Rabbi's weekly Blog

The power of fear

Fear is one of the most powerful forces in the world.

Fear can make a person behave in a totally opposite way from the way he would expect of himself.

If the fear is strong enough, it can paralyze reason and logic, making one take leave of one’s sanity and rational thinking.

Expert politicians know how to use fear in order to be elected repeatedly – they bring fear to the forefront, and from that moment on, a person who has allowed himself to be exposed to the fear will not make an informed, logical choice, but rather a choice fueled by fear.

In the writings of the Rietz – the sixth Rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty – the Rebbe describes his imprisonment in the hands of the GPU, the secret police, early on in the Soviet era. He describes fear as their foremost goal. The Rebbe writes as if he was merely an onlooker, describing what he went through. And when he describes the dark corridors they led him through, the threatening stairwells and passageways, one gets the impression that he examined their purpose and determined rather quickly that “now I understood that this taking from place to place is for the purpose of scaring me and frightening me, because the darkness and the ladders and the metal steps, the blackness of the walls and the dank air awaken in one a strong feeling and suspicion that one is being led to a truly terrible, fearsome place.”

At a certain stage, when once again he is being taken from place to place, each time by a different official, the Rebbe writes: “I have already tired of this whole game, because I see that causing fear and terror is the be all and end all, and it is a foundation or means for carrying out [their] conspiracies.”

Throughout his account of the imprisonment, one gets the impression that the Rebbe was very particular to maintain his pride and dignity and not allow the fear to influence him, because, as mentioned, he understood that the fear was not an incidental issue here, rather it was intentional, used to achieve a goal. There is a moment there when Petya, the vulgar guard, tells him how lightly they kill people here. “You can die, it’s quiet here, no one will disturb you, and back home no one will know anything. The doctor will write a certificate, the official will sign, they will erase the file and the dead body will be thrown into one of the pits.” The Rebbe, in startling honesty, writes: “I can’t say that his words didn’t make any impression on me,” but he adds immediately, “but I was thinking what mussar (moral lesson) I can learn from his words.”


Sometimes it seems to me that it is easier to cope with an external imprisonment than with an internal one. Somehow, when there is a clear external enemy, the way to battle it and win is clear as well, while an internal, personal enemy is a completely different story.

I don’t know any innocent people sitting in jail, certainly not due to their way of life and beliefs, Torah study or mitzvah observance. I don’t know any ordinary people who are sitting in jail and trying to cope with a paralyzing, deathly fear. 

I do know people who are sitting in an emotional, mental, personal jail. People who don’t always know why, but they feel there is something that is hard for them to cope with, and it pains them and exhausts them every time anew. And always, always, there is a powerful, paralyzing fear there, the kind that can silence, empty, sadden or blunt any feeling of joy and love, as well as hatred and sadness. Sometimes it seems to me that fear is the most powerful force that interferes with a person’s ability to cope with the internal and personal issues that imprison him, tie him down, sentence him. 

Tomorrow, the 12th of Tammuz, is the Chag Hage’ulah (the festival of salvation) of the Rietz from that terrible imprisonment in 5687 (1927), but when one reads his account of it, it is clear that he didn’t spend even one moment in jail. They arrested his holy body, and tormented it, but his heart and soul remained free. They didn’t succeed in scaring him or influencing his essence, and therefore couldn’t arrest or imprison him.

So how will we celebrate this Chag Hage’ulah?

Okay, not all of us; only those of us who have a few challenges, those who feel imprisoned by some emotional issue or others, which prevent them from living their lives the way they really want to, those of us who know they can do much more, but something big and strong is stopping them, jailing them, preventing them from acting, and mainly scaring them. How will we celebrate this festival of salvation?

Perhaps, if we realize that what is paralyzing us is the fear, perhaps if we try to tell ourselves what the Rebbe wrote back then, “I have already tired of this whole game, because I see that causing fear and terror is the be all and end all, and it is a foundation or means for carrying out [their] conspiracies.”

I don’t know – what do you think?

Shabbat Shalom, 

And a Happy Chag Ge’ulah!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

How do you live your life?

