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How I discovered for myself that doing a pidyon nefesh with Rav Berland (aka Eliezer ben Etia) really works.

The last couple of years, I’ve been having an ‘interesting’ time, health-wise. If you’re occasionally visiting the spiritualselfhelp.org, you’ll know that I’m a big believer in soul, body and mind being intrinsically connected to each other.

In fact, that’s the main premise underpinning my next book that’s hopefully out soon, called ‘Talk to God and Fix Your Health’. The main idea is that physical illnesses are only the manifestation of ‘soul’ illnesses, which if they aren’t fixed at the spiritual level, next show up as ‘mental and emotional’ illnesses, and only then show up in the body.

As usual, I learn all this stuff the hard way.

I started writing that book to share my own experiences of getting stuck in a few incredibly difficult spiritual experiences, that had a massively negative impact on my emotional state, and then my physical health. To cut a very long story short, I had so many things going wrong the last couple of years’ that I got mired in a huge amount of desperation and despair, despite all my attempts to keep picking myself up in hitbodedut.

Let’s be clear that without the hitbodedut, I would not have come through losing my house, friends, business, money, faith in humanity and marbles anywhere near as easily as I did, but that doesn’t mean it was a ‘fun’ experience. There was one time last year, when me and my husband were utterly stuck financially, and we were reaching the end of the proceeds of selling our house that had been keeping us going, that I really felt as though my next move was going to be to a dumpster, God forbid.

I don’t know if you’ve ever hit that sort of low place in your own life, but let me tell you: if you stay there for any length of time, sooner or later it kills you.

You lose your will to live, to keep going, and that’s just not something that can continue for long without some serious consequences.

Things started to really turnaround last Chanuka, when I took a trip to Uman and spent most of it extremely angry at Rabbenu and God for dealing me such a difficult hand. But by the end of the trip, the anger had dissolved, the profound disappointment had surfaced, and the bad, icky stuff was finally making its exit, spiritually.

It still took a few months for things to pick up  in my actual life: Baruch Hashem, around Purim my husband started working again, and Hashem sent Him some easy ways to make parnassa that enabled him to carry on learning part-time in yeshiva, which had been our big dilemma as it seemed as though he’d only be able to go back to work if he stopped learning.

But physically, I was still wrecked.

I’d been living on my nerves for years and it took its toll. I felt drained and fatigued a lot of the time, and dizzy and ‘out of it’. I upped my energy med stuff, I started doing 3 tikkun haklalis most days, I stuck lentils all over my hand (that’s a story for another time) and it all helped. But I was still not 100%, most days.

Rosh Hashana rolled around, and the first day I felt so ill. It miraculously lifted just as nightfall fell, and I wondered what sort of year I was going to have. I hoped it was going to be different, better, and I told God I couldn’t cope with another few years’ like the last ones I’d been through. No way, Hose.

Things mostly got better, but then ‘the matzav’ kicked off, and I found my stress levels were going through the roof, especially after my kid’s teacher’s husband got stabbed to death in the Old City.

My nervous system, which was slowly recovering after all the financial stress, and moving stress, and social stress, and spiritual stress of not knowing what God really wanted from us, took a nosedive again, and I started to get pretty bad headaches, and to feel pretty lousy again.

O no! And this time, I was still drinking green smoothies, eating veggies, walking everywhere and doing my daily energy exercises and doing hitbodedut. I’d also made my peace with a bunch of people and God, so I had no idea what else I could do to start to feel better (other than move to somewhere quiet where everyone’s over the age of 60, like Switzerland…)

Enter: Rabbi Berland, aka Eliezer ben Etia

They’ve started translating a whole bunch of things about Rav Berland into English, and God arranged for me to read one story after another about people he’d helped who were facing much more serious health issues than me. People who the doctors had given up on. People who really had reached the end of the line.

These people had done a pidyon nefesh with Rav Berland, and got better again. I sat on the fence for a whole month, but then as the headaches and weakness kicked-in again, I decided I had nothing to lose except a bit of cash. We got in touch, I emailed the gabbay details of the problem – and from the minute I sent the email, I started to feel better.

Last week, I paid over the pidyon money (it was quite a lot still, but nowhere near what I  was expecting) – and I’ve broadly been headache free since then, despite having some ongoing huge stresses. (I know, I know, when are there not huge stresses?)

Somehow, the spiritual weight has been lifted off, and terrorists, school moves, financial issues and book production problems notwithstanding, I actually feel pretty darned good, BH!

