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A Seder Meal for One.

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

I said no.

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

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

I was so exhausted. I was so tired.

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

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

But at what point does it stop being a mitzvah?

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

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

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

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

They left it all to me.

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

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

I was enabling these people’s bad middot.

And I don’t want to do that anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gila often does Seder all by herself.

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

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

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

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

What happened about hiding the afikomen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PERSONAL SEDER DOS:

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

PERSONAL SEDER DON’TS:

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

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

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

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

Nothing.
Just me, and my being awake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Women: What’s really a ‘healthy role model’ for our daughters?

One of the things I keep hearing from the people trying to force orthodox publications to publish pictures of women is that our girls ‘need to have more Jewish women role models’.

On the face of it, that sounds like a reasonable argument, a reasonable wish. But as with so much of what passes as ‘intellectual discussion’, as soon as you start to explore it in any depth, it doesn’t stand up.

The elephant in the room is that:

The first, and most impactful role model in a girl’s life is her own mother.

If that mother is caring, compassionate, forgiving, emotionally-balanced, working on her own bad middot and honest that she’s not a ‘perfect being’, it’s hard to believe that a Jewish girl would really need to be seeing 2-D pictures of frum ‘superwomen’ in an orthodox publication, to turn out OK.

And there are other ‘real life’ role models for our girls, too. Every grandma, sister, cousin and aunt is also a ‘role model’.

Every female friend they have is a ‘role model’.

Every female teacher they come into contact with at school is a ‘role model’.

Ditto every rabbanit, every person they see and stand next to in shul, and even the check-out girl working at the local supermarket.

All these real-life Jewish women and girls are role-models in the deepest sense of the word – both for good and for bad.

And even those ‘bad’ role-models can be very helpful, because my girls have learned so much about how NOT to behave, and how NOT to parent, and how NOT to teach, by observing these ‘bad’ role models with their bunch of bad middot.

So, the idea that my kid desperately needs to see a 2D picture of some woman doing her best to look ‘glamorous’, or ‘wise’, or ‘role-model-ly’ just doesn’t fly, in real life.

All these people pushing that line – do you really expect me to believe your kids don’t have Whats App? That they aren’t bombarded with images of a million fake ‘friends’ on Facebook 24 hours a day? That they aren’t spending so much of their time ogling another frum female fashion victim on Instagram?

Really?

Our girls, our teens, will only ‘lack’ the sort of female role models they need if the Jewish women in their immediate environment aren’t caring, and aren’t compassionate, and aren’t forgiving, and aren’t emotionally-balanced, and aren’t working on their bad middot, and aren’t being honest about their own flaws and hang-ups.

For example, if a girl (or any kid…) grows up in a home where the mother is ‘angry’, and continually raging about all the ‘bad things’ that ‘everyone else’ is doing to her, and is constantly trying to suck-up everyone else’s attention and kudos, and is living life as a resentful, emotionally-unstable ‘permanent victim’ where they can’t see anyone else in the picture – then that kid will grow up with a lot of emotional difficulties and relationship issues.

And no amount of 2D pictures of frum ‘superwomen’ in orthodox publications is going to change that.

At its root, it seems to me that all this ‘ortho-fem’ stuff is really one big, massive complaint against Hashem, and how Hashem is choosing to run His world.

God made us a man, or a woman. God put rules in place that would dictate what is, and isn’t appropriate and halachically-acceptable for us to do.

Like it or not, a Jewish woman’s main role in the world is to focus on raising emotionally-healthy children, and helping her husband to fix up his bad middot.

If you can do that and still have your big, shiny career and 15 PhD diplomas on the wall, go right ahead.

Personally, I couldn’t.

Personally, I saw that I had to choose between making sure I was present for my kids, and really ‘present’ in my home, and being the flesh-and-blood role model they actually needed, OR continuing to have my ‘great’ career and making a big external splash in the world.

When I was that ‘successful’ career woman, I had such bad middot, and I was so angry and stressed all the time. My kids suffered so much from me trying to be that frum superwoman (with a cleaner, and a full-time nannie, who buys most of Shabbos in from the caterers) that the ortho-fems keep pointing to as ‘the ideal’.

Real achievements aren’t external. And real role models for our daughters can’t be found on Instagram, or in 2D pictures in frum publications.

Our kids need emotionally-healthy mothers, not more glossy pictures.

