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How do we trust rabbis again?

These last two posts were actually prompted by an email from a reader, who asked bluntly: how do we trust again?

How do we find a new rabbi, and new spiritual guide, to believe in, when we’ve been so badly burned by all the fakers out there?

I thought quite a bit about how to respond, and that response has turned into these last two posts.

So, continuing where we left off, the first thing to accept about the fake rabbis / rabbanits / mentors / friends etc that we’ve all been burned by and let down by is that on some level, it had to happen that way.

Remember the three rules of emuna:

1) God’s doing everything

2) It’s all somehow for my good

3) There is a message contained in everything that happens about what I myself need to work on, change, fix, apologise for, accept or improve.

For as long as I was blaming the people who’d tripped me up instead of seeing God behind everything, I got stuck in a very hard, bitter, angry place. As soon as I accepted that whatever happened had to happen, and that if hadn’t been that way, I would have lost my home, my friends, my financial stability, my health some other way, I could start to let go of the grudges and vengeance.

Which then led me on to the second part of the equation: seeing the good in what happened.

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Again, this was really, really hard work. Trying to see the good in having no home of my own, no money, no social support, two very distraught kids, and big challenges on the emuna, health and shalom bayit fronts was not an easy thing.

It took an awful lot of talking to God about everything, and an awful lot of inner work, before I could recognize how much of what happened had to occur in order to fix some huge, outstanding bad middot that had been floating underneath my radar.

To give a couple of examples, I had no idea what a house-owning snob I really was, until I stopped owning a house and had to rent something as cheap as I could find. I was so embarrassed by my home I wouldn’t even let my visiting family from abroad see it the first year I was here. I had to swallow so much of my pride, and recognize just how ungrateful I’d been about so many things, before I could accept and even sometimes enjoy living in my rented dump.

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Another thing I hadn’t realized is what a religious phoney I’d turned into, before I got to Jerusalem.

Externally, I was looking and acting more and more ‘pious’. Internally, I had so much work still to do. When everything fell apart so badly, God really gave me the chance to try to serve Him lishma, for its own sake.

And not because I had a great community, a good job, a nice house, money, friends, amazing shalom bayit. Everything hit the wall all at once, and God was waiting to see if I’d still stick around. Thank God for Rebbe Nachman, because he’s the one that brought us through it all intact. Without Uman and hitbodedut, I have no idea if I’d have been able to stand up in the test.

As time has gone on, I’ve made more and more teshuva as a result of the awful circumstances I found myself in, and at this stage, I’m really starting to reap the fruit of working on all those bad middot in a whole bunch of ways.

So really, all those ‘fake rabbis’ did me a favor.

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Which brings me to my next point: Most of us wouldn’t last 5 minutes if we were next to the true Tzaddikim. These people see right through you, they exude holiness and kedusha, and they are on such a high level they often seem downright strange to people like us who are so sunk in our own confused, materialistic little bubbles.

Could you really hack being told to ‘guard your eyes’ all the time? Or to chuck out your i-Phone? Or to put what’s good for your kids ahead of what’s good for you?

Really?

Recently I heard about a wedding which was overseen by another ‘fake’ rabbi who arrived three hours late and who appeared to be drunk / high. Apparently half the crowd was high as a kite, too, but in that ‘spiritual’ sort of way that characterizes certain segments of the religious world in Israel.

The groom’s mother explained that: ‘If my son wasn’t with this guy, he’d still be doing what he’s doing, but in a completely unholy way.’ I.e. in his own way, this fake rabbi is actually doing something useful, and keeping people closer to Hashem than they would otherwise be.

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We don’t live in a perfect world.

As I said in the last post, we get attracted to these people in the first place because on some level, they are telling us what we want to hear and reflecting our prejudices back at us. The more we work on ourselves, the ‘higher’ the ‘holier’ the rabbi, the rebbe, the spiritual guide we’ll be attracted to.

Which brings me to my last point, for now: how do we trust again? How do we trust rabbis and religious authorities again when we’ve been so badly burned in the past?

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Here’s what works for me:

1) Do hitbodedut every single day, preferably for an hour.

If you don’t do this, you’ll have no idea who you really are and where you’re really holding, especially in regards to your own bad middot and issues. Fakers can only fool us if we’re continually fooling ourselves about who we really are and how we’re really behaving.

2) Picture every single ‘rabbi’ or other person you want to trust or get closer to in your hitbodedut.

The real ones will loom so large in hitbodedut, or look so big, bright and shiny, you’ll immediately get a clue as to what’s going on with them, spiritually. And the opposite is also true: false rabbis, rebbetzins and ‘friends’ will give you the creeps on some level, when you picture them in your hitbodedut.

And whatever cue your unconscious mind is giving you – about anyone! – listen to it.

3) Don’t give your free choice away to anyone.

If you’re being advised to do something that you simply can’t or really don’t want to do – don’t do it.

Don’t do anything that you yourself can’t live with, or take the responsibility for, because ultimately, it’s your life, and the buck stops with you.

While we like to kid ourselves in theory that we can blame other people for our bad decisions, we are still the ones who have to live with the consequences, and if you can’t stomach the possible negative consequences of an action, you shouldn’t do it.

There’s so much more to say about the topic of ‘how to trust again’, but that’s enough for now.

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The takeaway message is this:

How can we start to trust again? Only by asking God to show us who the real Tzaddikim are all the time, and by not fooling ourselves about who we really are and what we really need to work on, middot-wise. If we do these two things, it’s very unlikely that we’ll get caught up with fakers in the future, even if they do have the biggest beards and fan clubs in the world.

