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80% or 20%?

Listen to something that for me is a key point in life.

A friend of mine was about to open a new business in a field that was quite crowded. I am not a businessman, and I don’t understand much about these things, but this was a long time ago, when I saw myself as being very wise, and I thought it only right to inform him that the market is very crowded in the area he is going into. He is taking a great risk, I said, and added a few more things that clueless people say to someone who is trying to open a new business. The friend, who is about twenty years older than me, said: “From my experience, the founders of eighty percent of new businesses that open are told by eighty percent of the people they spoke to that the business will not succeed due to some “logical” reason or another. The businesses that survived were those of good businessmen who listened to only twenty percent of their advisors.”

His business, by the way, is alive and kicking and producing a good living for his family, Thank G-d.

And, also by the way, since then I don’t feel so wise anymore.

Parashat Shelach is a lesson for life.

Before facing any challenge, and during one as well, it is worthwhile to open the parasha and study it – or even just read it as a story.

In any challenging situation or before any fateful decision we have in front of us the data. The data is dry, almost black-and-white. Our decision will depend on our interpretation of these data or events – the color we will give them. Will we leave them in black, will we paint them in glowing colors of pink and yellow, or will we choose heavy, dark grays and browns?

Twelve leaders of the nation went to tour the land. They were in it for forty days, saw all of it: the giant, fierce people, the beautiful vistas, its large and well-fortified cities and its mountains, some of which were settled by the Hittites, the Yevusites and the Emorites. They saw and even carried jointly its huge, heavy fruits. They also toured its streams and rivers, where the Canaanites lived. They all agreed that it was a land flowing with milk and honey.

These were the data. The rest was interpretation.

Almost like in my friend’s statement, here, too, eighty-three percent of the twelve people sent painted the data black, gray and brown. “But the people that dwell in the land are powerful… We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us… the land devours its inhabitants.” And, of course, the wonderful summary that explains all: “and we were like grasshoppers in our eyes,” so, naturally, “so we were in their eyes.”

But Calev ben Yefuneh, a bit like my friend, painted those exact same details in entirely different colors: We shall surely ascend and conquer it… the land that we passed through to spy it out – the land is very, very good! If Hashem desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.”

And this, friends, is the entire story – the story of the lives of all of us.

May we be successful in our endeavors!


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Try the large map

The military cabinet of the Russian Tsar was in despair. Napoleon’s army was in the process of conquering vast tracts of land; cities and villages were overtaken easily, and he was close to the capital. The Tsar was listening to the army generals, and they were showing him on the map how close the French army was. “In such a situation,” they summed up the discussion, “we haven’t any way at all to prepare a counter attack.”

The Tsar nodded, and then motioned to his personal military secretary to come to him. “Go to my office,” he said to him, “and bring back the large map of Russia that is hanging on the wall.” This map was ten times bigger than the map in the war cabinet room.

The map was brought, and then the Tsar turned to the army generals and said: “Now, explain the situation again. How close is Napoleon, and why don’t we have any chance of advancing?” On the large map, Napoleon didn’t look so close anymore, and suddenly it seemed that there was hope and that it wasn’t too late to go out on an offensive and save the situation.

I don’t know if this story really happened or not, but I use it often when I have to explain this concept to myself or to someone else who is at a crossroads in his life, and it seems to him that all is lost – it’s too late and all that can be done, as the saying goes, will be too little and too late. At that point I try to enlarge the map, stretch the picture of the situation both vertically and horizontally, and suddenly it seems that every step and action, which on the small map seemed barely noticeable and unimportant, can be seen on the large map as being significant and very impressive. And then one acquires the desire and the strength to prepare an offensive.

And something else for those among us who are struggling: when we begin to make changes in our lives—whether in behavior or feeling, in action and speech, or even in thought—we must not wait for immediate applause and recognition from our surroundings. The people around us, even those closest to us, do not immediately recognize the change, the process, and certainly not the trend. Why? Because they have not expanded their perspective and therefore do not see our small steps. But we do see them. We know that this time, our frustration over something that happened lasted five minutes instead of six. We notice that the negative and pessimistic outlook was less determined than before, that the despair or setback lasted two days instead of two and a half. These are things that only we can see. There is nothing to do but acknowledge and note these changes for ourselves on the larger map and continue. Gradually, the change will become a process, the process will become a trend, and suddenly, the environment will be surprised and ask: “Hey, you’ve changed! Amazing, how did you do it?”

Presented in honor of the story of “Pesach Sheni” that appears in this week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotcha. There, too, it seemed that all was lost, and that there was no way to make up for the missed Pesach. But the bigger picture told another story, and they were granted another chance.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

Dvora’s Lotus cake

Last Saturday, I said in my sermon at the Chabad House that Shavuot is not just a holiday of cheesecake, but it is a special day on which we received the Torah. While it is very pleasant, tasty, and also important to follow the custom of eating dairy and especially cheesecake, that is not the main point.

