Rabbi's weekly Blog

a 'Brivaleh' in a Soviet prison


Dear Friends,

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, 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

give my son whatever you want



“I am going to Paris, so I can bring something to your son who is studying there,” so said a Jew from Vitebsk to his friend in Shul. That person’s son was studying music in Paris, so he was quite happy with this offer. The “Jewish mail system” was always helpful there.

So the father gave the man ten thousand rubles and said to him: “Please take this to Paris, and give my son whatever you want; the rest will be your fee as a courier.”

When the courier arrived in Paris, he gave the student one thousand rubles and kept the rest for himself. The young man had received a telegram from his father, and therefore knew that his father had sent ten times that amount. He called the courier to a Din Torah (litigation in a rabbinical court) in front of a rabbi.

The wise rabbi said as follows to the courier: “The father said to you, ‘Give my son whatever you want.’ Now that we all know what you want – nine thousand rubles – you should give that sum to the son, and the remaining one thousand keep for yourself as your fee.”

“You shall not bear a sin when you raise up its best from it,” says the Torah in this week’s Parasha, relating to the gifts that are to be given (“raised up”) to the Cohanim. What sin is being referred to here? Chazal (our Sages) said that the gifts should be  from the best and choicest produce – the parts we would like to have for ourselves. The Rambam (Maimonides) wrote in Hilchot Issurei Mizbe’ach: “A person who wants to gain merits should overcome his evil inclination and open his hand and bring his sacrifice from the most beautiful and finest of the species he is bringing from.” The Rambam then goes on to broaden this principle, so that it includes anything that a person gives and donates: “The same is true for everything that is [given] for the name of the Good G-d, that it should be from the most beautiful and the best. If he builds a house of prayer, it should be finer than the house he lives in; if he feeds a hungry person, he should feed him from the best and sweetest that he has on his table; if he covers a naked person, he should cover him with the most beautiful of his clothes. If he consecrates something, it should be from the best of his possessions.”

For not only donations, but, rather, anything that we give for a holy purpose, for the Torah, the People and the Land, should be of the best, as the father said to the courier: “What you want for yourself, give my son.”


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

When they make their own decisions

Two of our children left home this year: Our 16-year-old daughter went to study in the Chabad School in Israel, and our son went away to the Chabad Yeshiva in Antwerp. It is not easy for us parents to have the children leave home, but there are many advantages to this, and we do our best to focus mainly on them. The most significant point is that the children suddenly become independent, and have to make their own decisions. We’re not talking about life decisions, but still, when it comes to their lives as teenagers, these are important and significant decisions. It could be a financial decision – what they should spend their allowances on; or a social decision – how to handle some friend; it might also be a spiritual-Torah decision – what and how much they should take upon themselves in Torah and Mitzvot (beyond what they are obligated, of course).

Parents reading this will most probably agree with me, that when we see our children making a decision on their own, we feel very proud, especially when the decision is in line with the education we gave them. These are moments of pure Nachat – pleasure and satisfaction. We watch from the side, and say to ourselves that the investment – those sleepless nights, for one thing – has paid off.

How is this connected to the weekly Parasha? Well, this week’s Parasha contains a fundamental message to us, to our lives in general and to our lives as parents in particular.

Bnei Yisrael asked Moshe to send spies to scout out the land. Moshe consulted with Hashem and received a strange answer, as Rashi spells out: “Send forth men, if you please. I am not commanding you; if you want, send.” When I read this I wonder: I would think that a flashing red light would go on in Moshe Rabbeinu’s mind, that he would understand the clear hint and not go ahead with sending the spies. On Shabbat Parashat Shelach in 5749 (1989), the Rebbe described it as follows: “He was told ‘I am not commanding you, rather you should send if you want…’ this is very unusual behavior (on the part of Hashem) – something to be noted! It should have awakened a doubt (on the part of Moshe) that something is different, and why did he decide on his own to send the spies?!”

