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Everything you need to know about the art of hitbodedut, aka the practise of talking to God.

I had a request to write a bit more about hitbodedut, or the practice of talking to God in your own words every single day.

Rebbe Nachman writes in Likutey Moharan 2:25 that:

Hitbodedut is the most exalted and paramount spiritual practice of all. It involves setting a time for oneself of at least an hour to meditate in seclusion in some room or in the field, expressing oneself before one’s Maker with well-tailored arguments in an expedient, but graceful and appeasing way, begging God to truly bring us closer to His service.”

Rabbenu continues a little further down:

“Even when one’s words are blocked, and one is unable to open one’s mouth and speak before God, this itself is very great, i.e. preparing ourselves to stand before God, and desiring to speak, even when we can’t….

“We should beg God for mercy and compassion, so that He opens our hearts to be able to express ourselves before Him.”

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So far, so good.

The person who emailed me told me they keep falling asleep when they try to do hitbodedut, so they wanted some advice / chizzuk on how to handle this, so in their merit, I decided to write this post.

So many things have been written about hitbodedut by so many people, many of whom are far ‘higher’, spiritually, than I am. (Like, by about a billion spiritual miles…) At the same time, I’ve been doing regular hitbodedut now for something like 12 years, and I do an hour every day, minimum, as Rabbenu recommends us to do.

And I have a lot of firsthand experience of how I’ve seen hitbodedut, the practice of talking to God in our words, has truly changed my life, not always in such simple ways. So let’s begin with a brief history of how I got started, and why.

I started doing hitbodedut back in 2006, during our first year in Israel, when we’d moved to Modiin from London, and our life was lurching from one crisis to another, and I really didn’t know how to cope with it all anymore. As I look back on it now, I see we’ve had the same sort of tests for 12 of the last 13 years, and it’s only in 5777 /8 that we started to make the real, deep teshuva required to finally get things to improve a little.

So, here’s a little of what was going on back in 2006, in Modiin:

  • We were fighting with family members:
  • My PR business was going down the tubes and starting to accumulate a bunch of big debt
  • My husband got made redundant by his London law firm who had agreed to him working remotely from Israel before we made Aliyah – but then changed their minds without telling him, and started looking for his replacement.
  • My kids were climbing the walls, as I was always ‘absent’ emotionally, either working like a dog or worrying about work.
  • Our house got burgled.
  • Our social situation started to get precarious, because all the other olim we were friendly with didn’t really want to hear about all the difficulties we were going through.
  • The depression I’d been dealing with for decades bubbled up again, and I could spend days crying, immobilized on a sofa, or in bed.
  • Our shalom bayit was going down the toilet because of all the pressure.

What’s the answer a Western-educated person would give about how to handle all this?

Clearly “Go to a shrink!!” That’s what everyone was telling me.

So I went – to about 3 different shrinks because most of them were just so bad, sometimes for 3 times a week – and honestly, it was making it all worse.

They’d want me to keep track of my dreams, and then we’d have to talk about it, or they’d ask me leading questions about my parents, and I’d have to veer away from that conversation at a million miles an hour. To put it another way, they’d be picking at very deep emotional scabs for 50 minutes, then just when I was feeling my most raw, they’d pack up for the day and send me home to deal with the fallout.

By myself.

After three months of this, I could see it really wasn’t working, but I didn’t know what else to do. So then, I heard a CD from Rav Arush where he basically said that talking to God was the single address, the single practice, that would solve the problem – whatever the problem.

And that nothing else would really do the job.

I came back to my latest shrink, I told her that I had to try and figure things out directly with God, and she was nice enough to give me her blessing, even though as a devoutly secular women, she was sure this was just another manifestation of mental illness.

I was still feeling really depressed at this stage, so all I could manage was 10 minutes. For 10 minutes a day, for three days, I just kept asking God to lift the depression off me, and let me start functioning again without all the terrible heaviness and crying.

You know what?

God answered that prayer.

I won’t say I never got depressed again, as it’s a process that requires a lot of self-awareness, teshuva and prayer, but that was the last time I had a depression that lasted more than a few days – and I was convinced that hitbodedut really worked, because for decades already, nothing else had managed to tame the depressions.

So from that point on, I asked God to help me talk to Him every single day, come what may.

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Again, I started small.

10 minutes every day, while I was washing the dishes.

