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What do you see in the ring?

Dear Friends,

“When you look at this ring, what do you see?” That is what R. Mendel Futerfas asked Rabbi Shabtai Selvitzky from Antwerp, who was then a young man, engaged to be married. “Well,” said Shabtai, “I see a round piece of yellow metal.” R. Mendel was not satisfied, and asked again: “What do you see in the ring?” The young bridegroom looked again and said, “A smooth and beautiful piece of gold jewelry.” R. Mendel was still not satisfied, and said: “You don’t see the main thing. The main part of the ring is the free space inside it. The ring teaches you that the best piece of advice for married life is to be willing to give the other person space, to listen, to be able to contain.”

Chazal (our Sages) in tractate Ta’anit said about the Giving of the Torah, that it was the Jewish People’s wedding day – the day they married the Creator. When we are once again preparing ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot, which will be like remarrying Hashem, it would be good to remember the ring and the free space that is part of it. Because the best way to receive the Torah that is being given us is to come to it with humility and purity, a willingness to listen and to contain – to be an empty, free space.

That way, we will be able to receive the Torah with joy and Pnimiyus – its deep, internal aspects.

 

Chag Same’ach!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Falafel Nachum

 

Dear Friends,

“Falafel Nachum” was an important part of my childhood. When we children would travel from Kfar Chabad to Bnei Brak, we would know that the trip was worth it – even walking down the especially hot and sticky Rabbi Akiva St. in Bnei Brak – because in the middle of it, right at the peak of the hill, was Falafel Nachum.

Yesterday I searched for that Falafel store in Bnei Brak. Not because I was hungry, but simply for tradition’s sake. But it doesn’t exist anymore. It closed a while ago. So why am I bothering you with my childhood recollections?

Well, a number of years ago Devorah and I went to Nachum’s. It was early evening. There were a number of quiet moments, during which only the bubbling sounds of frying could be heard. Nachum stopped his automatic stirring movements and said, “That’s it. I can now close the falafel store.” And without waiting for our response, he continued: “For forty years I have been here morning to night. For forty years I have been in this roasting heat between the falafel and the Sechug (hot red sauce) and the garlic sauce (Nachum did not serve French fries – only falafel), and I had only one prayer in my heart: ‘Ribbono Shel Olam, allow me to raise children and grandchildren who are involved in Torah and mitzvahs, fine, decent people, who possess fear of Heaven.’ Do you understand what I am saying? Falafel did not interest me – all I wanted was children with ‘Simanim’ (Pe’ot/sidelocks).

“For forty years I have been putting six falafel balls into the pita together with humus, so that I will be able to make a decent living for my family, so that my children will be able to follow the ways of their forefathers.”

We watched Nachum wipe the sweat off his brow, and we listened to his heart. And then I asked: “So why close the store, Nachum?”

“Because last week my youngest daughter, number seven, got engaged. Like her brothers and sisters, she will be starting a fine Jewish family that is proud of its traditions. Today I bought all she needs to set up a household: a refrigerator and a stove, a dining room table and washing machine – all from this falafel. Ribbono Shel Olam, in His great goodness, has fulfilled all my desires and answered all my prayers. So now I can close the falafel store.”

We were silent as we listened to this simple, true Jewish soul. The other people there were silent as well.

We were silent and listened to Nachum’s living interpretation of the verse, “And you shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart and all your soul and all your resources.”

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

This bill smells great

Dear Friends,

Rubi was the teenage son of a successful businessman. One day, his father called him in to his office on the 15th floor and said: “I want to make you a partner in my diverse endeavors, but before that you must pay me $100 within four days.” Rubi did what he knew best how to do – he went to his mother and asked her for $100. She gave it to him without asking too many questions. When he brought the money to his father, his father rubbed the bill, smelled both sides of it, and then said, “This bill doesn’t smell good” – and tossed it out the window. The next day Rubi brought a new bill from his mother. Again, the father rubbed it, smelled it with a stern look on his face, said “This bill doesn’t smell good,” and threw it out the window. This happened twice more.

