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Rabbi's weekly Blog

A miracle or a test?

A few weeks ago I asked Hashem for something very pertinent to my life. Based on what I was taught long ago, I was willing to give something as well. In other words, I knew that in order to request a blessing from Hashem in some important issue, I must give something important and pertinent well. I am not talking about money; I am talking about a good and influential resolution that effects my daily functioning. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to break a habit.

And so, I stood in the Rebbe’s ohel, asked and promised to give something not so easy in return.

But then I noticed something interesting, even fascinating. From the moment I made the resolution, I began to run into barriers and obstacles, known in Chassidic circles as “meni’ot ve’ikkuvim” – things preventing or delaying the keeping of this resolution. I told my wife about my resolution, so that I would have her support, and together we saw, time after time, how I would run into difficulties and barriers. The feeling was as if I was facing a strong force that had a special interest in preventing me from fulfilling my promise.

My request was not for something medical or financial, and I didn’t promise anything of the sort either. I asked for something spiritual, and my resolution also related to spiritual matters, or something that influences my spiritual growth. The “difficulties and barriers”, what we call nisyonot – trials – were mainly in the realm of bein adam lamakom – matters between me and Hashem.

I almost gave up. But, fortunately, for several weeks I have been studying the Chassidic essay “To those that fear You, you gave a banner (nes)to be raised high”, which the Rebbe taught in 5736 (1976) a few months before I was born.

The entire essay deals with the trials and tests that come upon man during his life. It delves, step by step, into the depths of the human being’s nature on one hand, and into the types of tests on the other. The Rebbe speaks about tests that are seemingly real, and about those whose source is in our thoughts and imagination. He also suggests approaches regarding how to cope with what one encounters. Not everything in the essay is easy; not everything is immediately understood and internalized. Most of the time, it is worthwhile to study the words again and again, but in the end, if one is coming from a truthful approach, the ideas penetrate and influence one, and become a source of internal strength when facing the difficulties and barriers.

The essay teaches not only ways to cope; primarily, it lets us understand that the tests that we are given are actually gifts, as David Hamelech said, “you gave your fearers a nes” – meaning a nisayon – a test. Later on in the essay he connects to it the next passuk in Tehillim, “So that Your loved ones be released”. In other words, if you will understand correctly the gift that is embedded in the test, you will reach the level of being “released” – you will extricate yourself from your current situation and be able to grow more, taller, and move on to the next stage.

This week, Baruch Hashem, I got through the challenging test, and when I danced in front of the Chanukah candles and sang “about your miracles (nissim), and wonders and salvations” I suddenly understood these words differently. “About your nissim” – meaning the nisyonot – the tests You gave us; it is they that advance us and elevate us one more step in our inner service, and with Hashem’s help we will merit salvations, “so that Your loved ones be released.”

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski


We live on a mountain slope

Sometimes I feel that the hardest part in my personal work, in working on myself and growing personally and spiritually, is the natural demand to continue to go up.

Sometimes, when we are at the bottom of a hole in the ground, and we climb, and climb, and climb further, we get a feeling of accomplishment, especially when we look back and see where we were and where we are now. A wonderful feeling of satisfaction. But then, we glance ahead, and we know that we still have a way to go, and often this is a very difficult moment. One would like to sit still for a bit, rest up in peace. But no – life in general and spiritual life in particular demand that we move forward.

We are living in a time when everyone wants to move forward. The world is full of coaches and trainers in every realm. It seems that all types of trainers have work, and that is a good sign – a sign that all of us want to become better – at work, or in our marriages, perhaps in our personal lives or in our social connections, and above all, in the spiritual work of Torah and mitzvot.

Whoever has already worked on himself, certainly recognizes that moment in which he understands that he must climb another rung, but he lacks the strength for it. The head understands that one needs to advance, but the heart just wants a bit of quiet time.

