Rabbi's weekly Blog

Alone, or alone with Hashem

For a few weeks now, at 7:30 every morning, a 14-year-old refugee from Ukraine has been coming to me to learn Torah.

He is a good boy from a good family. He grew up in the Chabad community in Odessa and until the war he learned in the Chabad yeshiva in Dnipro. When he met me, he had been separated from the yeshiva and his friends for a few months already, and when I offered to learn chassidut together, he jumped at the opportunity as if it were a new iPhone I was giving him. “Oy, how I want to learn some ma’amar,” he said, and didn’t see that I was overcome with emotion at his response.

I admit that when I offered this to him, I thought it would be once a week at the most, but no – he wanted to learn every day, and if I can only do it at 7:30 in the morning, so he shows up at that hour every morning. 

We learned the ma’amarEichah yashvah badad (How has she come to sit in solitude)”, which the Rebbe said on the Shabbat of parashat Devarim, 1971 (5731).

The ma’amar compares, opposes and connects between the simple meaning of the passuk and the chassidic commentary of the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.

The simple meaning speaks of Jerusalem, sitting alone, in solitude, and as Rashi says: “empty of its inhabitants”. 

The Chassidic commentary speaks of badad as referring to being alone with Hashem and connects it to the passukHashem badad yanchenu (Hashem alone guided them)”.

Wow. What a huge difference between the commentaries. One speaks of someone who is alone, deserted, desolate, with no one with him in the world. And the other speaks of someone who has reached the spiritual level of feeling the closest possible to Hashem. Only with Hashem. Only Hashem guides him.

The first feels deserted; the second feels gathered in, embraced, as in the passuk “Hashem will gather me in.”

In the ma’amar, the Rebbe explains at length how it is precisely the moments of sitting in solitude are those that bring man to a state of feeling Hashem guiding him. How when a person does what he needs to do even when it is difficult, when he is almost incapable of doing it, when the exile is at its height – that is what brings upon him and to him the revelation of being led only by Hashem. 

To further strengthen this point, he brings the chassidic explanation of the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was the humblest person ever: It was because he knew the tests and trials of our generation, on one hand, and on the other hand he also knew that this generation would observe Torah and mitzvahs – and that is what brought him to humility. In the language of the ma’amar: “And as it is known, the explanation of ‘And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth,’ and even more so when he saw the generation of the ikveta demishicha (the last generation before the coming of the Mashiach), when there will be a multitude of concealments and hidings [of Divine Providence] etc., and yet they will learn Torah and observe mitzvahs and in a way that increases light, this understanding caused humility in Moshe.”

The boy and I talked about this – that often one can clearly see how it is especially the very difficult moments that connect us to emunah, faith, because these are moments when we really have no one to lean on except our Father in Heaven. 

And then realization dawned: Sitting in front of me was a child who has been separated from his yeshiva and his friends – and that is what pushes him to come every morning to learn, with the aim of achieving a state of Hashem badad yanchenu. I didn’t say this to him – I just was once again overwhelmed emotionally.

Am Yisrael chai!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Going through a fliegelach period?

“Hi, good evening, did the fliegelach period last a year? Two years?”

So surprised me last night a friend whom I coached a few years ago, helping him along with listening and advice. 

It took me a moment, but pretty quickly I understood that he was referring to something I must have told him in one of our talks – about a certain period in my past during which our means were very limited and because (or thanks to the fact that) there is no option of an overdraft in Switzerland, we went through a period of austerity. Among other things, for our Shabbat meals we had chicken wings, as they are the cheapest of all chicken parts.

I understood that Shabbat is fast approaching, and that he would be having to make do with fliegelach this week. “It was a time of austerity,” I replied. “You eat what you have.” “Actually, you eat what you cook,” (the Hebrew equivalent of “As you sow, so shall you reap”) my friend answered wittily, expressing a certain degree of self-flagellation, or of taking account, but certainly blaming himself: How did I reach such a state?

“Hashem cooked with us,” I replied, and tried to remember whether that is what I thought at the time as well, or whether that thought was just after-the-fact wisdom and faith.

And so, the following words are intended for you, my friend of last night’s correspondence:

I am not worried about you. I know you and your abilities. You have taken some brave steps, and brave steps naturally involve risk, otherwise they don’t demand courage. You endured a few blows, but in my opinion, at least, they were just a slap on the wrist (or wing?...). Another bit of letting go of the self-blame, and the fliegelach will become your wings, as you spread them and soar. 

I don’t remember clearly what I felt when I had to cut down on expenses, but I do remember clearly a courageous two-way discussion with my wife, in which both of us decided to face reality. We agreed: Right now, we must tighten our belts, but with Hashem’s help we will learn the situation and rise from it. I clearly remember that we did say that it was a lesson that we must go through.

On this Shabbat, we will be reading parashat Ekev, which includes the passuk describing the mann that the Jewish people ate in the wilderness as a form of suffering and test.

“He (Hashem) afflicted you and let you hunger, and He fed you the mann that you did not know, nor did your forefathers, in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that comes from the mouth of G-d does man live.”

And a few psukim later, Moshe Rabbeinu emphasizes once more: “He Who feeds you mann in the wilderness, which your forefathers did not know, to afflict you and test you, to do good for you in your end.”

