A little while ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who told me about the latest ‘parenting craze’ to be sweeping the frum world, at least in Israel.

In a nutshell, this new system or shitta is telling parents, particularly mothers, that they have to find out what their problem is, in order to raise their kids properly.

Apparently, the thinking is like this: if you can help the parents to uncover the ‘fatal flaw’ or big emotional problem, or personal issue that defines them and their approach to everything in life, including how they parent their kids, then you’ll help them to change their behavior, and peace will reign in Gotham City.

I know, it theoretically sounds great doesn’t it? There’s just one problem: it’s a load of baloney, and in practice it’s going to end up doing far more harm than good to everyone involved.

How do I know all this?

Simple: in our quest to be better Jews, and better people and better parents, me and my husband have been through a whole bunch of shitot and systems based on ideas that sounded good in theory, but were actually useless (at best) or very damaging in practice.

Christians believe that people are ‘fatally flawed’ as a result of the ‘original sin’ where Adam and Eve brought death into the world. By contrast, Jews (especially Breslev-friendly Jews) believe that people are fundamentally good, and that the real them, their soul, is only good and holy, just it got caught up in a bunch of klipot (evil husks) and yetzer haras (evil inclinations) that it needs to fight off and fight through.

That’s the work of this world, and it really can take 120 years to achieve it.

But what’s happening in even the most frum circles is that people are taking a bunch of half-baked ideas rooted in the heresy of modern psychology and psychiatry, or in the idol-worshiping notions of Christianity or the Eastern religions, and then concocting all sorts of ‘workshops’ and ‘parenting courses’ that aren’t based on truth, and only serve to drag participants’ vulnerabilities, difficulties and yetzers out for public scrutiny, without giving them a real solution for how to actually resolve them.

I know so many people, my husband included, who have been caught up and hurt in all the frum public confessionals happening all over the place.

But however these things are being dressed up and sold to others, they’re all based on the same basic principles: encourage people to admit their biggest hurts, deepest secrets and darkest shames in front of a bunch of strangers; then, have the group’s ‘guru’ explain to them – publicly – what their problem is, how it’s affecting them, and why it’s so bad. Then – leave them to deal with it. Alone.

If they start to struggle, or feel even more alone, depressed or ‘bad’, explain to them that either:

  • They didn’t get what they’re meant to be doing, or they didn’t complete the program and process properly and it’s their problem they’re so broken and can’t be fixed;

And / or:

  • Promise to give them the answer to their problem in the next workshop (or six…); or the next private coaching session (or 10…); or the next super-expensive private retreat.

I have seen people keep coming back to these ‘gurus’ and the hugely profitable organisations they’ve built on the back of other people’s suffering for literally years. For as long as they are in touch with the ‘guru’ and the system they’ve built, they’re hopeful that the answer, whatever it is, is just one more group meeting away.

But it doesn’t work like that!

Quite the opposite: as time goes on, the participants split into 2 camps: increasingly despairing, angry, empty and cynical, or completely detached from the reality of who they really are, and what’s really happening in their lives and in their relationships.

Neither of these modes is emotionally healthy, or compatible with yiddishkeit.

So what’s the answer? Where are all these frum gurus going wrong, and why are they doing so much damage?

In a nutshell, you can sum it up like this: what helps people to be better parents, and to treat their kids nicer, and to be happier people, and to be able to deal with their issues and flaws appropriately, is when they concentrate on seeing the good in themselves, and developing more self-compassion.

Remember, God arranged the world as a mirror, to show us who we really are, and what we really need to work on. If we secretly believe ourselves to be selfish monsters, or hateful failures, or fatally-flawed and unfixable in some way, that’s the ‘self’ we’ll see reflected back to us from the people in our lives, and especially our children.

The more ‘down’ we get on ourselves, the more we dislike ourselves – all for the best motives in the world – the more we’ll be irritated by, dislike and probably mistreat our kids, who are just our mirrors. By contrast, the more we learn to see the good in ourselves, and to judge ourselves with compassion and understanding, the more that inner goodness will shine out of our kids, too.

(If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Rebbe Nachman’s Azamra, you’re dead right.)

