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Jews of the Ba’al Shem Tov

 

Before I wish you a good year, I would like to tell you about a Rosh Hashana that I spent with “Jews of the Ba’al Shem Tov.”

At the end of the year 5757 (September, 1997), I was helping my brother, Rabbi Pinchas Wishedski, in the city of Donetsk, together with my good friend Shlomi Bistritzky (Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky, rabbi of Hamburg).

Before Rosh Hashana, we decided to go searching for our roots in the town of Lubavitch in Russia. The Shabbat before Rosh Hashana we spent in Moscow, and after Shabbos was out we traveled to Lubavitch.

On our way back to Donetsk, going through Moscow, we chanced to go by the office of Rabbi David Mondshine, the director of the Ohr Avner Chabad Organization in Russia. Even before greeting us, he informed us that we are going to Vladimir for Rosh Hashana… “What is Vladimir?” we asked him. “Vladimir is a city of about 350,000 people, about 200 km east of Moscow. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they called and asked that we send them a Rabbi ‘who will make the holiday for us’,” answered Mondshine.

We didn’t resist much. Rabbi Mondshein gave us a box containing Talitot, Machzorim, a Shofar, readymade salads from the “Miki” company, a package of matzos and two cans of gefilte fish (don’t try this at home). We wanted to take a Sefer Torah with us as well, but the lady in charge of the community informed us that they have a Sefer Torah.

When we arrived there, we found a small group of Jews, most of them elderly; some of them still understood a bit of Yiddish. We announced the time for the morning services, invited them to come and hear the blowing of the Shofar, and even invited them to come for Tashlich.

They came. Not all of them, but some of them. The lady with the Sefer Torah arrived too. I remember our excitement when we saw her marching through the streets towards our hotel, a big suitcase in hand. But, more than that, I remember her opening the bag happily and taking out of it… ten Chumashim with Russian translation. Apparently, that’s what she meant when she said that they have a Sefer Torah…

We were disappointed, but not much, for we didn’t have a Minyan – the required ten men; only 9.

Rather quickly, we pulled ourselves together and began to daven with our Jews. We explained to them what Jewish prayer is, and what Rosh Hashana is, what is Shacharit, and what is Mussaf, and why the Teki’ah and why the Shvarim. And these Jews, who were the age of our grandparents, sat, the tears streaming down their cheeks. Sometimes they sat quietly, meditating; sometimes they extracted from their memories a long-lost sad Jewish tune; and every once in a while they would hug us lovingly, longing for something they never knew/

I call them “The Jews of the Ba’al Shem Tov.” Simple Jews, who didn’t know what davening was, but their overflowing hearts called out “Our Father, Our King, please accept our prayers with mercy and favor.” They had never seen a Shofar, but the Shvarim (fragments) of their pure hearts produced Teki’ahs  (the simple sounds) and Teru’ahs (the broken sounds) that rent the heavens.

More than anything else, I remember our leaving the place. They all showed up at the train station. “Please thank the Rabbi from America who sent you to us,” they said, as they cried. We, too, cried.

Since then, every year I wish myself that I will manage to pray on Rosh Hashana as we prayed there in Vladimir, without a Minyan and without a Sefer Torah. I wish this to you too.

From a happy and loving heart, I wish each and every one of you a Ktiva Vechatima Tova – to be inscribed in the Book of Life – a good and sweet year, a year of prosperity and good health, a year of Nachas from the children and the grandchildren; a year in which the Mashiach will come and take us out of the exile, bringing us the true and complete Redemption.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

We are a team!

Dear Friends, 

Two years ago I participated in a course for young rabbis given by the Rabbinical Center of Europe. One of the lecturers, Eitan Eckstein, taught us about teamwork.

And here is what I remember from that lecture:

Are four people traveling together from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for the same purpose – to attend a wedding, for instance – a team? Obviously not. “Do you know when they will go from being just four people to being a team?” asked the lecturer. “When they have a flat tire, they will immediately become a team.”

He quoted the American expert on organization, William G. Dyer, who wrote that a team is a collection of people who have to make use of group cooperation if each one of them wants to reach optimal success and achieve his goal.

How is all this connected to us? It’s very simple: We are a team! In other words, we have to remember that we – every member of the Jewish nation, male or female – are a team. For in this week’s Parasha, which is always read before Rosh Hashana, there is the event that is the preparation for that Day of Judgment: “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d.” And then, the text goes on to list ten types of Jews: “the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel. Your small children, your women, and your proselyte who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.”

