A Healthy Relationship

Recently, I went through what can only be described as a faith crisis. It felt heart breaking. It felt frustrating. It felt ironic. Ironic that I, the woman who has a whole website full of chizuk- two websites in fact- and a group dedicated to faith and inspiration, and who hopes to have been there for countless others when they had their own faith crises- was sitting here, crying into her siddur, and doubting G-d. It felt a bit like living a lie.

And yet, here I was. Then as time passed, I realised that perhaps we all had crises, and perhaps it was a part of being human, and perhaps my relationship with G-d was like any other relationship.

Healthy relationships include arguments. Disagreements, losses of faith, quarrels- call them what you like, every relationship has them, including your relationship with a Higher Power. And no matter what happens to me down on earth, this Higher Power remains the same- unchanged, and still loves me and forgives me for doubting Him (it took a very wise woman to remind me of this).

Crises end and life resumes. My life has chamged, but G-d hasn’t. What’s most important is that I’ve learned not to judge myself for these tremors. They are normal, and if it weren’t for these moments- or, let’s face it, days- when I felt G-d had abandoned me, then perhaps there would be something wrong with my faith, something unintelligent, unquestioning even.

At the end of the day, no matter what we have said and done, G-d is still there, and still loves us.

Parsha Re’eh: Emotional Charity

In this week’s Parsha, Re’eh, we read about the mitzvah of tzedekah- charity- and the obligation to help one who is needy. We are told to loan or give money to those who need it, and to forgive all loans every Sabbatical year. To Jews living around the world today, tzedekah is still very important, and it is the norm for observant families to donate money to a number of charitable organisations.

But if we are to live by the words of the Torah and the Chassidus, we find that ahavos Yisroel- love for our fellow Jew- is more important than anything else. And although giving him money may very well be a big part of that, there is another kind of underprivileged person among us who we must remember to help: someone who is in distress.

We don’t give money to literally every person we see, and similarly, we don’t need to singlehandedly support people who drain us. But we do have an obligation to give “emotional” charity; to have compassion on those worse off than us, to support them during a hard time, and, if nothing else, to not add to their sorrow.

Part of being a Jew is being part of a community. And being part of a community means supporting one another. This comes in the form of gemachs; of hosting others for free Shabbes meals; of paying for orphans’ weddings; or donating money to help those who cannot afford the necessities. But it also means emotionally supporting each other: visiting the sick, comforting the widow, being there for people who have no one else.

In the past few weeks- and perhaps even the past few years- there has been plenty of hatred and darkness in the world. Political turmoil, discrimination and bigotry, and attacks from all sides of the political spectrum. And it’s in times like these that we are especially obligated to dispel the darkness with an extra measure of light, as the Alter Rebbe taught us. Supporting and giving back to others is a huge part of spreading light, and as we read about the mitzvah of charity this week, we should remember the “other” kind of giving which makes life so purposeful.

Where Will This Conflict End?

Recently, I haven’t been able to write much for this blog. I have been pressed for time, and for energy, and unusually for summer, I am busier than ever. Bezras Hashem, I have been lucky enough to try new things and spend time with great people- but unfortunately, my blog has suffered. I am still always thinking about what to write next- still saving articles, still keeping an eye out for publishers, still writing poems. But today, at the end of another long and wonderful day, I want to instead share with you the thoughts of another blogger. An inspiring, fascinating writer and a dedicated ger tzadekes- Safek:

“The Sabbath still ends pretty late up here. Havdalah was at 11:35 last night and we weren’t done until later. There were a lot of visitors this weekend and things ran a little late. By chance, we opted to drive home after havdalah, to sleep in our own beds instead of the RV. I came home, bleary-eyed and tired and I logged on to my computer to stay awake until Mr. Safek arrived with the RV, to help him unload it.

I blinked, not quite believing what I was seeing, reports of Nazis marching, with lit torches on a college campus in Virginia. Reports of clashes with counter-protestors that turned bloody, and reports of death at the hands of a terrorist who drove through a crowd of people.

It’s important to note the context in which this news came to me.

