Making Mistakes

Yesterday, as I was studying this week’s Parsha, Terumah, I was reminded of a fascinating feature of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary in which Hashem dwelled, accompanying the Israelites wherever they went. The altar, upon which sacrifices were offered, was made of copper. This raises an interesting question; why was the altar- a Holy place on which one offered donations to Hashem- made of a less precious metal, namely copper? Why wasn’t it made of gold or silver- metals which we know the Israelites possessed?

The answer lies in a central Jewish concept, namely teshuva. When copper tarnishes or becomes dirty, it can be wiped clean, effectively leaving behind a clean slate. Similarly, when we- the Jewish people- transgress, individually or together, we, too, can wipe away our sins and be left in a higher spiritual place than we were before.

In Biblical times, offerings were sacrificed on the copper alter as a form of teshuva, as well as as a regular donation to G-d. Today, we have no altar to make sacrifices on, but we can still do teshuva at any time or place. Rather than making daily sacrifices, we pray three times a day, and as ever, we can wipe away the sins and guilt of the past by making up for our mistakes.

Many people think that their mistakes define who they are. They believe that because they did something wrong, they are automatically a bad person and can’t be forgiven. But the mistakes we make always serve a purpose; teaching us to behave differently in the future. Just like the copper alter in the Mishkan, whenever we become tarnished or unclean, we can always wipe away our sins with true repentance. Repentence doesn’t just involve G-d, or those around us who we have wronged; it begins in one’s heart, with a resolution to do teshuva and become a better person.

As we are frequently reminded by Jewish wisdom, it’s better to sin and repent- and change!- than to never sin at all.


Parshas Terumah: Attention to Detail

When I was becoming frum, I asked a lot of questions. I never stopped asking difficult questions, and in fact, one of the reasons why certain rabbonim looked down on me was because they felt that I needed to stop questioning and start accepting “the facts”. I remember that one of the first things I ever asked about was this week’s Parsha, Terumah. Why does it go into such detail? At first, it seemed rather preposterous to me. If the Torah doesn’t waste one word, or even one letter, then why does it need to go into so much detail here? Why do we need to know about the pair of Cherubim and the 48 wooden boards and the 60 supporting posts which were found in the Mishkan?

The answer lies partly in something called hiddur Mitzvah. Hiddur mitzvah essentially means to beautify a mitzvah in an attempt to show our love for Hashem and his mitzvos. It’s the reason why we use a beautiful esrog at Sukkos, and choose the most beautiful Shabbes candlesticks and Chanukiahs. Parshas Terumah teaches us just how ornate and beautiful the Mishkan was, through the lavish descriptions of the furnishings, tapestries and decorations, and the extent of this hiddur Mitzvah can only be communicated with the level of detail contained within the Parsha.

But in this case, hiddur Mitzvah doesn’t just refer to the obligation of building the Mishkan itself. It also relates to the Israelites’ relationship with G-d. The Mishkan was described as a dwelling place for G-d. It was where He resided as the Jewish people travelled through the desert, and was more than mere symbolism. It was a sign that He would accompany the chosen people wherever they went- and the Israelites responded by beautifying His dwelling place to show the extent of their adoration and gratitude.

Additionally, the building of the Mishkan was not some exclusive task, irrelevant to most of the population. It brought the Israelite people together and allowed them to work side by side to form a dwelling place for G-d. The extreme detail and beautification remind us that building a home for G-d is the most important task of every Jew- and it was not limited to that generation. Each and every generation has a responsibility to build a home for G-d and Holiness – right here, and now. When we transform our lives and the places we live into dwellings for G-d, we come one step closer to greeting Moshiach, may He come speedily and in our days!

My Journey Home

When I was a young child, I realised that my family didn’t want me. They didn’t make a secret of the fact, but unfortunately, social services didn’t want me either – or so they said. And so, aged about six, my journey began, searching high and low for something – anything – which would make me feel wanted. Some girls wanted to be top of their class, and others wanted to be beauty queens, but I just wanted to fit in somewhere. Unfortunately for me, my ambition proved harder than I could have imagined, and when I grew older, I bounced between men, communities and so-called friends, trying to find someone who cared whether I lived or died.