The truth is that Moshe did notice the red warning lights. He understood the risk he was taking and that is why he changed the name of his disciple from Hoshea to Yehoshua, saying “Hashem will save you from the evil counsel of the spies.” If so, how did he decide to send them anyway?

And here, in a fascinating discourse, the Rebbe taught us on that Shabbat an important and basic rule in running one’s life, which can be summed up in one sentence: We received from Hashem a brain and a heart, hands and feet, so that we will know how to handle ourselves on our own. What if we make a mistake? In that case, apparently, that is our way to learn – through our mistakes. Yes, just like a father and mother who raise children and give them the tools they will need, so that when the day comes they will be able to run their lives on their own. And if they err? So what? With Hashem’s help they will learn from that mistake for the future.

Only thus will everything we do be “ours”. Our sages have already taught us that though the level one can reach when being led, hand in hand, from above, is higher, the work that we do on our own is more precious.

And the Rebbe continues there: “When Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Send forth men, if you please. I am not commanding you; if you want, send,” then not only was Moshe not afraid that this was an undesirable matter, but the opposite – he was happy about the novelty of this message from Hashem, that the work below will be done by way of free choice – according to man’s will and knowledge.”

You might ask, why specifically in the matter of sending the spies did Hashem say, “Send forth if you please”? This was unlike what happened with other questions and suggestions that originated in the people, such as Pesach Sheni and the offerings of the princes of the tribes, where Hashem responded and gave exact orders as to what to do. Why did Hashem start in this case to “trust” his sons? The answer is that sending out the spies was the last stage before entering the land. And in the land, the Jewish People would no longer be children who receive everything from Hashem – no more Mann and Clouds of Glory; in the land they were to plow and sow from sunrise to sunset, and guard their borders all the time. From the moment they enter the land, they will be taking responsibility for their lives, for the first time. “Entering the land” is when the child leave home and goes to study in a different country. As preparation for this change, Hashem gave them, for the first time, the chance to decide on their own, to use their minds and hearts in order to figure out how to conquer the land.

One more thing: Hashem allowed the spies to make a mistake; even Moshe, the faithful shepherd, who saw the flashing lights, decided to risk it. We too, as parents, like Moshe the shepherd, should let our children make mistakes. And if they actually do so? Well, let us hope that with Hashem’s help, thanks to all that we taught them, they will know to learn from the mistake, and grow from it.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

between Chreime and Gefilte


Dear Friends,

It was my first public speech. I was a young man, and I still remember my voice – and my body – shaking. It was on Chanukah, and the city was “apportioned out” to the students of the Chabad Yeshiva in Jerusalem – in other words, it was decided who will bring the Chanuka lights to which section of the city. My friend and I were given the Malcha Mall, which had opened only a short time before this. I still remember the excitement involved in speaking with the mall’s officials to ask them to authorize (and pay for…) the lighting of a large menorah in the mall. I am still moved when I remember the surprise of how swiftly and warmly the owners of various businesses in the mall joined in the effort so that the party would be successful: one supplied the PA system, one paid for the large menorah, and the Ne’eman bakery donated the traditional doughnuts.

While I was busy with the final arrangements, the manager of the mall thrust a microphone into my hand and said, “Chabadnik, get on the stage and say some Dvar Torah (Torah message) or something.” When I got on the stage, I saw dozens of people, and, of course, children, and I got really scared. I lifted up my eyes to heaven in order to gather my wits together, and discovered that on the floors above people were leaning over the bannisters, waiting to hear what I would say. And then, in the following order, my knees went weak, my mouth became dry and my voice – shaky. But Hashem, with His great power, opened my mouth and I said: “Rabotai, look at the menorah. It has one solid, broad base and from that base come its different branches. Why does the menorah have separate branches? Because the menorah symbolizes the Jewish People. We have different ways to serve Hashem, different traditions that developed in each exile and even different songs. But all the branches – all of them – are connected to each other, and are really standing on one solid base, and that is our being one people, with one Torah and one G-d.”

