I haven’t been doing as much ‘Sefirat HaOmer’ stuff as I hoped on the blog this year, partially because it took a lot of effort to get ’49 Days’ out, before the Omer, and partially because I’ve had a heck of a lot of stuff going on since Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

But in this, the last week of counting the Omer, and heading into the last days, I have a story to share with you that sums up very nicely the power of today, ‘The spiritual dimension focusing on gratitude.’

As you may or may not know, my eldest started Ulpana (religious girls’ boarding school) last year, and really has been hating every minute.

The school she ended up in as miles away from civilization, surrounded by desert, and has a bus that gets to it precisely once a week from Jerusalem.

If she misses that bus (as does occasionally happen…) it’s a 5 hour round trip for me or my husband to drop her off.

But that’s not all: the school itself is well-meaning but SOOOO boring. There is no library, two extra-curricular classes (either pottery, or drama), no sports (they didn’t even have a sports teacher, the first two months) – and absolutely nothing to do to keep the girls occupied after classes are finished.

My daughter has been going slowly bonkers there for months, but decided to stick it out because she persuaded her best friend to go to that school too, and she felt super-guilty about leaving her in the lurch.

Then three months’ ago, Hashem did a miracle: The best friend flunked out of school, and her parents yanked her out and put in the local high school. With that problem resolved, my daughter was free to find another place.

Just one difficulty: every single school we applied to, that she was even remotely interested in, told us that they were full. By last week, with just two weeks’ to go, things were looking pretty desperate, and I had no idea where else to try.

Cue: the unexpected phone call from a new ulpana who mistakenly thought I’d tried to contact them. On the face of things, it didn’t sound so promising: The girls get up at 5.30am to go and work in the fields for a couple of hours before really starting the rest of their day.

Hmmmm.

My daughter is NOT a morning person. Still, the headmistress sounded so darned enthusiastic and plain nice, that I asked my daughter if she’d attend the open day, just to see. “Look, God arranged for them to phone me out of the blue,” I explained to her. “So maybe, this is the place!”

Silence.

But she agreed to go along to the open day that happened to be last Thursday. I risked a text mid-day, to ask her how it was going.

‘Good!’ came back the reply.

For the first time in months, I started to hope that maybe, just maybe, we’d found my daughter a school she could be happy in.

Long story short, my daughter came back glowing, so happy to have met girls on her wavelength, and willing to try crazy ideas like getting up at 5.30am to pick tomatoes…

The school accepted her formally this week, and for the first time in a year, I heard my daughter giggle again.

She hasn’t giggled for ages.

In the past, I’ve tried marathon prayer sessions to get things to move, school-wise , for my kids, and sometimes they’ve worked a treat. This time round, I didn’t have the energy to do that. But God showed me that He still cares, He was still looking out for my daughter, and He loves us anyway.

Even without a six hour hitbodedut, God still pulled the right string, to get my daughter into the right school, at the right time.

But if I want her to get up at 5.30am in the morning, something tells me that a bit more praying may still be in order.

😉

> You can buy 49 Days: An Interactive Journal of Self-development on Amazon and on the Book Depository

If there is one thing that I’m eternally grateful to last week’s ‘alternative health’ experience for, it’s for re-igniting my passion for Yiddishkeit.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that the last couple of years have been pretty challenging for me. Things are much better now, thank God, but last year I hit such a low place that my faith got shaken to its core.

It wasn’t just the loneliness, business failure, lack of money and self-serving religious ‘advisors’. The hardest thing of all is that I’d followed God into the wilderness, and then when things got really rough and I needed Him the most, He hid Himself from me.

Of course really, God was still guiding and supporting me all the way through, because otherwise there is simply no way that me and my family could have made it through what we experienced, and come out the other side with our health, sanity and relationships intact.

But here and there, the doubts have still lingered, and I have found myself sometimes struggling to do mitzvahs, especially the ones that I find very difficult and that don’t give me much of a happy feeling, like making challah, for example.

So last week, God gave me a huge present:

He showed me that while the orthodox Jewish world is still very flawed, and that there really is still a lot of work to do, compared to the non-orthodox and non-Jewish world, it’s still doing pretty well.

Let’s just take the issue of tznius (modesty). Tznius has been a tough subject for me, because I’ve seen how my kids (and myself…) have reacted against tznius, when it’s been given over by flawed people who have an unfortunate gift for making people feel wrong, guilty and bad about themselves. I’d love to tell you that those people are few and far between, but my experience has been that a certain type of individual – often a very competitive, superior and judgmental sort of person – just LOOOOOVES the power trip they get out of making other people’s external standards of tznius a big deal.

Time and time again, I’ve found myself caught on the horns of a furious dilemma with tznius, because I truly believe that tznius dress, behavior and attitudes are very important to Hashem.

But at the same time, I hate all the judgment, snobbery and disgusting blame and shame tactics that seem to be tied to it, especially when it comes to our children.

But last week, my ambivalence about tznius evaporated, as I saw how holy people truly are when they dress appropriately, and don’t try to draw attention to themselves with loud behavior and in-your-face antics, and do their best to keep away from members of the opposite sex.

