One of the things that I struggled really, really hard with for years was the idea that no matter what happened to me, or how bad I feel about it, I should just paste a ‘happy’ face on and pretend I didn’t care, and I wasn’t upset about it.
This fake concept of emuna is something I’ve come to call ‘all emuna, all the time’.
The first time I realized just how dangerous ‘all emuna, all the time’ can be is about six years’ ago, when my neck started seizing up and got really painful and sore. At that time, I was still (just about…) going to Western doctors, and no-one could tell me what was going on, what was causing the problem, or how to fix it.
Out of desperation, I went to a more holistic healer called David Amichai, and he asked me a question that blew me away: Had I been waiting for something that hadn’t materialized for a long time?
The short answer was: yes.
I’d been trying to have more children for eight years, and the toll it had taken on me was incredible. BUT – I told him – NOW I have emuna!!!! I have ‘all emuna, all the time’, and I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself, and stopped feeling heartache and despair every month when it didn’t happen again, and I’m approaching my infertility with ‘all emuna, all the time’!!!!
He looked at me very thoughtfully, and then he told me in a very kind tone:
The level of emuna you’re describing is a very high level, and it’s very hard for most people to get there sincerely.
Then, he told me that the neck was the ‘bridge’ between the heart and the head, and it seemed as though something had got pretty stuck there. My head was telling me I had ‘all emuna, all the time’, while my heart was whispering the truth at me, namely that I was still grieving the fact that every month, I’d missed another opportunity to have more children.
That true feeling was getting ‘stuck’ in my neck, and was causing me a whole bunch of physical health problems. Once I started to accept my true feelings again, he told me, my problem would clear up.
He was right.
But boy, did I have a spiritual challenge after I went to see him.
Because the main person I was listening to back then had ‘all emuna, all the time’ as their mantra. They made it clear that if I ever felt overwhelmed, sad, occasionally despairing, or all the other very normal feelings that we ALL feel some of the time – there was something deeply wrong with me, and also my emuna.
It took me years to try to square that circle, and I beat myself up endlessly over being so ‘bad’ that I couldn’t automatically break into a song and dance when faced with some very tough challenges. It was only when my challenges reached ‘peak’ levels – and I was still getting castigated for not having ‘all emuna, all the time’ when I’d run out of money for food, and when my life fell apart in a million ways, and when I had four miscarriages in a row from the stress after waiting 10 years to have more kids – that I finally gave Mr ‘all emuna, all the time’ the heave-ho.
When we don’t allow ourselves to grieve our losses properly, when we don’t allow ourselves to feel what we really feel, and to process it all in an unrushed, uncritical and self-accepting way, we end up doing a huge amount of damage to our emuna, our peace of mind and our physical health.
So it was amazing to read the following in Rav Ofer Erez’s latest book, Al Parshat Drachim, where he said: (this free translation is my own, so may not be 100% accurate):
“All of us need to learn how to properly navigate the difficult times…the first thing is to not to blame anyone [others or yourself] and to understand that [difficulties] are the way of the world. The [spiritual] reality of this world is that it’s a place where we have to work, and we are all obliged to learn the practical ways of how to manage and overcome the tzimtumim (contractions, or difficult times) that each of us has to face….and Rabbenu teaches us that the main way of doing this is by being happy, always.”
At this point, I got a little anxious as to whether I was going to have to deal with another dose of unrealistic ‘all emuna, all the time’, but Rav Ofer blew me away with what he wrote next, as he squared the circle.
He said that when other people try to give this advice to a person who is going through a very difficult time, they routinely react very badly to being told this.
Rav Ofer explains that giving over advice from the Tzaddik’s Torah is not like selling someone a big car sticker bearing the legend ‘smile!’
Rav Ofer says that you have to understand the depth of what Rebbe Nachman is really teaching us, when he tells us that the ikker is to be happy, always. He then brings an explanation from Rav Natan, who asks the question: What does God really want from the Jewish people, that he brought them down to a world where barely a moment passes without some sort of difficulty, persecution or severe hardship?
Rav Natan then explains in Likutey Halachot that the reality of the world is actually one of wars and difficulties.
The whole world is in a state of ‘hester panim’, where God’s benevolent face is often hidden behind some enormous challenges, and this applies particularly to the Jewish people.
Rav Ofer (via Rav Natan) then goes on to explain something amazing:
The way we ‘stay happy’ in this reality is by continuing to attach ourselves to Hashem, even in those deepest, darkest places we find ourselves in. And this is the true measure of a person in this world, that he continues to search for every piece of advice, and every way he can continue to stay connected to God, while he’s undergoing his trials and tribulations.
What a relief!!!
Mr ‘all emuna, all the time’ clearly never read Likutey Halachot, because if he had, he would have known that ‘being happy with my lot’ didn’t mean I had to walk about with a big grin because I’d just had another miscarriage and I couldn’t afford to buy a loaf of bread.
Real emuna happens when those horrible things happen to you, and you still grope around trying to find God’s hand to hold onto in the middle of it all, and you still try to believe that God is behind it all, and that it will eventually turn out for the good.
Emuna is the belief that you will make it through in once piece, as long as you keep trying to cling on to Hashem.
And you can do that even when you’re bawling your eyes out, and feeling like you’re half-dead.
Thank God for Rav Ofer Erez, who knows that serious hardships can’t be superficially erased, covered over and ignored. They have to be acknowledged, grieved and worked through, but they key thing to remember is that all this stuff has to happen WITH GOD IN THE PICTURE.
And that is the real definition of trying to have emuna.