G-d Guides My Steps

Today,
I feel lost.
Today,
I feel broken.
Today,
I feel wounded by the world,
Forgotten by the One I love,
Withered like the grass,
Shattered like my heart.
On a cold day like today,
When hopelessness hangs over me
Like a dark cloud of misery,
I turn to Your wisdom,
And I try my hardest to trust.
Guide my steps, G-d,
And I’ll guide my heart.
Guide my soul, G-d,
And I’ll guide my mind.
Just please don’t let go,
Like the others did before You.

Gd-plans-the-steps-of-man-1

What’s So Special About Chollah?

Today, I thought I’d share an article which inspired me greatly. One of the positive aspects of social media is the fact that websites such as Facebook and Twitter- despite their tendency to waste a large chunk of productive time- is that they constantly offer articles and insights which I wouldn’t otherwise see. So when Chabad.org posted this article about Chollah, I just had to check it out.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with Shabbes. There have been quite a few weeks when I’ve spent Shabbes feeling lonely, uninspired, and generally cut off from the world around me. I’m not proud of this. Shabbes is a day when I’m supposed to truly connect with both Hashem and the Jewish community, and I’m aware that it should be the most joyous and spiritual day of the week. I’ve been wondering how on earth to get over this stumbling block, and then the Chollah article gave me an idea.

A while back, a rabbi told me that making Shabbes is supposed to be a segula for parnossoh. This sounds counter-intuitive, but perhaps, if one manages to have an especially restful and beautiful Shabbes, they will be more productive during the rest of the week. And so, when I read this article today, I took it as a sign. Maybe Hashem is telling me to start making Shabbes at home, with all the traditional foods and fineries. Maybe, making Chollah isn’t something that ‘other women do’.

Maybe this is the answer I’ve been looking for.

http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/3865369/jewish/11-Challah-Facts-Every-Jewish-Woman-Should-Know.htm

Parshas Bo: The Secret of Success

People often ask me why so many successful and intelligent people are Jewish. They aren’t always quite so sensitive; indeed, I’m very aware of the accusations that we control the banks, media, government and education system. Needless to say, these myths are no more than age-old attempts to stir up anti-Semitism, but the stereotype of Jews as highly educated and intelligent remains, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise that perhaps there’s a grain of truth in this stereotype. Indeed, 22.5% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish- that’s despite the fact that Jews make up 0.2% of the world’s population, giving us a 112.5% above average proportion of Nobel Prizes, and in-depth studies have been conducted by respectable publications in an attempt to work out exactly why Ashkenazi Jews have such a high average IQ. There’s no denying it; the statistics back up the hypothesis that Jews are proportionately more likely to be intelligent. But why?

I glanced briefly at the scientific attempts to explain this extraordinary phenomenon, before turning to something a little different; a kind of wisdom which, I believe, contains the answer to Jewish genius. It’s this week’s Parsha, Parshas Bo, in which we continue reading the story of the exodus from Mitzrayim. We learn about the plagues of locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborns, and then we are given the commandments of consecrating the firstborn, wearing tefillin and commemorating the Exodus.

Alongside the mitzvos of removing all traces of leaven from our houses (the reason why we clean for Pesach) and eating unleavened bread named matzah, we are commanded to tell the Pesach story to our children. This isn’t the only time that the importance of education is emphasised in Jewish texts. The first paragraph of the Shema- arguably the most central Jewish prayer- reads “You shall teach them [the mitzvos] thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road”. It’s clear that Judaism doesn’t take education lightly. On the contrary, in the Shema, the importance of education comes before the mention of learning Torah at home and in the streets- something which is hugely important for the Jewish neshomo.

Parents aren’t just commanded to teach their children the exodus story, and the wisdom of the Torah. We are also required to teach our children how to swim. And I believe that the secret to Jewish wisdom and success lies in these laws, and our rich educational heritage. Metaphorically, the Jewish method of education is a lot like the swimming lessons we have to give our children. We present them with a pool of knowledge- the Torah, Talmud, Midrashim, and countless other texts- and teach them how to ‘swim’ in it- how to immerse themselves in the knowledge, how to work their way through it; how to live it.

When we read this week’s Parsha, and when we hear the rumour and hypotheses about Jewish intelligence, we need to remember our duty to our children. They are the future of this planet, and the Jewish mission is to leave the world in a better state than it was when we found it. This principle- Tikkun Olam- is one of the reasons why we must dedicate ourselves to the intellectual and emotional education of our children, something which has formed the backbone of Jewish life throughout history, and something which continues to make us a ‘light among the nations’ to this very day.

Inclusivity?

I’ve been involved with countless Jewish communities, all across the spectrum of religious observance, and the shocking, upsetting and disheartening thing I began to notice recently was this: the communities which claim to be inclusive, and dedicated to making everybody feel at home, are quite often the least welcoming ones. The ones which say “our doors are open to everyone,” usually forget to add that although you may be allowed to walk through the doors, you won’t want to keep coming back unless you do things their way.

