Mind over Matter
Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, Z”l, on the Power of Change
In 2014, I had the zechus to interview the great Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, z”l, for Binah magazine. Of course, I had no idea at the time that this powerhouse of a man would leave us suddenly, less than a decade later. My editor at the time was Mrs. Sarah Rivka Kohn, founder of LINKS, and it was she who accompanied me to the interview at the Ohr Naavah building. Rabbi Wallerstein, as always, was captivating, and on our way home I remember discussing his lack of pretentiousness, the way he was so open about his struggles, even to an unknown readership.
As his shloshim approach, I’m grateful to have a forum in which to republish his words, with much credit to Binah. They continue to impact us, to inspire us to be better people, and to do more.
Yehi zichro baruch.
The Bulletproof Vest
I was a very different kind of kid. In kindergarten I only colored outside the lines – and they had no idea what was wrong with me, so they segregated me from the rest of the class. The way of thinking back then was, “If he colors outside the lines, everyone else will, too.” I was very imaginative, always dreaming or asking questions, and that annoyed my teachers.
When I was in third grade I caused some trouble, and as a result was publicly humiliated. I forgot the physical pain of that incident, but what stays with me until this day is the shame. I will never forget that embarrassment.
When I was in tenth grade, I ran into trouble once again, and was treated to some harsh words by a person of authority. That experience left me deeply hurt.
At that point I felt I was done with Judaism.
There was one thing that kept me from acting on those feelings. My father.
My parents took us kids everywhere. They told us many times that we were everything to them, that they had davened for us to be in his life. That knowledge was like a bulletproof vest. No one can hurt you when you have that kind of protection. I said to myself, I’m not going to let the naysayers win — and that’s what kept me from going off the derech.
The Making of Mechanech
I was always very good with kids, and after I got married, my father said, “I want you to be a rebbi. Just try it for a year. I’ll pay your rent.” He was very smart; he knew that if he’d get me to start, I’d continue.
My classroom was my life. For 32 years, it was just me and my boys.
I made it my life’s goal to make sure that no other child would go through what I did.
My father suggested that I teach for only half of the day and work with him for the other half. I started my packaging business, and I never looked back. Having a business has allowed to me to say what I want to say without worrying about being fired.
The Power of Women’s Guilt
I’m really a boys’ rebbi. I’m a drummer, a ball player… I never dreamed I’d teach girls. About ten or eleven years ago, I got a call from Mrs. Karniginer, then the English principal of Yeshiva Rambam. The background of this call is that I had started a chaburah for my boys who had returned from Eretz Yisrael. One of those boys shared a story I told with his sister, and she told Mrs. Karniginer, “Get this guy to teach us hashkafah.” So Mrs. Karniginer called me and said they needed a hashkafah teacher for their girls. I said no. She said, “How can you answer to Hashem that you sat and ate lunch for 45 minutes instead of giving hashkafah to His daughters?” That did it.
I walked into that classroom and said, “Girls, I don’t care if you sleep in my class. I don’t care if you eat in my class. Just don’t ignore me!”
It’s amazing to teach girls. Once for a joke, I told the girls, “A big mekubal told me that if you want the first boy you see to be the right one, stand on your right foot with your right eye open while your mother lights candles on Friday night.” I thought it was funny and said it tongue in cheek. The next week I was inundated with calls from mothers who wanted to know where that was written; their daughters all did it!
You can’t make jokes to girls. They come to school to grow and to learn. Whatever you tell them is kodesh kodashim.
That same group of girls called me up to start a chaburah when they came back from Israel. I really hammered them at that first session – no secular music, no going places they shouldn’t. They said I took away all their fun; what was left? One girl said kickboxing. I said, “Come back next week. I’ll arrange an hour of kickboxing — but you have to stay for a shiur afterwards.” There were sixteen the first time, 20 the next, and 30 the week after that.
Then one girl said she could only do Mondays, another said she needed Wednesdays. So I got a different teacher, added more activities… and it just exploded. Today it’s Ohr Naava.
If I hadn’t gotten that phone call, Ohr Naava never would have happened. That’s what a Jewish woman’s guilt can do.
Knowing the King
I told a story last night about a king who had a daughter that everyone wanted to marry. He built a tower with 1,000 steps and made a contest. The contestants had from sundown to sunrise to get to the top. The first one to reach the top would marry the princess. Well, the race began and 200 steps up, a rumor was spread that it was all a myth — there was no princess. People began turning around. By the 700th step there were 45 minutes and only two guys remaining. One started to turn around, but his friend tried to stop him and said, “I know the king. He never lies. His word is a word.” It didn’t work, and he was left alone. He took one more step, and an elevator suddenly shot up and whisked him to the top just in time. As he took his step out of the elevator, his friend at the bottom took his final step down. There was the princess — with a twin sister beside her.
I deal with kids all the time who started at the same place, but one ends up at the top, the other at the bottom. What’s the difference? Only one of them knows the King.
My parents put that emunah into me. That’s what you need to teach your kids. They need to learn to trust the King.
“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” sounds like a Hallmark card. Why do we talk about love instead of judgment or fear? Because the only way you’ll make it through the year is if you have that relationship. You have to know He loves you so you can keep climbing and reach that elevator to the top.
The Rambam writes that an aveirah is an issur na’aseh k’heter — that’s rationalization, which becomes an addiction. Nothing will stop an addict. So what’s the answer?