Then, I went up to 15 minutes, then 20, then half an hour, then 40 minutes, then 45.

And that’s where I got stuck for about 2 years. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t break the 45 minute barrier and make it through to the magical one hour. I literally would get a sensation as though I was jumping out of my skin and couldn’t sit still for a second more.

But I didn’t give up.

God helped me to carry on at that 45 minute level, and then one day, for the first time ever, I managed to reach the hour, and I knew that some big spiritual test had been passed.

In the meantime, life had only continued to get more and more complicated and difficult externally, so talking to God really became my lifeline. Talking to God led to some fundamentally huge changes at that point, like:

  • Moving out of Modiin
  • Quitting my business, to try and be more of a full-time mother (which is enough to give any F/T career woman a serious attack of the heebee jeebees.)
  • Getting more ‘frum’, covering my hair, encouraging my husband to learn in yeshiva in the morning
  • Getting to work on my huge anger issues, and other bad middot, which had been mostly under the radar up until then.
  • Going cold-turkey on the internet, and going back to a ‘normal’, non-internet phone (this still predated the time of i-Phones).

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When I was 35, I had a health scare that shook me up enough, I was motivated to do my first ever six hours, by the Kotel.

Honestly?

It was complete mental torture. One of the most difficult things I’ve done, in a lot of ways, because the urge to just stop, to break, to run away from talking to God, was at times completely overwhelming.

But I was scared about my health, and that’s what kept me going. At the end of it, I was so pleased to have got that ‘six hour’ thing under my belt – and I felt even happier a couple of weeks’ later when I got the ‘all clear’ from the doctor, and the scary symptoms literally disappeared by themselves, overnight.

So from that point on, I started regularly doing a six hours, as much as once a month, and I’d often do it while I was digging through the wasteland that was my garden in the Gush. That felt so appropriate, somehow, as I’d be digging up the root of an ancient weed that was embedded a metre down, and spread and knotted in a million directions, while also asking God to help me uproot internal ‘weeds’ like anger and jealousy, that seemed to be equally entrenched.

Gush Etzion is when all the demons I’d been trying to avoid and run away from for years finally started gushing out of the system, and if I hadn’t been talking to God every single day for an hour or more, I literally would have gone crazy.

As it was, I only went half-crazy, but a lot more stuff started to move and change as a result, like:

  • I went to Uman, to Rebbe Nachman’s grave, for the first time.
  • We moved house and location in order to send our kids to what we hoped would be a much better school, religiously.
  • My husband started learning at the Chut Shel Chesed Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
  • My husband decided to open up his own law practice.

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So now, I’m in a new community, and the first two years were pretty good, by any standard.

We had friends, we had other English-speaking people around who were ‘Breslov friendly’, my husband’s parnassa was doing well, I was busy ghostwriting books for Dr Zev Ballen, blogging for Breslev.co.il and writing my first book, called The Happy Workshop.

And in the meantime, I was still talking to God about a lot of things, because the kids were still experiencing a lot of difficulties, and I’d learned from Rav Arush’s ‘Education with Love’ book that their problems were really just mine and my husband’s.

Like, one kid had awful, debilitating stomachaches that nothing could cure or get to go away.

I decided to do a six hours devoted to her health issues, and by the end of that, I got some massive insight that her emotional stomachache was really just my emotional stomachache, that had been transposed.

The next three days after that hitbodedut, I was laid up in bed with an awful, killer stomachache – but the kid got better from that point on, and never had that type of stomachache again.

So for two years, I felt we were making slow but steady progress on our bad middot, and that we were slowly, slowly starting to fix a lot of the flaws and mistakes and problems with our parenting.

But then, clearly, we reached the next stage of the ‘teshuva’ process, when God whipped the rug right out from under our feet and sent our life into major free-fall.

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It started when my husband’s father died very unexpectedly, the day after Succot.

From that point on, all the monsters that had been lumped under the family rug for decades started to crawl out, and long story short, we got to a place where we were once again:

  • Fighting with family members
  • Socially isolated
  • Financially in trouble, and forced to sell the house
  • Having awful shalom bayit issues
  • Experiencing serious illnesses because of all the stress
  • Having massive difficulties with our kids

And clearly, I’m leaving a bunch of stuff out here.

Once again, hitbodedut and Uman is what got us through in one piece.