On the passuk in parashat Vayeshev, where Tamar is told “And it was told to Tamar, saying, behold, your father-in-law is coming up to Timna,” Rashi is puzzled by the use of the expression “coming up” in relation to the city of Timna, and brings a quote from Shoftim about Shimshon Hagibor that indicates that one would go down to that city, as it says “And Shimshon went down to Timna”. As a result, Rashi determines that the city of Timna was situated “on the slope of a hill – from one side one went up to it, and on the other side one went down to it.” Because when a city is built on a mountain slope, those who live there know that there are only two possibilities to reach it or even to walk within it: either go up or go down. One cannot just walk straight. Jerusalemites know what I’m talking about.

In the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, after his wonderful rational explanations of Rashi, there is a section called “The Wine of Torah”, the secrets, and in it he explains each matter according to the Chassidic teachings. And so, in Likutei Sichot, part 10, after explaining Rashi, the Rebbe brings the “wine” that reveals secrets and explains that really all of us live in Timna; all of us live all the time on a mountain slope, so we have only two choices: to go up or to go down. There is no middle option.

I try to remember this whenever it is demanded from me to climb one more rung in the ladder of personal growth, and I am lacking the strength for it; my heart wants to stay in place. But then I am reminded that I am walking on a mountain slope, and if I don’t go up, I will go down.

This connects to Chanukah as well – of course! On Chanukah we light the candles according to the opinion of Beit Hillel, adding one every day. We are not satisfied with the number of candles we lit last night, so every day we add another. We increase kedusha – we don’t decrease it.

Shabbat Shalom, and a Happy Chanukah, filled with light!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Three Russian Words

Vinek is the name of the nice Pole who took Devora and me on last Motzai Shabbat through the streets of Warsaw. Vinek is a wise man, about 55 years old, who understood pretty quickly that serving as a driver for Jews in Poland could provide him with a good living. I saw that he understood his clientele quite well when I got into the Toyota Sienna that he had imported privately from New York. “The chassidim from America love this car. I bought it from a Jew in Boro Park. Look – it even has a sticker with a holy text in Hebrew”, he said, pointing to a Tefillat Haderech (prayer for the traveler) sticker appearing on one side of the windshield.

Vinek knows what each traveler is looking for – who wants to see the remains of the ghetto, and who wants to view the cemetery or any other noteworthy place in Poland, which, as is known, is full of Jewish graves.

When Rav Shalom Ber Stambler introduced us to him and told him to take us to the places that the Chabadniks want to see, Vinek understood very fast.

There are two such sites in Warsaw. One is the place where the wedding of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin, took place. “Zhe hupeh”, as he puts it, is actually a yard of a residential building that has replaced the Chabad yeshiva in Warsaw. There, the chuppah of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin took place on 14 Kislev 5689 (1928), today, ninety-one years ago. From there he takes his Chabad tourists to another street, where the wedding meal hall used to be.

Vinek does not understand why we are so excited about standing and sometimes dancing as well near a place where something once stood and today is no longer. I can assume that not only Vinek doesn’t understand – plenty of other people with heads on their shoulders don’t understand us either. But we don’t have to explain anything. We know that in this place Hashem prepared the salve for the wound. Here Hashem planted the seeds of the revolution in Jewry that the Rebbe brought about, twenty years and one war later.

The 19th of Kislev, 5689 (1928), a few days after the wedding, and they were already in Riga, still in their Sheva Brachot week. The father of the bride, the previous Rebbe, turned to his secretary, R. Chatche Faigin, and asked him to please send a telegram to a chassid who lives in Rostov, where his father, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, was buried. “Ask that someone there read the telegram that I will dictate to you on his grave,” he requested. The content of the telegram consisted of only three words in Russian: “His will was done.” But my father explained to me once that the translation should be “His desire was done.” Meaning, that the Rebbe, The Rashab, very much wanted this shidduch to take place, that the son of Rabbi Schneersohn of Yekatrinoslav should marry his granddaughter.

While I was still in Vinek’s Sienna, I thought that the mailman of Rostov who delivered the telegram containing three Russian words probably did not understand what it was that he was delivering. The Soviet Union was in the midst of Stalin’s somewhat insane arming of the U.S.S.R. and industrialization projects. The rest of the world, and especially the United States and Germany in its wake were facing the beginning of the Great Depression of 1929. The world was being shaken up – above the surface and below. What meaning could there be in three Russian words being transmitted from Latvia to Russia, from Riga to Rostov?

