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In the old days, I used to make plans to do a long hitbodedut every single day of a 3-day Purim heading into Shabbat – and sometimes, they even used to come off.

But not, it seems, these days.

I’ve actually been struggling with a lack of motivation since Rosh Hashana, when I deleted Emunaroma to avoid getting pulled into any more ‘machloket’ with pretend-perfect crazy people.

And for three months, I did nothing much, because I didn’t want to have any more machloket in my life, and whatever I write, it always seems to end up there, somehow or other.

So then, back in December, I felt God wanted me back online, and with a heavy heart, I agreed.

Because I really don’t want any more machloket in my life!!! I just want an ‘easy’ life now, thanks very much, Hashem.

For months, I’ve been avoiding getting into anything too controversial again, as much as possible (although in our PC world, full of snowflakes just waiting to get offended so they can take out all their inner turmoil on you, that’s really much easier said than done.)

But I’ve been trying.

Now, you’d think that making a resolute effort to pursue the ‘easy’ life would be making me far more relaxed, chilled out, and overall happy-feeling. Believe me, I also thought that would happen.

But, man, was I wrong.

Instead of being more chilled out, laid back, exercising more, using all my energy to whip up healthy cakes, and go to the gym, and to spotlessly clean the house and iron my husband’s shirts (poor man…), I’ve actually been struggling to wake up most mornings, because what’s the point? My kids are big enough to get off to school without me, no-one needs a sandwich made, or a pair of sneakers found, so what’s the point?

 Sure, I’ve still been doing stuff – lots of stuff, even – but nothing really has been exciting me too much, or grabbing me. Why? Because while it’s kinda meaningful, it’s also kinda bland. And bland is not enough to have me jumping out of bed in the morning.

But ‘interesting’ stuff is always inherently risky, in any number of different ways. It can draw people against you, it can draw you into disputes and patterns of thinking that are very unhealthy and destructive. It can lead to a lot of stress and complication….

So, I’ve been caught on the horns of a furious dilemma.

But today, Purim day, I realized something profound: I’m here to serve God, for the good, and also for the bad. I’m not here to have an easy life. And pursuing that ‘easy’ life is actually making my life anything but easy.

Externally, it’s relatively peaceful and tranquil, Baruch Hashem. Internally, I’m fighting a raging tempest that wakes me up 4 times a night, and gives me no rest. I’m falling apart physically. I can’t ignore God’s prompts anymore.

This is so similar to what happened to me before we moved to Israel. The risks associated with moving were so huge – in London, we both had good jobs, a nice house, a community, family, the language etc etc. It was far too scary to even contemplate aliya.

But then, God sent me a bunch of inexplicable panic attacks, and a series of bad nightmares about getting stuck in London during a terrorist attack (this was months before the 7/7 terror attack actually occurred, which killed 52 people in London) – and after the third time, I told my husband we have to do it, we have to move to Israel.

Because God was giving me no peace, and my ‘easy life’ was becoming a living nightmare.

And it’s happening again.

That’s what I realized, this Purim.

There is no running away from God.

Over on spiritualselfhelp.org last week, I wrote a piece about the Baal Shem Tov’s ‘Mirror Principle’ – together with this nifty infographic which set out the main points.

A lot of people don’t like the Mirror Principle, because our yetzers have us programmed to go around pointing fingers at everyone else’s ‘bad’, while completely ignoring our own.

This is a big part of why I just can’t read rants any more, however more ‘holy’ they appear to be, because the person criticizing others for sure has some shade of the problem they are critiquing.

Not 100%, maybe, not exactly the same, but for sure some percentage of the same problem they are dissing in the other person, some shade of it in their own lives.

There’s a lot of confusion about how the mirror principle actually works, because a lot of people believe that if it’s not exactly the same problem, if it’s not exactly the same degree of the problem – then they are completely off the hook, and they can just continue to point fingers at other people so self-righteously, while completely ignoring their own flaws.

But the mirror principal also doesn’t mean that we just ‘whitewash’ the obvious bad we see around us, either, obviously not.

It just requires us to be honest – with ourselves and others – that if we feel the need to ‘have a go’ about something publically, or to vocally criticize another person, that we should also acknowledge that we also have that problem, too. So then we need to go away afterwards and figure out what percentage, what shade of that issue we ourselves are exhibiting.

Because it’s never 100% the other person who has the problem, and that we’re totally fixed and rectified.

At the very least, we have 1% of something to go away and work on, before that ‘rankling’ feeling will go away, and we’ll finally get some inner peace.

Of course, I have to practice what I preach. I can’t just write about all this stuff then ignore my own ‘mirrors’ that God is being so careful to show me.

So last week, I had a chat with a good friend of mine who was giving over a piece of ‘Torah’ which just sounded plain wrong, and really rubbed me up the wrong way. Without getting into the details of the Torah (which I went to check up afterwards, and which really does appear to be ‘wrong’) – I reacted so badly to what she told me, that I felt I had to apologise for my reaction while I was actually having it.

Now, in the past, I would just have launched straight into an attack on the credibility of the person who gave this Torah over. But after I’d been thinking about the mirror principle all week, I was a bit more spiritually prepared to look past the other person’s obvious ‘wrong’, and to ponder what God was trying to actually show me, instead.

What I came up with was the idea that I’m sick to the back teeth of all these ‘know it alls’ that really don’t know all that much at all, especially when it comes to the deeper ideas of the Torah, who are probably misleading a whole bunch of people.

Now I was up to the next, far harder stage: seeing where that applies to me.

Because as the mirror principle clearly states, when you’re having a strong reaction to something, it’s never a case of it being 100% all the other guy’s fault.

So I did some hitbodedut on that idea this morning, and I came to the conclusion that more often than I’d like, I still find myself sliding in to ‘know it all’ rant-y posts. I don’t want to be writing that stuff anymore, and it’s a big reason why I actually pulled the plug on Emunaroma a few months’ back, because honestly? Who cares what I think?

At least, who cares what I think about very deep concepts that really, you need to be the gadol hador to really have a strong claim to actually know what you’re talking about?

So then I started to wonder, where does this strong urge to start opinionating, and to start acting like a know-it-all really come from? What’s underneath it, emotionally? The answer that came back was this:

Rivka, it happens when you’re feeling like a loser.

Aha! That was actually a useful piece of information. So then I had to ask,

God, how do I get rid of this? I’m sick of being pulled into pointless arguments that only lead to more sinat chinam, I’m sick of writing from an arrogant place. So, how do I stop feeling like a loser? What can I replace ‘feeling like a loser’ with?

The answer came back:

Try replacing it with some happy humility, instead.

So, that’s what I asked God to give me, happy humility.

Over Shabbat, I cracked open a book that I bought in the UK a few months back, that was basically talking about how bad the ‘Zionist enterprise’ is, and why orthodox Jews don’t need to live in Israel until the Moshiach actually comes.

It’s a big book – 1500 pages long – but around 1/3 of the way through, I came to realise how the author was pointing out all the ‘big bad’ in the other camp – and he’s right in most of what he was saying – but was completely missing the ‘big bad’ in his own.

I.e., the mirror principle was completely lacking over there, which is why the author felt justified in putting together 1500 pages of pretty much unadulterated sinat chinam. This is what’s holding up Moshiach – this is what’s been holding up Moshiach for the last 2,000 years, already.

Right now, God seems to be sending an atmosphere of harsh hakpada, or strict judgment down to the world.

It’s almost as though He’s shining a very strong spotlight of everyone else’s bad, and making it so easy to point fingers at what everyone else is doing wrong, and how annoying they are, and what bad middot everyone else has.

Why is He doing this?

Maybe, because He really want us to see what we ourselves need to fix. Because we all know, it’s so very easy to spot everyone else’s issues, and to call them out, but when we do that, we completely miss the point:

That we can only fix ourselves, that we can only rectify ourselves.

The last thing I just wanted to include here is the idea that the Tzaddik is just a mirror. The Tzaddik is completely rectified, so 100% what we see reflecting back at us is just our own inner dimension.

That’s why so many of the people who are ‘anti’ the Tzaddikim are clearly lunatics with a lot of mental issues. Whatever your issue is, the Tzaddik is going to shove it in your face so clearly, you can’t ignore it anymore, and if you can’t accept that you are the one with the problem, then you are going to just project it on to the Tzaddik instead.

For example, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a really bad yetzer to get into fights and arguments with other people, which I always used to justify as standing up for the truth, yadda yadda yadda.

So, I got to Rav Berland, and the Rav arranged things that I’d get into the middle of the most machloket and self-righteous arguments I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. And after a couple of years of it, I was totally and utterly sick of fighting with people.

The Rav broke my yetzer for picking fights!

But, if I hadn’t been aware that the fighting and arguing was my own problem, then God forbid I could have fallen into the trap of complaining about the Rav, for setting things up in such a way that I was finding myself arguing all the time over ‘the facts’.

We are all down here because we have work to do.

Over the next few weeks and months, for sure a lot of yucky behavior is going to be coming to the fore, because things can only be fixed when they are recognized and acknowledged.

And the key to coming through this stage OK and with our relationships and sanity intact is the mirror principle. Sure, other people have problems and issues, that’s a given. But if God is showing those issues and problems to us, and it’s upsetting us, then that means we also have the same problem to deal with.

And we have to knuckle down, and get on with the work of rectifying it.

AKA, Serving God on the Down

“[T]he terms ‘running’ and ‘returning’ are used in Ezekiel (1:14) and describe the chayot. They refer to two different facets of phases of divine service. They apply to everyone, no matter how low his level.

“There are times when everyone feels inspired in his devotions. This happens especially when a person is praying. He suddenly feels a burst of enthusiasm and says the words with tremendous fervor. This is the phase of ‘running’.

“But then, the inspiration and the fervor pass, and all that is left is a trace. This is the phase of “returning”.

“For most people, the main effort and work come in trying to achieve the ‘running’ – the moment when the heart ‘runs’, so to speak, in fervent devotion.  ‘Returning’ is something easy for them, because that is their nature….

“Both ‘running’ and ‘returning’ are necessary parts of serving God.”

#252 from Tzaddik, by the Breslov Research Institute. Also see Likutey Moharan I 6:4

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m a period of ‘returning’ at the moment.

Elsewhere, I call this ‘serving God on the down’ – you know, when you can’t really be bothered to listen to more Torah classes, or to take on more observances, and also when you’re finding it hard to get your act together to do even the basic stuff you know you should be doing.

Like making supper. Or hanging the washing. Or even, just stringing more than a couple of monosyllables together to talk to your husband and kids.

When this stage hits, it can often feel like we’re falling far away from Hashem, God forbid, but that’s where Rabbenu comes in to tell us don’t make that mistake!

Don’t start telling yourself that you’re ‘bad’, or ‘worthless’, or that God doesn’t love you, or that He doesn’t see all your efforts.

It’s just we can’t always be serving God on the ‘up’. We also have to serve Him on the down.

And it’s much easier to do that than you might think.

All it really means is that you turn around, and you search for God in the low place that you currently find yourself in, and connect it all back to Him.

God, I still want to serve You even though I got a little too caught up recently in dumb music videos on Youtube.

God, I still want to serve You even though I don’t feel like saying a Tikkun Haklali today, or going to hear a shiur.

God, I still want to serve You even though I seem to have completely run out of energy and ideas again.

That’s all we have to do to serve God on the down.

These are heavy days, hard times. The last couple of days, I’ve really been feeling like the ‘spiritual molasses’ has returned again, after a few days’ break, and it’s hard to do anything again.

But I can still serve God from this dark, unproductive place.

How?

Just by wanting to, even if the effort itself, the act itself, the improvement itself, is beyond me right now.

All I have is my wanting to do better, but I’m sending all that back up to Hashem, and this is all I need to do stay connected.

I’m heading down again right now, God, but wherever I land, You’re coming with me. BH, I’ll be back on the up, and ‘running’ and spiritually inspired again soon.

But right now, I’m serving You on the down.

And when we tell God that, we make Him very happy.

Sigh.

Sometimes, I get so frustrated by all this fake, politically correct ‘equality’ stuff that is really just another excuse for people with bad middot to start taking out their own issues and frustrations on everyone else.

