Gut Shabbes! (Tazria-Metzora)

This week, we read about the punishment for loshon hora in the Parsha. Various commentators have written about the importance of this lesson, reminding us that our words can shape other’s emotions and even their destinies. We should always be careful with what we say- about ourselves as well as others. This topic reminds me of when I first became interested in keeping Shabbes. Although, undoubtably, it was the presence of a Shul and a wonderful community which made me look forwards to the day, my own perception of Shabbes- and the way I talked about it- was almost as important.

Rather than bemoaning the day without electronics, shopping or writing, I instead made an effort to tell others of the beauty of Shabbes- even though I admitted I was struggling to keep it. Through both honesty and positivity, I found that Shabbes turned into what I wanted it to be, and I’m thankful to say that to this day, it remains the highlight of my week.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 8:01 PM, and Shabbes ends tomorrow evening at 9:18 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Yaakov ben Avraham, Moshe ben Genya and Chashachana bas Bryna. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Tazria-Metzora: Loshon Hora and Its Effects

This week’s Sedra, Tazria-Metzora, tells us about the tzaraas, a kind of supernatural plague which affects those who engage in the sin of loshon hora (evil speech), along with their homes and belongings. This unsightly growth is linked to loshon hora for a reason. It represents the effect of our speech on others; when we speak negatively about someone, we hurt them, and our words turn into a kind of plague, just like the tzaraas.

When we hear about our real or imagined faults, in a way that does not foster Ahavos Yisroel, and when we hear rumours about ourselves, they plague us and become real. Our words are a self fulfilling prophecy; insulting someone’s intelligence causes them to lose confidence in how clever they are, and thus act unintelligently, fuelling more insults. It’s a cruel cycle, and just like the tzaraas which effected those who spoke negatively, it is painful and humiliating.

A plague isn’t just a physical sickness or blemish, like we read about in this week’s Parsha. It can also be an emotional onslaught. Quite often, it’s our feelings which incapacitate us and make us loathe ourselves. These sorts of feelings are only fuelled by negative speech, which could instead be turned around into empowering speech. Rather than criticising, we should advise. Rather than focussing on shortcomings, we should praise strengths. It’s important not to become haughty or encourage pride, but that doesn’t mean that negative words are constructive or necessary.

The cure for tzaraas is a complex one. The afflicted person must be purified by the Kohen, in a ceremony involving two birds, spring water, cedarwood, scarlet thread, and hyssop. Today, these ingredients aren’t relevant, but loshon hora is. Luckily, there is a much simpler way in which we can repent for our evil speech. In place of a purifying ceremony, we can use purifying words. We can clean up our speech, and we can rectify our wrongs, by changing our behaviour and apologising. Many of us have said things we regret over the past days or weeks; and the tzaraas like effects of our speech may stil be felt by the other party. If we make amends, we can cleanse ourselves and those we have hurt, undoing damage and fostering good relationships.

When we read about the tzaraas this week, we may recoil at it’s description, but we should remember that it is merely a visualisation of loshon hora’s effects. If we decide to purify our speech, we purify not only ourselves, but those around us. And this is the true power of words; when they can either cure or kill, we should always choose to cure with them. In doing so, we honour ourselves, we honour our peers, and we honour Hashem.

The Gift of Life

One morning, I woke up and couldn’t breathe.

In the moments that followed I silently begged G-d to help me, to save me, to return to me the gift I had taken for granted. Those were the most heartfelt prayers I had ever uttered, and when finally I could smell and taste the air again, I cried out to G-d in thanks.

I will never forget this episode as long as I live.

The feeling of choking and spluttering and gasping for air, as my lungs terrifyingly closed up, was not one which will leave me in a hurry. When I began to breathe again, after what felt like hours of asphyxation, I felt sicker than I ever had done before in my life.

But I was alive.

As I recovered I said the morning prayers. Thanking G-d for my soul and body felt especially heartfelt after what had happened to me that morning, following a bout of sickness. I’ve not felt anything like it since, but it taught me a powerful- if terrifying- lesson.

Never take anything for granted.

The Jewish prayers are unique. Our tefillos are unlike those of any other faith. As a baal teshuvah- returnee to Judaism- I’ve been curious about many religions, and have read and explored their liturgies, hymns and prayer offerings. Within many of them, the central theme of thankfulness is present, but I’ve never seen it explored the way it is in Judaism.

