In this week’s Parsha, we learn about lending money. Not only are we obligated to lend money to someone in need of a loan, but it is in fact considered a form of tzedekah. Donating money to someone, enabling them to get through the day and put food on the table is a huge mitzvah; but enabling them to help themself is even more important. This is where loans come in; although it may be easier to drop coins in a box, or give a one-time monetary gift, a loan allows someone to change their life independently, and hopefully end up in a position where they can repay you, as opposed to feeling dependant on the gifts and whims of others.
The Parsha reminds us not to ‘act as a creditor’ towards people who owe us money; no matter how much we want our money back, we can’t harass the person we loaned money to. The whole point of granting a loan is to help others, and not to help ourselves benefit financially. For this reason, charging interest is forbidden. This mindset doesn’t just apply to loans. It should apply to all the acts of kindness we do in our lives. We shouldn’t help others expecting something in return, whether it’s money, power or their gratitude. Instead, we should remember the laws of giving loans, and give with the aim of empowering others and pleasing G-d. After all, when we make G-d’s creations happy, we make Him happy too…
In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:46 PM tonight, and Shabbes goes out at 5:58 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Soroh Malka, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Chaya bas Perrel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!
Think back to the last time you felt out of place. Maybe it was your first day at a new job, or in a new shul. Perhaps it was when you went on holiday and realised your mastery of the native language wasn’t quite what you thought it was. Or possibly, it was somewhere where you shouldn’t have felt like a stranger at all- maybe you were among friends or family who are supposed to include you, and yet you still felt like the odd one out.
For me, I don’t need to go too far back to remember the last time I felt like a stranger. To tell the truth, I have spent my whole life battling with feeling like a black sheep, something which I have written about extensively in my articles about feeling unwanted. In many ways, being- or feeling like you are- unwanted and unloved is quite similar to being a stranger, and so this week’s Parsha, Mishpotim, speaks to me in a truly unique way.
In the past, I have been privileged to write and teach about Parshas Mishpotim, and each and every time I am equally taken aback by the verse, “You shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the feelings of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim”. I don’t quite have the words to describe how much this means to me. The imperative to remember the slavery in Mitzrayim doesn’t just apply to the generation who were enslaved there: it applies to each and every one of us, for as we remember in the seder each year, it was not just our ancestors who were freed from slavery, but us ourselves and all the generations to follow. And in the context of this week’s Parsha, I truly believe that the reminder of slavery and the exodus is meant to teach us empathy. It’s one thing to tell a people not to oppress strangers, but it’s another to remind them that they, too, were strangers not so long ago, and have no right to treat anyone as if they’re inferior simply because they’re new or different.
If you’re having trouble envisaging slavery in Mitzrayim, just return to the example which sprung to mind in the first paragraph of this article. Remember that time you felt lost. Alone. Out of place. You, too, were a stranger, and you likely felt an uncertainty and pain, longing for someone to alleviate your suffering by extending the hand of friendship. And that’s exactly what the Torah is telling us to do, rather than allowing prejudice or self preservation to cloud our moral judgement and allow us to mistreat somebody simply because we can.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about inclusion and welcoming strangers. Evidently, this topic hits close to home for me: but this time, I’d like to incorporate the teachings from the previous verses in Parshas Mishpotim. We are taught, “If you see the donkey of your enemy collapsing under its burden, and are inclined to desist from helping him, you shall surely help along with him”. For many of us today, this doesn’t immediately seem relevant, as we tend to live in big cities and are unlikely to encounter donkeys, but in fact it ties in closely with the teaching about the stranger.
Too many times, strangers are shunned due to fear and ignorance. We, as humans, naturally fear the unknown- that’s why so many are scared of the dark- but with this comes a common prejudice against people who are unlike us. We feel inclined to shut them out and make an enemy of them, and just like the man refusing to help his enemy’s donkey, we justify our refusal to help the stranger with our vilification of him. Too quickly, the stranger becomes the enemy and we have an excuse not to help him.
The Torah warns us that no matter our own personal fears and feelings, we are obliged to help another in need. After all, we have all been strangers at one time or another, and we owe it to those who helped us- and G-d Himself- to reach out to strangers and make friends, not enemies.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.