Recently, I had to send another email around to Sassonmag.com writers, to remind them to please avoid any photos of ladies next to their pieces. This has been the policy of Sasson since its inception, just sometimes people forget, as people are wont to do, especially when swimming in the moral swamp of the internet.

There are a few reasons why I wanted to avoid pictures of ladies on Sasson. One of them is that I want it be an inclusive site for as many frum Jews as possible, and if there are photos of ladies on the site, that’s going to unnecessarily exclude a whole bunch of people.

It’s like having a ‘Badatz’ certification on your restaurant. If it’s ‘Badatz’, most people will eat there. If it doesn’t have a hechsher, most people who are interested in consuming kosher food simply won’t eat there. The same sort of idea applies to sites that are trying to cater to the orthodox community.

So, inclusivity is one reason why I don’t want pictures of ladies on Sasson.

But there’s another, much more important reason why I don’t want pictures there, or also here, on rivkalevy.com, which you can sum up like this:

Personally, I don’t want my photo everywhere.

Personally, I don’t want to be put under pressure to ‘wig up’ or slap on the make-up in order to be taken seriously as a writer. Personally, I don’t want my writing, my ideas, to be judged on how I look.

I want people to relate to my writing, not to my photograph, and in this image-gorged world, that is becoming an increasing rarity.

There’s something else, too.

Personally, I don’t want my husband looking at sites where all those gorgeous lipsticked women are showing their best side to the camera, while they give over their insights and Torah. Call me crazy! Call me idiotic! But I strongly prefer that my husband ‘relates’ to other women as little as possible.

There’s something else, too.

Personally, I don’t want my two teenage daughters to get sucked into that fake, false world of ‘appearance’, where the message they are getting 24/7 is that appearance is EVERYTHING.

If you’re fat, if you’re ugly, if you’re teeth stick out, if you have bad acne, or frizzy hair of a terrible dress sense – no-one is going to take you seriously, honey.

That’s the message the world of images gives women, especially young women.

And I’m so grateful that the world of Torah, the authentic, frum Jewish world, is giving out the opposite message:

That it’s the inside that counts.

That it’s the neshama that counts. That it’s not the packaging a person’s soul comes in that’s really important, but how that soul is acting, and what that soul is saying.

Sadly, there appear to be a whole bunch of apparently ‘frum’ women out there fighting to put all the focus on the outside, and on external appearances. These superficial ‘fighters for women’s freedom’ are trying to force women’s pictures into every single space under the guise of ‘equality’.

Now, I believe in the principle of free choice. You want to slap big, faux-glamorous pictures of yourself with your too-wide fake smile all over the place, please go right ahead. It’s a free country after all, and free choice is the whole reason God created us.

But I get extremely upset when these individuals try to force everyone else into following their dictates, with the same sort of ‘shaming’ and pressure tactics psychos of all stripes have been using online for two decades, now.

These people go on about how ‘unfair’ it is to women, to not have their images in frum publications. They go on about how ‘fanatical’ it is, and how ‘extreme’ it is, and how ‘backwards’ it is. They regret how ‘closed minded’ publications and institutions are that follow this policy, which smacks to them of – eek! – some sort of ‘ultra orthodox’ or chassidic mind control.

I’ve been pondering on all this OTT hysteria for a while, but after writing my post on BTs, I think I’ve got a bit more insight into what’s going on. From what I can see, all of the women (and PC men) clamoring for more women in frum publications are baal teshuvas.

They are people who left the secular world behind, and now seem to be kind of chafing at the restrictions that come as part and parcel of being an orthodox Jew. Instead of accepting that the fault, the issue, the problem is really with them, these people are trying to get past their discomfort by attempting to change the orthodox world to ‘fit’ with their own, still half-secular worldview.

In some ways, I understand it, at least a bit.

For a while there, I also bought into all those internet ‘experts’ telling me and everyone else who wants to listen that people relate more to an image, they trust you more when they see an image, they will buy more of your product, book more of your services if they can see you…

So says all the internet experts.

But God is totally out of the picture with this approach, and it’s just not going to lead to any real, or lasting blessings.

I learned this the hard way.

Two years ago when I published the Secret Diary, I managed to get an interview about the book into the Jewish Press. We were all set to go – when I got the bombshell request that I had to give them a couple of pictures of me, to go with the piece.

Can’t we just stick with the cover of the book?

I pleaded with them. After all, that cover had been so complicated to sort out, precisely because I was trying to avoid untznius images of women. But no, we couldn’t. And I’m sorry to tell you, my emuna wobbled and I gave in and sent them a couple of pictures.

You know what? I don’t think I sold as much as a single copy of the book, thanks to that interview. Nothing. Nada. Nega nega tory. And in the meantime, I don’t know what having those pictures ‘out there’ cost my neshama spiritually, but it definitely wasn’t worth it.

Thanks to all those ‘fighters for women’s freedom’ out there, who are increasingly making it impossible for frum women to participate in anything unless they are willing to be photographed publically, I wasn’t given a choice to not have any images next to my piece in the paper.

Way to go, sisters! Thanks so much for emancipating me like that!

Thanks to you and all your self-righteous outrage and politically-correct ‘piety’, I got stuck having to buy into the warped values and upside-down ‘equality’ of the world of images – that same world that bought us Harvey Weinstein, #Me Too, and an ongoing dumbing down of standards, morals, dress and behavior in the public arena.

Personally, I don’t want to look at pictures of women.

Personally, I don’t want my husband to look at pictures of women.

Personally, I don’t want my kids to be caught up in that world that degrades and downgrades women to just another ‘pretty face’ or piece of cleavage, or curly wig.

I want there to be a safe space, an alternative to the world of images.

Not everyone has to think the same way. Not everyone has to want pictures of women on their sites – even if they are women themselves, as I am.

And there are some very good reasons for that, including that God has put a whole bunch of rules in place for religious Jews that often seem to hold us back, or cause us some sort of material disadvantage, but which really only lead to tremendous blessings for us.

Those blessings are often hidden, and aren’t immediately obvious. That’s part of the test. But they are definitely there.

For example, my husband and I don’t have smart phones. Even though my children do, neither of them has internet access, and whatever they do have on there is also being filtered by Etrog. They basically use their phones for Whatsapp, pictures and music – that’s it.

Tell me, how many people have 18 year olds with smartphones who are completely disinterested in the world wide web, or 15 year olds with smartphones who don’t give a hoot about Instagram?

I know my mesirut nefesh to avoid smart phones is having some massive, positive repercussions on my family, even though it means I can’t film myself giving over ‘wisdom’ every five minutes, or thinly-disguised plugs for my books, to post up on Youtube and Instagram and Facebook.

Another thing: Baruch Hashem, my husband works as a lawyer, and I’m continually amazed at how God is sending him clients. My husband does no marketing, works afternoons only, as he learns in the morning, and doesn’t have Whatsapp. And yet, God is continually sending him more clients and good parnassa, BH.

Over the last few years, I honestly did have a few occasions when I felt that I was missing out on being able to publicise my work, my books, my ideas, to a wider audience because I couldn’t just video classes on Google hangouts and upload them to Youtube.

But you know what?

More and more, I’m starting to see what a blessing it is to be out of all that social media murk.

I’m seeing the toll it’s taking on people spiritually, I’m seeing how much of their soul, their values, their yiddishkeit, their connection to Hashem, they are really selling out, for precious little real return, appearances notwithstanding.

So, I’m standing firm on the ‘no pictures of women’ thing.

Call me backwards, call me discriminatory, call me narrow minded, whatever you want (I know you’re going to anyway.)

But understand something:

A Jew never misses out by trying to do the right thing by Hashem, and by following the path of self-sacrifice to keep God’s laws.

Just sometimes, it can take a while for that to become obvious.

Recently, I had an email exchange with someone that inspired this post, what I’m calling the Baal Teshuva Manifesto.

Baal Teshuvas, or BTs, have a crucial part to play in the unfolding redemption process, but where a lot of us seem to be getting stuck is that we think we have to be ‘carbon copies’ of the frum-from-birth crowd to be serving Hashem properly.

And this isn’t true!

God went to great lengths to stick us in whatever spiritual holes we found ourselves in before we realized we have a soul, and a much deeper spiritual purpose in life. What follows is going to explore this notion in much greater depth, but the basic idea is this:

The F-F-Bs have their own path, their own derech, and their own very important spiritual job to do in the world, which I’d sum up simplistically as:

Teaching Jews how to serve God with the yetzer tov, or good inclination.

By contrast, BTs also have their own path, derecho and spiritual job to do in the world, which I’ll sum up simplistically as:

Teaching Jews how to serve God with their yetzer hara, or evil inclination.

Most people in the FFB world didn’t grow up watching endless Disney, or having George Michael songs hardwired into their prepubescent heads, or spending pointless weeks on package holidays in places like Marbella or Cancun.

They don’t have those memories, they don’t have those challenges, they don’t have those issues and triggers.

When they go back to ‘home’, home is Torah, home is Shabbat, home is yiddishkeit, and unless they grew up in emotionally abusive, neglectful or otherwise disturbed homes, they will have very strong, happy childhood memories of these things. And those happy memories will reinforce the desire to do these things again, in their adult life.

By contrast, ‘home’ for many or even most of us BTs is linked to things that are the antithesis of yiddishkeit. Like movies, inappropriate dress, inappropriate behavior, Michael Jackson, God-less secular culture, and many modes of thinking and being that simply doesn’t go together with being a religious Jew.

And that’s usually the case even if the people in these homes were warm, wonderful, genuinely caring and giving. (Which these days, is clearly a big if).  So part of the BT’s brain is literally hardwired to feel ‘at home’ in tumah, and in all the secular culture that so many of us kicked off and left behind, because we could see that it’s empty and destructive.

So now, let’s walk through the typical process of making teshuva to see what happens next:

  • There’s a spiritual awakening of some kind, and the BT realizes they have a soul, and that God is requiring more of them than spending their life chasing after money or gratifying their ego and lusts.
  • The BT starts to learn about keeping mitzvahs, and starts to learn more Torah.
  • If they have a very strong desire to feel accepted, and to feel as though they ‘belong’ in their new community (which most of us have) they will try to dress the part as soon as possible, and will try to conform to as many of their new communities rules and regulations as quickly and as consistently as possible.

 

We’ve all been told that idea that the outside influences the inside, and it’s true to a great degree – but it’s also simplistic. Because sooner or later, there comes a time, there comes a place, where the ‘outside’s’ ability to really change the inside stops.

There’s a core of a person that is hardwired in childhood, and that will ‘pull’ the adult person, and catapult them towards certain things that are viewed as sources of tumah, or spiritual pollution, in the frum world.

Some examples from my own experience include:

  • Secular reading material
  • Being online
  • Secular music and ‘culture’
  • Holidays
  • Nice clothing
  • Working out / playing sports
  • Nicely appointed homes

Now, it’s clear to us all that if a person can get through life happily and healthily without any of the above, that’s clearly 100% the best way to be for a frum Jew. But the problem is this:

Most of us BTs have some part of our brain that God has hardwired to feel ‘at home’ in the tumah.

And when we completely turn our backs on that tumah, that usually also means that we’re turning our backs on some integral part of ourselves. That part that has fond memories of watching Thriller. That part that really enjoyed reading A Little Princess. That part that actually wants to retrain to become a lawyer, or a doctor, or to go into business, instead of just sitting there learning Torah 24/7. That part that is dying, literally, to play a game of tennis, or shoot some hoops.

Not only that, because we’re fighting so hard to keep that ‘bad’ part of us in its box, that usually means that we can’t tolerate any whiff of anything or anyone that is going to entice us back to that tumahdik stuff, or put us in the place of having to admit that at least a bit of us is still drawn towards it.

So we stop talking to our old friends, and we stop attending family events, and we make all sorts of excuses why we no longer need to be in touch with people – our fellow Jews.

I’ve been through this process myself, and at this stage, this is what I think about it:

When you’re dealing with people who don’t respect your choice to live a religious life, and who are constantly trying to pull you back to the tumah¸ you have to put some big barriers up, and step away and go and work out who you really are and what you really want, without any sabotage from family members.

BUT – family members will only try to sabotage your process of self-discovery if the relationship is already dysfunctional. If the relationship is healthy, and if the lines of communication between child and parent, or husband and wife, or brother and sister, are working properly, you will still be able to navigate the changes together.