But I was still cautious about rushing into print. I’ve learnt so many times that when I share these things, I get really tested on them, and I didn’t want to go back to feeling ill again. But then at the Baba Sali, I got nudged to write a public ‘thank you’ to Rav Berland, and to not worry about the outcome.

So here it is, in all its glory.

You can read more about Rav Berland’s pidyon nefesh HERE. You can get in touch and arrange your own pidyon nefesh HERE. You can read a whole bunch of background articles explaining how pidyon nefesh actually works and why HERE. And if you’re struggling with any serious or chronic health issue, I urge you to take the leap of faith, and contact his gabbay.

UPDATE:

So there I was, polishing up the latest infographic that I’m doing for the ‘Deeper Needs’ series over on the spiritualselfhelp website, when it suddenly struck me that God was showing ME what I needed to work on at the moment.

The past two weeks, I’ve been happily posting away about how there are 8 deeper needs, and how the first one is emuna, and that if that first one is out or weak, all these other problems and issues start to show up in your life.

A couple of days’ ago, I was pulling all the info together into the snazzy infographic you’ll find to the left, when it suddenly struck me that I currently have most of the problems I’m describing. Feeling spaced-out? You betcha. Feeling a whole bunch of negative emotions bubbling-up and overwhelming you? Absolutely! Experiencing a bunch of weird physical symptoms related to extreme tiredness, fatigue and other strange things? Yup!

Wow.

The penny suddenly dropped, and I realized that my emuna is pretty low at the moment.

I’d like to blame it all on the ‘matzav’, and it’s certainly the straw that’s broken the camel’s back, but it’s not the whole picture.

I had a series of shocks over the last 2 years that really took the legs out from under me, spiritually, and I never really bounced back. All the ‘matzav’ has done is show me the huge emuna deficit that had been steadily accruing since I lost my house, status, and naïve belief in things always turning out ‘for the good’.

Part of me does believe that still, but it’s not a very big part of me (42%, to be precise. If you want to know how I got to that figure, keep your eyes peeled for the ‘Deeper Needs Visualisation Exercise’ that I’m going to share this week over on spiritualselfhelp.org.)

42% is not nothing, but it’s not really going to cut the mustard, especially if things really are heading towards more craziness and then geula.

I realized that God was giving me a clear nudge to work on my emuna, pronto.

But how?

Ahh, the question of questions.

In my hitbodedut sessions, I got the following insights:

  • My job is to ask God to give me emuna as often as possible
  • But that’s still not really enough (believe me, I’ve been doing that for months already…)
  • So I need some outside help, ie, I need to give a pidyon nefesh to a tzaddik, to clear up the judgments that are still hanging over my head, and preventing me from having emuna.

There was only one problem with all this clarity: my emunat tzadikim is even less at the moment, standing at a whopping 12% (no, that’s not a typo). It’s a long story how it got to be so low, but I could see that midda kneged midda, giving a pidyon nefesh would go a long way to boosting my emunat tzadikim (because you can’t give it unless you believe it’s really going to do something good for you.)

But I was still wavering a little, especially as my finances are still tight.

So then, God gave me the brainwave to randomly open my copy of the Likutey Moharan (with English translation) and this is what I read:

“One who disgraces the honor of a Torah Scholar has no healing for his illness, for the main power of healing that comes from the Torah is impossible to receive other than through the Sages of the generation….Therefore the main thing is to have faith in the sages, and to be particular to relate to them with great respect and reverence.” – LM Lesson 57.

OKAY then, pidyon nefesh it is. I sent the email off yesterday, and I’m waiting to hear back. But one thing I can tell you for sure: if the ‘matzav’ continues or worsens, God-forbid, I’m going to need a heck of a lot more than 42% emuna and 12% emunat tzadikim to get through it in one piece.

That’s what my eldest asked me this week. Of course, I hadn’t because I don’t listen to the news or read papers, but I’m a very small minority in my daughter’s class, so of course all of her friends had heard about the rabbi in Tsfat, and were vigorously discussing it.

My daughter told me that a lot of her classmates were really, really upset about it, and that it had put a severe dint in their belief in our holy rabbis. I don’t blame them. Every time I meet another fraudulent rabbi or self-serving ‘spiritual mentor’, my heart also sinks a couple more notches.

But it doesn’t stay there for long.

