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80% or 20%?

Listen to something that for me is a key point in life.

A friend of mine was about to open a new business in a field that was quite crowded. I am not a businessman, and I don’t understand much about these things, but this was a long time ago, when I saw myself as being very wise, and I thought it only right to inform him that the market is very crowded in the area he is going into. He is taking a great risk, I said, and added a few more things that clueless people say to someone who is trying to open a new business. The friend, who is about twenty years older than me, said: “From my experience, the founders of eighty percent of the businesses you see around her were told by eighty percent of the people they spoke to that the business will not succeed due to some “logical” reason or another. The businesses that survived were those of good businessmen who listened to only twenty percent of their advisors.”

His business, by the way, is alive and kicking and producing a good living for his family, Thank G-d.

And, also by the way, since then I don’t feel so wise anymore.

Parashat Shelach is a lesson for life.

Before facing any challenge, and during one as well, it is worthwhile to open the parasha and study it – or even just read it as a story.

In any challenging situation or before any fateful decision we have in front of us the data. The data is dry, almost black-and-white. Our decision will depend on our interpretation of these data or events – the color we will give them. Will we leave them in black, will we paint them in glowing colors of pink and yellow, or will we choose heavy, dark grays and browns?

Twelve leaders of the nation went to tour the land. They were in it for forty days, saw all of it: the giant, fierce people, the beautiful vistas, its large and well-fortified cities and its mountains, some of which were settled by the Hittites, the Yevusites and the Emorites. They saw and even carried jointly its huge, heavy fruits. They also toured its streams and rivers, where the Canaanites lived. They all agreed that it was a land flowing with milk and honey.

These were the data. The rest was interpretation.

Almost like in my friend’s statement, here, too, eighty-three percent of the twelve people sent painted the data black, gray and brown. “But the people that dwell in the land are powerful… We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us… the land devours its inhabitants.” And, of course, the wonderful summary that explains all: “and we were like grasshoppers in our eyes,” so, naturally, “so we were in their eyes.”

But Calev ben Yefuneh, a bit like my friend, painted those exact same details in entirely different colors: We shall surely ascend and conquer it… the land that we passed through to spy it out – the land is very, very good! If Hashem desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.”

And this, friends, is the entire story – the story of the lives of all of us.

May we be successful in our endeavors!

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

I could see the pain in their eyes

Last Tuesday I was invited to an evening in the home of some friends in Jerusalem. On the right there was a long table, beautifully and elegantly set, and on the left there was a trio of musicians with their instruments. The room was brilliantly lit. Slowly it filled with people. Most of them I didn’t know, but very soon I understood that all those sitting around me are coping these days with a relative who has some form of cancer, with all the difficult treatments involved. For one it was his wife, for another it was a young son, and by the third it was a daughter. In the fourth case it was the person himself who was about to complete treatment, and a fifth had either a grandson or a nephew with the disease.

The musicians played, the hosts took out the best of their drinks, until one would have thought that we are all brothers celebrating a happy family event. We said “L’chaim” to each other, and even added some words of encouragement.

Suddenly all became quiet, and the oldest in the group, an impressive person with a long white beard, began to speak. He too has a child in his family who is in the midst of difficult treatments. “Master of all Worlds… Melech Abir (Mighty King)” he began, quoting from a wonderful prayer said after Shalom Aleichem on Friday night in many communities. And immediately, without waiting or even checking to see if anyone was listening to him, he continued with another quote from that same prayer, a quote that explained what was happening in front of our eyes, around that table: “I thank you, Hashem, my G-d and the G-d of my forefathers, for all the chesed that you have done with me and will do for me and my family in the future.”

The man explained himself at length, but I didn’t need anything more. I looked around me: Jews were sitting here while in their homes or in the hospital there was right then a little boy whose hair has fallen out; perhaps there was a little girl who was very weak after a treatment. They were singing and dancing, saying “L’chaim” out of a sense of joy, with complete trust and fiery faith exhibited by their entire body, without a sound, without a word: “Master of the all Worlds,Mighty King, I thank you for all the chesed that you will do with me in the future.”

When the man finished speaking, we jumped up spontaneously and started to dance – a dance of true joy, a dance of Jews sharing a similar trial, a dance of solid faith that nothing bad comes down from Heaven and that everything is for the good. But in it was also a heartfelt beseeching that this good be revealed, seeable. It was a dance of a child who is sure that his father just wants the best for him.

