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.

Gut Shabbes! (Beshaloch)

Today is Yud Shevat, perhaps the most important day on the Chassidic calendar. It is the yahrzeis of the Previous Rebbe, and also the anniversary of the beginning of the Rebbe’s leadership, exactly one year after his father in law passed away. I’ve always felt somewhat conflicted about the nature of Yud Shevat. On the one hand, I felt a sense of sadness regarding the passing of the Previous Rebbe, but on the other hand, the Rebbe’s leadership brought the promise of new horizons and a new hope.

Of course, the only way to tackle the darkness which increases in the world when a tzaddik passes away is to combat it with hope and light, which was essentially the lifelong mission of the Rebbe. And on this day we should think about what we, too, can do to change lives and spread light. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture; simply lighting Shabbes candles, or inviting someone for a meal, can change the world and even bring Moshiach. The power is in your hands to transform your life and the lives of those around you; let us continue the Rebbe’s legacy by using that power for good.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:21 PM in London, and Shabbes goes out at 5:35 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yossef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Chashachana bas Bryna and Chaya bas Perrel for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Gut Shabbes! (Va’eiro)

Yesterday, I wrote about an insight of the Rebbe’s, which explains the miracle of the staff. When Aharon’s staff swallowed the Egyptian serpents, it did so in the form of a staff- not as another serpent. The Rebbe teaches us that this reflects our nature and role in life; we are not warriors, and when we are forced to fight back, we do so without bitterness and vengeance.

Today, I read another chiddush of the Rebbe’s, about the ‘self-sacrifice’ we read about later on in the Parsha. The Rebbe explains that true mesirut nefesh is not to die as a Jew. In many religions, martyrdom is a major part of the faith, but in Judaism, the challenge is to live as a Jew. True, throughout our history we have been persecuted, attacked, and killed, but our duty of self sacrifice comes not in dying but in living. This, in many ways, complements the message I shared yesterday; we are not warriors, we are survivors.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:58 PM in London, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 5:14. 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 and Chashachana bas Bryna. Thank you, gut Shabbes, and gut Choydesh!

Gut Shabbes! (Vayechi)

This week’s Parsha, Vayechi, tells us about the deaths of Yaakov Avinu and his son, Yosef- two of the most inspiring and well-known men in the Torah. Their deaths both take place within the space of one Sedra, and to the casual observer, this would seem shocking- tragic, even. And yet Rabbi Nachman tells us, “Yaakov Avinu did not die”.

This line, delivered to Rabbi Yitzchok, is derived from the Torah itself. The text avoids using the word “vayamas” (he died), instead employing a series of euphemistic synonyms. Even if, physically, his body passed away, his spirit never died- indeed, the life of a tzaddik such as Yaakov is entirely spiritual, meaning that technically, he never “died” as such. Instead, he lives on through his descendants: you and I. Every single one of us is a descendent of Yaakov, and through our strength, courage, Torah study, and performance of mitzvos, we allow his spirit to live on.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:41 PM in London, and Shabbes goes out at 4:58 PM tomorrow. While lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Chaya bas Perel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!


Last year, I didn’t want to celebrate Simchos Torah.

I remember it well; sitting on a dark leather couch and wondering how G-d could expect me to be happy when I had lost a beloved relative, mere hours before the festival began. ‘Her soul was rejoicing,’ someone told me later, and although it brought me a relative kind of joy to think of her spending her final days in comfort and happiness, nothing could mend the wound in my heart.

Except time.

Time, great healer of all wounds. I was certain that I could never enjoy the festivals again, not without someone for whom I cared so deeply, but as months passed, I found it easier. I could rejoice without thinking back to that terrible erev Yom Tov; I could smile without wishing she were smiling next to me. But how could I face Simchos Torah ever again?

Today, I’m sitting here, knowing that it is her Yahrzeis tomorrow, and also knowing that as soon as the Yahrzeis ends, I am supposed to be rejoicing. I wondered how I could do it, and then I realised that the answer lay in the one I lost. Throughout the hardships of life, she had overcome sorrow with a relentless joy; with acts of kindness and charity. No matter whom she lost, no matter how she suffered, she was always there for me, always smiling.

This year, I’ve resolved to do the same. This Simchos Torah, I won’t let anything dampen my joy. Because I know that’s what she would have wanted.