There’s a lot more to say about this, and I think I will be coming back to this idea again and again on my blog. But for now let me leave you with this:

The single biggest thing you can do to improve your parenting, and help your kids, and to build the world, and to become the fulfilled, happy Jew God created you to be, is to learn how to love yourself, and to concentrate on finding all the good He placed in your soul.

That’s it.

And if your course, workshop, or frum guru is not telling you that, or if it’s telling you to focus on your problems, flaws and issues, then run away as fast as your legs can carry you.

Today, I was meant to be driving up North, to see a friend there and have a day out.

On my way out of Jerusalem, I saw I was running low on gas so I stopped at the ‘Yellow’ just by the city entrance to fill up before heading out.

As luck (i.e. God) would have it, I got stuck behind an older woman who was having all sorts of trouble with her car. She couldn’t open the cap for the petrol; she couldn’t get her credit card to work; she couldn’t fit the nozzle into the petrol tank; she couldn’t get a receipt printed out.

By the end of the whole palaver, I was starting to get pretty antsy.

My fingers started drumming on the steering wheel. My leg started involuntarily tapping. Then, when she got back in her car and started faffing around with her lights, her hair, her seat – I don’t know what – I got impatient and beeped her. Not loud and aggressively, but just to remind her that five other people were waiting for her to drive off, already, so they could also get on with their day.

She ignored my beep.

She got out of her car, went to browse in the Yellow’s snacks section, and only then returned and finally put her key in the ignition. It took her another two minutes to figure out the gears and steering wheel, and as soon as I could, I overtook her on the way out of the petrol station, desperate to not get stuck behind her for another five minutes as she tried to figure out how to actually leave the petrol forecourt.

Less than a minute later, I nearly crashed.

I was in the fast lane behind a high truck who was driving fast, but not abnormally so. Suddenly, they skidded off into the slow lane without indicating – and I nearly ran straight into the back of a long line of parked cars, that I hadn’t seen coming because I was behind a high vehicle and it was behind a bend.

There was that horrible screech of tyres, and that heart-stopping moment where I waited to see if the brakes were going to work fast enough to avoid a horrible accident. Thank God, I skidded to a stop barely a foot away from the car in front of me.

It was a very near miss.

So near, that I realized when I started driving off again that at least one of my front tyres had exploded under the pressure of my forced braking at high speed. I pulled off the nearest exit, and parked by the Mevasseret Zion mall to take a look at the tyre. It was completely busted.

Hmm.

I had no idea how to change a tyre, and only around $20 in my wallet, which was enough to pay for a day out, but not enough to buy a new tyre.

Hmm.

Just then, I spotted a gang of four apparently secular teenage boys walking past, and I ran over to them and asked for help changing my flat.

Dear reader, they didn’t hesitate. Despite the fact that only one of them had ever done it before, and that it took a good 40 minutes for them to work out how to work the jack, how to get the bolts off the wheel, how to stick the other wheel on (all with the help of their trust i-Phones…) – they worked with such good grace and patience.

Not for the first time, I said a small prayer of thanks that I live where I live, with the people who live around me.

Where else would I have felt happy asking a gang of strange teenage boys for help? Where else would they have said ‘yes’, and so happily obliged me? Where else would they actually have figured it all out in a way that I was happy to drive my car after they were done?

Who is like your people, Hashem!

On the short drive back to Jerusalem, I pondered why it’d all happened. I mean, nothing happens for no reason, and clearly God was hiding some sort of big message in my near miss. It struck me just as I turned into my own street that I had a couple of people I needed to apologise to.

A couple of years’ ago, I got caught up in a completely skewed mindset that made it a mitzvah to point people’s ‘bad’ out to them, and I’d said a few things to a couple of people that I really shouldn’t have.  I realized God was prompting me to make amends, to change direction, and to return and fix things that needed fixing, instead of driving off to the next big adventure.

I heeded the message, and I wrote a couple of emails as soon as I got back.

Nothing happens for nothing in life.

If I nearly crashed, got a flat, and got helped in such an unlikely way, it was clearly designed to teach me something.