On the last day the father said to his son: “If you don’t bring me a good $100 bill by this evening, you will not be able to be a partner in my business.” Rubi’s mother wasn’t home, and he had no one else to ask. That being so, he went out into the street and tried to obtain the money. In the supermarket he was told that if he will help people carry their groceries to the car, they will probably give him a tip. And so, he found himself working the entire day, sweating, as he worked harder than he ever thought he could. He got a dollar from one man; from a woman he got five dollars, and so, slowly, he collected the money, changed it for a single $100 bill and ran to his father’s office. Tense and wary, he presented the bill to his father. The father rubbed the bill, smelled it with a stern look on his face, went to the window and began to say, “This bill doesn’t…” But he didn’t complete the sentence, because Rubi called out from the depths of his heart, “NOO!!!! Don’t throw that one out! I worked for it all day!”

“This bill smells great,” said his father, and he didn’t toss it out of the window.

“Anyone who accepts upon himself the yoke of [not taking] interest – accepts upon himself the yoke of Heaven, and anyone who shrugs off the yoke of [not taking] interest, shrugs off the yoke of Heaven.” That is what Chazal (Our Sages) said about the prohibition against lending with interest that is mentioned in this week’s Parasha. The Rebbe explained the connection between interest and Hashem’s heavenly kingship. The acceptance of the yoke of Hashem’s kingship is not merely agreeing in one’s heart to accept it; neither is it a verbal utterance or dancing and singing “HaKadosh Baruch Hu, we love you.” The acceptance of the yoke of Heavenly Kingship is putting in the effort to serve Hashem by way of learning His Torah and observing His mitzvos. And that is why it is called “Avodat Hashem” – “working” for Hashem.

Money that one earns from interest is not coming directly from labor. Interest is money that is earned for money that someone labored for in the past, and the interest that one receives for it is no longer the result of labor. The Torah doesn’t believe in gifts that are obtained without some effort, because such gifts are not of sufficient value, and a person who lives off interest is actually going against the way that Hashem intended human beings to operate.

The fact is that people have less respect towards things that have been received without labor. They don’t appreciate anything that they get for free, just like Rubi, who didn’t care at all if the money that he had not worked for was thrown out. But when his father wanted to discard the dollars that he had worked for – and worked hard – a cry of anguish escaped from him, for he had worked for every single dollar of it!

And if I may add from my own personal experience, things that I got quickly and easily, whether spiritual values or material objects, did not remain with me for long. Things that I labor over stay with me forever.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The holiday of optimism

 

Dear Friends,

Rabbi Akiva says: If [a person] learned Torah in one’s youth, he should learn Torah in his old age. If he had students in his youth, he will have students in his old age” (Yevamot 62b). This is the Gemara’s introduction to the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. In other words, the Gemara brings Rabbi Akiva’s saying and then tells of how he indeed did as he said. It is not simple to lose all of one’s disciples, a loss that includes all the Torah that he taught and passed on. How can we expect him to have the strength to start afresh? But that is exactly what Rabbi Akiva did: “And the world was a wasteland (after the death of the disciples) until Rabbi Akiva came to our Sages in the south and taught them – Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and they are those who set up Torah [learning].”

A person who had needed Madison Square Garden in order to give a class to 24,000 students, was instead sitting in some “Cheder Sheni” in a neighborhood shul and learning everything from the beginning with all of five disciples. And let us not forget, by the way, that it was forbidden to learn Torah at the time, and, indeed, Rabbi Akiva was arrested for this “crime” and murdered brutally. I don’t ask where Rabbi Akiva had the strength, the power and the courage to do all this, for this is the same Rabbi Akiva who started learning to read when he was forty years old already. He had a rich record of going against conventions and doing the undoable.

It is not surprising that he actually succeeded with those five and renewed the learning of the Torah!

