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When R. Mendel gave himself credit

 One of the most special Chabad chassidim in the last generation was R. Mendel Futerfas z”l, whose yahrzeit is today, the 4th of Tammuz.

R. Mendel was a clever man, who knew how to face the world straight on.

As much as the people around him held by him and, already in his youth, respected his opinion and his virtues, his acquaintances and students can bear witness to the fact that he did not consider himself highly – not in the modern psychological sense of “low self-image”, but in the sense of true humility.

And yet, when necessary he did give himself credit.

Once, R. Mendel Futerfas met one of his beloved students, one of the heads of the Or Temimim Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, Rabbi Tuvia Bolton, and it seemed to him that his face was not shining very much. “Is it possible,” said R. Mendel, “that a chassid won’t feel happy?”

R. Tuvia tried to apologize and mentioned the reasons behind his unsmiling face at that moment, but R. Mendel didn’t accept the apology and said:

“You know that I was sent, due to my many sins against the Soviet regime, to the “lager”, a work camp in Siberia, and spent quite a few years there.

“It was very difficult for me to keep Shabbos there, but I was successful in doing so, and I don’t give myself credit for that.

“It was difficult for me to eat only kosher food, and there were times when there was nothing to eat except for non-kosher food, and, Baruch Hashem, I held on and didn’t contaminate myself with forbidden foods, and for that too I don’t give myself credit.

“There is only one thing that I give myself credit for: that in all those years when we were in such a depressing place I never fell into sadness, and not even bitterness. Only for that can I give myself credit.”

 

May these words be for his ilui neshama (elevation of the soul), and may we be successful in dealing with this challenge.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

what Chassidim or Chassidut are?

If you ask the average person in the street what Chassidim or Chassidut are, he or she will probably say that “they are people who are happy, people who dance and sing.” Others might say that they are “Lebedike Yidden” – lively Jews. Even among intelligent, knowledgeable people, I often find that many don’t really have much of an idea as to what Chassidim are, and what Chassidut means.

Joy and dancing are wonderful things. As a Torah-observant Jew I think that these simply have to be an integral part of Jewish life. But the joyousness is merely the result of the teachings of Chassidut. Through them, one can access a rich inner world. A person who learns Chassidut acquires a new, different outlook, a deep and hidden one, on almost everything in his life – and first and foremost, on Torah and Mitzvot.

The books “Likutei Torah” and “Torah Or”, and, of course, the Tanya, open the door to a deeper meaning of one’s life and one’s goals in this world, giving a different perspective on prayers, the Torah, the Mitzvot, the holidays and Shabbat. Every Biblical personality acquires a new aspect – a different, internal one, sometimes the complete opposite of what the simple revealed text seems to imply. For one who learns Chassidut, Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher) is a completely different person from the Moshe Rabbeinu of the non-Chassidic learner. And the same is true of the forefathers – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and so on.

Why am I mentioning this this particular week? Because in this week’s Parasha, Shelach, the difference between the revealed Torah and the hidden Torah peaks. In the Parasha, we read about the “spies” – twelve princes who were sent to check out the land. And when they returned after 40 days, ten of them spoke negatively about it, decided on their own that there is no chance of conquering it, and even incited the people against Moshe Rabbeinu! This act of theirs is never forgotten – and the poor Children of Israel had to roam the desert for 40 years because of it.

According to the Inner Torah – Chassidut – the spies are viewed as elevated, pure and holy people. All they wanted in life was to cleave to Hashem and His Torah, to ascend in their holiness and Torah observance. But they understood very well, that once they settled in the Land of Israel, they would be dealing with the realities of cattle, fields and trees, wheat and bread – the everyday life familiar to us all.

It might be a good life, but would not be easy under such circumstances to engage only in matters of purity and holiness, the Torah and the Mitzvot. Especially when one compares it to their situation in the desert, where they received the “Man” from heaven every morning, and water from Miriam’s well. The spies made a simple calculation that spiritually it would be better for the nation to remain in the desert and not enter the Promised Land.

Their mistake, according to the teachings of Chassidut, was that in the end the goal is to live spiritual Jewish lives within the framework of this material world. For, unlike other religions, Judaism believes in connecting the material and the spiritual. And therefore, the desert might be a nice place for spiritual endeavors, but the main thing is to enter a settled land, to plow and to sow, to work and to earn a living, and in the midst of this demanding everyday life to be a proud and upright Jew, who finds time to attend a Torah class during the week.

Someone once said to me in yiddish: “Es is shver zu sein a Yid, aber es loint sich – it’s hard to be a Jew, but it pays…”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The humility of winners

 Rabbi Elimelech Firer was once at the Kotel at pre-dawn. Those are the only free hours of one of the busiest people in the world. Suddenly he heard cries and heartrending weeping. “Tatte, Tatte,” a man was shouting, without being able to utter another word.

Rabbi Firer, who couldn’t stand hearing the crying, went over to the man and said: “Reb Yid, what happened? Why are you crying like this? Tell me! I promise I’ll help you as much as I can. But please, stop this crying!”

The man, who was praying tearfully, stopped and said, smiling: “Reb Melech, I am not distressed and not in trouble. These tears are not tears of pain, but rather of extreme happiness. I am crying out of gratitude. I have seven children, all healthy, all set up in life, and today – yes, today – I married off my seventh daughter. When the sheva brachot at the wedding ended I hurried to the Kotel to thank Hashem. I’m sorry, but I was overwhelmed. I could not stop my emotions from overcoming me, and that is the reason for the crying and the tears, the shouting and the exclaiming. I am calling out from gratitude and joy. Look – these are tears of Mizmor letodah – a psalm of thanks – for all the good that Hashem has done to me.”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotcha (read outside of Eretz Yisrael this Shabbat), There is a commandment to sound the trumpets, a double commandment.

