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 Chabad.org, 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….

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Good Yom Tov!

Tonight, as we celebrate Yud Tes Kislev- the Rosh Hashono of Chassidism- we remember the liberation of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, from imprisonment in Czarist Russia, and the subsequent strengthening of the Chabad movement, as the Rebbe redoubled his efforts to spread Chassidic teachings, and make them accessible to everyone.

Out of all of the special days on the Jewish calendar, Yud Tes Kislev speaks to me the most. There’s something so inspiring about the Alter Rebbe’s story- in a way, it appeals directly to my emotions and my Jewish journey. When I first became interested in Judaism, and decided to become frum, I found myself held back by my family and living situation. I was very much ‘imprisoned’, and I found it really hard to do the things I wanted to do. Spiritually, I was weakened by the negative influences around me.

During this difficult time, I read about the Alter Rebbe, and I learned that after his imprisonment, he didn’t back down; instead, he upped his game, and started working harder than ever to spread Jewish knowledge. The more I thought about it, the more inspired I felt. It was on Yud Tes Kislev last year that I received news which changed my life, and I decided straightaway that this was no mere coincidence. It was Hasgocho Protis.

Last Yud Tes Kislev, my life turned around, just as the Alter Rebbe’s had, so many years before me. And this year, as I look back over what I’ve been through, I daven that all those people who, like me, are held back by their circumstances, and find themselves spiritually ‘imprisoned’, witness the sort of miracle which Hashem bestowed upon me, and find the strength to continue their Jewish journey. May this be the Divine will, and may we merit to welcome the Moshiach, speedily and in our days!

GOOD YOM TOV.

MAY YOU BE INSCRIBED AND SEALED

FOR A GOOD YEAR IN THE STUDY OF CHASSIDUS

AND THE WAYS OF CHASSIDUS

Good Enough

One day, a man approached the Kotzker Rebbe and asked him, “Who is a good Jew?”. The Kotzker Rebbe replied, “anyone who wants to be a good Jew.” The student was perplexed: “But Rebbe, who wouldn’t want to be a good Jew?”. “That’s easy,” said the Kotzker, “someone who thinks he’s a good Jew already.”

When I read this Chassidic tale I felt torn. On the one hand, I understood the underlying message: we should never settle, or say, “that’s good enough”. But on the other hand, the Kotzker’s words brought out the painful feelings of never being good enough. Essentially, he seems to be saying that we shouldn’t consider ourselves good Jews just yet- and I wonder how healthy that approach is.

I’ve spent most of my Jewish journey feeling inadequate. Whether it was because I was too frum for the reform shul, or not frum enough for the orthodox shul, whether it was because of the way I davened or the level of kashrus I kept- I felt that I was never quite good enough, maybe even some sort of impostor in a world of Proper Jews.

Recently, I’ve come to terms with where I am on my Jewish journey. And so I felt shocked when I first saw the Kotzker’s words. Does this mean that after all this time spent learning and struggling and improving myself, I’m not actually a good Jew? The more I looked, the more unlikely it seemed. Perhaps there’s a delicate nuance between being good enough, and settling for “that’s good enough”.

Maybe we are all good Jews, deep down. Maybe everyone who tries, in some small way, is a good Jew. Maybe what the Kotzker is saying, is that we should never compromise when it comes to Yiddishkeit. If we can do better, we must. If we can improve ourselves, we need to. For it is in self improvement that we find the greatest kind of growth, whereas seeing ourselves as “not good enough” only ever leads to feelings of inadequacy.

It’s interesting to see how much this short story made me think: about myself, about my Yiddishkeit, about whether I’m good enough. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m a good enough person, maybe even a good enough Jew. But there are many ways in which I can improve, and I think that’s what the Kotzker Rebbe was telling me to do.

The Power of the Community

Yesterday, I wrote about how Parshas Vayeira teaches us of the importance of hospitality. I was led to think about my own Jewish journey, and the beautiful hospitality and kindness I benefitted from, as well as the not so pleasant experiences which made me begin to wonder if Orthodoxy was, in fact, the place for me.