Something else I fell back in love with: saying blessings.

Blessings on my food, blessings after going to the bathroom, blessings when I wake up in the morning, to thank God for the simple gift of just being alive. I’m so used to being around people who say blessings, that I was shocked to be around people who just shoveled their food straight down their throats without a second’s pause to thank their Creator, or who droned on and on about how much additional energy you get from raw food without once mentioning the tremendous additional spiritual nourishment you unleash from your food when you say a blessing over it.

I could go on and on with examples, but another big reason I fell back in love with Yiddishkeit last week is because I saw the futility and the arrogance of people who live their lives without God in the picture.

So many healers and therapists were queuing up, promising all sorts of benefits and cures, when it was clear that so many of them remained troubled in body, mind and spirit themselves.

To be blunt, a lot of the people I met were completely off their rocker; a lot of them were so obsessed with finding the latest ‘cure’ for their illnesses or difficulties that they had no space for social niceties or generosity of spirit; and a lot of them were so obviously lost in the world that it stretched credulity to the limit when they claimed to have found ‘the truth’.

To be blunt again, the nicest people I met last week were the ones who genuinely believed in God, however ‘religious’ they may have externally appeared to be, and who acknowledged 100% that they were just a tool in the Creator’s hand.

In my darkest days last year, I sometimes thought how my life could have been better or different, if I hadn’t tried so hard to chase after God.

You know, I’d have stayed in my soul-destroying job, treating my kids and husband like rubbish, because that would have given me far more status, external success and money. Or, I’d have yanked my husband out of yeshiva when our finances hit the skids, and forced him to get a ‘real’ job before we ended up having to sell our house just to be able to buy the groceries. Or, I’d have stopped taking the lid off all those unpleasant character traits, and bad habits and horrible beliefs I had, which forced me to look at some very unpleasant things about myself, and to actually try to change them.

Last week showed me that tough as those decisions were, and hard as the fall-out has been, particularly in terms of my finances and social status, they have brought me far more blessings than I ever realized.

No, I’m not free to hike on Friday nights, or to attend ‘spiritual’ events with members of the opposite sex, or to do whatever I think makes me ‘feel good’, even if it means trampling some of God’s laws in the process.

But you know what? I’m happy.

And if you’re a Jew, you’re only going to find true happiness and fulfilment by living an authentically Jewish life, that has God firmly in the picture.

God is actually very simple.

He runs His world with the utmost simplicity and clarity, just we human beings like to get in the middle of things, and make them a whole lot more complicated and messy than they need to be.

For example, humanity came up with the idea that things can be ‘neutral’, i.e., neither good, nor bad, just kind of something in the middle.

Really?

That’s hogwash. There is nothing ‘neutral’ in the whole world, because if you really take things back to the most basic level, something is either ‘good’ or it’s ‘bad’, and there is nothing in between.

So now, we hit the next level of confusion and muddled-thinking: How can we know what’s truly ‘good’ and what’s truly ‘bad’, anyway? In today’s world, where moral relativism rules and the politically-correct Powers That Be keep changing the goal posts, how are we meant to be able to define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in any meaningful way?

But God, in His infinite wisdom, even has a very simple, never-fail answer for that, too:

When something brings you closer to God, then it’s GOOD.

When something takes you further away from God, then it’s BAD.

And nowhere does this hold most true than in the realm of human health.

If walking five miles a day brings you closer to God, and is really helping you to get in touch with that spark of the Divine inside of you, aka your soul, then it’s a great thing. But if it’s doing the opposite – then it’s not.

If eating the sprouted bread is bringing you closer to God, and giving you the energy you need to fulfill your Divinely-ordained mission in the world, and to be nicer to people (including yourself) then it’s wonderful. But if your strict diet is isolating you, or stopping you from doing things that would fill you up with joy and gratitude, or causing you to adopt a judgmental, superior, or critical attitude towards your fellow human beings (or yourself) – then it’s really NOT good for you.

And so on, and so forth.

This measure of true goodness is so flexible that you can apply it to absolutely everything, from relationships, to beliefs, to habits, or even, to bars of chocolate.

Because sometimes, even eating a bar of chocolate for lunch can be a ‘good’, holy thing.

The famous Jewish mystic Rebbe Nachman of Breslev taught that if we don’t consciously make the effort to attach our breath, and our thoughts to ‘good’ and to God, then we automatically become attached to the opposite.

The opposite of God is NOT neutral, although so many of us believe that such a thing exists, especially in the spiritual world.

The opposite of God is ‘bad’.

It’s evil; it’s hatred; it’s jealousy, and arrogance, and intolerance, and greed, and selfishness, and superficiality – and all those other horrible things that are making our world a difficult place to live in.

I know, that’s not at all ‘PC’, is it? Most of us don’t like to hear that the world is full of these things, even though we see human misery and suffering all around us.

So to sum up, every time we connect ourselves to God in some way, we are connecting to good, and hopefully bringing more of that good, and love and kindness into the world.