==

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Daas Torah: Sources on avoiding images of women

 

Daas Torah: The Torah sources on avoiding images of women.

Following on from this post on Daas Me, Rachel wanted to know what the Daas Torah sources are for not looking at images of women (and why orthodox publications are actually acting correctly, by not showing images of women.)

I asked Rabbi Reuven Levy (aka ‘the husband’) to pull some of the sources together, and this is what he put together.

I would love to see the Torah sources (as opposed to the ‘Daas Me’) from the orthodox folk who disagree with me on this subject. Please do post them up in the comments section.

Sources on avoiding images of women:

Do not stray after your heart and after your eyes”. (V’lo taturu acharei levavechem veacharei eineichem) (Bamidbar 15:39)

“You shall guard yourself (v’nishmarta) against any evil thought” (Devarim 23:10).

A man may not gaze upon a beautiful woman even if she is unmarried” (Gemara, Avoda Zara 20a).

The Smak (30) says that “v’lo taturu” applies only when one stares for the purpose of an immoral act. If one enjoys the beauty of a woman, but has no intention to commit an immoral act, he violates “v’nishmarta“. This distinction is reached independently by the Igros Moshe (Even Hoezer 1:69). However, the Mishna Berura (75:7) states that staring at a woman to enjoy her beauty is a violation of “v’lo tauru“.

Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 21:1):

  • It is forbidden to look at a woman’s beauty (even without any intention to enjoy her beauty).
  • It is forbidden to look even at her little finger, if his intention is to enjoy himself by looking.

R’i considers this law to be d’Oraitta, min ha Torah, in the case of a married woman, or any other woman forbidden to him.

Chazal say sinning through one’s eyes is in some ways worse than the actual act of sin:

(i) As one does not feel he has done anything wrong or harmed anyone, so he does not make teshuva;

(ii) When one sins with one’s intellect he is misusing his most precious G-d given asset, which may be considered worse than sinning with a lesser important part of the body (Rambam, Morei Nevuchim 3:8 and Nefesh HaChaim 1:4);

(iii) Shame or fear of others can cause a person to abandon his sin, this is not the case with sins involving thought (Derech Pikudecha).

Even looking at a woman without the intention of committing a transgression causes the images to be engraved upon one’s mind, damaging the soul (Chessed LeAvraham, Nahar 33).

Looking at a forbidden sight, such as a woman not permitted to him, creates klipot and shedim (Taharas HaKodesh 3).

It’s just a man’s problem if he looks. It’s nothing to do with me?

Wrong.

It’s a d’Orraitta transgression to put a stumbling block in front of someone [lifnei ever..] (Vayikra 19:14).

This means that even if the woman is dressed modestly, or it’s only a ‘head shot’, if she is beautiful to look at, she is transgressing this commandment by putting her picture in a public forum.

It’s forbidden for a man to look at a woman’s beauty, including just her face.

NB – this does not mean a woman is prohibited from showing her face or walking around in public modestly dressed. If a man, by chance looks up and sees a woman, so long as he looks away, he does not commit a sin.

So, here the woman is not responsible if the man has a ‘second look’ or stares at her. However, when posting a picture of herself, it is far more likely that a man will look at her picture closely, particularly if she is ‘good looking’, and thereby transgress. A man is (usually) not embarrassed to look at a woman’s picture (particularly) if no one else is with him at the time. However, he would be embarrassed to stare at her in the street.

But surely it’s ok for the purpose of fulfilling a Mitzvah, such as teaching Torah?

No, this would be a mitzvah that is brought about through a transgression [mitzvah ha’ba’ah b’aveirah]. In such a case, the mitzvah is void, and all you have is the transgression.


Ad kan, from Rabbi Reuven.

So, why are all these very frum, very tznius women happy to have pictures of themselves posted all over the net?

I don’t know.

But I’d love to find out if there is any daas Torah backing up that decision, or if it’s all just a reaction to pressure from the ‘ugly feminist’ crowd (i.e. people who believe it’s OK to do this either because a) they are feminists who don’t think keeping Torah commandments is so important or b) they think the women putting their pictures up are de facto ugly, so actually not transgressing any of the Torah commandments.)

So, that’s the question:

Are there any Torah sources on the other side of the debate, or is it all Daas Me?