It’s bizarre. Ironic, even. When I felt estranged from my own faith- cast aside, cut off, left out- I immediately sought out shuls which made a claim to be welcoming and accepting of everybody. Once I was inside, I found that the opposite was true, and was pushed further and further away from Judaism.

My Jewish journey has had ups and downs- times when I’ve adored my religion and felt connected to G-d, and times when I’ve wanted to- and actively planned to- leave. But today, I feel particularly spiritual and as I reflect on all the times I’ve been shunned and pushed away, I begin to think that maybe these things happened for a reason: to teach me to seek out others feeling lost and excluded, and welcome them back.

If this was Hashem’s way of trying to teach me a lesson, it worked. Whenever I see someone standing in the corner, or sitting alone, or just looking like they’d rather be some place else, I make a conscious effort to go and see how they’re doing, and help them realise that their presence is important to me, because I, too, have been in that very same position not long ago.

I’ve said this before, but if you- the person reading this now- feel welcome and at home in your community, I want to ask you a favour. Next time you see someone new, or someone who’s alone, or someone who, for whatever reason, might not be as comfortable as you, I ask you to go over to them and extend the hand of friendship. You never know what a difference it might make.

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!

Parshas Vay’eiro: Dealing With Darkness

A recurrent theme in Judaism is the idea of spreading light. The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, famously teaches that just a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness; indeed, just as a small candle can illuminate a whole room, one small kind deed or mitzvah can outshine all the darkness in the world. This principle governs the theory that just one more mitzvah could lead to the arrival of Moshiach, and forms the basis of the Jewish way of spreading positivity rather than battling with negativity.

In this week’s Parsha, we read about the plagues which blighted Mitzryaim after Pharaoh refused to listen to Aharon and Moshe Rabbenu, and let the Israelites, who were living under bitter slavery, leave Mitzrayim. Some of these plagues- which we continue reading about in next week’s Parsha- are rather graphic and horrific; the Nile turns to blood, and frogs swarm the land, in a series of tragedies which worsen, until they culminate with pitch black darkness and the death of each family’s firstborn.

And yet, in the midst of slavery, horror, and destruction, the Rebbe teaches us that we need to find- and spread- light. He uses this metaphor to explain the first miracle, in which Aharon turns his staff into a serpent. It’s only after the serpent has turned back into a staff, that it swallows the other serpents of the Egyptians. This seemingly puzzling action contains an explanation linking Parshas Vayera to the very nature of the Jewish people.

The Rebbe says, “Our task is to create light, not to battle darkness. Nevertheless, there are times when we are forced to resort to battle, when we must vanquish those who seek to vanquish us. Thus Moshe, the gentle shepherd of Israel, and Aharon, the ultimate man of peace, find themselves in the role of “judge and chastiser of Pharaoh,” crushing the might of Egypt and obliterating its icons and myths.

Therein lies the lesson to be derived from the fact that Aaron’s rod swallowed the “serpents of the Egyptians” after it had reverted back to its original form, rather than as a serpent itself. For even when he wages war, the Jew is not a warrior. Even when he consumes the serpents of the enemy, he is not a serpent himself, spewing poison and hate. His instrument of vengeance is as devoid of vengeful feeling as a petrified rod, as cold to the rage of war as a lifeless stick.”

We all find ourselves in situations which challenge our neshomos and our role in life as Torah observant Jews. Sometimes, as much as we detest conflict, we realise that we have no choice but to fight back against an external force which threatens to vanquish us, or to face horrific consequences. This might apply to the conflict between keeping the Torah laws in a world where Orthodoxy is considered “the other” or outdated, dealing with toxic people in our lives who threaten our wellbeing, or it might even refer to the internal battle with our own yetzer horo. Whether it’s a literal or metaphorical battle, we must remember the lesson of Aharon’s staff, and avoid feelings of vengeance and violence, for we, as Jews, are not warriors.

The Power of the Modeh Ani

This morning, it was freezing cold and pitch black when I woke up. The last thing I wanted to do was get up and brave another day, in a life where I had begun to feel increasingly exhausted, run-down and alone. The thought of emails to answer, articles to write, and deadlines to meet filled me with panic; I felt as if concrete blocks were being piled on top of me, except these metaphorical blocks were the trials and responsibilities of life. As my mind started racing, I stopped, and said the Modeh Ani– the prayer which we say as soon as we wake up each morning, thanking G-d for the gift of life.

“I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”

After I said these words, and I went about my day, I started thinking about what exactly they meant. Often, Jewish prayers talk about our faithfulness in G-d. We bless Him and tell Him how great our trust in Him is. But the Modeh Ani turns this around, and we say “Your faithfulness [in us] is great”. In that moment, I was struck by just how inspiring this notion is. We’re reminding ourselves that G-d has faith in us, too; faith to spread light; faith to do mitzvos; faith to get out of that bed, step into the cold, dark world, and make it a better place than it was when we went to sleep last night.

