An integral part of Jewish life is all of the Jewish holidays that stud the Jewish calendar, and set a pace for Jewish life that has been continuing unbroken for more than 300 years.

Many outsiders often want to know, ‘What are the Jewish holidays in September, or around Easter?’ They want the Jewish festivals explained to them, as they see whole Jewish communities dressed up in disguise around Purim time, or menorahs being lit around hanukkah.

And there are also a growing number of Jews who don’t much about their own religious birthright and traditions, like Yom Kippur the day of atonement, a fast day where Jews neither eat or drink; Sukkot the festival of booths and lulavs and etrogs, or Purim, where we hear Megillat Esther, drink wine and eat a feast – all for the highest spiritual reasons!

In this section, we’ll get to grips with the chagim, as they are called in Hebrew and try to put together something of a ‘Jewish holidays for dummies’ guide, as the holidays are experienced by yours truly.

We’ll take a look at things like:

  • How to celebrate them
  • The meaning of Jewish holidays
  • Explaining the chagim
  • The importance of Jewish holidays like Passover, Pesach and Rosh Hashanah
  • share some holiday facts, and Torah sources about the festivals

And a few other things, besides, including how hard it can sometimes be to get into the right frame of mind to really celebrate the festival or day the way God really intended, plus the rarely understood inner dimension of the holidays and festivals.

What is Tisha B’Av really all about?

The last few days, I’ve been in a funny mood – you might have noticed. I’ve been feeling frustrated, angry, even a little bitter, that despite so much effort, I’m going into yet another Tisha B’av with what feels like zero progress on so many fronts.

In fact spiritually, I even feel as though I’ve been going backwards in some ways, recently. I tried to capture a little of that HERE, but I feel I’ve had so much brain fog going on the last weeks I’ve lost touch with my soul again.

Yes, I’ve still been doing an hour a day of talking to God (or trying to…) – sometimes even more. In the old days, I could sit down for a six hour talking to God session, usually on Shabbat when I had the time to spare, and come out of it feeling like something had really moved or ameliorated.

The last few months, even the six hours I’ve been doing don’t give me much of a spiritual ‘bounce’. The best I can say, is that I feel calmer, usually, and sometimes I get a bit more clarity, and a bit more hope and determination to continue.

But underneath all that, there’s this sense of what am I doing all this for? Where am I going? How can I carry on like this, aimlessly drifting because I can’t seem to get anywhere, still?

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On Shabbat, I did another six hours on why I feel like such a spiritual zombie so much of the time, when God threw me a clue:

I have tremendous amounts of despair gushing around still.

It’s not preventing me from getting on with things, day-to-day, and thank God, I’m not a depressed zombie or an angry, ranting cynic (most of the time…) but what I am is totally despairing that things are going to change. On the national level, it just seems to me like the ‘bad’ always wins, the superficial is always preferred, the lie is always more welcome than the truth.

In my own dalet amot, there seems to be so many things I’ve given up on or lost over the last few years, that I can’t seem to figure out how to get back. I know what happened with losing the apartment in Jerusalem, last year, was a massive blow, psychologically. Just as I thought I’d actually got somewhere – we signed, after all!!! – it all turned around for the worst, and left us with the biggest nightmare we’d had to deal with for a very long time.

It’s been a year since we made the agreement with our seller that saw us pay for all of her expenses (and of course ours…) as the ‘punishment’ for being dumb enough to trust her, and for being dumb enough to trust our dumb lawyer was actually doing his job. I think it’s taken a year for what happened to really work its way through my system.

The last 2 days, I realized that I’ve been effectively numbed-out for 18 months.

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Part of me knows it’s good to have had so many things not get anywhere, and to have so much frustration and failure. It keeps me humble. But it’s also keeping me lonely and despairing, because another part of me just doesn’t want to try anymore.

We’re meant to sit on the floor and weep over the destruction. Thank God, me and my family are healthy and we have a roof and food to eat. That’s already so much to be grateful for. But there are still parts of my life that appear to be ‘destroyed’, and that I can’t see any way of fixing.

I’ve pretty much given up on making new friends, for example. So many people have gone crazy the last few years, that I find it easier to keep my distance than too risk getting to close when the inevitable implosion happens. But I miss talking to people. I miss inviting people for Shabbat. I miss being part of something, socially.

And I just don’t see how it’s going to come back. I think I’m just too weird, these days, too out of sync with what passes for ‘normal’.

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Also, my spiritual side seems to be bumping along the bottom.

If not for the Rav and Rebbe Nachman, I really don’t know where I’d be because I am just going through the motions with so much of my yiddishkeit. I try to learn 2 laws of the Shulchan Aruch most days, with my husband. Of course I try to keep Shabbat, Kosher, the laws of Tisha B’Av etc etc – but I’m doing so much of that from a place of ‘default’, and not from a place of enthusiasm.

My kids keep telling me: we can’t pray, because we can’t really feel anything when we do.

I get them. I feel that about almost all the mitzvahs right now. There are so few things I’m doing that I can really feel I’m getting anything back from. My husband says this is good. He tells me this is keeping Torah lishma, for its own sake, and that this makes Hashem very happy.

I’m doing my best to believe him.

And in the meantime, I sit here spinning my wheels, wondering what I’m meant to be doing with my life. More pointless blog posts? More pointless books? More pointless efforts to try to move forward and ‘get somewhere’, even though it feels there is totally no point in even trying?

It’s a struggle of will each morning, to get out of bed and get on with the day, because it all feels so aimless and pointless.

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All this effort, but I’m so far from giving God what He really wants from me.

I’m still struggling with very harsh judgment calls against other people. I’m still lazy. I’m still selfish and self-centred, not really seeing other people in my picture and looking out for number 1.

The Temple isn’t rebuilt still, and I know who’s to blame for that: me.

Hard as I try, I can’t switch my ‘bad’ into good. I can’t be the force for good that God really wants me to be. I can’t resist goading people and provoking them, and seeing their ‘bad’.