Disagreements will be ironed out, clashes will get resolved, problems will be solved with a lot of dialogue, mutual respect, and will to compromise to get the best possible outcomes for everyone involved.

Again, I think it’s fair to say that most BTs have experienced the ‘sabotage’ model over the ‘support’ model, and at least some of the reasons for this are obvious:

When God and Torah is out of the picture, self-development and working on our bad middot are also often out of the picture.

We are drawn to yiddishkeit in the first place, because we recognize something is lacking, something isn’t working so well, in our lives. We can see that having a relationship with God, and following His mitzvoth, is the path out of the emotional wilderness, and that’s why so many of us make a lot of self-sacrifice to try to change our lives around to give God what He wants.

And that motivation can keep us going for years.

This is the stage of the BT process where we’re learning to serve Hashem with our yetzer tov¸or our inclination for good, and it’s an absolutely crucial part of the process that can’t be skipped.

But that’s not where the process stops, and this is where many of the BTs I know, including me and my husband, kind of came unstuck. The FFB world could tell us all about making kugels, and singing zmirot, and having 400 people for Seder night, and selling our cars to pay for our kids’ tuition in yeshiva.

But it couldn’t teach us how to take that ‘hidden’ part of us, that part of us that’s hardwired to be at home in the world of tumah, and to make that part holy, too.

It’s obvious why not: FFBs don’t have that challenge, they don’t have that issue, they don’t have those problems. (Again, this is an over-simplification to make the point. There are massive middot issues in the FFB world too, I know. But for different reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.)

FFBs are serving God in a different way, and they have a different job to do in the world.

I have to choose my words very carefully here, because God forbid this should be misconstrued as saying the forbidden is permissible. That’s not at all what I’m saying here. The forbidden is still forbidden, but God has given BTs a job to do in the world, and we can only do it properly if we’re really being ‘us’, and not pretending to be ‘perfect frummers’.

Let’s see if I can explain what I’m really trying to say here, by framing things through my own experiences.

By profession, I’m a journalist and writer, a communicator, and I do it very well. When I was in London, I was a professional in the street, and a Jew in the home. I.e. my job was my job, and then I did my best to do things like keep Shabbat and kosher, and to pay tzedeka, too. My kids were sent to orthodox Jewish schools, we ate in a Succah on Succot etc etc.

But my Judaism didn’t really come past the door of my home, it didn’t really accompany me into my job working for Government ministers, or writing for papers.

Then I hit Israel, and over a year or two I came to understand I had a lot of work to do to make my Judaism consistent, and to be living a genuinely Jewish life.

I stopped working, I started covering my hair, I started dressing much more modestly, I only bought Badatz chickens, I threw away all my secular books and albums, and stopped watching movies… This is the ‘external’ part of the BT process, where we can get so machmir about the externals. You can sum this up in the phrase: the mitzvoth between man and God.

Then, thanks to Breslov and Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, especially his advice to talk to God for an hour a day, I started the real, internal part of the BT process, which is basically avodat hamiddot, or working on rectifying my negative character traits. You can sum this up as the mitzvoth between man and man.

This is still very much an ongoing process, and it will be until 120. It’s not fast work, it’s often extremely painful and difficult – but it’s also a crucial part of the teshuva process. And thank God, by trying to see everything that happens as some sort of message or prod from Hashem, and by talking to Him a lot about what’s going on, a lot of things have moved and improved.

One of the biggest blessings of trying to do this work on the mitzvoth between man and man, this avodat hamiddot, is that it transformed my relationship with my children.

Once I internalized that my children are just my mirrors, and that God is trying to show me something by way of my kids and their issues that I myself need to work on, a whole bunch of new paths and insights into the teshuva process started to open up.

Especially five years ago, when my oldest started listening to secular music, used her own money to buy a smartphone, and started wearing short sleeve T-shirts. Initially, I tried to use brute force to squash all this tumah down. We had such big shouting matches, such big disagreements, and this carried on for about a year and a half.

Then, she developed a weird health problem that I knew 100% was emotional, and somehow ‘mirroring’ me. I sent her off to my One Brain woman, and I got the clear message back that I had to let my daughter choose her own path in life, and stop trying to keep her ‘frum by force’ – or risk her getting ill, God forbid.

I did a big hitbodedut on it all, because I was so confused.

God wants us to dress tzniusly! He wants us to ditch the smartphones! I know this is true 100%. At the same time, the emuna rules were telling me something more, something extra, an additional nuance: God wants all that, for sure. But He wants people to choose it for themselves. You can’t just force your kids into towing the line. If you do that, they will either rebel or turn into unthinking, unfeeling, frum robots.

I got that message.

But now, I was stuck with a massive problem, because all the things that I’d thrown out of my life – like secular music, and jeans – was coming back into it. For the last 10 years, I’d dealt with my pull to this tumah by completely closing it out, and shutting the gates. But now if I did that, my daughter was going to be shut out with it, and caught on the other side, away from me.

And that was simply not something I was prepared to do.

But in the meantime, all my attempts to keep up with Cohens, and to look the part of the externally FFB family, were completely wrecked by these kids of mine, who resolutely insisted on being who they were.

They get that from me, and I can’t complain.

But it took me another year or so of constantly praying to try to find the right path through all the muddle to realise something amazing:

Tolerating my kids meant that I also started to tolerate myself much more, too.

That part of me that still liked secular stuff, and that still wanted to wear long jeans skirt and crazy, colorful hats, and that still wanted to interact with the secular world. But now, on completely different terms. Now, I didn’t want to write ‘secular’ stuff then go back to my home life as a believing Jew.

Now, I wanted my Jewish beliefs to infuse and inform everything I do in the secular world.

That’s when I started down this path of trying to combine secular knowledge and information with emuna and Torah, but with the emphasis firmly on the Torah being right, no matter what science or secular knowledge actually says.

Take the age of the world. The old version of me was very happy with the ‘Science of God’ approach which seemed to marry modern science with the Torah, in a way that said ‘see, the Torah is not against what modern science is saying at all!’ That worked for me then, as my internal focus was still really secular.

But these days, my approach is completely different. These days, my internal focus is now much more Torah, so I’m looking at science with new eyes, with the fundamental understanding that if the Torah says the world is 5779 years old, that is the reality – and then, how does that stack up with modern science?

And this approach is what’s helping me to spot all the lies and flaws and propaganda inherent in so much of how modern science dates world events.

To put this another way, I see a lot of what I’m writing as a bridge between secular and holy, between night and day, between tahor and tamei.

And this brings me back around to why God made Baal Teshuvas, and why we’re missing the point when we stay stuck in stage 1 of the teshuva process, just trying to be carbon copies of the FFBs that we see around us.

God wants us BTs to be a connecting bridge in the Jewish world.

He knows that even if we’re currently living in Meah Shearim, and speaking Yiddish with our 15 children, and wearing our stripey dressing gowns, that we still have a totally secular family left behind in Chul.

And what connects that totally secular family to God, and to purity, and to Tzaddikim, and to Torah is us.

We are that bridge, we are that unifying substance. But only if we’re still in touch with the secular family. And now, do you see why God has hardwired some of that tumah into our souls, still, and why we have to actually acknowledge the reality of who we are, instead of pretending to be who we are really not, which causes us to act like ‘frum robots’?

Because that secular stuff is what greases the wheels of communication between us, and keeps the dialogue open, and helps us to see that we’re really not so different, after all.

Totally secular sister who’s married out is not going to be able to grasp in a million years a conversation about the Ramchal’s glosses, or the subtleties of not performing melacha on Shabbat. If that’s all you have to talk about, you can’t connect, you can’t discuss. The conversation will get more and more awkward until it finally dries up, and you just never speak anymore, and she doesn’t feel comfortable coming over any more, and her kids grow up knowing about the ‘crazy frum uncle’ who cut all his family out of his life.

So what does God do? He gives you a strange urge to listen to a Robbie Williams song, or to read an article about how fat he’s got – and now you have something to talk to secular sister about that she can really relate to. Is it tahor? Not at all! For an FFB, it’s completely tamei, completely inappropriate.

But for a Baal Teshuva with a bunch of secular relatives, who’s still trying to keep the lines of communication open, so that secular sister feels comfortable coming over for a meal on Shabbat, or joining in a seder on Pesach?

It’s just the ticket.

Do we want to be like secular sister and her family?

Of course not!

Do we want our kids to be like secular sister and her family?

Of course not!

And again, this is where maximum caution is advisable, because we can’t sacrifice our own family, our own yiddishkeit, just to try to keep on good terms with secular sister.

But we also can’t tell God lies about where we’re really holding, either.

As soon as our kids get to a certain age, as soon as our families get to a certain stage, where they have a strong base, a strong faith, and they know who they are and why they are doing things, religiously, we have to reach back out to our secular family members.

We have to try to connect to the more secular Jews in the world, and shine some of the Torah’s light into their lives, in a way they can really relate to it. That might mean knowing who the latest yucky celeb is, that might mean keeping up on the news, it might mean holding down a real job, it might mean tolerating the sight of female elbows at a seder table.

So much of this is completely inappropriate for a FFB, because they have a different job to do in the world. Half their family, half their experience, half their soul, isn’t caught up in that place of tumah, in that place of secularity, they have no reason to connect to that world.

But for us BTs? The picture is completely different.

So now, tachlis, how can we now what God is really expecting of us, and whether we have the balance right, and we’re really serving God in the capacity He intended for us, with both our yetzer hara and our yetzer tov, and whether we’re really being honest about where we’re actually holding?

Here’s a few questions to ask, to try to find out:

  • Do you feel energized and happy about the life you’re leading, or miserable and resentful?
  • Do you radiate happiness and contentment to other people, or do you give the impression that your life is a drag and that you’re full of anger and resentment?
  • Do you have ‘secret vices’ that you like to pretend you don’t have – TVs in the airing cupboard, a secret addiction to YouTube videos, a penchant for Mills and Boon novels that you try to keep hidden under the bed, an urge to watch a baseball game, or to go and play some tennis or take a bike ride?
  • Are you open about your issues and experiences and past (particularly with your immediate family members)?
  • Do you feel empty, phoney, or like you’re pretending to be someone you really aren’t? (If the answer is ‘yes’, what do you usually try to do to fill that space?)
  • Do you often catch yourself saying things you don’t really believe, or going along with things that you haven’t really bought into?
  • Are you harshly judgmental about other Jews’ level of observance? (This one is often a big, red flag that there’s a big pot of jealousy bubbling away somewhere inside.)
  • Do you have good relations with your less religious family members? If the answer is ‘no’, have you ever explored how your own bad middot, or your own issues, might be causing at least some of the problems?
  • What do you see your children mirroring back at you? What parts of your hidden self are your children reflecting back at you?
  • How can you use your ‘hidden’ self to put more of God’s light and love out into the world?

I have about another 50 questions I could add to this list, but let’s stop here for now.

I want to tell you the story of someone I knew way back when, who I used to learn with when I first got to Israel.

We were both from the same part of town back in the old country, and we knew some of the same people, except while I was ‘Modern Orthodox’ and then on the way to Breslov chassidut, she’d been totally immersed in secular culture, before making a 180 degree change to become ‘chareidi’.

We intersected when I was in Modiin, and she was in a chareidi city that was very black and white, and was dressing the part of the frum matron 100%.

She was so judgmental of my early attempts to (partially…) cover my hair with a beanie. She told me that I may as well not bother, if that was how I was going to do things. This sort of angry, harsh judgment used to come out of her a lot, and she really looked down her nose at her ‘secular’ relatives – even though some of them where actually paying to support her and her husband’s Torah lifestyle.

But she had a good sense of humor, and we had Terry Wogan to connect us, so I stayed in touch with her for a couple of years. Until we had the conversation about the tattoo and the kids.

Because yes, Mrs Perfect Chareidi had a big tattoo hidden away under her navy pinafore, part of her previous life when she attended raves and was living with a non-Jewish man. One time, I’d picked her up to drive us both down to the Kotel, and I happened to be playing some Breslov trance music that I’d picked up from the Chut Shel Chesed bookstore.

Five seconds into the ride, she completely wigged-out, and started ranting at me for listening to ‘traif’ music.

I told her I’d got the CD from Chut Shel Chessed – and the artist was a Breslov chassid with massive payot who was only singing about Rabbenu, God and Torah. I had no idea why she was reacting so badly.