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A few years’ ago, me and my husband got burned by three ‘big’ rabbis in a row.

Each one was a ‘name’, each one was connected to Breslov, each one left an indelible imprint on our lives – and eventually, we discovered that each one was a ‘false rabbi’. One of them started up a sadna that was based on the opposite of Torah and Breslov principles  – particularly the principle of Azamra, or seeing the good especially in yourself – which my husband attended a few short months after his dad unexpectedly died.

My husband was in a particularly vulnerable place at that stage, and his dad’s passing had left him with a lot of unresolved issues. This sadna was billed as ‘the answer’ to all of life’s questions, and this big, Breslov rabbi was behind so it seemed like a great idea.

When my husband got this big Breslov rabbi as his personal mentor, we thought ‘wow, what an honor!’ Six weeks’ in, my husband really, really wanted to switch mentors, and I wouldn’t let him. I thought it was just his ego, and that this ‘big Breslov rabbi’ was heaven-sent to help us both grow and progress.

Man, was I wrong. That guy completely messed my husband up, severely messed up my shalom bayit (for years!) by telling my husband that he ‘lacked manliness’ and left us in a place where my husband was profoundly disliking himself and everyone else, too.

That set the stage for false rabbi #2 to step in.

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As a result of false rabbi #1, we started to think that so many of our relationships were unhealthy and toxic. We asked rabbi #2 what to do about all these poisonous, unhealthy, distressing relationships – and he told us to cut off contact and ‘challenge’ everyone on their flaws.

(Again, the polar opposite of the ‘Azamra’ approach).

Within a few short months, we were almost completely friendless and so very, very lonely. Still, I had no idea that all these rabbis weren’t the real deal, didn’t have ruach hakodesh and were actually no more clued up about my life and what I should be doing in it than I was myself.

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Around this same time, false rabbi #3 started giving a whole bunch of classes about how people with emuna shouldn’t work for a living (without telling his class that his wife was slaving away at a full-time job in order to support his family….)

At that point, my husband was so miserable, and so desperate for things to feel better, he decided he needed to show God how much emuna he had by quitting the job that he’d also come to hate. He told this ‘rabbi’ his plan – and instead of talking him out of it, the guy egged him on!

So he quit.

And six months later, we had to sell our house to pay the bills, which segued into a whole, incredibly difficult few years that Baruch Hashem we finally started to come out of a couple of years’ back.

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At the time all this was happening, we had no clue that all three of these ‘rabbis’ weren’t so good for us.

All these false rabbis knew more Torah than us, they all had impeccable credentials, they all looked the part and talked the talk.

But following their advice left our life in tatters, and came pretty close to permanently sinking my faith in humanity.

Within two short weeks of asking Hashem to show us who the real Tzaddikim in the world really were, all these ‘false rabbis’ got unmasked – at least in our eyes – one after another. Which was a good thing, because we finally had clarity, but also a ‘bad’ thing, inasmuch as my desire to ‘out’ them and to tell everyone else about them was so overwhelming, I almost set up a website devoted to doing just that.

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What stopped me was a visit to Rabbi Arush.

Without us saying the names or any identifying details of the rabbis who had burned us so badly, we could see that Rav Arush knew exactly what we were talking about. He told my husband he wasn’t crazy for thinking what he was thinking – three times – and then told my husband – again three times – to just have patience.

Things would sort themselves out, eventually.

Again, this was clearly advice from a true tzaddik, but at the time it took so much effort to calm down and follow it. I was so full of vengeance! I was so angry! I was so disgusted! Today, I thank God a hundred times a day for Rav Arush and his advice, and that Hashem helped us to actually follow it.

Because after doing a good couple of years’ hitbodedut on the whole subject of ‘false rabbis’ I’ve realized that while it would be SOOO easy to blame all my problems and my difficulties on them, in reality, God was behind everything that happened to us, and we certainly deserved everything we went through.

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It’s human nature to want the short-cut, to want the easy life.

The idea that I can find a ‘rabbi’ who will tell me what to do, and how to think, and how to act and decide all the difficult details of my life – and it’ll then all turn out perfect all the time – is overwhelmingly appealing to most people, especially in our generation, when we’re so beset by inner turmoil and huge doubts, anxieties and fears.

But Hashem only created us in order for us to get to know Him, and to exercise our free choice. So when we try to give our free choice away to another person – even if that person is genuinely a tzaddik and amazing in all respects – that’s only going to lead to trouble, one way or another.

Whatever ‘reed’ we rely on, that is not Hashem, is destined to splinter in our hands.

When it came to our three false rabbis, each one was reflecting our own prejudices and problems, in some way. That’s why we liked them so much. One of them was basically telling us that our lives were entirely in our hands, and that all it took to fix everything was ‘clarity and willpower’. God was effectively out the picture.

Another one was basically telling us that the way to deal with whatever and whoever we didn’t like was simply to cut them out of the picture and pretend they didn’t exist – even though God had sent them into our lives for an express purpose. We had a lot of teshuva we needed to make and that’s why we had all these difficult people mirroring our own difficulties back at us in such a disturbing way.

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Again, cutting these ‘messengers’ out of the picture the way we did was effectively cutting God out the picture.

Another one was playing to our false sense of piety, and reflecting back at us our (false…) inner conviction that a) we were on a high enough spiritual level to be sustained economically with no effort other than prayer and b) God somehow ‘owed’ us an easy, good life for doing all this extra, super-duper pious stuff. Again, we liked this guy initially because he was telling us what we wanted to hear.

And so it is with all these false rabbis.