So today, I’m going to try and sit on the floor, and spend some time mourning the destruction. I’m going to try to cry a bit, sincerely, for the trainwreck that modern life has become. It’s a place where we spend so much time staring at a screen, it hurts the eyes to look a real person straight in the face. It’s a place where the inner destruction is so total, we can’t feel anything anymore. Where the ability to really speak from the soul has been replaced by Whats App monologues and emojicons.

Today, I’m going to cry a bit, and spend some time engaging with the broken bits of my life.

I’m broken God, I’m clueless. I’m lost and hurting. I’ve given up on things ever really changing.

And I wish things were different.

But it’s totally beyond me to change them.

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A Seder Meal for One.

The day before Seder, I had a breathless conversation with an older single I know whose ‘plans had changed’ last minute (as they so often seem to do with this person), who needed a place to go for the Seder meal.

I said no.

I said no for a few reasons, not least because I had my hands full with a ton of non-religious family members who also believe that Seder isn’t actually something you ‘do’, at least, not yourself, but something that you show up for, say your lines, eat your boiled egg, then go home and tick the box.

But the person pulled a half-successful guilt trip on me that they had nowhere else to go blah blah blah so in the end I compromised and invited them for the morning meal after Seder.

I was so exhausted. I was so tired.

And this person stayed in my house for four hours on one pretext after another, until finally when they went to the bathroom, I saw an opportunity to escape and went ‘to sleep’ in my room until they finally got the message and left.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about how so many of us unwittingly ‘enable’ bad behavior, and massive yetzer haras, through some misguided attempt to ‘do good in the world’. Sure, in theory, it’s a great wonderful, amazing thing to have people around your Seder table who otherwise would have no-where to go.

But at what point does it stop being a mitzvah?

At what point does enabling other people’s selfish, freeloading behavior stop being a good thing?

You know why that older single had no-where to go on Seder night? Because she’s exhausting to be around. That’s why. She doesn’t treat people so nicely and she has a lot of bad middot.

Do you know why I’m doing something completely different for Seder next year? Because even the very minimal requests I set for my Seder were ignored.

People didn’t buy haggadot for their kids….they didn’t prepare a tiny something about anything related to the Seder…they didn’t have the patience to sit through Hallel and made the fact they wanted to leave so obvious that there was no choice except to comply…they didn’t help-with-a-single-thing with the Seder.

They left it all to me.

Now, if they were 80 and feeble, fair enough. If they were ‘lost Jews’ who had never seen or heard of a Seder before in their life, fair enough. But that’s not the case. We’re the same age, and they’ve sat at someone else’s Seder every year since they were born, for more than four decades.

After I was inundated with so many people’s ‘freeloading behavior’ this year, and after I found myself getting so upset about it all, I realized there was something else going on, here, that God was trying to draw my attention to, namely:

I was enabling these people’s bad middot.

And I don’t want to do that anymore.

You might be reading this hand to mouth in horror, thinking what is the woman saying?! This is terrible, shocking, awful!!!!

It’s a free country, you’re allowed. We’ve all been so brainwashed into believing that we have to be the ‘solution’ to other people’s problems, it’s totally understandable if you are having that reaction. I also had that reaction to myself, initially, and thought I’d totally lost the plot. But then, I started to think things through more carefully in hitbodedut, and to dig a little deeper, and here’s what I came to:

God for sure wants me to help other people, as much as possible. At the same time, He for sure doesn’t want me to take all the responsibility for ensuring they have a Seder to go to, or people to hang out with, or a nice life.

For example, it says very clearly, that it’s the father of the household’s responsibility to recount the exodus to their children.

If that father has his head permanently in his business affairs, or prefers to play cards at the Seder table, or doesn’t value his own yiddishkeit enough to make any real effort to pass it on to his kids – it’s not down to me, to fix that problem.

What’s more, there’s the law of natural consequence at play here. The natural consequence of having guests who I experience as ungrateful, entitled, freeloaders is that I don’t want to have them back.

IFFFFF, guests make it clear that they really want to share the responsibility, IFFFFF they make a huge effort to participate, IFFFFF they offer to buy in the desserts, and clear the table, and wash up – then I probably would be extremely happy to have them back. Who wouldn’t be?

But, IFFFFF the guest is totally self-absorbed and self-occupied, IFFFFF they act like they are doing you a massive favor, by being there, IFFFFF they make ‘perfunctory’ noises about helping that you know aren’t the least bit sincere, and then scarper before the dishes have even been taken off the table – then, I really don’t want them back, until and unless something massive changes in their behavior and their attitude.

This is the law of natural consequence, and we ignore it at our peril.

As I was mulling all this over, I had a chat with a friend of mine, Gila, who I have invited for Seder a couple of times down the years, but who has always turned me down. Partially, it’s because Gila and I live in different cities. But the real reason is much more awe-inspiring:

Gila often does Seder all by herself.

I asked her if she would share her experience of that more widely, and she very generously agreed. Here’s what she told me, in her own words:

“Seder is a very personal experience, and I wanted to do it my own way, of course still within the framework of halacha. I read the ma nishtana myself, I did both sides of the ‘Mishar rotam’ dialogue that many Sephardim traditionally do at the beginning of the Seder. It could have been a bit weird or awkward, but I embraced Seder night, and I really enjoyed it.”

I asked Gila, why didn’t you want to go out and be a guest at someone else’s Seder? She told me:

“I really wanted to feel the holiday. I wanted to concentrate on the Seder, and not get so distracted by everything else that was going on around me. There are lots of segulot you can do when you’re having a Seder by yourself, so I really took advantage of it. I drank all the wine you’re supposed to, and I ate all the matzah.”

What happened about hiding the afikomen?

“I just put it away somewhere, so I didn’t see it. And I really enjoyed the idea that I really was eating the afikomen – and only the afikomen – for dessert. Usually, you have to supplement the afikomen with more matzah, but I was eating only the real thing. I also really loved preparing for the Seder. “

This year wasn’t the first time that Gila has done a Seder by herself.

I asked her what she finds challenging about doing it by herself.

“Beforehand is the hardest part. When people start asking me, what are you doing for Seder? That can be a hard question. It’s hard anticipating being alone, and worrying about how society views me. Other people’s reactions are the main problem for me, not actually doing the Seder. The first time I did it, my parents thought I was nuts, until I explained to them how the Seder actually went.

