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Rabbi's weekly Blog

Give and Take

 There isn’t any Israeli who hasn’t heard about Yehuda Barkan – famous Israeli actor, producer and director of the 1980’s. At the beginning of the 1990’s, during the Gulf War, he produced a film, but it failed to earn money – people were afraid to leave their homes because of the Scud missiles that Saddam Hussein was sending, and when a movie doesn’t earn money, it leaves debts.

Yehuda Barkan tells how he found himself owing about 24 million shekels, some of them borrowed on what is known in Israel as “the grey market” (unofficial loans at high interest rates), with all the consequences of that. At the same time some family problems landed on him one after the other, and all these lead him to think of, literally, ending his life.

But there was one moment that saved him. It was a Friday. Yehuda was thinking his suicidal thoughts, and suddenly there was a knock at the door. Yehuda opened the door and saw a man on crutches, asking for 200 shekels in order to buy supplies for Shabbat for his family. “Why did you come to me?” asked Yehuda. And the man answered: “I thought of who could help me, opened the Yellow Pages of Nes Tziona, where we live, and when I reached the letter ‘b’ I saw your name. I thought: You are certainly a wealthy man – you’re a famous actor! And here I am, asking you for 200 shekels, so I can put food on my table for my children for Shabbat.”

It seems that even if a person has over 24 million shekels of debt, he still has 200 shekels in his pocket. Yehuda gave him the money and understood immediately what his heart felt – that this person had just saved his life. Hashem sent him a man on crutches and 200 shekels in order to tell him that he is still needed in the world – someone requires his help.

In other words, he gave 200 shekels and got his life in return.

Parashat Terumah, which we will read this week, talks about Hashem’s command to Moshe that he should raise gold, silver and all other materials for the purpose of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Except that instead of saying “Speak to Bnei Yisrael so that they will give me a donation,” it says, “… take me a donation”. Giving and taking are not exactly the same – they are actually opposite. Why, then, does it say “they will take” instead of “they will give”?

It’s because that’s the way life is. When you give you are actually taking, receiving. Many a time – and in my experience it’s most of the time – what one receives from the giving is much greater, of greater value, more special and meaningful than what one gives. Ask Yehuda Barkan.

And it is not for nothing that the word “natan” can be read in both directions.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

to respect a thief

 I know, one must be careful not to speak about the more negative aspects of human beings, but since we are standing right before the Shabbat of Parashat Mishpatim, the Parasha where we received the mitzvahs relating to interpersonal relationships and ethics, I thought there is room for some critique.
Facebook is filled with good deeds – chock full. Every minute a new initiative appears – fixing an air-conditioner for a Holocaust survivor, helping a woman whose house burned down, saying Tehillim for someone who is ill etc. etc. But, as mentioned, there are also unpleasant phenomena. And the most prominent ones, in my opinion, are talkbacks that insult the writer personally, instead of relating to what he wrote.
If someone wrote something sarcastic, not nice, even offensive, we can answer him to the point, respond to his words, argue if necessary – but we must not insult the writer personally! And that includes refraining from expressing a “professional” opinion regarding the state of his mental health and “blessing” him vigorously.
In this week’s Parasha, the Torah says that a thief who steals a sheep pays back four times its worth, and one who steals an ox pays back five times its worth. Rashi brings the statement of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, who explains this law thus: “Hashem maintains the dignity of His creations. [For] an ox, who walks on its own and the thief is not degraded by carrying it on his shoulder – the thief pays five times the amount. [For] a sheep, which he carries on his shoulder – he pays four, since he suffered degradation due to it.” In other words, the fact that the thief had to degrade himself and carry the sheep on his shoulder in public lessens his punishment.
But, wait a minute – we’re talking about a thief. Why is Hashem concerned for his dignity? He decided to steal – he should suffer the consequences of his actions!
Friends, he didn’t write a post; he just stole – simply stole something that doesn’t belong to him. And the Torah commands us to maintain his dignity.

The Rebbe explains that this explanation is very appropriate for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, for it is about him that the Gemara says in tractate Brachot; “They said about him, about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, that no person ever managed to greet him before he greeted him first.” If someone is quick to greet any person in the street, that shows that he really and truly respects every person as he is, regardless of his deeds, ethnic origin or religion. It makes sense that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai should be the one to find a way to respect even a thief.

