Gut Shabbes! (Vayeitzei)

This week’s Parsha, Vayeitzei, begins by telling us of Yaakov’s journey from Beersheba to Charan, where he ends up working for the deceitful Laban, and marrying the matriarchs Rochel and Leah. The journey he went on was undeniably life affirming, as he dreamed of a ladder connecting the Heavens and earth, encountered G-d, and met and married the mothers of the tribes of Israel. But the journey did not stem from a desire for exploration, or an attempt to find G-d. In fact, he journeyed to get away from his brother Esov who wanted to kill him- proving that difficult situations can be turned into huge opportunities.

Vayeitzei is full of inspiring messages which we can apply to our daily lives in the 21st century. Although Yaakov did not originally want to travel from Beersheba, when he was forced to he made the best of the situation and ended up better off for it. He had not merely fled from Esov, but in doing so he had discovered himself and changed his own destiny for the better. When we are presented with difficult and painful situations, we have a number of options. We can bury our heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge what is happening; we can blame others, or G-d, for the unfairness of the world; we can wallow in our misery; or we can grab the bull by the horns and decide to make the best of what we have, as Yaakov did. Perhaps the challenges we are facing now will turn into revealed blessings later down the line. May we all be zoche to see only revealed blessings and opportunities for self-improvement!

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:42 PM in London, and Shabbes ends at 4:55 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel Yossef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

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Yaakov’s Prayers

It took a long time for me to start davening regularly. Until I got my own siddur, my prayer routine was restricted to Shabbes- but that all changed when I discovered the beauty of Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service, and started davening every evening, a habit which has continued to this day. For a long time, I wondered why I found myself so drawn to it. Before I even started saying the Modeh Ani every morning, or the Shema last thing at night, I was fascinated by Ma’ariv, seemingly inexplicably. Why did it speak to me in such an extraordinary way?

This week, as we read Parshas Vayeitzei, we learn that Yaakov prayed after he fled to Charan, escaping his brother Esov’s wrath. It was through this that he instituted the Ma’ariv prayers, just as Avrohom and Yitzchok had done before him with Shachoris and Mincha respectively. The Rebbe explains the meaning behind this, saying, “There is a great difference between praying during the day and praying at night. During the day, the sun is shining. The light and brightness of the physical setting is representative of its spiritual backdrop. Day refers to times and situations where G‑dliness is apparent. That’s when Avrohom and Yitzchok prayed. Yaakov, by contrast, prayed at night, metaphorically, when G‑dliness is hidden and one must combat darkness“.

Suddenly, my own attraction to Ma’ariv made sense. When I began davening at home, after I was gifted my first Siddur, I was in a place of darkness. Not just physically, as the nights became longer, but emotionally, as I dealt with various upheavals and traumas in my own personal life. And during that difficult time, it was especially hard to face the cold winter nights, when I felt especially alone and unloved by the world in general. Opening my siddur brought me comfort when I was most desperate for it, and it was as I davened Ma’ariv that I would pour my heart out to Hashem, begging Him to help me find happiness, leaving me convinced that things would change for the better.

I have never underestimated the power of a little bit of light during a time of darkness. And today, as I read the Rebbe’s explanation for Yaakov’s prayers, I realised why Ma’ariv was so important to me, when I was dealing with both metaphorical and physical darkness.

The World Could Not Exist Without You

Yesterday, I wrote about how this week’s Parsha teaches us an important lesson through the matriarchs Rochel and Leah, and as I looked deeper into the text, I realised that much of Vayeitzei centres around individuality, and, specifically, individual importance. Not only does it tell us about how Leah- the older, less “popular” sister- was destined for greatness, but it also introduces the 12 Tribes of Israel through the birth of Yaakov’s sons. And the twelve tribes, whom we read about later in the Torah, are another example of how each and every one of us play an important role and are equally valued by G-d.

