Rabbi's weekly Blog

Do we fear or believe?

The writer Yair Garbuz once wrote ironically that the Polish Jews don’t believe in G-d but are mortally afraid of him. I’ve already mentioned once before that my grandfather used to say that in every joke there is some joke. So I look at myself and ask: Am I a bit like the Jews in that joke?

No, I am not Polish, and I am definitely a believing Jew, but when Yom Kippur comes, am I motivated by fear, or perhaps even mortal fear?

Why are we so anxious when Yom Kippur approaches?

When we prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur, when we go to pray like angels, dressed in white and fasting – what do we want to achieve?

Of course, we want to be written and sealed for a good life, but is this all we will ask for?

Of course, we beg that we will receive good decrees, but will we be satisfied with merely continuing to have a good life?

If the answer is yes, then we are a bit like those in Garbuz’s joke.

I think I have my own answer, but it’s mine. I invite you, my dear friends and readers, to find your own answers to the question of what do we want to achieve on Yom Kippur.

We are in the Ten Days of Repentance. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Tshuva (meaning “return,” but also “answer”) as well, so perhaps we will find the answer to this question, too.

From a loving heart, I bless everyone with Gmar Chatima Tova, with visible and revealed good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

My failings and me

As the High Holy Days approach, I’m hearing more and more people expressing feelings of being downhearted: I’m not doing things right, I’m not moving upwards, I’m not good, I’m not worthy.

I hear these sentiments from friends who come to consult, as well as internally – that is, these are my own sentiments, about myself. I told a friend who said such things this week that I hear a confusion between the definition of the act and the definition of the actor, between the doing and the doer.

I have no problem with your examining your deeds, your actions, defining them as good or bad and treating them accordingly. But there is a big problem if you define yourself according to your deeds, and thus define yourself as good or bad and then treat yourself accordingly, which means, of course, self-flagellation – that is, general despair, which harms your desire and ability to attempt to fix and improve matters – because it is a futile effort, right?

Remember, our actions will never change the fact that Hashem chose us to be His partners in repairing this world. He chose us to be his partners in that we will be parents to our children – his and ours – and take care of their physical and spiritual needs. He chose us in that he gave us money, counting on us to use it for acts of charity and kindness. He gave us life and good health, and He trusts us that we will use these to do good in his world to His creations.

And if He trusts us, He knows what He is doing.

I trust Him.

It is not only important that we remember this – it is critical. Because sincere and true self-assessment is the foundation of our lives. Only if we assess ourselves correctly will we be able to recognize our mistakes and faults without falling apart completely as a result, and only if we recognize our faults will we be able to repair and improve ourselves.

It’s not me saying this – it’s the Rebbe who says this. Here is a quote from him, from slightly more than forty years ago, Sunday, the 6th of Tishrei, 5742 (1981):

When a Jew is busy with the labor of teshuva (repentance) and does his best to fill in whatever he has omitted from his labors, he must be careful not to let his spirit fail, chas veshalom, as a result of seeing the faults in his labors.

And, as the saying of our rabbis, our princes, goes: The same way you should know the faults, so too you should know your ma’alot (strong points).” And here there is a wonderful distinction: When speaking of the strong points, it’s “your strong points”, and when speaking of the faults – it is “the faults”, not your faults!

And the explanation of this is according to what it says in the Zohar on “And a soul that sins…” – read as a question:

A Jew in himself is not connected to sin at all, and even when he stumbles and sins chas veshalom – it is not a fault in himself, rather it is something from outside himself that has attached itself to him. In other words, since he is in this materialistic and corporeal world, and his role is to fulfill Hashem’s mission of “Fill the land and conquer it” – in other words, to do and act in the world – so when he is wrestling with the evil one, this materialistic and corporeal world, it could be that something of the materialism and corporeality of the world adheres to him. and therefore, even though it’s a fault, it is not his own failing, because this fault is not coming from him, but from the reality of the world around him. 

