The following is from the 6/19/08 email version of the Yated. Part I is at Part I.


The Kishke Segulah
by Rabbi Yossi Rosenberg

Part II

After writing the first part of The Kishke Segulah, a dear friend of mine, Rav Hershel Hisiger, R”M in Mesivta of Lakewood, called my attention to a story which succinctly and eloquently articulates, in a nutshell, the point of Part 2 in this series. The story was related by Rav Myer Schwab of Denver about his father, Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l. I subsequently verified the story with Rabbi Schwab, and thank him for his time and input.
A great-granddaughter of Rav Shimon Schwab had been to Eretz Yisroel. Upon returning, she visited her grandfather, a red string tied around her wrist. When Rav Schwab saw the string, he asked his granddaughter why she was wearing it. The girl told her grandfather that it was a piece of a red string which had been wound around Kever Rochel seven times and that wearing such a string was supposedly a segulah for a shidduch and other things.
When he heard this, Rav Schwab - in his trademark pleasant manner - asked the girl if she thought that perhaps she should not wear it. The granddaughter asked if he thought she should remove it, and he responded in the affirmative. Of course, the girl obliged, and Rav Schwab himself removed the red string from her hand. After removing the string, Rav Schwab explained to his granddaughter why he had felt that it should be removed.
“If you wish for something,” Rav Schwab explained, “then you should daven for it. That’s how a Jew deals with all situations - with tefillah, Torah, and mitzvos. If there is a segulah which is part of our general service to Hashem, then such a segulah may be acceptable. There are no quick-fixes, however. A segulah which is not tefillah and has no component of avodas Hashem in it, but rather is merely a quick-fix, such as wearing a red string, is unacceptable.”
At first glance, one would think that this is elementary knowledge. After all, who among us does not believe that the Ribbono Shel Olam ultimately runs the world? On a deeper level, however, while we may believe this in the abstract, we sometimes seem to forget this most basic of principles in the subconscious way we act and feel at times.
Just from perusing some of the letters written by people about this topic, one comes across often questionable statements. In one letter written by someone who “saw improvement” after reciting Perek Shira for 40 days, the writer writes, “I don’t know if there is a special koach in Perek Shira…”
Another letter takes issue with people who seem critical of those who run and try various questionable or unsubstantiated segulos. “To the childless couples who have been through Tehillim countless times,” says the letter, “keep up any segulos you can!” The clear inference is that since Tehillim has not “worked” for the couple even after countless recitations, Hashem must not be looking for the couple’s continued recitation of Tehillim. Rather, a donation towards someone’s cold drink or hot kishke while dancing the night away on vacation in Meron may be just what Hashem is waiting for before He can open the Gates of Heaven for this poor couple.
(We are taught that Hashem caused our forefathers to be barren solely because He desired their prayers. Yitzchok and Rivka were childless for twenty years. After twenty years, they surely had been through the prayers “countless times.” Yet, the Torah says (Toldos 25:21), “Vayetar Yitzchok laShem l’nochach ishto - And Yitzchok prayed to Hashem opposite his wife.” Rashi on the word Vayetar writes, “Hirbeh vehiftzir b’tefillah.” After twenty years of prayers, our forefathers knew of no better way that to pray yet more, and again, and again.)
Not long ago, I read a story in a brochure about someone who was faced with serious illness. “The fear was so strong,” the brochure tells us, “that [the man] did the only thing that could help; he…contributed to…”
Does a believing Jew think for a second that there is nothing else and no One else Who can help us in our hour of need? Surely, those words were not meant to be taken the way they were written, and the same goes for the letters previously quoted. Still, the fact that such expressions and such advertising gimmicks appear with increasing frequency is a sign for us all to reevaluate how firm our own convictions really are.
Just to be clear: No one is questioning the fact that we should support and give generously to all legitimate tzedakos. Still, one cannot allow principles of our faith - principles for which our parents and grandparents often gave their very lives - to become blurred, even for a good cause. When a Jew finds himself in distress or need, he turns to nothing but Hashem. He does not turn to any charity or segulah. Part of turning to Hashem might include giving tzedaka, but only inasmuch as it is part of our avodas Hashem. One does not “turn to” or “believe in” this or that segulah or charity. We turn to, and believe in, Hashem.