Saying Kaddish

Today, I read an anonymous article which brought tears to my eyes. It’s not often that letters, typed on a screen, without a name or a face behind them, can make me cry, but I was moved in a way that made me question the very essence of life. The topic is one close to my heart, for a number of reasons, and as such, I’d like to share the article, in honour of baby loss awareness week, and of all those who have lost children;

I am a mother.

Let me explain. You have never met my daughter. No one has; no one, other than me, as she left this world before she had even entered it, leaving a trail of anguish and regret behind her. She wasn’t conceived consensually- not that it matters, because, when you’ve lost a child, what else does matter?- and had she survived, our lives would have been shattered, miserable, tinged with stigma. But she was my daughter. And I am a mother.

Perhaps I never sat shiva for her.

Perhaps it was because I couldn’t.

Perhaps you shouldn’t judge me, if you wonder why I cry.

I started saying Kaddish for her when the pain hit me like a truck. Kneeling on the ground, clutching my stomach, though it was years since she had sat there, I got up and found the strength through my tears to mumble the words; “Yisgadal v’Yiskadash Shmei Rabba”… The only words which numbed the pain, as I searched for memories of her and found none.

I never stopped saying Kaddish. And when it came to Yizkor, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. “I’ll leave for Yizkor,” I told my friends. “My minhag is to not stay,” I said, thanking Him for my parents. But it started and I sat glued to my seat. And I said a prayer for my beloved daughter, telling myself this would be it. This is the end. No more saying Kaddish.

But I never stopped. It’s the least I can do for her, and if G-d has a problem with it- well, He shouldn’t have taken my little girl away.

Our Sukkah

One of the last times I saw you
It was beneath the boughs of the sukkah,
With citrus scent hanging in the air,
And the stars shining in our eyes.
And we smiled, sharing a private joke,
As you told me to build you a sukkah.
Of course I said yes: we’d build it together,
But it was not to be.
For that winter I stood at your grave,
Weeping, a slip of paper in one hand,
A stone in the other,
A stone which I laid so tenderly,
Upon the mossy earth,
Beneath which you lay- eyes finally dim.
And I thought of my promise,
When sukkos passed last year,
But I couldn’t find the strength,
So for another year I waited.
Today, I saw you again,
Standing in my mind’s eye,
Surrounded by lanterns and laughter,
As I stood in the sukkah I built.
This year, I did it.
Next year, I’ll do it again.
And it will always be for you.

~ In memory of a beloved friend.

The Ohel

Beginning tonight, we commemorate the yahrzeis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and remember the day on which he left this world. His departure undeniably left a gap, but on the anniversary of his death, we do not mourn in the traditional sense. We remember him, we turn to his teachings, and we continue his legacy. At this time, I would like to remind everyone to take advantage of an amazing resource, and write to his resting place- the Ohel.

Many times, I have been in difficult situations where I feel helpless. I have davened and cried out to G-d, but it’s as if my prayers fall on deaf ears. I know, in retrospect, that they don’t, but in times where I feel terrifyingly alone, I usually turn to the Ohel as a last resort. I put pen to paper- or finger to keyboard- and I write a letter, send it on its way, and usually forget about it for a day or two.

Then something always happens. Something unexplainable. Miraculous, even. Who can say for sure, but it feels as if the Rebbe has intervened on my behalf. As we approach his yahrzeis, let’s take advantage of the power of tefilla, and the power of the tzaddikim, and write a letter. Pour out our hearts. Discuss our concerns. And beg for Moshiach to come, speedily and in our days iyH!

Lag B’Omer

It was only as Lag B’Omer drew to a close that I thought to write about it.

I spent the day trying to explore the physical side of the day. The music, the celebrations- a welcome break from the previous days of mourning. Aside from researching some basic aspects of the festival, I felt that I paid relatively little attention to it’s extreme spiritual importance.

And it was as I pondered this I thought about why Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai told us to celebrate his yahrzeis.

He spent his entire life trying to enfuse Holiness into everyday life. Through his authorship of the Zohar, through his teaching and learning; each day was a mission to bring heaven down to earth, to shun corporeality and spread kedushah. And on the day of his death, he revealed the deepest secrets of the Torah; the Zohar.

