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When the Rebbe got confused

She belonged to the Vishnitz chassidut and lived in Bnei Brak; her sister belonged to the Satmar chassidut and lived in Williamsburg. The period was the late 1980’s, when the relationship between the Chabad and Satmar communities was at a low ebb. Both Williamsburg and Crown Heights are neighborhoods in Brooklyn, quite close geographically at least, and nowadays they are emotionally close as well, but back in the 1980’s the distance between the two communities was huge. 

She came from Israel because there was evidence that she might have a malignant growth, and the specialists recommended that she go to New York to be examined further. But really, there was another reason for going to New York. She knew that every Sunday the Lubavitcher Rebbe sees people, and anyone who wants to can come without prior registration, stand in line, say what is troubling him or her, receive a dollar for tzedaka and bracha, and, mainly, have the Rebbe’s full attention for those few seconds or minutes. 

She very much wanted to go to the Rebbe and ask for his blessing. She had children at home who needed her to be healthy, and the Rebbe’s blessing was no less – and perhaps more – important to her than the tests that would be performed by the expert doctors in New York.

And so, on Sunday, a few minutes after her brother-in-law, her sister’s husband – left to go to shul, she approached her sister and made her request: “Come with me to Crown Heights; take me to Lubavitch.” Her sister refused – she can’t. It was unthinkable in those times of division between the two groups. Her husband was an important person in his community – how would he be able to show his face in public if it would become known that his wife had gone to ask the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a bracha? There was no way that he would be able to accept this, and it would be impossible to go without telling him, impossible! How would she face her husband if she deceived him and kept such a thing from him?

But the Vizhnitz sister was insistent – her life was hanging in the balance, and she pleaded with her again and again, until the Satmar sister gave in and agreed to help her. 

They stood quietly in the long line, hoping not to meet anyone they knew – so deep was the estrangement then. And then they were standing in front of the Rebbe. The lady from Bnei Brak told him that she had been diagnosed with “the machala” (the illness, code word for cancer), and she was asking for a blessing. Her sister was standing next to her. The Rebbe listened, gave her a dollar to give to tzedaka and blessed her with the usual blessing: “Bracha and hatzlacha (success)”. The Rebbe then gave a dollar to her American sister as well and said to her: “Refuah sheleimah ukrova (have a full, speedy recovery).”

“You see, he got confused,” said the American sister to the Israeli one. “It’s a pity we came. I deceived my husband and in the end the Rebbe made a mistake: he gave you the regular blessing and me – the blessing for recovery.”

In the evening, when her husband came home, he saw immediately that something was wrong. “Don’t be angry,” she said to him. “We went to get a dollar from the Lubavitcher – I couldn’t say no to my sister – and really it was a waste of time; in the end the Rebbe got confused”. And she told him about the switched blessings. Her husband’s expression became very grave. He was a serious person, and he said immediately, “Come with me. we are going right now for tests in the hospital. Ture, you shouldn’t have gone, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe never gets confused. If he wished you a complete recovery, then it is you who needs it.” The tests did, indeed, show the beginnings of a serious illness requiring immediate treatment.

Her sister’s tests, as you can probably guess already, showed that the growth was benign and that she was perfectly healthy. 

I remembered that story this morning – early Thursday morning – when I stood in the ohel of the Rebbe, praying for myself and for those who sent me. I wasn’t alone. Every few minutes men and women came and went. Some stayed for a few minutes and some for longer; some said Tehillim, and others just prayed from their hearts; some were reading out their request, and others were carrying many requests with them. One was sobbing, and another was praying softly; one was praying with his eyes closed, and another leaned her head on the headstone, and everyone there – everyone – knew what the Williamsburg sister’s husband knew – and that is why they were there and that is why I was there as well.

From the World Conference of Shluchim, I wish you Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

The question that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was asked most?

What do you think is the question that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was asked most?

Last week I met a friend who had had a few chats with the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l. I admit that that is something that I would have liked to have experienced as well. The friend shared a number of fascinating stories with me, and one of the most special ones was about Rabbi Sacks asking him the above-mentioned question: “I give speeches hundreds of times a year; I meet scores of people of all types; what do you think is the question that people ask me most?”

The friend made a few guesses, but the rabbi smiled and said, “Well, this is the question: ‘Rabbi Sacks, do you remember me?’”

Amazing, isn’t it?

It turns out that we are interested in many things and topics, and we learn a lot, but it seems that there is one basic thing that we all need: We want to be remembered; in other words, we want to be noticed and remembered, to be important to someone, certainly if he is on the level of Rabbi Sacks.