But several years passed. The world in general underwent a deep shock and the Jewish world came close to being destroyed. Throughout the world, Jews preferred to forget about their Judaism. To be a Jew during this period was a burden. The common expression used by people was “It’s hard to be a Jew.” And precisely at that time those three words in the telegram from twenty years ago surfaced. The dream became a reality. The young man from Yekatrinoslav took upon himself the leadership of Chabad Lubavitch, continuing the same task of his father-in-law the Rebbe, and realized the purpose of his father-in-law’s father, the Rashab of Rostov. The young man became the most famous and the most influential Jewish personality in the Jewish world after the Holocaust, an influence that continues to this day – an influence of good deeds, chessed (loving-kindness). An influence of Jewish pride wherever a Jew might be.

So nice Vinek doesn’t understand, and a few other people also do not understand. But I know that I stood in the place where the seeds of the revolution were planted: No longer a heavy, sad Judaism; no longer shame and burden, but rather happy Judaism, happy Jews. It is not hard to be Jew. It is joyful and good to be a Jew.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

 

The Principals or the Supplement?

 This week, two parents of small children came to see me. They had come to Basel for employment reasons, “relocation,” as it is called. They do not define themselves as religious, but they try to eat only kosher food. The main thing is that their Jewish identity, as well as that of their children, is very important to them. “In America we lived in a Jewish area – Jewish schools, Kashrut stamps on almost every product, and a very strong presence of Jewish life,” In Europe this is much less so, especially when people come for a short time: because of the language barrier, the children go to English-speaking schools and not necessarily to the excellent Jewish school we have in Basel. “We are suddenly concerned about our children’s Jewish identity.”

I admit that I was stirred by meeting them and by their concern. It was so sincere and pure; the “pintele yid” was speaking from their hearts.

It didn’t take long for them to explain to me that they expect me to find a solution for their children’s Jewish education. I agreed, and offered them everything there is in Basel in general, and in the Chabad House in particular. But before I did that I told them what I learned from the weekly parasha, parashat Vayetze. Yaakov left the protected environment of his parents’ home, where Judaism was present and very much alive, and went, alone, to his uncle Lavan Ha’arami’s house. He was there, alone, for twenty years. Got married alone, built a large family alone, and ran a fine Jewish home alone.

How did he do it? How did he succeed?

I think that the very fact that he was alone in a foreign land caused him to succeed. Sometimes, when we are living a cushioned life, we take everything for granted, and when we go to a different place, suddenly we have questions that we never asked before.

I know this from myself and from my nuclear family. Being here, I know every moment that I am personally and directly responsible for the Jewish education – certainly for the Chassidic education and especially for the Chabad education – of my children. Unlike my friends who live in Chabad communities that can (maybe??) depend on the Chassidic school, on the Chabad teacher and even on the atmosphere in the home and in the Lubavitch shul to give his children their Chassidic education, I cannot trust the school, the teachers, nor the environment. They are all wonderful, good and honest, but my children will not receive what I received in my childhood in school, in the street and in shul, unless I devote myself to it personally. This knowledge in itself is what makes me devote time and thought and to give myself and from myself for what is important to me, and I would like to know how to give more.

Yaakov looked around and understood pretty quickly that if he wouldn’t educate Reuven and Shimon, no one else was going to do it for him. And perhaps – so it seems to me – that was the secret of his success.

“Before I offer you what I have to offer your children,” I said to the worried couple, “it is important for you to know that one of the reasons that Hashem made sure that you would come to live here is so that exactly this would happen: that you are opening your eyes and understanding that something has to be done, because nothing will happen by itself. In your previous place the environment provided the basis for your children’s Jewish identity, and you were the supplement. My suggestion today is that you start to do by yourself, and we will give you the support. You will be the principals in this matter and we will be the supplement, and not the other way around.”

If you ask me, this suggestion is suitable for every family, of every type and social circle, no matter where they live: to remember that we ourselves are the principals, and the environment is the supplement, and not the other way around.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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