They tell us what we want to hear, they play to our prejudices, they promise us shortcuts in our spiritual work, if only we follow them and throw our ability to choose for ourselves away.

And then when it all goes wrong, they go AWOL and / or tell us it was all our fault, anyway.

And on some level, they’re actually right, because we are all responsible for our own actions and our own decisions.

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You went ahead and married the guy? Stop blaming the matchmaking for forcing you into it.

You went ahead and quit your job? Stop blaming your friend for talking you into it.

You went ahead and made a really terrible business investment? Stop blaming the person who made the introduction.

This is the lesson I had to learn – the hard way – for myself. We chose to start blaming other people for our problems. We chose to listen to people who told us to cut ourselves from everyone else. We chose to try to live on prayer alone.

Ultimately, the buck stops with us.

There is no-one else to blame, and no-one else to point the finger at.

Understanding that is key to moving past the hurt and betrayal caused by all these false rabbis, so that we can get to the next stage of the process called: how to trust again.

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A little while back, when I was talking to God about how One in a Generation, the biography of Rav Eliezer Berland, seemed to have gotten permanently stuck, I got the following insight:

That book can only come out with a lot of shaflut (lowliness) and humility.

Aha! So now I understood the problem: I was still far too full of myself and patting myself on the back for writing the book, and that was the main spiritual issue holding it up. But how to resolve that problem? (Because let’s be clear, working on these bad middot takes years and years and years…)

God gave me another insight:

“Rivka, I am going to send you people to diss you day and night, until the book sees the light of day!”

Great, thanks Hashem!

And you know what? He’s kept His word.

The last month, barely a day has gone past without someone having a go at me either in person, on the phone, via text or online.

One of my kids has been particularly good at dishing out the shaflut in person- her recent PTA meeting was one of the most humbling experiences of the type I’ve had, BH – but she’s by no means the only person drenching me in these ‘dissing diamonds’.

One time, I got chewed out so badly – and so unexpectedly – that I sat on the couch shaking for a full hour after the conversation (which if you follow spiritualselfhelp.org, you’ll know is the body’s natural response to ‘shaking out’ the trauma, so you don’t get PTSD or C-PTSD).

Yes, it was that bad.

There’s also been a flurry of people queuing up to diss my writing, too, and my general lack of editorial professionalism. And then there’s been a few sent along to diss my overall grasp of reality and good judgment.

And that’s on top of all my ongoing, bog standard shaflut that comes from earning zero pence whilst working like a dog; being a really bad housewife; and still being unable to express myself properly in the local makolet (corner shop).

Man, it’s been a veritable dissing extravaganza the last few weeks, with the diamonds literally pouring in through the roof!

And you know what?

It’s working.

Yesterday, on zot Chanuka, I sent the manuscript for Volume 1 of One in a Generation to the designer, and I already know that for this part of the process to get completed in a timely way with minimal issues, I am going to have to continue to be dissed royally for at least the next month.

And that’s even before the book comes out, which let’s be clear, is going to lead to yet another huge ‘diss Rivka’ event on Facebook etc, as the usual suspects gear themselves up for more self-righteous, confused-thinking evil speech.

Yay! I can’t wait.

The upside of all this dissing is that I am definitely seeing a huge number of brachas occurring in a number of areas of my life, just as Rav Berland said would happen.

The downside is that I’m really starting to go off interacting with people, and the thought of retiring to some remote island with no internet connection – or people – is getting more and more appealing.

How to square this circle?

Enter, Rav Ofer Erez, who wrote this great article on his website, last week:

“We have to remember that Yosef was just 18 years old when he was sent to prison. Usually, when something much smaller happens to us – if just two people don’t treat us so nicely we immediately start believing that everyone’s a liar, everyone’s a fraud and there’s no such thing as a good person – i.e. we immediately lose our faith in humanity, and become bitter, angry and harshly judgmental of others….

“For 12 whole years, Yosef worked on this point, that he shouldn’t become angry, bitter and harshly judgmental against other people, inasmuch as everything came from Hashem, and was ultimately for his good.

“…How can a person merit to avoid any trace of harsh judgment and anger? This is called the secret of dancing.

“We need to know that if people are making us angry, or hurting us, then just doing hitbodedut (personal prayer) isn’t going to be enough. We also need to dance during our hitbodedut, and to do at least 8 minutes of dancing.”

Aha!

Just what I needed to know, because while I am still trying to understand the deeper reasons behind why so many people are chewing me out, and while I am still trying to forgive them and to not hold a grudge against them, it’s sooooo hard to do this in practice!

Especially the times when I know I don’t deserve it, and the person is actually just projecting their own issues on to me. (I wish I could tell you that’s always the case, but clearly I often do deserve being dissed, because I’m not always nice, or thoughtful, or considerate of other people.)

So today, I was careful to dance for a full 8 minutes, as recommended by Rav Ofer, and it really did help.

If I’m going to get ‘dissing diamonds’ raining down on my head, let me at least have buns of steel.

Over the last decade, and particularly over the last five years or so, I’ve had so many occasions when after a lot of investment, time, effort, prayers etc, it seems I got left empty-handed.

Nothing to show for all that output. All those tefillot. All that time spent working on my middot, or trying to move forward in life.

When you get that ‘empty handed’ feeling, it can so take you down so quickly, and make it seem as though there’s really no point trying and more, or continuing any longer, or picking yourself back up.

But that’s a huge lie spread around by the yetzer.

Here’s what’s really happening, courtesy of a Rebbe Nachman parable:

Once, a man was granted the opportunity to go to the King’s treasury for hour. He was told that whatever he managed to grab hold of and carry out of the treasury would be his – riches for life!

