself thinking about what she said, and even discussing it at home.

This past Monday, she heard me saying “no” to my three-year-old Mendel, upon his request to do something. She commented: “I met a kindergarten teacher in Tel Aviv who told me, ‘Nowadays we don’t say “no” to a child, but, rather, “It will be better for you if you don’t” (or: “It’s not worthwhile for you”. In Hebrew: Lo Kedai Lecha).’” Instinctively, I answered: “You and I both grew up at a time when we were told “no”, and the result isn’t so bad, is it? So maybe, not everything that is said and done today is so brilliant and right.”

As usual, I found myself thinking over what she said, and deliberating. I am not a psychologist, not even a facilitator of a parenting class, and certainly not a super-nanny. But still, my common sense and the little experience I have strengthened my opinion that there’s some mistake here. The modern world is so quick and novel, different and special, that sometimes we forget to look back and see that there are truths that don’t change, and there are behaviors, and in this case, education methods, that are not replaced so fast, especially if they were rather successful in the past.

I imagined that kindergarten teacher seeing a child about to touch an open electrical outlet. Would she go over to  him calmly and say, “Sweetie, it will be better for you if you don’t, because there is an electrical current in this wire, and you might get electrocuted, that is, feel a strong shock in your body and get hurt. I really don’t recommend it”? Or would she scream and say “No!!” in a most definitive way? The answer is clear.

I thought that saying “It will be better for you if you don’t” is a mistake because:

a. In saying that, I am allowing him to make his own decision, when it is clear to me that it is not good for him, and since I am the responsible adult, the decision, like the responsibility, has to be mine.

b. In saying “It will be better for you if you don’t” I am educating him to think in terms of personal gain, when true education has to be based on giving and sacrificing, which include doing things even if they’re not so worthwhile for the child, and even if he won’t gain anything from it. I am also concerned that when that three-year-old will be ten years old, and we will ask him to clean up his room or go buy bread for breakfast, he will answer “I don’t want to,” because he will make the calculation that it’s not worthwhile for him and he won’t gain anything from it.

There is one more thing: I truly believe that a child has to do what his father or mother tell him to even if he does not understand right now why and what for. It should be enough that they told him to do so.

This discussion is suitable for this week’s Parasha – Parashat Emor, because this week we learn the instruction that we parents, and grownups in general, must take responsibility and make sure to educate our children to refrain from the bad and connect with the good. This is learned from the seeming repetition of the word for “saying” (Amirah) in the first verse in the Parasha: “Emor…Ve’amarta…” Chazal (our Sages) said in Tractate Yevamot that this comes to “warn the adults about the children”. The adult Cohanim must warn the young Cohanim not to become impure. Chazal extrapolated from that to the entire Torah, and, actually, to all of life: adults are obligated to warn children, fathers to warn sons, teachers to warn students. They must prevent them from transgressing, and they certainly shouldn’t cause them to transgress, even when they are underage and are not obligated to observe the Mitzvot.

In conclusion, here is a beautiful commentary that the Rebbe brought many times about this ruling: “Lehazhir” (to warn) is connected to the word “Zohar” – glow. The adults should Lehazhir – be glowing and light up their surroundings in their behavior, and thus will have the best influence on the young people, so that they too will glow and light up their lives.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Zalmen Wishedski

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