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You Count

 Last Wednesday the Jews of Switzerland received a pleasant surprise. The Federal Government of Switzerland (known as the Bundesrat) announced that starting from next Friday the synagogues will be open again. In other words, this coming Shavuot we will be able to return to the synagogues.

It is important to note that for more than two hundred years there have been open and active synagogues in Basel. Even during the Holocaust synagogues did not close. And now they have been inactive for over ten weeks, including Pesach. So these are definitely important and good tidings.

Besides the limitations connected with hygiene, social distancing and the prohibition of group singing, we were asked to check how many people can fit into every open space, and every worshipper will have to register ahead of time and let us know that he is coming. We have to count all those who come to daven, and authorize them one by one.

There is something special about counting. The very counting of a specific item means that we are giving it a place and meaning, certainly when we are counting human beings. Without him we would be five, and with him we are six. Moreover, often we categorize people according to their wisdom, wealth, beauty, dress, good-heartedness etc. In every society there are people who supposedly are not important, and are therefore not counted. In Israel, when a person wants to say that he is not considered significant, he will say “they don’t count me.” When we want just the number, it makes no difference at all if the person is wise, or wealthy or respectable; when it comes to the numbers he is counted as one, just like everyone else.

For instance, with Shavuot approaching, the shuls of Switzerland will count the number of people attending services without any reference to the person’s essence, beyond his being a Jew above the age of 13.

This is not the first time we are dealing with the counting of Jews before Shavuot, the holiday of the Giving of the Torah.

Parashat Bamidbar, which we will read on Shabbat, deals with the counting of Bnei Yisrael, and every year it is read before Shavuot, to tell us precisely that: that the Torah belongs to everyone equally. When we come to receive the Torah we do not examine people according to their virtues or faults; the important point is their very existence.

The same way that in order to say kaddish we need ten Jews, and it doesn’t matter if they are called Moshe Rabbeinu, Mordechai Hayehudi or Zalmen Wishedski, so too with everything connected to the Torah’s belonging to Jews: there are no differences between us.

“Due to His love for them, He counts them,” says the first Rashi in parashat Bamidbar, when he approaches the issue of the counting of Bnei Yisrael. How does counting express love? Simply, that counting tells the person being counted: You are important to me because of your very existence, regardless of your wisdom or achievements. This is an honest, clean, pure and real love.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Supply Lines

 

Last week, the world noted the victory of the Allies over Germany in the Second World War 75 years ago.

Many things led to this victory, and the main thing that is usually stressed is the staunchness of Soviet and British citizens, soldiers and leaders. Indeed, these people faced a well-developed, organized, uninhibited war machine and stood up to it heroically.

But there was something else, there – something very significant that stopped the German conquest – and that was the issue of supplies. Germany had hundreds of thousands of soldiers stationed thousands of kilometers from Berlin, and had to keep them well supplied with an unbelievable amount of equipment such as clothes, food and fuel, without which an army cannot continue to exist. The more they conquered and the further they were from their land, the harder it was to get these supplies to them.

The Allies, on their part, invested great efforts in interfering with the supply lines to the front – on land, in air and at sea.

Germany lost the battle in Stalingrad, among other reasons because Russia cut off the supply lines to the front, which was two thousand kilometers from Berlin, and Field-Marshal Rommel was stopped at the gates of the Holy Land, among other reasons because the U.S. and Britain managed to cut off the long supply lines needed in order to feed the soldiers and the tanks.

It is not for nothing that there were huge battles around large ports such as Tobruk in Lybia.

We are supposed to learn from history. Military experts learn the stories of campaigns in order to improve their own campaigns and become more efficient. And every human being can – and should – learn from history how to improve his handling of the world and make it more efficient.

I am assuming that everyone is advancing all the time, whether in business or in public service, studies or personal, emotional and internal growth. All of us, at one time or another, conquer (or at least wish to move forward and conquer) various aims in life, and here one should stop and examine the state of our supply lines: To what extent do I know what I have already accomplished? Sometimes it is worthwhile to pause for a moment in order to maintain what one has already, before storming the next goalpost.

What is the problem? The problem is that it is not exciting to maintain and examine what we have already achieved; it’s much more exciting and stimulating to move on.

Here is a simple example. I was learning Gemara with my son, the aim being the study of a certain number of pages. We advanced very quickly, but then we stopped for a moment and examined the “supply lines” – did we still know well what we had already learned? Did we still remember how we got there? So we stopped and checked and discovered that there was work to be done. What we learned had not yet been well absorbed, and we realized we must review the material. The review was slower, and sometimes more difficult, but it is clear that without it our so-called accomplishments would have been worthless.

So it is, as well, in public service and business activities. The chances of a fast-growing business to survive long-term are not so great. It is necessary to stop and examine, strengthen, maintain and thicken those supply lines leading to the front.