Last week we hosted Rabbi Yossi Goldman of Johannesburg at an evening devoted to the Rebbe. 

Rabbi Goldman, who has been serving as the Rebbe’s shaliach in South Africa for the past 47 years, is also the rabbi of Sydenham Shul, that in the good old days had an attendance of close to one thousand people every Friday night. Rabbi Goldman is considered to be an especially fascinating speaker and on last Thursday he proved this once more.

From the close to sixty minutes of the talk I took with me a very special story that once again teaches us how much we can influence our reality. 

“When our tenth child was being born,” said the rabbi, “the doctor, who was a member of our congregation, called me in and said they must perform a c-section since the embryo is positioned horizontally and there is no way for him to be born naturally. When my wife heard this, she said immediately, ‘We are in the year of ‘ar’enu nifla’ot’ (‘I will show him wonders’). There is no need for surgery. There will be wonders.”

The year was 5751 (1991). That year, the Rebbe defined the year according to its acronym – Taf, Shin, Nun, AlephTehe shenat ar’enu nifla’ot (It will be a year of ‘I will show him wonders’), and spoke at length about its being a special year, not only of miracles, but of wonders. And ‘I will show him’ – in other words, we see and will see the wonders. 

“I knew my wife was a stronger believer than me, but what should we do? We called in another doctor in the middle of the night, who also belongs to our congregation, for a second opinion. He came and said he agreed with the first doctor. The child was positioned horizontally and would soon be in distress; the operation must be done. But then he looked at me and asked, simply: ‘Why don’t you call New York?’

“’To call New York’ meant to call the Rebbe and ask him what to do. 

“I called my father z”l immediately. He ran to 770. He was told that the Rebbe would return soon from the ohel (gravesite of the previous Rebbe), and when the Rebbe got out of the car, my father approached him and told him everything, including the urgency of the matter, that his daughter-in-law – my dear wife – was having difficulties with the birth. The Rebbe listened and then said: ‘Since the doctor himself said to call New York, they should listen to the woman who said ar’enu nifla’ot.’

“Well, needless to say, the miracle happened within minutes. It was as if the baby had received an order and he immediately changed position and there was a normal, quick birth. We saw wonders!”


This seems to be just another miracle story about the Lubavitcher rebbe, one of thousands.

But if we look into it more and listen to the details, we will see that the miracle is that of Mrs. Goldman and the second doctor. While Rabbi Goldman was working with a mindset of nature and its ways, Rebbetzin Goldman was on the track of ar’enu nifla’ot, and while the first doctor was doing an excellent job as a doctor, the second doctor moved up a notch and said with the simple approach of a chasid: “Why don’t you call New York?”

And the Rebbe responded in exactly that way. He said that since that is what the doctor said, that is what will be. 

So it’s like this: When we come with the approach of “Let’s see what’s possible, logical, realistic and sane,” Hashem’s answer will be accordingly. 

And when we live with true trust, like Mrs. Goldman - who in critical moments understood that when the Rebbe said arenu niflaot, it wasn’t a recommendation or a nice phrase; rather, he really meant it, and so she was living in the awareness of ‘Is anything beyond Hashem?’ - then Hashem’s response is accordingly, as well.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

It was my first public speech

It was my first public speech. I was a young man, and I still remember my voice – and my body – shaking. It was on Chanukah, and the city was “apportioned out” to the students of the Chabad Yeshiva in Jerusalem – in other words, it was decided who will bring the Chanuka lights to which section of the city. My friend and I were given the Malcha Mall, which had opened only a short time before this. I still remember the excitement involved in speaking with the mall’s officials to ask them to authorize (and pay for…) the lighting of a large menorah in the mall. I am still moved when I remember the surprise of how swiftly and warmly the owners of various businesses in the mall joined in the effort so that the party would be successful: one supplied the PA system, one paid for the large menorah, and the Ne’eman bakery donated the traditional doughnuts. 

