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when my teacher threw me into the water

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

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

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

So why did Nachshon jump in, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

VIP Shabbet

This week I participated in a prestigious Bat Mitzvah party in London.

The event was very special – very fancy and very well planned. The guests felt truly honored and were given VIP treatment.

When the speeches began, I noticed that the life of the Bat Mitzvah’s family centers around one day of the week: Shabbat.

The father spoke about the Shabbat prayers. The sister mentioned the long summer Shabbat days when they take walks together. The friends commented “It’s a pity that you never come to visit us on Friday night – you’re always with your family.” And the mother – she spoke about the special Shabbat food, the candles, and the Zemirot that are sung. She added on explanations about the concept of Time and our ability to use it correctly.

I sat there, watching and listening with growing excitement. I have no doubt that the Shabbat of this family is also conducted as a prestigious, well-planned and honor-filled event, at least as much as the Bat Mitzvah party. They welcome Shabbat the way one welcomes an important guest, no less than when they greet guests who have come from far away to celebrate with them.

My friends, Time gets special attention in this week’s Parasha. The first mitzvah that Bnei Yisrael (the Jewish People) received as a nation was the mitzvah to consecrate the month. The Torah commands us to determine the first day of a month according to the New Moon. And this is how it works: The Jewish court listens to the testimonies of witnesses who have seen the New Moon that has just appeared, and, based on that, declares a specific day to be Rosh Chodesh – the first day of the month.

The Rebbe explains that the reason that the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh (consecrating the first of the month) was chosen to be the first mitzvah is because it has something unique about it.

But first, an introduction: the goal and essence of the mitzvahs that were given us is that through them we should sanctify the world in which we live. How? By using material objects for good things, for Chessed (acts of loving-kindness), for mitzvahs and for Torah, we invest that material object with holiness. The best example for this is money. On one hand, money is the most material thing in the world – people waste their time running after it. But, on the other hand, a coin can become the holiest and most sublime thing. Because when a person gives a coin to Tzedakah (charity), in that moment he has changed the coin: it is no longer a base, material object, but rather a holy and refined mitzvah.

Most of the mitzvahs deal with influencing everything that exists in Space – objects, people and places. There is one mitzvah whose goal is to influence Time as well, and that is the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh.

By the Jewish court declaring that a certain day is the first of the Jewish month, the 24 hours of an ordinary day become 24 holy hours. The dates of the holidays are calculated according to this declaration: will Pesach fall on Wednesday or on Thursday? And once it has been determined, then that chosen day becomes holy and special; no Chametz can be eaten on it, and no work may be done etc.

What did I learn from the Bat Mitzvah? That when there is a time that was set to be holy and sublime, we must do everything possible within the realm of Space – nice clothes; tasty, special food; a clean house – in order to sanctify Time – the 25 hours of the seventh day of the week.

 

Wishing everyone Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

We are at the end of the story

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

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

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

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

To me it all sounds something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

do you need your name?

This week I participated in a course about officiating at a wedding ceremony, given by the Rabbinical Center of Europe.

We had four full days of in-depth and comprehensive study of the entire subject, from the stage of Shidduchim (matchmaking) through the Kiddushin (the giving of the ring), the Ketuba (marriage contract) and the Nissu’in (actual marriage). At the end of it all we were given a long and difficult test. Whoever passed it will receive a certificate from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, certifying one as a “Certified Officiator at Wedding Ceremonies.”

On the important things in writing the Ketuba is getting the names of the bride and groom right. The names must be very exact, very accurate, so that even many years from now people will know whose Ketuba it is.

In Chassidic writings it is explained that a name, though it might be very important, is still something external. In other words, a person needs a name so that others will be able to communicate with him or her, but he or she can really manage without a name. For example, if one is closed in a room, alone, for a whole day, there is no need to have a name – there is no use for it.

In other words, the name of something is not the thing itself; they are two separate things: the thing and its name.

This is true of the Jew’s Neshama (soul), as well. The essence of the Neshama has a very sublime source – “a part of G-d Above really,” as it says in the Tanya. This essence does not come down and merge with one’s body. What does merge with us is the “name” of the Neshama, in other words, only its external expression. And though it is indeed an external expression, it is one that is very connected with the Neshama itself, and even draws its power from the Neshama itself Above.

We gain from the fact that only the “name” of the Neshama merges with us, while its essence remains Above. What we gain is that in every situation we might be in – exile, difficulties, tight spots, internal, personal, private exile or external exile of the nation as a whole – always, always, the Neshama itself remains clean and free. And when the Neshama itself is free, its “name” too, that which is merged with us, with our bodies, will always be able to draw strength from it and remain free of any exile, difficulty or tight spot.

This is what the Rebbe taught us in connection with Parashat Shemot, which we will read this Shabbat in the Torah. In this Parasha the exile of the Jewish People begins – the Egyptian exile. The Parasha is called “Shemot”, and the entire Chumash (book) is called Shemot as well, to tell us that only the “name” of our Neshama is in exile, but the Neshama itself never goes into exile.

If we will always remember this, we will be able to draw much strength from it, and will be able to rise high and overcome any situation and get out of any tight place.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Zalmen Wishedski

What are you more – an Efraim or a Menashe?

 

Dear Friends,

 

What are you more – an Efraim or a Menashe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Zalmen Wishedski

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