And every time we don’t, and we pretend that we don’t need to connect to the Creator, then we automatically connect ourselves to the opposite of God.

And that explains a lot about why the world currently looks the way it does, doesn’t it?

Now that all the hooha about yoja has dimmed down a little, I think it’s time to look at another disturbing ‘pseudo-spiritual’ practice.

In the alternative health world, there are three main sacred cows, as follows:

  • Yoga
  • Healthy food
  • Meditation

The basic idea is that if you do all three of these things, your life will be perfect, your will float through all your troubles like a serene fairy, and you will only enjoy complete health and happiness.

Of the three, healthy food is by far the least troubling, although it’s true that everything can be taken to an extreme when God somehow gets forgotten about.

And we’ve already gone a long way to exposing the flawed thinking (and bona fide idol worship) behind yoga – and God willing, I hope to put together a special report on why yoga is NOT for believing Jews very soon, that you can download and share around.

So that leaves us with meditation.

Now, what could possibly be wrong with meditation, you ask? Isn’t meditation just the same sort of idea as the Breslev practice of hitbodedut, or personal prayer? The short answer is: no, no, and absolutely not.

Here’s why: the goal of meditation, even so-called ‘Jewish’ meditation, is to empty your mind of all thoughts, and concentrate on your breathing, and on experiencing your ‘nothingness’. God is completely out of the picture. (More on this shortly.)

At the holistic health event, I actually went to a couple of what was billed as ‘Jewish’ meditation classes, to get a feel for what really goes on with it all, and how it compares to hitbodedut.

In one class, that had bells, and Tibetan glass bowls, and few other props (plus very strict instructions to turn all mobile phones completely off) – I spent a whole hour being told I was a drop merged in the huge Kinneret, separate but part of something much bigger. There was also a lot of talk of being merged in the ‘velvet blackness’ that exists somewhere beyond the world. Just as I started to get really uncomfortable, Hashem finally made an appearance – we were to imagine the four letters of God’s ineffable name, etc.

At the end of that class, I went over to the teacher and asked him straight out:

How does this sort of meditation help you to fix your bad middot, or negative character traits? I mean, really cool that I got to relax a little and be a raindrop in the Kinneret, but if that’s all I spent a whole hour doing every day, then what on earth was the point?

I asked the teacher (who in fairness, did seem a whole lot more sincere than a lot of the other people there) to tell me how this type of meditation had helped him to become a nicer person, or get closer to God – because when people can only tell you those types of things if they’ve actually experienced them.

He replied by telling me that I should picture Hashem’s ineffable four letter name, and picture it washing away all my bad middot. It sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s baloney. In order for us to change our negative character traits and really improve ourselves, we have to change how we treat people in the real world. We have to apologise. We have to acknowledge our bad behavior. Sometimes, we have to make some difficult choices that are going to completely shake up our lives, make us look bad, or cause us some serious discomfort.

All of that was missing in the whole ‘raindrop’ meditation thing.

I will come on to other problems with it in the next post, but I just wanted to mention the other ‘Jewish meditation’ I went to. This one was taught by a very nice, sincere rabbi who’d spent years studying the teachings of Rav Aryeh Kaplan.

Again, we had to focus on our breathing, or on the birds, and not think about anything else. Then, we had to walk around the room super-slowly, and concentrate on how our feet were lifting up and being set back down again, super-slowly.

While this was miles better than the other version, not least because the Rabbi actually talked directly about God, and about connecting to God, and even had a ‘Shema meditation’ to share with us, I still had a problem with it:

How does focusing on my breathing, or the birds, or my walking, help me to fix my bad middot? How does it help me to get the advice I need to move forward in life, or to figure out all the knotty issues and problems in my life, or to be nicer to my husband and kids?

I asked the Rabbi, and he responded along the lines that when you realize that God is behind everything, then you can’t get angry at people any more.

Again, it’s a miles-better approach than the first guy, but practically speaking? I still don’t think it’s a very practical idea. I’ve spent years working on my bad middot, and things are really not that straight-forward, easy or simple.

By contrast, Rav Arush teaches that you have to spend a full half an hour every single day, asking God to nullify a single bad character trait, or negative habit – and even then, it can still take years before it’s fully gone, particularly if it’s one of your ‘big’ issues. There’s layers and layers and layers to this stuff, which is why our Rabbis taught that it’s easier to learn the whole Shas then to change even one character trait.

And here, I was being told that listening to birds and watching myself walk slowly was going to do the trick….

Who was right?

Was I just being judgmental, or was there some other, deeper, reason for how uneasy and uncomfortable I was feeling about the whole subject? I came home, cracked open Rebbe Nachman’s Likutey Moharan – and the answer was staring me straight in the face. I’ll share it with you in the next post, God willing.

Recently, I experienced something that distu disturbing things I’ve ever experienced was a group ‘spiritual healing’ session that was facilitated by an apparently ‘frum’ person.

I thought I was going to a demo of psychodrama, which is where a traumatized person asks different people to pretend to be their mum and dad, and then re-enacts certain scenarios with these ‘stand-ins’ where they get to speak up, run away, have a voice etc, often for the first time in their lives.