And therefore, he does not become dispirited, chas veshalom, as he knows that the fault is something external that has adhered to him.

(Torat Menachem, 5742, Part I, p. 53).

Wishing all of us success,

Shabbat Shalom,

Ktiva v’chatima tova, for a good and sweet year,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

“measure for measure”

On Monday, the 12th of Tammuz, 5653 – 1893, at six in the evening, the bar mitzvah Se’udah (meal) of Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn – who was to become the sixth Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty – was taking place in the town of Lubavitch. During the meal, the father of the boy, Rabbi Shalom DovBer, turned to his son and said: “It is customary in Chabad that every Rebbe turns to his son on the day of his bar mitzvah and says to him, ‘Ask a question.’ In other words, present me with a question, and I will answer it. And so, Yosef Yitzchak, ask a question.” 

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (known as the Rayatz), recorded the next few moments in his diary:

“I asked my father: In the Siddur it says that ‘it is proper to say before davening, “I take upon myself the positive mitzvah of You shall love your fellow like yourself.” Why was this statement placed before the davening?’

“’When a father has many sons,’ my father answered me, ‘his main pleasure is seeing that they are all united and love each other. Davening is asking Hashem for one’s personal needs, both material and spiritual, and before asking, we should give our Father in Heaven some Nachas, some pleasure, and therefore it was decided that one should accept upon oneself the positive mitzvah of loving other Jews particularly before davening.’”

And the Rebbe continues to write in his diary: “I’m telling this so that you will understand what a father must give his son, and what guidance he should give him on the day of his bar mitzvah.

“Simply put: Before you ask for something from Hashem for yourself, give Him something for his children. It is logical, it is fair, and it works!”

In the month of Elul, the month of compassion and Selichot (prayers for forgiveness), there is an emphasis on the mitzvah of Tzedaka. Here is what the Rambam says when he speaks about the Teshuva – repentance – that one should engage in during the High Holy Days (Hilchot Teshuva, 3:9): “All of Israel have the custom of giving much Tzedaka and doing many good deeds.”

Why Tzedaka? What’s the connection between giving alms to the poor and the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? 

Well, this is where I remembered Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s answer to his son on the day of his bar mitzvah: During Elul and the High Holy Days, when we come to plead for ourselves and for our children and request an abundance of blessing, good health, a good livelihood, Nachas from the children, happiness in the home – we should first give Him something from ourselves. Hashem treats us using the principle of “measure for measure”: When we give to His children, he gives to us, and when we give a lot, he showers much good upon us. It is logical, it is fair and it works! 

Shabbat Shalom and K’tiva V’Chatima Tova,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

field-workers vs vineyard workers

R. Yeshaya Zusha Shubau z”l, my grandmother’s father, also known as the “Boyder Rav”, was the rabbi of the Marina Rosha synagogue in Moscow. On the first day of Succot he would get up early, immerse in a Mikvah, study Chassidut and prepare to perform the mitzvah of taking the Four Species. When the time came, he would hold the Lulav and Etrog in his hand, and would leap and dance as he made the blessing “Asher Kidshanu Bemitzvotav Vetzivanu Al Netilat Lulav. (Who sanctified us with his Mitzvot and commanded us to take the Lulav.)” 

Once, his friend, who was standing next to him, also a rabbi, turned to him and asked him somewhat cynically: “The Boyder Rav, why are you dancing?” “What do you mean?” responded the Rav. “I just made a Bracha (blessing), and I was so excited that I danced.” 

The friend wanted to tease him and said, “I just made the Bracha of Asher Yatzar (the blessing made after using the bathroom), and I didn’t dance…”

“Nu,” said the Boyder Rav, “If you were to make the Asher Yatzar blessing once a year, boy, would you dance…”

In Parashat Ki Tetzte it says, “When you come into your fellow’s vineyard, you may eat grapes as is your desire, to your fill,… When you come into your fellow’s standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand…”

The Torah tells us to allow a worker who is working in a field or vineyard to eat of the produce while he is working. 