As each day’s new troubles and difficulties hit, I’d run to God for comfort, for clarity, for reassurance, for emuna. Some days I was so distraught, so lost, all I could do was sit there mouthing Ein Od Milvado over and over again.

Other times, I’d sometimes fall asleep while I was talking to God, but I didn’t mind when that happened, as it wasn’t all the time, and it’s often a sign that the ‘light’ that’s coming down is just too big to get hold of consciously, so God knocks you out to operate.

(Having said that, if you fall asleep every single time you do hitbodedut that’s not so helpful, and you may want to change how you do it, like going to a public place, or doing it while you take a walk, or sweep the house.)

There were a lot of six hours going on at that stage, too, because we’d run out of money and had been advised to just go and ‘work for God’, i.e. do long hitbodeduts every day, and in the merit of that, God would do miracles for us.

I will cover this topic in a future post, because it’s part of how I came to a crucial understanding about what talking to God regularly is all about, and I don’t want to lump it all to this post as it’s pretty crucial.

But suffice to say, that you can’t view hitbodedut, or doing 6 hours, through the prism of trying to force God to give you what you want.

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It’s much, much more about figuring out what God really wants from you.

Talking to God regularly has given me so much clarity about things, so much insight into my own nature and yetzer, and by extension other people’s, too. It’s not always been easy to ‘hold’ that knowledge. There were times when I honestly think I went a bit crazy from it, in the way that’s commonly referred to in Israel as ‘too much light’.

For example, when new BTs kind of lose the plot and go overboard in a million different ways, that’s because it’s ‘too much spiritual light’ to really handle. Their souls want more connection to God, but their minds and their middot can’t really process things so fast, which is often when you end up with a machmir external yiddishkeit that’s paired with immature character traits and a narrow, very judgmental mind-set.

But at that point, talking to God helped me figure out a whole bunch of things (eventually…) like:

  • How our bad character traits literally make us physically ill
  • How personality disorders and Erev Rav traits were totally describing the same phenomenon
  • How we can’t stand up in the tests we need to go through, in order to really fix our neshamas, without a very strong connection to the true tzaddikim
  • How most people are simply lying to themselves about the true, negative, impact their bad character traits are having on others, especially their spouse and children.
  • How so much of the difficulties we go through in our life are really ‘inherited’ from our forebears, or from previous lifetimes. So for sure, we still ‘deserve’ them 100%, but it’s not always true that our actions in this lifetime is what’s causing us the problem.
  • And, most importantly of all, how following Rebbe Nachman’s advice of talking to God regularly for an hour a day (and regularly going to Uman) is THE ONLY WAY to fix the problem, at its root.

I know that last point is quite a statement, but after everything I’ve witnessed going on around me the last few years, and also within me, I stand by it 100%.

Unless a person is regularly talking to God for an hour a day, they simply won’t have the spiritual ‘muscle’ required to be able to distinguish the yetzer hara from the yetzer tov on a regular basis, and especially when it comes to really figuring out what they need to work on and change.

I’m not talking about before we lose our temper, or say or do something we badly regret. Even the biggest tzaddik can fall prey to a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction brought about by their bad middot, and it’s the work of 120 to be able to uproot these impulses entirely.

I’m talking about after we’ve said or done something bad, or negative, and we’re still just justifying ourselves and coming up with tons of excuses to paint ourselves, and our behavior, or misjudgment, or mistake as whiter than white.

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Truth requires hitbodedut, it’s as simple as that.

And without truth, people don’t realise or accept just how much teshuva they really still need to make, especially when it comes to how they treat their spouse and kids.

At the same time, hitbodedut also overcomes the inbuilt tendency to be too hard on ourselves, and to beat ourselves up over every little thing. That’s also a big part of not being able to distinguish the yetzer hara from the yetzer tov, because when God is bringing something that needs fixing to your attention in hitbodedut, He always does it gently.

But the yetzer just starts screaming in your face that you’re baddddd!!! And you did something wrongggg!!! And you’re worthlessssss!! And now, you’re going to get in so much trouble!!!

And who is going to make teshuva when that’s what they feel they have to go through every time they want to even take a peek at what they might need to fix? Answer: no-one.

But when you’re regularly doing hitbodedut, you’ll start to get some insight into why you’re acting the way you are, and you’ll start to be able to develop some real compassion for yourself, even while taking a much firmer stand on the negative actions and behaviors that really do need looking at and fixing.