Bessel Van Der Kolk writes about how useful psychodrama can be for adult trauma victims who experienced very painful childhoods, so I wanted to go and hear about this approach first-hand.

That’s what I thought I was going to.

What I actually went to was something way different, and I want to share my experience with you, as I think it sums up how confusing, cloudy and even sinister things can be in the Jewish alternative health world.

I got there a couple of minutes late, when the ‘volunteer’ had already been picked, and people were sitting down in a circle, waiting for the action to begin. The facilitator asked the volunteer to pick stand-ins, who would represent different family members, and to arrange them in the middle of the circle. So far so good.

Then, the facilitator asked each of the ‘actors’ in turn about how they felt about one another, and of course, they all really loved each other, and everything was just fine and dandy.

In fact, things were so fine and dandy that it started to seem a bit pointless to me – I mean, a group of amateur actors aren’t exactly going to start revealing where all the family’s skeletons are buried, a) because they don’t actually know and b) because we all like a happy ending.

But then, as more people were picked to represent different, additional family members, something very weird started to happen.

One of the actors suddenly started to sob uncontrollably. Another one – a beautiful young girl – underwent a character transformation, that took her from being her sweet, innocent, optimistic self to a very cold, bitter and angry older woman.

It could be there were other things happening too, but because the change in the younger woman was so dramatic, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Long story short, the original volunteer, who’s family life history was now playing out in full colour in front of about 25 other people, was asked to join the tableau, and to start having conversations with all her ‘ancestors’.

It was clearly a very emotionally-charged event and tears were flowing freely.

But here’s the thing: As I was sitting there watching all this, I suddenly started picking up some very strong ‘feelings’ about the personalities of the ‘characters’ in front of me – and that’s when I started to freak out, because while I’m very good at reading people’s characters when they’re enclothed in a physical body and actually talking to me, I’ve never being able to read the character of some person who died a few decades’ ago, and who I’ve never met.

Afterwards, I was told that at least one of the participants also couldn’t describe what had just occurred, and said that the words she found herself saying were not really coming from her.

There were some powerful, powerful spiritual forces being unleashed in that room – and here’s where things get serious, because IF those powerful spiritual forces are mandated and accepted by orthodox Judaism, well, OK then.

But if they aren’t – then they weren’t coming from a good place. Now, I came late. It could be a prayer was said before I got there, or God was somehow involved by the facilitator in a way that wasn’t at all clear to me, I don’t know. But God wasn’t mentioned at all the whole time I was watching this, not even at the end when the facilitator told the volunteer that she’d just ‘fixed’ all her ancestral hurt and issues.

Really?

Really, you can have a group of people act like your long-dead family, and that ‘fixes’ the problem, spiritually?

Is that a Jewish idea? What about free choice? What about the idea that spiritual tikunnim actually require a lot of effort, a lot of change, and some truly difficult inner work?

I’m not ‘anti’ spiritual short-cuts if they’re coming from a good place, and they work. But this demonstration bothered me on a number of levels. As someone who’s worked very hard on trying to fix a whole bunch of stuff, I know how hard big tikunim can be sometimes – literally, you can spend years working on things and see very little movement.

So the apparent ‘ease’ of the process was problematic to me, as God very rarely works that way. The ‘other-world’ aspects of this process were also very disturbing to me, as I felt on many levels that in some way, the participants were being ‘possessed’ by spiritual forces that were external to them, and I just can’t see how that can be good, or kosher.

I felt terrible for the poor volunteer.

For all the facilitator was congratulating her on ‘fixing’ all her past and family issues, and telling her how wonderful she was going to feel now, if it was me who’d walked right into that very public display of my family’s dirty washing – in front of so many different people – that would be enough to give me a serious case of trauma, all by itself.

And lastly, I felt really bad about the actors. I mean, no-one asked them, or warned them, that they might have some sort of disembodied spirit taking them over for an hour. These things are serious, spiritually-speaking, and we can’t just mess around with them at a whim, or deal with them superficially, or follow the mores of different religions or different ‘experts’ as to what’s really going on and what long-term damage it might do – because they don’t know!

I came out of that ‘healing experience’ extremely confused and disturbed. I came home, told my daughter what I’d just seen, and she involuntarily shuddered and said:

‘Uggh, that sounds a bit like avoda zara to me,’ holy soul that she is.

After thinking about it a lot, and praying about it, and asking God for some clarity and guidance, I think she’s right.

Yes, Western medicine is corrupt, and drugs and surgery literally kill as much as they cure. Yes, a lot of the more alternative, natural treatments are much closer to the Torah ideal of how we should treat mental and physical illness – but not all of them.

As the alternative movement gathers steam in the world generally, and in the Jewish world more specifically, all of us need to really be on guard to check, double-check and check again that the treatments and therapies we’re engaging in really ARE kosher.

Just because someone looks frum, doesn’t mean things are being done in a genuinely frum way.

There’s a huge amount of clarification that’s required, as we inch forward into this more spiritual way of being before Moshiach. So don’t be scared to ask hard questions, to insist on being shown how God is being included in things, and which rabbis have mandated the approach or practices you’re being offered, and lastly, don’t be scared to stand up and walk away, if you have to.