So he showed up to the treasury at the appointed time, and started frantically running around trying to grab the most valuable and easy-to-carry stuff. He staggered back to the exit with his booty – and the guard on the gate slapped it all out of his hands.

Shocked, the man turned around and started frantically trying to amass more diamonds and gold objects. Again, he came over to the exit – and again, the guard on the gate slapped everything out of his hands.

Again, the man had to start all over again. And again. And again. And each time, the guard on the gate would slap it all away, leaving him with nothing.

At one point, the man got so dejected he slumped down on the floor and simply couldn’t find the energy or will to drag himself up again. What’s the point? The guard on the gate would slap it all out of his hands leaving him with nothing to show for himself.

Yet, in that very low place a small voice whispered to him: “Stand up! Try again! Keep going! This is all going to turn around for the best, you’ll see!”

So the man stood back up, collected more items – and had them slapped out of his hands again.

And again.

And again.

Until finally the hour was up.

As that moment approached, the guard on the gate finally let the exhausted man leave with whatever he was carrying.

Which is when he got his second massive shock of the day: all of the treasure that had been slapped out of his hands was waiting for him outside the treasury.

The guard on the gate came over and explained:

“What can one person carry, all by himself? Not so much. So the King gave me orders to keep slapping your treasure out of your arms, so you’d be free to collect even more…”

And that’s how it is with us, too.

God keeps slapping all our ‘treasure’ away, because He wants us to go and collect more mitzvahs, more brownie points, more kindnesses, more humility, more emuna.

The real diamonds.

And when the hour is up, that’s when we’ll see just how much we’ve really amassed, despite all the times we walked around feeling lost and empty.

So don’t give up.

We’re nearly there.

I’m now on my second official ‘teen’, which doesn’t make me the world’s expert on teens, but is giving me a lot of useful insights that I thought other people could also benefit from.

The single biggest problem I notice with teens – starting at 13/14 – is that when they acquire ‘maturity’, i.e. they get to the age where they are required to keep mitzvahs in their own right – their yetzer hara pulls a huge trick on them, and this is it:

It convinces them that they don’t have a yetzer hara.

So every time they are overwhelmed with life, depressed, annoying, selfish, thoughtless, confused, irritating, aggressive, emotional etc etc etc – their yetzer is telling them over and over again that THIS IS THE REAL YOU!!!!

This annoying, somewhat icky person IS THE REAL YOU!!!

And if the parents don’t understand what is really going on with their teens, they can unwittingly play right into the yetzer’s hand by reinforcing the message that this lazy, selfish, irritating slob is THE REAL THEM!!!

But really?

Our teens are SO good.

They are so considerate, thoughtful, caring, sensitive and deep. Just modern life overwhelms them so quickly, and then their yetzer piles in with all its poisonous ‘THIS IS THE REAL YOU!!!’ stuff, and unless the parents are there to tell them otherwise, they completely believe it.

From my own experience, the single biggest kindness you can do for your teenager is to keep re-inforcing – to them – that the real them is ONLY good.

Yes, that person who keeps leaving plates full of mouldy food in their bed (!); that person who keeps losing their Rav Kav every single week, causing a family-wide panic at 6am when they have to get the bus to school; that person who out of no-where starts ranting at you that they got all your ugly / fat / hairy genes and it’s ruining their life; that person who routinely forgets that you get up much earlier than they do, most days, and therefore need to get to bed before 2am; that person who keeps stealing your deodorant – and even your toothbrush – without telling you –

THAT PERSON IS ONLY GOOD!!!!

The more you keep reminding yourself, and your teen, of this, the better it will be for everyone.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but now that I’m on to my second teenager, I can see that this really is the best piece of advice a parent could have, for dealing with their teens. Because we have to understand that every time we criticise them – instead of just focusing on unacceptable behaviour, and  making it clear that this bad behaviour is simply coming from their yetzers, and NOT THE REAL THEM – we are simply reinforcing all their huge feelings that they aren’t good enough, kind enough, nice enough, clever enough etc etc etc.

And if that is programmed in too much in the teenage years, it can literally take a lifetime to overcome (with an awful amount of siyatta d’shmiya).

I get a lot of miserable teens passing through my house.

So many of my kids’ peers have really awful relationships with their parents, because the parents keep piling on guilt trips, power plays, punishments and ultimatums to try and maintain the upper hand in the relationship.

It’s so sad, because I see the gap growing between these kids and their parents, and I know where that leads: to dysfunctional families, unhappy people, never-ending tension and strife, all sorts of mental health challenges and other issues, including kids going off the derech.

So do your kid – and yourself – a huge favour, and ONLY SEE THE GOOD.

I can’t do this all the time, it’s true. There are time when I’ve completely snapped at my teens and said things I really regretted. But each time that happened, I’ve apologised profusely, and I’ve re-stated my true position, i.e. you, kid, are only good, and I’m also only good.

But man, are your yetzers on the wild side.

There was once a man who was down on his luck. He came to a town, and asked the locals if there was a soup kitchen in the vicinity, where he could eat something for free. They directed him to a street with large houses, and the poor man happened to knock on the wrong door.

“’I’m starving, please, I need something to eat,” he told the homeowner who opened the door. The homeowner realised that his visitor was looking for the soup kitchen, but decided to make the most of him in the meantime.

“I have a pile of wood that needs chopping first,” he told the poor man. “Chop the wood, then I’ll give you something to eat.”

The poor man worked for hours chopping the wood with his last bit of strength. Finally, feeling half dead, he returned to the homeowner and asked for some food and drink.

