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!”

Last week, I read something that completely changed my take on how difficult my life seems to have been the last decade:

Don’t collect things, collect experiences.

By the ‘stuff’ measure, the last few years’ have been almost a complete bust. I have less net worth at 42 than I had at 23 – and that’s sometimes a pretty painful realization. (Hopefully at least one of my books will take off big-time in the next 20 years or so, so I can afford to retire at some point.)

Buying stuff has been very far down my ‘to do’ list for years now, partially because I just couldn’t afford much, and partially because the shine went off all the gashmius and I realized that keeping the clutter, gadgets and outfits to a minimum actually makes me feel much happier.

But that London part of me still occasionally registers its displeasure with the way things have turned out. I mean, I can’t afford my own house! I don’t have a bath! I don’t have a garden! I can’t entertain more than two (thin) people at a time in my compact flat! Etc etc etc

London Rivka tells me: ‘You know, I hate to share this, but I think we might officially be a loser…’

And until I read that line about collecting experiences instead of stuff, I didn’t really have much to argue about.

But now? Now it’s all different!

Because while my bank account has been pretty empty the last decade, my experience bank has been full to busting. I’ve been to Uman 8 times; I lived in so many different places in Israel (and elsewhere); I’ve met so many interesting people; I’ve lived 50 lifetimes in the past 10 years, and packed so much into every day.

Now, I go to the Kotel pretty much every Friday night – and it’s an amazing experience that money really would be no substitute for. I’ve seen my kids blossom and grow into the most amazing young people, with far more insight, maturity and wisdom than I ever had at their age. Me and my husband could write 50 books about the challenges we’ve had to weather in our 19 years of marriage, from multiple moves, to multiple bankruptcies, to health issues, family issues, infertility issues, crazy friend issues, crazy rabbi issues – you name it, we’ve had a dose of it.

And until last week, I’d filed all that stuff away in the ‘debit’ column, but no more!

Now I’m starting to see that every single experience I had gave me something priceless. I learned so much. I grew so much. I hope I improved so much and worked on a bunch of bad middot that otherwise I wouldn’t have got near in a million years, if I was still pulling things off on the ‘more stuff’ front.

As time goes on, I’m truly feeling like the stuff comes along as the cherry, once you’ve experienced whatever it is you’re meant to, and squeezed every last drop of knowledge out of it.

So if you’re currently struggling to have much to show for yourself materially-speaking (and even if you’re not…) I invite you to join me in changing the focus completely around, and looking at life as more a collection of experiences, than a collection of things.

It’s a small mental switch, but it’s put me in the best mood I’ve been in for ages.

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.

Over the last decade, I’ve been to a ton of kevarim, or graves of holy people, all over the place.

I’ve visited the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hevron; the tomb of King David in the Old City, the Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, up in Meron; the Ari and Rabbi Yosef Karo in Tsfat; the grave of Rachel Imenu, near Bethlehem – and all the Ukraine lot besides, including Rebbe Nachman, the Berditchever and the Baal Shem Tov.

But there’s one grave that’s stood out as a ‘must visit’ – and because it’s in the middle of a heavily populated Palestinian town with pronounced terrorist tendencies, getting to it has been pretty tricky, the last 10 years.

Yosef’s tomb is in Shechem, and you can only get to it if you go as part of a midnight convoy on armoured buses, with the whole trip coordinated with the Israeli army.

Long story short, until last Sunday, I’d never been able to organize everything to go. But a couple of days’ earlier, someone told me about a trip that was leaving on Rosh Chodesh Shvat, and even sent me an email with all the details.

I called them up Sunday morning – still only half interested, if I’m honest, as I like my sleep and Shechem is a 2 hour shlep by bus from Jerusalem – and there was a place free. So I decided to go.

I get to the bus stop in Jerusalem, and the first person I see there is a former room-mate from Uman, who starts telling me the most amazing, miraculously-hair-raising true stories of sons who recovered from terminal illnesses after doing a pidyon nefesh with Rav Berland; and people who dropped dead the day after they finished translating a particular Breslev book into English; and miraculous moving-apartments-with-no-money stories.

I took a breath of cold air, and I could smell Rabbenu all around me – it was that same heady mix of uncertainty, kedusha and surrealism that so often comes with me to Uman, when I’m going to visit Rebbe Nachman.

You start feeling like ‘anything can happen’, and it can be quite unnerving, if still exhilarating at times.

The bus showed up – and it was an old bullet-proof clunker with double windows so thick and scratched, you couldn’t see out of them at all. It was like being blind-folded and led off down an alley. I tried to fall asleep, and I mostly managed.