She demanded I turn it off – which I reluctantly did. But me being me, I had to ask why.

Why are you going crazy about this music? What’s the real problem?

That’s when she told me about the raves she used to go to, and the tattoo, and the non-Jewish man she used to live with. The music had triggered her back into that past life, and she was obviously trying very hard to keep all that stuff firmly boxed-up and hidden from view.

So then I asked her, Do your children know about your past? Have you told them?

She said she hadn’t, and that her rebbetzin had told her that she never should, because it would only confuse them. When I heard this, I was momentarily speechless.

But if you haven’t told them you didn’t used to be religious, so then how do you explain your secular parents to them? How do you explain about your sister, who married out? They’ve met your mum and dad, they can see they aren’t at all religious. How are you explaining things to your kids?

The short answer: she wasn’t. She couldn’t. And they were small enough to not really know to ask awkward questions.

We lost touch shortly after this conversation, as I was finding her self-righteous, judgmental angry rants about other people (and myself…) increasingly hard to handle. But sometimes I wonder, how did her kids turn out?

When kids grow up in a house like that, that’s so full of secrets and lies, where so many topics are ‘off limits’, that causes them all sorts of spiritual, emotional and even physical issues.

From my own experiences, I’ve seen that when we try to deny, ignore or negate that ‘secret self’ of ours  – often for the very best reasons – we pay a big price for it within our family unit.

God made us who we are.

God made it that we’re still drawn to things that aren’t ‘good’, however hard we try.

While we’re praying to be permanently freed from the clutches of tumah, we also need to look around, and to ask ourselves why God is putting us in those low places, still, and what good we can do there.

If we look around, most of us will clearly see that there are other Jews – other family members – who are also stuck down there, in the dark. And when we bring God’s light down into those low places, we are illuminating it for them, too.

But only if we’re really being us, really connecting to God, and really being honest about what’s going on, and why.

So let’s end this Baal Teshuva Manifesto with a call to truth:

Dear BT, please just be your real self, warts n’all!

God made you like this for a very important reason, because you have a job to do in the world, and a part to play in the forthcoming redemption. God wants all of His children to be redeemed, not just the frummies. And that’s where you come in, sweet BT, who will always feel caught between two worlds, and not really belonging to either.

You are a bridge, connecting the different sections of the Jewish community.

You are a unifier.

You are creating achdut every time you are just yourself, and every time you are trying to bring God down into those low places on YouTube, or into your Isrotel holiday, or into your terribly imperfect seder with secular relatives who keep muttering that none of this stuff every really happened.

Every time you manage to connect all that tumah back to God, and all those people who are lost in the world of tumah back to God, you make Him so very happy.

And you are doing the job that God created you to do.

So continue on!

And don’t feel bad that you’re not a ‘perfect frummer’.

You have a different role to play in the world, and when you start to accept that, and to really embrace it, you will feel so much happier and content.

And so will your kids.

Continuing the discussion, I had a couple more questions on hitbodedut which I’m going to answer below as part of a Frequently Asked Questions post, that I’ll add to as and when I get more questions on the subject that are not ‘big’ enough to merit their own post.

Q: What about Reb Noson’s famous saying, “If I see a lack somewhere, I know that either people didn’t pray about it, or they didn’t pray about it enough”? I think Rav Arush quotes it somewhere in “The Garden of Emuna”. How do you understand it now, in light of your experiences?

In Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom (the English translation of Shevachay HaRan and Sichos HaRan, by the Breslov Research Institute), pg 368, it says the following:

[The Rebbe said]: “You must pray for everything. If your garment is torn and must be replaced, pray to God for a new one. Do this for everything. Make it a habit to pray for all your needs, large or small.

Your main prayers should be for fundamentals, that God should help you with your devotions, that you should be worthy of coming closer to Him.

Still, you should also pray for even trivial things. God may give you food and clothing and everything else you need, even though you do not ask for them. But then you are like an animal.

“God gives every living thing its bread without being asked. He can also give it to you this way. But if you do not draw your life through prayer, then it’s like living like an animal. A man has to draw all of his necessities from God via his prayers.”

==

The first thing we have to really clarify is what sort of ‘lack’ are we talking about, here? In our superficial, money-obsessed, materialistic world, the word ‘lack’ automatically conjures up a lack of stuff.

  • I lack a big, expensive house…
  • I lack a fancy car….
  • I lack the money to go on holiday…
  • I lack the ability to eat out in expensive restaurants and to buy nice clothes…

And so on, and so forth.

Clearly there are material needs – part of what Rebbe Nachman refers to as ‘trivial things’ – that are still very important for a person. If we don’t have enough food to eat, we can’t pay the rent, we can’t buy even the basic clothes we need – that’s going to impact our ability to serve Hashem in some very big, fundamental ways.

Where there is no flour, there is no Torah.

From my own experiences with my husband not working, neither he nor I could really learn Torah properly, or really work on anything spiritual except just clinging on to our sanity and trying to keep hold of some emuna, when we ran out of money.

When you can’t buy food, when you can’t buy toilet paper, when you’re worrying about the electricity getting switched off, you have zero peace of mind and very little ability to sit down and pray (unless you’re genuinely a huge tzaddik, which honestly? Most people are not.)

That’s why you need a minimum amount of ‘flour’ before you can have some Torah, and that’s why Rebbe Nachman says you should certainly be praying for your ‘trivial’ physical needs, even though they aren’t so ‘spiritual’.

There’s so much fake piety washing around the frum world that sometimes, even basic ideas like this aren’t properly understood. You can’t expect a kid to want to live and love a life of Torah learning if they live in a home where there is no food on the table, and no shoes for them to wear.

A few, extremely righteous people, can live like that, and love Torah so much they won’t feel the material lack and the physical deprivation, but most of us are no-where near that level. So, we have to have the basic stuff we need to feel sufficiently taken care of, physically and materially.

BUT – then Rebbe Nachman comes to warn us – don’t take praying for the gashmius to an extreme.

Don’t think that praying for stuff is the point, because it really isn’t.

The ‘lack’ that Rebbe Nachman is talking about is first and foremost spiritual. We lack daat, (deep spiritual understanding). We lack emuna, the real belief in God, and God’s goodness. We lack self-awareness and empathy. We lack good middot. We lack closeness to Hashem.

It’s these spiritual lacks that are really causing us all the other lacks in our life, be it ‘lacks’ in health, money, success, shalom bayit, inner peace, whatever it is.

Rebbe Nachman teaches in Likutey Moharan that all our suffering is caused by a lack of daat – a lack of spiritual understanding. When a person has daat, they don’t suffer, regardless of what’s going on in their lives, and they don’t feel that they lack anything – even if they really are objectively lacking.

How do we get more daat, and fill in more of these spiritual ‘lacks’?

By talking to God on regular basis.

The more we do that, the more we’ll start to understand how our bad middot and lack of emuna is really at the root of all the other ‘lacks’ and suffering that we’re experiencing.

Also, when you go through an experience where you have no toilet paper, you can’t put food on the table, you can’t move forward in life, no matter how hard you try, that starts to teach you to have more humility and more gratitude.

Everything is a free gift from Hashem.

God decides the outcome of everything, not our practical effort, and not even how much time we spend doing hitbodedut.

In the West, we take so much for granted, and have such high expectations. We think God owes us a whole bunch of stuff. It’s not enough we have food, it has to be expensive organic, or fancy restaurant. It’s not enough we have a roof over our head, it has to be completely renovated and massive. It’s not enough we have our own healthy teeth in our gums, they have to be totally straight and pearly white.

The Sages teach that a person dies with not even half of his desires fulfilled.

Again, the more we work on the underlying spiritual causes for our sense of ‘lacking’, the more appreciation we’ll develop for what we do have, and the easier we’ll find it to be happy with our lot – however God has decided ‘our lot’ should be.

But with the proviso that our basic physical needs have to be being met, because otherwise, the anxiety and stress of not having enough food, or money to pay rent and bills etc, will just take us out, mentally, and close down our ability to think.

And if you can’t even think straight, it’s very hard to pray, and it’s very hard to have the peace of mind, or yishuv daat required to think things through to see what you might need to be doing differently, to get things to improve.

But once these basic needs have been met – and our basic needs are far more ‘basic’ than most of us are willing to accept, in 2018 – then should focus on acknowledging our blessings, and put the emphasis on developing our relationship with God and fixing our bad middot.

Q: How can one do an hour every day without repeating oneself, being bored to death and feeling that this is not really conducive to constant growth?

This is a good question, and it really goes to the heart of what is hitbodedut really for?

We’re taught that three things are acquired through suffering:

  • Torah
  • Eretz Yisrael
  • The world to come

This teaches us that true spiritual growth is always ‘earned’ via suffering, in some way or other.

There’s an idea that we don’t keep mitzvahs because they actually give us so some tangible benefit, although clearly, they often do. Rather, there’s a higher level of keeping mitzvahs just because God said to do them, which is called lishma, for its own sake.

Yes, a person can keep Shabbat because it gives them a break from work, and it gives them quality family time, and they enjoy the socializing, or the extra time to read and learn Torah, or the Shabbos shluff on Saturday afternoon, or the great cake their wife makes for Shabbat.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying all these ‘fringe benefits’ of keeping Shabbat, and we’re meant to find ways to honor the Shabbat, and to make it more enjoyable and something to look forward to, physically.

But all that stuff is not the main point.

The main point of keeping Shabbat is because God told us to do it.

And we have to keep Shabbat even if we’re bored to tears, lonely, forgot to cook anything beforehand, or are generally really just not enjoying it so much.

(So many baal teshuvas will tell you the first time they tried to keep Shabbat, they nearly went crazy from the boredom and ‘tedium’ of the day. Beginnings are always hard, especially when it comes to spiritual matters where the results and benefits are often so intangible.)

It’s the ‘suffering’ that we’re willing to go through to acquire these mitzvahs that really make them so precious in God’s eyes, because then it’s clear that we’re only doing them because God said so. Lishma. And not because we are feeling some huge benefit ourselves.

Same with doing hitbodedut for an hour.

Why do an hour?

Because Rebbe Nachman told us to. There is no other reason for doing an hour. Why did Rebbe Nachman tell us to do an hour? Because he could see there is some massive spiritual benefit associated with talking to God for an hour a day, that you just don’t get any other way.

Do we believe Rebbe Nachman knows what he’s talking about?

(You can answer that quietly).

But, if the answer is ‘yes’, if we really do have emunat tzaddikim, and we believe that Rebbe Nachman is a big Sage, and we are relying on his much greater spiritual insight and knowledge, then we’ll take his advice to do an hour a day very seriously.

But then, what do we do if we’re not really enjoying it, if it’s just too hard?

Let’s go back to the Shabbos example.

The BT really wants to keep Shabbat, he knows it’s the right thing to do, he knows it’s what God wants, he even knows that at some point, he’ll see huge benefits from keeping Shabbat. There are some BTs that can go ‘cold turkey’ and just start keeping Shabbat fully from day one. But there are others, many others, who can’t.

This BT also wants to keep Shabbat.

But…he’s addicted to his i-Phone. He’s addicted to watching movies. He’s addicted to going to the beach with his friends on Shabbat, or going to watch football.

What do we say to this BT? Do we say ‘give up, and don’t bother! It’s just too hard!’

Nope.

Instead we say – keep aiming for small but steady improvements.

Every week, try to do a bit more to ‘remember’ the Shabbat, and a bit less to desecrate it. Do Kiddush Friday night, stay home, try to bench after the meal. Work up slowly, slowly.

We also give him strategies to make keeping Shabbat a bit easier and less onerous. Start trying to keep Shabbat in the Winter months, when it’s cosy to stay home Friday night and the day is over by 5pm.

Try to find friends to invite over, and get invited out, so you don’t get so bored and the time will pass faster. Start learning more, so you understand why keeping Shabbat is so important. Speak to other BTs who started keeping Shabbat, to see if they can give you any useful tips or encouragement, or tell you about the benefits they started to see in their own lives.

Same with hitbodedut.

It’s not perfect? It’s not a full hour? You get bored and antsy?

Don’t give up!

Keep aiming to do the full hour. Keep asking God to show you why it’s important to do it, keep building the will to eventually do a full hour.

