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TorahAnytimes Newsletter Bereishit

Parshat Bereishit

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik


"The TorahAnyTimes" Newsletter

Bereishit Newsletter
27th of Tishrei, 5780 | October 26, 2019

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik

Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein
Step In, Step Out

A few years ago, a nineteen-year-old girl approached me after I finished giving a class. I had known her since she was just a few years old, though the question she went on to ask was one I had never been asked before. “Rabbi Wallerstein,” she said, “can I ask you a personal question?” “Sure,” I said. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I was ready to take the plunge.

“I’m nineteen years old, and you know my parents got divorced when I was three years old.” “That’s right,” I affirmed. “I’ve known you for a long time.” “But this is my point,” she continued. “G-d is aware of everything even before it happens, but how does He pick and choose what goes where? How come I am not your daughter? Why was I born into my family? What makes Him decide who your daughter is and who my parents’ daughter is?”
Good question. Why did this girl need to be born into a family whose parents would eventually get divorced? And so I told her. “I’m going to give you an answer,” I said, “but you are not going to immediately like it. I’m going to need to explain it.”

“Hashem only gives a person a test that he can pass.” If you don’t like this answer, I don’t like the way it sounds too. Anyone who is going through something challenging says to themselves, “G-d, keep Your tests. I don’t need Your tests!” But, in truth, the way this is conventionally understood is not what it means.
Typically, people have heard the above statement and taken it to mean exactly as it sounds – G-d only gives a person a test that he can pass. But that is not true. You can fail miserably. You have the choice. In the words of Rav Shimshon Pincus, “Your choice is what to do with the things you have no choice about in your life.”

What this truly means is that Hashem never gives you a test that you cannot pass or fail. The meaning of a ‘test’ is that you can succeed or not succeed. If I would ask a group of adults what one plus one is, it wouldn’t be a test. It is so obvious that it poses no challenge and there is no chance you will fail. If, in the converse, I ask you a question that there is no chance you will know how to answer, such as a question in astrophysics or asking a blind man to describe the colors of the rainbow, then it is not a test either. A test must pose a challenge where you can either pass or fail. Both are realistic possibilities.

Typically, people have heard the above statement and taken it to mean exactly as it sounds – G-d only gives a person a test that he can pass. But that is not true. You can fail miserably. You have the choice. In the words of Rav Shimshon Pincus, “Your choice is what to do with the things you have no choice about in your life.”

I looked back at the girl and said, “You are nineteen years old and you have the potential to be in such an empowering position.

“Imagine yourself many years from now with a family. Your name is Mrs. Schwartzberg. Your daughter comes home and says, ‘Ma, I have a friend in my class who wants to come over for Shabbos.’ ‘Of course you can invite her!’ you say. Your daughter’s friend joins you for Shabbos, and after Shabbos, as she finishes packing up her bag, she walks downstairs and approaches you in the kitchen.

“Thank you so much, Mrs. Schwartzberg. Wow! I had the most amazing Shabbos. Are you an interior decorator? Your house is gorgeous! Are you a professional chef? The food was out of this world. And the singing around the table? Beautiful! You have such well-behaved and beautiful children too.” And you will say many years later, as a mother to your daughter’s friend, “G-d willing, you will grow up and have all of this, and even more!” But the girl won’t like that answer. “Oh no, Mrs. Schwartzberg, I will never have such a family.” You will be taken aback. “Chas V’shalom! How can you talk like that? Of course you’re going to have a family like mine and a house like mine! And you know what, it’s going to be even better!”

“Mrs. Schwartzberg,” the girl will say, “it can’t happen to me.” But you won’t understand. “Why? What do you mean?” “You see, Mrs. Schwartzberg, there is something about me that you don’t know. I’m sixteen and my parents got divorced three years ago. I’m from a broken home, and you just don’t get a family like this from a broken home.”

“It will all come down to that one moment,” I now said to this nineteen-year-old girl. “At that time, when a girl who has gone through those ups and down looks at you with pain and sorrow written all over her face, you will be able to look her in the eyes and say, “I know, I know. My parents were divorced when I was just three years old, and now look at my life… You can have this too…”

“Really?” your daughter’s friend will ask you. “When you were three?” “Yes, when I was three…”

This girl will now walk out of your home and look up at Hashem and say, “I thought it was over! I’m from a broken home and I believed it was all done. But this woman didn’t have her parents together since she was three, and look at her life now! A beautiful family, a gorgeous home, wonderful children! I can do the same. I can overcome my situation.”

