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the altar can't be impure


In the month of Cheshvan, 5711 (1950), the participants in the mishnah class in the Arizal shul in Montreal celebrated a siyum (completing) of seder Moed. . The Lubavitcher Rebbe was not yet the official Rebbe of the Lubavitch movement, but they sent him a letter, asking for his blessing. I assume that they expected to receive back a short note with blessings for success, and kudos for the achievement. But Rebbe, who was already beginning the Jewish revolution in the world, wrote them a long, four-page letter in Yiddish.

One must explain that the Rebbe’s revolution in the Jewish world was not only in sending chassidim to set up Chabad Houses all over the world – in my eyes, that is already the result. The Rebbe’s revolution was in the thoughts: he wanted to change the approach of the rabbis and leaders, as well as those of all those who came to shul. Instead of classifying Jews according to what they looked like from the outside, the idea was to get used to looking inward and seeing the beauty and the purity.

The letter, from the 15th of Marcheshvan, 5711, is addressed to: “Honored President, gabbaim and members of the Nusach Ha’arizal shul, Montreal. After a few lines of blessings and, of course, encouragement to continue to grow in quality and quantity, the Rebbe goes on to relate to the last mishnah in Seder Mo’ed, Chagigah 3:8, which states as follows: “All the vessels that were in the Temple must be immersed in the mikveh, except for the golden altar and the copper altar.” In a characteristic explanation, the Rebbe describes how a person is a tabernacle, and has within him various vessels for containing the Divine Presence within him. Like in the Mishkan, a person has vessels such as emotions and intellect, eyes and a mouth, hands and feet – tools with which he acts and through which he expresses himself in this world.

When a person uses these vessels and tools in holy and pure ways, he can become a mishkan for the Shechinah (Divine Presence). Hashem will dwell within him, inside him, through him. but there is a problem: these vessels can also become defiled. There is no need to go into details – everyone knows exactly how it is possible to cause the emotions and the intellect, the senses of sight and hearing, speech and touch – to become tameh, impure. What can be done? This is what the last mishnah in Seder Mo’ed is coming to tell us clearly: Everything can become defiled, except for the altar! What is the altar in man’s life? That is the innermost level of the soul. An altar that is already ready for sacrifices: the point of mesirut nefesh – total devotion – that exists in every one of us, what is called in chassidut Dos pintele yid.” This inner point of connection to Hashem can never become defiled.

And when we remember that in our essence we are clean and pure, we will be able to rise from that point, overcome, grow and influence the other vessels of our personal mishkan.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

“Where is G-d?”

Elliot Lasky was just another one of those young people who were searching for themselves at the beginning of the 1970’s in the United States – in a variety of places. He thought he would find answers in music, but even after he had spent the summer of 1972 on a two-month, cross-country tour of the Rolling Stones, he was still searching.

And so, he found himself on one freezing day in the middle of the winter of 1973, standing on the steps of the famous red-brick 770 building in Brooklyn, the world center of Chabad, waiting for the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

At the time he was sporting a beard and shoulder-length hair, and was wearing snakeskin boots, jeans and a leather jacket. He approached the Rebbe, who had just gotten out of his car. Using the Yiddish that he knew from home, he asked the Rebbe: “Excuse me, are you the Lubavitcher Rebbe?” And thus started a fifteen-minute conversation, which he describes as being life-changing.

Elliot cries when he remembers the Rebbe’s eyes. “Our eyes were locked. I have never seen eyes like that.”

“I have a question,” he said to the Rebbe. “Where is G-d?” “Everywhere,” replied the Rebbe. “I know,” said Elliot, “but where?” Again, the Rebbe answered, “Everywhere. In the tree, in a stone, everywhere.” “I know,” repeated Elliot, their eyes still locked, feeling that the physical world around them had ceased to exist. “I know, but where is he?” “In your heart,” answered the Rebbe. “G-d is in your heart.”

“And they will make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in them,” said Hashem to Bnei Yisrael in this week’s parasha. “In them” – Hashem wishes to dwell inside Bnei Yisrael, in the heart of each and every one of us. How does one do this? How does one build a personal, private Beit Mikdash inside ourselves, in our hearts?

This is what the Rebbe writes in a talk for parashat Terumah: “When a person makes a sanctuary  from his material possessions for Hashem – learns Torah and observes the mitzvot and brings holiness into mundane matters and non-obligatory things – Hashem dwells within him.”

Elliot Lasky stood with the Rebbe in front of a shul and a beit midrash, but when he asked where G-d is, the answer was not “Here, behind you, in the shul.” The answer was: “Everywhere. In the tree and the stone. In everything, and yes, of course, in your heart as well.”