Sooner or later, it will come, if you don’t give up on it.

There’s one more thing to add here, and that is this:

Whatever is stopping you from doing hitbodedut, that’s what is also holding you back in your real life, too.

That’s why if you can ‘fight through’ the obstacles to doing an hour of hitbodedut, you’ll also start to see a whole bunch of things start to move in other ways, as well.

Let’s carry on the discussion that we started in the previous post on regularly talking to God, aka doing hitbodedut, but today we’re going to explore the idea of the six hour hitbodedut session in more detail.

As I mentioned in the last post, the first time I was motivated to do a six hour session was when I had a health scare when I was 35, that scared the flipping pants off me.

To put it simply, God very often uses fear to get us to turn to Him, and start really talking.

And fear is certainly what started me off down the path of doing regular, long hitbodeduts. Fear of falling ill, fear of something with the children, God forbid, fear of losing my home, fear of losing my marbles…. You get the idea.

I would arrive in those early six hour sessions with a whole lot of fear, and I would basically spend six hours trying to turn my ‘fallen fear’ into true yireh shemayim, or fear of Hashem, so that I could start to breathe a bit easier and take down the intensely uncomfortable sensation of deep panic and anxiety that were accompanying the fear.

But that wasn’t the only motivation for those early six hours. Another big, huge motivation could be summed up like this:

Forcing God to give me what I want.

And this is what I’m going to focus on today, because I have learned over the last few years that prayer actually doesn’t work like that, it’s not meant to work like that, and if you go in to long hitbodeduts as a way to try ‘force’ Hashem’s hand, it’s just going to boomerang on you.

I know, I know: there’s a marketing issue going on here.

Because we’re superficial, Westernised, control-freak Anglos, we really buy into the message that we can ‘control’ the Creator of the world via six hour hitbodedut sessions. That’s a powerful motivator, that’s a very good way of getting us to dip our toe in the hitbodedut water to start to try it.

Maybe, we need to have hitbodedut packaged like that initially, because who knows if we’d ever feel like trying it, otherwise? But this approach is not describing the whole, complicated reality of the relationship with Hashem, and the best way to show you its beauty, but also its limitations, is to tell you what happened to me, on a few different occasions.

WHEN THE ‘FORCING’ DIDN’T WORK, EXAMPLE 1: HAVING MORE CHILDREN

One of the biggest motivators for doing hitbodedut for me, initially, was to try to ‘force’ God to give me more children. Baruch Hashem, I have two wonderful daughters, 18 and 15 now, but I wanted more. And God didn’t want to give more to me, so I spent years, and years, and years trying to ‘force’ God to give me more kids via hitbodedut.

After about 5 years of doing this, the penny started to drop that while the hitbodedut wasn’t really working in this area, regularly talking to God every single day had been cleaning up my bad middot, and leading to a lot of insights and teshuva in many other ways.

And it was also making me a much better, happier and more empathetic and emotionally ‘there’ mother.

But still, when I was having my bad days, the first weapon my yetzer would use to attack my efforts at hitbodedut was my apparent ‘failure’ to force God to give me more kids. At that stage, I was still buying into the message that the only reason God wasn’t giving me more kids is because I hadn’t done enough hours of hitbodedut, so I just kept racking up more and more hours, more and more six hour sessions.

This continued until around 4 years ago, when I had 4 early miscarriages in the space of a year and a half.

To say this was a huge test of faith is a massive understatement.

All this was occurring when we were having difficulties in a bunch of other areas as well, and the miscarriages on top of everything else we were going through really, nearly, broke me.

It took me a good two years of picking through the rubble of that experience to draw some positive conclusions, but this is what I realized, after a lot more introspection and prayer:

  • Because I didn’t ‘let go’ and accept God’s plans for me to have not more kids, and because I kept trying to ‘force’ Him to give me more kids, I ended up with the worst of both worlds:

I conceived four more kids, and then I lost them all. (Thank God, it was all very early miscarriages, there was a lot of kindness even in the harsh judgement.)

  • I am really not cut out to have a big family.

It would have been better for me to accept that much earlier on, and to be counting my existing blessings, then to keep using my ‘lack of kids’ as a moaning stick against Hashem.

  • God knows exactly what He’s doing.

I love writing, I love writing blogs and books and doing all this stuff gives me a very deep and happy sense of meaning. Much as I love my kids, changing diapers and hanging out in the park has just always been difficult for me. I was not prepared to do things by half-measures, so God made sure I could spend a bunch of years focusing only on my two kids, and doing my best to give them what they needed. But at this stage, He’s given me the time and freedom to go back to my writing full-throttle – and I can do that with no guilt, and without worrying that I’m acting selfishly, because I only have two kids.

  • I couldn’t have experienced the difficulties of the last 5 years as ‘easily’ if I had a bigger family.

The rented dump fit a family of 4 perfectly. Trying to stuff a family of 5 or 6 in that space would have been extremely dangerous for everyone’s mental health (in my family – remember, we’re all different.) Also, I had bad health issues that took me out for 2 years solid – there’s no way I could have had the energy to properly care for very young children in those circumstances. And I didn’t have any support network, no local family, no neighbors to fall back on, so I count it as a huge blessing, at this stage, that I didn’t have to go through the upheavals and massive uncertainty of the last few years with more small kids to care for.

God knew what I’d have to go through in order to do more of the ‘soul rectifying’ required; He knew that I had a bunch of important things to write about, and that I’d find all this very hard to do with heavier family responsibilities.

And that’s at least part of why He didn’t answer all those prayers to have more kids.

Now, on to:

 WHEN THE ‘FORCING’ DIDN’T WORK, EXAMPLE 2: BUYING AN APARTMENT IN JERUSALEM

Like many other people, I was very anxious about moving to Jerusalem a few years’ back, not least because I had no idea how we were going to find something decent to live in.

I was coming from a huge, new-built 5 bed semi-detached in a yishuv, and the apartments in Jerusalem were either just plain awful and completely unsuitable (and affordable) or nice and very suitable (and completely unaffordable).

I’d heard the infamous story about the yeshiva student who’d done a bunch of six hours and somehow got a ‘free’ apartment in Jerusalem, so I decided that in this area, I could definitely ‘force’ God to give me a nice place in the holy city.

Man, I can’t tell you how many six hour sessions I did devoted to forcing God to give me a nice place in Jerusalem, but it was scores and scores.

Here’s what happened:

We’d agreed a price on a flat in Musrara, and were moving forward with the legal process to buy it. Suddenly, the seller changed his mind about the price, literally doubled it – and we had to pull out.

At that point, all the other properties in Jerusalem also literally doubled overnight, and what had been barely affordable became impossibly expensive. I watched that Jerusalem real estate train chug out of the station – without me on board – and I couldn’t help feeling a wave of bitterness and resentment.

Why hadn’t all my prayers for a house worked?

Not only that, the exact opposite happened: The first place we moved to had a neo-Nazi landlord from Tel Aviv, so we ended up moving out again after four months – to the rented dump that we spent the next three years in.

My kids came home and whispered to me that first month: Ima, my friends told me that this is place where poor people live.

What made it even more galling is that we were paying more to rent the rented dump than we’d been paying out on the mortgage of the 5 bedroom villa.

God, what happened to all my prayers for my own home!?!?!

Fast-forward to last year, and guess what?

We found another flat in that same building where we’d been gazumped four years earlier. And this time, the seller stuck to the price agreed, and went through with the sale.

And as you know, that was an unmitigated disaster, as the whole building was still half-owned by an Arab from the 1930s and the bank refused to give us a mortgage on it – but only after we signed.

Do you know what I’d been praying for, for years?

That I should be able to buy a house of my own in Jerusalem, without a mortgage.

And yet again, God answered the prayer – because I forced Him to, with all my millions of six hours – but I ended up with the worst of both worlds: I bought a house that I couldn’t afford, that I was unable to get a mortgage on.

Again, it’s taken a few months to start to pick through the rubble of what happened to find the message, the lesson, but here’s some of what I’ve come up with so far:

  • We were trying to buy an apartment in the wrong part of Jerusalem.

This was part of our ongoing ‘false piety’ issues, which saw us trying to ‘fit in’ to a community that we really didn’t belong with, even though there was a lot of overlap along Breslov lines. This deserves its own post, but to give just one example: we’ve been invited out for Shabbat more in the last 2 months, and had guests more in the last 2 months, than in the whole 4 years previous.

  • Owning my own house was rooted in some huge bad middot and arrogance issues.

Like it or not, most of us view our house as a status symbol. The bigger, the fancier, the newer – the more we pat ourselves on our internal backs. But when you rent, and you rent a dump, and that rent is more than your mortgage was – you quickly learn to stop feeling so puffed-up with pride, and obsessed with where you are ranking in the house stakes.

  • I was extremely unhappy about the prospect of taking on so much, massive, mortgage debt, but I couldn’t see any other option.

This is also connected to the ‘false piety’ issue, but we were convinced that Musrara was the only place in the whole of Jerusalem where we could live. And the prices in Musrara are through the roof, hence getting a massive mortgage seemed to be the only way to buy an apartment in Jerusalem. But now, I’m learning different. The properties in our area are easily half a million cheaper, and if / when we can ever afford to buy again, we will hopefully be able to find something way cheaper, for the same sort of space we need.

God had been giving us clues that we perhaps weren’t in the best place to stay permanently for a while, but we kept blocking them out, and stubbornly insisting that we know better. We clearly didn’t, so at this stage, I’m increasingly grateful for our house purchasing debacle. The one thing worse than being fundamentally miserable about your location in a rental is being fundamentally miserable in a place where you’ve actually bought.

On to the last example, for today:

WHEN THE ‘FORCING’ DIDN’T WORK, EXAMPLE 3: EXPECTING TO MAINTAIN A GOOD STANDARD OF LIVING WHILE DOING NO ACTUAL WORK

And so we come on to arguably the most difficult test we had in this area of six hours, which is when my husband was encouraged by his ‘spiritual guide’ to quit his job and let God provide.

The person who told my husband this was very into his six hours, and his davening by kivrei tzaddikim, and was extremely charismatic. He also didn’t tell my husband that his wife was working a full-time job to try to keep the family afloat financially, or that he’d bought his own apartment in the area when prices were dirt cheap.

So there we were, being told that working for a living showed some sort of ‘lack of emuna’, and that coincided with a period of time when my husband was extremely unhappy in his work, and was feeling suffocated by his profession and office circumstances.

So my husband quit, and started ‘working for God’ instead, doing six hour hitbodeduts every day, as his ‘spiritual guide’ had told him to.

And I was also doing a lot of six hour sessions too, because it really didn’t take long for our financial situation to get extremely difficult.

Every day, my husband would learn some Torah in the morning, then go into the spare room and try to do his six hours. Every day, we’d be sitting there waiting for the lottery ticket win to show up, the unexpected legacy from an unknown great aunt, the massive pink diamond I was going to unearth digging in the garden….

And in the meantime, it didn’t show up.

And in the meantime, we were running out of money for food, and money to pay the rent, and my husband was in a pretty fragile state for a number of reasons, not least, that his yetzer had him convinced 100% that going back to work for a living would show a terrible lack of emuna.

So his six hours continued, my six hours continued – and friends of mine started sticking baguettes in through the kitchen window, quietly, so I could give my kids supper, while others had to buy us toilet roll, or give me a couple hundred shekels so I could actually go to the supermarket.

After two months of this, I realized we’d hit the end of the road, and we had to sell our house just to get through.

Because my husband had been so thoroughly brainwashed by the yetzer that working for a living was bad, and that all he had to do was keep praying, he couldn’t face the idea of going back to work. He felt it would be a terrible spiritual failure.

So we sold, and we had some brief financial respite, but I was still on at my husband to go back to work and end the experiment, which is when we decided to open our disastrous ‘Meaning of Life’ kiruv attraction in the Old City which blew through a whole bunch of our house money.

Of course, the ‘spiritual guide’ gave his blessing to this project too – because he had a huge vested interest in ‘proving’ the correctness of his ‘no work for the man’ derech – and when that went bust, we had one of the biggest crises of faith we ever had to face.