Picture the scene:

After five years of exhaustive research, you finally decide that you’re going to start eating vegetarian. You’re not a militant animal rights’ activist, you just think that it’s much healthier and better for your body to cut out things that moo, bleat, baah and squawk.

Let’s say you’re sitting there, in the school canteen, when someone enters the room who really believes that vegetarians are unnecessarily limiting themselves, and what they consume. I mean, how else are they really going to get all the B12 vits they need, if not from something that moos, bleats, baahs or squawks?

That’s a fair point perhaps.

But, does it then justify the ‘militant’ meat-eater marching up to the vegetarian, and berating them for their unnecessary and unhealthy restrictions on what they eat?

Would it justify the militant meat eater trying to slip a furtive slice of bacon in their vegemite-spread bap? Or telling them that they were being served vegetarian sausages, when really the sausages were totally meat?

What do you think?

Who do you think is being more intolerant and narrow-minded, in this example?

Now, let’s picture another scene. Let’s say a kid has a peanut allergy. You know, peanuts – those little brown things that so many people can still happily consume, and that would otherwise be a fairly nutritious and delicious part of a healthy diet.

But not for the kid with the peanut allergy. If that kid gets a whiff of a peanut, that could shove them head-long into a life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Let’s say another kid simply loves peanuts to bits. In fact, all they want to eat is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and no-one can get them to eat anything else.

So now, which kid’s ‘intolerance’ is meant to take preference, here?

The kid with the allergy, who can’t tolerate being exposed to peanuts, or the kid who can’t tolerate eating anything except peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

If the canteen decides to get rid of all the peanuts and ban them from the school, does that make them ‘intolerant’? Or, if the school decides that it’s not fair on the other students to have to miss out on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, is their decision to tolerate peanuts on the premises correct?

Let’s make it sharper: let’s say that the peanut allergy parents are mamash pushing for peanut-free premises as they are hugely worried about what could happen to their kid if, God forbid, he should eat one, or even just inhale the scent of a peanut.

Let’s say, the peanut butter and jelly parents are mamash pushing back against this decision – because otherwise, what is their kid going to eat?! – and they write an angry letter decrying the school’s intolerance of peanut eaters.

They are right to say the school isn’t tolerating peanut eaters, aren’t they?

That makes the school intolerant, doesn’t it?

And that intolerance must be bad, mustn’t it? Because isn’t all intolerance awful?

What if the school says they won’t tolerate bad language. Or smoking. Or drug abuse. Or bullying.

That’s shockingly intolerant, isn’t it?! That’s limiting the pupils freedom of expression, isn’t it? And that must be bad and narrow-minded and un-egalitarian.

Mustn’t it?

Let’s take another example.

Let’s say, a man wants to come to work wearing just his underpants. Let’s say, he works in a very mixed, regular office where there is a fair sprinkling of old and young, male and female coworkers.

And this man wants to sit at his desk wearing just his underpants.

Should that be tolerated, by the management?

Let’s say, he has a serious case of trauma from when he was forced to wear a bright orange bell-bottomed paisley print trouser-suit (with a belt) when he was a kid in the 70s. And now, he just doesn’t like wearing clothes very much. Now, he just feels way more comfortable only wearing his underpants in public.

What would the preachers of tolerance proclaim about this case?

What would be the right thing to do? To let this man wear his skimpy undies in the office because he has serious trauma from orange flares, or to put the well-being of the rest of his office-workers first, who really don’t want to see ‘Mr Jones’ sitting there wearing just his grey pair of flannels?

Now, let’s start to switch these examples up, to make them a little bit more religious. Instead of a vegetarian, let’s have someone who eats strictly kosher badatz, or someone who doesn’t eat gebrochts on Pesach. Is it right to tolerate their strange ideas of food? Would it be right to try to force them to eat not-kosher food if they came to visit you in your home? Would it be right for them to try ‘force’ their kosher food on you, when you come to visit them?

Let’s say, instead of a peanut-free school canteen, we’re talking about a hospital in Israel. Is it ‘intolerant’ to stop hospital patients from eating chametz on Pesach if they want to, or is it ‘intolerant’ to the patients who do keep Pesach, to render the hospital totally chametzdik?

Whose distress is going to be greater? Whose life is going to be more seriously affected?