At least patience – to happily sit behind the faffing old granny, so that I didn’t get caught up in a near miss. And gratitude – that I didn’t have a bad accident; that those kids helped me to change my wheel so graciously. And humility – to know I’m not in charge of my life, and to remember that broken things need to be fixed, even if they weren’t broken on purpose.

Time and again in my research about what makes people feel ‘alive’ and what makes them feel the opposite, God-forbid, having a well-defined sense of purpose comes pretty close to the top of the list.

If a person really understands why they’re alive, if they really get what’s the point of being down here, then that knowledge by itself can transform their life in so many good ways. I was musing on this while I was reading Viktor Frankl’s classic work, Man’s search for meaning, where he writes about his experiences in the holocaust, and the conclusions he drew as a result.

Frankl was a secular Viennese psychotherapist who lost his parents, wife and all of his siblings bar one sister during the war. In the book, he describes how his ‘professional interest’ in how his fellow prisoners were handling the indescribable suffering of being in Auschwitz and other death camps was a big reason why he survived the war.

As soon as he could take a ‘professional interest’ and start to ponder the psychological implications of what he was witnessing and experiencing, Frankl explains that the experiences themselves became easier to manage in some way.

In one particular poignant passage, he describes how imagining he would share his new insights into human nature kept him going when he was enduring a particularly hard day of forced labour outside in the freezing Polish winter.

Another popular tactic he employed was talking to his wife in his head, and escaping into those imaginary conversations. And thus, he survived the war, and went on to develop Logotherapy, his own brand of psychotherapy where the emphasis was firmly put on encouraging his patients to find some sort of meaning to life, in order to heal their emotional problems.

While Frankl is not ‘anti-religion’, he’s clearly wasn’t an observant Jew – and that’s a real shame, because Judaism would’ve have furnished a clear-cut ‘meaning to life’ that would have prevented him from trying to re-invent the wheel.

Let me give an example I was pondering on recently:

The more I read and learn and experience, the more I realize that it’s almost impossible to raise our children without causing them some sort of severe psychological damage, with far-reaching consequences for their sense of wellbeing, emotional and physical health, and spiritual connection.

For years, I thought that if you were a healthy, well-adjusted, emotionally-balanced person, then your kids would turn out OK (just for the record, I haven’t actually ever met someone like this, but for argument’s sake, let’s pretend they exist.) But God’s been showing me recently that EVEN the most well-meaning, spiritually-connected, tuned-in, compassionate parents are STILL messing their kids up.

How can we not? Is it up to us to decide if we have to experience huge financial pressures, for example? Or severe illnesses? Or traumatic moves to different cities or different countries? Can we help it if we get depressed sometimes, or super-stressed, or overwhelmed by the difficult experiences each of us has to face? We don’t pick for our kids to have horrible teachers, or nasty bullies, or traumatic experiences with terrorists every few days.

And all this stuff leaves an indelible mark on the soul, and causes things like anxiety, fear, anger, panic, despair, and a whole bunch of other things, too.

So I was pondering: Why?

Why does God set things up that it’s impossible to raise our kids as completely whole, emotionally-healthy human beings who don’t have anxiety, panic, worry, sadness and all the rest of it?

As usual, Rav Arush gave me the answer. I was reading his new book about saying thank you and seeing miracles when he explained that our difficulties are what brings us closer to God. We suffer, we hurt, we get overwhelm, and then we actually turn around and have probably the first honest conversation of our lives with our Creator.

We realize we can’t do it by ourselves, that we need Him to help us out, pronto. And that’s the whole point of being alive.

It’s so easy to get so caught up in the secular view of the world, which sees everything as being somehow in human control and ‘solve-able’. Depressed? Take a pill! Anxious? Take a pill! Stressed? Take a pill! (You get the idea…)

But I realized that I’ve also fallen into that trap a bit, by blaming myself for all of my kids issues. Now, here’s where we hit the fine line: OF COURSE I’m to blame for my kids issues, if I take God out of the picture. I mean, I made aliya, I ran out of money, I keep moving, I’m the one who got angry, stressed, depressed, overwhelmed and who all too frequently took it out on them.