(I talk a lot more about all this ‘snake brain’ vs ‘human brain’ stuff in THIS post.)

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SO, HOW BEST TO DO IT?

Here’s some tips to get you started:

  • Start small.

It can even be just a minute a day, if you’re pushed. It’s not so much about how long, but how consistent when you first start trying to talk to God, so pick a time frame that you know you will have the willpower to stick to, long term.

  • Do it every single day.

Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you feel rotten. Even if you’re in a bad mood. Even if you’re in the best mood. Think of it like a meeting with the boss, a date with the man of your dreams, a lunch with a brilliant book agent (if you’re also a struggling writer J ) It’s not something you’re going to miss, come hell or high water. And I warn you now, that when your yetzer realizes that you’re trying to talk to God, it will throw everything at you, to try to prevent it.

  • Turn off your phone.

I think one of the reasons I’m so not ‘into’ the whole smartphone thing is because I know I can live without it for a whole hour every day. Do you know how liberating it is to not have to keep checking Whatsapp? (I’m guessing, as I don’t have it….) Phones are the #1 enemy of people trying to make some time to talk to God, so switch it off.

  • Do hitbodedut somewhere you feel comfortable.

At the beginning, a lot of people tend to feel ridiculous talking ‘to the wall’. What, I’m just going to sit here talking ‘to the wall’?!

But there are worse things.

I walk around my neighborhood doing hitbodedut, and I can tell you for sure that many people now have me pegged as one of the higher functioning mentally-disabled adults that go to the day centre just up the road from me.

If you’re worrying about your cred, or if you live in a small town where looking like a mad person isn’t actually an advantage for keeping the real crazies away, or if you’re worried you might bump into your boss or school principal, then it’s probably better to start off in your own home.

If you have a garden to sit in (and it’s not blizzarding or pouring) that’s often a good option, but be 100% guided by where you’ll feel comfortable actually talking. Out loud. Which brings me to the next point.

  • Yes, your lips have to move.

Not all the time, as talking to God is just as much about listening as it is talking, but if your lips aren’t moving and you’re just thinking it in your head, it’s not going to change the world in the same way.

God spoke the world into creation, and speech is still vested with a tremendous power to change reality. So if you really want to impact your reality, you have to speak. Not just think or write. Yes, thinking and writing can also be part of the hitbodedut process, just as they could be part of a relationship or conversation with a flesh-or-blood person. But the real communication occurs via talking.

I think of it like this: talking is my half of the conversation. The thoughts that come into my head in response to what I’m saying, or the things that I sometimes write down in my journal when I’m doing hitbodedut is how God is responding to me.

  • Build up slowly to an hour.

But don’t get demoralized if it takes ages to get there, or if you get stuck. Just keep going, talking every single day, and you’ll see how things start to get easier all by themselves. Talking to God is a privilege, so just hang in there, show your willing, and sooner or later, Hashem will help you to achieve it.

  • Don’t overdo it.

I know one man who decided doing a six hours wasn’t enough – he was going to do a 12 hours!!! He did the 12 hours – and that was the first and last time he ever did hitbodedut.

That’s an extreme example, most people’s yetzers are far more subtle. They’ll just keep persuading you if one hour is good, two hours is better – and if you have the time and inclination to do that, great!

The problem comes when you don’t have the time or inclination, but your yetzer has you convinced that doing less than 3 hours a day just isn’t worth it. Once you reach the hour a day, that is all you really need. There is no obligation to do more. If you really like talking to God, and you really want to talk longer, that’s great, go right ahead.

But if the idea of having to do more than a hour makes you feel a little resentful or burdened, or if you feel bad that you’re only  doing an hour….that’s a yetzer, and you should call it out.

(There’s another very common yetzer trick too, where it tries to persuade people that if they can’t do an hour straight off the bat every single day, they shouldn’t do anything at all. Again, this is baloney. Start small, keep it regular and build it up over time, and if you do that, you’ll end up acquiring hitbodedut as an enduring practice, not just a flash in the pan.)

  • Don’t try to control the process.

Yes, I know that there are shitot or methods for starting with thanking, then going into self-accounting and ending up, briefly, with requests. If that works for you, great, keep doing it. There’s also a shita that says go through the last 24 hours, and try to think about every thought, word or deed to see if it was OK. Again, if that works for you, great, keep doing it.