That’s not always easy, but when you’re dealing with matters where the stakes are just so high, sometimes you simply have no other choice.

UPDATE:

Two years later, I happened to bump into the ‘volunteer’ by the grave of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess In Tiveria. I asked her if she thought the ‘family constellation’ experience had helped her at all, to resolve the issues she’d been experienced. She replied that it hadn’t changed a thing. So, caveat emptor.

Last Thursday was Israel’s Independence Day, or Yom Ha-Atzmaut, and it’s always an interesting day in my household.

We don’t really fit the mold, religiously or communally, in myriad ways, and Yom Ha-Atzmaut always seems to underline that with a vengeance, because there are so many different decisions to make, like:

  • Do I hang a massive big flag outside the front of my house, like one of my kids wants me too? (even though we’re in a very chareidi neighborhood in Jerusalem that really doesn’t like that stuff so much?)
  • Do I stick an Israeli flag on my car, like another one of my kids really wants me too? (even though I’m worrying someone might deface it and / or try to vandalize my vehicle?)
  • Do I let my kids listen to music, even though it’s smack in the middle of the Omer, where you’re not meant to listen to music until you’ve got up to L’ag B’Omer, on the 33rd day?
  • Do I let myself listen to music, even though I’m not really 100% convinced that this is completely a chag the way the more hard-core dati leumi crowd (like my kids…) thinks it is?
  • Does my husband say Hallel? Does he say takanun?
  • Do we do the BBQ / Mangal thing (like 99% of Israel…) or pretend it’s just a regular day (like Meah Shearim, many former Gush Katif people, and my husband’s yeshiva?)

Questions, questions.

This year, I said: ‘OK! We can do the flag on the car!’

It seemed like a reasonable compromise between the various camps in my home. And we also decided to do a BBQ with my husband’s learning partner from yeshiva and his family, so at least they could talk Torah while we cooked the hotdogs.

Just, the flag thing wasn’t as simple as I thought. My daughter stuck the flag on, when we went to school. But the next morning, found it on the backseat, because my husband took it off when he went to daven in Meah Shearim (worried that someone would vandalize such an obviously Zionist car).

So, she stuck it back on – and he took it off – every day for a week, and sometimes, it happened multiple times, depending on where we were going and who was driving the car.

Finally, the day before Yom HaAtzmaut itself – someone DID vandalize the car, right next to where we lived, and snapped the flag off, leaving only a small, plastic stump to celebrate the holiday.

Over lunch, we discussed a little bit the whole ‘is it really a holiday’ thing.

Personally, my views on the subject seem to change every year, but this year I found myself in a place of quiet gratitude to God that there is an Israel to live in, however flawed, secular and difficult things still can be here, but still thinking that there’s a lot of work to do before we can really celebrate making it ‘back’, in the fullest sense of the word.

The day before the chag, a terrorist stabbed two old ladies in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, so like Rav Arush says, we can’t even celebrate walking safely in our streets just yet, let alone ‘redemption’ in the true spiritual meaning of the word.

Maybe next year, things will change enough to make it easier to know what to do with the flags, and the music, and the BBQ. I mean, if Moshiach and the Temple is here, then it’s a no-brainer that we’ll nip down to the altar for a wicked lamb shwarma, and then catch the sold-out concert by the Levyim in the Sultan’s Pool, as the fireworks go off over the new Jewish neighborhood of Silwan.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

Since a few weeks’ before Pesach, I’ve been feeling pretty strange.

Yes, Pesach was very hectic this year, with lots of family coming out to Israel. Yes, I got hit with the ‘mystery’ illness that kept me feeling exhausted and out of it for around a month. Yes, my kids are both pretty unsettled in their schools, my husband is still pretty unsettled in his career, and I’m still trying to work out what I want to do when I grow up.

All these things are really just variations on a theme that has been reoccurring periodically in my life for decades: that feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing with myself, and that my life feels a bit empty and purposeless.

I’ve tried to fill that space with writing, with books, with classes, with praying, with working like a dog, with holidays, with exercising like a crazy person (many years’ ago, now…) and occasionally, even with cleaning my toilet.

Sometimes they work, more as a distraction than anything else. Usually, I have to go and do some big prayer-a-thon to get underneath the icky feeling and just reconnect back to myself, and then back to God. And THAT’s when I get some relief and some clarity and some inner peace.

(If you’re wondering, I often have to do a longer hitbodedut every week, to keep on top of the empty, pointless feeling that can swirl around me not infrequently.)

But given all that, this period of time still feels different from the usual meaningless / pointless / confused / frustrated feelings I get.

I don’t know about you, but this period of counting the Omer has been pretty intense so far. Every day seems to bring its fair share of deep, introspective work, and insights. I’ve been getting intense dreams, experiencing some weird things, and God has sent me some huge messages about what I need to work on and fix, still.

Like, I had one dream involving people I hadn’t spoken to for years, already, which made me realize I was still pretty upset at them and harbouring a huge grudge. Who knew?