You know why? Because so many of our holy people explained that in the generation before Moshiach, a huge number of our leaders and rabbis would be fakers.

There are many definitions of what these fakers do and how they act, but their main identifying traits are that they are in the game only for their own honour, power and kudos, and that they excel at being the most arch hypocrites you’ll probably ever meet in your life.

They’ll make it seem like they hold themselves to super-high, super-strict standards of everything themselves, and that they’re incredibly holy and beyond reproach, but to put it bluntly, they lie about everything and often treat their fellow man like rubbish.

Now, in the Levy household we’ve unfortunately had far too much experience with ‘holy fakers’. As each ‘holy faker’ exploded in our face, my husband and I had to pick up the pieces of our emunat tzadikim, rebuilt our faith and emunah, and work really hard to see God behind it all.

At the same time, we had to educate ourselves, and our children, about what was really going on in the world, to ensure as best we can that neither we, nor they, would be hurt by any more ‘holy fakers’ in the future.

That means I’ve sat my kids down, and quoted them bits from Rebbe Nachman, and from Rabbi Chaim Vital, and the Gemara in Sanhedrin and a few other places too, where it talks about how a huge number of our leaders and rabbis would be fakers, before Moshiach comes.

Forewarned is forearmed, so my children are not fazed in the same way now, to hear that yet another ‘holy faker’ got unmasked. But their peers are not so fortunate. Their peers are still being told by the adults in their lives to ‘stop talking lashon hara’, and to ‘stop questioning our holy rabbis’ – which was the correct response 50 years’ ago, but is definitely NOT the correct response now.

Why not?

Simply put, because this is the generation before Moshiach, and a huge number of our leaders and rabbis are fakers.

I want my kids to grow up believing in God, serving Him happily, and having a strong connection with the true tzaddikim who do still exist, and are still out there, albeit currently a quiet minority.

We need to teach our children (and also, ourselves!) to listen to the inner voice that’s telling us something isn’t ‘quite right’ with many of the people in authority positions in our lives. If more of us would advocate for judging people on the basis of their personalities, instead of being blinded by their reputation and title, things would be very different, and these unholy fakers would find it much harder to take us all for a ride.

Sigh.

It’s all so heavy and unpleasant, isn’t it?

I wish from the bottom of my heart that all the lies being told would vanish, so that we could all have a clear picture of who’s really holy and good, and who isn’t. But that’s one of the biggest tests of this generation, that no-one is going to spell all this out to you except God.

That’s how God wants it, and as I explained to my kids, the single best (and probably only) way I know of being able to distinguish between who’s a faker and who’s for real is personal prayer.

Personal prayer enables you to have a real conversation with your ‘inner voice’, and it gives your soul the space it needs sometimes to convince you of the things you really don’t want to hear or believe.

Like, a huge number of our leaders and rabbis are fakers.

In the meantime, I’m sticking close to Rav Arush, Rav Ofer Erez and Rav Berland, because I know from personal experience that they’re the real deal.

And I’m encouraging my children to trust their gut instincts, and to not assume that a big beard and a bit title automatically equates to ‘holy’, because sadly, even without keeping up with the news, I’ve had enough fakers in my own life to know that in 2015, genuinely holy leaders and rabbis are pretty few and far between.

A little while back, I was talking to someone who’d just been given some pretty shocking ‘advice’ from one of their spiritual advisors. The ‘advice’ was shocking for a few different reasons:

1) They hadn’t actually asked for it;

2) It involved some very big, very complicated decisions with far-reaching implications for the rest of their life; and

2) It completely contradicted everything else that this spiritual advisor had been telling them to do.

Now, what would you do, if that happened to you?

Before you answer that, let me tell you what I thought about the whole sorry saga. I thought that in every direction and in every way possible, God is pushing more and more of us to start thinking for ourselves again.

For the last few decades, ‘outsourcing’ has been the big thing: we’ve been encouraged to outsource our health to the medical profession, our child-rearing to therapists, our marriages to relationship counsellors, and our spiritual development and connection to God to various ‘holy’ intermediaries.

You can probably guess what I’m going to say now:

THIS IS NOT THE JEWISH WAY!!! (and yes, I am shouting.)

The Jewish way is for each of us to take responsibility for ourselves, and our own lives and souls, and our own relationships.

Who can know us better than ourselves? Who has got more of an interest in things turning out well for us, than we do? Who is in a better position for working out all the messages and clues that God is sending down to each one of us, every second of the day, than us?