I struggle. Like every human on this earth, there are times when I don’t want to carry on. Times when I err and feel my faith slipping away. Times when, upon waking up to another cold, dark day, I feel unable to go through the motions of productivity and progress. My inner voice tells me to just stay put, to let the world change around me, and my outer voice- my desire to serve G-d- dispels these thoughts with the Modeh Ani. You can do it, I tell myself. You can get up and change the world, because it isn’t going to change without you. G-d created me for a reason, that much I know. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov tells us that the day we were born was the day that G-d decided that the world could not exist without us- and even when I’m at my lowest point, a part of me knows that this is true.

And so, on those bleak, dreary mornings, I’m not going to lie in bed, listening to the rain on the rooftop and contemplating what’s wrong with my life. I’m going to say the Modeh Ani and throw myself into the challenges of the day ahead- because I know that no matter what I come up against, Hashem has faith in me to overcome it, and serve Him with love and trust.

Rebbetzen Kramer and Auschwitz

Someone once said to a Holocaust survivor, “It must have been so horrible in the camps.” The survivor replied, “It wasn’t horrible,” to which the person asked, “How could it not have been horrible?”. The survivor said, “Of course, horrible evil happened in the camps. However, there, people were unable to do most mitzvos, and yet they tried so hard to do whatever they could. In the world today, people are free to do pretty much all the mitzvos, and they choose not to do them, they don’t care, or they don’t even know the mitzvos exist at all. That is worse”.

I read the above on a forum for Jewish women today, and found out that the exert was taken from a book about Rebbetzen Chaya Sarah Kramer- a woman who survived Auschwitz and lived to inspire millions. And as I read this passage, once, twice, three times, I stopped and I thought. Pretty much any Holocaust survivor is an inspiration to me. Simply because, from my point of view, anyone who has been through the horror and darkness that was the Shoah, and come out the other side, is worthy of praise- worthy of listening to and learning from. Some of them tell us they survived because they had no choice. Others tell us that it destroyed them and they wished they hadn’t lived through it. And then we have this quote, telling us that the spiritual state of the world today is worse than what happened in the camps.

I’m just not sure.

I’m not sure how anyone could say that and mean it- how anyone could be on this level- and I’m sure that those of you who read this will provide me with scholarly quotes to back up Rebbetzen Kramer- an inspiration who needs no backing up, as I am in awe of her and am in no way arguing with her. But as I sit here, my mind is thrown back to the quote I posted here yesterday, from Anne Frank. I wonder, if Anne had lived, would she have been a Rebbetzen Kramer? Perhaps, despite her early death, she was anyway. Maybe we can all be Rebbetzen Kramer.

Anyone who lives through something horrific- even if it isn’t the Shoah- and survives when they don’t know how to, in some unfathomable way, going on to try their very hardest to share some sort of light, is just like Rebbetzen Chaya Sarah Kramer to me. Those of us who did not live through the camps can barely imagine what we went through- and yet we can make up for the darkness she faced by spreading light in this world.

Gut Shabbes! (Shemos)

One of my favourite quotes ever goes something like, “The bravest thing I ever did was carry on living when I wanted to give up”. It’s a sentiment I can relate to on both a personal and a spiritual level- it applies not only to my whole life but also to my Jewish journey. For me, Shabbes was always the hardest mitzvah. It seems restrictive. In today’s world, turning on a light is a convenience, not work, says a voice in my head. Why does it matter if you flip a light switch, or tear a packet?

But the biggest challenge is when you’re alone, spending Shabbes with a family directly opposed to your frumkeit, or in a shul where you’re treated like an outsider, and you go home to stare at the four walls of your house and count the minutes until Shabbes goes out. It’s isolating, painful, heartbreaking even. I know quite a few people in this situation, whom I do my utmost to help. Having been there myself, I try to offer them both physical and emotional support. This week, as I kindle the Shabbes lights and remember those who are ill, I also remember those who are spending the Holy day all alone…

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:49 in London, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 5:06 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Giving Up

If my Jewish journey has taught me anything, it’s to never give up.

Yesterday I wrote about Mitzrayim as a metaphor of sorts- a kind of painful spiritual or emotional exile which leaves us feeling trapped and enslaved. Throughout my life I feel that I have spent a lot of time in Mitzrayim. I’ve worked hard and been blessed with the ability to carry on with life when I felt unable to. And yet, a little while ago I started questioning my observance.

This wasn’t like the other times when I questioned by observance. When I wondered if keeping Shabbes was really necessary, or if I could deal with another judgemental person pushing me away from Judaism. I questioned the very essence of G-d and I truly believed that He had forgotten me. I didn’t want to go off the derech for material reasons- I just couldn’t carry on any more.

And yet I’ve started to think, and I don’t believe this can be the case. Since I came to this difficult conclusion Hashem has shown me more miracles than I can count. If it’s a coincidence, it’s certainly a very amazing one: but I don’t think it can be. I think Hashem is trying to tell me something.

He’s not telling me that if I lose my faith, he’ll show me miracles to bring me back. Nor is he telling me that the future will be bright and beautiful and amazing. Maybe He’s even a little angry at me for doubting that He cared. But I think He’s telling me that I can’t give up now, after I’ve fought so hard and come so far – giving up just isn’t an option.

And so I look once again at the blessings in my life and the wonders and miracles I have seen, and I make a conscious decision to carry on. I will never give up.