I am eternally grateful to Rav Shalom Arush, who gave my husband the spiritual ‘permission’ he needed to go back to work without feeling like he was the worst spiritual loser ever. And in the meantime, we were both left with massive questions about what had happened to all those six hour prayer sessions we’d done, for my husband’s parnassa.

Here’s some of what I managed to glean from that whole, sorry mess:

  • There is no ‘one size fits all approach’, when it comes to serving Hashem as a believing Jew.

God clearly wanted my husband to return to work, and to learn Torah part-time, and working as a professional is a crucial part of his spiritual tikkun.

  • It’s very easy for the yetzer to co-opt even the holiest practices, and to take them to an unhealthy extreme.

Doing six hours for parnassa is great, and something that most people can probably manage, at least once in a while. Quitting work totally to ‘work for God’ is a practice that maybe a handful of people in every generation can pull off – and most of them would have to be happy living at, or below, the breadline.

  • We had to go through that whole mess to figure out how much of an ‘ego exercise’ the six hour prayer thing had turned into.

The more we prayed, the more arrogant we got, and the more we felt like God somehow ‘owed us’ open miracles. God owes us nothing. Recently, I also learned from Rav Berland that the whole point of hitbodedut is to acquire more humility, not more arrogance. If God had answered our prayers to be supported in a miraculous way, we would have turned into awful spiritual egotists – and who knows what spiritual damage we would we have wreaked on the world.

My husband reminded me that there’s a story in the Gemara of a man who was travelling in the desert, and who felt so hot and tired, he asked God to send him a donkey.

God complied –and the donkey promptly died, forcing the man to stagger through the desert having to also schlep the donkey’s carcass home.

Sometimes, there are tests and difficulties we just simply have to do through, and trying to ‘force’ God to cut them short, or to make them go away, will only backfire.

THE RIGHT AND WRONG WAY TO DO SIX HOURS

So now, let’s move to a discussion of the right way, and the wrong way to do six hours. Despite what I’ve written above, I still really enjoy doing six hours, and I’ve still seen a bunch of open miracles from long sessions talking to God.

But today, the focus of my prayer sessions is not on telling God what I want from Him, but asking God what He wants from me.

There are two principal reasons why we go through suffering, hardships and ‘lacks’:

  • To encourage us to make teshuva, and to work on the bad middot and negative character traits that are blocking all the shefa that God is trying to send down to us.
  • We have to go through something as rectification, or spiritual tikkun, for something that we did wrong, or that we didn’t do right, in a previous life.

From my experience, six hours can work wonders to clear the ‘blockages’ in our parnassa, health, shalom bayit, or parenting that are coming about because of our own lack of emuna, or bad middot.

If a person with parnassa problems sits down and says: God, I have no idea what I need to fix to get more of an income, but I know for a fact that the problem is coming from You, and is for my ultimate good, and that there’s something I need to change or fix, here – there is no question God will start to show them what’s really causing the problem.

(Hint: it’s usually connected to a hidden anger problem, and how they treat their wife.)

There’s no question that they’ll start to gain a whole bunch of insights into their difficulty earning a living, and that they’ll get the inspiration and the motivation required to improve matters as much as they can.

If it then turns out that the parnassa problem is an unavoidable spiritual tikkun, doing the six hours will also help the person to stand up in the test, and come through it in one piece.

This is a great, wonderful, amazing, awesome way to do six hours for parnassa.

BUT, if a person sits down, and says: God, I need enough money to buy a new i-Phone, a new car, a new apartment in Jerusalem ­– who the heck says that God wants that for you?! Or that this would be good for you?! Or that you’d be able to handle the awful feelings of arrogance and pride that would assail you, if God started doing open miracles like this for you?

Are you seeing the difference, here?

Again, let’s take another common example. Say someone is having issues with their kid. Say, the kid just isn’t tidying their room, isn’t praying the way the parent would like them to be, is being a smart mouth, etc.

If the parent sits down and says: God, please show me what’s ailing my child, and what we can do to try to help them fix the problem at its root! Please help my kid to feel happier, please help them to get a grip on their yetzer. Please show me what we need to change in the home – what I need to work on myself, as their parent – to get things to turn around – this is a great way to do six hours.

But, if the parent sits down as says: God, my kid is acting like such a jerk. Please fix it that they should start tidying their room, respecting me properly, and going to shul on time so my husband doesn’t get upset – this isn’t the point of six hours.

Why not?

Because instead of recognizing that the kid’s behavior is an invitation for the parent to dig deeper and work on their own bad middot and lack of emuna, the parent is just trying to get God to get the problem to go away, without being willing to change anything or make teshuva about anything. They are making the whole issue the kid’s problem – and this is the opposite of real emuna.

Real emuna tells us God is behind everything, God is doing everything for our ultimate good, and that there is a message for what we need to change, fix, recognize and improve in every little thing that happens to us.

To put this in different words:

When you ask God to help you clear up a spiritual problem, when you recognize that God is sending the problem because He wants YOU to change something, He wants some teshuva out of YOU – then six hours can and does work a treat.

But, when you just ask God to make your material problems go away, or to just give you what you want, and you’re not willing to even consider WHY the situation may be happening in the first place, or whether what you want is really the same as what God wants, or to examine your own deeds – then the six hours might still work. But it really might not.

REAL LIFE EXAMPLES OF WHERE SIX HOURS WORKED FOR ME

I’ve had a bunch of miracles occur as a result of doing six hours, but each one required some sort of teshuva or change.

  • Getting my kids into the ‘right’ school was mamash an open miracle – because the school had a waiting list, and neither of my kids could read well (or at all…) and we weren’t at all connected in the sorts of useful ways that get you into schools. I did a bunch of six hours, but I also had to make my peace with the idea that the answer really could be ‘no’, and that if that was the case, God knew better than I did what was best for my kids.
  • Making peace with my crazy house seller was mamash an open miracle – and it took loads and loads of six hours, and loads of working on myself to overcome my own anger and bitterness, and to try to build some emuna, and to try and trust God more and accept His will, whatever the outcome ultimately was going to be.
  • My husband rebuilding his business from scratch in less than 6 months was mamash an open miracle – not least because all his clients are in the UK, and he had no intention of commuting, or hiding his payot. God fixed things that as soon as my husband made the decision to go back to work, new clients started to come to him, with hardly any effort on his part. It really showed us that once my husband was in alignment with what God wanted for him, all of his six hours on making parnassa were put to really good use, and nothing was wasted.
  • Staying married is mamash an open miracle – I think this is true for most people in their 40s today, let alone people like us who have been through so much extreme craziness the last few years. Not only are we still married, we both actually still enjoy each other’s company, and like spending time together and talking to each other. I know all my six hours for my shalom bayit have had a hugely positive effect on my marriage.
  • Having a good relationship with my teens is mamash an open miracle – And I’ve also seen a lot of their issues move and dissolve after doing a six hours on their behalf. Even for issues that are currently ‘stuck’, like the acne issue, all the six hours I’m doing on that subject are being used to help my kid in a myriad other ways. Apart from the acne, there’s a bunch of other things that have improved significantly or disappeared as issues, over the last few months, and I’m sure the six hours I do for her has a lot to do with it.

I just want to stress something again here:

I often don’t see anything change, directly, from the six hours, but I nearly always feel happier and better after doing it. And while I don’t get a lot of obvious, open miracles, I do get a lot of unusual ‘coincidences’ that I know are 100% from Hashem.

Also, my life circumstances means that talking to God a lot is fairly easy for me to do and doesn’t require a lot of self-sacrifice. I’m think if someone had to make a huge effort to do a six hours, they would probably see far more ‘miraculous’ results, far more obviously, than has generally been my experience.

The reward is always commensurate with the effort, so please do try a six hours at least once yourself if you want to try to take your relationship with Hashem to the next level, even if it’s hard.

SOME TECHNICAL POINTERS

As always, there’s so much to say, but let’s end with some technical pointers for how to do a ‘good’ six hours.

  • YOU DON’T HAVE TO TALK ABOUT ONE SUBJECT THE WHOLE TIME.

What I do, is that I will say at the outset that ‘this 6 hours is in the merit of my daughter’s acne clearing up’, or ‘it’s in the merit of Rav Berland having a refuah shleima’ or whatever it is, then I will talk about whatever God puts into my head. If it’s a particular subject where I have some work to do – anything to do with myself or my family directly falls under this heading – then I will try to specifically talk around the topic, to see what clues God will give me about what’s really going on. Making teshuva and getting the message is a big part of taking the time to do a six hours.

  • YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT IN ONE PLACE.

I often do some sort of combo where I’ll start off the six hours in bed, then go for a ‘hitbodedut’ walk, then do some ‘housewife hitbodedut’, then crack open a Likutey Moharan for inspiration, or head up the road to Kever Rochel or the Kotel. Kivrei Tzaddikim can be very good places to do hitbodedut, but unless the kever is somewhere like Uman, Meron, or the Baba Sali in Netivot, it can be hard to sit there for a whole six hours straight. So if you can’t spend the whole six hours somewhere, that’s fine – just go for an hour or two then head back home to complete the rest.

  • YOU CAN PRAY FOR MATERIAL THINGS, BUT THE MAIN FOCUS SHOULD BE ON THE SPIRITUAL SIDE.

Remember that God is not a caspomat. If you haven’t got a good spiritual reason for the material thing you’re asking for, chances are high that it’s not really something you should be praying about, or at least, not something you should be doing a whole six hours on.

  • FOCUS ON THE PROCESS, NOT THE OUTCOME.

If your hitbodedut is about getting closer to God, and trying to live your emuna, and trying to work on your bad middot, or figuring out the message, it’ll work beautifully every single time. But if it’s only about achieving a particular ‘thing’ or aim, or solving a particular problem, there’s no guarantee that God will give you what you want.

  • ASK GOD WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU, DON’T JUST TELL HIM WHAT YOU WANT FROM HIM.

There’s a reason you haven’t got your own home, or you can’t lose weight, or your i-Phone keeps breaking, or you can’t meet the rent bill, or He’s not giving you more kids. Doing six hours is a great opportunity to explore what those reasons might actually be, and figure out what God is expecting from you, before your situation can change for the better.

  • NO PRAYER IS EVER WASTED, BUT IF YOU TRY TO FORCE GOD’S HAND INTO GIVING YOU SOMETHING THAT ISN’T ULTIMATELY GOOD FOR YOU, IT WILL ONLY BOOMERANG.

God has good reasons for everything. If something isn’t coming – and you’ve made teshuva, and you’ve done all you can to fix up your side of things – then it’s a good idea to try to accept God’s will, and to ask for emuna and bitachon, instead of redoubling your six hour efforts to ‘force’ God into giving you what you want.

 

  • I’m very happy to write more on this subject, just let me know what other questions or issues you have, that you think I might be able to help clarify. And in the meantime, I really hope God will help us all to experience the real pleasure of speaking to Him, and connecting our souls back to Source.

When I first met my husband, he wasn’t observant.

He was raised ‘traditional’, and the synagogue his family didn’t go to was always orthodox. He came back home for Rosh Hashana, and ate matzah on Pesach, and fasted for Yom Kippur – but he didn’t really know why he was doing any of that stuff.

My husband had been sent to Jewish day schools all his life, before he got to university. All his friends were Jewish throughout high school, and that predominantly continued into university, too.

But my husband, and his Jewish friends, really had no idea why living as a Jew, or marrying a Jew, or having Jewish kids was important. All the parents definitely wanted their children to marry a Jew – but really, that was as far as it went. And that desire was based on something deeply felt, rather than deeply thought or understood, so it was impossible for them to really explain to their children why be a Jew.

And in the meantime, being a Jew just seemed to consist of a long list of mitzvoth and commandments that were designed to make life inconvenient and uncomfortable.

Being a Jew meant you couldn’t just eat what you wanted, and where you wanted to. It meant you had all the hassle of not working past sundown on a Friday.

It meant a whole day where you couldn’t just watch TV, turn lights on and off and go shopping. It meant an obligation to go to shul three times a day, where you’d have to mumble words you didn’t really understand or relate to.

It meant you couldn’t date who you wanted, or marry who you wanted.

In short, one big list of burdensome requirements that didn’t seem to be doing anything useful or concrete in the world.

I happened to meet my future husband in a pub in London, three days before I was due to fly back out to Canada to finish my last year of university.

In contrast to him, I’d never been to a Jewish school, and I’d spent most of my life being bullied and ostracized for being different.