Now, let’s switch the man in his grey undies for a woman in a sheer, see-thru blouse and miniskirt. She likes to dress like that, she’s liberated, it makes her feel happy to come to the office in skirts so short, she may as well just be sitting there in her underwear.

So what, she’s making other people feel uncomfortable? So what, she’s going against the accepted dress code for the public space that is an office? Surely, its intolerant to expect her to wear more clothes?

What if you have a woman who insists on shaking hands with men, and a man who really doesn’t want to shake hands with the woman. Is he being ‘intolerant’? What if it’s the other way around? What if you have a man who just loves giving big, over-friendly hugs to his female colleagues. What if you’re a woman, and you just don’t want that guy touching you (or even, breathing the same air.)

Are you being intolerant?

What if, you can’t stand anyone shaking your hand, or kissing your cheek, because you have a strong aversion to chemical fragrances and perfumes, and even the smallest whiff of hand soap, or aftershave or deodorant makes you throw up? Now is it OK, for you to intolerantly refuse to shake hands, or kiss cheeks, with another person?

For once, I’m not going to try to wrap this post up in some neat conclusions. The point I’m trying to make here is that we’re all different, we all have different likes and dislikes, different needs, different beliefs, different priorities. It’s like the proverbial two old people in shul, one of whom wants the window open because he’s boiling, and the other who wants it shut, because he’s freezing.

Who’s right, in that example? Who’s wrong? Which one is being intolerant in the wrong way, and which one is being intolerant in the right way?

If you’re also feeling hot, you’ll go off on the guy who’s trying to close the window. If you’re also feeling cold, you’ll explode at the guy who’s trying to open it. Your view of what’s happening will be colored by your own experience, and your own preferences.

Unless God set down a clear commandment saying Thou shalt not open the window on a day where it’s below zero, all you have to go on is your own common-sense and empathy for where the other person might be coming from. If these things come to the fore, then you’ll sit down with Mr Hot and Mr Cold and try to find a way where both people’s preferences can be accommodated as much as possible, without making one of them ‘the baddie’.

Sadly, in the politically-correct mess we currently find ourselves in, God long since stopped being an arbiter of right-or-wrong for most people; common-sense is at an all-time low, and empathy – where you really make an effort to at least understand the other person’s point of view, and to at least concede that you might not be 100% correct about everything, all the time – is similarly missing from most people’s equations.

And man, are we feeling the lack.

There’s a Talmudic dictum which states:

He who is kind to the cruel ends up being cruel to the kind.

I’d like to reframe it somewhat, as follows:

He who is tolerant of the intolerant ends up being intolerant of the tolerant.

And if you look around, you’ll see that playing out all around us.

 

[1] I have no idea why anyone would actually want to eat this, but so many people from America like it, there must be more to it than meets the eye.

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.

Last week, I wasn’t having a very good week (I know that’s not a newsflash, if you read this blog on a regular basis).

I was walking around last week feeling physically, mentally and emotionally stressed-out of my skull – and that’s even before I got out of bed in the morning! So any of the regular, routine stresses that we all have to deal were just throwing me for a loop, and making me feel like life is un-doable, un-copable, un-liveable…

I made a rule a long time ago that I would share the ‘downs’ as well as the ‘ups’ with you, dear reader, because otherwise, I’d stop being a real person, and there’s sadly already more than enough ‘shiny fakers’ out there.

So, you heard all about the ‘downs’ of last week, so now let me tell you how God kick-started the ‘ups’.

I woke up on Wednesday super-stressed again, and feeling very stiff and achy everywhere.

I came over to my computer, switched it on, and saw the email from my very nice designer with 7 covers of ‘Fatima the (muslim) Jewish housewife’, and my mood sank even further. A quick email turned up the problem: there were really NO usable images of a Jewish housewife anywhere on the net, so my designer had hit a brick wall.

For the next half an hour, I started to feel really, really sorry for myself again, and how hard it all was to get anything done, and how impossible it is to be a ‘frum’ woman in our modern world and to really get anywhere blah blah blah.

Then, I got really angry about the whole situation, and my ‘stuck’ frustration boiled up so high I decided to go down to the Kotel with my camera and take my own pictures of Jewish women!!!!!

(Clearly only from the back, with no skin or identifying features displayed…)

I am so not a proper photography.