It was only at the end of his life that he reached his climax.

On the day Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died, he was surrounded by the fire of Torah; by light and flames. He was bathed in Holiness as he divulged the Zohar in what was the final miracle of a life filled with miracles. Just as my understanding of Lag B’Omer really only came about at the very end, so was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s mission only realised on his last day. And thus, it is to be known as a day of joy…

Parshas Mikeitz: Famine and Thankfulness

Last week, I wrote in my dvar Torah about the Talmudic stance on dream interpretation. Parshas Vayeishev, last week’s Parsha, contains a remarkable instance of dream interpretation, and so does Mikeitz, which we read this week. But rather than writing about interpretations and prophesies, this week I want to remind us all of an important lesson about thankfulness which is hidden in Parshas Mikeitz.

Yosef is still imprisoned at the start of this week’s Parsha, having been forgotten by the cupbearer who promised to help him. This is because he relied too heavily on the cupbearer, as opposed to G-d, and as such, was punished by his creator with another 3 years in jail. He did not have to serve the entire sentence, though, due to G-d’s great leniency, and as such, finds himself released early on account of his dream interpretation skills. The Parsha begins with Pharaoh dreaming two very troubling dreams. We read a description of his first dream; ”And behold, there came up out of the river seven cows, handsome and fat of flesh; and they fed in the reed grass. Then, behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the River, ugly and lean of flesh, and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the River. The ugly and lean cows ate up the seven handsome and fat cows”.

This troubling and confusing dream is followed almost immediately by another, similar dream, which troubles Pharoah so much that he seeks out an interpretation to the sequence; ”Behold, seven ears of grain came up on one stalk, plump and good. And behold, seven ears, thin and blasted by the east wind, sprang up after them. The seven thin ears devoured the seven plump and full ears”. As Pharaoh tries to find an explanation, the chief cupbearer suddenly remembers Yosef and the latter is summoned to the Pharaoh.Yosef interprets the dream as foretelling Mitzrayim’s agricultural future. He correctly advises Pharaoh that there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine, and Pharaoh is so impressed that he appoints Yosef over the land of Mitzrayim.

The Parsha then continues to relate Yosef’s future, the birth of his sons, and the enlightening incident of his reunion with his brothers. But in his dream interpretation there is a message of thankfulness which we would all do well to remember. It isn’t immediately obvious. In this sense, the message is literal, but as a metaphor, it works to remind us all of what G-d has done for us, and how, unfortunately, it is easy to forget the miracles and wonders He has performed. Yosef says to Pharaoh, in the interpretation of his dreams, ”Then there shall arise…seven years of famine, and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt”. This isn’t meant simply to say that the famine will be terrible. It means to say that the extent of the famine will literally cause the inhabitants of Mitzrayim to forget that there ever were seven plentiful years. Before dismissing this as outlandish, one should think to their own life, ,and how they felt in times which were less than perfect.

More often than not, in a terrible time, one forgets the wonders of the past. They are consumed by the moment. In the wake of a loss, sorrow is at the forefront of one’s mind, and good memories of years shared are temporarily erased. When one has lost his job, he is unlikely to feel thankful for having held a job for ten years- instead he feels anger, sorrow, or fear for the future. And this is all perfectly understandable. It is human nature. But envy is also human nature. So is greed. Does that mean that we should not make an effort to fight these negative traits? Of course not! Just as we attempt to overcome any personality shortcoming, we should also remember to practice thankfulness. Even if we currently can’t think of much to be thankful for, we need only remember what Hashem once blessed us with.

Yesterday, I telephoned a woman I used to daven with, and received the news that my beloved masphia from the days before I was Chassidishe had passed away. I was not shocked, accounting for his age, and had been preparing myself for this moment for a long time. As I shed a tear over the realisation that I would never see him again, I remembered this week’s Parsha. Specifically, I remembered the famine, and the fact that the Egyptians would forget the years of plenty. Did I want to be like that? Did I want to be that person? The connection struck me as amazing. I realised what he would’ve wanted, and what Hashem would want. And rather than wallowing in the sadness of the moment, I thanked Hashem. I thanked Hashem for giving me the oppurtunity to have met and known this person.

Very few have been given a gift as great as the one Hashem gave me.