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“I wish both sides good luck.”

 At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s, the late Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, said something that became one of his most famous utterances: “I wish both sides good luck.” I assume that he did not mean to express pleasure in view of any bloodshed, but rather was commenting that two of our enemies were fighting each other, like the battles between the Hizbullah and ISIS in the past few years, and that is a blessing for us. As long as our enemies are busy with each other, they have less time and ability to hurt us.

The coming Shabbat is called “Shabbat Hagadol”, after the miracle that occurred then, on the Shabbat before the Exodus from Egypt. What was the miracle? It says in Shulchan Aruch Harav that the firstborn of the Egyptians saw Bnei Yisrael preparing sheep for Korban Pesach, as they were commanded to do. When they asked them what they were going to be celebrating, the reply was that there would be the Plague of Firstborn, in which all the firstborn of the Egyptians would die, and after that Bnei Yisrael would be released from their slavery. The Egyptian firstborn, who already believed the miracles of Moshe and Aharon, understood that someone is having an ego struggle on their backs, and they started a war with the rest of the Egyptians, demanding that Bnei Yisrael be released before the Plague would take place. This was the miracle, and about this we say in our prayers and in the Haggadah as well, “To Him Who smote Egypt through their firstborn, for His kindness endures forever.” This is a great miracle because, as mentioned, as long as our enemies are busy with internal wars, we can be relatively calm, or, in the words of Menachem Begin z”l: “I wish both sides good luck.”

The nation of Israel will note this miracle on the coming Shabbat, and on next Friday, almost all the descendants of those who left Egypt, everywhere on the globe, will read “To Him Who smote Egypt through their firstborn, for His kindness endures forever” from the Haggadah. You might ask, why are we praising the Creator for an internal war between different groups who belong to the world’s evil axis? It isn’t, after all, a splitting of the sea, or a Plague of Blood. What is the great miracle here?

The answer to that is very important, in my humble opinion: By marking a miracle that seems to be a natural process we are making a statement: we recognize the fact that even within nature there are miracles and sometimes these miracles are no smaller than those spectacular ones. In Chassidic teachings it is called an “intra-natural miracle.”

I remember the moment when I understood the meaning of intra-natural miracles, as opposed to supernatural miracles, when our son Moshe was born 15 years ago prematurely. He needed another 12 days in the incubator. On the third day of his life his breathing was distressed, and his life was in danger. We gave thanks at the time, and still thank Hashem for the miracle of his getting through that crisis.

Two years later, as we were awaiting the next birth, we prayed: Ribbono shel Olam (Master of the World), please – no miracles this time…

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

complete silence in the truck

There was complete silence in the truck on its way to the border, on that dark winter night in Czernowitz, 1948. In the back were Moshe Greenberg, three of his friends and the two smugglers. In front was a young, brave and strong-willed woman called Chasha Wishedski.

Stalin was ruling with the full force of his tyrannical regime. The few mitzvah observers who were still left prayed for the geulah every day, and at the same time searched for ways to get out of the massive jailhouse known as the Soviet Union.

The boys were learning in an underground Chabad yeshiva in Czernowitz when they received a coded message that there was a way to cross the border into neighboring Rumania, and from there it would be relatively easy to escape to the free world: a world free from the eye of the secret police, free of beatings and exiles, free of oppression of Judaism and of oppression in general. The chassidim discussed the issue seriously and decided to give priority to the unmarried men. They had not yet established their homes, and outside all the opportunities were open to them. The boys were happy to have the opportunity to escape.

So they were sitting silently in the truck. Moshe Greenberg and his friends in back, and Chasha Wishedski in front. She was in her thirties and had several children, but she refused to send the four boys off without accompanying them. They were not her sons, not even family members, but they were innocent yeshiva boys – temimim – and she was caring for them like a mother. They were wearing warm coats and shoes, items that only she knew how to obtain in the black market. She wouldn’t send them alone. I imagine her looking at my eight-year-old father. She probably kissed him, gave him one last courageous and pained look – would it be the last? Who knows? But she was not a hysterical type. You don’t buy bread or butter in the black market with hysteria. She most probably took leave from her husband with a “Zei gezunt”, while he sat in the kitchen and said Tehillim pleadingly – and then went out into the darkness.

At the border she handed the young men over to the smugglers, stayed a short while longer, and managed to return home without being caught. They, on the other hand, were caught. The smugglers were playing a double game and the boys were sent to camps for long years of torture and suffering.