“For someone who has never done it, who has never enjoyed the fruits of their own labor at the Seder, it’s so gratifying to be really involved, and to not just be a guest. Even the shopping was enjoyable and meaningful. I was using my own hands to create the Seder!”

Gila has now done Seder by herself on 5 different occasions.

She’s very happy to still be a guest at other people’s tables, if that’s suitable for her and her hosts, but she told me something about the reality of being an older single at other people’s Seder that made a very profound impact on me:

“Even if you have a bad experience at a Seder, you need to take responsibility. You can’t just accept an invitation to someone because you feel you don’t have a better alternative. When I first decided to do Seder by myself, as an older single in my 40s, it’s because I had never made it myself, and I felt it was just time to do it. When I took that decision, it showed me that I really have a choice about how and where I do Seder, and that was liberating. In general, when you know you have a choice it also makes you more tolerant since you take responsibility for what you want to do, instead of blaming other people.”

I will share more of Gila’s tips on how to do a Seder for one below, but I didn’t just find her experience liberating for some of the singles out there, who maybe are sick of being guests around other people’s tables.

I also found it liberating for myself, because it underscored the point God had been trying to teach me that everyone has a choice.

If a person truly wants to experience a Seder, there is nothing stopping them.

I don’t need to relate to people as nebuchs¸ unfortunates, because they aren’t used to making a Seder, or don’t find it easy. It’s a mitzvah! It’s a privilege! It’s an obligation – their obligation to recount the Haggada and eat matzah and drink four cups of wine.

If they care about the mitzvah, they will find a way to pull it off.

(It’s a whole other story, but I have friends in Costa Rica who are going through a very tough time, financially. This year, they only had enough money to buy the minimal matzah and wine for Seder night, and they just ate vegetables the rest of the week. Talk about mesirut nefesh for the mitzvah! Amazing.)

And if they don’t really care about the mitzvah – then having them back year after year is just enabling them to keep ticking a box, and just keeping them stuck in that place of being a permanent, uninterested, entitled guest.

And I’m not going to do that, any more.

It’s not helping me, for sure, but Gila’s story also showed me that it’s also really not helping them. Or their kids.

So, if you’re young enough and healthy enough to change your kitchen over and cook for three days straight – do your own Seder. If you’re single, consider doing it alone, or consider inviting your other single friends and doing it together. If you have a family and you’re approaching your fifties without ever having done your own Seder, make a decision that next Pesach is the year you finally grow up, and take responsibility for yourself and your families.

Making Seder is hard work, for sure, but it’s a mitzvah, and every ounce of effort you put in is repaid, spiritually.

If you want some more guidance on what to actually do on Seder night, take a look at the Seder Guide on the Torah.org website. And HERE is where you’ll find a run-down of the customs and minhagim that Rabbi Berland follows on Seder night. Finally, I have discovered two excellent cookbooks for Pesach, which contain simple, pretty healthy food that is not a pain in the bottom to put together, but tastes pretty good. You can get A Taste of Pesach #1 by clicking the bold, and also check out A Taste of Pesach #2.

And now, let’s end with Gila’s dos and don’ts for how to do a Seder for one:

PERSONAL SEDER DOS:

  • Try to get excited about it.
  • Appreciate that you have a choice of how and where you do Seder, and that if you really want to do it in your own home, you can.
  • Run the Seder exactly how you want it to go, and include any segulot or customs you want.
  • Have realistic expectations.
  • Prepare for Seder properly – and enjoy preparing for it.

PERSONAL SEDER DON’TS:

  • Don’t do a Seder by yourself if you’re not in a good frame of mind, or if you feel isolated.
  • Don’t a Seder by yourself if you can’t be alone for a meal on Shabbat.
  • Don’t tell yourself you have no choice, except to be a guest at someone else’s table. You always have a choice to do the Seder yourself, if you really want to.

Nothing but nothing can strain a marriage faster than dysfunctional in-laws.

I’ll never forget the first year I was with my husband: The week before Pesach he disappeared for two days to go and help my healthy, 50-something mother-in-law clean her house for the upcoming festival.

To say I was upset is something of an understatement. We were both working full-time jobs at the time, I couldn’t afford cleaning help, and instead of rolling up his sleeves to help me – he scarpered for 48 hours to go and clean another woman’s house! I didn’t realise it then, but I’d been struck by the 11th plague of Pesach, aka, dealing with the in-laws.

I’ve been married now for 20 years, and as my own children start to grow up I can see how this sort of situation can develop so easily, if the parents don’t keep reminding themselves that what’s best for them is not always and absolutely what’s best for their children.

The Torah makes it very clear when it tells the man that he should leave his parents and ‘cleave to his wife’.

His wife is the other part of his soul, and vice-versa. Happy marriages are built on the strong foundation of mutual respect and always putting what’s best for your spouse ahead of what’s best for your parents and other extended family members.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to make this point so strongly. In a perfect world, parents and in-laws would be telling their married children this themselves. They’d say things like: ‘We’d love to have you come to us for seder this year, but only if that’s what you and your wife would really like to do, too.”

Or, they’d phone up and tell their married children: ‘Please check this with your spouse before agreeing anything with me, but would it be OK if we joined you for Pesach this year? And be completely honest, I won’t be upset if you say no. I know how much you both have going on in your lives at the moment.”

In that sort of healthy, open environment where free choice is allowed, and the spouse of the married child feels seen, respected and heard by their in-laws, the friction on the marriage will be kept to a barely-there minimum.

Sadly, that’s not how so many families operate today.

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Today, many people are having to deal with selfish, egotistical and home-wrecking in-laws who treat their children (and their children’s spouse….) as an extension of themselves, and therefore people who can be bossed around, guilt-tripped, taken advantage of and stressed-out whenever they feel like it.

And there are few festivals that bring their destructive behaviour and attitudes out more than Pesach.

There’s a few reasons for this. Firstly, seder is a big production. Controlling parents who insist on everything being about them usually take it extremely hard when their married children actually want to live a little independently, and run a seder their own way. I know people in their 40s with many children of their own who have NEVER conducted a seder in their life.