That is the power of a kind deed, or a not so kind one: a warm community can draw one towards observing Judaism, whereas a cold one can push one away from their traditions. We all have the immense power to make or break through our words, but within Judaism there’s the additional power of the community. We don’t only need to think of our own actions, but also our place in the wider social circle.

Too often, I have seen communities use this power wrongly. They ostracise, they cause division, and, yes, they brainwash unsuspecting individuals. I know people who have been pushed away by cruel and calculating communities, and in light of the amazing hospitality demonstrated by Avrohom Avinu, I can’t believe that such people call themselves frum Jews.

Frumkeit is not, in fact, about chumros. It’s not about who spends the most hours learning or who has the longest skirt; it’s about the way we treat others. It’s about inviting people, helping people, and, above all, welcoming people. As we go about our daily lives, we need to remember those who don’t have the warm communities we benefit from, and welcome them into our lives and homes. Everything else can wait- just as Avrohom made G-d Himself wait.

What I Wish I’d Known

When I made the switch from a more liberal community to an orthodox one, I genuinely believed that I was one of the few people to have done so. I hadn’t heard of the baal teshuva phenomenon, and didn’t even believe there was a word from someone who became more religious after leading a less observant lifestyle. Needless to say, I was not the most clued up baalas teshuva, and this cause me a fair bit of trouble later on. In fact, my journey of observance has been far from easy, and there’s been a lot of trouble since the day I made that switch.

Was it worth it? Did I meet some amazing people? Am I thankful to be where I am now? Yes to all of the above. But unfortunately, when I started to become observant, I had very little idea of what I was taking on, and didn’t know many- any?- baalei teshuva. B’ezras Hashem, I had a number of amazing rabbonim, and through them and their wives, I feel that I found a spiritual home of sorts in an orthodox shul- but outside of shul, I felt clueless and alone.

Eventually, I made it through to the other side, with a level of observance I am comfortable with, but only following a series of ups and downs, some of which I’d rather no one had had to deal with. I was thinking about this today, after a particularly toxic acquaintance led me to feel a stab of uncertainty and loneliness, eerily reminiscent of my earliest struggles. I felt crazy. I felt stupid. I felt selfish. And then, I felt that I wanted to reach out to other baalei teshuva dealing with what I dealt with.

If you’re reading this now, you should know that a number of challenges lie ahead of you. Even if it seems easy, there will be challenges. I could never have envisaged that I would lose the person I loved due to my religious observance- but I did. I also lost family relationships, and self confidence, and, yes, the prospect of Saturday shopping trips.

But you need to know that you’ll gain more than you lost. I gained a connection to Hashem. I gained emunah and bitachon. I gained an amazing community, and a number of friends who stuck by my no matter how observant I was or wasn’t, and who loved me for who I am, not for who they wanted me to be- a difference which becomes painfully apparent when you decide to do something for yourself after a lifetime of people pleasing.

You should also know that frumkeit will probably remove the superficial people from your life, and- unfortunately- they might be the people closest to you right now. There are no words to express the pain you’ll feel, especially if, as I did, you feel as if there’s nobody left. But there always will be. Hashem will be there for you. And the people who you least expected, perhaps, will turn out to be your best friends.

What’s more, you should know that your life is going to change immeasurably in the end, and that there’s no hurry to reach that final stage. Don’t take on all the chumros in your first few weeks of observance, don’t cut off people who aren’t a genuine bad influence, and don’t forget who you were before. Everything can be utilised and elevated to heavenly purposes- and that includes the person you were before you started keeping all the stringencies of Halacha.

And finally, you should know that if you need a listening ear, someone who has been through what you’re going through and been blessed with the gift of hindsight, you can always reach out to me. I’m no expert, but I am here for you.

Emunah and Simcha

I learned a lot over these past few days.