And then I started on a path which eventually led me home.

My journey towards Judaism didn’t begin intellectually. As much as I loved the leather bound books, the books which brought a whole new meaning to the world of reading, and the swirling, calligraphic letters, it was a raw emotional need which drew me towards the tribe. Maybe it was those words themselves which did it. The thought of a protective, loving tribe of like minded people who viewed my heritage as a membership card was too much to resist, and so I joined a nearby shul hoping that for the first time in my life, I would feel wanted.

The love story was short lived and in no time at all I went back to feeling lonelier than ever. Here I was, surrounded by people, and not one of them seemed to care about me. I made enemies rather than friends, and ultimately left. I kept nothing- none of the mitzvos spoke to me anymore, but in the months that followed I tried again and again to find somewhere where I might fit in.

And as I continued my search, my love for Judaism grew. After months, and eventually years, of searching for the right physical place for me, I found an emotional place where I felt that I could search, and question, and seek, and yet I was still wanted. I finally realised, aged twenty, that maybe despite all the people telling me that I was the wrong kind of Jew, I had a right to be my kind of Jew, and those who truly loved me would want me anyway.

It was then that I truly began to feel wanted. It was then that I could walk into shul and sit down and feel like I was at home, and happy, and not some sort of perpetually alone outsider, destined to sit on the sidelines. I felt that I could be who I wanted to be and I was still considered a Jew, someone who mattered, someone special even.

There are still days when I feel like that young child who has just realised that her family don’t want her, when the whole world seems like a cold, hard place and I wonder if I can carry on. But as time goes by I begin to realise that Judaism has given me the power to be myself, and to know that G-d, and my true friends, love and treasure me, no matter what.

At last, I have found my home.


I’ve been involved with countless Jewish communities, all across the spectrum of religious observance, and the shocking, upsetting and disheartening thing I began to notice recently was this: the communities which claim to be inclusive, and dedicated to making everybody feel at home, are quite often the least welcoming ones. The ones which say “our doors are open to everyone,” usually forget to add that although you may be allowed to walk through the doors, you won’t want to keep coming back unless you do things their way.

It’s bizarre. Ironic, even. When I felt estranged from my own faith- cast aside, cut off, left out- I immediately sought out shuls which made a claim to be welcoming and accepting of everybody. Once I was inside, I found that the opposite was true, and was pushed further and further away from Judaism.

My Jewish journey has had ups and downs- times when I’ve adored my religion and felt connected to G-d, and times when I’ve wanted to- and actively planned to- leave. But today, I feel particularly spiritual and as I reflect on all the times I’ve been shunned and pushed away, I begin to think that maybe these things happened for a reason: to teach me to seek out others feeling lost and excluded, and welcome them back.

If this was Hashem’s way of trying to teach me a lesson, it worked. Whenever I see someone standing in the corner, or sitting alone, or just looking like they’d rather be some place else, I make a conscious effort to go and see how they’re doing, and help them realise that their presence is important to me, because I, too, have been in that very same position not long ago.

I’ve said this before, but if you- the person reading this now- feel welcome and at home in your community, I want to ask you a favour. Next time you see someone new, or someone who’s alone, or someone who, for whatever reason, might not be as comfortable as you, I ask you to go over to them and extend the hand of friendship. You never know what a difference it might make.

Gut Shabbes! (Shemos)

One of my favourite quotes ever goes something like, “The bravest thing I ever did was carry on living when I wanted to give up”. It’s a sentiment I can relate to on both a personal and a spiritual level- it applies not only to my whole life but also to my Jewish journey. For me, Shabbes was always the hardest mitzvah. It seems restrictive. In today’s world, turning on a light is a convenience, not work, says a voice in my head. Why does it matter if you flip a light switch, or tear a packet?