There’s a famous story told about the Steipler Rav, who was a very big tzaddik who lived in Bnei Brak a generation ago. The Steipler could be very blunt, and sometimes seemed a little exasperated by the numbers of people coming to him for blessings and advice.

Once, he turned to his companion and said incredulously: “Do the people who are coming to me for a blessing really think that I’m going to do a better job of it, than if they would just go and pray to Hashem for their own needs?!”

Of course, let’s be clear that going to a tzaddik like the Steipler in our own times, is a very beneficial, wonderful thing. But even Rav /shalom Arush has written that a tzaddik’s blessing is limited by the work the person getting the blessing is willing to do for, and on, themselves.

So where does all this leave us, and our attempts to work out what God wants from us, and how to relate to all these authority figures in various areas of our lives?

The ‘expert’ checklist:

Here’s what I think: regardless of whether you are dealing with a doctor, or a lawyer, or a rabbi, or a therapist or any other ‘expert’, the first thing you should do is check the following:

1) Are they humble?

2) Are they compassionate?

3) Do they listen to you like you’re a valuable human being, or talk over you and ignore or rubbish your opinions?

4) Do they admit to making mistakes, or try to paint themselves as being perfect and ‘superior’?

5) Do they have God in their lives, in any real, tangible way?

5) Do they encourage you to think for yourself, or do they try to make you feel small, stupid and insignificant, and greatly in need of their vastly superior wisdom and knowledge?

 

This last point really contains all the others. I’ve seen Rav Arush in action a number of times; my husband and I have also tried to ask to ask him a number of things. Almost always (with a few small exceptions), he’s put the onus for making the decision back on us, and encouraged us to talk to God about what’s going on in our lives, and to get guidance that way.

He gives advice, but he doesn’t issue commands. He gives strong guidance, indirectly, throughout his books and classes but when it’s one-on-one, he respects your free choice and normally only hints at things.

This was also the way of Rebbe Nachman, who made it a point NEVER to tell people what to do directly, and only ever gently advised them. If a huge tzaddik like Rebbe Nachman didn’t think it was appropriate to boss people around, that speaks volumes.

So let’s sum it up like this: if your ‘expert’, whoever they are, likes offering unsolicited advice to you, revels in telling you (or even ‘ordering’ you) to do things; and tries to blame you, subtly or otherwise, for making ‘wrong’ decisions – walk away.

If they don’t encourage you to believe in yourself, and in your own decision-making abilities, and in your own value as a unique human being – walk away.

God wants you to talk to Him, and to think for yourself, in every area of your life. I know, it’s so tempting to try and outsource your decisions and responsibility to others. But it’s truly a case of ‘buyer beware’, because the people you’d really want to tell you what they think usually won’t; and the people who can’t wait to tell you what they think are usually the very last people you should be listening to.

I seem to be going through a pretty heavy time at the moment, spiritually. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, some years it feels like every day of the Omer is an ordeal you just have to get through, and learn the lessons from.

Some years it’s more obvious, some years less so, and this year – it’s completely in my face from the moment I wake up.

But God always prepares the balm before the blow, so at the same time as I’m being buffeted by severe doubts in my own efforts and capabilities, and also in God’s willingness to help me out of the pit I’ve fallen into, financially and spiritually, there’s Rav Ofer Erez, explaining why it’s actually all really OK, and exactly the way it’s meant to be.

Just today, I was listening to another dynamite class of his where he was talking about galut hanefesh¸ or the exile of the soul. In a nutshell, he explained that the main difficulty for our generation is that we all know what’s true: we’ve read the books, we’ve heard the news reports; we’ve done the research on Google – but we can’t actually get there.

So on the one hand, of course we know it’s bad to smoke, and bad to eat sugar, and terrible to eat margarine, and on the other hand mmmmm, yummy donuts…

Ditto with childrearing. Yes, we all know it’s terrible to criticise our offspring, and horrendous to feed them white pasta, and border-line neglect not to have deep conversations with them at least once a month. But then, who’s got the time, energy or patience for it to be any other way, especially these days?

The same is true in every area of our lives, from our marriages, to our earning abilities (make $100k a month, from home!) to our relationship with God. We can see how it could look, should look, has to look – and we just can’t reach it.

We don’t have the strength to talk to God every day. We don’t have the energy to try and hold our husband together while we ourselves are continually falling apart. We don’t have the motivation to keep hanging on for a miracle rescue, even though we really do know 100% that God can give us one in a second.