I woke up a few minutes before the convoy drove into Shechem (at least, that’s what I guessed, because I couldn’t see a thing through the window) and then the bus pulled over to the side of the road, and we got the order to move out. I stepped out of the bus, and into Arab Nablus at 2am.

It was a cold, clear night, and you could see Yosef’s tomb 50 metres ahead – surrounded by a whole bunch of army APVs and soldiers in all sorts of combat gear, many of whom were holding really big guns.

How cool! I thought. Then: How weird, to be visiting a kever at 2am with half a platoon of the IDF and a whole, very mixed, crowd of people from across Israel.

There were families with small kids, teens, chareidim, hill-top youth with huge payot, sem girls, Chassidic matrons from Monsey, yeshiva students from London, wives, grannies and everything in between, besides.

I tried to grab two minutes by the kever, before it turned into a tin of sardines, and then I spent the rest of my short time there standing outside the building, trying to take it all in. You could see dark Nablus towering up the slopes all around the tomb, and I thought this must look pretty impressive in the day time. (Maybe one day I’ll find out…)

I tried to do some personal prayer, but the truth is that between the trip, the tiredness and the surreal situation, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and speechless.

So I watched, and this is what I saw: secular soldiers and chareidi men laughingly posing for pictures together; hundreds of people playing musical instruments and loudly celebrating Rosh Chodesh; ‘hill top yoof’ digging up the ground near the tomb and putting up a big blue tent (I still have no idea what all that was about, but it looked distinctly naughty; two teenage girls sat on the floor wrapped in the same blanket, reciting tehillim.

And the last thing I saw, just before I left, was a couple of teenage boys lugging a six pack of coke bottles around with them. At least, that’s how it looked from a distance, until I noticed a whole bunch of tubes were sticking out of the coke box, and were attached to one of the boys. The boy looked really ill – he had that ethereal, angelic quality that a person can get when they’re physically very frail. His friend had ‘disguised’ his respirator, or whatever it was, in a coke box, so his friend wouldn’t feel embarrassed while visiting the tomb.

That sight brought tears to my ears, and I said to God: Who is like your people, Av haRachamam?

There’s me complaining about making this grueling trip in the middle of the night, but look at all the old people, and small kids, and sick teens that have showed up here today, just to celebrate with Yosef HaTzadik. Unbelievable.

A little while later, we were back on the bus, and heading back to Jerusalem. As kever trips go, it was pretty uneventful in some ways – I had no big flashes of inspiration, no massive insights, no answers to big questions. What I did have, though, was a renewed appreciation for my fellow Jews.

Who is like your people, Am Yisrael?

Will I go back? Maybe. Not soon. It took me a day to recover and I’m still a little ‘out of it’ now. But one thing I can tell you for sure: Yosef’s tomb reminded me a lot of Rebbe Nachman’s. It was the same energy, the same intensity, the same holy madness. So something tells me that sooner or later, I will be going back.

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.

Today, half an hour before I meant to go out to do a bit of shopping, there was another flurry of sirens and gunshots nearby.

I don’t know if it’s a good sign (because you do actually have to carry on, and try to live while all this madness is going on around you), or it’s a bad sign (because maybe, it’s pointing to a level of spiritual exhaustion and apathy which is quite troubling) – but I’ve almost got blasé about all the craziness.

If all my family members are home, I don’t blink an eye now. If they aren’t, then it’s a little more concerning, but not the instant panic attack of a couple of months’ back. Thank God. So today, everyone was home and I wasn’t even going to check the ‘what’ of it all, except one of my kids has a kind of ‘need to know’ when she hears sirens going off.

I told her it was too early – that she should wait another 10 minutes, and then we’d probably get the first reports of what we’d just been hearing going on around us. 10 minutes later, Arutz 7 told us that a 15 year old girl had just been lightly stabbed (may she make a full recovery) up the road from us, about 10 seconds from where Rav Arush lives, and about 30 seconds from the Chut Shel Chesed yeshiva.

Like I said, I don’t know if I’ve just gone numb to it all or what, but curiosity satisfied, we put on our coats and headed into town.

Which is when I saw that Holy Bagel was gone, the latest economic ‘victim’ of the wave of terror.

Now this is the strange part: Holy Bagel closing down really upset me.

And it’s not like I was there every day, or even every week, or even every month. On the odd occasions when I wanted a bagel, that’s where I usually went, and over time, I half got to know the owners, but only in a very superficial way.

