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who doesn’t know to ask

I think it is very good of our Sages to take a somewhat irritating Jewish characteristic and give it a place of honor. Jews are known for their expertise in asking questions. And not only do they ask, but they even answer a question with another question. This is how it is, was and will be. It will not change. So what did Chazal do? They created one special night and made the question a supreme goal of that night. An entire evening of strange behavior, the goal being to make the children ask – among other things – “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I think this is brilliant.

Not only are questions sanctified and emphasized, but among the four sons, the son who is least sharp is the one “who doesn’t know to ask.” For, as long as you know to ask, you may be wicked and maybe simple, but you are okay. You are involved in what is going on. If you don’t know to ask, we fear that something in you is seriously wrong.

This is not a joke – the entire Torah would not have existed and certainly wouldn’t have developed if we hadn’t known to ask questions, even though they may be hard ones.

This week I saw a wonderful explanation from Rabbi Gershon Chanoch of Izbitza, about the meaning of the son “who doesn’t know to ask.” The Izbitzer Rebbe takes this a few steps ahead and decrees that someone who doesn’t know how to ask has apparently not really learned Torah. Because the Torah logic, in its essence, has to contradict the logic of life in this world, and therefore, actually, the most legitimate and expected thing is that a flesh-and-blood human being jump up and ask difficult questions when he’s learning Torah. Here is the wonderful part: whoever learns Torah and doesn’t find anything difficult, no kushiya – that is a clear sign that he hasn’t yet engaged in Torah. Because the Torah mind is really the exact opposite of a this-world mind, and so, how could everything seem straight in his eyes, with no difficulties? But someone who has questions about the Torah – that is the way of the Torah.

So, first of all, go ask questions. Secondly, when you are keeping the customs of your forefathers, and someone who does not recognize this way of life asks questions, know that that is legitimate. The question is in place, and it is even to be expected, because that is the way of the Torah.

A kosher and happy Pesach to all!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishdeski

When the Rebbe cries

 When a person cries, that means that he is emotionally moved. If he is emotionally moved, that means that the issue is very close to his heart.

In his writings and talks, the Lubavitcher Rebbe touched upon almost everything that was or is in the world – he related to almost every existing topic and realm. But when all of a sudden, you hear him choked up and stop talking, you feel that you are privy to a moment of self-revelation, as if something very internal and personal of the Rebbe is being revealed to you.

The chassidim did a great kindness to us by recording the Rebbe’s weekday talks for forty years. I am extremely grateful to them and to everyone involved every time I operate the iPod and listen to the Rebbe’s voice, recorded when I was still a child, or even before I was born. For reading or learning out of a book is not like listening to a recording. The recording enables me to notice and hear the tone and the intonation, expressions of pain or joy, and, as mentioned, moments of emotion and weeping.

A few years ago I listened to an hour-and-a-half long hitva’adut that was given on the day before Rosh Hashana 5737 (1977). Among other things, the Rebbe spoke about eating kosher food. And then he told “a wondrous story that I heard just yesterday, a story that expresses a Jew’s essence.” The story is about a Jew who grew up in an observant home, but life in Soviet Russia eventually prevented him from keeping kosher. In 1977 they were already living in the U.S., but he had never entered a synagogue. His son turned to him and asked: “You grew up and were educated in a Jewishly observant home until you were bar mitzvah and even beyond that; why, then, do you not enter a synagogue?” His father replied – and here there is a long silence, during which one can sense that the Rebbe is attempting to control himself – “When one has a situation of decades during which one could not observe the laws of kashrut” – and once again the Rebbe’s voice becomes choked up and tearful, to the point that he cannot continue the sentence, and when he does continue he is crying – “When one eats what is called the opposite of kashrut, kan men nit ariengen in schul – he is incapable of entering a synagogue.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was truly world-encompassing; even then his shluchim were spread far and wide. Heads of state, generals, top academic figures, as well as gedolei Torah came to see him. Thousands of chassidim sat in his beit midrash as he would encourage them to move forward and achieve more, with the great goal of preparing the world for the coming of the Mashiach. And here comes a simple and real story like this, and he, the great Rebbe, is moved to tears when he talks about the pure and aching heart of a Jew who does not feel able to enter a synagogue because he feels he is not worthy of it.

This coming Tuesday, the 11th of Nissan, we will mark 117 years to the Rebbe’s birth. In my opinion this is a day that is a compass. With this compass we can examine what really excites us, what really touches us, and also see if in this cynical realm that we live in there is still one corner of purity and simplicity. If not – we ought to create such a spot in the world.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The inner voice

 For these past two weeks I have been participating in a Swiss coachers’ course, which is taking place in the picturesque city of Salzburg, Austria. There are 20 people participating, most of them coming from the realms of the free market, some from the realm of finances. Almost all of them have been successful in life.

An essential part of the process is to search for the inner voice that a person carries with him/her from infancy, childhood or adolescence. To put it very mildly, I will define it as a voice that weakens, in spite of the fact that almost everyone in the course discovered a hurtful voice as well.

During the coaching and the learning I have understood and internalized to what extent we, the adults, as parents and educators, and perhaps also as aunts/uncles or mere acquaintances, might influence – for better or for worse – the emotions of a child we encounter; how careful we have to be with every word, and sometimes with even a possibly unnecessary grimace or eyebrow raised.

And yes, of course this connects with this week’s parasha.

In this week’s parasha, when dealing with the laws of the metzora (“leper”), there is an interesting halacha: a person who is metzora is tamei (ritually impure) and he must leave the camp for a week, until the lesion is healed and then he will be tahor (ritually pure). “He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

There are two stages in determining whether a person’s tzara’at is impure or not:

First of all, he must be examined by a Torah sage (not necessarily a kohen), who is an expert in the laws of tzara’at, so that the type of lesion can be determined.

But even after the expert’s decision, the metzora is not yet tamei. He/she must go on to the next stage: go to the kohen, who, on the basis of the professional decision of the sage, will declare that person tamei. As long as the kohen has not declared that the person is tamei, the person is not, and it doesn’t matter whether the kohen knows anything about tzara’at or not.

A question can be asked: Why is it necessary to involve the kohen? Why isn’t it enough to have the diagnosis of the Torah sage?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe gives one of his typical explanations, an explanation that is relevant to each and every one of us every single day: the minute that the metzora is defined as being tamei, he has to leave the camp and sit alone, ashamed and embarrassed – a terrible feeling. Therefore, the Torah says that only a kohen can determine such a fate for a person, because the kohanim are considered to be people of loving-kindness. Aharon was the symbol of a person of love and brotherhood, kindness and giving. In the blessing said before blessing the congregation, the kohanim say: “…Who sanctified us with his mitzvot and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love.”

Sometimes there is no choice, and a person must be judged, his fate determined regarding some matter, big or small. But this must be done from a viewpoint of love and kindness – and respect. It has to be done by someone who can feel the pain and the distress of the one being judged before he makes such a fateful decision.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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