Why not?

Because their parents wouldn’t hear of it.

Each year, the seder has to be with family, and of course, that means with their family, according to their rules and whims. Do you know how emasculating it is for a 40-something year old man to sit at the table like a little kid, unable to ever be the ‘head’ of his own seder table?

Pesach is the time of kingship, or Malchut. Seder night is when that measure of ‘malchut’ or rulership descends to each man’s table, and each man’s home for the coming year. If your father or father-in-law keeps happing your husband’s ‘rulership’, that has enormous consequences for his self-esteem, ability to make money, and the peace in your home.

Another flash point can be when parents get on a bit, and then start inviting themselves to your home for the whole of the holiday because organising everything is so stressful, expensive and time-consuming, and they’ve run out of energy.

Again, if you’re OFFERING to have them stay with you, out of 100% free choice and not because you’ve been guilted into doing it, or are worrying about the consequences of saying no, nothing could be more wonderful.

But if that’s not the case – and with the sort of difficult in-laws I’m talking about, that’s really NOT the case – then seder night and the holiday becomes a powder keg placed under your shalom bayit, just waiting for ‘Bubbe’ to show up and light the fuse.

Because ‘Bubbe’ will expect things done her way, and food served that she’s used to, and the same songs sung in the same order as she always did it by her own table. Also, ‘Bubbe’ will go to great pains to invite as many of her extended family and friends to your home, too, to share seder with her. And again, she’ll just expect you to agree to that, regardless of how much additional stress it causes you.

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When you live in Israel and your in-laws come from abroad, there can be the added issue of your in-laws deciding to stay with you for the whole of the holiday to:

  1. Save them having to clean their own homes or buy Pesach food;

and

  1. Save them having to go to a hotel (which is what they’ve effectively turned you into).

Again, if you WANT to have your in-laws living with you for a whole nine days, great! But if you don’t? And they start playing your spouse off against you, and getting them to agree to have the come against your wishes? They just ignited World War III in your marriage.

(I won’t even get into the problems that can crop up when you’re more observant than your parents in this post, which is a whole other can of worms. Basically, just times all the difficulties and potential flashpoints by 500…)

So, what can you do to keep your marriage intact, and your in-laws under control this Pesach?

Here’s a few guidelines that will help, if you can actually implement them:

1) Maintain a united front

No decisions should be made unilaterally by either spouse. Everything has to be discussed upfront and agreed by both parties well in advance of seder night.

2) Set down firm boundaries, and stick to them

If you can manage seder night (just about…) but you can’t manage a whole eight days of the in-laws in your home, make that very clear to your spouse and to them – and don’t be guilted or shamed out of doing what’s best for yourself and your own family.

3) Be honest about what’s really going on

Often, it takes us and our spouses many years to realise that our in-laws don’t always have our best interests at heart. Remember, a husband and wife are one soul. If your spouse doesn’t like your parents, it’s usually because your parents aren’t treating them (or you….) very nicely.

You don’t notice that, you’re not aware of it, because that’s how it’s been since you were born. But an outsider can spot the issues much more easily. So if your spouse doesn’t like your parents, carefully consider WHY that is, and what your parents might need to explore in order to improve the relationship.

4) Move to a different country

Sometimes, some in-laws are so impossible to deal with that moving far, far away from them is the only option to protect your marriage and mental health. This isn’t always a cast-iron solution – especially if they can easily afford air-fare and you have a big home – but it’s still a good start.

Pesach is the festival of freedom and redemption. It’s a time when a man should be a ‘king’ in his own home (serving Hashem…) and his wife his ‘queen’. It’s a night of royalty, not slavery.

So if you have difficult in-laws, emancipate yourself from their unreasonable demands and selfish behaviour, and this year ask God to help celebrate the holiday the way He truly intended.

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It’s always the way of Adar, isn’t it?

To keep us all running around, busy, busy.

If we’re lucky, all we’re busy with is organizing costumes and mishloach manot and Purim seuda invitations, and running around to see our kids in Purim Shpiel plays.

Last week, I was busy, busy all week, but thank God, it was all for good stuff.

One day, I was driving up to the new city of Harish to see how the apartment we are buying is coming along.

After the disastrous house purchase in Jerusalem fell through, costing us a few hundred thousands of shekels, my husband and I realized that buying a property in Jerusalem is currently off the cards.

Around that time, Rav Berland gave a shiur about buying a property in Harish on the cheap, and gomarnu.

So, naïve believing-in-the-words-of-true-tzaddikim idiot I am, I went to check out Harish – and I can’t tell you what a blessing that place is turning into.

It’s a totally new city just off Highway 6, and it’s growing so fast, most people still haven’t heard about it, so they don’t know that it’s turning in to the next ‘boom’ place in Israel.

But soon, they will.

So in the meantime, I had to drive up to take a look at the construction on the new flat, and I was so impressed with just about everything, Baruch Hashem. But, it was a whole day of driving.

Then the next day, I had to spend a morning choosing tiles for a close family member abroad who decided he wants to buy in the same building, so that was more busy, busy.

All for good things.

I sat in that tile shop, pondering on how good God really is to me. If my house purchase in Jerusalem hadn’t fallen through, I never would have found out about Harish, or bought there, and then neither would this relative.

And I’m so thrilled this relative is getting a place in Israel, it’s a massive silver lining around all the fall-out that happened with the flat in Jerusalem.

Then, the next day I was off to Bikaa Yarden area, where my kid was starring in the lead role of her school’s production of ‘Mikimi’, about a TV presenter who gets frum the Breslov way. Of course, I had to take 4 teenage girls with me, so even though I told everyone we were leaving three hours before curtain rising, by the time we’d actually collected everyone, I barely had an hour to get there.

Busy, busy.

Then the next day, I was at the theatre again, as I promised to go and support an old friend who was appearing in a production. I was so tired, my eyes were crossing, but a promise is a promise.

Busy, busy.

All for good things, thank God.

Motzae Shabbat, we got a call from my husband’s family back in the UK: his uncle is on his last legs, and it’s a matter of days.

My husband flew out today for an unplanned lightning visit before Purim kicks off.