“Go down the road, to the soup kitchen there,” the homeowner told him. “They’ll feed you whatever you want.”

The poor man staggered down the road, stumbled into the soup kitchen and started loudly demanding that they give him some food and drink. The proprietor came over to the poor man, to find out why he was being so aggressive, and when he’d heard the whole story, he told the poor man:

“Over there, you worked for free.

“Here, you eat for free.”

This is one of Rebbe Nachman’s parables.

WORKING FOR FREE

For years, I wasted so much of my life ‘working for free’. I used to have projects with the most ridiculous, stress-inducing deadlines, high-stakes work writing communications and press releases for high-profile people in the British Government, writing for papers with circulations in the high millions.

(That was then, things are very different these days.)

So many times before I moved to Israel, I wanted to get off the rat wheel, slow things down, stop pouring my life, blood, and soul into work, work, work – but I couldn’t see a way out. I really thought my working all the hours God sends was what was going to give me a good standard of living, and happiness, and financial security.

Really?

It didn’t do any of those things. Whatever I earned, I more than spent trying to make myself feel better about how miserable I was stuck in that awful, stressful, workaholic lifestyle.

But if I didn’t work, I just would never get anywhere….

That’s what we’re all taught in the West, that’s what we all believe.

Money makes the world go round.

EATING FOR FREE

Then, I moved to Israel, and the second part of the story began.

For the first couple of years that I lived here, I continued thinking that my ‘chopping wood’ was what was going to put food on the table. But then, I chopped, and chopped and chopped some more – and we still went bust and had to sell our first house because we ran out of money.

At that point, I got very demanding with God.

“God, where’s my parnassa?!?!?’ I scolded angrily.

Couldn’t He see all the effort I was making, all the schemes I was trying, all the leads I was chasing? And nothing, nothing, nothing got anywhere or made the blindest bit of difference.

So in the end, I gave up trying to chop wood, and I resigned myself to living like a pauper for the rest of my life.

This scenario kind of replayed itself, and continued, for a decade.

Then I realised a funny thing: Even though me and my husband had been through some terrible, awful financial problems for many years, we’d never actually had a day without a roof over our heads, or some sort of food on the table.

Even when my husband couldn’t work for two years, and I had my hands full trying to keep my family together, let alone trying to find a gig chopping wood – we still had a roof over our head and food on the table.

The thought began to dawn that maybe, just maybe, money didn’t make the world go round after all.

A couple of years’ ago, BH, things started to improve financially.

But I still know that regardless of how much wood we chop – or not – we’re really still eating for free.

And that’s such a reassuring thought.

If you’ve been reading this blog this week, you’ll know that I’ve been in a pretty bad mood where life has seemed pretty meaningless, and everything I do pointless.

I’ve just had this feeling for a few days that nothing I do counts, or matters, and that I’m adrift in the universe without really knowing what I’m actually meant to be doing here.

I thought it was just me, but then one of my kids started telling me how she’s feeling life, and school, is so heavy and meaningless at the moment… and then one of my friends called me and told me: ‘Rivka, I’m going crazy! I just feel so frustrated, and that my life is so empty and pointless, and all these bad middot are pouring out that I never even knew were there!”

The person saying this is objectively one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, a busy mother, and constantly trying to do kindnesses and to work on herself, spiritually. My daughter is also a mitzvah machine, and is constantly engaged in big and small attempts at fixing the world.

And me?

Well, I actually write a lot of useful stuff (mostly behind the scenes, for other people…) so intellectually, I know I’m not wasting my life as much as I could be. And yet, that ‘life is meaningless vibe’ also blew me off my feet this week.

Yesterday, I bundled my sourpuss self into my car, and drove up to my youngest daughter’s new high-school, or Ulpana, where they were having ‘a night for mothers and daughters’.

In the past, these nights have almost always been a peculiar form of torture, where I had to follow instructions in Hebrew I couldn’t understand, to say or do things that were mortifyingly embarrassing even if it was all in English, and where I’d just kind of space out and dissociate to get through.

(I have a huge amount of C-PTSD from attending 12 years’ of these ‘events’ in Israel.)

So, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.

I get there (20 minutes late, to try to minimize the torture…), and my kid whisked me straight into the (packed…) classroom. Sigh. Gulp. Unveil the thumbscrews. The young, very pregnant teacher smiled sweetly, handed me a whole big sheet (in close typeset Hebrew….) and started to discuss – Rebbe Nachman’s tale of the Lost Princess!

My spirits rose, because I already knew this story really well, so maybe I could actually fake participating in the group exercises, this time around! The teacher was not at all bossy (what a relief!) not at all insisting that I read out all the personal stuff I’d discussed with my daughter in my terrible spoken Hebrew (thanks, Hashem!) and also, unusually insightful about the story.

“It’s about the process, not the goal!” She told the class. “Don’t get so hung up on the outcome, or the exam! It’s all just about the journey!”

Hmmm.

The next stage of mental torture began.

I had to mill around with the other mums, feeling completely like I don’t belong and having intermittent bouts of ‘mitpachat envy’ when another toweringly colorful creation entered the room.

My hair is at a really awkward length at the mo, so anything I try to put on my head looks awful. The best I can do is try to smother it in a tea-cosy type hat which isn’t so ‘cool’, but at least keeps most of my hair under wraps.

Luckily, this awkward stage was also cut short by my kid finding us a deserted spot on the swinging bench outside, where we could eat our soup in peace and gaze at the stars spotting the Shomron sky.

