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A Kingdom of Gevura

I sat there, in the room for problematic travelers near the Border Control of the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, like a defendant in the dock.

 

It was last Wednesday, 7:00 am. I wasn't alone there. My son, Natan, was with me. We were on our way to the Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch Yeshiva. Natan was supposed to start his studies there and thereby fulfill what the Mishnah says, "Exile yourself to a place of Torah."

 

Like all good Swiss residents, we had checked everything ahead of time. We had gone over all the rules and regulations; we had spoken over the phone with the people at the Russian Embassy in Switzerland and gone over all the details with them, and only then did we set out on the long journey.

 

The journey is indeed long these days, because in this time of turmoil there are no direct flights from Switzerland to Russia during the week. We had a stopover in Turkey, spent half a night in the Antalya airport, and finally reached Russia.

 

The Russian official was very nice. He spoke broken English, and smiled a lot. "Big problem," he said. Somewhere there was a problem that was preventing us from entering the country. I tried to talk, to smile, to ask; I even called up my lineage. I told him that my father was born here, and that my great-grandfather was the rabbi of the Marina Roscha Synagogue until the War. But only a Western boy like me would think that such words would have any influence whatsoever on a Russian border official.

 

We were sent back on the next flight to Antalya.

 

"The Rebbe said about America that it is a 'kingdom of chessed (kindness)," said my brother-in-law. "Russia, on the other hand, is a 'kingdom of gevura (strictness)". In a kingdom of chessed  there are logic, explanations. It relates to what you have to say; someone listens to you. In a kingdom of gevura, there are no such things. That's the way things are, period.

 

Dear friends,

 

If I may be open with you, I will tell you that I had a pretty difficult experience. In addition to the difficult journey and the money that was wasted, I was simply insulted. I felt helpless. I was forced to accept the verdict as is, without my being able to argue or at least to receive some kind of explanation. The truth is, such feelings were enough to make me fall apart, but apparently the education instilled in me by my parents and teachers was stronger than all those feelings, and the belief in Divine Providence and in the passuk "A man's steps are from Hashem," were enough to calm me down and enable us to accept everything with love and keep on smiling.

 

There is not much of a message in my letter today. There is, though, a deep expression of thanks to my grandfathers and grandmothers, and, of course, to my dear parents, who apparently managed somehow to instill in my very being the simple faith in Divine Providence and the good old Jewish way that tells you to accept everything with love, and that Hashem will always pay up.

 

There is also a request and a prayer that I, too, will be able to continue and pass on to my own children this simple faith.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The king on the balcony

 We have been living in our present apartment for more than a decade. All that time, there has been a long and narrow balcony running along the northern part of the apartment. For more than a decade we have barely used it. We considered it ugly and impractical. But then the Corona came and we were shut up in the house and the porch became necessary as a place where we could be outside and breathe some fresh air. Only then did we realize the fact that we actually have a balcony – a bit narrow, not so comfortable and maybe not pretty enough, but a balcony, nevertheless. So one fine day we went to Ikea and bought some artificial grass, an outdoor table and chairs and a chaise longue, and there we were, with a useful and comfortable porch, pleasant and bright, and used almost daily.

So, for ten years we had a balcony and didn’t know it.

Why am I belaboring you with a story about a balcony and artificial grass?

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul. Like every chassid, I have learned and taught, since the previous Shabbat, about the month of Elul, about the light and the special Divine abundance that shines on the world during these days, about the powerful revelation that will be manifested in the world on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

We learned about the King being out in the field – how, during Ellul, Hashem is like a king who has gone out to the field to meet his subjects and greet each and every one of them with a smile. All we have to do is come close to him and accept what He gives us, and thereby prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana, when the King will once again be seated in His royal hall.

This parable of the Admor Hazaken (the first Chabad Rebbe) is touching and wonderful, but I find myself thinking: Okay, but where does all this light touch me? Where do I feel it? Is there any other meaning to it, beyond the fact that the Admor Hazaken wrote so?

And then I remembered our porch. I remembered how it was here all this time, but we didn’t know how to experience it or enjoy it until the Corona forced us to open our eyes – literally – and our minds as well, to recognize that it exists, and as a second stage, to buy grass and a table so that we can feel, experience and enjoy this wonderful abundance known as a balcony.

Have you understood this?

This brightness that lights up the world during the month of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im – the High Holy Days – is like a porch. It’s there all the time, but for some reason we ignore it. We don’t open our eyes and hearts to see that it exists. The first step is to know to open one’s eyes, one’s heart and one’s mind.