My parents sent me to the local Church of England primary school, in part because the education was meant to be better there. That place seemed stuffed full of bosom-y matrons who seemed to be obsessed with witches’ covens and forcing Yoshki down your throat.

I was bullied from day one, as was the Indian girl in my class who also didn’t fit in with the working class white goyim who made up the rest of the class. But it’s only when I was around 9 years old that people started telling me that I’d “killed their Khrist”.

The bullying continued, one way and another, throughout high school – all three of them, because we moved to Canada when I was 14, and I kept moving around. It was only when my parents returned to observant Judaism, when I was 16, that I actually started to meet any Jews at shul.

And a lot of them were pretty nice, and pretty friendly.

My own experiences had taught me some very valuable lessons about the real differences between Jews and non-Jews.

And so even though initially I chafed at not being able to eat in McDonalds anymore, and not being able to do things on Friday nights, I still bought into kosher and Shabbat, because I could see it was part of the package. That’s not to say I had a clear answer as to why be a Jew at that stage, other than to say if God made you a Jew, then that is what you were meant to be.

So, I went through university as a ‘modern orthodox’ Jew who really believed in God but still wore jeans and watched movies and ate a lot of vegetarian out, and then one fateful day, I met my husband-to-be in that pub.

We hit it off immediately, and by the second date I knew we were going to end up getting married (which clearly made him think I was a grade ‘A’ psycho, but that’s a tale for another time.)

After a year of me being in Canada and him being in London, I moved back to the UK with an eye to getting engaged and married.

And that’s when me and my husband-to-be started to have some massive arguments about what it meant to live life as a Jew.

He’d gone through a nominally orthodox Jewish schooling system, and had come out of that thinking that Judaism was just a set of archaic laws that bore no relation to modern life. The only reason Jews didn’t eat pork is because of trichinosis! The Torah had all been made up by a bunch of controlling rabbis, and God had nothing to do with it! The temples had never existed, it was all a bunch of fairy stories! (God forbid).

All of his friends and relatives also held the same views, so I found myself fighting a battle on so many fronts. And to be honest, I didn’t really have the right ammunition at that stage, or enough knowledge, or any real emuna, so the argument basically came down to the importance of having Jewish children, and raising them in a healthier atmosphere where they would feel as though they belonged, instead of being bullied all the time.

One time during an argument, I asked him: “Do you really want our kids to be doing drugs in some club on a Friday night, instead of eating a meal with us?!” After we got married, my husband told me that had been the clincher, at that stage, for why we should keep kosher, and why we should keep Shabbat, and why we should try to be consistent in our observance.

But I can see now that really, it’s not such a strong argument.

Especially not today, when there are so many kids raised in observant homes who are also going off the path.

All of us know of kids raised in apparently very frum homes who have left the path completely, including the recent, extreme, example of the four girls from Chassidic homes in the US who very publically converted to xtianity.

So the question of why be a Jew is even more pertinent today, and part of the reason why providing a truly satisfying answer is often so difficult is because so many of us are still trying to argue from a place of being a body, instead of being a soul.

WHAT DOES A BODY LIKE?

What does a body like? A body likes comfort. It likes to eat good food, it likes to have its desires met, its lusts gratified. It likes to feel like it’s a ‘somebody’, like it’s a success, and to display its external achievements and superiority over other people via all sorts of status symbols like clothing, a big house, a nice car, and fancy holidays.

If we’re arguing about why be a Jew from the place of just being a body, we are going to lose the debate every single time.

And from what I can see, this is most of the reason why so many people are leaving their yiddishkeit behind, and why even people who are raised in orthodox environments just view the Torah’s commandments as something burdensome that’s causing them to miss out on all the ‘fun’ and ‘good stuff’ the world has to offer.

Recently, someone told me about one of his good friends, who’d been sent to an orthodox Jewish school until he was 18, married a Jewish girl after university, and who considered himself to be ‘orthodox’. Three years ago, this guy decided that he was missing out on all the delicious-looking traif meat being served in all the fancy restaurants he was going to as part of his highly-paid profession.

He was sick of ordering the fish option, and started to eat expensive traif. The body won the argument hands-down.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SOUL-DIMENSION

But of course, there’s a whole other dimension to why be a Jew, and that is the spiritual, or soul dimension. And here is where the debate really needs to be taking place. After three years of eating fancy traif, the man in the previous story became severely depressed – despite his externally ‘perfect’ lifestyle – and he’s now on anti-depressants.

If you’d ask him, he’d say there is absolutely no connection between his current emotional difficulties and his decision to stop keeping kosher. Even though he went through an orthodox Jewish school for 12 years, and comes from an orthodox Jewish family, he was never taught the bigger picture of why be a Jew.

Apparently, no-one ever explained to him that if he wanted to really feel good about himself, if he wanted to feel as though his life was truly meaningful, if he wanted to feel happy, and satisfied, and filled-up – that he’d have to do the job God gave him to do in this world.

And what is that job?

In a nutshell, to fix the wider world by rectifying our own bad middot, our own negative character traits.

How does this work, in practice?

Rav Ofer Erez has done a fantastic job of explaining this very deep idea in THIS PIECE, but the basic idea is that there are 288 holy sparks that got lost in our lowly world when it was first created.

The whole point of life is to ‘find’ these sparks of holiness, that have been hidden in our reality, and to re-attach them back to God. When all these sparks have been returned to their rightful place, the world will be totally rectified, and we’ll have the complete geula, or redemption.

How do we do this?

We do it by living a Jewish life, and following the Torah’s commandments, and believing in God, and connecting every single thing we experience back to Him.

Why do we say brachot? Because we are connecting our food, our ability to use the bathroom, even the fact we wake up in the morning, etc, straight back to the Creator of the world. At that deeper soul level, every action we take is either fixing the world, spiritually, or pushing the holy sparks further down into the muck and obscurity.

And finding and rectifying these sparks of holiness is what gives us our true feelings of satisfaction and joy in life. That’s what makes us feel truly happy and alive.

And who doesn’t want to feel happy and alive, in 2018?

This is the real argument for why be a Jew.

But there’s another thing we should discuss too, and that’s how all this self-sacrifice to keep God’s commandments actually helps us to develop the tools we need to refine our characters – which is where the deeper work of being a Jew is really at.

Let’s go back to how people really work, physiologically and spiritually.

Physiologically, our brain is split into three main sections, as described in this infographic:

  • The primitive, or ‘snake’ brain
  • The emotional and experiential, or ‘animal’ brain
  • The higher, spiritual, or ‘human’ brain
You can learn a whole bunch more about snake brain tendencies over on spiritualselfhelp.org

The snake brain develops first, and it’s almost exclusively devoted to self-preservation, or ‘me first’.

The snake brain also regulates the body’s stress response, which manifests as our tendency to fight-flight-freeze-fawn our way through life (which is the main root of most of our bad middot).

And it’s also the seat of the body’s desire for comfort, food, and other physical lusts and pleasures (the other main root of our bad middot).

Spiritually speaking, the snake brain equates to the nefesh part of the soul, the spiritual force that’s animating the body and keeping it alive – but that’s about it.

Physiologically, when the stress response has kicked in, or the urge to eat, or to sleep, or to procreate has taken over, a person’s mind is being totally controlled by this primitive, selfish ‘snake brain’. The blood literally rushes away from the frontal lobes, the place where the functions of the ‘human’ brain reside, to feed the snake brain’s stress response. And when that desire, that fear, that anger, that lust kicks in, it’s almost impossible to stop it.

The whole process of becoming a refined human being, and a rectified Jew, depends upon breaking the snake brain’s hold over our body and mind.

So, how do we do that?

We do it by practicing mesirut nefesh, which is usually translated as ‘self-sacrifice’. More accurately, it’s talking about sacrificing the nefesh – that part of our body, that part of our brain that is so caught up in ‘me first’, lusts and bad middot.

Each time that a person exercises their free choice to:

  • NOT give into a desire to eat something, because it’s not kosher; and to
  • NOT gratify their wish to turn on a light, or check their phone, or drive out to the beach just because it’s Shabbat; and to
  • NOT procreate outside the sanctify of marriage;
  • They are breaking the hold of the snake brain, and training themselves to overcome the snake brain’s primitive, knee-jerk reactions.

At the same time, every time a person makes the effort to:

  • Pray
  • Talk to God
  • Pay some charity
  • Learn some Torah
  • Practice having empathy, which means seeing things from another person’s point of view, even if you happen to disagree 100%
  • They are strengthening the altruistic, empathetic, spiritual ‘human’ part of the brain.

Just like the muscles in the body, the more these spiritual muscles are flexed, the stronger they will become, and the more ability a person will have to practice true SELF-CONTROL.

HOW IS ALL THIS CONNECTED TO FIXING THE WORLD AND LIVING A HAPPY LIFE?

So now, let’s try to tie all this together, so we can see just how awesome God actually is, and how we actually get so many concrete benefits from following the Torah’s commandment in this world, on top of whatever spiritual rewards we’ll actually get in the world to come.

When people are constantly in the grip of their snake brain, this is what can happen:

  • The snake brain wants instant gratification, and that leads to addictive behavior. On the milder end of the scale, it’ll translate into a craving for coffee, or cake, but addiction to cigarettes, alcoholism, intimacy and drug use (including prescription drugs) are also rooted in the snake brain.
  • The snake brain is devoted to the idea of ‘me first’, or self-preservation. This is the root of all the anti-social behavior, the selfish tendencies, and the phenomenon of justifying violent, hurtful and unethical actions.
  • The snake brain cuts a person off from their ‘higher self’, so they literally start acting and reacting like an cunning animal, instead of a caring human being. That means that life is approached 100% from the superficial, external ‘body’ aspect, which tends to be extremely abrasive, angry, grasping, fearful, fake, selfish and generally ‘ucky’.

Again, there’s a very wide spectrum of behavior going on here, and most people will never be able to totally overcome the snake brain 24/7. But the more the snake brain is being brought under control, the less mental and emotional illness a person will experience, the less they’ll be in the grip of their ‘knee jerk’ reactions, and the nicer and more refined they’ll be.

To put this in Torah parlance, getting control of the snake brain is the ‘flee from evil’ part of the equation, while strengthening the human brain is the ‘do good’ is the second part of the process.

When we avoid transgressing the Torah’s negative commandments, we are effectively breaking the snake brain’s grip on us.

When we actively do the Torah’s positive commandments, we are strengthening the human brain’s ability to govern our thought processes, and to act and think more altruistically and spiritually.

And the place where this process of clarification takes place is the emotional brain, or what Rav Ofer Erez calls the world of feelings. (Take a look at his article, for more background on this idea.)

HOW KEEPING THE TORAH HELPS US OVERCOME ‘SNAKE BRAIN’

Many Jews are ‘cherry picking’ which bits of the Torah’s more ‘external’ commandments they like and want to do, and which bits they don’t. A person who only eats kosher meat but who still eats non-kosher vegetarian is still practicing some degree of self-control, and mesirut nefesh, but it’s at a much lower level than a person who is strict about their kashrut.

A person who stays home Friday night but who still turns the lights on and off, or watches TV, is still practicing some degree of mesirut nefesh, but again, it’s at a much lower level than someone who is keeping the finer points of Shabbat. Ditto, when a couple strictly keep the laws of family purity, which means intimacy is off-limits for specific times of the month.

When we only do what’s comfortable for us, we simply don’t make the same progress in breaking the snake brain’s control over us, and limiting its influence.

This means we will lack the self-control required to not eat the cheeseburger, or to not date the nice, attractive non-Jew, or to turn down a lucrative job that will have us working on Shabbat.

At the same time, there is usually almost no emphasis on things like actually believing in God, talking to Him, learning a lot of Torah, giving 10% of our income to charity, and other basic ideas that you can sum up in the phrase ‘having emuna’.

Essentially, ‘having emuna’ means that you connect every single little thing in your life back to God, and you see the world in more abstract, altruistic and spiritual terms, which again strengthens the ‘human’ brain and weakens the control of the snake brain.

In the past, Jews with this sort of belief system still stayed Jewish, they still married Jewish, either because they really had no choice; OR because they were scared of losing their families and friends by marrying out.

