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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

How I Found Hope

There are few things more exhilarating than getting an article published, and as such, I’d like to share with my readers this article, published in Jewess magazine by Kylie Ora Lobell. It isn’t anything like the articles I normally post here, but I hope that you all enjoy it nonetheless.

https://jewessmag.com/2018/01/18/found-hope-awful-breakup/

Please be in touch with any feedback, and feel free to take a look at the other amazing articles published by Jewess magazine!

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!

GOOD YOM TOV.

MAY YOU BE INSCRIBED AND SEALED

FOR A GOOD YEAR IN THE STUDY OF CHASSIDUS

AND THE WAYS OF CHASSIDUS

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.

Parshas Toldos: Relationship Dynamics

The name of this week’s Parsha, Toldos, means ‘offspring’ or ‘generations’, and it is no surprise that much of the Sedra centres around family relationships. It begins by telling us about Avrohom and Yitzchok, repeating the statement that Yitzchok was Avrohom’s son, and reminding us of their ideal relationship. We learn in Midrash Tanchuma that this wording is rich with meaning: “There are children who are embarrassed of their parents, and there are parents who are embarrassed by their children. With Abraham and Isaac it wasn’t like that: Isaac prided himself in that he was Yitzchok the son of Avrohom, and Abraham prided himself in that Avrohom fathered Yitzchok”. But from here, it goes downhill, with the tale of Yaakov and his brother Esov.

The story of Yaakov and Esov is relatively well known. Yaakov made a lentil stew for his father, on the day Avrohom died, and Esov, coming home exhausted after a day in which he committed a number of sins, buys it off him in exchange for his birthright. The Parsha continues to tell us that Yaakov ‘steals’ the blessing intended for Esov as well, before fleeing in his haste to avoid his brother’s wrath. In short, their relationship is extremely turbulent, and we learn from the midrashim that this was in part due to Yaakov’s extreme righteousness and Esov’s strong inclination towards idol worship.

So this week’s Sedra showcases two very different sorts of relationships. Avrohom and Yitzchok’s relationship was evidently a beautiful and respectful one, whereas the brothers had an unhappy, angry, even violent, story. The Torah tells us that this is far from ideal, and Jewish tradition actually provides some fascinating insight on families. When boys receive a blessing from their parents, they are told; “May you grow to be like Ephraim and Menashe”. Obviously, they would not be told “May you grow to be like Yaakov and Esov”- but why Ephraim and Menashe? Why not Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov?

The answer lies- in part- in this week’s Parsha. More specifically, Ephraim and Menashe’s relationship is the exact opposite of the sibling relationship we read about in Parshas Toldos; they were the first set of brothers in the whole Torah to love and respect each other, as opposed to fighting and becoming jealous. When we look at the various brothers in the Torah, they rarely get on well. The very first brothers we read about, in the book of Bereishis, are Cain and Abel, and the story of sibling relationships practically begins with Cain’s murder of his brother. This sets a bad precedent and continues throughout the Torah, with Yosef’s brothers selling him into slavery (and, much later, Moshe Rabbenu’s disagreements with his siblings).

But Ephraim and Menashe are an exception. Faithful, G-d fearing boys, brought up in a secular society which did its best to diminish their character, they fought against the yetzer hora and remained true not only to G-d but to themselves and each other. They loved and supported each other, as siblings should, and when Yaakov blessed his sons, he blessed them, too, although they were his grandsons, saying; “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G‑d make you like Ephraim and like Menashe'”- the source of the blessing given to boys before kiddush on erev Shabbes (or, in Chabad communities, on Yom Kippur).

The Torah’s message is clear. We must love and respect our siblings if we want to love and respect Him: and this was exactly where Esov (and even Yaakov) went wrong. Love for another Jew is more important than any other mitzvah, and although we are all links in the same chain, and all brothers and sisters in the eyes of G-d, we need to start by honouring own own siblings; may we all merit to be like Ephraim and Menashe in this aspect.