But I’ve been working on all that stuff as much as I can, and the more I clear away, the more God shows me that something had to mess them up, as that’s the whole point. It’s only in their brokenness that they’re going to get closer to God, and build their relationship with Him. So yes, God used my bad middot to do the job for a while, but now they’re receding, I see He’s still piling the pressure on my kids: terrorists are scary; ulpana is challenging and sometimes lonely; friends are frequently unpredictable and draining etc etc.

And that’s the way it’s meant to be.

To put it another way, our suffering is what gives our life meaning, and what ultimately makes it worthwhile. I know that’s a bizarre idea on many levels, but recently, it’s been coming into clearer and clearer focus.

The meaning of life, what gives our lives purpose, is to get closer to God. Full stop. That’s why God fills the world with pain and suffering, and doesn’t give us all mansions, yachts and perfect health. At some point, hopefully the equation will change, and people will want to get closer to God even amidst their bounty – I think that’s the promise of Moshiach.

But we’re not quite there yet (at least, I’m not). Which means that each day still has its measure of pain, and its share of challenges. But I’m no longer wondering why it has to be that way.

Trying to see the good is sometimes so hard for me. So I decided to devote a good chunk of time to at least trying to switch into seeing more of the good in my life, and having more gratitude.

This is what I did as part of my most recent six hour ‘only say thank-you-athon’:

I first warmed up with a whole bunch of genuine thanks for many of the blessings in my life. I thanked God for my husband, my kids, my health, my home, my ability to type, my ability to think, my ability to write, hot water in the shower, food in the fridge, clean socks living right near to the Kotel etc etc.

I first did that for two hours, because I knew the next part was going to be much tougher: saying thank you for the things that have caused me a lot of pain and heartache over the last few years.

I decided to do a mind-map of all the hard stuff I wanted to say thank you for, so that I could go through each item one by one, thank for it, and then try to see what good had actually come out of it.

I’m not going to share the whole list with you (because let me tell you, I used the biggest bit of paper I had and I still had to write small), but I wanted to share some of the highlights, because it was an amazing exercise to do and I hope maybe it will inspire you to do your own version.

So on my massive bit of paper, some of the ‘lacks’ I wrote down were as follows:

  1. Professional success and accomplishments
  2. My own home
  3. Old friends and new friends
  4. Family support and financial help
  5. A bath
  6. A community

First, I said thanks for all these ‘lacks’.

Then, I started to break them up into all the different elements of ‘lack’ I felt they represented.

  • When I left my career, I went from earning loads of money to earning barely anything; I also lost a lot of social status, and I struggled for years to find a sense of purpose. (thanks, God!)
  • Ironically, I’ve moved so, so many times in my life, but I hate moving, and always have daydreams of settling down in my own cosy home. When we burned through all our house money, that meant we no longer had a deposit to be able to afford to buy a house again. So even though my husband is now back at work, it seems as though I’m going to be stuck renting forever. (thanks, God!)
  • It’s pretty lonely where I live. No-one ever pops in to say hello, and I have no friends within a 20 minute walk of my home. (thanks, God!)
  • Someone was telling me about someone they know whose parents helped them buy a flat outright in Jerusalem, so they can continue learning without having to worry about paying rent – and I got so jealous. (thanks, God!)
  • I have to get to my mikva 40 minutes ahead of shkia to make sure I get dibs on the only bath, and then I have to clean it like a crazy person because I have germ issues…(thanks, God!)
  • I don’t feel I ‘fit’ anywhere. I’m not part of any community. I don’t have that sense of belonging anywhere. No-one invites me for Shabbat, and I have very few people locally that I can invite, too. I have nowhere to daven. (thanks, God!)

Ready for the magic to begin?

After I’d spent some time sincerely saying thanks for these (and a few hundred other) things, God started to show my something amazing: why it was actually the best outcome it could be for me.