So it is too when it comes to emotional and personal growth and advancement. A person who has invested in correcting his character traits, in strengthening his emunah (faith), in acquiring good traits etc., will roam around in Hashem’s world feeling great joy and happiness, but if he doesn’t stop every once in a while to examine and maintain what he has already achieved, he probably won’t hold on long-term. 

Do I have to add that the same is true for diets, or is the principle clear?

 

Shabbat Shalom to all,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Not only think it – but say it! Emor!

 The time was 1:30 pm in New York, the Shabbat of Parashat Emor, 1982 (5742). Thousands of Chassidim were crowded in there – some sitting, most standing. The Tefillah (services) had just ended, but no one had time to get home and make Kiddush. They must have heard Kiddush from someone in 770 – the Rebbe’s Beit Midrash (study hall). Their eyes and ears were wide open. This was a Hitva’adut (spiritual meeting) with the Rebbe. The Rebbe proceeded to speak in Yiddish for about 6 hours straight, except for a few breaks for singing.
He quoted from all parts and levels of the Torah, and explained them. And yes, he mainly was “Doresh.” No – he did not say a Drasha (a sermon); rather, he made demands (Drishot)! With the Rebbe there were no merely beautiful words of Torah – they always came together with a demand that people act. There was always a stubborn, very contemporary message in what he said.
This time, on Shabbat Parashat Emor 1982 (5742), the main theme of the Hitva’adut could be summarized in one word: “Emor.”
“Emor” is in the imperative. You are commanded to say; and say continually. (The Rebbe said inYiddish: “Halten In Ein Zagen.”
What should one say? Say favorable words and speak of the merits of your fellow Jew. The Tanna (Mishnaic scholar) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia, said in Masechet Avot: “Judge every person favorably.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe said: It is not enough to judge your fellow Jew favorably in your thoughts; you must express it in spoken words.
Not only think it – but say it! Emor!
And one more thing: When you say it, say it gently and pleasantly. The verse doesn’t say “Daber,” but “Emor.” A Dibbur comes with harshness; an Amirah comes with gentleness, softness.

Why must one speak? Why isn’t it enough to think?
The Rebbe brings two reasons:
A. Give your friend some pleasure. If you think good things about him, tell him so.
B. Judging favorably exposes merits. When you judge your fellow Jew favorably, you will be revealing, arousing and lighting up his noble abilities, the merits and the good that are in him, even though at the moment he is in a situation where you have to make an effort to think positive thoughts about him.

My friends, speech is powerful, and this week we are commanded to use it for the good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A Free Sermon?

 Once upon a time there was a holy rabbi, who would never give a drasha (sermon) without pay.

His prices weren’t high, and he wasn’t exactly a materialistic person. He was a holy Jew by the name of Rabbi Mendel Borer, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov; the Baal Shem Tov himself called him “the holy rabbi, a special one in a generation, a man of G-d.” And yet, he would not give a drasha without getting paid up front.

This sounds strange when you’re talking about a Jew on such a high level, but he had a fascinating explanation: “Who am I to rebuke another Jew? What right do I have to do it? When the Temple stood, there was a prophet who was commanded by Hashem to bring His word to the people, and also to speak harshly if necessary. But today, when we don’t have such orders, I am willing to speak and give my opinion about various behaviors of others only if I am obligated to do so.

“And so, when I am given a few coins for the drasha, then I am obligated to speak. Why? Because according to the Torah I am obligated to provide a living for my household. My profession is that of a darshan. In other words, the tool by which I provide a living for my family is the drasha, and when I am paid for it, I am not allowed to refuse. Moreover, I must speak, and I am performing a mitzvah.”

The Rebbe brought this story on the 21st of Av, 5744 (1984), asking and indeed calling out in pain to the people not to rebuke and not to speak harshly about another Jew or with one, as long as Hashem Himself has not requested that one do so.

The Rebbe was actually saying: Do not choose for yourself the doubtful honor of being the one who castigates and berates, the one who criticizes and emphasizes the bad. Speak good, not bad.

Rabbi Beni Wolf, who died last Shabbat in Hanover, was an ordinary, standard Jew – the most ordinary there is. Not especially holy and not a wondrous tzaddik. A G-d-fearing Chassidic Jew; of course, a shaliach of the Rebbe, but unpretentious. In the matter of rebuke and criticism, he was very special, at least in my opinion. He was very careful not to hurt people, not to say biting comments. He did not spend his time rebuking others. In truth, as much as I can recall, I do not remember him as being one of those who were busy criticizing and warning.

On this Shabbat, when we read parashat Acharei Mot Kedoshim, including the passuk “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” I wish to take upon myself and to suggest all my dear readers to stop and think before we speak about another person, before we write to someone, before we click on “send”, and make sure that the message is in keeping with “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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