I’ve never done my hitbodedut either of those ways. The one thing I do is to start off by making a declaration that I am binding myself to the tzaddikim, and binding myself to the mitzvah of loving my fellow Jew as myself, as found in the back of Rav Arush’s book In Forest Fields.

Then, I’ll say some thank yous about whatever comes to mind – some days that lasts less than half a minute, others, it can go for much longer. And then, whatever God puts into my head is what I talk to Him about.

Sometimes, I’ll have the intention to discuss subject A, and subject B is what I end up doing the whole hour on. I’ve learnt that whatever God wants me to look at, that’s what is going to come into my hitbodedut.

I get some of my best article ideas walking around on a Shabbat morning, for example. I used to feel a bit bad about this, until I realized that for whatever reason, this is how God is making things play out.

So, if apparently random, weird, unrelated or ‘secular’ things start coming into your hitbodedut – let them, and don’t try to force the issue. God knows what He’s doing.

  • But do feel free to look for some inspiration.

When I have some thorny issue, or dilemma, or big question, I sometimes go and look for some ‘clues’ in holy works about what is really going on, here.

For example, this morning I was talking to God about a certain issue that one of my kids has, and I decided to go to my ‘Tehillim cards’, and to just take one randomly, as a starting point. I got one that said “Let go, then you will know I am Hashem” that had a picture of a man on a horse jumping over the Grand Canyon.

It sparked off a whole flood of thoughts and emotions – not least, that the last time I tried to ‘let go’ I just ended up crumpling at the bottom of the cliff, because it didn’t seem like God had caught me at all.

That opened up a whole line of enquiry that shone a spotlight on some unhelpful attitudes that have been hiding out and tripping me up for quite a while, which today I finally started to get a grip on.

I did quite a long hitbodedut on it today (4 hours), and by the end, I came to realise a lot of things about my failed house purchase, for example, and why it really was a hidden blessing. Very hidden! So hidden, it’s taken me 6 months to even start figuring it out, but thanks to hitbodedut, the answers are starting to come as to why that had to happen.

So if you’re stuck, feel free to look for some external inspiration to kick-start the conversation, and then see where God will take you.

  • Don’t do hitbodedut like a self-righteous jerk.

How I wish someone had told me this when my kids were younger, but if your kids need you – and it’s important – then your hitbodedut really has to wait, or get split up and disturbed. It took me years to realise that not talking to my kids because I was talking to God was actually not the smartest thing to do, for a lot of reasons.

When the penny finally dropped, I started doing my hitbodedut much earlier in the day, before they woke up, so I wouldn’t have to choose between talking to them or talking to God.

These days, I will also interrupt hitbodedut for my husband too, if necessary, and very rarely for others who have a serious need to speak to me right then.  I used to have pronounced OTD tendencies that made me feel like I’d have to start the whole hour over again if I got interrupted, or that it wouldn’t ‘count’ if someone else interrupted it. I’ve since realized that I was just being crazy J. Nowadays, if I get unexpectedly interrupted, I’ll just add an extra 5-10 minutes on to the end, and I know God understands and it still counts as a full hour.

  • If your hitbodedut isn’t working for you, change it up

If you keep falling asleep, that’s probably because you need to do something active while talking to God, like taking a walk or hanging the laundry, or going for a drive. If you can’t concentrate, maybe you need to just go somewhere quiet and sit. If you can’t find time to do it in the evening before you get too tired, do it first thing when you wake up. If you can’t even think before lunchtime, do it later.

Do it with a coffee in your hand, or a fruitjuice, or even a piece of cake – whatever it is that’s going to get you looking forward and willing to talk to God.

If your hitbodedut isn’t working for you, then try to figure out why. Many mums feel guilty taking the time for themselves, for example, which is when ‘housewife hitbodedut’ can really come into its own. You’re doing the chores you need to do, while also taking care of your inner dimension.

If you just can’t find an hour any way you slice it, split it up into two half an hours a day, or three 20 minutes. The point is to just keep coming back and trying again and changing things, until you find the way that works for you.

8 years ago, I used to get up at 5.30 every morning, and walk around my village for an hour talking to God, before my kids woke up. Then we moved to Jerusalem, and walking around early felt less ‘safe’, and my kids started staying out so late that I just couldn’t wake up at 5.30 anymore either, so it switched to 6.15 in bed.