I was standing a bit to the side, looking at them. Me they could not fool: I could see the pain in their eyes. I well recognized it – their pain – too well, but alongside the pain I saw the hope, the faith and the thankfulness for the chesed that will come. I was witness to what this nation, which I love so much – the Jewish nation – is made of.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

the people were completely different

 We are facing the longest parasha in the Torah: Parashat Naso, which we will read tomorrow outside of Eretz Yisrael, has one hundred and seventy-six psukim in it. I don’t know if there is a connection, but it is interesting to note that that is exactly the same number of psukim as Psalm 119 – the longest one in Tehillim, also one hundred and seventy six. It is also the same number of dapim (double-sided pages) in the longest masechet (tractate) in the Gemara, masechet Bava Batra: one hundred and seventy-six.

Parashat Naso will be the bar mitzvah parasha of our son Natan next year. In his excitement he has already checked and counted – and gotten scared, as well. One hundred and seventy-six psukim? How will I learn so many? But I have already reassured him, saying that seventy-one of the psukim repeat themselves, word for word and in the same te’amim (cantillation). So no need to worry.

The seventy-one psukim that repeat themselves in the parasha are those that describe the offerings brought by the nesi’im, the leaders of the tribes. So except for the different names of the nesi’im, the description of the offerings is completely identical. Natan asked me: Why? If everything is the same, the Torah could have described these offerings and sacrifices once and mention that there were twelve of each. An obvious question.

But the point is that the Torah could not have done so. Because the Torah is not a storybook or an accountant’s ledger. The Torah is a book of deeds, and therefore the offering of each and every nasi of each and every tribe has to be counted, read and described. Although the offerings and their description were identical, the sacrifices and offerings themselves were not: they were different oxen, different rams, different silver bowls etc. Secondly, and in my opinion much more significant, is that the person bringing the offerings was an entirely different person, having different intentions, different prayers, different needs, besides the fact that he was representing a different tribe.

It is like women lighting Shabbat candles. The candles are of the same type, the blessing is the same blessing, and the intention of doing so for the honor of Shabbat is also the same in every Jewish home every Friday. But can we say that the mother lighting the candles is also the same as the others? Would anyone think that her thoughts are the same thoughts? Are the mothers’ prayers and supplications when they cover their faces identical and equal in every Jewish home? On those same candles, one prays that her son will develop a desire to learn Torah; another prays for good health for her children; a third will ask that peace will reign between all the segments of the nation, and the fourth will beg for love, brotherhood, peace and friendship in her own home.

So too, regarding the nesi’im and their offerings. The numbers were the same, the materials the same, but the people bringing these offerings were completely different; their prayers and supplications were unique to each and every one of them.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A personal talk

 I have a memory of an event that I assume a few of the readers also experienced in their childhood. I did something not so good in school. The principal came into the classroom and started reprimanding all of us: “You cannot behave this way to teachers. It is forbidden to show such chutzpah to them, and it is forbidden to disrupt the learning” etc. from my point of view, that was just fine – because he was speaking to the entire class in general, leaving me out of it. But suddenly, without any prior warning, the principal said: “I mean you, Zalmen.”

Oops. At that moment everything changed. From my point of view this was no longer a general mussar lesson for the class, but a personal talk aimed at me. The entire event went from being general to being particular. Before this I wasn’t really listening and didn’t care that much; and suddenly I was in the center – listening to every word, and every word was relevant to me – right on target.

Such an event happened on the sixth of Sivan, 3331 years ago in the Sinai desert. An entire nation gathered at the foot of Har Sinai. Just the men, ages twenty and over, numbered about 600,000. Together with the women and children, the number probably came to a few million. The Creator came down onto the mountain to give His commandments to His people. But already at the third word everyone understood that this was not a general speech but a personal talk; not a class event but a private conversation. “Anochi Hashem Elokeicha” – I am Hashem, your (in the singular) G-d – He said, and not “Anochi Hashem Elokeichem” (in the plural). And so, commandment after commandment: “Remember the day of the Sabbath” – again, in the singular. “Honor your father and your mother” – the same. “Do not steal.” I don’t know how many of them were called Zalman, but it is clear that they understood at that moment that the principal had said, “I mean you, Zalmen.”

Because that is the Torah. The relationship is personal; the contact direct. Every act is connected; every action has its influence. Every individual can change. Every person is worth the entire world.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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