As I’m writing this, what comes to mind is that my mother, who was a teacher and a principal in the Beit Rivkah High school in Kfar Chabad for forty-eight years, always says that that is the most common question she is asked by her former students, young or old, some of whom were her students ten years ago and some forty years ago. They all ask the same question: “Hamenahelet (Principal), do you remember me?”

The parasha we will read tomorrow in the Torah is parashat Vayera, the parasha in which Hashem reveals Himself to Avraham.

I don’t know how many of us turn to Hashem sometimes and ask, “Do you remember me?” I assume that if we were close enough to Hashem, or felt close, that is what we would ask. And this is the point at which every Chabadnik is reminded of the story about Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn of Lubavitch, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, also known as the Rashab. One year, when he was four or five years old, on his birthday, he entered the room of his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the third Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, in order to be blessed. And as the child entered the room, he burst into tears and said, “Why did Hashem reveal Himself to Avraham and not to me?”

This child, who, as mentioned, later became a Rebbe, had just learned the weekly parasha of Vayera, and had read or heard that Hashem reveals Himself to people, and here He is indeed revealing Himself to Avraham Avinu, so he too wanted to have such a revelation. Perhaps this is a type of “Do you remember me?” of tzaddikim

I have two things to say by way of a summary: The first relates to bein adam lachaveiro – mitzvahs that concern interpersonal relationships. One must look around, understand and remember that people want us to remember them – especially people who have some kind of connection to us – just like we want them to remember us. 

The second thing relates to bein adam lamakom – mitzvahs that are between man and his Creator. The truth is that we are close enough to Hashem to really and truly want Him to reveal Himself to us, even though it doesn’t come as naturally as it did to a scion of family of Rebbes. Nevertheless, we do have this desire, this yearning to come closer, to experience a spiritual revelation, to feel that Hashem is close to us. And if this doesn’t happen, we are allowed to ask: “Do you remember me?”

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Release control


I once participated in a teachers’ course sponsored by the umbrella organization of Swiss Jewry – SIG. At the time I was a teacher in the Basel community, the IGB. In one of the workshops the facilitator tried to teach us to work together, to trust each other, so that we can become a good team. He divided us up into pairs, and each time asked one of the two partners to stand behind the other’s back and be ready to catch him when he falls back. From the other he requested that he allow himself to fall back without looking, just trusting his friend to catch him. Does this sound easy? Maybe. But it is very difficult. I think no one managed to do that, certainly not the first few times. (Even my partner in this task, Dr. Yuval Rubin, did not succeed in throwing himself back. And the truth is that I was very surprised by this, because I was the one who was supposed to catch him…).

We are so used to trusting ourselves and controlling our lives that we are not capable of letting go and agreeing to give up control. 

As the years go by I learn how much we really do not control our lives, how, in the end, there is somebody or something much greater than ourselves who runs our lives and if we will just be able to surrender and agree to let go bit, it will be easier and better for us – and in addition we will enjoy more happiness and contentment in our lives. I am speaking from experience. 

“Go for yourself from your land and your place of birth and the house of your father to the land I will show you.” This is the first task in the Torah, given to the first Jew by the Creator. There are endless explanations, commentaries and messages connected to this passuk. They are all wonderful, but sometimes one ought to just read the passuk in its simplest meaning. It says here clearly: Start your journey without knowing where you are going. Throw yourself back, knowing that I will catch you. Release control and trust Me. 

This of course does not mean that a person should sit and do nothing, G-d forbid; or that he should not think and plan ahead or prepare himself for the near or distant future. Of course not. A person must work, study, prepare himself, plan what has to be planned. But what should be at the base of his life, his plans, his calculations and his dreams is the knowledge that in the end the control is not in his hands. If something goes wrong on the way, is altered, exchanged for something else or even cancelled, give in to it. Trust Hashem that everything is for the good and He will show you the way.

And if there is a challenging moment, one can always sing the prayer of Rabbi Meir of Apta, as put to music so nicely by R. Avraham Shabtai Hacohen Friedman: “Master of the Worlds, yadati – I know that I am in Your hands alone.” 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Not everything is good to see

 Before Succot I posted a picture of me examining Etrogim. The goal was marketing and nothing more – on my table were dozens of sets of the Arba Minim (Four Species) and the picture was designed to attract buyers.

A friend of mine whom I love and respect sent me a message as follows: “As the Rebbe’s shaliach, it is probably hard for you to examine Etrogim; after all, the Rebbe taught us not to see the black spots.” I smiled and sent him back a suitable emoji.