Before my own shop went spectacularly bust in the Old City last year, wiping us out financially, I never really appreciated the impact of a shop opening or closing. I never understood how much money people invested in these businesses, or how devastating it could be when one day they just disappeared.

As the perennial shopper, it was mildly interesting, a little annoying (if it was a shop I really liked) or mostly, completely not even on my radar. As the post-bankruptcy small business owner, Holy Bagel sinking hit me like a hammer blow. I really felt sorry for the owners, and found myself worrying about how they were going to make ends meet now.

I know it’s not going to hit the headlines any time soon, but businesses like Holy Bagel going bust is another, more hidden, pain caused by the latest Arab violence. Whenever I go into town now, I see more empty shops with ‘to rent’ signs stuck up on them, like ugly gaps in a row of healthy teeth.

It can’t carry on, I think to myself.

But at the same time, it is carrying on, and doesn’t seem to show any signs of letting up anytime soon.

It’s such a strange time, isn’t it? And I have no idea what’s going on, or what is going to be. A few months’ ago, you could smell Moshiach in the air. Now? You can’t. Or at least, I can’t. Where did he go? Is he coming back soon? Are we still heading for geula, or is all this Arab terror a diversion and a red herring?

I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that the Arabs aren’t just trying to kill people, they’re also trying to kill the Israeli economy. And if Jaffa St is anything to go by, the patient is approaching a critical state.

This Shabbat was pretty weird.

First, ten minutes before it came in, someone I don’t really know called me up trying to invite themselves over for Shabbat. My first impulse was to try to accommodate them, but then I realized:

  • I already have guests for Shabbat
  • I was planning to spend a bit of quality time with my oldest kid Shabbat afternoon
  • Being called up 10 minutes before Shabbat is actually NOT OK.

So I politely demurred, and requested more notice next time they wanted to check if they could come for a meal. Of course, I then spent the next 30 minutes feeling guilty about not being a balaboosta-ish ayshet chayil, despite all my reassurances to myself that I’d done the right thing. But it put me in a funny mood.

Friday night, we hung out at home instead of going to the Kotel, as two people got stabbed to death on our usual route down to the holy wall, just outside the Jaffa Gate, and one of my kids was a bit freaked out about it all. Also strange.

Then, Saturday morning I kept trying to do my usual hitbodedut session, but couldn’t stay awake.

I often daydream, but I very rarely completely conk-out. Two hours later, I think I’d managed about 5 lucid sentences, but I had to get up and go to hear Rav Arush speak at the yeshiva, so I called it a day. Weird.

On the way to the yeshiva, I suddenly started feeling so cross and annoyed with everybody – just stam, because. No obvious reason. I walked up to the yeshiva darting arrows at everyone with my eyes. I don’t know why, I just suddenly couldn’t stand humanity collectively, so I sat in the corner trying to listen to the Rav while fighting off a huge ‘I hate everyone’ yetzer hara. Bizarre.

I met my husband outside, and he told me that he’d also just got into two spontaneous small ‘fights’ with two different people, apropos of nothing. Hmmm. Clearly something in the air.

On the way home from the yeshiva, someone stopped us close to our house, to ask us if we were planning to continue on to the Kotel, because ‘the police have just closed the area because  there’s been another stabbing’. I haven’t yet checked the news to see what really happened, but in the meantime, the weirdness continued.

Our guests came and went, very nicely. Then, my kids got into the biggest argument they’ve had for about six months, complete with wrestling, slapping and punching. One wanted to go into the old city for her regular youth group meeting, and the other one was scared because of what our passerby had told us that morning.

It was a monumental struggle between ‘business as usual’ and ‘too scared to go out’, and I had no idea what to do about it all, or where I was holding myself with it all.

I ended up walking the one kid in to the Rova (after we’d managed to find the keys to the front door that the other one had hidden…) and we had a big, emotional chat about what was going on, which was good, but very intense.

Motzash, I came back and my husband told me: ‘There’s a lot of din in the air at the moment, isn’t there?’ I could only agree. I have no idea what it all means, or what it’s all about, but I really hope it dissolves soon.

In the last one of this week’s posts, I want to take a look at the good that came out of my experience with the religious phoneys, because surprisingly, there has been a lot of it.

The first good I gained from the whole experience is:

It made me much more humble.

There’s nothing like realizing you’ve been duped, or that you’ve made some massive errors of judgment, to bring you down a few pegs, and to help you realize that for all your talents and abilities and knowledge, you still can’t do a thing right without God.