While I was busy with the final arrangements, the manager of the mall thrust a microphone into my hand and said, “Chabadnik, get on the stage and say some Dvar Torah (Torah message) or something.” When I got on the stage, I saw dozens of people, and, of course, children, and I got really scared. I lifted up my eyes to heaven in order to gather my wits together, and discovered that on the floors above people were leaning over the bannisters, waiting to hear what I would say. And then, in the following order, my knees went weak, my mouth became dry and my voice – shaky. But Hashem, with His great power, opened my mouth and I said: “Rabotai, look at the menorah. It has one solid, broad base and from that base come its different branches. Why does the menorah have separate branches? Because the menorah symbolizes the Jewish People. We have different ways to serve Hashem, different traditions that developed in each exile and even different songs. But all the branches – all of them – are connected to each other, and are really standing on one solid base, and that is our being one people, with one Torah and one G-d.”

Several years have passed since then. I know the beauty of this nation much better than I knew it then. I have learned to know and appreciate so many interesting and exciting customs and traditions, things that people do today exactly the way their forefathers did for generations. I have also seen people accept upon themselves lovingly new customs that they saw by the Rabbis from whom they had learned Torah and Fear of G-d. As we stand here on Parashat Beha’alotcha, in which Aharon HaCohen is commanded to light the candles so that all seven will spread their light, I remember my shaky limbs at the Malcha Mall. 

About two thousand years ago we were scattered among the nations. We barely met each other during all those years, and when we did meet in the Holy Land, we found that the gefilte fish and the chreime differed greatly in their shape, consistency, color and especially flavor. But they are all connected to a single solid base, because both of them are an outcome of the verse “Remember the day of the Shabbat to sanctify it.” We celebrate Seder night with different matzahs, different Carpas, depending on the origins of the family. Even the Marror is not the same. But all of us – from Tzan’a in Yemen to Babruisk in Belarus – observed in our own way the mitzvah of “You shall tell your son”, which is written upon the solid base under our menorah’s branches.

One more thing: For all of us, our central goal, privilege and obligation is to illuminate the world with the light of goodness and loving kindness, love and joy.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

you are not another number

We are facing the longest parasha in the Torah: Parashat Naso, which we will read tomorrow outside of Eretz Yisrael, has one hundred and seventy-six psukim in it. I don’t know if there is a connection, but it is interesting to note that that is exactly the same number of psukim as Psalm 119 – the longest one in Tehillim, also one hundred and seventy six. It is also the same number of dapim (double-sided pages) in the longest masechet (tractate) in the Gemara, masechet Bava Batra: one hundred and seventy-six. 

Seventy-one psukim repeat themselves in the parasha and describe the offerings brought by the nesi’im, the leaders of the tribes. So except for the different names of the nesi’im, the description of the offerings is completely identical. One may ask: Why? If everything is the same, the Torah could have described these offerings and sacrifices once and mention that there were twelve of each. An obvious question.

But the point is that the Torah could not have done so. Because the Torah is not a storybook or an accountant’s ledger. The Torah is a book of deeds, and therefore the offering of each and every nasi of each and every tribe has to be counted, read and described. Although the offerings and their description were identical, the sacrifices and offerings themselves were not: they were different oxen, different rams, different silver bowls etc. Secondly, and in my opinion much more significant, is that the person bringing the offerings was an entirely different person, having different intentions, different prayers, different needs, besides the fact that he was representing a different tribe. 

It is like women lighting Shabbat candles. The candles are of the same type, the blessing is the same blessing, and the intention of doing so for the honor of Shabbat is also the same in every Jewish home every Friday. But can we say that the mother lighting the candles is also the same as the others? Would anyone think that her thoughts are the same thoughts? Are the mothers’ prayers and supplications when they cover their faces identical and equal in every Jewish home? On those same candles, one prays that her son will develop a desire to learn Torah; another prays for good health for her children; a third will ask that peace will reign between all the segments of the nation, and the fourth will beg for love, brotherhood, peace and friendship in her own home. 

So too, regarding the nesi’im and their offerings. The numbers were the same, the materials the same, but the people bringing these offerings were completely different; their prayers and supplications were unique to each and every one of them. 

And why is all this important to us?

So that we always remember that we are not another product even if we came from the same manufacturer, and we are not another item even if we are part of a large system, and we are not another number even if we are part of a community or sector.

one can do the same thing as everyone else and still be unique, personal and also authentic.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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