Now I turned to the girl and continued. “Did you, as a mother, give your daughter’s friend a speech? Did you teach her a Midrash? You simply said, ‘I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there and I succeeded. You can too.’

“You are nineteen years old now. This is your choice. To step in or to step out. If you step out, you can’t help anyone. If you step in, you can help a lot of people. You can help people that I cannot help. If I walk into a room full of kids from divorced homes and someone gets up and asks, ‘Rabbi Wallerstein, did your parents get divorced?’ I cannot say yes, and I’ll therefore lose the crowd. I don’t know what they are going through. I can empathize, but it is never the same as being someone who has gone through an experience and being there for someone else who is going through the very same experience. That person is in an extraordinarily empowering position. He or she can tell others who are facing the same disappointment or setback, ‘I’ve been down that road, and now I will travel with you down that road again, to see what you see. I will stay with you as long as it takes. You have the strength to defeat your situation.’ Those words coming from the heart can help heal even the toughest of aches and pains.”

The nineteen-year-old got the message. Of course, her situation of coming from a divorced home was not what she wanted, and she had a legitimate reason for wondering why she had been placed there. But the question to ask is what can someone like her do with her pain? Where can she go from there? She had a choice to make. She could either allow her experience to pass over her and merely become a personal hurdle in her life. Or, she could take all that suffering and all that pain and build something extraordinary out of it.

At a later date, I relayed the above idea to a seminary full of girls. As I walked back to my car, a girl stopped me and said, “Rabbi Wallerstein, thank you very much. I’m a survivor of cancer. I’ve been struggling inside and wondering, ‘Why me?’ But now, I’m not struggling anymore. I have a job to do. I can talk to so many kids and help them.”

“You are absolutely right,” I said. “While no one wishes this sickness on anybody, you have something in your backpack that is unbelievable! You are a superstar! You can visit kids in hospitals, at camps and at homes and show them how you came through it. You can walk up to their bedside and whisper into their ear, ‘I used to be right where you are, and here I am now. I’ve been down that road. You can overcome your situation.’”

“Thank you, Rabbi Wallerstein,” this girl said. “I’ve been wondering what I can do to give back to Hashem and His children, and I hadn’t figured out what I can do. Now I know what to do.”

What I Told Myself

And now let me share with you why this is something so dear to my heart.

The most tragic event that ever happened to me was when I lost my father. I was extremely close to him and held his hands as he took his last breath. He was my father, my Rebbe and my best friend.

I remember the day I was told by the doctor that he had only three months to live. I traveled to Israel, visited a handful of gedolim, and poured my heart out at the Kotel. I told Hashem, “I want to take the twenty-two years that I’ve done kiruv (outreach) and taught Torah to kids and trade it in for one year of life for my father.”

I had everything figured out. I had been told how I should daven, asking that my father stay alive for one more year instead of asking that he be indefinitely healed. I would ask for something of smaller proportion, a year, which would more likely be a tefillah that would be accepted. Once the day he was supposed to die would pass, the gezeira (decree) that he should die would be broken altogether, and it would then be easier to ask that he be completely healed. Everything looked right.

But that’s not how it always works in this world. My father died three months later.

At that point, I called up the school I was teaching at and quit. “I’m done,” I told them. “Find another Rebbe.” “Of twenty-two years of teaching, G-d couldn’t make a little trade and give my father any more life? I’m out!”

There I was, sitting on the steps in the front of my house, deciding that I would go back into business. No longer would I teach. I was done.

During the subsequent weeks following my father’s passing, one of my students came to visit me. He could tell that I was very down. “What’s going on?” he said. “I hear you’re not going back to teaching. What happened?” “What for?” I told him. “It’s over!”
“You were very close to your father,” my student continued. “Let me ask you something. What would your father want you to do now? Would he want you to quit teaching Torah? Now he’s in Heaven looking down and he’s saying, ‘Look at my son! He gave up teaching because I died? That’s what I wanted him to do. Is he trying to punish me?