My brave and devoted Bobbe died long ago; Rav Moshe Greenberg died too, but their spirit hasn’t died. Their spirit of devotion and faith is alive and well; their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are continuing in their path and are thus perpetuating their lives. Today is Thursday and I am taking off from Basel to participate in the wedding of their descendants. Chasha (Chasi) Wishedski, the daughter of my dear brother Shlomo, and my Bobbe’s great-granddaughter, will stand under the chuppah tonight at the side of Mendy Greenberg, Rav Moshe’s grandson. In a few hours they will be joined together and she will be called Chasha Greenberg. I’m not sure that this is something that their ancestors could have dreamt about on that scary dark night in that truck. But I am sure that they knew that their way is a long one, which had begun thousands of years before Stalin and would continue after him.

Mazel Tov, Chasi and Mendy; mazel tov to my brother, mazel tov to my father and mother, and mazel tov to you too, my brave Bobbe up there. Continue to work hard for us. Look – it pays off. And anyway, who can stand up to you?

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Just like with the athlete

Professor Avner Chai Shaki z”l was one of the people whom I enjoyed listening to. As a child, I would listen to every word of his speeches when he would come to Kfar Chabad, mesmerized by his pathos and by his throaty ayins and chets and rolling reishes.

I remember vividly how he told about being invited to the Rebbe in 1972. It was after he had stuck to the Torah principles and acted against the government of which he was a partner, as well as against his own party, the Mafdal (the National Religious Party), by voting for the amendment to the Law of Return, known as “Who Is a Jew.” His colleagues were very upset with him and he was forced out of the Mafdal, becoming a lone member of the Knesset in a party all his own.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent the lawyer Yechiel Gartner to him, with an invitation to come to Brooklyn. When he visited the Rebbe, the Rebbe supported him for having been strong enough to vote as his conscience dictated. Prof. Shaki told of this episode in his speech, given after he had gone back to being the head of the Mafdal and the Minister of Religions: “The Rebbe said to me, a true athlete takes a few steps backwards when he is about to leap forwards. Right now you are at the stage of having taken a few steps backwards.” And then the Rebbe added: “You had to resign from your position, but nevertheless you will return with great honor, and become a minister!”

The Torah describes a similar situation at the end of parashat Pekudei: “And the cloud covered Ohel Moed… and Moshe could not come to Ohel Moed.” The cloud of Hashem rested on Ohel Moed – the Mishkan, which was then the House of Hashem, so much so that Moshe Rabbeinu could not enter it, as he was used to do. This was a situation of Hashem’s hiding Himself from him. Moshe, who was accustomed to experiencing revelations of the Shechinah, suddenly couldn’t enter.

But a short time later, right at the beginning of parashat Vayikra, Hashem calls to Moshe, and, as Rashi says, it was a call of affection towards him. In other words, the period of hiding was over, and was replaced by revelation and favor.

Because this is how it works: before a revelation, and especially a revelation of affection and light, there is a hiding period. As the saying goes, “The darkest hour is before dawn.” But whoever knows to take the broad view and is patient will not become frightened by the moments of difficulties, darkness and hiding of the face. Because after the hiding comes the revelation, just like with the athlete.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

you actually saved yourself

 They were two good friends, traveling together in a Moskvitch 412 at night on a frozen Ukrainian road. Suddenly, the ancient car coughed and stalled, refusing to go any further. They waited in the freezing cold for a car to go by. One of them began to turn blue, and almost froze, but his friend knew exactly what to do: he began to massage the bluish body hard in order to get the blood flowing again and keep him alive until help came.

When help did come after a long wait, the doctor said to the savior: “Bravo for saving your friend, but you should know that you actually saved yourself as well; if you hadn’t exerted yourself to massage him and save him, you too would have frozen to death.”

In Parashat Ki Tisa, we were commanded to give half a shekel.

This half-shekel is really a tax that every Jew was commanded to give once year, towards the expenses of the Beit Mikdash.

But why not bring a whole shekel? Everything in Judaism demands perfection, especially when it comes to giving to Hashem. An animal being sacrificed has to be whole, the bikkurim (first fruits) have to be beautiful, choice; so why half a shekel?

When the Torah comes to talk about the half-shekel, it starts by saying “each man should give an atonement for his soul”. When you give an atonement for your soul, you’re giving your own worth. And here is the main message: You are worth only half. The other half is the other person, and only together will you become a whole. Only the together is wholeness.

In simple words: Give half, because you are only half!

When you give to that other half, you are really giving to yourself. When you massage your friend in order to keep him alive, you are really, in those moments, doing those same acts, really and truly saving your own life. It is not for nothing that the word “natan” reads both ways, because when you give you are also receiving.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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