My husband’s family don’t really ‘do’ Purim, they don’t really realise it’s Adar, yet they are ‘busy, busy’ same as we are right now. Just for much harder, difficult things, like pinging in and out of the hospital every few hours to see where things are holding.

Adar is the month of busy, busy, that’s just how it is.

But God is showing me, better to be busy, busy with mitzvahs, mishloach manot, prayers, kindnesses and ‘good’ things, than otherwise.

Because one way or another, we are all being run off our feet.

The last time I slept through the night in one shot, for an unbroken stretch of at least 7 hours, was more than 5 weeks ago.

Since then, God has been waking me up every single night, usually at 4am in the morning.

All of a sudden, boom! – I’m awake. For no obvious reason. All kids are either in bed asleep, or out for the night in ulpana. The husband isn’t snoring loudly. There’s no shutters banging around, no wind blowing up a storm, no sirens, or shouting, or singing.

Nothing.
Just me, and my being awake.

The first week, I thought this must be subliminal stress, so I started doing all the things I usually do with lentils, and Rescue Remedy and taking long walks and wearing socks to bed, so my feet don’t get cold.

None of that worked. 4am rolled around, and I was still suddenly far too awake.

So then, I thought I need to pray some more about this. I did a few long sessions, usually on Shabbat, and while I got some interesting insights into some other things on my mind, I didn’t get a dickie bird about what is causing the insomnia.

After a month of really not sleeping properly, I started to get those tension headaches you get when you’re overtired. But what can I do? I never figured out the art of napping in the day, and once I’m awake, I’m awake.
Last week, I realized I have to just start accepting that right now, this is God’s will for me.

To be pointlessly awake at 4am, knowing that I will doze off just as my alarm rings at 6am, and then find it really hard to get out of bed, even though I’m not really asleep.

And then, to struggle through the rest of the day like a zombie, feeling like my brain really isn’t functioning properly.

This is God’s plan for me, this is God’s will right now.

I happened to be looking for past Purim articles on the blog, and when I searched, it threw up a whole bunch of posts talking about the madness, and the rush, and the pressure that so many of us seem to feel when Adar rolls around.
And this year, it seems to be happening again. The pressure is building.

I’m waiting for things to flip-over, and get sweetened.

As always seems to be the case, I’m doing it backwards. The nearer we get to Rosh Chodesh Nissan, and Pesach, the more ‘awake’ God wants us.
But personally, I’m waiting to be able to go back to sleep.

In Likutey Moharan 1: 74, Rebbe Nachman gives a whole discourse about Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah, most of which is extremely obscure and hard to understand.

But these are the parts I picked out as speaking to me, at least, going into our next few days of chag:

“Hoshana Rabbah corresponds to unintelligent speech, for it corresponds to the willow branch leaf, which resembles the lips…So, Hoshana Rabbah which represents judgment, the aspect of the Fear of Isaac, is drawn from immature consciousness (mochin dekatnut, literally ‘small mindedness’, which is why its speech is still without intelligence (da’at).

“However, Simchat Torah corresponds to intelligent speech, which is the life-force of the soul, as stated in the Zohar, “Fortunate are those who know the paths of the Torah and toil in it in an upright way. They plant Above a tree of life of all healing.

“This corresponds to Jacob, the aspect of wisdom, of mature consciousness, which is the healing of the soul, as in, “A charitable sun with healing in its wings.” For the sun corresponds to Jacob, who corresponds to wisdom, to intelligent speech, which is an aspect of the Torah, of Simchat Torah, which corresponds to the tree of healing.”

Feel free to come up with your own ideas of what Rabbenu is trying to put across here, as Rebbe Nachman himself firmly encouraged his followers to develop novel ideas and interpretations from his teachings, as long as they stayed firmly within the bounds of Torah law.

But here’s what I think Rabbenu is teaching us about this time of Hoshana Rabba / Simchat Torah:

In a nutshell – that we need to work on our communication with the people we love, to ensure that we’re speaking openly and honestly and from a place that will ultimately result in a ‘healing of the soul’.

When the soul is happy, the emotions are balanced, and the body and physical health is also usually the best it can be.

And vice-versa.

So many of us today find it so hard to speak honestly and gently, especially to our spouses and children.

Especially to the people we most love in the world. So many of us are scared to be ‘the real us’, or to feel our real feelings, and certainly to express them in an open way.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons we take the willow branches on Hoshana Rabba and smack them into the floor a few times, because we’re trying to dislodge all the superficial, plastic ‘small minded’ speech that keeps us so far away from really connecting to our loved ones.

Today is the day for breaking down the spiritual and mental barriers that are preventing us from speaking openly about the things that really matter, and from telling out spouses and kids (and others…) how much we really love and care for them.

And then tomorrow, once we’ve freed our soul and our facility of speech from the klipot that are encasing them, we can really celebrate the giving of the Torah with full-on, deeply-felt, sincere joy and simcha.

In this generation of i-Phones and emails, so many of us are hiding behind Facebook posts and Instagram because it’s easier to feel superficially ‘connected’ like that, than to really risk a genuine soul-connection.

But today’s the day that can all change!

So take your willow branches, and smash them into the floor.

And then go tell your significant others how much you really love them, and how much they really mean to you.

So, when I went to London, I thought I had two weeks to go until Rosh Hashana.

And the truth is that I did a week and a half ago, when I was planning my trip to the UK.

So when I got back just now and saw that Rosh Hashana is FOUR DAYS AWAY I freaked out.

I am completely not ready for a new year right now. I feel like Elul passed me by in a blur, blotted out by my mid-life crisis and my kids both starting new schools. There’s been precious little cheshbon hanefesh going on, precious little formal teshuva, precious little looking back over the year to see what I need to really atone for or fix.

Spiritually, I’m all over the place at the moment, still trying to figure out who the real me is, religiously.

And now it’s Rosh Hashana again, that most dreaded, awesome, and for me plain awful time of year, when everything is hanging in the balance for the future.

How can God judge me favorably this year, when I spent the first three months of it crying my eyes out and sketching out mental plans in my head to move back to the UK, (God forbid) so I could start to feel like a human being again?