One can think small and say: Yes, such a way of thinking is a fool’s consolation; it’s just the resistance felt towards accepting responsibility and so on, if you want to beat yourself up and heap blame upon yourself. But one can also look at it from the viewpoint that the purpose of the fliegelach that Bnei Yisrael received in the wilderness was to give them a lesson for life.

And it doesn’t have to be one or the other; it could be both:

To understand that Hashem is cooking something with you, together, to make you know that man lives by everything that comes from Hashem’s mouth, and at the same time not to remove from yourself all responsibility, and to continue to create vessels that can receive heavenly blessings.

To view the fliegelach as a test that will “do good for you in the end”, and at the same time to invest effort to reach that good soon.

It is not easy, but it seems that that is the way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

the right to pray

Sometimes, when I approach Hashem to pray to Him, a thought goes through my mind, saying, “By what right are you requesting anything?” I’m not talking about ordinary, everyday prayers, but prayers when faced with difficulties, when one is finding it hard to cope, when one is in serious distress.

With Hashem, after all, there’s no room for acting. We don’t fake piety; we don’t boast emptily about what we don’t have, and we don’t even tweak our CV’s. We approach prayer with the clear understanding that He knows what we are thinking deep inside, so how and in what merit do we really dare to ask?

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Rashi describes prayer by commenting on Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayer, and on the way he also answers our question.

The parasha opens with Moshe Rabbeinu’s beseeching Hashem to allow him to enter the Holy Land. “Va’etchanan (I implored) Hashem at that time,” says Moshe, and Rashi explains: “Va’etchanan – [the word] chanun always implies a matnat chinam – an undeserved gift. Although the righteous could cite their good deeds, all they ask for from Hashem is an undeserved gift.” And little me clings to this idea, is encouraged and understands that imploring Hashem and requesting things from Him is, in its essence, a request for a gift that we have no right to ask for. And therefore, whether you have merits or not, you can ask and beseech. 

Rashi goes on to speak about the power of prayer in every situation. Here, Moshe Rabbeinu is asking and imploring even though it has already been decreed by Hashem that he will not enter the land. Therefore, he opens his speech with the words, “You have begun to show Your servant…” Explains Rashi: by saying that, Moshe is saying to Hashem that Hashem began to teach him the power of prayer in any situation.

And then we reach the sweet conclusion of Moshe’s prayer: “for what power is there in the heaven or on earth that can perform [anything like] your deeds and Your mighty acts?” and as Rashi expands this prayer: “You are not like a flesh-and-blood king, who has advisors and associates who protest when he wants to act with lovingkindness and contrary to His usual traits; there is no one who will protest if you forgive me and annul your decree.”

So we see that even the great Moshe Rabbeinu, the person who brought the Ten Plagues on the Egyptians, split the sea, brought down the Tablets of the Law and spoke to Hashem face-to-face, as it were, in the end, when he needed a salvation, he prayed like a Yiddische Mama praying for her children. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski


The trial of g-od

At age fifteen, Eli Wiesel was already in Auschwitz, so writes Robert McAfee Brown in his introduction to The trial of god, a play written by Eli Wiesel. A teacher of Talmud made friends with him in Auschwitz and insisted that every time they meet, they should study together – Talmud without writing instruments, Talmud without paper, Talmud without books. That will be their act of religious defiance.

One night, the teacher took Wiesel with him back to his barracks, and there, in the presence of the young man as a single witness, three Torah scholars – learned in the Talmud, halacha and Jewish law – sued G-d, having formed a Torah court of law.

The court case lasted a few nights. Testimonies were taken, evidence gathered, conclusions reached, and in the end all of these culminated in a unanimous decision: The Holy One, Blessed Be He, Creator of heavens and earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humanity. And then, after what Wiesel describes as a “deathly silence”, the Torah scholar looked up at the sky and said, “It’s time for Ma’ariv,” and the members of the court went to pray the evening prayers.

My friends, this meeting point between the pain and mourning of a Jew in Auschwitz, and the firm belief and hope for a better future expressed in prayer, is most fully experienced this Shabbat, the Shabbat when we read Parashat Devarim.

Shabbat parashat Devarim is the last Shabbat before Tisha B’av, and this year it actually falls on the ninth day of the month of Menachem Av, with the fast postponed to Sunday. We have been mourning for three weeks already – not having haircuts, not listening to music, and, from the beginning of the month of Av, not eating meat, not drinking wine. But then Shabbat comes, and mourning is forbidden on Shabbat. On Shabbat we make kiddush on wine as usual, and eat the usual Shabbat foods, as if we are not in a period of mourning. 

It is a mixture of pain and joy.

It is called “Shabbat Chazon” – for two reasons: One, because the haftara from the book of Yeshayahu opens with the words “Chazon Yeshayahu”, and in it Yeshayahu laments the sins of the nation and its leaders and rebukes the people for their lack of integrity in their bringing of offerings. He also warns the people of the terrible punishment that awaits them: “Your land is laid waste, your cities consumed by fire.” The other reason for calling this Shabbat “Shabbat Chazon” is because on this Shabbat the upper levels of every Jew’s soul can view (chozeh) the future Beit Mikdash (Temple).

Past destruction and future building reign together.

And maybe – maybe – this is an integral part of our essence as a nation. We will always connect past and future, destruction and rebuilding, mourning and joy. Perhaps this is part of the secret of our survival and existence as a nation; we have never wallowed in pain and mourning, but rather always knew to lift our heads, grit our teeth, and move forward. 

Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski



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