Then it was time for the main event, the hatzega, or show. I usually try to park myself as close to the aisle as possible, so I can feign going to the toilet five times, if required for mental health purposes. This time, my kid made me sit right at the end of the row, right at the top of the benchers.

Kid, are you crazy?! Don’t you know this stuff makes me claustrophobic?!

But as I sat down, I could feel a reassuring vibe in the air.

As I was about to discover, Rabbenu was in the building.

We got through the standard menahelet’s opening speech OK. Not too long, not too boring, not too self-righteous, preachy and subtly menacing – and then it was time for the main event, which turned out to be a half-acted / half-filmed rendition of The Lost Princess!

To cut a long story short, while three young Israeli women acted out the story onstage, the narrative was spliced together with interviews on screen with four Israelis who were living the story of the Lost Princess (as indeed, we all actually are.)

One had been abused by a step-father, and left home as a young teen to live on the streets for a couple of years. One had a bad accident at age two that left him blind and almost deaf. Another, Miriam Peretz, had two sons killed in action in the IDF. And a fourth was a famous Israeli entertainer who’d felt so soul-dead and empty in the midst of all her success, she’d lost the will to live and the ability to get up in the morning.

That was how the story began, with the Lost Princess being banished to the place of ‘no good’, a place where the outside all looked so shiny and amazing, but where the inside was painful, empty misery.

These four people on screen explained how the ‘no good’ had played out in their own lives. The homeless teen had done parties and drugs; the entertainer had done more songs, more shows, more ‘celeb’ stuff, etc.

But then, came the point when they realized that wasn’t the answer – that all the escapism and superficiality was killing them – and the quest to reclaim the Lost Princess really began. They tried to pull themselves up by their boot straps, and to move on.

The blind guy learnt how to shoot hoops and started working out, and became the Tanach champion of the year; the homeless girl decided to start dreaming of a future where she’d be married, a mother, in her own warm, loving home. Miriam Peretz decided to reclaim life and to start enjoying cake again, after the death of her first son.

But at the last minute, the quest failed.

They ate the apple and fell asleep just at the moment they could rescue the Lost Princess. She reappeared, distraught but encouraging, and told them to try again, to spend another year trying again.

So they did.

And again, at the last moment the ‘success’ was snatched away from them, and they fell very, very badly.

They gave up hope. They didn’t want to continue. They didn’t want to be alive anymore. They couldn’t take the endless struggle, the endless knock backs, the endless reminders of their issues, lacks and problems. They couldn’t escape the feeling that their life was completely meaningless, and that they were stuck in awful circumstances that they couldn’t get out of.

But the story continued.

At some point, they woke up, and quest began again.

Miriam Peretz decided to use her grief to inspire others, and to do good in the world in the memory of her two dead sons. To remember her pain, but also to remember her ongoing joy in life, too.

The homeless teen got herself off the streets, and found a caring, frum midrasha to go to. The blind guy taught himself computers, and started making a fortune in hi-tech. The entertainer finally got married, had children, got frum – and experienced inner peace for the first time in her life.

In short: they came a huge step closer to finding the lost princess.

Rebbe Nachman’s story doesn’t actually end, because life doesn’t ‘end’, until it inevitably does.

It’s the journey that matters, not the destination, which is fixed for every single one of us.

I sat there transfixed throughout this show. I had chills down my back in parts, I cried my eyes out in others, and above all, I had an abiding sense of gratitude and hope that this is where I live, this is what I’m part of, these are the messages that my children are getting in school.

Not that they have to be perfect, soul-less, frum robots. Not that they have to pretend that they never fall, or struggle, or have huge crises of faith. But that falling down, and getting up again, are part of the journey, part of the quest.

And it’s the journey that really counts.

——–

I just want to add one more thing, here, about living in Israel.

I know it’s such a controversial topic for so many reasons, but I can see that so many of the things that are so wrong about the Jewish world, orthodox and otherwise, in chutz l’aretz stem from this need to keep sweeping the real issues we all face under the rug, and to pretend all is well, and that the Jewish community doesn’t have any problems.

Nobody’s falling around here!!! Nobody’s sick to death of all the materialism, competition and superficiality engulfing their lives!!! Nobody hates their job so much it’s literally making them physically ill!!! Nobody’s got issues to work on!!! Nobody feels so lost and lonely they literally don’t want be alive anymore!!!

Except of course, when they do, and that’s when they’re summarily bundled onto Prozac or some other ‘mood stabilising’ narcotic.

In Israel, life is dealt with square on. You can still be an orthodox Jew and express pain, and disappointment, and admit to having flaws and faults, and hating kugel recipes.

This basic level of ‘realness’ is so missing, so lacking, in the Anglo-Jewish world, regardless of religious observance.

The streets of chutz l’aretz are paved with gold, I know. But maybe, the real you doesn’t want that, doesn’t like it, and knows how much it’s really killing you?

I’m not saying that Israel is the only place you can find your Lost Princess, but I am saying that increasingly, Israel is the only place where frum Jews are encouraged to be real, and to be truthful about who they really are and what they really feel.

And when people can’t be real, really them, warts n’all, they’re never going to even start looking for the Lost Princess, let alone finding her.

The last couple of months, it’s been striking me that more and more of us are being challenged to finally cross that ‘very narrow bridge’ that each of us has in our own lives, which is somehow separating us from God.

For one person, their ‘bridge’ might be the realization that they’ve been an absolutely awful, deranged, abusive spouse. For another person, the ‘bridge’ might be the sudden understanding that they’ve been wasting years – decades! – running after their business, or their job, or their big house in the pursuit of the chimera called ‘financial security’ which was meant to take away all their anxiety and finally make them feel good.