Hashem and the Torah don’t belong only in the beit knesset and the beit midrash. We must find the way to sanctify our daily life – including work and travel, meals and business discussions. It might seem difficult at first, but it is really very simple. When a person believes and knows that G-d is really everywhere, he will know how to sanctify the time and place in which he is operating.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Modern slavery

The Chinese are in the process of taking over the world market. How do they do it?

A wise person once said that they have simply invented a new way of doing things, which the rest of the world isn’t familiar with: they work during their workhours.

It is very important to work during one’s workhours, of course. But it is no less important to know to stop working after hours, and to allow ourselves to live, as well.

In this week’s parasha we learn the laws of the Hebrew servant. A Hebrew servant is a Jew who has found himself in a financial or personal crisis (such as having been caught stealing), and has had no choice but to be sold or sell himself as a slave in order to return his debt. The sale is for only six years, and when that time is up, he becomes a free person. If that person wishes to remain a servant, it is possible, but on condition that he do something unpleasant: have his ear pierced.

Why is it the ear that is pierced?

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said in tractate Kiddushin, “The ear that heard [Hashem saying] on Mount Sinai ‘To me Bnei Yisrael are slaves,’ and went and took upon himself a master, will be pierced.” Hashem says to the Jew: I understand that you had to sell yourself as a slave in order to pay off your debts; it was absolutely necessary, and that’s fine. But why do you still wish to serve a flesh-and-blood master after you have already been freed? Look around and see what you are really worth. Look and see whom you should really subject yourself to: not to a human being, but rather to the Creator of the World.

In our world today there is almost no classical slavery left, but there is definitely modern slavery. When we speak of modern slavery, the reference is usually to the U.N.’s report and to the World Labor Organization that deals mainly with workers in poor African countries, or with migrant workers in the Western world who work many hours for very little payment in order to earn their meagre portions of bread.

The Rebbe says there is another kind of modern slavery, and it is not poor workers who earn very little, but also and maybe mainly, someone who might have a good, respectable and well-paying job. Why is he called a slave, in spite of this? Because he doesn’t recognize the boundary between work and life. I started my message with the Chinese, who definitely work during workhours, and that’s wonderful – that’s the way it should be. But one mustn’t forget that beyond work there is life. Beyond work there are family and children, dreams and wishes. There is spiritual life and there is a holy soul that is suffering thirst in a dry, wasted land.

The Rebbe brings a rather simple way to gauge the situation: the holy day of Shabbat. Shabbat is the day on which we raise ourselves above our material existence, like chassidim say in Yiddish: “one tefach (handbreadth) higher. They set aside the temporal life and turn instead to eternal life. If you find yourself preoccupied with work matters on Shabbat, that means that you are a modern slave.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Is there a difference between love and respect?

Is there a difference between love and respect? Do all kinds of love necessarily come with respect?

At the end of parashat Yitro, the Torah says, “You shall not ascend My Altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.” In other words, there shouldn’t be steps going up to the altar, because climbing them will make the cohen take big steps, thus degrading the stones, the Altar stones. Rashi learns from this the importance of behaving decently: “This is a kal vachomer: If about stones, which have no awareness to be upset about being degraded by others, the Torah said that since one needs them, one should not behave disrespectfully towards them, how much more so your fellow, who is in the image of your Creator and is particular about being degraded!”

But, wait a minute; why does one have to learn to respect people through a kal vachomer learned from the stones of the Altar? After all, we have a pasuk in the Torah that says, “Love your fellow like yourself”. In other words, not only are we supposed to respect our fellow, but we should love him. Is there a difference between love and respect?

In my opinion, it is possible to love someone truly and wholeheartedly, and still not respect him enough. Love is a feeling, whereas respect and honor are mainly a practical issue. As Chazal say (Kiddushin 31b) about the pasuk “Honor your father and your mother.” They ask: “What is honoring?” and they answer: “Help him with all his needs, feed him, give him something to drink. And, if necessary, dress and cover him, take him in and out.” It is interesting that sometimes, particularly with very close friends and family members, not to mention spouses, when the love is greatest and open, the basic respect is missing.

Perhaps that is the reason that “Honor your father and your mother”, which seems on the face of it an obvious thing, is part of the Ten Commandments. Because it is easy to love, but one has to make an effort to honor and respect.

Perhaps this is the explanation of why the students of Rabbi Akiva – the same Rabbi Akiva who said, “Love your fellow as yourself – that is a great rule in the Torah” – did not behave respectfully towards each other. Because love and respect are two separate things. They definitely loved each other, but their respect for one another was lacking.

So Rashi comes and says: Listen well. The Torah here is demanding that we show respect for mindless stones – stones! We should learn from this a kal vachomer and honor and respect people who do have minds and are likely to be particular and be hurt if one degrades them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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