Goodbye

I’ll be honest. I had no idea how to start this post.

How do you say goodbye to something that has been a huge part of your life for the past year and a half?

How do you explain to hundreds of followers that for your own sake, you’re taking a break which you wish you didn’t have to take?

How do you tell the world in general that you’re not giving up on your dreams, but you just need to put this particular one on hold?

There’s no easy way. Jewish Thoughts has been a massive part of my identity since I started blogging in summer 2016. As I’ve explored my faith, this blog has been by my side constantly, and I feel that it has grown with me, becoming home to my eclectic and often imperfect thoughts and feelings. This website and its followers have been with me as I’ve experienced highs, lows, and somewhere in-betweens, navigating the loss, heartbreak, opportunities and blessings of my life.

I am a writer and always will be. I am in no way stopping writing- I might as well stop breathing. But in the meantime, I am taking a break from Jewish Thoughts. As many of my friends probably know, the past six months or so have been especially trying for me, and there have been many times when I’ve felt unable to carry on. I feel that I’ve been lacking in motivation and that the quality of my posts has decreased lately. Not only is this a writer’s worst nightmare, but I am dealing with a number of issues right now which require my full attention and for this reason I made the difficult decision to leave this website.

There’s a part of me which can’t quite believe I’m stepping away from this website. In many ways, it feels like a failure, but I want to reiterate that I’m not giving up and never will. In the meantime, I still intend to submit occasional articles to magazines and websites, because my writing genuinely is everything for me and I hope to eventually make a career out of it. I may also post periodically, or return to regular posts when I feel ready to do so, and I sincerely hope that this break will be an exceedingly short one.

I’m eternally thankful to the person who inspired me to begin blogging, and to the one who encouraged me to keep writing when I needed that support the most. I’m also grateful for all the amazing people I have met through this website and am convinced that I have the nicest, kindest followers in the world, who made blogging such a joy for me. Additionally, I would like to thank the fascinating and inspiring people I have interviewed for this website over the years. Finally, I want to say thank you to my friends who have kept up with this blog via email and Facebook. There are way too many of you to name individually, but you made it all worthwhile.

While I take some time away from the world of blogging in order to put my life back together, please do reach out if you wish to keep in touch. It’s truly been an amazing journey.

Who is Wise?

Today I was reminded of a famous saying: “If someone teaches you just one word of Holiness, you owe him a lifetime of respect”. I use the word Holiness because this very quote is used in both Judaism and Islam, and although what constitutes “Holiness” may differ, the concept remains the same no matter how you are.

We read in Pirkei Avos that the definition of a wise man is one who learns from everyone, but unfortunately, I feel that in the 21st Century, many of us have forgotten that we have something to learn from each and every person who enters into our life. Encounters happen through Divine providence for a reason, and often, this reason is to teach us a unique lesson.

In a way, everyone we encounter is a teacher. They teach us how to behave or how not to behave: how to treat someone in need of help, and how not to. And as a result, everyone is worthy of respect. Sometimes, if someone is a bad influence in our lives, this respect takes the form of terminating a relationship, for our sake and theirs, but every human being deserves kavod.

Without respect for those who teach us how to live our lives- no matter who they are or where they come from- we transgress the greatest Jewish traditions.

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.

When I Pray

I go to shul twice a week,
And sit in wooden pews,
Clutching a book,
And laughing at the irony of it all.
Why is it, I ask myself,
That I come here to pray,
And yet end up talking instead.
Why is it, I wonder,
That my greatest prayers,
My most heartfelt pleas,
Were not said in shuls-
Not even on Yom Kippur-
But on antiseptic blue chairs,
By hospital bedsides,
Or as I sat on soft carpet,
Weeping at the unfairness of life.
Why is it,
That standing in G-d’s dwelling place,
I only say the words in the book,
And not those in my heart?
Is it fear?
Fear of crying, fear of ruining my mascara,
Fear of Looking Silly?
Is it exhaustion?
At the end of a long week,
Too tired to plumb the depths of my heart?
Is it something else?
Something I can’t name-
Something about being surrounded by people.
Back home,
I clutch the blue Siddur,
With tattered pages,
Smudges,
Remnants of tears,
The evidence of a hundred heartbreaks.
And I resolve,
From now on, when I pray,
I will be this honest always.

Parshas Terumah: Attention to Detail

When I was becoming frum, I asked a lot of questions. I never stopped asking difficult questions, and in fact, one of the reasons why certain rabbonim looked down on me was because they felt that I needed to stop questioning and start accepting “the facts”. I remember that one of the first things I ever asked about was this week’s Parsha, Terumah. Why does it go into such detail? At first, it seemed rather preposterous to me. If the Torah doesn’t waste one word, or even one letter, then why does it need to go into so much detail here? Why do we need to know about the pair of Cherubim and the 48 wooden boards and the 60 supporting posts which were found in the Mishkan?

The answer lies partly in something called hiddur Mitzvah. Hiddur mitzvah essentially means to beautify a mitzvah in an attempt to show our love for Hashem and his mitzvos. It’s the reason why we use a beautiful esrog at Sukkos, and choose the most beautiful Shabbes candlesticks and Chanukiahs. Parshas Terumah teaches us just how ornate and beautiful the Mishkan was, through the lavish descriptions of the furnishings, tapestries and decorations, and the extent of this hiddur Mitzvah can only be communicated with the level of detail contained within the Parsha.

But in this case, hiddur Mitzvah doesn’t just refer to the obligation of building the Mishkan itself. It also relates to the Israelites’ relationship with G-d. The Mishkan was described as a dwelling place for G-d. It was where He resided as the Jewish people travelled through the desert, and was more than mere symbolism. It was a sign that He would accompany the chosen people wherever they went- and the Israelites responded by beautifying His dwelling place to show the extent of their adoration and gratitude.

Additionally, the building of the Mishkan was not some exclusive task, irrelevant to most of the population. It brought the Israelite people together and allowed them to work side by side to form a dwelling place for G-d. The extreme detail and beautification remind us that building a home for G-d is the most important task of every Jew- and it was not limited to that generation. Each and every generation has a responsibility to build a home for G-d and Holiness – right here, and now. When we transform our lives and the places we live into dwellings for G-d, we come one step closer to greeting Moshiach, may He come speedily and in our days!

Gut Shabbes! (Mishpotim)

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!

Parshas Mishpotim: Strangers and Enemies

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.

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.