I learned about the meaning of Simchos Torah, and the meaning of simcha itself. I learned that I was stronger than I thought, and that I should trust in G-d more. I learned about who and what really mattered at the end of the day- and I learned how to be thankful for these many lessons.

It wasn’t always easy. It was an emotional festival, more so than any of the other yom tovim, but I feel that through the ups and downs of the holiday, through the celebrating and dancing, as well as the tears and doubts, it taught me the true meaning of emunah.

Emunah is loving G-d and His Torah deep down, even at times when it’s difficult to. Emunah is rejoicing in the gift of Torah and mitzvos- but it also leaves room for the natural human doubts and uncertainties. It sounds counter intuitive. How can doubt be a part of faith? Surely it is the antithesis of faith?

But in reality, it’s not so black and white. Emunah doesn’t mean unquestioning, blind faith- at least not to me. It means a sort of faith and love that is so deep rooted that you can afford to question and doubt and wonder and have bad days, without losing your faith.

And this yontiff, I began to realise that for the first time. I realised that loving and rejoicing with the Torah, and being an observant Jew, didn’t mean that I couldn’t have doubts, and that my love for G-d could withstand the trials and tribulations of day to day life. I’m not perfect; there are times when I begin to wonder if orthodoxy really is for me, or if I need to broaden my horizons. And I now know that it’s alright to feel that way, so long as my love for Torah withstands it, and so long as, at the end of the day, after all the ups and downs, I can stand before G-d and thank Him.

Thank You, G-d, for the gift of emunah, and for teaching me how to use it.

Privilege and Perspective

Sometimes, I feel that Sukkos is supposed to teach us gratitude. This isn’t the mainstream interpretation: many believe that the purpose of living in the sukkah is to focus on G-d and remind ourselves that we are at His mercy, while, of course, commemorating the booths which the Israelites lived in after they left Mitzrayim.

But I am a firm believer of the old adage, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”.

Of course, our warm houses, with radiators and soft furniture and- joy of joys!- proper rooves, aren’t gone. We live without them for a week, and then it’s (kind of) back to the normal routine (but hopefully not totally normal, as that would mean we hadn’t learnt anything from living in a sukkah). But to me, it’s still an exercise in gratitude. Are you grateful for your house? Well, live in a hut for a week and then you really will be!

And now for a confession: I didn’t have a sukkah this year.

Of course I went to the shul sukkah. Of course I built a sukkah. But living where I do, having a sukkah at home just wasn’t possible. And perhaps this is why I failed at The Gratitude Test. I try to be honest, and a part of that means that I need to admit that I failed. I bemoaned my “miserable” Sukkos before we even got to Chol Hamoed. Being single, with few friends living nearby, and a largely non observant family, I complained that Sukkos hadn’t been truly joyous, in fact, it had been lonely.

I forgot to thank G-d for the wonderful people I saw on Sukkos, albeit briefly. I forgot to thank Him for my health, my fortune, my relatively privileged life. Until one night, someone delivered some very bad news to me. One of my best friends was very, very ill. She had been to the hospital with the conviction that something was seriously wrong- and she was proven right.

That night, I davened in the sukkah. I davened with a minyan, too, begging G-d to heal her, but when I stepped out to the sukkah, and glanced up at the stars, inhaled the sweet scent of the fruit, I lost my voice. Tears streamed down my face. Tears of worry. Tears of uncertainty. Tears of stress. Tears of “You know what, G-d, this is really unfair because she’s a great person and deserves much better”.

I sat down and I thought. I thought about how lucky I had been this Sukkos, to see my friend before her illness set in. How lucky I was, to be healthy, and, yes, how lucky I was to be sitting here crying and not in some hospital bed. The next day, I made a promise to G-d. He was going to heal my friend, and I was going to be grateful. “She’s been through enough,” I told Him. “Just heal her, already”.

And as I sit by the telephone, waiting, waiting, I know I am going to hear bsuros tovos. And I know that in the future, I’m going to be a lot more grateful.