Several years have passed since then. I know the beauty of this nation much better than I knew it then. I have learned to know and appreciate so many interesting and exciting customs and traditions, things that people do today exactly the way their forefathers did for generations. I have also seen people accept upon themselves lovingly new customs that they saw by the Rabbis from whom they had learned Torah and Fear of G-d. As we stand here on Parashat Beha’alotcha, in which Aharon HaCohen is commanded to light the candles so that all seven will spread their light, I remember my shaky limbs at the Malcha Mall.

About two thousand years ago we were scattered among the nations. We barely met each other during all those years, and when we did meet in the Holy Land, we found that the gefilte fish and the chreime differed greatly in their shape, consistency, color and especially flavor. But they are all connected to a single solid base, because both of them are an outcome of the verse “Remember the day of the Shabbat to sanctify it.” We celebrate Seder night with different matzahs, different Carpas, depending on the origins of the family. Even the Marror is not the same. But all of us – from Tzan’a in Yemen to Babruisk in Belarus – observed in our own way the mitzvah of “You shall tell your son”, which is written upon the solid base under our menorah’s branches.

One more thing: For all of us, our central goal, privilege and obligation is to illuminate the world with the light of goodness and loving kindness, love and joy.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

one big, beautiful picture


Dear Friends,

The world has always been divided between those who exalt the equality and the similarity between all human beings, and those who emphasize the individuality and special traits of each person.

It is an age-old question: what can bring peace and unity? Will these come about when all the differences between human beings are tucked away, out of sight, so that everyone will look the same and seem equal, or when we will learn to focus on each individual’s differences and uniqueness, and yet, contain these differences?

In Parashat Nasso, which we will read tomorrow, there are 71 Psukim (verse) that repeat themselves almost word for word. That is the description of the consecration of the altar in the Mishkan by donations and sacrifices. It was performed during twelve days, in which the twelve leaders of the tribes that constituted the Jewish People brought their offerings. There is something interesting here. On one hand, the princes of the tribes donated and brought identical sacrifices and offerings; on the other hand, they didn’t do this all together, but, rather, each one brought his on a different day.

We learn from the Midrash that in spite of the fact that every one of them brought the same things, each one “brought according to his mind.” The feelings were different, the thoughts were different; each one of the princes had his own special intentions that were behind his actions. Each one of them expressed his uniqueness and the uniqueness of his tribe – while doing the exact same acts as the other princes. The Midrash even gives in detail the various intentions behind each and every offering of each and every prince.

In Likutei Sichot, section 23, the Rebbe gleans a message from this behavior of the princes. On one hand, we are all similar, because we have one father and our souls come from the same source. Knowing and recognizing this unity will indeed move us towards togetherness, but this will not be deep and internal enough, because, practically speaking, we are different from each other. That’s why we need the other aspect: to face, with courage, the fact that “each and every one has aspects and levels that his fellow does not.” Such a way of looking at things will lead a person to the conclusion that we are all parts of a puzzle and together create one big, beautiful picture. In the words of the Rebbe, “When one knows and feels that everyone needs the others and that no one is complete without his fellow, this brings one to join in unity with another Jew, and so one completes his fellow, and, as is known, all the Jews together create one complete level.”

Integrating these two aspects of unity is so important, that without it the people could not complete the consecration of the altar. On one hand, it was necessary to leave room for the differences and the uniqueness in that every prince should have his own day to bring his offerings, and specifically “according to his intentions” – his own, individual ones. On the other hand, it was important to emphasize that each one of us, in his own private service of Hashem, is part of one big thing that is common to all the other princes.

In short: We are all part of one big, beautiful and precisely drawn picture. But we must not forget that in order to put it together, one must recognize the uniqueness of each piece of it.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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