That darkest night of my soul coincided with Rav Berland being falsely locked up in an Israeli prison at the end of November, and there’s an idea that when you’re connected to the Tzaddikim in any way, you kind of experience a very small fraction of what they’re going through.

So with each milestone of the Rav’s slow redemption, I’ve been feeling better.

When he finally left prison for house arrest at Hadassah hospital, the gloom lifted a little. When he returned to Musrara, the gloom lifted a lot.

But I have to say that since Shavuot, when he came back and I’ve been trying to pray with his community once a day, I’ve been hit by an internal ‘Hurricane Rivka’ pretty much every day. I seem to get so much inner work to deal with when I’m by the Rav, and it’s blowing away so many of my certainties, flooding me with humility (and occasionally a deep sense of shame), and fusing all my ideas about who I really am and what sort of spiritual level I’m really standing at.

Sure, it’s all for the good, because as Rav Dessler taught, the problem isn’t so much that people do bad things, because we all do bad things all the time. The problem is that we don’t acknowledge our bad, and try to pretend that we’re someone and something we’re not.

And at least for me, that option has been taken off the table the last few months.

And now, it’s Rosh Hashana 5778.

What’s going to be?

The honey cake isn’t made, the menu isn’t planned, the shopping isn’t bought – and now it’s two days away. That lack of external prep seems to be mirroring the lack of internal prep.

What’s going to be?

Whatever it is, it’s clearly going to come as a present this year. I can’t throw all my good deeds at the Lord this year, and proudly proclaim my piety. I’m a mess! I’m relying on God’s mercy 100%.

But maybe, that’s the way it should be?

The last few years, I’ve really dreaded Rosh Hashana.

Now, before you start jumping up and down and blaming that on the fact that my husband goes to Uman, let’s be clear that the last few years I’ve had massive issues on pretty much every religious holiday, not just Rosh Hashana – and the bloke’s been home for the other ones.

A big part of it is that I still have no-where to daven where I feel I’m really part of something, which is usually really only an issue on Rosh Hashana. Yom Kippur I fast (badly…) so I generally always just spend most of the day in bed, and daven at home.

But Rosh Hashana is different.

Rosh Hashana, we’re meant to listen to 30 shofar blasts (minimum), and preferably 100, together with our community. And that’s a huge bone of contention for me, because I still don’t belong anywhere.

The first year I was in Jerusalem, I dragged my two kids off to try and find a synagogue to pray in, in the Old City. I went to what I thought was an ‘Anglo hotspot’ – except all the Anglos had gone back to the US for the high-holy days, and the three women left behind all had bullet-proof tights and stern expressions. The Yom HaDin made flesh.

Also, the air-conditioning had packed up, so one of my kids started to feel hot and flustered, and then pulled out her ‘I’m about to have an asthma attack’ get out of jail free card, which gave us all the excuse we needed to leave in a hurry and try to find somewhere less suffocating.

So then I tried the Kotel, but I couldn’t find anyone to daven with, and I couldn’t hear anyone actually blowing the shofar, so I said the Amidah service by myself, standing at the holiest site in the world and surrounded by hundreds and thousands of Jews, but feeling so cut off and disconnected from everything and everyone.

The next Rosh Hashana, I tried a different tack.

I told my kids that they could pick the shul, and I’d tag along. At that point, they were both in school in the Old City of Jerusalem, so they went where most of their friends went, to a gorgeous newly-built synagogue tucked just behind the Wailing Wall in the Muslim Section.

As I tripped down the stairs of the Arab Shuk on the first day of Rosh Hashana, taking the short-cut that only fool-hardy tourists or Arab-inured residents use, I suddenly stopped in my tracks as a squad of Israeli riot police blocked the path in front of me.

Clearly, some sort of fight was going on, and as the Arabs all nipped upstairs to get their CNN-quality video cameras shouldered to record yet another ‘injustice’, I looked around and realized that I was the only civilian Jew there, standing in a sea of smouldering Arab hostility.

After five minutes, I was allowed to pass on, but the violence continued over the next two days. While the shul was gorgeous, the davening nice enough and the people friendly, I had to stand up in the middle of the service on the second day to shut the windows to try to drown out the guttural Arabic chant of ‘Kill the Jews!’ coming from outside.

What a way to start the year.

There’s an idea in Judaism that once something happens three times in a row, that’s a very strong portent that it’s somehow got ‘stuck’ or ‘fixed’ in your life. God forbid, that I should have such drecky, awful, lonely, horrible Rosh Hashanas until I croaked!

So last year, the third year, I got so terrified about how bad, miserable and lonely I was probably going to feel on Rosh Hashana – the beginning of the new year!!! When you’re setting the pattern for the whole rest of the year!!! When your whole life is hanging in the balance, being decided!!! – that I tried to run away from my life and go to a hotel in Tiberius with my children.

The upside of doing that was:

1) I didn’t have to cook (another bone of contention…).

2) We could spend the chag with other people who also clearly didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere else.

3) I could join the hotel minyan for davening, which suited me just fine and also was very easy for my two kids, when they were ready to put in an appearance for shofar blowing.

The downside of doing that was:

1) It was REALLY expensive.

2) I set the tone of being kind of ‘absent’ from my real life for the whole rest of the year.

I only realized that last one a few weeks’ back when I was pondering on 5777 and I realized that I was kind of AWOL in my own existence the last few months. Life’s been passing me by like a blur, and I haven’t been able to grab hold of any of it.

Why?

Because I ran away from my real life on Rosh Hashana, and I’ve been doing that all year.

And I thought I’d got away with it, mostly, except today we’re three weeks away from Rosh Hashana, and that familiar sensation of feeling incredibly miserable, and alone and out of place has descended upon me again.

God, not another year going into Rosh Hashana like this!

I really thought I’d vanquished most of these poor me, sad feelings, but hey, at least today they’ve come flooding back again as I try to figure out what’s going to be with Rosh Hashana.

I have a ray of hope. Rav Berland is here for Rosh Hashana, barely two minutes’ walk away, and I have a feeling there’ll be an Uman-esque vibe around Musrara, where I live, for the Chag – but what that actually means in practice, I have no idea.

