Rabbi's weekly Blog

A Finnish surprise

On Wednesday morning I boarded a Finnair flight from Zurich to Helsinki, together with my good friend, Rabbi Chaim Drukman from Luzern. Helsinki is a very beautiful city, but that was not the reason for our trip. We took this 2400 km, two-and-a-half hour flight in order to celebrate together with our beloved friend, Rabbi Benyamin Wolff and his family, as he dedicated the Chabad House in Finland.

I have known Benyamin for more than twenty years. 

I have known the devotion of his wife Ita and how much their children love the shelichut. Our children are friends of theirs. 

As a shaliach, I know very well what they are coping with and how huge and significant this moment was; I felt that the simcha, the happy occasion, was my own. 

I knew that they have been shelichim of the Rebbe in Helsinki for nineteen years already – more than once, I received regards from them, from people who had been hosted by them or had just passed by. 

I had known that they had purchased a building.

I had also known that the building was named after Sami and Charlotte Rohr z”l. I remembered how Sami told me, when he visited Basel, about his special connection with Rebbetzin Ita Wolff, going back to when she was a one-year-old and arrived in Bogota, Colombia, with her parents, Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin and Rivka Rosenfeld, who had come to serve as Shluchim there. 

But, much to my surprise, there was much that I did not know.

I did not know that they are not the first Chabad shluchim in Finland.

I did not know that their children are not the first children of shluchim to be born in Finland.

I did not know that seventy years before they went there, in 1930 (5690), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad Rebbe and the father-in-law of our Rebbe, sent Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu Shwei z”l to Finland, and for five years he illuminated Finland with Torah and chassidut, giving Torah classes to children and adults – Benyamin and Ita met one of those children when they arrived in Finland.

And the biggest surprise of all: I did not know that Rabbi Shwei was Rebbetzin Ita Wolff’s great grandfather! His son, Rabbi Izik Shwei z”l, was actually born in their place of shlichut.

With goosebumps from the surprise, I stood there, looking at the Wolff children, and suddenly understanding that they are fifth-generation shluchim. A fifth generation of people who in the definition of their essence are dedicated and fully devoted to the Jewish People, to each and every man, woman and child. They are not the first in their families to be born into a life of shlichut, and neither are their parents; in fact, their great-grandfather was also born into a life of shlichut – and in Finland, just like them. 

There was one more thing that I realized only when I was already on the way back to the return flight to Zurich. I realized that we had been in Finland, met hundreds of people, and didn’t hear one word about NATO, nor about Putin. Instead, we heard a lot about love and about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. People spoke about their love for Rabbi Benyamin, Ita and their children. The speakers mentioned the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who inspired the construction of this great and important edifice.

The President of the Jewish community in Helsinki, Mr. Yaron Nadvornik, connected the two things when he said with much feeling that of all the rooms in this impressive building, what he liked most was the wall upon which the picture of the Rebbe hangs and the inscription above it: “Make things warm and bright for others; God will make things warm and bright for you.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Kindling the lamps

This is an episode I heard from my father; I wonder what you will think of it.

It was when they were still behind the Iron Curtain, in Czernowitz. My grandfather, R. Moshe Wishedski z”l, and his good friend, R. Mendel Futerfas z”l, had already returned from the camps, and life had developed some sort of routine. 

On Shabbat they would get up early, learn chassidut together, with the older ones teaching the younger ones: my father, his brother, and two other teenagers verging on adulthood, with R. Mendel and R. Moshe, who were in their late thirties. After studying, R. Mendel and my grandfather would go, each to his own corner, to pray. They would pray for a long time – pouring out their hearts, as in “My soul thirsts for the living G-d”; or tefillah be’avoda (putting effort into prayers), as it is known among chassidim.

One Shabbat, when the older men went to pray, the younger people knew it would be a long time before kiddush, so they decided to “check out” the cholent – just a little mouthful before prayers – the cholent didn’t even have anything requiring the blessing of mezonot (wheat-based foods that one should not eat before davening). They didn’t know it, but R. Mendel realized they were doing this somewhat extensive sampling of the food.

At the hitva’adut after the long davening, R. Mendel had a drink, a L’chaim, and began to berate them at length: How could this be? Is this proper? Fine young Jewish men are sitting and eating cholent before prayers? Is that what Shabbat is supposed to look like? Is this how one prepares for davening?

They were silent, of course. But after he concluded his rebuke, one of them asked: “What didn’t you stop us? You saw us eating – all you had to do was to say one word and we would have stopped.”

Now, listen to what R. Mendel said in response:

“A Jew is eating, enjoying himself – how can I disturb him?”

This story is for me a lifesaver. 

I probably heard it some thirty years ago (and it is possible that it is not one hundred percent accurate), but it doesn’t leave me. I would not be exaggerating if I said that almost every time I was about to scold my children or berate them, this story came to mind and apparently saved us – both my children and myself. On one hand, one should let a Jew enjoy cholent; on the other hand, one should find the moment to berate him, as necessary. 

And why am I being reminded of this story today, of all days?