There’s a saying from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov which goes, “The day you were born is the day that G-d decided the world could not exist without you”. I always loved that quote. Reading it made me feel special. Important. Wanted, even. And as I read this week’s Sedra I realised that that’s because I am. I often struggle with feeling unwanted, in a fast-moving world where popularity and looks determine how “interesting” you are, and Vayeitzei provides me- and everyone else who feels the same way- with a wake up call. We are important. We are valued. And even if, like Leah, we feel hated, it doesn’t mean that Hashem has ‘given up’ on us (G-d forbid!).

So in the middle of a difficult week, I’m going to look to the Parsha and carry on. I know that I’m on this journey for a reason, and that Hashem is going to make it all worthwhile.

Parshas Vayeitzei: Learning From Leah

This week’s Sedra tells the story of two sisters. It’s an oft-repeated tale; one of the sisters is younger, more beautiful, and loved by everyone, while the older daughter is less attractive and less popular, a fact which contributes to the turbulence of their relationship, which is marked by rivalry and jealousy. Needless to say, it’s the younger sister- Rochel, in this case- who attracts male admiration, and ends up with a marriage proposal from none other than Yaakov Avinu, who works for their father for seven years so that he can marry her. But then something happens, and when Yaakov wakes up the morning after the wedding, he realises that he is married to Leah, the younger sister, and that their father- the deceitful Laban- has tricked him.

Needless to say, Yaakov is not especially pleased by his discovery, and confronts Laban. But in the end, he promises to work for another seven years to marry the younger sister- so great is his love for the beautiful Rochel. Of course, it’s touching to hear of his dedication to her, but one is left feeling rather sorry for Leah. One can imagine just how hard it is to be the older, less attractive sister, who can only get married by accident, and then finds herself “hated” as a result.

I think that all of us have been Leah at one time or another. Growing up, the story of sibling rivalry certainly spoke to me, as I found myself feeling insignificant in comparison to my brother, who was better looking, more intelligent, and- I felt- better liked. As I grew older, I began to realise that he had his own problems, and his life wasn’t nearly as perfect as I had imagined. Once I realised this, our relationship improved and we became inseparable, but I still connect deeply with Leah on a personal level, as I struggle with feeling like the least attractive, least intelligent, and- above all- least interesting friend in my peer group.

But despite her unfortunate predicament, Leah’s story is one of brilliance. It takes time, but Leah has seven children- six sons, and a daughter- and we learn that her sons’ names allude to the fact that she was also a prophetess, as she predicted their futures. As if this wasn’t enough, we learn that Yaakov eventually admits that Leah is his “chief” wife, and the mother of the majority of his children. There’s also something unique about Leah: she is the first person to praise Hashem. After the birth of her children, she turns to Him and thanks Him for all he has given her, perhaps thinking of her transformation from the unloved woman who was sneered at to the mother of multitudes.

We can’t deny that Leah had a difficult life. But we learn from her that perhaps, it’s not being young, popular and attractive which matters the most in life. Although she encountered difficulties and opposition, and felt inferior to her younger sister, Hashem answered her prayers and gave her the children she so desperately longed for. What Leah lacked in popularity, she made up for in faith; her tears ascended to heaven and her prayers reached Hashem’s ears, and she made sure to set a precedent of thankfulness. It turns out that these things were more important after all; so if, like Leah, you’re feeling insignificant, remember the story of her life, and how Hashem blessed her.

Twenty

Today I turned twenty.

Lots of people will be surprised to hear this. I quite often receive messages from readers who presume I’m in my fifties or sixties- not exactly flattering, but it makes a nice change from feeling held back by my age in a world where people won’t take young women seriously, at least not when they’re talking about the Torah. But I digress. Every birthday, somebody- usually a relative- asks me, “How does it feel being a year older?”. In the past, my response has always been “I feel the same”. It’s true. What difference does a day make?

But over the past year, I feel that I’ve grown in leaps and bounds. I look back on who I was this time last year- and for the first time in my life, I’m proud.