Only, that things will be different this year, somehow.

Because they have to be.

There seems to be an unfortunate tradition in my house that every Jewish holiday for the last few years has been attended with its own share of challenges and difficulties.

I tried to escape fate this year by checking into a hotel for Rosh Hashana, which worked for two days – but boy, did it catch up with me by Succot.

This last Succot was arguably the worst, or second worst I ever had, in terms of my matzav ruach and overall mood. I spent pretty much the whole of Succot crying my eyes out in the pit of despair about the mess I felt my life was in.

I was pretty nervous about Purim, too, as that’s also traditionally marked the start of a really difficult few weeks heading into Pesach. This year, Purim was bland, but OK – which is much, much better than it usually is, at least for me. So I was cautiously hopeful that I’d get to Seder in reasonably good shape.

Despite a few last minute issues and challenges, we got to a few hours before Pesach, and it was all going far more smoothly and enjoyably than usual. I’d warned my whole family we were going to enjoy seder night this year, even though we had no guests and were by ourselves again, as it’s been the last three years.

Apart from one absolutely massive argument between my husband and a kid an hour before Pesach about setting the table for seder (which ended on a positive note) – it was pretty smooth sailing.

Until about half an hour into the seder, when I started to feel pretty yucky.

Hmm.

Maybe, I hadn’t eaten enough all day? (Very possible…) Maybe, the argument had been more upsetting and draining than I’d realised at the time? (That could be…) Maybe, I was such an alcoholic lightweight that even one inch of fizzy wine mixed with grapejuice was more than I could handle on an empty stomach?

I held on until we got to the meal, ate my full share of matza, lettuce and chicken soup – and then started feeling even worse. I got shooting pains down the outside of my legs, and a migraine-type feeling of severe heaviness descended upon me, completely knocking me out.

I could barely even bench, let alone continue on to the end of the Haggada and drink another two cups of grape juice. I asked for a quilt and fell asleep on the couch before we even got to opening the door to rain down retribution on the anti-semites of the world.

I woke up a couple of hours later feeling even worse, and went straight to bed.

The next day, I was completely out of action and felt like I was back in the exhausted ‘burn-out mode’ I’ve had on and off for the last five years.

But this time round, I had no idea why! Usually, I have such big things going on that I’m amazed I’m still walking around some weeks, but nothing so ‘big’ happened before Pesach this year. But nevertheless, I still felt half-dead.

Gosh. I had that sinking feeling that Pesach was going to be a complete spiritual wash-out again.

The next day, I barely had energy to get out of bed. But my husband coaxed me to come out with him to visit Hevron, even if only for a few short minutes – and I somehow managed to get dressed and follow him out to the car.

The Hall of Yitzhak and Rivka in Hevron is only open on chol hamoed, and the small entrance to the underground tombs is located there. Some years, I’ve had the most amazing uplift from sitting close to that small hole in the ground that’s reputed to be the entrance to Gan Eden, so I didn’t want to miss out, if at all possible.

I sat there for half an hour.

The first ten minutes I felt so exhausted again I could barely speak. God, am I going to have months of ill-health and exhaustion again? Am I going to be struggling to find the energy to get out of bed again, and start worrying that ‘something’ is going really wrong health-wise, like happened a couple of years’ ago?

As I pondered that question, I realised I was actually feeling better. After half an hour, I was feeling so refreshed I decided to go for a little walk around the Jewish area of Hevron. I tagged on the back of a tour that was going through the ancient Jewish cemetery located on Tel Hevron, or the mound of earth where the biblical Hevron of the Patriarchs was located.

Hardly any of this Tel has been excavated by archaeologists, I suspect because they would find so much overwhelming evidence of the Torah’s veracity, and the Jewish roots that go so deep in Hevron, that could cause a lot of ‘trouble’ for the world’s politicians and atheists.

On the way, we stopped at the ancient grave of Ruth the Moabitess, and Yishai (Jesse) the father of King David.

The view was gorgeous, the grave was very picturesque, and for a moment, I got a taste of Hevron from 3,000 years ago.

It was magical.

In what is becoming a recurring theme at the moment, I sighed a big sigh and wished that Jews could live more freely in Hevron, and in Jerusalem, and in many other parts of Israel. It’s our country! God gave it to us! Why are places like Ruth and Yishai’s grave effectively ‘off-limits’ to Jews for 360 days of the year?

I know when Moshiach comes, these questions will finally be addressed and resolved, but in the meantime they are piling up higher and higher in the corners of my life.

But the good news: I came back from Hevron feeling so much better, physically and spiritually and not for the first time, I was reminded of the enormous spiritual power these holy places contain, albeit it’s often so hidden.

But the day is coming soon when that ‘hidden’ holiness, that hidden, beautiful Jewish spirituality, that hidden face of God, is going to be revealed in all its glory – and transform the whole world.

As the ‘craziness’ of this year’s Purim ebbed and flowed again, I started to think about what aspect of Purim is actually the hardest, at least for me.

Actually, I didn’t think about it all, as I immediately knew what aspect of Purim nearly ALWAYS causes me the most stress and anxiety: mishloach manot.

Back in London, I could spend literally hours in traffic jams trying to deliver my ‘nosh packages’ to friends who were often also out in their cars, trying to deliver their ‘nosh packages’ back. It never occurred to me that this was:

  1. a) A huge waste of time

AND

  1. b) Almost certainly didn’t really count as a true mishloach manot, which is meant to be a gift of two different bits of real food that would be ready to chow down on immediately. But I wasn’t going to start cooking up a storm for my 84 best friends at that stage of my life.

Then, we got to Israel, where Purim is taken more seriously, in some ways, not least because the country as a whole ‘closes’ for Purim, in a similar way to what happens on Shabbat.

Which is when I hit the next state of mishloach manot madness:

People were literally cooking mini-gourmet meals for a hundred friends and neighbors, and getting every member of their family involved in the mammoth delivery project that entailed.

That first year, I also had plans to turn out 50 home-baked mini quiches and a personal side-salad, until God sent me a timely bout of dysentery that meant I couldn’t get out of bed or eat for the whole week before Purim, and I barely managed the mitzvah at all that year.