Or, I had a conversation with one of my kids that left me literally gasping for breath. She mentioned something nonchalantly, like kids do, and I suddenly lost my voice and couldn’t breathe for a few seconds.

Gosh, clearly some deep, internal button had been pressed.

Who knew that stuff was still so tightly-wired up inside, and reactive?

So since Pesach has ended (and really, even before it began) I’ve been caught up in a bit of an internal maelstrom, where I know God is expecting big things of me, but I’m still finding it hard to really identify them, or give Him what I think He wants.

And it’s intense.

Do you know that Rav Eliezer Berland is in prison in South Africa, and has been kept there for over a month, already? Do you know what terrible trials and difficulties he’s going through?

Part of me feels that it’s only right that my life should feel so intense and unstable at the moment, because how can a huge Tzaddik like this be suffering so much, and we just sit here carrying on, business as usual?

In fact, the situation with Rav Berland is what makes me think, more than anything else, that this period of time is unusual, even though parts of it feel all-too-familiar. Things are getting shaken up. Things are getting broken down. Things are changing.

In which way, and what that means, I have no idea. I hope it’s going to lead to Moshiach and the temple, peacefully. But it feels like we’re definitely entering unchartered waters in some way at the moment, at least to me. And without my hitbodedut to keep me afloat, I think I probably would have sunk under all the pressure and intensity a long time ago.

Getting into Pesach this year was such a slog for me.

Around two weeks’ before the holiday, I had another dose of my pre-Pesach ‘mystery’ illness, where I start feeling so weak and horrible, it’s all I can do to get out of bed, let alone clean my skirting boards.

It’s happened like clock-work three years’ in a row now, and while the first year I was seriously worried I was dying, by this stage I KNOW it’s a spiritual / emotional thing – which makes it easier to deal with, in some ways, but still pretty challenging when it comes to actually getting stuff done for Pesach.

This year’s dose of spiritual malaise took me out for three days, and when I finally had the energy to get out of bed again, I had just over a week to get EVERYTHING done. Which is when my yetzer kicked in big time.

It started reminding me about all those people who get taken away to luxury hotels for Pesach… and all those people who have family around to make Seder for them and share the load… and all those people who can afford to get cleaning help, at least occasionally, to do what must be done before the holiday.

Dear reader, I moped around feeling so sorry for myself, and so unfortunate, and so ‘low’ in so many ways, leading up to Seder night.

I really felt like I was trapped in the land of bad middot, and I had no idea how I was ever going to get out of it.

What was keeping me going was the thought that hopefully, Seder night would be the breakthrough I needed, to stop feeling like such a sad loser and to see things start turning around again.

Seder night arrived – but my enthusiasm didn’t. The first half an hour, I sat there staring at the other three people around the table, and I just wanted to cry. Just me and my immediate family AGAIN. Another year where I felt more dead than alive, going into the Festival of freedom and redemption. Another year where despite my best efforts to grow, change and improve, my life still seemed to be stuck in a very despairing, negative place.

Sigh.

Of course, I’m a grown-up, so I didn’t say any of this stuff.

I just sat at the table with my pretend fixed smile on my face, trying to make out like I was really enjoying the whole proceedings. But underneath? I was drowning in misery.

Just then, the kid who is my mirror (and who’d also been feeling really unwell the week leading up to Seder) spoke up:

“I hate Pesach!” she declared loudly and with feeling, before we’d even got up to singing ‘Ma Nishtana’. “I hate it even more than Purim!” (Which is saying something, because this Purim she spent the whole holiday violently throwing up.)

Long story short, I suddenly realized that God was not going to let me get away with my secret despair, and that something had to change pronto, or else we were about to have the worse Seder ever.

When you have a small family like mine, everyone has to participate at Seder, and sit at the table, because one missing person is really a whole world.

I was off ‘missing’ in my head, and my kid decided to absent herself to go sit on the couch, leaving my husband and other kid desperately trying to raise everyone’s spirits and rescue our Festival of Freedom.

Just then, I stopped moaning and started thanking God.

‘Thanks, God, that me and my kid both hate Pesach. Thanks, God, that hard as I try to be a good Jew and keep mitzvot, somehow or other the rug keeps getting pulled out from under my feet, and I can’t seem to give You the joy, happiness and enthusiasm I’d really like to. Thanks, that I often go into these holidays feelings so lost and lonely – even more than usual. Thanks that I am NEVER going to be the subject of a Feldheim biography on ideal Yiddishkeit…’

Suddenly, the cloud lifted a little, and my kid came back to the table.

Next, I asked my family what was the worse Seder we’d ever had – and as everyone remembered this bad experience or that, I suddenly realized that every single one of our ‘worst’ Seders had been with other people. Here I was, moaning about it being just us, while actually, ‘just us’ was a pretty good deal!

We could all take the Seder at the pace we wanted to; it was much more relaxed and informal; I hadn’t killed myself making 18 side-dishes for guests; no-one was arguing about who was going to sing Ma Nishtana; I wasn’t being bored to death by the 100th dvar Torah…

Hmmm.