FEAR is one of the primary things that motivates the snake brain, so the doctrine of ‘self-preservation’ was actually served by marrying Jewish. Today, this fear no longer applies to the more traditional, but less-observant, Jewish communities, which is a big part of the reason so many people are now marrying out.

So, what’s happening in the Torah observant communities?

If a person is used to keeping Shabbat, and used to keeping kosher, and used to putting on their tzitzit every day, their physiological comfort zone is actually built on continuing to do those things. Strange as it may sound, it’s easier for the person to keep strictly kosher, because the thought of eating traif is actually nauseating and profoundly disturbing.

But that doesn’t mean that the snake brain has disappeared. It just means that its area of operations has shifted. The lust won’t be for cheeseburgers, but it will be for more socially ‘acceptable’ things like alcohol and cigarettes.

And where the battle will really take place will be in the area of a person’s bad middot and negative character traits. Anger comes from the snake brain. Fear and anxiety comes from the snake brain. Despair and despondency and laziness all come from the snake brain.

‘Me first’ is still operating in the frum community, just it manifests in a different way.

A person can keep Shabbat and kosher, and think they’ve 100% fixed their ‘snake brain’ tendencies. But if they still have times when they are angry, controlling, arrogant, selfish, cruel, alcoholic, overeating – etc etc etc – that means there is still some work to do, and still a lot of mesirut nefesh required.

So, how do we fix the problem, tachlis?

First and foremost, it comes back to having emuna, and connecting every single thing back to God. But this is also where Rebbe Nachman’s advice of doing an hour a day of hitbodedut, or talking to God in our own words really comes into its own.

When you spend 60 minutes a day talking to God, and really trying to work out what the message is God is sending you in all the things you’re experiencing, and where you need to improve, you are effectively letting your ‘human brain’ run the show for that time. And when you do this, that enables the ‘human brain’ to start over-riding all the excuses, justifications, self-righteousness, hypocrisy and arrogance that the snake brain manufactures to try to cover its tracks.

In real time, the snake brain will tell you that you are yelling at your kid because it’s good chinuch to do that, and they need to be dealt with strictly. Meanwhile, in hitbodedut, your human brain will start whispering at you that you probably over-reacted, and that you need to make some effort to fix the relationship with your kid and to figure out where your anger is actually coming from.

Throughout that 60 minutes, you will sift through the two sides – the ‘human brain’ opinion, and the ‘snake brain’ opinion – to get more clarity about what really happened, and what you really should be doing about it now.

This ‘sifting’ process will occur in the realm of our emotions and feelings, the place where the ‘outside’ interfaces with our internal dimension.

(I’m stuck oversimplifying to make the point. Hitbodedut doesn’t always work in such an obvious or linear way, especially not at the beginning. But if you stick at it and continue to talk to God regularly, you’ll get more and more clarity about what’s really going on, and why you really feel the way you do and react the way you do. Again, this is a long process! It takes 120 years for a reason.)

The crucial element of all this is having a real relationship with God, and a real connection with God.

If a person is just praying three times like a robot, just because it’s expected, then it’s not really strengthening their ‘human brain’ very much at all. (Although no word of prayer is ever said in vain, the Chassidic masters taught that our prayers can get ‘stuck’ down in this world, unable to rise up to the higher worlds where they can really start to work and to act, to change our reality. What enables the words of our prayers to rise up is developing a real connection to God.)

If a person is learning a lot of Torah, but still failing to see how their issues making a living (to quote one common example) are directly connected to how they are (mis)treating their wife, or their children, then they are still not living life with true emuna, where every tiny thing is connected back to God, and viewed through the prism of ongoing self-development, teshuva and avodat hamiddot.

Avodat hamiddot means working to lessen our negative character traits like anger, fear, despondency, jealousy, arrogance, selfishness and flattery (i.e. snake brain tendencies), while strengthening positive character traits like altruism, empathy, kindness, generosity and forgiveness (i.e. human brain tendencies.)

If a real connection to God is absent, then the snake brain will still mostly be in control, regardless of which community a person belongs to, and regardless of how externally ‘observant’ their environment actually is.

When emuna is absent, and bad middot and rote, robotic learning and praying is the norm, then many people will still be groping for a satisfactory answer to why be a Jew? But, in contrast to the less frum communities, the cost of marrying out, or dropping out of the frum world is often still high enough to keep them in and to keep them quiet about their religious doubts.

But the fundamental problem remains.

TO SUM UP:

This is a super-long post, I know, but I felt the urge to get all this down in writing today, as hopefully it can be useful to others. The ‘problem’ of people not knowing why be a Jew is not confined to non-religious communities, or communities outside of Israel.

It’s more obvious in those places, because the obvious price to be paid for marrying out and assimilating in less observant communities is much less scary. No-one sits shiva for their children these days, and the non-Jewish spouse will still be accepted by most if not all of their friends and families.

Meanwhile in Israel, the opportunity to marry out is much less, as the whole country is full of Jews.

But as we move towards Moshiach and the world of truth, God seems to be removing more and more of the superficial props and barriers that have traditionally stopped Jews from assimilating even though they often lacked a real answer to why be a Jew?

There are girls from even orthodox homes in Israel who are marrying Arab men. My daughter was working with one of these ladies a few months’ ago, and found out that she came from an emotionally-dysfunctional frum home where she was extremely unhappy.

So, we need to have a clear answer to the question of why be a Jew that goes beyond ‘because I said so’, or ‘because it will make me happy’, or ‘because the children will be Jewish.’

And here’s my best attempt at setting it down:

My child, be a Jew because God created you to fix the world in partnership with Him, and to do something that no other person can do. Each of a Jew’s 613 commandments enables them to fix their own negative character traits, and to strengthen the hand of altruism, generosity, spirituality and emuna in the world.

Be a Jew because you’ll live a far happier life, and you’ll feel much more satisfied and filled-up. You’ll have more inner peace, your personal relationships will work much better, and your life will be full of love, true meaning and vitality.

Be a Jew, because otherwise you’ll get stuck living a superficial life running after more and more of the things that can never really satisfy you, and that will only end up poisoning your soul and leaving you ultimately bitter and depressed.

Be a Jew so that God’s light can shine out of you, and light up all those dark corners of the world where so much misery, despair and evil are lurking.

Be a Jew because it’s impossible for a Jew and a non-Jew to really relate to each other as anything other than ‘bodies’ – and your soul will wither away when it gets stuck in that plastic, materialistic, superficial world.

Be a Jew so you can engage in real discussions about real things with real people – including your spouse and children. Be a Jew so that you can have the courage you need to leave the comfort zone and to discover who God really created you to be, and what your mission in life really is.

Be a Jew because I guarantee you, you will never feel truly happy being anything else, however hard you try. Bring God into every area of your life, and connect everything that happens to you back to Hashem, so that you understand that absolutely everything you do in the world is deeply meaningful.

That’s what I tell my kids.

That’s what I try to live myself.

But this whole long piece notwithstanding, I now realize that it boils down to something very simple:

I need to ask God to help my kids be Jews, and to help me and my husband to be Jews.

And if I do that on a regular basis, hopefully it’ll all turn out OK.

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.

This is another oldy, but goody. From January 2016 – but still ever so relevant today.

Someone just kindly sent me a document that was signed by pretty much every Gadol Hador you care to mention from the last few years, decrying the emergence of ‘haredi’ news sites, and warning the frum public to stay away from them.

What’s wrong with ‘haredi’ news sites, you might ask?

Don’t we need to know what’s going on with all the Rebbes, and all the issues in our local schools and communities, and all the latest appointments being made in our institutions?

Here’s where we hit a huge, halachic reality check that most of us, maybe nearly all of us, would prefer to completely ignore and pretend it doesn’t exist: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ‘GOOD’ NEWS.

What do I mean by that? I mean that even the most ‘haredi’ news site is regularly reporting things that fall completely foul of even the most basic laws of lashon hara, or evil speech.

Remember, any negative information about a Jew, even if it’s true, still counts as lashon hara.

Sure, there are times when negative information about Jews has to be publicized toelet, for a good reason, such as in cases of abuse, or to avoid potential harm or danger. But the rules governing these instances are very specific and very exacting, and they’re being completely ignored by even the most ‘haredi’ news sites.

Worse, every news site, every blog, every facebook group has its own slant, bias and agenda, even if it’s just implicit. So the ‘news’ you’re getting from that site – or from any other place – is subjectively colored by the beliefs and the desires of the people putting that information together.

Even when people are Torah-observant and well-meaning, they still have any number of subconscious biases, grudges, and prejudices that will color how and what they write, often without being consciously aware of the problems at all.

If you ask that Ashkenazi Litvak guy why he loves running negative pieces about Sephardi poskim, he probably has no idea that on some level he’s trying to prove ‘his’ approach and worldview right, at someone else’s expense.

Or, if you ask the Chassidic writer why so many of his stories are focusing on the teens going off the derech in the non-chassidic communities, he’s not going to know that he’s still fighting a subconscious battle in print with his very difficult yekke parent.

There are hidden agendas going on all over the place with the media and the people who are putting the information together, both obvious and less so. The problems of lashon hara, and people slanting information occur even with very well-meaning and genuinely God-fearing people.

But when the people putting the news out are not well-meaning, not God-fearing (however ‘frum’ they look on the outside) and very emotionally-disturbed – well then Houston, we have a problem.

Because knowledge is power. Readership is power. Huge numbers of visitors reading your site is power. And power, as well all know only too well, is completely corrupting (and also hugely attractive to emotionally-disturbed people who crave attention and influence.)

I’ve been a journalist now for more than 20 years. I started off on a financial mag straight out of university, before going on to work at a Jewish weekly in London, then freelancing for the nationals in the UK, and then going into PR and speechwriting for the British government.

A big reason why I left journalism is because I once went to a class on lashon hara in Gateshead, where the Rabbi spelled out the more basic laws so well, that I immediately understood that most of the stories I was writing for my Jewish paper – even in a well-intentioned, God-fearing way – were lashon hara.

I asked that Rabbi what a Jewish journalist should do, to avoid transgressing the laws of lashon hara, and he answered very succinctly: “Quit!”

Because I’m (trying to be…) a God-fearing Jew, I took his advice seriously, and a few months’ later, I went into PR and speechwriting instead of journalism (which had its own issues, but that’s a story for another time.)

To put this another way: God-fearing people don’t write the news.

Even on ‘haredi’ sites, they don’t abide by the laws of lashon hara, and they’ll write whatever will get the most people flocking to their sites, even if it’s outrageously deceptive, morally corrupt and completely destructive.

If they were truly God-fearing, they’d quit.

Our generation has so very many tests to contend with, I know. Sometimes, the gap between what many of us know is correct, and what we see happening in our own lives and communities is so enormous, it can plunge us into the deepest pit of despair and apathy. In our modern world, how can we not follow the news? But Hashem’s laws haven’t changed, and the rules of lashon hara still apply today – probably even more so than previously.

After I realized just how morally corrupt and corrupting all the Jewish news sites really were, even the ‘haredi’ ones, after the whole debacle with Rav Berland a few weeks’ back, I went cold turkey on reading them.

Man, it was pretty hard going the first few weeks, as following the news is addictive (which is another sign that it’s spiritually ‘bad’, because no-one gets ‘addicted’ to saying Tehillim, or eating lettuce.) I decided I needed a proxy to help me wean off the toxic Jewish news, so I picked….BBC news!

BBC news is so biased, so PC in all the worst ways, and so blatantly manipulative and untruthful, I can’t bear to spend more than 5 seconds looking at it. My yetzer gets its ‘news’ fix, but I don’t believe a word of it, because I know what a filthy place it’s coming from.

I’m not claiming this is a perfect solution, but it’s a ‘real’ solution, and at some point soon, BH, I’ll stop checking that news site, too.

The last thing to say is that while I’ve been writing about news sites, this all clearly applies to things like blogs, newsletters and Facebook groups, too.  I’ll cover Facebook in a separate post, but every time we read or write something online, the potential for contravening the laws of lashon hara are huge.

The Chofetz Chaim famously wrote that lashon hara is the sin that destroyed the last temple and caused the exile. When a person speaks negatively about another Jew, or reads something negative about another Jew, that causes hatred to blossom in their heart towards that other person.

There’s enough hatred in the world towards Jews already, without us adding more fuel to the flames.