Before the wheels came off the ‘religious phoneys’ bus, I was very self-sanctimonious, intolerant and judgmental of other people – especially those people who wanted to earn a decent living and not live in a dump.

How superficial and gashmius they are! I would think to myself.

Then, me and my husband seriously hit the skids for two years, we lost our home, we nearly ran out of cash, and we had weeks where even putting food on the table was a struggle. It was a massive wake-up call that we weren’t Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and couldn’t make do with one outfit every 12 years and a carob for Shabbat lunch.

Now, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to make and have parnassa, and I’m so ‘anti’ all these religious phonies that make orthodox men feel bad, or flawed somehow, for doing an honest day’s work, and looking after their families the way God intended.

It made me much more real.

(I know, that one’s a bit scary J).

You know, I absolutely love long jeans skirts. Always have, always will. I decided five years’ ago that jeans skirts were not befitting my level of religious phoniness, and I gave them up.

Now, they’re back – I got one custom-made by someone in the States, exactly how I like it. And I LOVE wearing it! I feel so grateful that God a) gave me the money to buy it b) found me a cheap tailor and c) let it fit so nicely. I feel like a million tznius bucks in my jeans skirt, and it puts me in a good mood just pulling it out of the cupboard.

More and more, I’m accepting those parts of myself that might not be ‘black and white friendly’, but that still have their heart in the right place, and are not contravening any of God’s halachas.

It made me more compassionate (especially about my kids).

The most judgmental, intolerant, hate-filled people are those that feel that they ‘denied’ themselves something they really want, and can’t stand to see other people doing or having those same things.

I used to be so down on kids for not dressing so frum, and for not wearing socks. Now that I’ve eased up on myself, I’m much more tolerant, understanding and forgiving of them – and guess what? Their tznius is better than it’s been for years.

My kids truly were just mirroring my inner dimension back at me. The more I reclaim the parts of that ‘lost self’ that are compatible with yiddishkeit, albeit still not ‘standard’, the less of a big deal my kids are making about keeping mitzvahs.

They’re doing more, and they’re doing it much more happily – and so am I! Accepting myself, my real self, was key to me enjoying my yiddishkeit again, and that’s what my kids are reflecting back to me in spades.

I got my sense of humour back.

There are so many things that you just have to laugh at them, or go mad.  When I was being a religious phoney, life got way too serious and ponderous. God has a sense of humour: He wants us to laugh at ourselves, and to not take everything so darned seriously all the time. He’s running the world, not us.

I learned that humility and humour go together – if you can’t laugh at yourself, it’s because you’re taking yourself way too seriously, and that’s coming from arrogance, not holiness.

 I like people again.

This one was one of the biggest presents of all: I like people again, even if they don’t keep Shabbat, don’t live in Israel and don’t believe everything I do.

Now I’m admitting, accepting and loving my own imperfections, I’m not challenged or annoyed by other people’s, which means that I can focus much more on all the tremendous good around me, and in others, instead of getting so caught up in negative judgment calls about the ‘bad’.

I’m much happier.

I got so stuck trying to meet the religious phonies’ impossibly fake level of Torah observance (ie, they like to pretend that they’re in a place they really aren’t, and then make you feel bad that you’re not also at that incredibly high level) – that I was getting very little joy from any of the mitzvahs I was doing.

Now, I don’t take my mitzvahs for granted, and I know that every little thing I do is a present from God, and not an automatic right, or self-created achievement.

I’ve stopped worrying about money.

All my life, I was chasing after the illusion of stability and financial security, as being the answer to all my troubles. We went so low financially last year, that I truly believed I was going to end up in a dumpster. So then I decided, if I’m anyway going to end up in a dumpster, let me buy a nice dress while I still have some cash…and a new PC….and a new duvet set…and a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume…

Ironically, hitting the skids cured me of my obsession with money. I understand profoundly that as long as God wants me alive, He’s going to pay for me to live. And that ‘living’ doesn’t just mean a roof and food, it also (especially in our generation) means buying myself the clothes and other bits I need to feel like a human being, without feeling guilty that I’m so ‘gashmius’.

There’s probably a lot more to say, but that will do for now.

Let me end with this:

  • God wants the heart.
  • God wants us to serve Him 100% happily, as us.
  • God wants us to be humble enough to accept that try as we might, we are never going to be able to give God perfection – and that’s really OK!

And if you’re not getting these messages reinforced again and again from your religious advisors, dump them pronto, and find someone else who’s more compassionate and more clued-in.

So, in the last post I was talking about how my superficially-frum bubble got burst last year,

by a few people who looked 100% the part externally, but who were actually very far away from compassion, emuna, truth and a real understanding of what God really wants from us.