Some of the congregants, both men and women, approached me afterward during the kiddush and, without coordinating among themselves, smiled and told me that it wasn’t nice of me to suspect that, for them, the holiday is just about cheesecake. Cheesecake is not the central theme of the holiday for us; Dvora’s Lotus cake is the main topic.

The truth is that there is no special mitzvah from the Torah for Shavuot. The Torah's instructions for Sukkot are to sit in the sukkah and take the four species, for Pesach to avoid chametz and eat matzah and maror. Rosh Hashanah is a day of blowing the shofar, and on Yom Kippur, ‘you shall afflict your souls’ is the mitzvah, the fast. On Shavuot, there is no special mitzvah. There are various customs, but no special mitzvah for the holiday.

It is also interesting that the sages refer to Shavuot as ‘Atzeret,’ even though in the Torah it is not mentioned as ‘Atzeret.’ Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev writes in his book Kedushat Levi: I was asked in the state of Lithuania why Shavuot is called Atzeret when the name Atzeret is only mentioned in the Torah regarding Shemini Atzeret. And I answered simply: it appears that in all holidays there are two types of service to the Creator, blessed be He. One is performing the mitzvah related to that specific holiday, such as eating matzah on Pesach and similar. The second is the prohibition of work. On Shavuot, it is not so; there is only one mitzvah (just the prohibition of work), that is, we refrain from work, and for this reason, it is called Atzeret.

In other words, the Berdichever says that on Shavuot, there is one central thing: stopping.

I thought it would be nice to stop for a moment the race of life. To stop the stress and tension. To stop everything my system is used to thinking and feeling, even to stop my solid opinion on everything and perhaps try to re-examine everything anew? After all, we want to receive the Torah anew, and in my view, receiving it anew means receiving it at a deeper level, expanding my emotional and mental capacity to receive more of Hashem’s Torah, and that is not something that can be done without stopping. And how lucky we are that outside of Israel, we have two days for this.

Chag Sameach, with blessings for receiving the Torah with joy and inwardness,

Rabbi Zalman Wishedski

It's a great loss.

I remember his shouting; it's precisely those shouts that came to my mind and heart when the message arrived: 'Moshe Kotlarsky OBM'. The cliché says 'speak of the dead as saints' to express the glorification of a person after their death; there is always a sense of glorification when the person is no longer with us. This time, it isn't like that. Really, it isn't.

The Chabad feeds on Facebook are full of stories about Rabbi Moshe; almost everyone who met him has something good to say about him, and it's all true, all correct. The stories are unique and amazing, and above all, there isn't an ounce of exaggeration in them. How do I know? Because I simply experienced quite a few of them myself.

I had the privilege of knowing Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. I had the privilege of him accompanying our Shlichut in Basel from the moment it was proposed somewhere at the beginning of the millennium. It was the support of a strong back that you knew you had when you needed it. There is that solid knowledge of a young emissary that there is one person whose phone is waiting for your call. I remember sitting like today on a certain Saturday night in his office with my friend from Basel, Mr. Danny Rothschild, of blessed memory, together with his son, Rabbi Mendy, who continues his path, may he live a long and good life. At the beginning of the conversation, Rabbi Moshe apologized that the phone was on the table, saying, 'I am simply available to the Shluchim all the time.' And when Danny smiled at me with a wink, I told him, this great, smiling, and humorous man sitting in front of you means what he says. I even had the privilege of waking him up once in the middle of the night.

I remember the Upsherin - the hair-cutting ceremony of my son Moshe. It was three years into our Shlichut, and I felt a need for Rabbi Moshe to come and give his strength and validity to our mission. Simply and quite innocently, I called New York and asked to invite him to come, and he answered me, Zalman, if you invite, I will come, with God's help. Just like that. And he came. He came by train; he landed in Zurich and took a train to Basel. So simple. Try to imagine how much strength and power there is in this for a young emissary couple.

But as mentioned, none of this came to mind when I heard about his passing. I don't know why, but it was that episode of the shouts that came to mind, not the shouts themselves but a sentence I wrote on a piece of paper to my wife that came to my heart. It was about 17 years ago after something I was involved in, which he perceived as a rash action on my part that had no place. I thought differently then and still do today, but that's not the point. He actually called me, asked how I was doing, and then began to wash me with shouts, with all his might. He had might, he had a voice, and he had a sharp tongue when he wanted to, and this time he wanted to and used it. Like today, I remember Dvora pale beside me, hearing the tone and approach through the phone receiver, signaling to me with concern, what’s happening? And I took a piece of paper and wrote on it the Talmudic phrase, 'Moses our teacher loved Israel,' as if to say to her confidently, don't worry, this Rabbi Moshe who is washing me now loves Israel; it will end with this phone call, and that's it. There isn't an ounce of fear in my heart.

The hidden things of the heart are fascinating, and if these moments arose from our 22 years of conduct, it seems they expressed my deepest confidence that this man simply wanted my good. 

It's a great loss.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe lost his highest-ranking general this week, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Kotlarsky, of blessed memory.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalman Wishedski

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