Friends, we have what to learn from him.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The Holy Thief

 A childless couple came to the Rebbe – I don’t know which Rebbe – and asked for a bracha that they would have children. The Rebbe refused to bless them. They came again and again and the Rebbe wouldn’t relent. “Why, Rebbe, why?”

“Listen,” said the Rebbe, “I see with my spiritual powers that if you will have a son he will be a thief. I don’t want to bless you with a child who is a thief.” The future mother shed tears and pleaded: “Bless me, Rebbe. I promise you I will love the child even if he will be a thief. Bless me!”

The Rebbe blessed, the child was born and grew up to be a thief. Already from age four he was emptying pockets and drawers. When he turned twelve, his parents couldn’t stand the shame and the complaints of the townspeople anymore. He stole from everyone, from every place, and everyone suspected him. He knew how to steal better than anyone else before him. They returned to the Rebbe: “Rebbe, we can’t take it anymore. True, we promised we would accept him as he is, but this is getting unbearable.” “Leave your tachshit (wayward child) with me and returned to your home,” said the Rebbe.

A few days passed, and the Rebbe called in the child and said: “Listen, there is an important family that has lost all its money. They are embarrassed to tell others of their difficult situation. They are afraid that it will damage their good name and the matches of their children. I have to give them money without their knowing and without anyone else knowing either. And here’s where you come into the picture. You have the right talents for this task.”

The boy’s eyes lit up – there is none better than him! He sneaked into the family’s house, put the money in the right drawer and left without leaving any tracks. The Rebbe, on his part, kept giving him tasks, and actually turned him, step by step, from a bad thief into a good thief. And the main point was that the child saw that he could use his special nature for the good, for positive things, to do good deeds and chessed.

In this week’s parsha Yitro comes to the desert and says, “Blessed is Hashem.” It says in the Zohar that the Torah wasn’t given until Yitro came and said “Baruch Hashem.” Why did they wait for Yitro? What did Yitro bring that others didn’t?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that in order for the Torah to act on the whole world, both the good and the bad, for and against, it was necessary that a person who was the priest of Midian should come – someone who had worshipped every type of false god and was deeply familiar with all of them. Then he comes and says: “I have seen everything. I have gotten to know them all, and I am coming to you this day and telling you: “Blessed is Hashem of all the gods.”

Because the height of influence is when one sees the good in the bad, when one is able to select the good from the bad, and make it holy.

The priest of Midian did it his way. The Rebbe in the story did it with the boy who was a thief.

That is the novelty of the Giving of the Torah. This is also the power we were given together with the Torah. And when we see something bad and negative, we must remember that within it there has to be some good that is worthwhile extricating and elevating.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

I Saw Live Fish

 Yesterday afternoon I landed in Kennedy Airport. The process of getting out of the terminal was unusually long, because exactly then a flight from China (and Corona-land) had landed. I arrived at the Ohel (the gravesite) of the Rebbe very close to sunset. I wanted to go in before sunset on that Wednesday, but then I saw the extremely long line, all the way to Francis Lewis Boulevard, a line that had started to form 24 hours before then.

That was the 10th of Shvat, and we were noting 70 years since the Rebbe became the head of Chabad. Thousands from all over the world had come here for one day or more in order to be with the Rebbe on this day. They were standing there with me, all of them with books in hand, all of them with white, closely-written pages in their hands. All those pages began with the letters peh and nun, the first letters of the expression pidyon nefesh (literally: soul redemption; a prayer accompanied by a donation).

I don’t know what they wrote in their pidyon nefesh, I don’t know what they were requesting and what they were reporting. But one thing is clear to me: All of them, with no exceptions, wrote to the Rebbe that they were there in order to continue forward, to act more than they had acted until now, either inwardly or outwardly towards the world – but forward.

Because if there is something that the Lubavitcher Rebbe always says and demands it is to go forward, to do more, not to stop, not to rest, not to relax – just to continue walking.

Even then, a moment after he became the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe did not give his new flock of chassidim a moment to breathe. Rather, he said immediately: “Now listen, Jews! In Chabad in general there was a demand that each and every person should labor on his own, and not depend on the Rebbes.”

Live fish swim against the current. Yesterday I saw thousands of live fish.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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