Gut Shabbes! (Terumah)

Today is the first day of Adar. Adar is the month in which we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim, and in fact, the whole of Adar is known as a month of rejoicing and gladness, marked by good fortune for the Jewish people. But that’s not all.

The word Adar is related to the word Adir, which refers to strength and power. Adir, which is used to describe the Jewish people, is connected to the spiritual strength within each of us, to do mitzvos and spread light. This month, as we celebrate the joy of Adar, let’s not forget the power we have inside us, to strengthen our observance and performance of good deeds.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:59 PM tonight, and Shabbes goes out at 6:10 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 Golda Shira bas Yenta Ruchel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Making Mistakes

Yesterday, as I was studying this week’s Parsha, Terumah, I was reminded of a fascinating feature of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary in which Hashem dwelled, accompanying the Israelites wherever they went. The altar, upon which sacrifices were offered, was made of copper. This raises an interesting question; why was the altar- a Holy place on which one offered donations to Hashem- made of a less precious metal, namely copper? Why wasn’t it made of gold or silver- metals which we know the Israelites possessed?

The answer lies in a central Jewish concept, namely teshuva. When copper tarnishes or becomes dirty, it can be wiped clean, effectively leaving behind a clean slate. Similarly, when we- the Jewish people- transgress, individually or together, we, too, can wipe away our sins and be left in a higher spiritual place than we were before.

In Biblical times, offerings were sacrificed on the copper alter as a form of teshuva, as well as as a regular donation to G-d. Today, we have no altar to make sacrifices on, but we can still do teshuva at any time or place. Rather than making daily sacrifices, we pray three times a day, and as ever, we can wipe away the sins and guilt of the past by making up for our mistakes.

Many people think that their mistakes define who they are. They believe that because they did something wrong, they are automatically a bad person and can’t be forgiven. But the mistakes we make always serve a purpose; teaching us to behave differently in the future. Just like the copper alter in the Mishkan, whenever we become tarnished or unclean, we can always wipe away our sins with true repentance. Repentence doesn’t just involve G-d, or those around us who we have wronged; it begins in one’s heart, with a resolution to do teshuva and become a better person.

As we are frequently reminded by Jewish wisdom, it’s better to sin and repent- and change!- than to never sin at all.

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.

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.

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.

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! (Bo)

In this week’s Parsha, Bo, Pharaoh continually hardens his heart against the people of Israel, and refuses to let them leave Mitzrayim. Moshe Rabbenu feels distressed and let down by Pharaoh’s behaviour, as it represented the sheer determination and resolution of the forces of evil. Upon seeing Moshe’s distraught reaction to this evil, G‑d said to him, “They, on their own, do not possess such power. It is only because I have hardened their hearts”.

When we come up against challenges in our life, the world can seem unfair and hard-hearted. But Judaism makes no attempt to pretend that these difficult times are caused by some evil force- some scapegoat we can blame everything on. Instead, we are reminded in this week’s Parsha that stumbling blocks and challenges come from G-d, too, and that we must work through them with persistence, courage and emunah.

Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:09 PM in London, and Shabbes goes out at 5:24 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 and Chashachana bas Bryna for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!