Why?

Because we’re stuck in ‘reality’, and our current ‘reality’ and truth don’t make good bedfellows.

Which is when you can get really broken, spiritually, unless you get clued-in about what’s really going on. What’s really going on is that God has set up the rules in this generation in such a way, that’s it impossible to win the game – unless you’ve got a big tzaddik behind you.

That’s the only way to do it, and Rav Ofer explained that both the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman were talking about how it was going to be for our generation, more than 200 years’ ago.

Spiritually-crushed people can’t just go and uncrush themselves. They need outside help just to wake up in the morning, let alone to fight off their yetzers and start drinking green smoothies.

So if you’re caught in the gap between what you know to be true, and what you want to embody, and what is actually happening in your life, join the club. It’s the exile of the soul, we’re all in the same boat, and it’s going to take a tzaddik of the calibre of Rebbe Nachman or Moshe Rabbenu to spring us out of prison.

For years, like many other people, I’ve been beating myself up over the fact that I’m not perfect. It seems like the obvious thing to do, especially when you hit the ‘sincere baal teshuva’ trail, and there are people lining up all over the place, just waiting to tell you about all the things you’re doing wrong.

One way you can spot who is a real rabbi, and who has genuinely humility, is that when those people tell you things – even very hard things – it actually helps you, and it goes in without causing you any spiritual damage.

For example, Rav Arush’s Hebrew shiurim can sometimes hit some very sensitive nerves, but I’ve been attending his Shabbat shiurim at the yeshiva for a few weeks’ now, and you come away feeling cared for, seen and understood. When someone is genuinely holy, and genuinely on a very high spiritual level themselves, they have a humility that’s impossible to fake, that makes you, the listener / reader / follower feel good about what they’re telling you, even if you are (inevitably) doing things wrong.

Rav Shalom Arush and Rav Ofer Erez excel at this. They excel at telling you about their own spiritual struggles, and failures, and challenges, and how they themselves got out of very trying and tiring situations where their emuna got tested to the Nth degree. Their books are both full of this advice and wisdom, that in both instances was earned the hard way, from the ground up.

But then….(we’re about to controversial here) – it’s not just about what you say, it’s also about the way that you say it. So it is, that I can have people tell me to ‘just say thank you’ for all the hard stuff I’ve been through recently, and I literally want to punch them in the face.

When Rav Arush says it, as he so frequently does, it goes straight into my soul and I GET on a fundamental level that he is giving me a spiritual shortcut out of my troubles, that he knows works because he’s tried it himself.

But then, the same words gets parroted at me by someone who’s read the books, or heard some shiurim, but otherwise is still chock-full of bad middot, arrogance and a few other things too, including ingratitude – and it makes my blood boil. I literally can’t stand what I’m being told, and I start to develop very negative feelings about both the speaker and the message.

Part of the reason I’m writing this post is because after pondering at length whether I was turning into a heretic because I just couldn’t hear the ‘just say thank you’ stuff from certain people any more, G-d helped me to see: 1) how dangerous and misleading all these ‘Rav Arush wannabes’ are, with all their smug, pat ‘advice’ that’s devoid of sincerity, caring and compassion and 2) how amazing Rav Arush and his advice actually is.

Now I live in Jerusalem, I have had the privilege of seeing Rav Arush in action on a number of occasions, and he is the real deal. I can’t tell you the number of people who call him, or simply show up on his doorstep out the blue, or corner him when he’s getting in or out of his car – and he tries to accommodate everyone. He’s never too busy saving the world to offer a kind word to his fellow Jew, even though he really is very busy off saving the world.

Rebbe Nachman wrote that at the End of Days, there would be a lot of religious fakers, trying to ride the coat-tails of real kedusha to get themselves some unearned kudos and respect from other people.

That’s not a chiddush, I know. But the chiddush for me, at least this week, was that they can still be scoring points for the ‘other side’ when they’re quoting Rav Arush at you. It literally makes the mind boggle.

So if you’re being given ‘advice’ that’s making you feel bad, worthless or like you’ll never reach the lofty level of the person who’s running their mouth off at you, press pause on the beating yourself up attack and remember one thing: real tzadikim make you feel positive about yourself, even when you’re doing negative things – and fakers make you feel negative about yourself even when 99% of the time you’re doing positive things. Buyer beware.