Gut Shabbes! (Vayeishev)

As the days get shorter and shorter, and Shabbes starts earlier and earlier, I find myself feeling pressured at the end of each week, trying to prepare for Shabbes in a short space of time, and making hurried arrangements for guests, meal plans and the suchlike. This week, as I was planning for Shabbes, I stopped and thought; perhaps, this isn’t actually what it’s all about.

Shabbes and Chanukah have one thing in common. They’re both about increasing the amount of light in the world. When we light Shabbes candles, and when we light the Chanukiah, we are bringing in holiness and light, and sharing this light with our families, friends, and all of klal Yisroel. As we prepare to celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, remember that Shabbes is about light. And although the external light is important- the light we bring to others when we host them for a Shabbes meal, and the light we spread when we honour Shabbes- let’s not forget the internal light. The miracles we take for granted. We’re alive. We’re breathing. We’re here to celebrate another Shabbes. The preparations can wait for a minute- stop and think about what you’re looking forward to this Shabbes, and what you’re thankful for.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit in London at 3:34 PM, and Shabbes ends at 4:50 PM tomorrow. With gratitude to Hashem, I am happy to announce the birth of a baby girl to two of my dearest friends- please keep her in mind for a refuah shleimah when you are lighting the Shabbes candles. Her name is Tinokes bas Shana Rochel Golda Rus. Also, please remember Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel Yossef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!


Parshas Vayeishev: Good People and Bad Actions

This week’s Parsha, Vayeishev, tells us the famous story of Yosef and his brothers. We learn that Yaakov Avinu loved Yosef more than any of his other sons, and treated him preferentially, giving him a fine coat of many colours. In response, Yosef began to feel superior to his brothers, who hated and envied him for his attitude towards them. We learn from both the texts and the commentaries that Yosef’s brothers had many faults. They hated their fellow Jew- their brother, no less!- in their hearts, plotted against him, and sold him into slavery. They grieved their father, by telling him that his favourite son was dead, and the eldest tried to save Yosef only because he was worried that he would bear the brunt of the punishment. All in all, their behaviour was far from ideal, but when we read the commentaries, we learn that Yosef’s behaviour spoke volumes, too.

It wasn’t just his arrogant behaviour towards his brothers which made Yosef unpopular. He also brought “evil tales” about them to his father. We learn in Pireki d’Rabbeinu haKadosh that “[The Sages said:] Two righteous men were punished on account of the bearing of malevolent reports— Yaakov and Yosef. Because Yosef spoke badly of his brothers, he was incarcerated in prison for 12 years; and because Jacob listened to these reports, the divine spirit departed from him for 22 years. This teaches us that one who speaks negatively of another is punished once, while someone who listens to negative talk about another is twice punished.”

Despite the harshness of the decree against Yosef and Yaakov, I actually find that this story is incredibly uplifting. Why? Because although Yosef and Yaakov both acted “badly” in this instance, they were still good people. They were still tzadikkim. And, yes, they did wrong and were punished but it didn’t mean that they were “evildoers” or bad people. And for someone who struggles a lot with Frumkeit and Yiddishkeit, to see that two of the greatest men in the Torah erred and made mistakes and still came out the other side as highly respected individuals is extremely inspiring.

Of course, this is no excuse for us to speak loshon horo or behave badly, just because Yaakov and Yosef did so, and were eventually forgiven after they had been punished. But it also means that there’s no excuse to give up on oneself just because one has made a huge mistake and treated another wrongly. There’s always time to turn our lives around, right our wrongs, apologise to those we’ve hurt, and lead lives as righteous people- just as Yaakov and Yosef did.

Good Yom Tov!

Tonight, as we celebrate Yud Tes Kislev- the Rosh Hashono of Chassidism- we remember the liberation of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, from imprisonment in Czarist Russia, and the subsequent strengthening of the Chabad movement, as the Rebbe redoubled his efforts to spread Chassidic teachings, and make them accessible to everyone.

Out of all of the special days on the Jewish calendar, Yud Tes Kislev speaks to me the most. There’s something so inspiring about the Alter Rebbe’s story- in a way, it appeals directly to my emotions and my Jewish journey. When I first became interested in Judaism, and decided to become frum, I found myself held back by my family and living situation. I was very much ‘imprisoned’, and I found it really hard to do the things I wanted to do. Spiritually, I was weakened by the negative influences around me.

During this difficult time, I read about the Alter Rebbe, and I learned that after his imprisonment, he didn’t back down; instead, he upped his game, and started working harder than ever to spread Jewish knowledge. The more I thought about it, the more inspired I felt. It was on Yud Tes Kislev last year that I received news which changed my life, and I decided straightaway that this was no mere coincidence. It was Hasgocho Protis.

Last Yud Tes Kislev, my life turned around, just as the Alter Rebbe’s had, so many years before me. And this year, as I look back over what I’ve been through, I daven that all those people who, like me, are held back by their circumstances, and find themselves spiritually ‘imprisoned’, witness the sort of miracle which Hashem bestowed upon me, and find the strength to continue their Jewish journey. May this be the Divine will, and may we merit to welcome the Moshiach, speedily and in our days!





The Key

I remember sitting
In an antiseptic hall
Staring through the skylight
Wondering how I could get out.
Much later I got out
Of that very same room,
Not through the door;
Not through the window;
Certainly not through the roof.
The way out lay in my hands-
I held the key to another world:
The key to the Heavens above.
It’s not a metal key-
It doesn’t shine and glimmer.
It’s large, flat, leather bound,
We tend to call it a prayer book.
But it’s more than that.
It’s my refuge.
My happy place.
My key.
I unlock the door to Shamayim,
I let my words flow freely.
I am alone with the One Above,
The One I love,
The One who listens,
As I sit,
In the antiseptic hall.
Clock ticking,
Minds whirring,
Life carrying on all around me.
But I don’t move.
I stay fixed.
For in my hand, I hold the key.

