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.

Gut Shabbes! (Yisro)

In Parshas Yisro, we read about Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law, Yisro. Up until now, Moshe Rabbenu had dealt with all of the disputes and legal cases which the Israelites sought advice on- despite the fact that there were several million of them. Needless to say, this consumed almost the entirety of his time, and he spent most of the day standing, listening to quarrels and arguments and questions. Moshe Rabbenu loved his people- but his father-in-law knew that this had to stop.

And so, he told Moshe to appoint judges and councillors over the people- wise men who would judge these cases, and if they couldn’t solve a dilemma, only then would it be brought to Moshe Rabbenu. The message was quite simple: you shouldn’t face life alone. We know this from the Creation story itself, and the oft-repeated phrase, “man was not made to be alone”. Part of the reason why there is so much emphasis on marriage in the Jewish world is because we believe that G-d intended for people to face the troubles and the triumphs of life with a partner; someone who truly cares.

A couple of years ago, I heard a beautiful sermon which has stayed in my mind ever since. Quite often, we hear difficult relationships described as being like a rollercoaster. But in fact, life is a rollercoaster, and that isn’t meant in a negative way; essentially, just like a rollercoaster moving along a track, life has both exhilarating highs and terrifying pitfalls. And if you’re on a rollercoaster alone, those pitfalls can be very scary; but if you’re with someone else, someone who you love, then not only are the highs that much more joyous, but you have someone to depend on when the rollercoaster shoots downwards.

Life truly is a rollercoaster- and may we all merit to find that special someone who makes the journey so much more beautiful.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:34 PM tonight, and Shabbes goes out at 5:46 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 Chaya bas Perrel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Can Men and Women be Friends?

This morning, my Facebook feed is clogged up with repeated posts of this video about why men and women shouldn’t be friends.

I just want to make it clear that I support everyone’s right to follow their own hashkofo- whether or not that means having friends of the opposite gender- but I have to say that I feel that using this as a marker of who’s frum and who isn’t is patently quite ridiculous.

I have friends from all across the frumkeit spectrum. This includes reform and non-observant Jews, modern Orthodox people and Chareidim (and, yes, non-Jews). I have also had numerous encounters with very frum men from Chassidishe communities who aren’t allowed to be friends with women. These (married) men resort to getting secret smartphones and Facebook accounts, which they use to chat with young, usually single, women, such as myself. Others go a step further and send unsolicited explicit photos, and- unfortunately- I’ve known quite a few who have gone a step further in their harassment of women.

And this leads me to wonder. Is this strict separation actually in our best interests? Does it really lead to tznius and propriety?

By separating men and women from young ages, and teaching that the two genders can’t be friends, we sexualise women and girls. We teach young men that women are only good for one thing- perhaps two if you include homemaking. And in many cases, this leads to an extremely skewed outlook on the part of Chassidishe men.

I’m not saying that all ultra-Orthodox men treat women improperly. Far from it- I, personally, know many Chareidi men who treat their wives, and other women, with the utmost respect. But I am saying that this attitude of separation breeds some rather unhealthy results, results which I have experienced first hand with the hundreds of ‘Chassidishe’ men who have sent me unsolicited, sexual messages.

So what am I trying to say, exactly?

I’m not demanding that Chassidishe men are forced to befriend random women. I’m not trying to say that all frum men see women as sex objects, or that all modern Orthodox and Reform men have a perfect attitude. But I am questioning the prevalent attitude that those- such as myself- with friends of the opposite gender are less frum. I feel personally attacked by this suggestion, because through having male friends (who I happen to practice boundaries with), I’ve managed to avoid the sexist and demeaning attitude found in many communities.

I’m not asking anyone to change the way they live their life, but I am asking them to respect the way I choose to live mine. Maybe, at the end of the day, we’ll find out that I wasn’t so flawed after all.

Parshas Vayeitzei: Learning From Leah

This week’s Sedra tells the story of two sisters. It’s an oft-repeated tale; one of the sisters is younger, more beautiful, and loved by everyone, while the older daughter is less attractive and less popular, a fact which contributes to the turbulence of their relationship, which is marked by rivalry and jealousy. Needless to say, it’s the younger sister- Rochel, in this case- who attracts male admiration, and ends up with a marriage proposal from none other than Yaakov Avinu, who works for their father for seven years so that he can marry her. But then something happens, and when Yaakov wakes up the morning after the wedding, he realises that he is married to Leah, the younger sister, and that their father- the deceitful Laban- has tricked him.

Needless to say, Yaakov is not especially pleased by his discovery, and confronts Laban. But in the end, he promises to work for another seven years to marry the younger sister- so great is his love for the beautiful Rochel. Of course, it’s touching to hear of his dedication to her, but one is left feeling rather sorry for Leah. One can imagine just how hard it is to be the older, less attractive sister, who can only get married by accident, and then finds herself “hated” as a result.