For years, I’d been blindly following them down a path of increasing severity and external piety, all the while thinking that God really wanted me to graduate to a padded head-band and bullet-proof stockings, and that that would be the pinnacle of kedusha and yiddishkeit.

Man, I was so miserable being religious like that!

I felt like I’d lost everything that made me ‘me’, from my favourite jeans skirt, to my permission to read, to my ability to reach out and relate to people who weren’t super-machmir-frum-angels.

Then God did my the biggest favor of my life (although it didn’t feel like that at the time): He showed me that the people who were running off their mouths the loudest about other people’s flaws; and who were putting on the biggest show of being unimpeachable, super-holy rollers; and who were full of criticism and competition and superiority about their own apparently lofty religious levels, and what everyone else was meant to be doing – were actually very flawed people, with hugely problematic character traits.

They were selfish, jealous, competitive, untruthful, insecure and arrogant.

But they dressed impeccably in black and white, had big shtreimels, and ‘ticked all the boxes’ externally, 100%. To put it another way, they were living a huge lie, and the main people they were lying to about what was really going on was themselves.

I had such a strong reaction against their religious hypocrisy last year, that it’s only because Rabbenu was hanging on to me so tightly that I managed to hang on to my faith, albeit it still got pretty badly mangled.

It’s taken me months of praying and searching and asking God for help to really emerge out of the other side of the experience, but thank God, I think that’s the stage I’m now at. But I want to tell you what I went through, and what I learnt from it all, so it can hopefully help you to avoid having to go through the same sort of heartache and confusion.

There is so much that could be said, but I’m going to concentrate on two things, to try to make my point: the latest Star Wars movie, and my husband’s green jumper.

Last week, I saw an ad for another Star Wars installment, replete with an ancient-looking Harrison Ford (is that a wig, or what?) and all the latest hi-tech hoopla. I got pretty weird after I saw the ad, and started to feel all weepy, but didn’t know why.

A few hours of personal prayer later, and it struck me that I’ve seen every one of the previous 6  Star Wars movies, and they were kind of ‘movie milestones’ that cemented other key things in place that were going on in my life. In short, Star Wars isn’t just a movie for me, it’s a kind of self-reference point, a way of me pegging myself in the world. And now, that frame of reference was gone, and I was feeling pretty lost again about who I really was.

Then, the little voice in my head told me: give yourself permission to go and see it. So I did: I imagined getting it out on DVD; sitting down at my pc to watch it; how it would look, how I would feel before, during and afterwards. And at the end of that process, I knew with complete certainty: I do not want to watch this! It’s a waste of time, and will fill my head and soul with a lot of damaging stuff.

I felt so good!

The old ‘superficially-religious’ me would never have heard that little voice out; I’d have been far too worried about ‘where is this going to lead…’ – which means that really, I’d have been really pining to see the movie on the inside, where stuff really counts. This way, I brought the whole issue out into the open, and I CHOSE not to see it. And the difference is enormous.

Next, I came and had a serious talk with my husband about the whole ‘package’ we got sold by the religious phoneys a few years’ back, who made us feel like we were so materialistic for doing things like holding down a job, wanting a nice place to live, and not devoting ourselves to the cause (ie, their cause…) 24/7.

Thanks to them, my husband felt like he was a terrible person for working.

Thanks to them, we both felt like we were letting God down, every time we wanted to take a day’s holiday, or buy something new that wasn’t directly connected to keeping Shabbos or a yom tov. Thanks to them, we ended up financially broke, spiritually broken and completely alone in the world, trying to jump through more and more impossible hoops to keep their harsh version of God appeased.

(Yes, I know it was all from God, and all for the good, but that’s a post for another time.)

So I came and asked my husband: that favorite olive green jumper of yours, that you couldn’t quite throw away, even though it wasn’t black or white. Do you think God would mind if you wore it again? Do you think you’ll be letting God down, somehow, if you decided that the ‘real you’ likes wearing olive green jumpers?

He looked at me shocked. But now he’s thinking it over, and we’ll see what happens next.

The point is not that he should, or shouldn’t wear it: the point is, that he, and me, and all of us, should be asking ourselves

what does God really want?

Because there’s a lot of people out there telling us that God wants padded head-bands, and impossible religious perfection, and miserable, super-machmir, intolerant, superficial yiddishkeit that looks so impressive, but feels so horribly wrong.

But really? God wants the heart.

And if it happens to come packaged in an olive green jumper, I  have a feeling that’s fine by Him.