The Rebbetzen

Today is the Yahrzeis of the Lubavitcher Rebbetzin.

When I first came to Judaism, and began exploring the texts and traditions which I would later immerse myself in, I was isolated from the Jewish community. I had no connections to the people and places which I would later stumble across on my journey; all I had was books and the Internet and a desire to learn. What I was really lacking was a Jewish role model- and then I came across the Rebbetzen.

Of course, I never got to meet this amazing, strong, inspirational woman, who died years before I was born. But as I discovered more and more about her, the more fascinated I became. I remember a story about how she saved a man’s life, by pushing him out of the way of an explosion, and when lauded for this act, she simply responded, “True, but I pushed another Jew, and for that, one must do teshuva”. Her selflessness shone through her words and deeds, and I found myself longing to be like her.

The Rebbetzen changed the world through kindness. She quietly touched hearts and minds by making everyone feel like a close, personal friend of hers; no matter who they were or what they believed in. And later, while many of my peers began to carry pictures of the Rebbe, I secretly wanted a picture of the Rebbetzen- something I never found, perhaps because of her distaste for the limelight.

Since then, I have been zoche to meet and be influenced by a number of amazing Rebbetzens. But on Rebbetzen Chaya Mushka’s yahrzeis today, a part of me still wishes I could have met her.

The Dark Side of Social Media

There’s a definite downside to being good with social media. You get to see all the things you’re not supposed to see; the pictures of your friends having a laugh together, all those times they “forgot” to invite you, the beautiful women your ex “likes” photos of on Facebook, the women you compare yourself to on a daily basis without their- or his- knowledge, because you know what buttons to press, what keys to click, to trigger that magical formula and see the things you’re not supposed to see. Photos hidden from timelines. Photos someone liked in 2016. Photos from people who- with good reason- aren’t your friends.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say that social media is a little invasive.

Normally, when I conduct these sort of searches, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for invading someone else’s privacy- whether it’s that of an ex, a fake friend, a potential partner or some girl I’ve never even met. I sometimes think about the halachos of this sort of thing, and wonder if my social media searches are ‘kosher’, so to speak, or if I’m breaking laws about privacy and respect- things which are very important in halacha.

But today, I felt a different sort of guilty. I felt guilty for what I was doing to myself. I tell myself that I’d sooner know the truth about all those times my friends excluded me, saying I probably wouldn’t enjoy whatever they’d planned, and that there’s no harm in scrolling through the photos of other girls which he has liked on Facebook. It’s just some harmless fun, they’re none the wiser- who’s hurt by it? The answer is: I am. My hobby (or perhaps addiction) has become a way of hurting myself over and over again, presenting my consciousness with a series of images with no context, torturing myself with fictitious stories of how, why and when, and leaving me feeling emotionally battered and bruised, even more unpopular than I was before I started searching.

I’m not one of those people who thinks social media is totally evil. Actually, I quite like it, and before I learned how to unearth all those things I wasn’t supposed to see, I think it did good things for me. It’s a place for me to share articles, thoughts, divrei Torah, and photos. It’s a way to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and keep in touch with some of my favourite people on earth. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel thankful for the beautiful photos, inspiration and messages I receive from the select few who make the whole going online thing worthwhile.

But then I come back to the point I made earlier, about privacy and respect in Jewish tradition and law. One of the most famous Jewish prayers is called Ma Tovu, meaning “How good”. Many have the minhag to recite this prayer upon entering a Shul, and growing up, despite my lack of Jewish education, I remember learning how to sing the prayer in the tradition of many Liberal and Reform shuls. The text of Ma Tovu begins with a line from Parshas Balak, which reads “How good are your tents, oh Yaakov, your dwelling places, oh Israel!”, before continuing with quotations from Tehillim.

Quite often, this raises a question: what was so good about the tents and dwelling places of the Israelites?

The answer is pretty simple. The tents were positioned as to give their occupants privacy, carefully aligning the openings so that inquisitive neighbours- the Israelite equivalent, perhaps, of me sitting in front of the computer, conducting Facebook searches on people who’d really rather be left alone- couldn’t see in. This was admirable, as it gave a sense of privacy and dignity to the Chosen People, which is why we laud their tents with lavish praise.

