Inclusivity?

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.

Today, I Forgave

Today, I forgave.
Before I was hurting,
Hurting myself,
Hurting those around me,
Hurting You.
Now I feel free-
Now I realise
That maybe I had been wrong
All along
And even if I wasn’t,
Who cares?
Maybe life is about more
Than right and wrong
Grudges and bitterness
Curses and harsh words.
Maybe it’s no good
My saying you were wrong
Because G-d won’t accept that
When He asks me why I hurt you.
Today I forgave
Not for you
Not for practicality
Not for the sake of it
But for me.
Because the feather on the arrow
I shot at you
Came from the wings of my dreams
The dreams I cast aside
In my haste to show my anger.
At last, I can dream,
With the wind beneath my wings.
At last, we can sit,
And talk of old times.
At last, we are together,
Like one big family.
Today, I forgave,
And now, I am free.

The Power of the Modeh Ani

This morning, it was freezing cold and pitch black when I woke up. The last thing I wanted to do was get up and brave another day, in a life where I had begun to feel increasingly exhausted, run-down and alone. The thought of emails to answer, articles to write, and deadlines to meet filled me with panic; I felt as if concrete blocks were being piled on top of me, except these metaphorical blocks were the trials and responsibilities of life. As my mind started racing, I stopped, and said the Modeh Ani– the prayer which we say as soon as we wake up each morning, thanking G-d for the gift of life.

“I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”

After I said these words, and I went about my day, I started thinking about what exactly they meant. Often, Jewish prayers talk about our faithfulness in G-d. We bless Him and tell Him how great our trust in Him is. But the Modeh Ani turns this around, and we say “Your faithfulness [in us] is great”. In that moment, I was struck by just how inspiring this notion is. We’re reminding ourselves that G-d has faith in us, too; faith to spread light; faith to do mitzvos; faith to get out of that bed, step into the cold, dark world, and make it a better place than it was when we went to sleep last night.

I struggle. Like every human on this earth, there are times when I don’t want to carry on. Times when I err and feel my faith slipping away. Times when, upon waking up to another cold, dark day, I feel unable to go through the motions of productivity and progress. My inner voice tells me to just stay put, to let the world change around me, and my outer voice- my desire to serve G-d- dispels these thoughts with the Modeh Ani. You can do it, I tell myself. You can get up and change the world, because it isn’t going to change without you. G-d created me for a reason, that much I know. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov tells us that the day we were born was the day that G-d decided that the world could not exist without us- and even when I’m at my lowest point, a part of me knows that this is true.

And so, on those bleak, dreary mornings, I’m not going to lie in bed, listening to the rain on the rooftop and contemplating what’s wrong with my life. I’m going to say the Modeh Ani and throw myself into the challenges of the day ahead- because I know that no matter what I come up against, Hashem has faith in me to overcome it, and serve Him with love and trust.

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 Shemos: Exile and Exodus

This week’s parsha is Shemos, the first sedra in the book of Shemos. It always makes me think of Pesach. It’s quite obvious why this connection springs to mind: it’s this week that we begin the story of the exodus from Mitzrayim (Egypt), which we remember at Pesach, and read about in the Haggadah each year. When we read the Haggadah- and, indeed, whenever we reference to the exodus, which we are commanded to teach our children about, we don’t just thank Hashem for taking our ancestors out of Mitzrayim. We thank Him for taking us out of Mitzrayim. Why is this? It seems inconceivable how we, sitting at the Seder table in the year 5778, can have been taken out of Mitzrayim all those years ago. How can that be possible?

The answer is one which I heard in a beautiful sermon some time ago, when I was becoming observant, and has stuck with me ever since. The term Mitzrayim doesn’t just refer to physically being in Egypt. It doesn’t just refer to being in a physical sort of exile. It refers to a personal, emotional, spiritual Mitzrayim; a place so dark and gloomy that we can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel. A place where we feel lost, and alone, while surrounded by people. A place which saps our strength away until we lose the will to live. There’s a point in all our lives where we feel stuck and like we can’t go on. We feel trapped, as if we need a miracle to ever escape. And this is the true meaning of Mitzrayim.

In last week’s Parsha, Vayechi, Yaakov begs his son Yosef to take him out of Mitzrayim. Even though his years there were the best years of his life, materially, and corporeally, he too longed to leave as he knew how spiritually degenerate the place was. And similarly, when we are in our own personal Mitzrayim, we may be blessed with material wealth, or a glamorous lifestyle, or seemingly good connections. Despite this, we have no clue where to turn, and these things only add to our feelings of being misunderstood by the outside world, until we look to Hashem and ask for a miracle.

Sometimes, as in the story of the exodus, Hashem takes us straight out of Mitzrayim- suddenly, miraculously. He splits the sea for us, and leads us across it, drowning our enemies, and opening a new chapter in the book of our lives. We are free. Albeit, free after a struggle which lasted days, weeks, even months. But other times, the miracle at the Red Sea just doesn’t seem to transfer to our personal Mitzrayim. Like Yaakov, we have to beg. We have to plead. And we have to act. It’s hard and painful and seems unfair as we watch others crossing the Red Sea- but it’s all a part of our individual journeys.

Since I started thinking about this, Pesach has started to mean a lot more to me. Most people look forward to Purim- to the Purim shpiel, the gifts of food, the happiness and revelry. But for me, Pesach isn’t just about cleaning. It’s an exodus, a new start. And it gives me a chance to look back on all the other Pesach celebrations or struggles I’ve had in the past, and how I’ve progressed, and it gives me faith that no matter how hard it seems, Hashem will always bring His children out of Mitzrayim.

Forever and Ever

The Day after I told myself I’d stopped believing,
I put on my magen Dovid and davened on the train.
If I didn’t believe,
Why was I risking so much?
Why was I showing my devotion,
In a place where Jews keep Quiet?
Why did I keep on fighting,
After I’d told myself to stop?
As I finished my prayers I said aloud
Two words which gave me all the answers:
L’Olom Voed,
Forever and ever,
Long after my mind had stopped believing,
My soul still cleaved to G-d.
The train rattled forwards,
I closed my siddur,
But I kept my mind open.
I am a Jew. I will always be a Jew-
L’Olom Voed.

I Turned To You

Soft light creeping
Through a crack in a curtain;
A ticking clock
Sitting in the corner-
A sense of blackness,
Darkness,
Bleakness,
And so I turned to You.
Waves washing up
On a sandy beach
Warm air flowing,
Flies buzzing,
A sense of wholeness,
Completeness,
Happiness,
And so I turned to You.
I turn to you with thanks and praise;
Cries and tears;
Sorrow and fear;
I push You away,
I scream at You,
I turn my back,
And yet-
You are always there.
When I return,
Head bowed,
You are always there.
And so, tonight, I turn to You,
Knowing You are there.
I turn to You like a child,
Scared,
Worried,
On the verge of Tears,
Longing for Your embrace.
Harsh words forgotten,
Just memories now,
I can always turn back to You.

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…