“Rebbe,” my student said to me. “I don’t understand. What are you thinking? Wouldn’t your father want you to teach more, not less?” As I listened to these words coming from a young man, it hit me. “You know what?” I said, “you’re absolutely right.”

On that day, on those steps where I quit teaching, I decided to open Ohr Naava. I said to myself, “I’m teaching only boys now; let’s do more. Let’s teach girls and women.”

I could have decided to end my teaching career and nothing would have become of all that Ohr Naava is today. I may have ended up living somewhere else in the world doing something completely different, and lost the opportunity to inspire and help people change their lives. But I told myself, “Wallerstein, this is your choice. Step in or step out. If you step out, you can’t help anyone. If you step in, you can help a lot of people.”

That pain of losing my father was the catalyst to everything else I went on to do with my life afterwards. That is what it means to take your pain and use it to help others. And that pain becomes an unstoppable force, full of inspiration and encouragement, power and passion. You not only gain the impetus to do something with your life; you feel a compelling, driving motivation to do even more… and more… and more…

You can do something too with all that you’ve been through in your life. The question is…what will it be?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi
The Missing Money

For many years, my father was a principal in a Jewish day school. A devoted mechanech who looked after the well-being and success of every individual, he saw the development and growth of countless students over the years. Yet, I will never forget one story he related years ago and continues to remain with me to this very day.

On one occasion, a boy decided to bring all the money he had received for his birthday to school. Despite his mother’s advice not to do so, the young boy entered the classroom one morning with $80. Yet, quite quickly, he learned that the words of his mother were wise indeed. Within just a few hours, all the birthday money was gone, and the boy was in tears.

As soon as my father got wind of what had occurred, he knew what he needed to do. He proceeded to call each boy out from the classroom separately and inquire if they perhaps had found the money, knew where it was or accidently took it and forgot to return it. One by one, the boys filed out of the classroom and into my father’s office for a brief questionnaire.

After seeing half the boys in the class and coming up empty-handed, in walked a boy with something bulging in his back pocket. As it seemed, it was a wallet. “You probably know,” said my father to the boy, “that one of your classmates is missing money. It is his birthday money which he brought to school. Have you seen it around?” “I haven’t” replied the boy. “Okay,” swallowed my father. “Is there a chance you took it and planned on returning it, but forgot to? He really feels terrible and it would be a tremendous mitzvah to help him.”

At this point, my father could tell that he was not getting anywhere. So he tailored his questioning to be just a bit more direct. “I can see that you have a big wallet in your back pocket.” “Yeah!” enthused the boy. “Well, how much money do you have in it?” “$79.50!” proudly exclaimed the boy. “I had $80, but I bought a soda for 50 cents.” At this point, it was more or less clear to my father that he was dealing with the boy who had taken the money. “Is there a possibility that this money belongs to the other boy in the class?” The boy continued to hem and haw, denying that the money belonged to anyone else besides him. Nothing seemed to be working.

“It’s a shame that it’s not that money because the boy came to me crying about this birthday money he had been looking forward to receiving an entire year.” Silence filled the office for just a moment, until the boy spoke up, “Oh yeah! This money… I was thinking about another wallet… I wanted to give it back to him, but I got really thirsty and needed to buy a soda…” After a brief period of rationalizing, the boy finally reached into his back pocket and handed over the wallet.

My father proceeded to walk the boy into the classroom and allow him to sit back down in his seat. And then my father did what differentiates a good educator from an excellent educator.
He called the next boy in the class to his office and asked all the same questions he had asked the other boys. And so he did with the next student and the next student, until everyone in the class had been spoken to.

Why did my father do so? He realized that were he to stop his interrogation after any one particular student in the class, it would be made quite obvious who the thief was. And in the interest of discovering who the responsible boy was, my father was not ready to embarrass anyone. The boy would be privately reprimanded and told of the hurt and harm he caused a fellow classmate, but the larger picture would not be overlooked. My father was pursuing justice and that which was right, but he understood that it could not be done at the expense of embarrassing a student. Pursuing justice must also be carried out with justice.

When faced with situations in which we feel warranted and justified to guide, reprimand and educate our children and students, we can never get carried away. We must carefully weigh our words, actions and reactions and only then make a sound decision as how to proceed. Every situation must be examined individually, but all in all, preserving justice and dignity are to be our guiding lights along the way.

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