The trumpets are to be sounded at moments of difficulty and crisis, when the nation is facing a battle with an enemy who is threatening it; in this situation, the role of the trumpets is to arouse the nation to pray to Hashem and repent, so that He will stand by them in this war. “When you go to wage war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound short blasts of the trumpets, and you shall be recalled before Hashem, your G-d, and you shall be saved from your foes.”

The other occasion on which one is commanded to sound the trumpets is at times of joy and victory. “On a day of your gladness… you shall sound the trumpets.” Here, too, the trumpets are not only an expression of joy, but, like in a crisis, a call to arouse prayer and repentance, submission and humility in face of the Creator.

Like that Jew who came to the Kotel, crying tears of thankfulness and joy.

This is very, very important. Because we tend to raise our heads haughtily when we succeed. And that is dangerous. These are the moments when a person might forget his place, fail to note the fact that everything – everything – could have gone wrong, and he is to thank Hashem for all the good and normal in his life.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

mikvah for mikvah

Natan is having a bar mitzvah this coming Shabbat. We are, naturally, excited and making the necessary preparations, but there is one thing that is bothering us a bit: we are not sure that we will be able to go to the mikvah. How can a Chabad boy have a bar mitzvah without going to the mikvah? I am praying that we will find a solution for this, too.

So there may not be a mikvah, but at least we have a good story about a bar mitzvah and a mikvah.

Natan’s grandfather, my father-in-law, Rabbi Mordechai Gorelick, became bar mitzvah on the 4th of Shvat 5717 (1957). They were living in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and the bar mitzvah hitva’adut took place in their living room. Luckily, my father-in-law’s father, Rabbi Mendel Gorelick, had already been released from the Soviet Gulag after spending ten long years there, and he was able to participate in his son and grandson’s celebration. It was early evening and the first of the guests showed up – R. Feivish Genkin.

Feivish was a simple Jew in its full meaning. He wore a cap on his head and had a full beard – and that was when most of the chassidim were afraid to grow a beard. But R. Feivish was a simple Jew who didn’t ask questions. When they had to bake matzahs secretly, he was the one who took care of the harvesting of the wheat and the grinding. He had golden hands and could fix and work out everything without resorting to strangers, who were not to know about the bakery. He had another important job. There was a secret women’s mikvah in the basement of a Jewish Bukharian family on Khochomaskiya Street, and R. Feivish was in charge of it. He made sure it was clean, orderly and warm. He also guarded it so that no man would enter it, no matter how important he was, as a chasid or otherwise.

So, R. Feivish, the first person to enter the Gorelick home, came over quietly to the boy and said to him: “Motik, have you been to the mikvah today?”

“What mikvah?” asked the bar mitzvah boy. “It’s freezing today, minus a few degrees centigrade. It’s impossible to immerse oneself in the mikvah in the middle of January.”

“Come with me quickly,” replied Feivish. “Don’t say anything to anyone – not even to your mother or father. We will go and come back quickly, and no one will notice.”

It was dark; white snow and frost covered the ground as they went together, Feivish Genkin and Motik Gorelick. One, an old-time chassid, and had already showed his devotedness to Torah and mitzvot when he served as a soldier in the First World War; and the other, a boy who had just become bar mitzvah.

“Listen, Motik,” said Feivish. “You are becoming Bar mitzvah. Remember that you are a Jew, keep the Torah and mitzvot that you just accepted upon yourself and don’t be impressed by anybody. We are Hashem’s soldiers.”

The mikvah was ready and warm. Feivish waited outside, the boy immersed himself quickly, and they returned shortly to the bar mitzvah celebration, without anyone having noticed their absence or their return.

Years passed. Motik became R. Mordechai Gorelick, one of the most important people in the Nachalat Har Chabad neighborhood in Kiryat Malachi. Feivish, too, came on Aliyah, on his own, as his wife Chasya had passed away back in Samarkand. They had had no children.

It was Monday, the 1st of Tevet, 5741 (1980). R. Feivish was leading the morning prayers in the Chabad Shul. It was the yahrzeit of his father, R. Efraim. Suddenly, during the chazarat Hashatz, R. Feivish collapsed and died on the spot. R. Mordechai Gorelick was there and he heard him say “Atah kadosh veshimcha kadosh” – You are holy and you name is holy, and then he heard the thud of R. Feivish’s body falling to the ground.

Wait – it’s not over yet.

Later on in the day, R. Mordechai was standing together with many others in the Shamgar funeral home in Jerusalem, waiting for the completion of the tahara of the body, so that they could proceed with the funeral. Suddenly the door opened. One of the Chevra Kadisha people peeked out, surveyed the unfamiliar crowd and asked, “Mikvah, mikvah?” “Mikvah, mikvah!” replied R. Mordechai immediately.

It turned out that immersing the deceased in a mikvah after the tahara had been performed cost extra money, and the Chevra Kadisha person knew that the deceased was childless and wanted to know if someone from the crowd would be willing to pay for that service. And yes, indeed, there was someone who paid. It was the bar mitzvah boy who with the question “Mikvah, mikvah?” found himself all at once back in that cold and dark night in Samarkand in 1957, and paid R. Feivish back with one mikvah for another.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Mazel Tov!

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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