By Julie Hauser
I am nowhere near able to capture or summarize who was Rabbi Wallerstein, what he did, nor even what we learn from him and the scope of what we have lost. I am simply compelled to share some notes from my files– transcriptions of his speeches over the close to twenty years that I have listened to his classes and quoted him in my books.
Here are some highlights that stand out at this moment, even though so many come to mind, (including the Fireflies, the Mona Lisa, the Rowboat, Mary at the Red Light, the nose ring and Look Twice). He cared so deeply, took responsibility, was full of only Truth, and saw and drew forward the holy spark in each person whom he met or taught. May we merit to recognize and use every opportunity, the way he exemplified how a Jew can live to his or her maximum, may the memory of Reb Zechariah Shimon haKohen ben Yitzchok be for a blessing, and may his family and loved ones be comforted.
The following are each transcriptions from segments of Rabbi Wallerstein’s speeches:
Keep up the Climb
This is from a 2008 speech, and to me, this is signature Rabbi Wallerstein, may his lessons continue to give us strength.
With Jacob and his famous ‘dream’ of the ladder, God was saying to Yaakov Avinu, teach your children: they’re going to go up, and they’re going to go down. They will keep chugging. It’s not about getting to the top. It doesn’t say anywhere in the dream: “Yaakov Avinu, I’ll see you on the top of the ladder.” A Jew’s life is: going up and down. But as long as you know you’re leaning on Hashem, there’s nothing to worry about. You don’t have to WIN in life! You have to try.
Breaking Habits and Taking Opportunities
And what happens when you get stopped along the way by bad habits or old thought patterns?
When trying to beat the yetzer hara, you have to go slowly. Certain things you have to stop cold, if you have to. But, for example, if you are stopping smoking, in your mind, you shouldn’t say, “I’m never ever going to smoke again,” even if you intend to stop for the rest of your life. You have to say, “THIS week, I’m not smoking.” And then the following week, “I know I lasted for one week without smoking. So for the next two weeks, I’m not going to smoke.” Then all of a sudden it’s going to add up, all those weeks end up being a year, and all those years end up being the rest of your life! That’s how you have to play the game with your bad inclination. That’s what the Mishna says, “It is not for you to finish the whole thing. But it is for you, to start.”
And if you’re looking for excuses, there’s always a way out. My boss yelled at me, my grandmother died, etc., etc. Most of the excuses we have are not real excuses, they are just excuses to get our conscience out of the way so you can do what you want!
All of us, we have to try. I don’t love to quote non-Jewish sources, but Ted Williams once said a great quote. In baseball, they pay a guy 20 million dollars to hit one out of three. Ted Williams had an amazing batting average and someone asked him how.. This guy hit 400, and they asked him how. He said, “You have to know, that no matter who is pitching to you, there is always one pitch that is hit-able. Don’t let that one pitch go by. Because the next ones are going to be curveballs, knuckleballs, sinkers, but there is always one that will come across that plate that is hittable. If you don’t swing at that one, you’ll never hit 400.”
Every person has a chance, and God says, “just take a swing at it; you don’t have to hit a home run. I’ll take the ball over the fence. But if you’re not going to swing, it’s not going to happen.”
Everyone in this room, you have to know that every day in life there is something that is hittable, something attainable, something that day that you can do.
Struggle Muscle and Choice
He described himself as able to help others because he had had his own pain and struggles. It’s what we do with it…:
Someone who struggles develops what I call “struggle muscle,” and once you have struggle muscle, that gives you the ability to carry others. So is it good to have pain, struggles, trauma, etc? Definitely not. But could something good come from that pain? Absolutely.
And Hashem gave us something that no other creation has, and that’s choice. I am finding that so many people are confused about choice. A person asks, “If Hashem knows what I’m going to do it, then I’m going to do it, so what kind of choice do I have?”
Hashem lives outside of time. In Hashem’s world, the past, present and the future is all one. And that’s not something any of us can understand. So how can the past, present, and future be one moment? If you’ve seen the Olympics, you know that some racers win by a thousandth of a second. So you can take a second and split it into a past, present and future.
In God’s world, there’s no splitting. It’s one moment; it’s explained by the Rambam very clearly in Hilchos Teshuva.
The best way I can explain is let’s say I had a friend who wanted to go to a basketball game, but he couldn’t go. So suppose I went, and I saw the Knicks game from beginning to end. I went home and he said to me, “don’t tell me what happened in the game, I want to watch it myself from the recording.” So he watched the recording while I sat there alongside him, knowing already what happened already, while he thought it was happening!
He watched the whole game and felt the whole time as if the game was happening in the present. He even shouted at the player in the final two seconds to ‘pass the ball.’ I knew already that the player did not pass the ball, he shot and missed, and the team lost the game. But my friend was still shouting at the recording because to him, the outcome was in the future. Whatever you choose, that’s what Hashem knows. Because to God, there is no past, present or future.
So what choice do you have? Vanilla or chocolate? That is not why you are here. The only choice we do have is, with all that we were given, and all the things that happened to us that were not our choice, what do you do with them? Do you step up or stay down? Do you use them to help and understand others who have similar struggles?
When Yosef was let out of jail, the Torah uses the word ‘b’aor/pit’ that he, Yosef came out of. He wasn’t in the pit then! He was in the jail (thrown into after being falsely accused). The pit was way back a long time ago? What pit is the Torah referring to? When Yosef HaTzaddik came out of jail, at that him he also finally came out of the pit that he was thrown into psychologically, and then all he did was talk about Hashem.