I think that all of us have been Leah at one time or another. Growing up, the story of sibling rivalry certainly spoke to me, as I found myself feeling insignificant in comparison to my brother, who was better looking, more intelligent, and- I felt- better liked. As I grew older, I began to realise that he had his own problems, and his life wasn’t nearly as perfect as I had imagined. Once I realised this, our relationship improved and we became inseparable, but I still connect deeply with Leah on a personal level, as I struggle with feeling like the least attractive, least intelligent, and- above all- least interesting friend in my peer group.

But despite her unfortunate predicament, Leah’s story is one of brilliance. It takes time, but Leah has seven children- six sons, and a daughter- and we learn that her sons’ names allude to the fact that she was also a prophetess, as she predicted their futures. As if this wasn’t enough, we learn that Yaakov eventually admits that Leah is his “chief” wife, and the mother of the majority of his children. There’s also something unique about Leah: she is the first person to praise Hashem. After the birth of her children, she turns to Him and thanks Him for all he has given her, perhaps thinking of her transformation from the unloved woman who was sneered at to the mother of multitudes.

We can’t deny that Leah had a difficult life. But we learn from her that perhaps, it’s not being young, popular and attractive which matters the most in life. Although she encountered difficulties and opposition, and felt inferior to her younger sister, Hashem answered her prayers and gave her the children she so desperately longed for. What Leah lacked in popularity, she made up for in faith; her tears ascended to heaven and her prayers reached Hashem’s ears, and she made sure to set a precedent of thankfulness. It turns out that these things were more important after all; so if, like Leah, you’re feeling insignificant, remember the story of her life, and how Hashem blessed her.

Dealing With Jealousy

Today, a fellow blogger- Devorah from the fabulous Kool Kosher Kitchen blog reminded me of a beautiful insight relating to Ephraim and Menashe, the subject of my dvar Torah yesterday. She wrote, “When Yaakov crossed his hands and named Ephraim first and Menashe second, there was no jealousy or envy on the older brother’s part!”.

If only we could all be similarly selfless.

I never considered myself a jealous person. I remember a beautiful sermon I heard about a year ago, which told me that the true spirit of ahavos Yisroel is not only helping your fellow Jew when he is suffering, but being happy when he is rejoicing, and to me, this seemed simple. Straightforward. This, I thought, was a mitzvah that I could do. After all, I loved simchos, and I never felt jealous when I heard good news. Or did I…?

Fast forward to the present day and I realise that actually, maybe I do have a bit of a problem with this whole jealousy and ahavos Yisroel thing. Recently, a new woman joined my community and when many of my friends were more interested in talking to her than me, I felt something I couldn’t quite describe. I felt left out, perhaps. Betrayed, even. Simply put, I was miserable, and I took my anger out on this woman. Luckily, I never said anything to her, but I quietly unleashed by anger in my own mind, which, it turns out, is just as jealous and just as bad for you.

Then I came to this week’s Parsha and I did a bit of soul searching. Why should I be angry at this woman, just because she’s richer and more popular? What has she done wrong? And why should members of the community be obligated to like me? Essentially, this Parsha couldn’t have come at a better time. I looked to Esov and Yaakov, and Ephraim and Menashe, and I realised that the cure for jealousy was love.

I could channel the troubled sibling relationship in this week’s Parsha, and enter into a rivalry with this woman, trying to outdo her and replace her- a relationship which might ultimately end with one or the other of us leaving the community just as Yaakov fled, or with us fighting bitterly. Or I could look to Ephraim and Menashe and accept that she, too, is a woman trying to find her way in a troubled world. Perhaps, under that smooth facade, there lurks unhappiness and uncertainty. Perhaps, if I love her and treat her kindly, I will realise why everyone else loves her so much.

As always, I am trying to live in the moment.

Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech: Unity and Freedom of Choice

This week we read a double parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, which relates the final days of Moshe Rabbenu’s life, and tells us about some of the fundamental principles of Judaism. The moral guidelines which are set out for us in Nitzavim-Vayelech are easy to understand, and not perceptible to change: like everything in the Torah, they remain the same throughout the trends of time, but are especially applicable during Elul, as we reflect on the year behind us, and think about the things we have done and said, while preparing for the year that lies ahead of us.

Rosh Hashono does not occur on the first day of the first month, and nor does it occur on the day that the World was created. Instead, it commemorates the creation of man. And the reason for this also ties in directly to this week’s Parsha: it is because man, unlike the angels, and- to a certain extent- the animals of the field, has free will. We are reminded of this when we read the following; “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love G‑d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments . . . Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life”.

This free will, we are reminded, can be used for the purpose of goodness, or for evil. And although we are advised to choose the former, G-d acknowledges that we will make mistakes- huge mistakes, and mistakes made with evil intent- and that He cannot prevent us from choosing evil. And yet, as we head towards Rosh Hashono, when we are inscribed in the book of life, we are reminded that we can- and in fact shall- choose life. We can repent. We can turn back to G-d, and be welcomed with open arms, and enjoy an even closer, more loving relationship than before.