I’m far too shy to stick my camera in people’s faces, or to make a spectacle of myself lying on the floor or climbing poles just to get ‘the perfect picture’. But really, I’d hit that place of utter desperation.

I sat at the back of the Kotel, with my camera on ‘super zoom plus’ mode, and just took pictures of everyone and everything I could, in the hopes that something would turn up as a replacement for ‘Fatima the Jewish housewife’.

“God, please send me one of those gorgeously coiffed bandana babes from Geula, and let them stand right in front of me, and don’t let any savta-types be standing behind them having a conversation…” I muttered under my breath.

That didn’t exactly happen. I snapped whoever I could snap, but my heart started to sink:

‘Forget it, Rivka,” my yetzer whispered at me. “You can’t fix this problem. You paid all that money to the designer for nothing…your cover is going to suck.”

I packed up, trudged back home, and about 5 minutes away from my flat I realised that I lost my purse. And my phone. And credit card. And my I.D.

Great!

“This is what you get for trying to take sneaky pictures of frum people at the Kotel!” I berated myself. I got home, prepared to call the bank to cancel my credit card – and noticed my purse on the table. Gosh! I must have just left it at home.

Nope.

What happened is that some wonderful person at the Kotel found my purse, and arranged to deliver it back to my house before I even realised, really, that it was gone.

God arranged the balm before the blow.

Next, I started sorting through all my pictures to see if there was something remotely usable that could be photo-shopped to fit the cover, and again, the cloud descended. So many out of focus pictures! So few really decent shots of anyone! Sigh.

Which is when I noticed ‘Ms Perfect’ in the denim jacket. I only had one picture of her, but it was a corker – and I’d actually been trying to get a shot of the ‘Geula babe’ next to her, who had such a stunning mitpachat on I didn’t even notice this other woman who was standing there and quietly davening to herself.

Once again, Hashem had hidden the ‘solution’ to the problem away in plain sight.

There was definitely a theme going on here, and I started to perk up.

The nicest surprise happened that night, when I was going to bed. One of the people I live with (who will remain nameless as I don’t want to embarrass them) had tucked a handwritten note, together with quite a large stash of shekels, under my pillow, telling me to go shopping tomorrow, and buy that fancy cardigan I’ve been eyeing up for months, and feeling SO bad that I can’t buy stuff like that anymore.

I did.

It’s stunning.

All in all, God showed me that times ARE tough at the moment, and stressful, and often overwhelmingly yucky. But Hashem’s kindness is still woven into the fabric of all the difficulties we’re all going through, just waiting for the right moment to be revealed.

Nineteen year old Tehilla  was born blind.

Her parents didn’t want their daughter to grow up feeling like a second-class citizen, so despite here disability, they decided that she should go to ‘normal’ school, and be with ‘normal’ kids. It was very challenging logistically, but mostly OK – until the age of 10, when a former friend of Tehilla started turning the class against her, and mocking her blindness.

Cut to the core, Tehilla spent many weeks and months trying to pick herself up off the floor, but the damage done by mockery and malicious gossip can sometimes take a lifetime to heal. But with the encouragement of her family, and a lot of prayer and emuna, the young Tehilla pulled herself together, stopped crying and tried to carry on.

But being a blind girl in a class of seeing classmates was always complicated, challenging and at times profound lonely, even without the added torment of being teased and spoken about.

A couple of years’ ago, Tehilla recalls how she hit a new low: She wanted to become a counsellor for her local Bnei Akiva youth group, and everyone was dead set against it.

The local branch didn’t want her, the local kids didn’t want her, the management didn’t want her – all for different reasons, and all citing that they were acting out of what they believed to be pure motives, i.e., the job would be too difficult for Tehilla, given her disability.

After years’ of fighting for ‘normalcy’, and self-respect, and to be treated as a real, feeling person by her peers, this latest rejection was almost too much to bear. Tehilla retreated into profound sadness and depression for a few weeks, stopped eating, and spent most of her time in her room crying, while her family looked on helpless, unsure how to try to help her.

Then, Tehilla made a decision: she wasn’t going to give up!

Tough as it was to keep standing up again, and to keep trying, that was the path she decided to continue to walk down, with God’s help, and her family’s unwavering support.

She came out of her room, told  her parents she still wanted to be a counsellor for Bnei Akiva, and the family started lobbying on her behalf – just as they’d lobbied years’ earlier for her to be able to attend ‘normal’ school, and on many other occasions down the years. Eventually, Bnei Akiva capitulated, and Tehilla became a counsellor.