But today, I started thinking about the flip side of this issue. I think curiosity is a part of the human nature; we all have that underlying desire to know what’s going on in other’s lives, starting with reading our sibling’s diaries, and gradually progressing to stalking our exes on Facebook and Instagram (unless that’s just me). And consequently, I think that the set-up of the Israelite tents, so that prying eyes were physically unable to see in, was really rather clever. It didn’t just protect those who were inside- it protected the outsiders, too, from seeing things they weren’t supposed to see.

In many ways, social media is the opposite. What seemed like a blessing- my ability to find anyone and anything on Facebook- actually turned out to be a curse, as there was very little in place to protect myself- let alone the other person- from what I was doing. I think that in the back of my mind, I’ve known this for a long time, but it only came to the forefront of my consciousness today, when I saw a post from a Rabbi I follow (I may or may not be adding this in to prove that I use social media for “good” things, too), entitled “The Grass is Greener & Social Media”. He spoke about how his neighbour’s grass seems much greener than his, and it stays that way all year round, for the simple reason that it’s artificial. It’s the shrubbery equivalent of the Instagram filters and Snapchat stickers we use to mask our realities- the filters which I can spot from a mile away and yet which still fool me.

A few moments before I read his article, I’d been conducting those addictive Facebook searches, only to find a picture which upset me deeply, showing several of my friends at an event I hadn’t been invited to. And I commented on the rabbi’s insightful, thoughtful piece that I’d just been thinking about exactly the same topic, not realising that mere hours later I’d be revealing my social media habits to the whole wide world. Simply put, I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in hashgocho protis- Divine providence. I think that these events collided for a very good reason, sending me a signal too strong to ignore. Maybe I’ve seen enough. Maybe it’s time to stop. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need to chase after things which will never be mine, because I’m only making myself sadder and lonelier, and tearing myself away from those who truly care.

If all those years of saying “Mah Tovu ohelacha Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisroel,” taught me anything, it’s that sometimes, privacy can be a good thing. Not just for those who are shielded by it, but for those who go searching. Those who, like me, will inevitably see things that make them wish they hadn’t started looking in the first place.

Unity

I rarely post about Chabad on this blog. Over time, I seem to be writing about Chabad and Halachically less and less and focusing more on my own thoughts and experiences. But mostly, I write about what inspires me- and this inspired me.

In the face of division – and when I use that word I include both the Reform rabbis bashing Orthodoxy, and the Frum rabbis throwing people out of communities- gatherings such as this one are a truly beautiful response.

http://www.chabad.org/news/article_cdo/aid/3933011/jewish/3000-Women-to-Honor-30th-Anniversary-of-Rebbetzins-Passing.htm#utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fb_news

I don’t think that the Rebbetzin OBM would be particularly pleased by many of the things seen in frum communities today. But I think that she is looking upon these amazing women from shamayim with the utmost pride.

On Treating Others Kindly

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On days like today, this quote comes as a timely reminder.

It’s not always easy to treat others as we want to be treated. On the contrary, I think that human nature quite regularly leaves us feeling vengeful and angry. We retaliate against those who have hurt us, continuing a cycle of hurt, with each person feeling like the injured party, and the cycle doesn’t stop until one person has the insight to see what is happening and pull away.

When I was being hurt or mistreated, I used to find myself reacting in one of two ways. I usually either retaliated, and tried to get revenge on the person who hurt me- leaving myself feeling angry and upset, and perhaps liable to do something I’d later regret- or else I’d sit there silently and take it, allowing people to walk all over me, without acknowledging their abuse or asking them to mend my ways.

After I started working on this mitzvah, I found that it was harder than I thought to treat others the way I wanted to be treated. I didn’t want people to allow me to hurt them, and nor did I want to be hurt, but finding a way to react to conflict which didn’t endorse either response was difficult.

Nowadays, when I am hurting, I evaluate my relationship with someone. I ask myself if they are a part of my life; if they make me feel good; if I truly like them; and if they elevate me spiritually. If they do, I try to use dialogue to work through these issues. I explain that I’m hurt, rather than seething silently, and if necessary, I ask for someone else’s advice. If they don’t do any of those things, though, and they simply make me feel nervous or unhappy, I try to disengage.