But truly loving G-d means that we must love each and every one of His creations, also. It’s no good davening and studying Torah if we refuse to visit the sick, spread kind words, give to charity, or simply do a good deed. Klal Yisroel is one family, and we cannot be truly close to G-d if we aren’t close to one another. This, too, we are reminded of at the beginning of the Parsha, where we read, “You stand today, all of you, before the L‑rd your G‑d”.

On Rosh Hashono, we will all stand before G-d together; and it doesn’t matter how poor or rich we are, or how important or intelligent we are: we are one big family, and G-d views us as such. This year, when we do teshuva and apologise to G-d, we must remember to also apologise to those in our lives whom we have hurt or wronged- because to love your fellow Jew is to love G-d and His Torah.

Priorities and the Meaning of Judaism

A while ago, I went to a shiur where the speaker talked about Elul and the purpose of introspection. At one point in the talk, the audience was asked, “What does it mean to be Jewish?”. This part of the shiur took rather a long time, with countless answers supplied by people from numerous demographics, all with one thing in common: a love for Judaism. And yet, after five or ten minutes had passed, not a single person had named the sole characteristic of Judaism which, to me, is the most important.

Loving your fellow as yourself.

It’s no surprise that people have different priorities, and what sums up Judaism to me, doesn’t necessarily sum it up for someone else (though I happen to know that Hillel agreed with me). Different viewpoints make Judaism vibrant and interesting. But to sit in a room, with people defining Judaism for five minutes straight, and not to hear the word ‘love’ once? Can that be right?

The reaction my comment received, and the juxtaposition of my priority with some of the others I heard was disappointing to me, but unfortunately not shocking. In recent years I have noticed an alarming trend in modern Jewish society that can only be described as a chillul Hashem: pushing aside love for your fellow in favour of superficiality and judgement.

Whether it’s posters telling women what to wear, the harsh suggestions spoken to those in shidduchim, or insults flung at Jews deemed ‘apikoruses’, the lack of ahavos Yisroel is prominent for all to see. And earlier, as I watched other Jews debating over which halochos were more important, I realised that we have forgotten the most improtant halacha of all: to love others.

Tu B’Av

Another Tu B’Av has passed, only this year, it wasn’t the happiest day on the calendar. Perhaps it’s not permitted to be sad on such a joyous day, but amidst all the flowers and greetings and statements I’ve heard- some despairing, most smug, all disheartening- I’ve found it hard to smile and rejoice. I’ve dwelt upon the past, and I’ve prayed G-d to help me, but sadness remains.

I know that words hold an immense power, but I’m not sure if it’s superstitious for me to wonder if all those times I swore I’d never want to marry left me in this state. Perhaps my vow not to marry was heard by G-d, and perhaps He has decided to teach me a lesson about my words. Perhaps that’s why I sit here, now, reflecting on 15th Av, and wishing it were my turn to say “Soon by you”.

They say man isn’t supposed to be alone, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say that women aren’t supposed to be, either. One thing I know for sure, is that it hurts to be alone when you were happy just a short while ago.

Gut Shabbes! (Va’eschanan)

Sometimes, my views and actions attract a lot of attention from both my non observant and Chareidi friends. People seem shocked by my “values” and in many cases, they are shocked that a frum woman could believe certain things. “Why do you want to invite such people for Shabbes dinner? I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that,” or “How can you put up with such a person? I couldn’t, and I’m not even frum”. They feel that because I’m Chassidic, I should stick to mixing with other Chassidim, and that I am free to exclude people based on their religion, denomination or orientation.

I’m not your average Chossid. As someone coming from a non observant background, certain parts of my old lifestyle have stayed with me. I might have abandoned secular newspapers, music and films, but my views sometimes differ from those of major Chareidi rabbonim. I come under fire for this a lot, and sometimes, I begin to wonder if what I’m doing is necessary or even right.

Then I read the Hayom Yom today.

“The Alter Rebbe repeated what the Mezritcher Maggid said quoting the Baal Shem Tov: “Love your fellow like yourself” is an interpretation of and commentary on “Love Hashem your G‑d.” He who loves his fellow-Jew loves G‑d, because the Jew has with in himself a “part of G‑d Above.” Therefore, when one loves the Jew – i.e. his inner essence – one loves G‑d.”

What I do is second nature to me. Supporting someone- anyone- who is having a hard time, inviting people for a meal, or just giving them a chance to vent their frustrations- I don’t do it because it’s a mitzvah. I do it because I love every Jew- and, yes, every Noahide- who I encounter. We may be Chassidim, but that doesn’t mean we should shut ourselves off from those around us. Because when we fail to love each other, we fail to love G-d.

G-d gave us the precious gift of Shabbes in love. This Shabbes, let’s embody G-dliness. Let’s bring Holiness down to earth. Let’s spread love among our neighbours, without stopping to judge them or think badly of them just because they’re different.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 8:25 PM tonight, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 9:41 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel ben Soroh, Chashachana bas Bryna and Shai bas Odeya. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!