Initially, her group of young charges were less than impressed that they had a ‘weird’, blind counsellor; but after a few weeks’, they softened up and by the end of the year, they’d come to appreciate Tehilla for who she really was, and how much care, attention and effort she put into them, and the group activities.

Now, you might be wondering how it is I know so many of these details about Tehilla.

The answer is that last year, Tehilla and her two musically-talented older brothers decided to turn Tehilla’s life-story into a kind of musical ‘show’, that they’re now taking all over the country, particularly to girls’ schools.

Tehilla has a hauntingly beautiful voice, and together with her brother Oren, she’s written many songs describing her difficulties and her triumphs. She intersperses these songs with the story of what was happening to her at various points in her life, with the aim of driving a few crucially-important points home to her audience:

  • That everyone has a choice about how they react to the pain and suffering they experience in their lives; they can either get embittered, give up and go sour, or they can dig deep, hold on to God, and CHOOSE to turn their suffering into something good and life-affirming.
  • That no-one should underestimate the power words have to damage other people – or build them up. The girls who teased Tehilla so cruelly had no idea what daggers they were casting in to heart, or how it literally took her years’ to recover her self-confidence. By the same token, the words of support and love her family continued to pour into her made all the difference to Tehilla being able to come through her experiences stronger, and wanting to make a difference in the world.
  • That emuna is what gets us through all these sometimes heartwrenching difficulties that every single one of us has to face.

When Tehilla was performing, for a group of 11-13 year old girls in my daughter’s school, plus their parents, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

I’d gone to the evening obsessing over all my (very minor) difficulties with my book, my sense of purpose, my washing (an ongoing challenge…) and I came out so grateful and inspired.

What amazing Jews there are, in Am Yisrael! What a privilege to share an evening like that with someone like Tehilla. Let me leave you with some of her parting words.

“I want the world to be a place where people don’t just see the externals, like you do, but where they see the inside of a person, and feel who they really are, like I do,” she said.  And I realized that for all that she’s completely bling, Tehilla actually sees things much clearer than most of the rest of us.

God in His infinite kindness finally arranged it that after 10 years, we could afford to get a new car again.

The old Getz has racked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and served us very well down the years, but as it’s windscreen wipers got ever-more squeaky, and it’s steering got even more clunky and heavy to maneuver, about 6 months ago I stopped wanting to drive it far afield by myself.

What that meant is that trips to the Baba Sali, that used to be a monthly if not a weekly staple before I moved to Jerusalem, all but stopped.

But last week, we took delivery of our new i20 leasehold set of wheels, and I knew its first real trip had to be a visit to the Baba Sali, in Netivot. So today, I set out with a friend who’d never been to the Baba Sali’s tomb, and we headed down South.

You should know something about the Baba Sali and me: I had a bad car crash there a couple of years’ back, that sparked a chain of events that ended with me selling my house and moving to Jerusalem (as well as a massive nervous breakdown, but that’s a story for another time.)

The last time I went to the Baba Sali, a few months’ back, I also got into a minor crash.

We were trying to find the way to our daughter’s new school, and kept getting completely lost and driving past the exit for Netivot. The third time it happened, I told my husband we should just go visit the Baba Sali already, and while we were sitting at the lights deliberating on what to do, someone rear-ended us. (Did I mention that the Baba Sali has a sense of humour?)

After we’d got our crash out the way, it was a no-brainer to take the detour and make the trip.

The Baba Sali’s grave is probably one of my favourite holy sites in the whole of Israel: I know this sounds a little strange, as I’m actually describing a graveyard, but it’s one of the most vibrant, ‘alive’ places you’ll ever visit. There’s always people there celebrating some simcha or other, screaming into their phones that they’re ‘By the Baba Sali!’, trying to stuff their homemade cake into your face, or BBQing up a storm in the outside area next to the tomb.

Man, it’s a party place, in the best sense, and I always love being there – but since my crash, I’m always a little wary of the drive there and back.

So I got there, settled myself in my usual spot, and started to feel instantly calmer and just ‘good’ again. Life was good. Everything’s good. I’m good. Baruch Hashem, my family’s good. I got a few insights into a few of the more taxing issues I’m dealing with at the moment, and I also got a nudge from a big poster on the wall to stop talking on my mobile on the street.