Doing Chanukah Differently

Those of you who use social media are probably inundated with Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and witty tweets capturing the magic of Chanukah. Between recipes, adverts, and countless photos of other people’s cooking, it’s easy to feel panicked by the rapidly approaching holiday. But maybe, you don’t have to feel this way.

Every year, I say the same things to myself. This year, I won’t run myself into debt buying Chanukah gifts and food. This year, I won’t worry about the little things like menus and table decorations. This year, I’ll appreciate the fact that Chanukah is a meaningful holiday and not simply synonymous with gifts and food. And every year, I find myself running around like a headless chicken, tearing my hair out over how much money I’ve spent and the fact that all the other women on Facebook have already started cooking for *next* Chanukah and here I am without even a menu plan to my name.

Then this year, I decided that I was going to start doing Chanukah differently.

I looked at what had made the previous Chanukahs so difficult- miserable, even- for me. I think I spent too much money trying to win the affection of those around me, I realised. Chanukah isn’t really about gifts, and I was attempting to use gifts to make my family and friends choose Chanukah over the “other December holiday”, perhaps even trying to get them to like me more.

Then there was the food. All the time spent cooking “traditional” dishes which my family didn’t actually like. Day after day, year after year, they pushed my latkes around their plates before discreetly throwing them away, on top of whatever else it was I had laboured over in the hope that just this once, we’d have a “proper Chanukah”.

It followed the same pattern every year. I would begin Chanukah super organised, telling myself that this year, it would all go according to plan and I would have a happy family and a perfect Chanukah. By day three, I would have given up on the whole idea and spend the rest of the week alone, often in bed, crying about how it “all went wrong”. Some people just don’t learn. Until this year. This year, I learnt.

I learnt that no matter how much money I spend, it’s up to my family and friends whether or not they want to celebrate Chanukah. It’s no good plying people with gifts in an attempt to change their minds. I learnt that it wasn’t my job to prepare beautiful traditional dishes like the other women on Facebook did, if it came at the cost of shalom bayis and my own happiness. And above all, I learnt that a large part of my enjoyment of Chanukah came from who I spent it with.

When I cut my Chanukah gift budget in half, I also cut off the people who made the holiday stressful. Because, despite the number of times I told myself that true happiness came from within, and that Chanukah isn’t supposed to be this materialistic, I realised that it’s pretty much impossible to be happy when your efforts are being thrown back in your face. And when I took this step, and made plans with genuinely good people, I found that for the first time in my life I was genuinely looking forward to Chanukah.

Next week, you’ll find me with the people who truly care, as I look into the flickering lights of the Menorah and realise how lucky I am. Because even though Chanukah commemorates a certain miracle of oil, there’s no reason why I can’t recall the other miracles in my life- including the fact that this year, I won’t have to make latkes…

On ‘One of Us’

Earlier today, I read an interesting piece about films such as One of Us, which showcase the stories of individuals who have been mistreated by- and subsequently left- Chareidi communities. The article argued that these films, and television programs such as Extreme Wives (which documented the lives of Orthodox Jewish wives) do not present a realistic image of frum communities, and portray Chareidim in an unfairly negative light, while ignoring the issues faced by Jews in the secular world.

Responding to the article, I wrote that I was, in fact, willing to see frum Jews such as myself portrayed in this way, if and only if these films do something to help those victims who are suffering as a result of the Chareidi community’s attitudes towards abuse. I detest the “sweep it under the rug” attitude, and, unfortunately, it is rampant among frum community leaders. Abuse is hidden and victims are told not to go to the police, and often, as shown in One of Us, victims end up losing their children to an unfair legal system.

If the choice is between focusing on the negative points of Chareidim, and sweeping abuse under the rug, I will always choose the former. But the article led me to wonder… will these films actually help those who are suffering? Will they force the rabbonim to tackle abuse, help those in bad situations, and stop covering up for powerful people who acts disgracefully? I unfortunately feel that the answer is no. Although it’s all well and good to give a platform for survivors to share their stories, true change must come from within the community- and I fear that perhaps these documentaries will do little or nothing to help change community attitudes.

Gut Shabbes! (Vayishloch)

Next Thursday, we commemorate Yud Tes Kislev- 19th Kislev- known as the new year of Chassidism. The day marks the Alter Rebbe’s release from captivity in Russia, and with his freedom came a rebirth of sorts for the Chassidic movement, which strengthened and flourished following the event, becoming more “down-to-earth” and accessible to the ordinary person.

But the growth of Chassidism didn’t stop there, of course. It continued with the efforts of the following Rebbes, especially the Rebbe zt”l, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who implemented the Chabad house system, providing Jews around the world with a “home from home”, as well as starting initiatives for widespread kiruv and ahavos Yisroel.

Today, I am frequently asked who the leader of the Chabad movement is. Some say the Rebbe still leads us, for his spirit lives on long after his neshomo has ascended to Gan Eyden. And while this is true, I would like to suggest that you- the person reading this- are the leader of the Chabad movement. You, and every single Jew around you, is a leader with massive potential and a spark of Moshe Rabbenu in your soul. This Yud Tes Kislev, let’s utilise this potential, and lead the Jewish people towards Moshiach, may he come speedily and in our days.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:37 PM in London, and Shabbes ends at 4:51 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Chana bas Mushka for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!