The second stage is to prepare and organize a place within us where we can welcome this light and abundance of the “king in the field”. Yes, like the artificial grass and the Ikea table. How? When a person approaches prayer seriously and solemnly, at that moment he is enabling the King to visit him, because the feeling of wanting to improve and be close that accompanies the more solemn prayers, is in itself a visit from the King. So too with teshuva (repentance) and tzedaka (charity); when I examine my deeds and want to correct them, so the approach and the willingness to do more is the warmth of the King Who is nearby. The more we do these things, the more we experience them, feel them – the more we will be in that place. Oh, I forgot to tell you that we also bought a gas grill for the porch. Because when there is a will and willingness, one can extract much more from one’s resources than one ever thought possible.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Sir Moses Montefiore of our generation

 Sami Rohr z”l used to say that when he was an industrialist in Bogota in the 1960’s, meshulachim would often come there from Israel to raise money. His friends, all of whom were Holocaust survivors like himself who had rebuilt their lives in Colombia, would complain: “Who are all these rabbis who come here every day to ask for money?”

At this point in the story Sami would smile – he was a Galician Jew who remembered regimes that persecuted Jews by taxing them unfairly: “I used to say to them: I prefer that a hundred rabbis should come here, and not one person from income tax.” In Yiddish it sounds better: “Mir iz lieber hundert rabbonim, vi einer von der steier.

Parashat Re’eh, which we will read tomorrow, is the parasha where the mitzvahs of tzedakah are mentioned, the mitzvahs of giving: ma’aser (tithes), providing for a Jewish slave when he completes his six years of bondage, opening one’s hand and heart to the poor. All of these are discussed at length, and always using a double verb: Aser te’aser (You shall surely tithe), pato’ach tiftach (You shall surely open [your hand]), naton titen, ha’anek ta’anik. It is clear that in this parasha the Torah is asking us repeatedly to open our hearts and hands, and, as Rashi says about naton titen (“You shall surely give”): even one hundred times.

The story I told about Sami Rohr z”l is not just a joke or a witticism. Sami Rohr really behaved that way. I think Sami Rohr was the Sir Moses Montefiore of our generation. Wherever you go in the world, in almost every community his name appears somewhere – on a building, or on a parochet (curtain on the Torah ark), on siddurs and chumashim or on an institute devoted to Torah learning. Because when he learned the psukim “You shall surely open” and “You shall surely give”, he understood them simply: even one hundred times. Literally.

Many people give tzedakah, but not everyone has the merit of being called a ba’al tzedakah.

A ba’al tzedakah is a person whose essence is giving tzedakah. There are those who give tzedakah to things that speak to them. One gives mainly to soup kitchens; another mainly to yeshivas; one likes to give mainly to hospitals, and his fellow gives mainly to organizations that assist people in distress. A ba’al tzedakah gives to everyone. He is simply everywhere.

By the way, one doesn’t have to be a millionaire in order to observe the mitzvahs of “You shall surely open your hand” and “you shall surely give.” These days, people are always asking us to participate in somecrowdfunding or another. Each person has his own personal “favorite”; not every case do we find interesting or touching. But if we remember “You shall surely open your hand” and “You shall surely give”, we will make the effort to participate in the crowdfunding, even when it is not necessarily our favorite charity.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A simple and important casing for life

 We all love to talk about stories of mesirut nefesh – heroic actions of Jews who went all the way – about wonderful closeness to the Creator, amazing Torah learning or a rare and special good deed. But the truth is that none of this would be possible without the “simple” framework of everyday mitzvahs, those that an observant Jew doesn’t feel very special when he performs them.

You know, I was raised on stories of Jewish heroism. As children of Russian Chabad families going several generations back, my wife and I were suffused with stories of lofty acts of observing the mitzvahs personally as well as of preserving the Jewish spark for the Jewish people as a whole. I have already told you a significant number of such stories; some of them I will tell in the future, and the truth is that they are not only stories, but already part of my life and my family’s life. They are deeply embedded in us.

As the years go by, I understand that the stories of heroism are just the picture. I now understand that in everyday life, and especially when the Jewish people are living a comfortable life, Thank G-d, it is necessary to create a simple casing – and be meticulous about maintaining it.

The simple framework of life starts with praying three times a day in a shul, continues with regular daily Torah classes, and goes on to ordinary good deeds, such as visiting the sick in person or by phone, and a little Gemach (project of gemilut chesed – helping others) on the side. This way of life is usually not exciting; it has nothing of the fire and enthusiasm of stories of endangering one’s life for the sake of mitzvahs. There’s no story to tell, and it won’t receive many “likes”, as we say today. But it has the ability to maintain us as G-d-fearing Jews.

Perhaps because this frame is comparatively dry, it has less movement and turmoil. But that’s what a frame needs: less movement and upheavals and more order and stability.

I don’t know if that’s what Chazal meant at the beginning of parashat Ekev, when they remarked that one must observe the mitzvahs that “a person steps on with his heels”, in other words, observe the “light” mitzvahs. Perhaps because of the frame’s “simplicity” it is considered a mitzvah that a person steps on unthinkingly.

Personally, I am not at all sure what is a “light” mitzvah and what is a “serious” mitzvah. As far as I’m concerned, this is a subjective definition dependent on one’s style and personality. For instance, the framework I just mentioned – there are those for whom it is the easiest and simplest thing to do, and for others it is the most difficult and challenging.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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