Stories where prayer and teshuvah are replaced with a quick-fix donation are not Jewish stories. Encouraging such attitudes may benefit a particular cause, but it flies in the face of everything we, as a People, have stood for, for thousands of years. Printing a disclaimer where an organization assures us that it is Hashem Who has given them this magic guaranteed cure-all and Who has given them this ability to solve everybody’s problems no matter how big or small and with no teshuvah or tefillah necessary does little to reconcile such a non-Jewish attitude with the basics of Jewish belief.
Tzedaka is a most powerful tool as part of our avodas Hashem. We should use that tool. If one reads the fine print, this is what the Gedolim have said about various charities. As Rav Schwab taught, however, quick fixes are anathema to Jewish belief.
The truth is that the entire discussion about segulos is an old one, and the parameters have already clearly been spelled out. In Parshas Chukas (21:4-9), we are told about snakes that inflicted lethal wounds on the Jewish People. Moshe Rabbeinu prayed to Hashem, and Hashem commanded him to fashion a copper snake and place it on a high beam. When a Jew was bitten, the Torah says, he would look up at the copper snake and live.
It is not difficult to imagine the letters that must have been flowing into the Desert Daily at that time. “I was bitten by a snake and desperately needed a yeshuah. I tried the copper snake segulah and it worked! I don’t know if there is a special koach in the copper snake, but I just wanted to publicize the miracle.”
In fact, the Mishnah itself (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) asks the question. “Vechi nochosh meimis oy nochosh mechayeh? Does a [copper] snake [have the power to] cause death or give life? Elah b’zeman sheYisroel mistaklin klapei ma’alah umeshabdim es libom l’Avihem shebaShomayim hayu misrapim.” The copper snake was placed high up so that one would have to look upwards in order to see the snake. When the Jew looked upwards, he was reminded of our Father in Heaven, and he subjugated his heart towards his Creator. Thus, he was saved and given life. The copper snake was nothing less than a means towards real teshuvah and inner change. Yes, it helped save lives, but only when it effected real inner change. It had no inherent power whatsoever.
Indeed, years later (Melachim II 18:4), Chizkiyahu Hamelech destroyed this copper snake because the Jews had begun to ascribe some power to it. As the Metzudas Dovid explains, “[The Jews] sacrificed to it: Thinking that it had some godly power because those who were bitten and had looked towards it had been healed.” There was surely no segulah more real and with a better source than this one had been. After all, it had come from G-d Himself, and it had worked too. Even so, as soon as we forgot that everything is and was the Ribbono Shel Olam, and we began believing in the snake, the snake had to be destroyed.
The above Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah gives a second example as well. While the Jews fought Amalek, Moshe, Aharon and Chur ascended to the peak of a mountain. The Torah tells us (Beshalach 17:11) that “When Moshe’s hands were lifted, the Jews were strengthened in battle. When Moshe’s hands were lowered, Amalek was strengthened.”
Can we fathom the holiness of Moshe Rabbeinu’s two uplifted arms? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 68a) states that Rabi Eliezer’s two arms were like two Sifrei Torah. If that was true for Rabi Eliezer, what about Moshe Rabbeinu’s arms! What a powerful segulah it would seem: Moshe, wrapped in a tallis, lifting his arms in the merit of the Jewish People! No wonder the Jews saw victory when his arms were raised high.
Yet, the Mishnah is adamant that Moshe’s hands surely did not “have the power to win a war or lose a war.” In fact, they had no power at all. The Mishnah explains, as above, that so long as Moshe’s hands were lifted towards the heavens, the Jews glanced heavenward and subjugated their hearts towards their Father in Heaven. It was that subjugation which won them the battles, not Moshe’s uplifted hands.