Here’s a taste of what I started to get:

  • Once I got out the secular rat-race, it freed me up to really start learning and living about life differently. As a result, I’ve already written 5 books, I have 3 blogs, and I’m on a mission to share what I’ve learnt with others. I’m SO much happier writing about emuna and God-based holistic health than I was writing speeches for ministers about why everyone needs a pension.
  • If we’d have bought that flat 2 years’ ago, we’d be so miserable right now. I’m not sure I’m in the right place, and until I know where I really will be happy, and who I really am (which is getting closer all the time…) it’s much better for me to have the freedom to rent. When I know where it’s really good to settle down, THEN God will give me the money for a house.
  • Do you know how much I get done on an average day? It’s mindboggling…and there’s no way I could write so much, so fast, if I had more people to talk to in the day. People actually go away for 6 month retreats to write, and here, God gave me that peace and quiet in my own home.
  • When you don’t have others to rely on, you have to turn to God for your needs. You have to trust Him much more. You have to really live your emuna that God’s looking after you. It is really, really nice to have parents support you if they can afford to do that, but if they can’t (or won’t), it’s because God wants you to deal direct.
  • You know, I am going to appreciate having a bath again SO MUCH when it happens. Also, it’s taken my OCD tendencies down a notch, because there’s only so much cleaning you can do before someone starts banging on the door and asking when you’re coming out.
  • I was a wannabe charedi person when I moved to Jerusalem. Now, I learned I’m not. If I’d found a community of lovely people back then, I’d be stuck trying to fit in when it wasn’t really the right mode for me. God saved me a lot of hassle by not making me have to choose between being true to myself and having friends. The community will come when I know what it is I really need and want.

How’s that for amazing?

Thanks God!

At the end of the process, I stopped carrying that grudge around with me that’s been weighing me down for years, already. I know I have to carry on working my gratitude, but it really was a huge weight off to know that God doesn’t secretly have it in for me; that Rav Arush was right about everything (including doing six hours, moving to Jerusalem, and saying thank you); and that life is coming good, even if the ‘good’ isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

“I said thanks, and I saw miracles!”

No, this isn’t another ‘drugs gone mad’ post…

Believe it or not, Rav Dessler actually brings this story from the Gemara, where a young father loses his wife, and can’t afford to pay a wet-nurse to feed his child (clearly, this is before the days of Materna.) So then, God does a miracle for the man, and has him grow boobs in order to nurse his own child.

The Sages of the Gemara are split in their view of whether this is a good thing or not. One says: “How great is this man, for whom such a miracle was performed!” The other says: “How lowly is this man, for whom the order of creation was changed!”

This discussion takes place in Rav Dessler’s essay on ‘Torah and Economic Activity’ in Michtav Me Eliyahu, where he brings the five levels of faith that people are on, when it comes to earning a living.

The five levels are as follows:

Level 1) The highest level is that of the person who…now sees the natural and the miraculous both as open miracles, having realized that ‘nature’ has not independent existence at all…His worldly needs can now be given him in way that are openly miraculous. There is no longer any need to conceal the miracle from him.

Level 2) There is another person who may have reached a very high level of faith, but when he searches the depths of his hear he finds that nature and miracle are not completely equal for him. He has not yet reached the ultimate perfection of trust. Consequently, he will not find miracles attending his path.

Level 3) The third level refers to those people whose faith is strengthened by miracles, while it is weakened by natural processes. Such people should reduce their use of natural means as far as possible.

Level 4) People…who do not recognize miracles when they see them, can derive no benefit from being dealt with in a miraculous fashion…they will be dealt with by providence in ways that seem to conform to natural patterns…If he becomes poor and downtrodden, and in spite of all his endeavors care and deprivation are his lot, he may eventually face a moment of truth. He may realize that all his efforts were of no avail and, heartbroken, he may turn to Hashem in prayer.

Level 5) Some people may completely fail to recognize God’s providence and may go in for worldly endeavor in a big way – and their activities may be blessed by Heaven…Why are they not taught the error of their ways by poverty and suffering?…The answer is…they are so far gone that they are no longer worthy of attention from on high.

When my husband quit his job to ‘let God provide’ – as he’d been encouraged to do by his then rabbi – I knew we weren’t on the level to really live that reality.

But it’s only when I came across this that I realized we were aiming for Level 1 – which even Yaacov Avinu didn’t think he was on – when really, we were at tops, Level 3, same as the man who grew boobs.