Interesting: while regarding the vineyard it says “as is your desire, to your fill” – as much as you want, when talking of the field the language is more limiting: “you may pluck ears”. Not an expression of abundance, but rather of a measured amount, as much as you can hold in your hand. 

The Rebbe explains that these verses hint to two types of service of the Creator. 

Field-work, in which one labors over the basic and vital needs such as wheat, symbolizes the person who does whatever is necessary and vital in his service of Hashem, but not beyond that. 

Tending a vineyard, in which one is working with pleasure-causing things such as grapes, symbolizes the person who serves Hashem joyfully and enjoyably, perfecting his acts and making improvements (within the permitted boundaries); going beyond the basic law. 

We all know “field-workers”, people who observe the laws of the Torah properly, but somewhat dryly, without happiness and enthusiasm, without getting excited or going beyond the minimal requirements. The result is like bread that comes from a field: it feeds a person but does not provide the pleasure and the juice that a fruit has. And then there are the “vineyard workers” who bring happiness and enthusiasm to their observance of Torah and Mitzvot. They search for ways to improve the act, and get excited about performing it. The results are like grapes that have grown in a vineyard: juicy, and full of sweetness and pleasure.

Like the employer of the worker, so too the Creator allows his workers to take and eat as they labor; in other words, He supplies us with our needs and opportunities so that we will be able to serve Him, keep His Torah and observe His Mitzvahs. 

And just as it says in the Parasha: A field-worker who serves Hashem dryly, only because that’s what he’s supposed to do, receives from Hashem only a measured amount of wheat – enough, but not more than that. 

Unlike him, he who serves Hashem with happiness and pleasure, as if he were picking grapes in a vineyard, merits to eat “as his desire.” Hashem grants him an abundance of good, to his fill. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

A wilde chaye

“A wilde chaya” – “a wild animal” – is an age-old expression used by the proverbial Yiddishe Mama, every time one of her children (not to mention one of her neighbor’s children) is being, shall we say, a bit too mischievous. 

The truth of the matter is that this is a logical statement – there are significant similarities between human beings and animals.

What’s interesting is that in this week’s Parsha (weekly portion), the Torah compares man to something from the plant kingdom – a tree. “For man is like a tree of the field.” 


The resemblance between human beings and the animal kingdom is much more apparent than their resemblance to plants. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever hearing someone chastising a child by saying to them, “You’re a wild plant!”

In other words, what is the message of the Torah to us, when it compares us to trees and not to animals?

The Rebbe explains that there are different levels of resemblance. There is the external, superficial resemblance, and there’s also an internal, essential resemblance.

Let’s go back to the Yiddische Mama. Another age-old tradition is that when a baby is born, she immediately notes that “his right ear is just like that of his late great-grandmother,” and “His nose is just like his grandfather’s,” and so on. But as the years go by, deeper, more fundamental similarities come up: “He’s quick-thinking – just like his father,” or, “He has a good heart, like his grandmother, who fed all the hungry people in the shtetl.” In other words, it’s not the external resemblance, but mainly the internal similarities that are noted.

A tree has one clear, essential characteristic, and that is its constant connection to its source – Mother Earth. The minute a tree is chopped down, it cannot grow any more; it cannot live. An animal, on the other hand, seems detached from its source; it seems to be independent, unconnected.

The Torah’s message in the verse “For man is like a tree of the field,” is: Know that your resemblance to animals is superficial and external. But your resemblance to a plant, a tree – that is the internal, real resemblance. Like the tree, you too must always be connected to the Source of your life!

And the Jew’s Source of life is Hashem, the Torah and Mitzvot, his soul, his people and the Land of Israel, and, of course, his family – father and mother. Yes, the Yiddische Mama.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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