Apparently, poskim have come out to say that it’s not a tznius thing to do, and should be avoided at all costs. One of the things I came to pray on was that I should manage to be more tznius now I’m back in the ‘real world’ again, so I was happy to find something that I could try to do, to up my tznius standards a little, and show God that I still want to do better than I am.

I collected my friend, drove out, and made my way back to the highway. On the way out of Netivot, this white cat suddenly appeared at the side of the road, and proceeded to stroll very slowly straight in front of my car.

The cat committed suicide. There’s no other way of describing it.

I tried to brake a little, but I was going so fast (but still legally…) that slamming on the brakes could have caused an accident, and risking human injury to save a cat didn’t seem like a good idea.

So the cat died, and I sat in the car a little unnerved, wondering what ‘the message’ was with this latest car incident involving a visit to the Baba Sali (as far as I remember, I’ve never killed a cat, or any other animal, while driving.)

Suddenly, I got it: slow down!

The same message I’ve been getting again and again and again, recently.

Slow down! Live life a little more, savour it, stop rushing everywhere and thinking the world is going to end tomorrow.

So I’m trying to do that, even more than I was. It’s a shame the cat had to buy the farm to give me that clue a little louder than usual, but clearly it had its own tikkun going on. How I actually slow down without causing a pile-up, I still don’t know. But BH, I’m planning to go back to Netivot soon, and I hope to get more guidance then, that won’t revolve around my car in any way, shape or form.

One of the more perplexing of Rebbe Nachman’s statements, at least for me, is the one where he says that the world will be amazed at the love that exists between his students.

To be blunt, I’ve been on the outskirts of different Breslev communities and groups for years, and I haven’t been feeling the lurve particularly strongly. But a few days’ back, I read something said by Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender, in a new set of books I picked up from the Meah Shearim Breslev Bookstore called: ‘Words of Faith’ that explained what’s really going on.

There, Rav Bender explained that to friends:

“it’s forbidden to tell what passed over you.” He continues: “Know this: To join a friend in personal matters – especially sins and iniquities, does much damage.

“However, it is fitting that friends encourage each other with soul-restoring words. But chalila to dig after mistakes – even if you mean well. This is absolutely prohibited.

“We often see people dig for another’s wounds. This is a very great defect. Relations between people should only be in chizuk, happy talk, encouraging words or Torah and doing good. And to seek the good points in each other. But it is forbidden to make sins known – except to Hashem Yitbarach alone.”

The real definition of ‘friendship’

This was a tremendous revelation to me, because I’d always believed that the hallmark of a close friend was that you could bare your soul before them, tell them everything going on with you, and that this would only strengthen your bond and connection.

Trouble was, in real life normally the opposite would happen:

It would get far too intense too fast; I’d find people dumping their biggest, most heart-wrenching problems straight in my lap; I’d get overwhelmed by all their troubles; and then sooner or later, I’d just want to run away.

This has happened so many times, and yet, until I read the wise words of Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender, it never occurred to me that my paradigm for true friendship was warped.

True friendship doesn’t mean you know all the deepest secrets, and darkest corners of your friend’s life. Rav Bender summed it up like this:

“I go in my way, he goes in his way. I have no interest to check after how he runs his personal life. What I have to say to him is only this:

My Brother – Be strong! Hold on and do not be discouraged by anything!…

“This is the whole point of speaking amongst friends. To unearth and illuminate your friend’s unique good points. And to shine to him from your special point. But not more than this.”

There’s a load more to say, and I may well come back to this topic in another post, but in the meantime, these few simple sentences have solved a massive difficulty, or kushia, that I’ve been wrestling with for years.

As Rav Bender makes clear, heart-to-hearts, where you spend a few hours moaning about your finances, or your husband, or your kids, or your work, or your in-laws, actually don’t  build friendships and people – they do exactly the opposite.

Just I didn’t know.

Now that I do, I’m going to ask God to help me avoid these types of ‘deep and meaningful’ conversations that always seem so holy and healthy, but usually lead to me getting enmeshed in trying to solve other people’s problems for them.

That’s not my place. That’s not my job. What I do need to do is to tell my friends and acquaintances:

My sister – be strong! Hold on and do not be discouraged by anything!!

And then, politely change the subject.