Maybe things weren’t so bad after all!

A few minutes later, me and my mirror had seriously cheered up, and we were both actually (whisper this…) enjoying ourselves.

Later on in the week, I spoke to some relatives about how their family-filled, luxurious Seders had gone. One had ended up in hospital with their kid on Seder night thanks to a serious asthma attack, while the other was completely exhausted from being up until five in the morning, and couldn’t wait for their ‘real’ holiday to begin.

Hmmm.

Pesach continued to be challenging in other ways this year, but the unifying theme throughout the last week (at least for me) is that appearances can be very deceptive, especially at this stage of the game.

The more ‘shiny’ and ‘successful’ and ‘sociable’ it looks from the outside, probably the worst it’s actually feeling.

I learnt that lesson big time this Pesach.

I hope God’s going to help me to remember it.

One of my favorite Rebbe Nachman stories is ‘The Master of Prayer’, which tells the story of a King and his 9 advisors, and how they all get lost and separated from each other as a result of a raging storm-wind.

In the story, each of the 10 lost members of the King’s court becomes the King (or Queen) of a different, misguided faction, until they are reunited. One misguided faction decides that sex is the main point of life; another, that fine food is the goal; yet another, that wisdom is the key thing to pursue.

And then there’s the inhabitants of the Land of Money, who are so obsessed with money that they literally worship the wealthiest members of their land as ‘stars’ and ‘gods’, while treating the poorer inhabitants as lowly animals. In the Land of Money, how much bling you’re flashing around, how many zeros you have in the bank, that’s the only thing that counts, and that’s the only measure of success.

Most of the story revolves around the Master of Prayer’s attempts to rescue the inhabitants of the Land of Money from their delusions, and to reunite the King’s lost advisors – both of which he ultimately accomplishes.

In the story, Rebbe Nachman explains that the lust for money is the hardest one to overcome.

Elsewhere, he brings that Pesach is the festival that comes to rectify the lust for money. Which is where things now start to dove-tail in a pretty neat way, because we all know that Pesach is always just SO expensive.

Even if you live in Israel, and you’re not going crazy trying to find Kosher for Passover plasticware in triple-sealed bags, Pesach still costs money. The matzahs aren’t cheap; the wine isn’t cheap; you need a seder plate, different pots, different plates – it’s all money. And never mind if you’re staying in a hotel in Israel for the holiday. And never mind double if you’re trying to celebrate it in Chut L’Aretz.

Why is this?

One reason could well be that all the expense of Pesach is coming to rectify the lust for wealth, that has so many people in its grip these days.

So it was fitting that I learned the following things last week: I learned that someone who owns a company with a huge £25 million annual turnover (and £6 million gross annual profit) gives an enormous £1,000 to charity a year. (Let me translate this into shekels, for any non-Brits reading this: £6 million = 36 million shekels. £1k = 6,000 shekels)

To put it another way, they’re giving 1/6000 of their annual income to charity.

Can you imagine the embarrassment of these people, when they get up to Heaven and God starts asking them about their business dealings (which is always the first question, as God also knows how to schmooze)? First, it’ll be that puffed-up, super-successful ‘I’m a billionaire’ answer; then, God will hit them with the ‘and how much did you give to charity, from all your millions of pounds?’

And that’s when it’ll hit them: nowhere near enough.

What an embarrassment!

This week, I also met a bunch of people from the UK, some of whom asked me the standard opening gambit question of:

‘Am I working now?’

I said no – proudly – and explained that I’m writing books about holistic health instead.

They immediately changed the subject to something more interesting and meaningful, i.e. the luxury flat they’re currently building, as home number three.

I waited to see if I was going to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that used to happen when I’d walk into some of the ‘superior’ and ‘financially successful’ minefields laid out all over the place in London. But you know what? It didn’t come! After waiting a few minutes for any delayed reaction, I realized that I’d finally got out of the Land of Money, and that I didn’t give a stuff that I’d failed the finances test.

I’ve seen so many people with so much more money than me, in so many different circumstances and places, this Pesach.

I used to feel a little jealous about the apparent ‘easy life’ they seemed to have, but now I’ve realized something profound that’s changed the whole picture: When you live in the Land of Money, you’re far away from God.

Until and unless that changes, it doesn’t matter how much cash you’ve stashed, how big your mansion is, or how impressive your annual turnover is, when it comes down to the things that really make life meaningful, happy and fulfilling, you’re still pulling a big, fat ZERO.

One of my favorite Rebbe Nachman stories is ‘The Master of Prayer’, which tells the story of how a great storm wind comes and throws the world into chaos, scattering the King’s ten advisors in the process.

The Master of Prayer is one of these advisors, and he takes it upon himself to go round the world reuniting the King with the other advisors, and rectifying all the countries who are now following ‘foolish’ beliefs about the meaning of life, as a result of the terrible storm they went through.

One group believes that the purpose of life is to eat; another that’s it to procreate; another chooses wisdom; another picks honor etc etc, but the most problematic land of all is the Land of Money.