But the biggest challenge is when you’re alone, spending Shabbes with a family directly opposed to your frumkeit, or in a shul where you’re treated like an outsider, and you go home to stare at the four walls of your house and count the minutes until Shabbes goes out. It’s isolating, painful, heartbreaking even. I know quite a few people in this situation, whom I do my utmost to help. Having been there myself, I try to offer them both physical and emotional support. This week, as I kindle the Shabbes lights and remember those who are ill, I also remember those who are spending the Holy day all alone…

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:49 in London, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 5:06 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Giving Up

If my Jewish journey has taught me anything, it’s to never give up.

Yesterday I wrote about Mitzrayim as a metaphor of sorts- a kind of painful spiritual or emotional exile which leaves us feeling trapped and enslaved. Throughout my life I feel that I have spent a lot of time in Mitzrayim. I’ve worked hard and been blessed with the ability to carry on with life when I felt unable to. And yet, a little while ago I started questioning my observance.

This wasn’t like the other times when I questioned by observance. When I wondered if keeping Shabbes was really necessary, or if I could deal with another judgemental person pushing me away from Judaism. I questioned the very essence of G-d and I truly believed that He had forgotten me. I didn’t want to go off the derech for material reasons- I just couldn’t carry on any more.

And yet I’ve started to think, and I don’t believe this can be the case. Since I came to this difficult conclusion Hashem has shown me more miracles than I can count. If it’s a coincidence, it’s certainly a very amazing one: but I don’t think it can be. I think Hashem is trying to tell me something.

He’s not telling me that if I lose my faith, he’ll show me miracles to bring me back. Nor is he telling me that the future will be bright and beautiful and amazing. Maybe He’s even a little angry at me for doubting that He cared. But I think He’s telling me that I can’t give up now, after I’ve fought so hard and come so far – giving up just isn’t an option.

And so I look once again at the blessings in my life and the wonders and miracles I have seen, and I make a conscious decision to carry on. I will never give up.

Parshas Vayechi: Difficult Decisions

We begin this week’s Parsha, Vayechi, by reading about Yaakov’s time in Mitzrayim. The text tells us that Yaakov Avinu lived there for seventeen years, and the Midrash teaches us that these seventeen years were the best years of his life, filled with prosperity and material comfort, in contrast to the toil and labour which marked the rest of his life.

Initially, this passage seems confusing, but the Hayom Yom tells us that despite the depravity of Mitzrayim, Yaakov took the morals and laws of the Torah with him, transforming his surroundings and enriching them with kedushah, holiness.

And yet, this was not enough. It’s not enough to live in Mitzrayim- in golus – and study Torah. Even if we are surrounded by words of Holiness, we need to seek to escape exile at any cost. Even if this means leaving behind the material comforts which Yaakov enjoyed in Mitzrayi Mitzrayim: he could have argued that, as he was studying Torah, he had no need to leave these behind and escape Mitzrayim, and yet, despite the various “pull factors” of golus, he told his son Yossef with a great deal of urgency: “Carry me out of Mitzrayim!”.

As a baalas Teshuva, this story speaks to me. In retrospect, my life in golus – before I became frum- was easier. I enjoyed material comforts which I have since given up: if I wanted to, I could have gone out on Friday nights, eaten non kosher food, worn tight clothes and celebrated non Jewish festivals. I won’t deny it- even as an observant woman, these things still hold a degree of appeal to me. But I recognised I was living in Mitzrayim, and like Yaakov Avinu, I was willing to abandon these things, and subject myself to spiritual and physical toil, in order to come closer to G-d.

Like everyone else, I don’t always feel happy in my faith. I get scared and doubtful- I think about leaving sometimes, or choosing another derech. But when I feel that way, I remember this week’s Parsha, and Yaakov’s words, and I find the strength to go on.

Challenging Texts

This morning, as I always do, I read the Tanya. Written by the Alter Rebbe- also known as the Baal HaTanya- it forms the basis of Chabad Chassidic teachings, and explores Jewish mysticism through a series of analogies and teachings which I can only hope to ever fully understand. But not understanding the Tanya isn’t my only problem. Rather, it’s the bits which I feel I have a pretty good understanding of which trouble me.