Yet another person has to cross the bridge that shows them that they’ve effectively turned into the parent they despised as a child, while someone else will have to cross a ‘bridge’ of extreme loneliness, or extreme despair, or extreme anger to find God and emuna and true solace on the other side.

But here’s one thing I’ve learned about crossing the very narrow bridge: no-one else can do it for you.

A spouse, a parent, a friend, even a rabbi or a Rebbe, they can stand on the side and shout encouragement, they can even tie ropes to you and try to drag you over, but when it all comes down to it, there is only one person who can actually cross that bridge: you.

This has a lot of profound implications, at least for me, when it comes to trying to figure out how to help people cross their narrow bridges. As time goes on, I’m seeing more and more that really the only help I can give them is encouragement to turn to Hashem with all of their problems.

Sure, I can spend hours having lengthy conversations about how cruel and unfair and mad the world is, or how ‘horrible’ everyone else is, or how ‘x’ is really the solution to the problem (‘x’ being anything other than complete emuna in Hashem) – but ultimately, I’ve discovered that all those words don’t actually help so much.

The same goes for trying to throw money or tangible help at someone else’s ‘big issue’. Anything I can do easily, that’s not going to drag me into madness and upset in my own life, I’m willing to do 100%. But in the past I used to think that I could somehow ‘fix’ other people’s issues, if I only threw enough understanding, cash or effort at the problem.

Now I know better.

Now, I know that each of us is being challenged to the cracking point by Hashem, and that no-one else can take our problems away until and unless we make teshuva and wholeheartedly return to God.

That’s the whole point of why all the craziness is going on, and having other people step in to try to soften the blow or deflect the difficulty is actually not helping the suffering person very much at all, at this stage of the game, external appearances notwithstanding.

Tachlis, each of us has a very narrow, scary bridge to cross, to get to Hashem and Moshiach and the geula.

On one side, is all our arrogance, belief in our own abilities, ‘security blankets’ and imaginary ideas about how the world really works, and how much we’re in control.

On the other, is Hashem and emuna and the geula.

And no-one else can cross that bridge for us.

Yesterday morning (Shabbat morning) I woke up feeling pretty icky about the world, and my life generally.

I had that feeling like ‘nothing ever changes’, ‘nothing is EVER GOING TO change…’, doesn’t matter what I do, say, try, pray on – it’s never going to change.

I’ve had that feeling, on and off, for years and years, and last year I spent around six months doing some major teshuva and inner work to try and get rid of it. And BH, for the last few months I’ve generally been feeling much happier and more optimistic.

But yesterday I woke up with it again, and my stomach sank. Not this again. Not this horrible, soul-destroying, heavy feeling that no matter what I do, say, try, or pray on, I’m just going to be dealing with the same old rubbish FOREVER, until I die.

In short, I was having a massive yetzer attack.

So I decided to try to fight back by doing a long talking to God session. I don’t have the koach to do six hours at the moment, so I aimed for four hours, pulled on my winter boots, and set out for the Kotel.

I took the longer way round, up the side of the Guy ben Hinnom valley where they just built a new walkway for pedestrians to reduce your chances of getting squashed by a bus, and it was cool, half-wet and pretty quiet.

As I walked and talked, the same idea kept coming up: “I’m stuck. I’m completely stuck. There’s nothing I can do to change things or improve things, I’m completely stuck.”

A lot of this has to do with the house buying situation I’m in still. Even though Jerusalem’s housing market seems to finally be cooling down, the prices being asked in our neighborhood are still ridiculously too much for anyone who’s not a millionaire to reasonably pay.

So anyway, all this ‘stuck-ness’ just kind of bubbled up again, and I started to feel so much despair that after all this time, I still don’t have an answer in sight, or a solutions to my problem, or a way to progress.

I sat at the Kotel trying to talk to God about it all, but kept getting distracted by non-Jewish ‘pilgrims’ with their massive i-phones and cameras, who figured that wrapping a see-thru scarf around their short shorts was modest enough for Judaism’s holiest site on a Shabbos morning.

I couldn’t help staring and then started pondering why so many fat women wear such short skirts, etc, which kind of put paid to any deeper exploration for why I was feeling so ‘off’. So I came home again, still feeling stuck and dissatisfied.

I ate lunch with the family, read some Likutey Moharan, had a Shabbos shluff (which I normally never do, and which is normally always a sign that I’m feeling pretty miserable and overwhelmed by life.)

My one consolation is that I know I’m not alone. From what I can see, so many of us feel that we’re stuck in a problem, or a situation, that we no longer have the strength to deal with, but which doesn’t seem to be going away or ending, anytime soon.

That’s part of the test of this time, this generation.

To carry on, even though it frequently seems so pointless or meaningless, even though the ‘big change’ we’re waiting for doesn’t seem to be showing up, even though life feels like such a drag so much of the time.

And to do it happily.

That’s the part that’s really challenging, isn’t it? To accept God’s will, and God’s dominion, and to accept that as much as we may want ‘X’, ‘X’ may not be God’s plan for us and our lives, or at least, not right now.

It’s really, really hard work.

There’s so much yeoush in the world at the moment, so much despair. Talk to anyone for any length of time, and it comes peeping out around the corners of whatever else they happen to be talking about.

But things surely have to turn around soon!

We just have to keep believing that, and praying for it to happen.

And also, accepting that if it doesn’t happen, or at least, not now, or not the way we really want, that somehow that’s also good for us, and just the way it needs to be.

Instead of talking about ‘surrendered wives’, we should focus on the ‘surrendered husband’.