Rabbi Wallerstein was all about being real with ourselves, gratitude, and awareness of who we are and what gifts we have as Jews:
Hashem is around, you might not see Him, just like my toddler grandson doesn’t see the “fire” in the electrical outlet we keep warning him about. When does one know that Hashem is around? Only when you plug in. If you don’t plug in, G-d doesn’t exist to you; you just see an outlet, a dead thing on the wall that everyone’s looking at saying, “Wow—the energy in there—if you put your finger in there…whoa,” and you’re looking around thinking, “Where, who… ? I don’t see anything!” If you plug in, there’s tremendous energy. It’s the same thing with Hashem.
And the Torah is the switch to connect the body and soul.
If you don’t have Torah, you still have the soul—you’re born with it. And you have the body—but it gives no light. You only have light if you turn on the switch. Hashem gave us 613 mitzvos, 613 ways of flipping the switch to get that light, to give off light.
Jew Defined by Caring
Rabbi Wallerstein always introduced this d’var Torah as “The most beautiful d’var Torah you will probably ever hear in your life.” (we saw him live by it):
The Egyptian princess Batya found Moshe in the Nile River, and miraculously stretched out her hand to reach the basket. She opened the basket, and the Torah says she heard crying and she had pity on him, realizing the baby was a Jew. How did she know he was a Jew? (It was not because he had a bris, because at that time, after Yosef had become second to the king, he had made a rule that all males born in Egypt also be circumcised). And, whose voice did she hear crying? It was no baby cry, that’s for sure. The most beautiful Torah thought you will probably ever hear in your life, is the answer to this question of who was crying.
It wasn’t Moshe who was crying. Batya opened up the bundled baby, and said it was a boy baby, (a “yeled”). The commentaries say she heard an older boy crying—a “na’ar.” Who was crying? Aharon, Moshe’s brother! Aharon had come (as well as Miriam, who had been sent by their mother) to see what would happen to his brother. When he saw a gentile princess was taking his brother, he knew she would take him to the palace and bring him up as a gentile, and he would be totally lost–Oh, no! The princess of Egypt is taking my brother! And he started crying. Batya turned around, and saw this child (not baby), crying.
“Why is he crying,” she thought to herself, “just because an Egyptian lady is taking this baby?” So she realized “this must mean that this baby is a Jew.” Because Jews cry for other Jews. The reason she understood that the baby in the basket was a Jew, was because she saw the Jewish brother crying for him! Jews cry for Jews. And Aharon had done that on his own initiative.
On Shabbos and keeping vibrancy in Yiddishkeit
From a speech given in London in 2013 entitled, “Because My Daddy Loves Me:”
Who would want to be connected to you 24 hours a day? Someone who loves you like crazy!
Shlomo HaMelech said it best- if you meet Hashem, tell him I am sick in love with Him.
We need to know that we are the ‘greatest thing to ever happen to’ Hashem. And Hashem is also the greatest thing that happened to US! And yet, are we giving Him time, like we do with someone we love? We are so busy, not giving Him time. And the time that we are giving him –is there concentration, is there relationship? Running to work from shul before you finish? Filling Shabbos with eighteen hours of sleep or piles and piles of magazines and newspapers?
Hashem sends us his most wonderful present, the most beautiful kallah–only for us–and that is Shabbos. Only for us. And what do we do with it?
Don’t lose the flavor, the meaning of Yiddishkeit! I ask groups- what do you have that no one else has? Cultural food? Three times a day of formal prayer? Judaism is connection to God, 24/7. Whatever you do–eat an apple, see lightning–you’re connected to God! It’s not ‘so many laws.’ It’s so many channels. 613 channels. Not laws, not rules, 613 WAYS to connect to Hashem. Through challah, through wine/grape juice, through getting married, getting dressed, cutting your nails, through being born, through dying (for all these things there are either halachas or brochas, etc)! Everything in a person’s life, you are connected to Hashem.
This is the koach of every single person. Tonight, I came really to give a shiur on chinuch. Because really, that’s what is going to save us as Klal Yisroel, save our generation. It’s going to save yourself. Because the more happy, excited, and connected, the more you live Yiddishkeit, the more your children will, and the more you will live your Yiddishkeit. Assimilation is at eighty percent. There’s not much of us left. We’re, teeny, a little gang. If we don’t believe in our own Yiddishkeit, who will? We need to be happy with what we do before we even bring in other people.. we ourselves have to straighten ourselves out first!
I’ve been here for three days, I spoke 24 times. I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore! All the talk is over, here in London. I did mine. Now you do yours. You’ve got to “turn around in your chair.” You’ve got to take action. You’ve got to do something.
What will you do?
For those impacted by Rabbi Wallerstein and his teachings, who would like to consider putting their feelings into words for either sharing with Rabbi Wallerstein’s family, or for some kind of publication, I have created the following google form:
Julie lives with her husband and family in Detroit, Michigan, and is an occupational therapist, photographer, and author of several books, including the newly released, Making It Mine: Tools to Chisel a Personal Pathway and Mine the Torah’s Wellsprings (which includes much content from Rabbi Wallerstein). It can be found on Amazon and in Jewish bookstores, along with all her other books: https://www.amazon.com/Making-Mine-Personal-Pathway-Wellsprings/dp/B09WH56BHV/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
[A similar and related post was written by this author on Betweencarpools.com, called “Echoes of Rabbi Wallerstein’s Words,” May 5, 2022]