Our Chabad House hosts many visitors in summer and this weekend we had not only several families from NY and New Jersey, but also a large, rambunctious camp group of college boys. This group spent more time at the Synagogue than most camp groups that come through, so we spent more time with these boys than many of the other groups. For many of them, this trip was their first deep interaction with Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism. Many were wearing kippahs and tzitzits for the first time, proud to show them. They sang and danced and were loud and lively, with a youthful enthusiasm and idealism. They had been camping all over Alaska and told us stories of using an icy cold glacial river as a mikvah, of climbing mountains while singing Jewish songs. They stayed clear across town in a hostel in a kind of run down part of town, walking the whole way for services, tzitzits out and kippahs showing the whole way, unafraid.

Their unofficial theme was, “Jews Take Alaska!”

We laughed and explained that they were a little late. Our Mayor is Jewish and Jews have been a part of Alaskan history since it was recorded, coming here first with the fur trade before gold or oil was ever discovered. These boys, rough around the edges as they might be, represented hope, idealism, and pride and their presence challenged us to keep up. They came from college campuses not unlike the one in Virginia. As we waited for Havdalah, I sat and listened to them talk with our Rabbi about the possibility of starting Jewish clubs at their campuses or what the clubs were already doing, their fears about being “too pushy” or “too religious,” but also their obvious desire to bring back a little of what they’d experienced here in the mountains with all this inspiration.

As I drove back home last night on the highway, in the opposite lanes, I saw a police car stopped with flashing lights, I looked over and saw a moose that had been killed on the road, fresh blood spread across the roadway, it’s body torn as I looked away I felt a growing unease after the easy lightheartedness of the weekend, but I tried to brush it away. Moose are killed on the roads up here, but something about this moose and the timing had me feeling on edge.

It wasn’t long after that I opened up my computer and read about the protests in Charlottesville.

I saw pictures of men who looked like me or my family and who were younger than I am, carrying torches and yelling hatred about my family. I saw pictures of violent conflict on our own soil and even pictures of the car plowing through a crowd of people as if they were moose, bodies flying. It was surreal. I saw the columned buildings of the college campus in the torchlight and I immediately thought of those boys I’d spent the weekend with, headed back to college campuses this fall. My mind reeled and I began to think about how I would explain this to my own children.

We are often sheltered from events in the lower 48 here in Alaska, separated by timezones and distance. I am not naive enough, though, to think that the same hate does not also exist here, in the small communities in the same woods those boys were singing through. I remembered feeling nervous when I saw that they were walking through the less desirable parts of town visibly Jewish and some unease when I realized they would have also been doing this in some of the more remote areas, places where people who seek to avoid the mainstream go and where the beliefs and ideas that made them feel the need to separate from the rest of the world are allowed to fester. There are compounds built in the woods up here where all different kinds of armed people who believe this world is headed in the wrong direction wait.

This is all just 2 weeks or so after our own Rabbi counseled us to have our son wear a baseball cap when he can, to cover his kippah, and for him to tuck in his tzitzits, telling us that another boy in the Synagogue had been the target of racist graffiti on his school notebooks, swastikas scrawled across his notebooks as a threat…in elementary school.

Most converts are asked by the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) that converts them why they would want to join the Jewish people and subject themselves to anti-semitism. My answer will be an easy one. We already are effected by it. Already, those who would hate Jews hate us. They make no distinctions for my husband’s murky halakhic status or my own lack of any Jewish status. To them, we are Jews and to them, I am even worse than a born Jew because I once was like them, fully white, and chose to cleave to a people I was not born to. If we chose not to convert, it wouldn’t stop people from hating us, but it would cut us off from support and inclusion in a community that understands what it is to be the target of such malice.

The contrast between the day of Shabbos and the night after was a stark reminder of the world we live in now, where hate has become more openly expressed again. I don’t doubt that it’s always been there, but now we see them march with no masks over their faces. However, we also see hope in young men who also no longer want to hide their Jewishness.

I can’t help but wonder where this conflict will all end and worry over my children. There is no mountain far enough to shelter us from such a storm.”

Doing the Right Thing

I read the following Daily Thought, courtesy of Chabad.org, and it spoke to me in an indescribable way;

“No person can know his own inner motives.
He may be kind because kindness brings him pleasure.
He may be wise because wisdom is music to his soul.
He may become a martyr burned in fire because his heart burns with defiance.
How can you know that your motives are sincere? What is the test?
The test will be when doing the right thing cuts against the grain.
Torah Ohr 19b; Likkutei Sichot, vol. 20, pp. 76, 306–307.”