It was so embarrassing: wave upon wave of baskets were showing up at our door, and we had zip, nothing, nada to give in return. Which is when I learnt the law of reciprocity: if thou shalt not return mishloach manot, thou won’t get any the following Purim.

Even though I had my act more together the following Purim (slightly…. As we were moving house and community the day after the festival….) I sent out 30 mishloach manot, and got around five back (mostly fumbled together behind the door, as the host asked me to wait with a slightly stressed smile on their face.)

The following year, I really, really tried harder with mishloach manot.

I planned it two months in advance, and I cooked, made and bought whatever was necessary to make it proper. Dear reader, that community was built on a steep hill, and as I took the turn leading up the mountain a little too sharply, all my carefully arranged hummus, side salads and home made rolls upended and smashed into my car door.

Disaster!!!

I salvaged whatever I could, and had another bout of mishloach manot-induced depression to deal with. Next year, I vowed to buy everything ready-made and ready wrapped, anchored down with 200 metres of cellophane and ribbon.

But of course I didn’t, because by then I’d moved community again and I was in my ‘extreme healthy eating’ phase of life, which made the whole subject of Purim and mishloach manot SO stressful from start to finish. What to make that wasn’t toxic that people would actually eat?!?! AND that would look nice?!?!?

Again, I spent hours baking healthy cookies, and then artfully arranging them on a plate with nuts and dried fruit. No cellophane now for me!!! I wasn’t about to add to the landfill just so my mishloach manot would look nice or stay on the plate!!!!

So of course, they didn’t.

The delivery got so stressful as I had to drive at three miles an hour to prevent all my artful arrangements from moving around…and then people looked at the home-baked cookies suspiciously, and I could read their thoughts: “Is this a good enough hechsher, if it’s homemade?!?? Are dates still on the ‘OK’ list?!?!?” (There was a lot of ‘pious’ kashrut concerns going on over there….)

The following year, I had an epiphany:

No more driving the mishloach manot around! I’m giving to whoever I can walk to within 15 minutes of my home and that’s it.

Which was mostly good, except I still had a few awkward moments when people unexpectedly gave us me a mishloach manot, and I had nothing to give them because I refused to just repackage other people’s nosh behind the door…

By the following year, I had other ‘concerns’ about mishloach manot, because I’d learned the mitzvah was actually better done by giving to people you didn’t like (and who didn’t like you…), or who weren’t part of your usual Chevra.

The problem was not how to find these people, but how to whittle them down to under 50….

Then we moved to Jerusalem, and by that point, I almost gave up on mishloach manot. I was so lonely here the first year, I had no idea how to fulfill the mitzvah, really. I didn’t know anyone. That year, my kids saved the day. On Purim morning, one daughter noticed I’d done absolutely zip all about mishloach manot, and decided to make pancakes for all of our neighbors in our building. One cooked, and the other one packaged and delivered – and I was so grateful to them, because it really made me feel a little more alive and part of things.

Last year, I decided on the simple, easy route: A good bottle of wine, and some super-badatz baklava, for five people within walking distance. Two of my packages went to people I didn’t really like, two went to externally ‘secular’ people, and one went to my nearest neighbor.

One of those negative relationships actually really turned around as a result, and I was thrilled.

Which brings us up to this year. This year, again, that familiar ‘despairing’ feeling took hold before Purim, and made it very hard for me to get to grips with mishloach manot again. I didn’t want to just hand out junk and nosh, but I had no energy to plan or make anything else. I was hit with a very strong wave of ‘can’t be bothered’, which only disappeared the morning of Purim (we celebrate Shushan Purim in Jerusalem, so the shops were still open on everyone else’s Purim.)

That’s when I decided the following: I’m going to make a healthy, easy Israeli breakfast for the three people I like, who live close to me. And that’s what I did.

This year, my husband and I barely got any mishloach manot from anyone, as he gave to his rabbis, and the law of reciprocity doesn’t hold over there.

In the past, that would have made me feel pretty sorry and down, and unloved. This year, I was grateful that I didn’t have a mound of waffley and MSG-drenched bizzli to somehow get rid of.

Friendships aren’t built on mishloach manot, or at least, they shouldn’t be.

I didn’t spend stressful hours cooking mishloach manot treats. I didn’t spend hundreds of shekels buying bottles of wines and fancy-wrapped baskets. I didn’t get super-stressed on Purim morning as I had 347 mishloach manot to deliver before the Purim seuda, and no time to really get that done.

I’m sure the yetzer will still figure out a way to make next year’s mishloach manot another challenge, but this year, for once, after I got past the blahs,  it actually all turned out really good.

TIPS FOR DE-STRESSING MISHLOACH MANOT:

  1. Don’t drive ANYWHERE Purim morning.
  2. If you need to deliver to people who don’t live close, arrange to meet them in shul after the Megillah reading, and swap baskets there.
  3. Keep things simple: the basic mitzvah is to deliver two items of ready-to-eat food, to two different people. That’s it!
  4. Dare to be different. You don’t HAVE to buy huge baskets of cellophane nosh just to fit in. But, you also don’t need to make gourmet quiches, if that’s just not ‘you’.
  5. Keep it practical. A tin of tuna and a jar of mayonnaise fulfills the mitzvah perfectly – without a bamba or bizzli in sight!
  6. Don’t beat yourself up over your mishloach manot: There will always be people who do this better, nicer, fancier, healthier… If you managed to do the mitzvah at all, in whichever way you did it, celebrate that fact! Even that is not so easy, these days.
  7. Don’t beat yourself up over not getting mishloach manot, or not giving it to the ‘right’ people: Much easier said than done, I know, but mishloach manot is NOT meant to be a popularity contest, or a test of your mettle as a Jewish woman.
  8. Notice any ‘negative’ feelings that bubble up on Purim, and pray on them. Purim is blessed with the energy of transformation. Every year, I have insights from my mishloach manot that encourage me to work on myself, try to do things differently, and to notice what ‘vested interests’ still come attached to some of my mitzvah observance. We’re all a work in progress, and nothing underlines WHAT that progress might need to be more than mishloach manot.