He was successful because he was an incurable optimist. He always saw the good that was a few steps ahead (he laughed when he saw a fox come out of the destroyed Holy of Holies, and expressed this in other incidents as well).

It is interesting that his close disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, inherited from him this positive viewpoint. The Gemara in tractate Shabbat 132b says: “Our Rabbis said: when our Rabbis came to Kerem BeYavneh, they said, ‘the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish People… Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: G-d forbid that the Torah should be forgotten from the Jewish People.”

The situation in the land of Israel was not easy. The sages were concerned for the future of the Torah; they were afraid it would be forgotten, but Rabbi Akiva’s closest disciple said decisively: No chance of that happening. It will not be forgotten.

Lag Ba’Omer is the holiday of our most optimistic sages. Lag Ba’Omer is the holiday of optimism. And this is the source of the endless joy attached to it. Whoever isn’t optimistic probably doesn’t celebrate it, or else he is forced to be optimistic for at least one day.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Smart Rebbetzin

 

Dear Friends,

He is a busy and well-respected rabbi, devoting his entire time to the public, to his important congregation. Everyone – adults and children, the weak and the strong, women and men – know that they will find a listening ear in his office, and much willingness to help.

“Josh called this morning,” his wife wrote to him. “He will be in town tonight and will come over at 8:00 pm to visit us.” Josh is a wealthy and respectable person, who also has a generous heart and donates willingly and generously to the rabbi’s activities. Such a message, first thing in the morning, made him happy. He also realized that this is an opportunity that does not arise every day, and that he must prepare properly. “We ought to make sure that the children go to sleep early tonight. And please make your wonderful strudel. It’s a very important meeting,” he wrote back to his wife.

The rabbi came home earlier than usual that day. He was there during the hectic time of supper, showers and bedtime. By 7:30 the house was quiet. His wife went out for a few moments to the store, and he set the table, putting out the inviting strudel. At 8:00, on the dot, the doorbell rang. Spruced up and wearing a tie, he opened the door, calling out a hearty “Bruchim Haba’im!” (Welcome!). But, to his surprise, it was not Josh who was standing there, but his wife, the Rebbetzin, also elegantly dressed, who said, smiling a trifle shyly, “Josh won’t come. Josh didn’t even call. It’s only me. I just wanted to have a meeting with you.”

He understood the point immediately. With his heart filled with a mixture of shame and pain, as well as with inner joy that he had such a wise wife. She had found the way to explain to him that in addition to the congregation and the important public he serves, he also has a dear wife, who spends most of the time waiting.

“And he will atone for himself and for his household and for all the congregation of Yisrael.” This is what the Torah says at the beginning of this week’s Parasha, when describing the service and the mitzvahs of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) on Yom Kippur. Yes – in those words. On Yom Kippur the Cohen is busy caring for the Jewish People. On his shoulders rests an entire nation, which is looking up to him and praying for his success, that he should achieve forgiveness and atonement for everyone; that he should succeed in his task so that all of them will be sealed in the Book of Life for good, healthy lives. Everyone is fasting, himself included. They are all outside of the Beit HaMikdash, and he goes in in order to atone for them, for his brothers and sisters, men, women and children, his people. And precisely during those great moments, precisely when he is busy with the most important service of the year, the Torah tells him in the clearest way possible: there are priorities in life. Atone for yourself, and then for you wife and children, and only afterwards atone for the rest of the Jewish People.

Chazal said in tractate Yoma, (44b): “and he will atone for himself and for his household and for all the congregation of Israel – his atonement comes before his household’s atonement. His household’s atonement comes before the atonement of his brothers, the Cohanim. And the atonement for his brothers the Cohanim comes before the atonement for the entire Jewish People.” On the first page of tractate Yoma it says, “And he will atone for himself and for his household – his household means his wife.”

To express it more simply: a person who wants to save a sinking ship, must first of all make sure that his ship is very stable, otherwise he will drown with everyone else.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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