The two years we were trying to rely on miracles, we got a lot of them, but they weren’t exactly enjoyable, or easy, or something that helped us make friends and influence people. In fact, they often did quite the opposite, because when all is said and done, who wants to hang out with a guy who grew miraculous boobs?!

Mommy and me doesn’t want him; his mates down the pub don’t want him; even his mum thinks he’s a little strange and off-putting and tries to keep the visits short and sweet.

Sure, it’s still a spiritual level higher than most people probably ever get within spitting distance of – but it’s a not a ‘good’ place to be, is it?

Where did he buy clothes? Did the boobs disappear again, once the kid grew up, or was he stuck 42DD forever? These are all very important questions, because as Rav Dessler and the Gemara makes clear, miracles don’t always, or even usually, come for free.

So where are we holding now that we’re definitely not in the relying on Heaven for everything category? I’d love to say it’s level 4 – I’d love to say we’re now back to working hard, while still knowing that God truly is providing everything, and there are days when I really believe this. But not always. Sometimes, I still complain. I still feel aggrieved when I hear of rich foreigners buying up all the apartments in Jerusalem, which means us poor locals can’t even get a foot in the door. I still worry sometimes about ‘what will be?’

Sometimes, I feel like an open miracle is the only way I’m ever going to own my own home again.

So maybe, it’s somewhere between 3 and 4. Who knows. The point is, just because someone is getting miracles, even a lot of them, doesn’t mean they’ve completely made it in the spirituality stakes.

It’s possible they could be at Level 1 – if they’re the generation’s equivalent of the Rashbi.

Or, they could be holding at Level 3 – unnatural boobs, no friends, but at least their kid has some milk to drink.

Or, they could even be at Level 1, where their success is miraculous because God has decided to give up on them, and not send them any material difficulties or hardships. From the outside, it’s often impossible to tell.

Personally, I’m not having enough financial success to be at Level 1, or enough horrible challenges to be at Level 2, or enough open miracles to be at Level 3, so maybe it is Level 4 after all. I guess we’ll see what happens next.

Before I threw all my secular CDs away, Queen was one of my favorite bands by a long chalk. The beats, the melodies, the guitar riffs, the clever lyrics. I loved Queen to bits. One of my all time favourite songs was ‘Under Pressure’.

Dum dum dum diddy dum dum. Dum dum dum diddy dum dum (oo-wa-oop).

Just now, my husband told me that since Chanuka, he’s been feeling like he’s been under non-stop pressure, without any let-up.

Thank God, we can pay our bills and nothing particularly ‘major’ is happening to explain this big build-up of tension and stress, but there’s no doubt about it: we’re under pressure.

And we aren’t the only ones.

As ‘the matzav’ in Israel continues to wind its way towards whatever Heavenly goal it’s being designed to achieve, I’ve noticed more and more short tempered outburst going on around me. People are honking more; they’re walking faster (or staying home…); they have less patience for people, they’re more out of it.

In short, they’re under pressure.

All of us are feeling the stress at every level of our being. That much is clear. What’s less obvious (at least to me) is what all this pressure is meant to be achieving. Because for sure, God is doing it for a good reason.

Is He trying to provoke a collective national melt-down, that will lead to a mass teshuva movement?

Is He trying to show us all that we simply can’t get by without Him any more, and He’s going to keep upping the ante until any semblance of arrogance and independence is crushed out of us?

Is He secretly working for Big Pharma, and has bought a bunch of shares in Prozac et al?

I don’t know – which is actually quite strange for me, as I like to think I at least have a small inkling of what God might be planning with all this stuff. But I don’t. Despite all my hours of praying, and all my efforts to talk to God, and all my attempts to read the runes and decode the hints He’s sending me, and everyone else, I feel that I’m currently sailing in unchartered waters.

To put it another way, I haven’t had a clue what’s been going on in my life, or around me, since Succot, and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. I know the pressure is building – we can all feel it, and you’d have to be crazy to not recognize that ‘something’ is bubbling under the surface.

What the something is, or how it’s going to manifest in the world, is anyone’s guess. I hope its Moshiach. I hope its redemption. I hope it’s chanukat habayit (both personally and nationally).

But right now, all I really know is that I’m under pressure, and some days, it really feels like I just can’t take it anymore.