Pulling away from a negative influence is terribly difficult. They might be a relative, or someone I love despite their bad behaviour; or maybe I’m just used to associating with them. But I try to remember this quote and I know that as long as I let myself be drained and hurt by bad people, I won’t be able to be “good in the eyes of my fellow man”.

The journey to contentment is a long one, and I’m by no means there yet. But whenever I visualise this quote, and act on it, I find myself a step closer to my goal.

Gut Shabbes! (Yisro)

In Parshas Yisro, we read about Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law, Yisro. Up until now, Moshe Rabbenu had dealt with all of the disputes and legal cases which the Israelites sought advice on- despite the fact that there were several million of them. Needless to say, this consumed almost the entirety of his time, and he spent most of the day standing, listening to quarrels and arguments and questions. Moshe Rabbenu loved his people- but his father-in-law knew that this had to stop.

And so, he told Moshe to appoint judges and councillors over the people- wise men who would judge these cases, and if they couldn’t solve a dilemma, only then would it be brought to Moshe Rabbenu. The message was quite simple: you shouldn’t face life alone. We know this from the Creation story itself, and the oft-repeated phrase, “man was not made to be alone”. Part of the reason why there is so much emphasis on marriage in the Jewish world is because we believe that G-d intended for people to face the troubles and the triumphs of life with a partner; someone who truly cares.

A couple of years ago, I heard a beautiful sermon which has stayed in my mind ever since. Quite often, we hear difficult relationships described as being like a rollercoaster. But in fact, life is a rollercoaster, and that isn’t meant in a negative way; essentially, just like a rollercoaster moving along a track, life has both exhilarating highs and terrifying pitfalls. And if you’re on a rollercoaster alone, those pitfalls can be very scary; but if you’re with someone else, someone who you love, then not only are the highs that much more joyous, but you have someone to depend on when the rollercoaster shoots downwards.

Life truly is a rollercoaster- and may we all merit to find that special someone who makes the journey so much more beautiful.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:34 PM tonight, and Shabbes goes out at 5:46 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Chashachana bas Bryna and Chaya bas Perrel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Yisro: Reading the Commandments

In this week’s Parsha, Yisro, we read about the Asares HaDibros, the Ten Commandments which make up perhaps the best known part of the entire Torah. These ten laws, inscribed upon the two tablets which Moshe Rabbenu brought down from Sinai, form basic moral guidelines which almost everyone is familiar with; even those who had no Jewish education. But the commandments aren’t quite as simple as that; when we look to the wisdom of the Chazal, we find out that the two tablets actually contain a little known secret.

To discover this secret, we simply read the two tablets horizontally, as opposed to looking at one tablet at a time. When we do this, we are left with five pairings of commandments, each providing us with both a mitzvah and a reason for it. If this doesn’t make much sense, we need only look at these five pairs to understand what the Midrash is trying to tell us.

The very first commandment- telling us that Hashem is the L-rd our G-d- is paired with the sixth commandment, prohibiting murder. The Chazal teach us that this is because each human being is created in G-d’s image, and is deserving of love and respect. If we are to murder another human being, we are essentially murdering G-d. Then we have the second pair, containing two negative commandments; the prohibitions against idolatry and adultery. This teaches us that marriage is a Holy union, and when we transgress its boundaries, our actions are akin to idolatry.

The third pair is very similar to the first- it contains the prohibitions against taking G-d’s name in vain and stealing. Just as murdering someone is an affront to G-d, as a murderer destroys one of His precious creations, stealing from someone shows a lack of respect and love, and we know that when we treat our fellow man this way, we hurt G-d too, as if we have used His name in vain. The fourth and ninth commandments are also paired together, telling us that keeping Shabbes is a testimony to the Creation story, and G-d’s soevreignty over the world. This is why we stand when we make Kiddush; we stand as witnesses before G-d, and his Creation of the seventh day, and by breaking Shabbes, we are essentially bearing false witness.

Finally, we are left with the fifth commandment- honouring parents- and the tenth, which tells us not to covet our neighbour’s belongings. The Midrash tells us that just as the reward for honouring parents is long life, the punishment for not doing so is to raise children who turn away from their parents and act jealously- coveting, as we are commanded not to do in the tenth commandment.