You see, in all the other lands, there’s at least a moment, a second, when they’re satiated with their particular lust or desire, which gives the Master of Prayer an opportunity to come and talk to them about serving God, and the real meaning of life. But in the land of money, that simply never happens: they think about money ALL THE TIME, and it colors their every thought and every waking moment.

Worse, the people of the Land of Money literally kill themselves for money; and they also turn their richest citizens into ‘stars’ and ‘gods’ (Rebbe Nachman’s language…) who they worship incessantly.

By contrast, people without a lot of money are considered to be sub-human animals, and given no respect, rights or accorded even basic human dignity. As a result, the Master of Prayer is finding it next to impossible to rectify the inhabitants of the Land of Money, and to bring them back to God.

By this point, you may well be squirming a little in your seat, because guess what?

 In 2016, nearly all of us are living in the Land of Money!

And here’s how it’s affecting us:

  • It’s killing our marriages – because either or both parents are obsessed with parnassa, and never seem to be making enough to pay for all the ‘necessities’ of modern life, even when they both work full-time and bring home a packet. Then, all the blame and mutual recriminations start, which can poison relationships to their core very quickly.
  • It’s killing our kids – especially if the mum has a full-on ‘career’ that requires an awful lot of attention and time. The kids take a back seat to the boss, or the business, and they get ‘scheduled’ to death to enable mom to keep to her timetable. If their personal crises happens in a ‘scheduled’ moment – all well and good. When they don’t – it’s a huge problem for everyone, and the kid doesn’t always come first.
  • It’s killing our happiness – because people in the Land of Money never have enough, and they’re always worrying that they’ll be demoted to ‘animal’ status if they don’t keep earning a fortune (even when they have millions already in the bank…) To keep your humanity and dignity intact, remember this: money serves us, not the other way around. If I’m scared to spend money, it’s because I’m making that dollar bill more important than my own happiness and wellbeing.
  • It’s killing our souls – because when you’re thinking about money 24/7, you simply don’t have time to think about things like praying, or taking a time out to reflect on life, or to appreciate that GOD is giving us our parnassa, and we’re not achieving it by our own efforts.
  • It’s killing our bodies – because when people are stressed about money all the time, and working like dogs, and living above their means and borrowing huge amounts, and constantly worrying that they don’t have enough or won’t have enough, that puts so much pressure on the body that sooner or later, a whole bunch of nasty illnesses and diseases start to show up.

I could carry on, but you get the idea.

To sum up the problem, it’s like this:

When people live in the Land of Money, money is the first consideration, and beats out everything else.

Some common examples of this could include:

  • “I can’t make Aliyah, because I’m worrying about parnassa”
  • “I can’t quit my soul-destroying job, because I’m worrying about how to pay my huge mortgage if I do that”
  • “I can’t buy myself a new dress / new saucepan / new pair of shoes /[some other basic necessity], because I’m worrying about my money running out if I do that”
  • “I can’t give 10% of my income to charity, because I won’t have enough for myself then”
  • “I can’t stop running on the treadmill to make more money, because if I do that the money won’t just appear by itself.”

All of these statements have a ring of truth to them, don’t they? I know they do for me still, and I’ve been trying to leave the Land of Money for years’ already.

But there’s the problem: God is missing from this picture.

And when that happens, we start to build lives for ourselves based on the rules of the Land of Money, which states that our kids need expensive summer camps, and extra-curricular activities, and we need to be wearing labels, and to have everything matching, and that our homes need to be very big and spacious, and that every person over 17 needs their own car, and holidays are a necessity not a luxury, and that gourmet meals in fancy restaurants are what makes us happy, and guests must be offered a selection of expensive whiskeys and liquers to drink, and we must be working on plans to ‘get on’ and upscale our living arrangements, or our 401k plans, or our stockmarket holdings, or our property holdings and and and….

I’m exhausted just from typing that.

Here’s another problem that happens when you live in the Land of Money: You’ll literally sell your soul for cash.

Just ask all the bent politicians in Israel who take bribes for ‘peace’, or who (secretly…) sold Kever David to the Vatican for some big bucks, or who are happy to let Reform partition the Wailing Wall because they waved some dollars in their face.

When you live in the Land of Money, money talks, and God doesn’t. Or at least, not to you. Or at least, not in any way you care to listen to.

So how do we leave the Land of Money?

In the story of the Master of Prayer, it turns out the only way people can leave is via ‘the path to the sword’, i.e. very harsh judgments.

Those judgments could be severe health issues, severe marital problems, severe problems with kids going crazy or going off the derech, severe mental illness issues, or even (perhaps ironically), severe financial issues.

You want to know why so many of us are going through so much difficulty today, in every sense of the word?

This is why.

God is trying to get us out of the Land of Money once and for all, so we can stop obsessing about earning, and instead start yearning to get closer to God and to live a more spiritual life again.

It’s hard work, I know. But you know what’s even harder work? Getting stuck in a life, in a mindset, where money is the only thing that counts, no matter how miserable it makes you, how much it wrecks your peace of mind and relationships, or how much it kills your soul, your humanity, and your spiritual dimension.