I’ll be honest. My interest in Judaism, even before I became observant, has always been rather scholarly. The learning is actually what first attracted me to Judaism; I loved shiurim and Torah study classes, and reading and writing about the various commentaries on the Parsha was always the highlight of my week. I thrived on the intellectual rigour of Judaism, while a part of me remained aware that my interest was beyond the limits of a “normal” baalas teshuva. Frum girls like myself were supposed to stick down to watered down Chumash study, and reading Tehillim, and my passion for study set me apart slightly from most of the other frum women I knew.

But more recently, I reached a point in my learning where my viewpoint changed from one of exploration to one of challenging. External circumstances had made me begin to doubt my faith, and as davening began to mean less and less to me, I turned to the texts to look for answers. Reading the Tanya this morning, I found none. Instead, I found troublesome passages. Things which made me feel confused and argumentative. Things which, had they not been written by the Alter Rebbe, I would declare to be untrue.

Take the section about science, for example. We should not study the sciences of the “nations”, he writes. The message here seems to be “science is goyish and we should eschew it”- and I think “what about Rambam?”. The Rebbe goes on to write about instances in which studying science is permissible- when it leads to furthering one’s faith in G-d, or when it helps one keep the halachos.

Of course, I can’t stop reading here. I’m not satisfied with this explanation. And so, I spend more time than I care to admit working on the issue. I remember all the discussions I had with a scientist, who thought that Torah law was unscientific, and I realise that I don’t belong to either viewpoint- I think both can, and should, be combined. The minutes tick by as I continue my research on this pressing issue, trying to reconcile the Alter Rebbe’s viewpoint with my own, and that’s when I realise why I love this part of Judaism so much.

If there’s one thing which is bound to stop me from leaving Judaism, it’s this. These dilemmas. These discussions. These dialogues. Perhaps this is what the Alter Rebbe meant when he spoke about using science to elevate one’s understanding of the Torah; I’m using my doubts, my lack of faith, and my need to question, not to eschew Judaism, as many have done before me, but to further my love for it. It gives me a platform to explore and learn. Perhaps this was Hashem’s intention all along…

Some Days

Some days, I almost lose my faith,
Stumbling through a world,
Where covered necklines are deemed wrong,
Otherworldly, making me The Other.
Some days, it hurts to open my siddur,
The pages cut my fingers,
And the words sting at my eyes,
On a bus where half the people would want to kill me,
If they knew what I was reading.
Some days, Kashrus eats away at me,
As I sit alone, watching, waiting,
Starving, dying,
And others eat the food of contentment.
Some days, I don’t think G-d hears me,
When I cry at night
And call out by day.
Some days, I feel like Giving Up-
When Chanukah is over,
And the candles are no more,
Cups of oil packed away,
And menorahs set aside.
For another year, I must make my own light.
Some days, I don’t think I can do this,
But today, I know I can:
For within me, burns the Ner Tamid.

A Freilichen Chanukah

Tonight, the eight-night festival of Chanukah begins. It’s a well known but relatively minor Jewish holiday, and despite its less significant status (when compared to any of the Yom Tovim), I find that it is rich with meaning and beauty. Even long before I was observant, I had a Chanukiah at home, which we displayed each year to mark the holiday, and thinking back to years past, when Chanukah was often fraught with tension, arguments, and stress, I find myself- for the first time in my life- looking forwards to Chanukah.

I’m under no illusions that it will be a “perfect holiday”. In fact, I’m fairly certain that there’s no such thing. I am sure that between trying to remember which order I light the candles in, laughing at the Feta doughnuts recipe on, and attempting to get everyone in the room so we can light the menorah, there will be times when I feel irritated and harried, and I may even say something along the lines of “Why on earth is Chanukah so stressful when it’s not even a Yom Tov?!”.

But at the end of the day, I’m spending Chanukah with my family and friends. For the first time ever, I’m actually going to Chanukah events and Menorah lightings rather than sitting at home, labouring over the latkes which no one will eat. And just as I was losing faith, I found myself inspired by a modern day Chanukah miracle which made my year. Right now, at least, I feel blessed, as I celebrate the festival of lights with those who bring light into my life.

A Freilichen Chanukah to each and every one of you….