In Judaism, thankfulness is before us every moment of our lives. We thank G-d when we wake up and go to sleep; before and after food; when we pray; when we wear new clothing, and even when we go to the bathroom. Life is one long expression of thanks to our Creator, through our words and through our deeds. This unique, constant thankfulness resonates with us all. When you’ve lost something or someone, you are engulfed with greif but aware of what you had. You realise, at last, how precious a gift G-d had given you.

But in Judaism, we don’t wait for loss to say thank you. We say it every day, for reasons not immediately obvious. Because often, these reasons are the most valid of all.

Do All You Can

As Yom HaShoah draws to a close, I ponder once again how we can commemorate such a tragedy.

Over the past twenty four hours, I have read numerous inspirational quotes; gazed upon hundreds of stark images; and sat transfixed as survivors recounted the horror of the Shoah. Amidst this horrifying sea of pictures and words, one quote in particular rises to the top of my mind.

I’m handing it over to you. Do all you can.

The Rebbe zt”l uttered these words, and Chabad.org posted them. Is it a coincidence, I wondered, as I gazed at the sepia picture of the Rebbe and read those ten powerful words. Is it a coincidence that this was posted today, of all days?

It’s not.

Silence speaks a thousand words, as I wrote yesterday. But actions speak even louder. And so, we remember those who suffered and those we lost; those who fought and those who died; and as we vow ‘never again’, we also resolve to act. To do something. To do the right thing. To do all that is within our power to prevent something so horrific from happening again.

Do all you can.

Yom HaShoah

Today is Yom HaShoah.
It’s on this day that we remember the Shoah- the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered simply for being Jewish. These Jews were tortured, taken to concentration camps, gassed. Families were split up, and babies were snatched from mothers’ arms as elderly men and women were forced to dig their own graves, then shot. Amidst all this horror, this unspeakable treachery, humanity seemed to be lacking. Kindness seemed to be nonexistent. The promise of new life, a new start, seemed to vanish before our eyes.
But one thing refused to disappear.
Hope.
We can survive for three weeks without food, and three days without water, but we cannot survive for three seconds without hope. So said a famous Holocaust survivor as he kindled the menorah in Auschwitz. But despite our collective hope for the future, no amount of hopeful words seem to commemorate the Holocaust. How can we respond to such a tragedy? How can we remember it? As we think of the six million who perished, no platitudes seem appropriate.
And so, we mourn in silence.
Silence- a silence heavy with unspoken words. But silence alone is apathy. Silence alone is inadequate. Our silence must be accompanied by a resolve, a sheer, unbeatable resolve. A resolve to never forget. To never let it happen again. And to never lose hope.

Gut Shabbes! (Shemini)

In my dvar Torah for Parshas Shemini, I wrote about the importance of Kashrus. Its purpose,  I wrote, is to elevate the mundane- namely food- into something Holy- a way of serving G-d. And today it occured to me that the very same ‘elevation’ applies to Shabbes.  Before I became observant, Saturday was just another day. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was a day off, but it was actually no different to Sunday or any holiday.

Shabbes changed all that.

It’s no longer just another day. It’s the day I dream about. The day I love and cherish. And, in particularly hard times, it’s the day I live for. I hope that this Shabbes brings you all peace, comfort and light, and truly elevates the end of your week into something special and Holy.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 7:49 PM and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 9:04 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya and Chashachana bas Bryna for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Teshuva

I thank G-d often for the fact that I became observant.

It’s not come without it’s trials. Expenses, new schedules, family feuds, and, yes, countless tears and moments of frustration. There have been days, particularly early on, when I considered giving it all up. When the difficulty of teshuva overwhelmed me and I wished I’d never begun. But the sadness always passed, as I encountered a new miracle and immersed myself again in the beauty of Yiddishkeit.

Sometimes, I still think- “Imagine if I’d never become frum”.

There are people who live their lives without observance; who were taught the Torah in their mother’s womb, never to touch it again. That could’ve been me. But instead I was blessed. Blessed with the kind of wisdom which allows me to recognise how little I know. Blessed with a beautiful and warm community. Blessed with the knowledge that the One Above is watching over me.

Thank you, G-d, for helping me to do teshuva.