The Kav Hayoshor writes the story of a miser — stinginess was his addiction. He had one mitzvah that he always did, though, and that was to perform bris milah free of charge to anyone. A young man once brought him to a beautiful, far-off village he’d never seen before to give his baby boy a bris. The baby’s mother warned the mohel, when no one was around, that every other resident of the village, including her husband, was a sheid. She warned him not to accept a thing, lest he remain there forever. As he prepared to leave, the baby’s father offered him anything from a room full of gold and silver, then a room full of jewels, but the miser refused any gifts. Finally, he led him to a third room, and there, hanging before the miser’s eyes, were his very own keys — to his vault, his home, and his warehouses. The baby’s father confessed to being a sheid, and said, “When a person does something over and over again, he loses the keys to his freedom of choice. You can take the keys; they no longer belong to me.” The miser returned home and built a yeshivah, a beis medrash, a mikvah. He gave all his money away, because he got back the keys for bechirah.
The Rambam writes in Hilchos Teshuvah that a person who does the same thing over and over again loses his freedom of choice.
So what can be done?
When you lose your hotel key, you open the door with a master key. Our Master has the key. It’s tefillah. Daven to Him to open the door so you can get back your key, your choice. Nothing can stand in front of that tefillah. No matter what you’ve done, tefillah will help you retrieve the key that’s hanging in Satan’s room.
Where There’s a Need
When I tell my staff I have an idea, they get scared. When I had the idea to open a high school , they said we needed to hire another 10 people, that it couldn’t be done. But with Hashem’s help, anything is possible. I don’t shelve my ideas; they are always there in my mind. If something doesn’t work out right away, I know it will in the future.
I’d love to start a fund for students or seminary girls whose parents can’t afford tuition. Or hire thousands of tutors, because a child who does not do well doesn’t have good self esteem — and that’s an essential ingredient in life. I’d love to have a real center for girls, where they could play basketball and have access to a good library.
What we really need, though, is a rehab center for frum girls. Right now, I’m sending girls to Utah with the Mormons. We send them a struggling Jewish girl in need of intense therapy because of the trauma she went through. But who is providing her spiritual needs?
In the Jewish world, it’s tough to raise funds for girls. Has anyone ever knocked on your door collecting for Bais Yaakov of Bnei Brak? No. I’ve heard some say “Let the girls stay home — nothing will happen if they don’t have the programs.”
But times are very different today.
In order to make change, you have to start at the bottom. That’s what Sarah Schneirer did. She didn’t change the system. She taught the women who became the system. If you start by teaching the girls who are training to become teachers and therapists, teach them to identify signs of abuse, to identify with their girls as Jewish neshamos, you will get into the system. In twenty years, they will be amazing educators.
The Sefer Hazichronos
I gave a shiur two years ago before Purim, and I was fascinated by a midrash that says that Achashveirosh — who was worse than Haman — was spared because of one very strong middah: hakaras hatov. In the sixth perek of the megillah, it says that he couldn’t sleep, so he opened his sefer hazichronos to see if there was a good deed that was not repaid. Can you imagine that level of hakaras hatov?
I told my audience that we were all in trouble. Achashveirosh had a sefer hazichronos that he wrote in every night, and we don’t?
So I made one. I co-wrote a new book with Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, titled Let There be Rain, published by ArtScroll. It’s a life-changing volume of stories, insights and ideas that can be read individually or learned in groups on a daily study system. The Sefer HaZichronos, is a follow-up to that. It’s beautifully illustrated by Rabbi Yonah Weinrib, designed so you can write down your gratitude every night, and it includes Krias Shema and the tefillah of todah (Source: YesodV’Shoresh Hoavodah).
In “Unesanah Tokef” it says that Hashem will open the sefer hazichronos that it will read itself, and everyone’s hand will write in it. What does that mean? Every night, your neshamah goes up and writes what you did that day. So on judgment day, it’s all right there, in your own handwriting. If you come to shul, and you have your own sefer hazichronos right there beside your machzor, you can say, “Hashem, you have a sefer I wrote up in Shamayim; I have one here. Forget that one, and look at this one. It’s all good.”
What Matters Most
Rabbi Laibel Lam told us that he was once on his way to give a shiur, and a Rav who was with him asked, “Did you get a brachah from your wife?” So he asked his wife for a brachah, she gave him one, and he said he never gave a shiur like that in his life. The first thing she asked when he got home was whether her brachah worked. He said he realized then how important it is to get a brachah from your wife. Even if she’s waiting for you at home, she’s together with you because her brachah went with you.
I heard this from him eight years ago, and since that time, I do not give a shiur without a brachah from my wife. Sometimes, I call my mother, too. Last night, I got a brachah from each of my kids. It makes them feel like they are part of what you do.
The time you give your children has to be focused time. No phones, nothing. Include them in what you do by sharing your life with them. I don’t take guests for Shabbos; that’s my time with my kids. People call me for Shabbatons, but we don’t do that anymore. It’s family time.
Any parent can give his children bulletproof vests by showing that they are most important. How do you show this? By giving your time. Include them in what you do by sharing your life with them. Tell them what you do when you are not with them, otherwise they think you are just not there.
My parents saved my life. If not for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. You can give your child the strength to never give up. The power to realize that it doesn’t matter what anyone calls you or thinks of you; all that matters is what you think of yourself. Once you are on that stairway, if Hashem is with you, you can go anywhere. Anyone can do anything.
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