Thank you to Chabad.org for providing not only this, but millions of other sources of inspiration, to me and others across the world.

Gut Shabbes! (Eikev)

Yesterday, I wrote about how the name of this week’s Parsha carries a hidden message about Torah observance, and teaches us that G-d’s Torah and mitzvos must govern every part of our life and behaviour. For many, including myself, the hardest thing about becoming Torah observant is observing the laws of Shabbes, and as I wrote about the way in which we must accept all of the mitzvos, I was reminded of my own struggle with keeping Shabbes.

Although it is incumbent upon us to accept and abide by every single Halacha, it’s also extremely admirable to start with just any one mitzvah. Yes, the end goal is to keep everything- but no one can start doing that overnight, and it’s important that we recognise the difficulties faced by baalei teshuva. As someone who identifies as Chabad-Lubavitch, I am constantly reminded of the power of just one mitzvah- as that mitzvah could bring Moshiach.

Torah observance is the core of Jewish life, and this includes not only the most minor mitzvos, but also the most difficult one. This week, if we all tried our hardest to keep Shabbes, we could bring Moshiach. But before Moshiach can come, we need to love and respect one another- and that includes respecting another’s efforts to keep the mitzvos.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 8:12 PM, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 9:26 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna and Shai bas Odeya. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Eikev: The Meaning of Judaism

This week’s Parsha is named Eikev. The word “Eikev” means “because”, but this is a very unusual synonym, and as such, many of the great Sages and rabbis have paid special attention to this term. The majority of them believe that it denotes a connection to the word “Akeiv”, which is spelled the same way, and means “heel”. But why “heel”? How is this relevant to the verse, “Because you hearken to these laws”?

Rashi believes that this word is used to bring to mind certain mitzvos- “those which a person tramples with his heels”. At first glance, this suggests that Rashi’s message is one of respecting and abiding by even the “smallest” and seemingly least significant mitzvos, but perhaps it echoes the message of Parshas Shloch and refers to the physical nature of some mitzvos. This would suggest that one cannot disregard the mitzvos which deal with “mundane” matters, and that these are just as important as lofty matters such as Torah study.

Indeed, this matter of the fine balancing act between lofty and mundane mitzvos appears in the Rebbe’s interpretation of the verse. Our commitment to Yiddishkeit and to the Torah, he comments, should be all consuming, to the point where it extends beyond the Holy days, and what happens in prayer and Torah study. The “lowliest” part of our life is actually the foundation- the heel- of our relationship with G-d. Simple things like food and clothing are elevated to be Holy and important.

Combining these two interpretations, we come to what is perhaps the centre of an observant Jewish lifestyle. Torah observance, and a love for Torah and the mitzvos, must be at the core of every area of our life. It’s not enough to only be a Torah observant Jew when we are in shul; we must also govern our behaviour, actions and speech in accordance with Torah law.

The word “Eikev”, the name of this week’s Sedra, is more than just a mere word. Every word of the Torah is special and rich with meaning- and Eikev teaches us what it means to be a Jew.

The Shabbes Table

Yesterday, I went to an exhibition which I had visited at exactly the same time last year. The exhibition included pairs of Shabbes candles, a realistic Shabbes table, and even a Sefer Torah. As I listened to the recorded brochos and touched the candlesticks, I remembered my thoughts as I had stood before this same table last year.

“I wish this were mine.”

As a Baalas Teshuva, the thought of celebrating Shabbes with my family was unthinkable. A kind of dream which I thought would never become a reality. I was moved almost to tears as I sat at that replica table last year- and remembering this yesterday almost knocked me over.

After a family reconciliation, my other relatives began- or continued- their own Jewish journeys, and Shabbes dinner became a central function of our lives. We laughed, cried, and told stories at the Shabbes table. Sometimes, it’s stressful: I can’t face hosting guests or mediating disputes, and I forget what a blessing the Shabbes table is. It’s not always perfect, but this week, as I light the candles, I’m going to try and remember to thank G-d for this beautiful gift He gave me.