Because in the diaspora this week we learned parashat Beha’alotcha, the parasha we will read tomorrow. The Rebbe translated the lamps in the menorah into men, women and children who need someone to light the lamp for them, or, more accurately, to prepare the lamps for them so that they can illuminate the world with their own special light. How should one do this, practically speaking? How did Aharon really “love the people and draw them closer to Torah”? The answer is in this story about the cholent and R. Mendel.

Wishing everyone success,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

What the Gerrer Chassid told me

About ten years ago I flew from Zurich to New York. Luckily enough, I sat next to a Gerrer Chassid from Ashdod. It didn’t take long to find out that though he was nominally a Gerrer Chassid, for a decade he had been connected to Chabad: learning its teachings, praying in the Nusach of the Arizal – and, in general, viewing himself as a Chabad Chassid. And just like me, he too was on his way to the Rebbe. “I’m going to request a blessing from the Rebbe for a Shidduch for my daughter,” he said. “It’s not that she’s an old maid, or having problems with a Shidduch. She learned in the Gerrer institutions, is looking for a Gerrer Chassid as a husband, and indeed we receive good offers of fine young men – Bnei Torah and G-d fearing. She has no problem; it is I who has a problem.”

“What is the problem?” I asked him. 

“The problem is that I am shaking from the thought that she will marry a young man who is unfamiliar with the term ‘Tachlit Hakavannah.’”

I understood the issue immediately. “Tachlit Hakavannah” is the pillar of the teachings of the Chassidut. It is the central thing. From the moment one understands it, one cannot live anymore as a G-d fearing Jew without the teachings of Chassidut. Because one can learn and know, understand and internalize, but the Chassidic teachings explain to a person – and perhaps one might say that they grant him – the wonderful connection to Tachlit Hakvannah – the true, internal intention of everything that happens in this world, every mitzvah and every Torah story, any story that you have heard at all, and, really, every moment of your life. 

Here is an example: 

Why, indeed, did Bnei Yisrael roam the desert for forty years? 

Yes, we know that it was a punishment for the Sin of the Spies – one year for every day, forty years for the forty days that the spies were in the Land and later libeled it. But why did they have to spend it in the desert?

The revealed Torah explains to us why things happen, why they were punished. But what was the internal reason for them to walk through the desert in particular? What did we gain from that? What did Hashem (so to speak) gain from that? 

On Shabbat Parashat Naso, 5732 (1972) the Rebbe related to this question and said: “The Tachlit Hakavannah of the need for them to be in the desert was to make the desert into an ‘un-desert.’”

What is a desert? 

The prophet Yirmiyahu (2:6), when defining the desert, said “He who led us in the desert, in a land of wilderness and pit, in a land of waste and the shadow of death, in a land through which no man passed and where no person settled.” Just like materially the desert is a deserted place – “through which no man passed and where no person settled,” so too in the spiritual sense, a desert is a place where there are no human beings. In Chassidic teachings a human being symbolizes the “Adam Elyon” – the Supreme Human – namely Hashem. If so, a place where there are no people is a place where, so to speak, there is no place for the Adam Elyon – for Hashem. It possesses no holiness. The Divine force that gives it life is hidden, and therefore it is clear that it will be a “land of waste and shadow of death”, without life – without spiritual life and vitality; without holiness; just a material existence. 

When Bnei Yisrael were in the desert, they changed it by their very presence there by observing Torah and Mitzvos; they even built the Mishkan (Tabernacle) there. Gradually (it took them forty years!) they turned the desert into a fitting place for the Adam Elyon. The desert became “the Sinai Desert”, a place that symbolizes, more than anything else, the bringing down of holiness into the world by the giving of the Torah. 

A spiritual desert is not a geographic location. A spiritual desert can exist anywhere – at home and in the office, and – perhaps mainly – in the heart of a person as well. So if there are times when we feel that our heart is an empty, abandoned desert, we should remember and know that the desert too can be made fit for human habitation. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

"When you look at this ring, what do you see?”

"When you look at this ring, what do you see?” That is what the Chassid R. Mendel Futerfas asked Rabbi Shabtai Selvitzky from Antwerp, who was then a young man, engaged to be married. 

“Well,” said Shabtai, “I see a round piece of yellow metal.” 

R. Mendel was not satisfied, and asked again: “What do you see in the ring?” The young bridegroom looked again and said, “A smooth and beautiful piece of gold jewelry.” 

R. Mendel was still not satisfied, and said: “You don’t see the main thing. The main part of the ring is the free space inside it. The ring teaches you that the best piece of advice for married life is to be willing to give the other person space, to listen, to be able to contain.”

Chazal (our Sages) in tractate Ta’anit said about the Giving of the Torah, that it was the Jewish People’s wedding day – the day they married the Creator. When we are once again preparing ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot, which will be like remarrying Hashem, it would be good to remember the ring and the free space that is part of it. Because the best way to receive the Torah that is being given us is to come to it with humility and purity, a willingness to listen and to contain – to be an empty, free space.

That way, we will be able to receive the Torah with joy and Pnimiyus – its deep, internal aspects.

Chag Same’ach!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.