As we read about these pairings of the Commandments, one message is repeated time after time; in order to honour G-d, we must honour those around us, and treat them with the respect and kindness they deserve. After all, every human being is one of G-d’s creations, and we can never truly serve Him if we are hurting those around us.

Tikkun Olam and Tu B’Shevat

Today is Tu b’Shevat- Rosh Hashono for trees- a day on which we remember the intrinsic importance of nature in Jewish teachings. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai famously taught that “If you have a sapling in your hand and someone tells you Moshiach has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome Moshiach”- a statement which reminds us just how important it is to look after the world we live in.

In honour of this day, I’d like to share the following words, courtesy of Chief Rabbi Mirvis.

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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.

Can Men and Women be Friends?

This morning, my Facebook feed is clogged up with repeated posts of this video about why men and women shouldn’t be friends.

I just want to make it clear that I support everyone’s right to follow their own hashkofo- whether or not that means having friends of the opposite gender- but I have to say that I feel that using this as a marker of who’s frum and who isn’t is patently quite ridiculous.

I have friends from all across the frumkeit spectrum. This includes reform and non-observant Jews, modern Orthodox people and Chareidim (and, yes, non-Jews). I have also had numerous encounters with very frum men from Chassidishe communities who aren’t allowed to be friends with women. These (married) men resort to getting secret smartphones and Facebook accounts, which they use to chat with young, usually single, women, such as myself. Others go a step further and send unsolicited explicit photos, and- unfortunately- I’ve known quite a few who have gone a step further in their harassment of women.

And this leads me to wonder. Is this strict separation actually in our best interests? Does it really lead to tznius and propriety?

By separating men and women from young ages, and teaching that the two genders can’t be friends, we sexualise women and girls. We teach young men that women are only good for one thing- perhaps two if you include homemaking. And in many cases, this leads to an extremely skewed outlook on the part of Chassidishe men.

I’m not saying that all ultra-Orthodox men treat women improperly. Far from it- I, personally, know many Chareidi men who treat their wives, and other women, with the utmost respect. But I am saying that this attitude of separation breeds some rather unhealthy results, results which I have experienced first hand with the hundreds of ‘Chassidishe’ men who have sent me unsolicited, sexual messages.

So what am I trying to say, exactly?

I’m not demanding that Chassidishe men are forced to befriend random women. I’m not trying to say that all frum men see women as sex objects, or that all modern Orthodox and Reform men have a perfect attitude. But I am questioning the prevalent attitude that those- such as myself- with friends of the opposite gender are less frum. I feel personally attacked by this suggestion, because through having male friends (who I happen to practice boundaries with), I’ve managed to avoid the sexist and demeaning attitude found in many communities.

I’m not asking anyone to change the way they live their life, but I am asking them to respect the way I choose to live mine. Maybe, at the end of the day, we’ll find out that I wasn’t so flawed after all.

The Eyes of the Community

“Rabbis and scholars are called the “eyes of the community” and “heads of the thousands of Israel”; and when the head is healthy, the body is then also healthy.

–Hayom Yom, 23 Adar I”

This quotation from the Hayom Yom, which I came across on Chabad.org today, helps us to understand the true role of rabbonim, dayanim and the leaders of yeshivos. Unlike many, I have never followed the route of blind faith in community leaders: too many times, they have failed their communities by refusing to protect women and children who are being abused, shunning those with questions and concerns, and sweeping very real problems under the rug.

Instead, I like to think that the metaphor of rabbonim as the head, and the community as the body, tells us that we have a right to question what they say, and reminds us that what’s in our soul is more important than what’s in any book or community notice. Although we know from the Shulchan Aruch that we need to respect and honour rabbis, this respect is only awarded to those who deserve it. Like thoughts in our head, we should not give a platform to those who spread hatred or division.

The Hayom Yom tells us that the spirit and welfare of the community is dependant upon good leadership- and similarly, poor leadership tears people apart rather than brining them together. Although rabbonim may be the at the “head” of the community, we all need to follow our hearts and souls as well, and never give in to extremism or hateful leaders.