I don’t really follow trends in the secular world so much these days, but even so, it’s come across my radar that there’s a new approach to making your marriage work which is called: ‘The surrendered wife’.

I haven’t read the book (or done the course… or watched the film…) but it seems that the idea is that instead of nagging and finding fault, the ‘surrendered wife’ quietly sits there smiling demurely while her husband continues to indulge his rage fits, lack of emuna, emotional disconnect, other bad middot and drug and / or alcohol abuse.

(Of course I’m exaggerating to make a point – I hope! – because that’s what writers do.)

But that’s the basic idea of the ‘surrendered wife’. There’s just one problem with this: It’s completely and utterly backwards, according to the authentic Jewish teachings of how a marriage should really work.

Rav Shalom Arush brings down in his many books on shalom bayit (All of which have approbations from some of the biggest Gedolei Dor of the generation, including the late Rv Ovadia Yosef, z”tl) that when there are problems in the marriage, they are down to one thing, and one thing only:

THE HUSBAND’S BAD MIDDOT AND LACK OF EMUNA.

I know that doesn’t sit well with all the Western, feminist brainwashing we’ve all been bombarded with since birth, but that’s how the world works, and that’s how God created the situation.

If we don’t accept that THAT is really how marriage works, we’ll never be able to stem the disastrous tide of couples getting divorced.

To put it another way, instead of talking about the ‘surrendered wife’, we need to be talking about the ‘surrendered husband’.

Which is where we hit the first objection: So many of our men are struggling so hard with such enormously bad middot at the moment, that getting them to surrender anything today – like their obsessive TV watching, or their worries about money, or their three nightly beers- is already akin to an open miracle.

Again, let’s be clear what’s going on today: we are one of the last, if not the last generation before Moshiach comes. All of the difficult souls that haven’t been rectified over the last 5778 years are back again now, in this generation, to have one last shot at being fixed.

When someone has been letting their anger problem ride for 5,000 years already, or their spiteful, vengeful and critical tendencies grow unchecked for five millennia, that adds up to an awful lot of hard spiritual work to try to do in just one lifetime.

That’s a big part of the reason that modern life, and modern marriage, is just so hard today.

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Here’s another crucial part of the puzzle, that we can’t ignore if we want to understand how marriages REALLY work: husband and wife are two parts of the same soul. Whatever good you have in yourself, is there – often latent – in him. And whatever bad you see in yourself is somehow there – often latent – in you. And also vice versa.

On some very profound level, husbands and wives are just mirroring each other.

But here’s the thing to remember: authentic Judaism teaches that the MAN is the giver, and the woman is the receiver. Whatever the MAN gives out, gives over, gives across into his marriage and home, that’s what he’s going to get back.

Rav Arush teaches in all of his shalom bayit books that when it comes to marriage, the man is like the sun and the woman is like the moon.

If the wife isn’t getting much (or any….) light from her husband, then she has NOTHING to reflect back at him except annoyance, coldness, anger and criticism.

But if she’s getting acceptance, love and light from her husband, not only will she reflect it back at him, she’ll amplify it.

This is important to grasp, because wherever the ‘problem’ manifests in the marriage, it’s ALWAYS somehow rooted in the man, and his lack of emuna and bad middot.

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So now, what’s the woman’s part in this?

(I have two teenagers with feminist sympathies at home, so we’ve gone through this debate quite a few times already.)

Simply put: to pray on her husband, and to ask God to help him fix his lack of emuna and bad middot.

Because yes, nagging, whining and complaining doesn’t work.

But neither does just lying there like a doormat whilst your husband continues to pretend that all HIS issues are really just yours (and your mother’s….).

If I could tell new brides one thing, it would be this: don’t look away and pretend you can’t see your husband’s faults and issues and struggles, because over time they are only going to get worse!

Don’t make excuses for his critical nature, selfishness, alcoholism, complete lack of emuna, anger fits or dishonest business dealings, because whatever you don’t recognize and get to work on ASAP could really end up sinking your marriage, and your family, another 15 years down the road.

If you see your husband isn’t treating you nicely, or isn’t acting the way he should be in other areas, ask God to help you! Pray on it! Start doing an hour of hitbodedut every single day to work out what you can and should be doing with and for your husband to get these problems resolved.

Send him to Uman for Rosh Hashana! Every single year!

THIS is the wife’s part of the marriage equation, to pray her socks off and courageously look at the challenges facing her husband while still showing him a great deal of love and compassion.

After 20 years of being yelled at, criticized, mocked, frightened, ‘punished’ and mistreated, it’s very hard to do anything with love and compassion. It’s very hard to find the strength required to get God involved in turning things around. So don’t leave it until then!

Start ASAP, while your love for him and his for you is still strong enough to weather the really tough patches that are inevitably going to come, even with all your praying and all his sincere efforts to improve.

And enough, already, with all this ‘surrendered wife’ rubbish: it’s the husbands who need to ‘surrender’ their bad middot and other negative character traits, and the sooner, the better.

Sigh.

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I heard three ‘we’re getting divorced’ stories in two days last week. Am Yisrael is cracking at the seams.

Enough making excuses! Enough pretending that the goyim and all their funny ideas about women’s lib and marriage are really doing anything to help anyone’s relationship stay the course!

Go back to the authentic Jewish way, to the ‘surrendered husband’ model, and if you’re a wife, start praying your socks off for your husband to learn more emuna, and to get God more involved in the picture

Because THAT IS THE ONLY WAY THAT REALLY WORKS.

Photo by Schesco Nyarwaya on Unsplash

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