To put it simply: Today, Rosh Hashana, the day of judgment, you are standing together – the heads of your tribes and the drawers of your water, your elders and the hewers of your wood. You are one team! True, you are not equal, but that is because you are not meant to be equal. You are supposed to be different from one another because only that way, with every person contributing his different skills and abilities, will the team achieve its goal.

The problem is that we remember that we’re a team and not just a collection of people only when we get a flat tire… For example, last summer the war turned all of us into a real team – a team that recognized the value of each and every individual and the real connection that we have with each other as a people.

The Parasha of Nitzavim comes to tell us that we should remember that we are a team even when there is no flat tire. We should love and respect each other and deal with each other with love even when there are no sirens or missiles.

 

My friends, there is no better preparation than that for Rosh Hashana; really, there isn’t.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

Decide to be happy!

The Chassid Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman z”l served for many years as the “Mashpi’a” (spiritual guide) in the Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. Mainly, he was a living example of how a Chassid who truly serves Hashem should look. His students and the people he guided carry his figure and guidance in their hearts to this day, many years after his passing in 5731 (1971).

I heard once about a couple who came to him shortly after their wedding and asked for some advice for life.

What Rabbi Shlomo Chaim told them was: “Decide to be happy! Because in life there will be moments when the happiness will not come naturally; perhaps there will be good reasons not to be happy. Therefore, I ask of you to make a decision that in every situation you will make sure to be happy.”

What is special about this piece of advice is that R. Shlomo Chaim was determining that being happy or not is dependent on our decision. If you wake up in the morning in a bad mood, it is within your ability to turn your thoughts around.

I, personally, like this piece of advice very much.

The importance of being happy is always relevant, but this week it is particularly so, for in this week’s Parasha there is a special instruction regarding happiness. The Torah describes the Mitzvah of Bikkurim, in which a person should bring the best of his first fruits to the Beit Mikdash, thanking Hashem for all the good He has bestowed upon him. And then it says: “And you shall rejoice in all the good that Hashem, your G-d, gave you and your home.” This is a command to be happy, not only about the Bikkurim that you just brought, but in general, to be happy with “all the good that Hashem, your G-d gave you and your home.”

Besides the Parasha, there is also a Halacha connected to joy during these days. The Rebbe makes an interesting calculation. He quotes the Gemara that is brought down as law in the Shulchan Aruch as well: “The early sages enacted an ordinance that the Darshanim (preachers) should start teaching the laws of the festival publicly thirty days before the festival.” In other words, there is an ordinance compelling the Jew to involve himself in the matters concerning the holiday thirty days before it comes. Here is the calculation: From the 14th of Ellul (today is already the 16th of Ellul), we are within the thirty days before the holiday of Succot. Succot is special in that the Torah says about it: “You shall rejoice in your holiday and be only happy.” In other words, besides ordering a Lulav and Etrog, and taking care of building the Succah, one should involve oneself with matters concerning happiness.

How does one do that? As R. Shlomo Chaim said, one decides to be happy! Is it hard? O.K. – so for what do we have a stereo system, if not in order to insert a disk and press “play”? And if that doesn’t work, one can always have a little “L’chaim.”

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

Where is the bill of divorce?

 

Here’s a good story:

In Tractate Sanhedrin (105b) it is told that ten people came to the prophet Yechezkel. He said to them: Repent! They said to him: A woman who was divorced by her husband – does any one of them have any demands on the other? At which point Hashem said to the prophet: Go tell them [the words of the prophet Yeshayahu]: “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce by which I sent her away?”

In simple terms:

The ten men claimed: how can Hashem ask us to do Teshuva, to repent – after all, he has divorced us. The “ex” no longer has any say in the life of the person he or she divorced.

But Hashem answered: “Where is the bill of divorce? True, I sent you away from Me and from My land because of your behavior, but I did not divorce you – there is no bill of divorce!”

This is how the Rebbe answers another question about the same issue. Among the laws of marriage that are mentioned in this week’s Parasha, there is a law stating that it is forbidden for a man to marry a woman if he already intends to divorce her; this law is based on a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs): “Do not devise evil against your neighbor, one who dwells securely near you.” How simple; how logical.

But here comes the question: How is it that Hashem married the Jewish People when He gave them the Torah when He knew already then – for He knows everything – that there will come a time when He will have to exile them, send them away? That is like the case brought in Mishlei, of devising evil against one’s neighbor, isn’t it?

But it isn’t. Hashem did not send us away! There is no bill of divorce separating us one from the other.

Several weeks before the Yamim Nora’im (the High Holy days) is a good time to remember that fact: There is no bill of divorce, and Hashem has the right to demand that we repent and come back to Him.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

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