It is quite clear that a large percentage - if not the overwhelming majority - of the segulos which we know about today work pretty much the same way. In the past, we’ve mentioned the recitation of the parsha of the monn, which is clearly explained as effective only insofar as it strengthens our emunah, our faith, that it is G-d - and only G-d - Who provides for our sustenance. It is the same, explains the Mishnah Berurah (1:13), for the ‘segulah’ of reciting Ashrei, korbanos, the Akeidah, and more. The power and the segulah are in the way reciting these things will change our lives and bring us closer to Hashem - nothing more, and nothing less.
As we discussed in the previous column, the focus of a Jew in this world is on what we can do in our service to Hashem, not on what we can get Hashem to do for us. That explains why real segulos must be an integral part of our avodas Hashem. If something is amiss in our lives, we must ask ourselves what Hashem might want of us and of our service to Him. In what way can we better ourselves and heighten our awareness of Hashem?
A ‘segulah’ which does none of these, but rather seems more like magic - independent of any religious growth - is far from a harmless ‘experiment.’ It brings us dangerously close to blurring the lines between believing solely in Hashem and in the power of our service to Him, and believing in copper snakes and in the power of Moshe Rabbeinu’s uplifted arms. The Yeitzer Hara dangles copper snakes before people who are suffering and desperate for a yeshuah, and he says, “What can it hurt? It worked for so many others. How can you stay stubborn in the face of the difficulty your loved one is facing?”
Our answer to the Yeitzer Hara is our firm conviction of ain od milvado. There is no power in the world other than Hashem. G-d can bring salvation in the blink of an eye, and all He wants is for us to come close to Him. He needs no help, no magic, no quick-fixes. If it is meant to be, Hashem will see to it, and if, chas veshalom, it is not meant to be at this time, nothing we can do can ever change the Divine Will. We can never judge how difficult it may be for a suffering person to withstand the pull, the promise, and the glitter of the easy way out. Those who stand strong are great people indeed, who continue in our proud tradition of steadfast conviction in G-d and in His ultimate kindness, even in the face of the greatest adversity.
The Meshech Chochmah on Parshas Ki Sisah asks why, when Moshe Rabbeinu came down from the mountain and saw the Jews sinning with the Golden Calf, did he break the luchos? Surely the Jews deserved some sort of punishment or teshuvah, but what did the luchos have to do with that? What is the connection?
The Torah relates (Ki Sisah 32:1) how Klal Yisroel made a miscalculation, thinking that Moshe should have descended from the mountain at a certain time. Since he hadn’t, they mistakenly thought that Moshe had died. As much as the Jews knew and believed in Hashem, some still had a tiny vestige of their old idolatrous mentality, and they ascribed some power to Moshe. After all, surely he was the greatest prophet, mekubal, holy man, and anything else we can imagine all rolled up in one. With Moshe gone, these people felt a replacement must be found, and they thus sought to fashion the Golden Calf.
The truth, however, is that there is nothing and nobody with any power other than what Hashem has given him. All we need is to serve Hashem. Ascribing power to any other being or entity is a grave error.
When Moshe descended the mountain, he was holding the luchos, a special Divine creation on which was carved the Aseres Hadibros. Surely, we have not the slightest inkling as to the holiness of the luchos. Still, as special and awesome as they were, the luchos - like everything else - had no inherent power.
When Moshe realized Klal Yisroel’s error in conferring a status upon him which may not be conferred on any being other than G-d, he knew that Klal Yisroel needed to learn one last lesson. He threw the luchos from his hands, breaking them. Can we imagine the shock? The horror? The holy luchos had been broken!
Moshe was teaching us a lesson. The luchos can be broken, Moshe can die, but Hashem forever exists. There are many aids in our path of service to Hashem, but nothing is irreplaceable. The shards of the broken luchos were kept in the holy aron together with the new luchos, as a constant reminder of this important lesson.
We are never alone or hopeless, so long as we can turn to Hashem. Doing the will of Hashem is the one and only real ‘segulah.’ All other segulos are a part of this greater segulah. This segulah may not always be easy, but it is equally available to every single one of us. In our next column, we will iy”H explore various ways with which we can take advantage of this greatest segulah.
This article was written l’zechus refuah sheleimah for Baruch ben Baila.