Rabbi's weekly Blog

he spoiled the party

More than a decade ago I attended a Bar Mitzvah in the family of Rabbi Sholom Rosenfeld, from the Ezra Chabad House in Zurich. The celebration was very impressive. It was clear that everyone had been preparing for it for a long time. The Bar Mitzvah boy, who today is already a young father, was suitably dressed, full of joy, excitement and the Kedusha of Mitzvah observance. 

A special moment was when the grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Rosenfeld, rabbi of the Chabad community in Boro Park, Brooklyn, was called up to speak. Rabbi Rosenfeld is a tall, impressive individual, with smiling eyes that express much wisdom. But here he was an excited grandfather who was about to bless his grandson, whose name was Mendel, of course. This is what he said: 

“Dear Mendel, I know how much you’ve prepared yourself for this moment. I know how many hours you spent learning to read the Torah. I heard how hard you worked on preparing your Drasha (sermon) and the words of Chassidut that you spoke here tonight. I saw how happy you were with your new, expensive Tefillin and I know how excited you are about being called up to the Torah for the first time, this coming Shabbat, since you are now obligated in all the Mitzvahs. Mendel, I am sorry to spoil your enthusiasm and excitement, but it is important for you to remember that your first Mitzvah as a Bar Mitzvah boy is saying the Shema tonight. It says in the Torah that one should say it ‘when you lie down and when you get up’. And so, tonight, after this big party, find yourself a quiet corner in the house and say, with much concentration, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” thus fulfilling your first Mitzvah as a Bar Mitzvah – as one obligated to observe the Mitzvahs. 

Having Parashat Mishpatim immediately after Parashat Yitro rather spoils the party. After the great excitement around the giving of the Torah, the loud noises, the smoke and the lightning, with Hashem Himself coming down on Mount Sinai and speaking, causing the Jews to lose their faculties - after all that what we get is the law regarding an ox that gored a cow, and the laws of a Jewish slave? 

The Rebbe explain this in his Likutei Sichot, section 16: Our goal here in this world is to bring the holiness of the Torah and Mitzvahs into this material world, in two stages. The first stage is to stop the world in its steps by way of loud noise, lightning and smoke, to the point of Hashem Himself coming down on Mount Sinai. But this has a disadvantage: it is not natural for the world, since the world is basically material and tangible. The second stage is to install the Torah into the limits and laws of the material nature of the world. This cannot be done by loud voices and lightning, but by way of simple dry laws such as those brought in Parashat Mishpatim. 

To have Parashat Mishpatim right after Parashat Yitro does not spoil the party, but rather substantiates it. 

Grandfather Rosenfeld basically told his grandson that all that celebration and enthusiasm, holiness and joy – everything is important and dear to us. It’s all great, but only if one knows to concentrate all of it into one moment at the end of the evening, in which one stands in a quiet corner and says, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalman Wishedski

What are the Ten Commandments all about?

If you were asked to give a one-word definition of what the Ten Commandments are about, what would you say?

This week, I spoke with a young man who said: “I know that this week we will be reading the Ten Commandments. I know they are considered very important. The whole world, and certainly the Jewish People, consider the giving of the Ten Commandments to be the moment of Hashem’s revelation to the Jewish people. I also know that on Shabbat, when we will read the Torah, you will bang on the bimah, and everyone will understand that they are supposed to stand in honor of the reading of the Ten Commandments. But how does this influence my life today?

“I believe in Hashem, I don’t make idols, I keep Shabbat, respect my parents, don’t murder or steal, don’t covet either. I am, after all, a normative person. What are they, then, for me today? So I have to improve here and there? Okay. Upgrade my acquaintance with the laws of Shabbat, improve in honoring my parents, make more of an effort not to covet? Okay. But is that all?”

In response, like any good Jew, I asked him the question above: If you were asked to give a one-word definition of what the Ten Commandments are about, what would you say?

Together, we reached the conclusion that perhaps we might say that the Ten Commandments are all about “vitur”. There is no good translation for this word in English. It’s a form of “giving in”, or “relinquishing”, but willingly, voluntarily. In this case, being willing to relinquish our immediate responses, our natural tendencies and inclinations.

It means relinquishing fear, in favor of faith; relinquishing the desire to do something on Shabbat, for the sake of Shabbat; giving up important things for the sake of honoring parents, relinquishing the desire to write something nasty that will reward one with pleasurable attention from others, for the sake of “Do not murder”; the desire to trick someone, for the sake of “Do not steal”, the natural tendency to covet, in favor of “Do not covet”; one’s bodily desires, for the sake of “Do not commit adultery.”