Pride doesn’t come easily to me. It’s easy to say that that’s a good thing- and to an extent, it is. But not when you go through life feeling like a total failure because you simply can’t be proud of yourself. Until recently, I always used to laugh at the fact that people came to me for advice- whether it was through my website or study group, or friends messaging me looking for my take on an issue. My own life is a shambles, I would say. What on earth makes them think I’m qualified to help them with theirs?

Then today, as I thought about where I was on my 19th birthday last year, and what I’ve been through over the twelve months which followed, I realised that perhaps I am a somebody after all. Perhaps, I tentatively suggested to myself, I am a success. There’s no one size fits all definition for successful, but I think that being happy with where you are is a good place to start. Am I happy with my life right now? Not entirely. I, like everyone else, have problems, and doubts. I have nights where I dread the next day, and days when I don’t think I can face the world. But somehow, I always manage; and that is my personal success.

I’ve learned a lot over this past year. Way too much to put into one short post. I’ve learned about true friends, and fake ones. I’ve learned about love, and I’ve learned about heartbreak. I’ve learned who the people around me really are, and I’ve learned about the power of a few kind words, or a thoughtful message on a gloomy day. I’ve learned- albeit over the space of a whole year- that perhaps I’m not one of the beautiful young women on Facebook with perfect families and healthy diets and tight dresses and faces so beautiful they don’t even need Instagram filters (honestly, can you imagine that?)- and that’s ok. Above all, I’ve learned who I really am. And as I think about all I’ve been through, I realise that, at long last, I’m proud of myself. Not many people could have been through what I have, and come out smiling- or at least trying to smile, because who says life is always perfect?

If you’re, like I was, a young person doubting your place in this world, and perhaps even doubting your self worth, I have some advice for you. I was going to interject Golda Meir’s famous quote here- “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great”- but thankfully I realised that maybe it’s a touch insensitive. Instead, I’m going to tell you to look at where you were a year ago, and realise how much you’ve grown. Look at the bad things that happened, and realised you survived them all. Look at where you are today, and realise that, if, despite all the hard times and insecurities and tragedies, you’re still here, in one piece, reading this, then you’re doing amazingly.

I’m probably going to finish writing this article, all about growth and thankfulness and all those other things which make you roll your eyes, shut my laptop, and start complaining about the weather, or something which happened on my birthday. And that’s okay. We can’t be perfect and thankful all the time, but we can stop and realise how blessed and amazing we are; as I just did, and as I hope you will, too.

Mitzvah Day

Today was Mitzvah Day.

I never used to understand or like the day. I thought that it was- at best- odd to have a day dedicated to doing mitzvos, when we are supposed to do them every day. But more recently, it has led me to reconsider our definition of a mitzvah.

There are lots of highly spiritual mitzvos which elevate one’s soul, but do little to change their surroundings. It troubles me deeply that many people in both Chareidi and non Chareidi communities spend a lot of time on these mitzvos while ignoring the small acts of kindness which they could do.

Perhaps the more mundane things, such as donating food and warm clothing, helping someone carry heavy shopping, or volunteering to do hands-on work for a charity, require more effort than studying Torah. But without good deeds, Torah study is- G-d forbid- meaningless.

We need to act, as well as just talking and learning. And maybe that’s what Mitzvah Day is about. It’s an opportunity to infuse the mundane with holiness, as opposed to sitting in ivory towers and preaching holiness. May we all merit to perform mitzvos and hasten the arrival of Moshiach, speedily and in our days!

Gut Shabbes! (Toldos)

This week, as Chabad shluchim from around the world gather at the Kinus HaShluchim conference, I am, as always, amazed by the display of unity and Ahavos Yisroel. Chabad have transformed countless lives, and to see so many influential rabbonim together in one room makes me feel proud to be a Jew.

We don’t need to be rabbis or shluchim to make a difference though. Every single one of us holds within us the power to change lives and bring light into the world- and we needn’t wait to get started. We can begin straightaway, by lighting Shabbes candles or inviting guests into our home.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:52 PM in London, and Shabbes ends at 5:01 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please daven for Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Chashachana bas Bryna, Chaya bas Perel and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you and gut Shabbes!