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.

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Simcha

Last year, I didn’t want to celebrate Simchos Torah.

I remember it well; sitting on a dark leather couch and wondering how G-d could expect me to be happy when I had lost a beloved relative, mere hours before the festival began. ‘Her soul was rejoicing,’ someone told me later, and although it brought me a relative kind of joy to think of her spending her final days in comfort and happiness, nothing could mend the wound in my heart.

Except time.

Time, great healer of all wounds. I was certain that I could never enjoy the festivals again, not without someone for whom I cared so deeply, but as months passed, I found it easier. I could rejoice without thinking back to that terrible erev Yom Tov; I could smile without wishing she were smiling next to me. But how could I face Simchos Torah ever again?

Today, I’m sitting here, knowing that it is her Yahrzeis tomorrow, and also knowing that as soon as the Yahrzeis ends, I am supposed to be rejoicing. I wondered how I could do it, and then I realised that the answer lay in the one I lost. Throughout the hardships of life, she had overcome sorrow with a relentless joy; with acts of kindness and charity. No matter whom she lost, no matter how she suffered, she was always there for me, always smiling.

This year, I’ve resolved to do the same. This Simchos Torah, I won’t let anything dampen my joy. Because I know that’s what she would have wanted.

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.

Gut Yontiff!

As soon as Yom Kippur finished, many of us began preparing for Sukkos, by building (and in some cases, decorating) the Sukkah, purchasing the four species, and, of course, cooking special meals for the yontiff. Sukkos is an extremely joyous holiday, and after the solemnity of Yom Kippur (and to an extent, Rosh Hashono), the happiness of the festival is especially welcome.

The first and last two days of Sukkos are like Shabbes, on which we may not perform any work. The two exceptions are cooking and carrying, which are permitted if they are necessary. On the intermediate days- chol hamoyed- necessary work is permissible, but generally avoided in favour of taking pleasurable trips.

In London, candles can be lit tonight at 6:13 PM, and after 7:18 PM tomorrow evening. Shabbes starts at 6:09 PM on Friday, and ends at 7:14 PM on Saturday night. 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, Chana bas Mushka and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut yontiff!

What We Learn From the Festivals

Yesterday, I wrote about Sukkos, and how the observances of the holiday teach us to embrace- or at the very least, accept- change, rather than fighting against it. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic, and it’s no coincidence that I’m in a stage of my life where I am experiencing a lot of changes. My lifestyle has evolved more over the past two weeks than it did in the months prior, and I am aware that there are some huge decisions on the horizon.

I start thinking back to New Year’s resolutions of previous years, from before I was frum, back when I used to have one day to make up hasty goals for the year ahead, and I realise that as someone who is frightened of change, and as someone whose life needs to change quite rapidly, I’m blessed to have the Jewish calendar to look to.

It’s not just Sukkos, and the message of transience. It starts much earlier, with selichos- with confessions and regret- and continues through to Rosh Hashono, when we stand in shul for three days, our hopes and prayers for the new year in the forefront of our minds. Of course I think about change. I think about what I’ve done wrong and what I need to change in my life, of the changes I made over the past year and the ones I’m going to make this year.

And then we come to Yom Kippur, almost 26 hours of fasting, davening, and in many cases, weeping, as we beg G-d for atonement, confess our sins and pray to be sealed for a good year. And finally- Sukkos. The big change. The week of living at the mercy of the elements, reminded of G-d’s ability to turn our lives over at any minute. We need to be adaptable, is the message.

A month ago, being adaptable was my biggest weakness. But through the festivals, I’ve started to get used to it. I’ve been given time to meditate upon what I did wrong, time to confess my mistakes, and plenty more time to think about what I’m going to do right this year. Change is in the air- let’s embrace it while we can.

Sukkos and my Fear of Change

It only really hit me this evening just how close we are to Sukkos. I feel a bit overwhelmed; a bit unprepared; but also, I’m looking forwards to the Yom Tov more than I thought I would. Quite frankly, I love Sukkos. It brings joy and memories which I truly appreciate amidst the hectic rush of the other festivals- and it also happens to be endlessly meaningful.

Everything in life is transient- except, of course, for the Torah- but including life itself. As a baalas teshuva, and as someone who seems to experience immeasurable changes on a regular basis in my personal and religious life, I can relate to transience in a truly unique way. In many ways, I feel Sukkos is my festival.

As soon as Yom Kippur ends, we begin building our sukkah, and for a week, we live in it- or at least eat in it- the comforts of our indoor dining table snatched away from us as soon as we’ve recovered from the fast. Then suddenly, Sukkos is over, and we’re taking down the hut we so lovingly constructed, eating indoors again, and counting down the days to the next festival.

It’s a bit of a culture shock to say the least.

And then there’s me. One of my biggest fears is change; one of my biggest obstacles is this fear of change. And as I stood in shul on Yom Kippur, I confessed this sin of resisting change, and I prayed G-d to forgive me and help me. I can’t do it alone, I told Him. And then today, as I sat down to look through the pictures of sukkahs, wondering how I would celebrate the festival, I realised that G-d is sending me a message through the laws of Sukkos.

He’s telling me that it’s okay to be frightened of change. That’s normal. But sometimes, we need to accept it in order to serve Him, and in order to better ourselves. Sukkos is a lesson in accepting not only transcience, and our own reliance on G-d, but also the changes of the world. No matter how hard it rains on our sukkah, the most important things- family, friends, and G-d- lie within our hearts and souls, safe from the forces of the outside world.

Gut Yontiff!

Our Sukkah

One of the last times I saw you
It was beneath the boughs of the sukkah,
With citrus scent hanging in the air,
And the stars shining in our eyes.
And we smiled, sharing a private joke,
As you told me to build you a sukkah.
Of course I said yes: we’d build it together,
But it was not to be.
For that winter I stood at your grave,
Weeping, a slip of paper in one hand,
A stone in the other,
A stone which I laid so tenderly,
Upon the mossy earth,
Beneath which you lay- eyes finally dim.
And I thought of my promise,
When sukkos passed last year,
But I couldn’t find the strength,
So for another year I waited.
Today, I saw you again,
Standing in my mind’s eye,
Surrounded by lanterns and laughter,
As I stood in the sukkah I built.
This year, I did it.
Next year, I’ll do it again.
And it will always be for you.

~ In memory of a beloved friend.