Relinquishing my basest tendencies, in favor of my most sublime ones.

In the language of chassidut this is called “bitul”, which means, in general, to be willing to negate the animal aspects in me, in favor of the divine ones.

What’s wonderful about it, is that while at the beginning there is a feeling that you are lessening yourself with every relinquishment and bitul, slowly-slowly you discover that the opposite is true: The more you minimize the animal side and enable the divine side, the bigger and more significant you become. 

So what do you say? What are the Ten Commandments all about?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

when my teacher threw me into the water..

I was seven years old when I started taking swimming lessons from the swimming teacher, Chaim. It was at the municipal pool in Lod. At age seven-and-a-half I already knew how to swim, and all I needed was to learn how to dive into the deep water. I was the youngest of the students and I still remember the bit of fear I felt as I confronted the deep water. I only remember a bit, because it lasted only until the teacher threw me into the water, yelling, “Don’t forget to make a Shehakol (the blessing on drinking water)!” 

Jumping into deep water is an existential fear that every thinking person has. I am sure that Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to jump into the deep water moments before the Splitting of the Sea, was afraid. Especially since he hadn’t gone through Chaim’s swimming lessons…. 

Halachically, too, it is not so clear that he was obligated to endanger his life in such a situation.

So why did Nachshon jump in, anyway?

The Rebbe explains in this context a very basic thing regarding the essence of life for a Jew:

We don’t seek Mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice). In spite of how special Mesirut Nefesh is, we do not have a goal to die or suffer for the sake of Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name). The goal is to live a Jewish life; the goal is to learn Torah and observe the Mitzvot. And yes, the goal is also definitely to reach every Jew and Jewess and take care of them, wherever they are. 

And if this work demands Mesirut Nefesh from us? We will not be put off because of it. If for the purpose of obeying we have to jump into the stormy Sea of Reeds – we will jump, in spite of our natural fear. Nothing will stop us from trying to attain the goal.

That is what Nachshon ben Aminadav did while facing the sea: “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain,” said Hashem. If the way to that mountain, Mount Sinai, goes through the sea, we will go through the sea! Because the sea will split in the face of such determination.

This message was the Rebbe’s main message when he spoke on the 10th of Shvat, 5711 (1951). Those were fateful moments for the small and battered Chabad movement, the moments when the son-in-law of the Rebbe who had passed on a year earlier agreed to take upon himself the leadership of the Chabad movement. And he said then: “The goal is to be concerned like Avraham Avinu for every Jew, and if Mesirut Nefesh is needed by the way, that too, exists.” We will not seek it, but we also will not recoil from it. 

Today we know what that small number of Chassidim did not know then, that these moments were historical and significant not only for the Chassidim, but for every Jew and Jewess who live anywhere in the world where there is Coca Cola.

This week we marked the 10th of Shvat. The Shabbat is the Shabbat of the Splitting of the Sea, and that, then, is the message: when one acts with determination and a willingness to jump into the water, the sea splits. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Every Chabadnik knows

Every Chabadnik knows by heart the first sentence that the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, said on the 9th of Adar, 5700 (1940), immediately upon disembarking from the ship at Pier 94 in Manhattan: “America is no different.” (in Yiddish: America is nicht anderesh.)

The simple meaning is clear. This was a clear and sharp message to the Jews from back home – from Poland and Hungary – telling them that in America, too, one can walk around in a long coat and a broad pair of tzitzit. America is no different; here, too, it is possible and even imperative to keep Shabbos and learn Torah.

If I may be allowed, I think there is a deeper and even revolutionary aspect that can be seen in speeches and talks of the Rebbe since he accepted upon himself the leadership of Chabad on the 10th of Shvat, 5711: America is not different not only from Warsaw and Krakow; America and everything it represents is not different from Hashem. It is not a separate reality, G-d forbid. Modernization and broad horizons, technology and openness are not different and distinct entities. Not only because these can be used for the purpose of holy and positive goals, but because in reality that’s why everything was created!

Hashem created the world with endless abilities and possibilities. As time goes on these are revealed, stage by stage. Some of them seem impure or negative, but the Rebbe’s message was that a Jew who knows how to use a horse and wagon to serve Hashem will also know how to use a car and an airplane; and he who knows how to use a letter and a postcard for positive goals, will know how to do the same thing with WhatsApp and Facebook. Because this is the truth: America is no different; the goal is the same goal. It’s only the means that have been upgraded.

Friends, this coming wednesday we will mark the 10th of Shvat, it is the day on which the great Jewish revolution began, based on the words “America is no different.”

May we be successful!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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