The Shabbat of parashat Noach, is my bar mitzvah Shabbat. Yes, my birthday is on the 2nd of Cheshvan. When I sat by R. Abba Levine z”l, the perfectionist Torah reader in the central shul of Kfar Chabad in order to learn how to read the haftara of parashat Noach, we didn’t call it a bar mitzvah Shabbat, but two decades spent in Basel have accustomed me to noting the parasha as my bar mitzvah Shabbat. Well, after Noach comes out of the ark and sees that the world has been laid waste, he drinks a bit too much. His sons come in to cover him, and then the Torah emphasizes that two of his sons approached him walking backwards so as not to see their father’s nakedness: “And they walked backwards and covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned backwards and they did not see their father’s nakedness.” Twice it says “backwards” and twice it is repeated that they did not see his nakedness. 

This was not done without thought, nor was it meaningless – it was their choice. They chose not to see their father in his weak moment. Their choice is an instruction to us, an instruction of how to live our lives. 

It is possible – indeed, it is much easier – to see the bad; it is interesting, it is compelling and sometimes it gives us a good feeling: We feel we are better people when the failure or weakness of the other is evident. 

But it is also possible and much more worthwhile to avoid seeing the bad. It’s a bit drier, less interesting; sometimes one has to change the subject or move from where one is standing at that moment, but it leaves us cleaner. 

Noach’s sons knew what they were coming to do; they understood what they were dealing with; but they decided to walk backwards and not to see, in order to show respect to their father as well as to stay clean themselves. And mainly, so that this one-time event will not stain their father’s being. As with the Etrog, if we want to, we can see the black spots, but then we’ll lose seeing the beauty of the Etrog

I have a birthday, and that is what I am wishing myself: that I should merit seeing the good in the world, the beauty of the other person. May Hashem grant me chochma, bina and da’at (wisdom, understanding and knowledge) to know when to avert my head and not see what one doesn’t have to see, so that the other person’s beauty will shine. 

I wish the same to you too, my friends and readers.

From experience, it does wonders to all the types of relationships we have in this world.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A wish or a decision

 “Happy New Year” is not a wish; it is a decision. 

I fully believe in it. True, we wish each other a Happy New Year; that is important and even great! But when it comes to ourselves we should not let it remain as just a wish; we should be proactive, in faith and in actual action, in order to make sure that this coming year will be a good one in every way. 

Before the holidays we forgave others, and ourselves as well. There are many who said, “I forgive myself.” This is important and even great, but its proper place is at the end of the year. When one is about to begin a year, the forgiving should be set aside together with self-pity, and one should get into a mode of movement and action.

To enter such a mode means to take everything that we have received during the holidays, especially Succot and Simchat Torah – the lightness and the joy – put it all in a bowl and make up a dish of energy, joy, lightness, faith and trust. 

The Chabad Rebbes brought into the world a special declaration and message for Shabbat Bereishit, a declaration that encompasses much and is particularly suited for the first Shabbat after the holidays, the Shabbat after which we finally return to our routines. “The way a person places himself on Shabbat Bereishit, so will be all year.” In my opinion, we’re not talking mystical ideas here, but rather technique. A person who approaches the reishit, the beginning of the year’s routine with a mindset of “I can’t, I won’t succeed, I have no money and no ability. I have no time and no chance at all,” there is no doubt that that is what his year will look like, too. 

On the other hand, a person who at the beginning of his year approaches it with proactivity and even a declaration such as “This year I am going to fix my economic situation, no matter what. I’ll bring B”H stability and joy to my family and household. I have the ability to do so. I intend to invest some time this year in my child who is having slight difficulties in school, so that by the end of the year have him on equal level with his classmates, and I know I can do that. This year I will bring my marriage to a high level of love, fellowship, peace and friendship, because I can with hashem helping me. When I want something, I make sure to get it.” I have no doubt that someone who comes with such a proactive approach will indeed achieve whatever he wants to achieve in the coming year. 

Practically speaking, this is not easy. One must invest time and effort, and labor in order to advance, improve and grow. But if we that hashem believes in ourselves and our abilities, if we believe that we can overcome all the challenges facing us, then surely we will come out on top. One thing I’m sure of: Hashem certainly believes in us, otherwise he wouldn’t have given us all this responsibility in our lives. 

A Happy New Year is not a wish but rather a decision – as a certain American once said: “Yes, we can!”

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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