Starting last year, after we moved to Baka, I’ve gone back to trying to do it walking around when I wake up, most days. But some days I also do it in the car, if I have a long drive somewhere, or I’ll do it painting, or (rarely….) tidying my house, or even at Kever Rochel of the Kotel.

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There is really no one way of doing hitbodedut.

If you enjoy talking to God, if you are starting to get some insights into your life, relationships and behavior, then keep doing it the way you are! And if not, then consider what tweaks are required to help you get more out of it.

But don’t give up!

Because regular hitbodedut is the only way anyone can really make the leap from fake, pretend-perfect person to real, I-know-I’m-crazy, happy Jew.

And to give Seal the last word: we’re never gonna survive, unless, we get a little crazy.

  • If you have questions or comments about the practical aspects of doing hitbodedut, ask away, or email me, and I’ll do my best to respond.

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Right now, I’m having a bunch of stand-offs with one of my teens that you can basically characterize like this: she wants me – us, the family – to be ‘normal’, and I can’t give that to her.

She wants me to be the ‘normal’ sort of mum that spends more time washing dishes than sharing my thoughts in my writing; she wants a ‘normal’ house that doesn’t have 50 year old mangy floor tiles, and black grouting around the kitchen sinks.

She wants to be able to treat her various ailments and issues the ‘normal’ way, i.e. like a zombie who just goes to a doctor, pops a bunch of pills, and then doesn’t have to grapple with any of the deeper reasons for why they aren’t feeling so hot.

She wants us to ‘fit’ with her group of ‘normal’ dati leumi-type friends, she hates my husband’s (small…) payot, she hates that I’m not working a full-time, soul-destroying job, like all the ‘normal’ parents of her friends.

In short, I seem to be one big, fat, huge disappointment to her.

And both of us are struggling to find the way forward here, because while I’ve done my darndest to try to give my kids what they want – if it’s possible, and good for them – I simply can’t give her ‘normal’.

And what is making this situation so much more upsetting than otherwise is that I recognize that in a lot of ways, she’s just mirroring my own inner yearning for ‘normal’.

I’ve wanted to be normal since I was the one Jewish kid in my class of xtian Baptists at school.

When I was younger, I also couldn’t understand why I had to belong to such a weird, and frankly embarrassing, gene pool, that ate bits of apple for New Year, had five (!) kids, and drove an old minibus around, as that was the only way we all fit in the car.

And there was other ‘abnormal’ stuff that grated on me too, like the fact that my dad (who is a Moroccan Israeli) used to go on…and on…and on… about ‘tiny Israel’, and all the countries that were trying to invade and destroy it.

None of the other families spoke about Israel, no-one else cared, why did I have to sit through all that all the time?

And then when my family starting moving around a lot, when I was 14, the level of abnormality rose up to the heavens. I abnormally missed a whole year of school, because my parents couldn’t decide where to live.

We abnormally pinged from Canada to the UK – and back again, repeatedly – for the next four years.

And then on top of that, my parents did something else ‘abnormal’, and started keeping the Torah.

No more going out on Friday nights, eating in McDonalds, or having xmas trees.

How abnormal it all was!

Of course now, I’m grateful for at least that last bit of weirdness, where my parents made teshuva. And I’m also grateful that I have 4 siblings. And I’m also grateful that we got the heck out of Barking, Essex, which has become the local HQ of ISIS in the Greater London area.

But still….part of me thinks sometimes that it would nice to be normal.

I also want to have a nicer house.

I also want to ‘fit’ a bit better, and to have a bit more to show for my efforts.

I also wish – a billion times over, already – that my daughter’s acne would start to fade already, because I know that the pull to Roaccutane is behind so much of her attacks on my ‘abnormal’ approach to life.

What do I do?

I don’t know.

Not for the first time, I feel like I can’t see any doors opening on to salvation, and I’m backed in a corner. I’m starting to get angry at the kid, which is never a good sign, because when anger starts to enter the equation, you can say and do a whole bunch of hurtful, stupid things that can have potentially disastrous consequences for the relationship.

But in the meantime, she wants something I really can’t give her, and both of us are getting increasingly frustrated about the situation.

God, come and rescue me! Come and rescue her!

Come and give this kid enough ‘normal’ to make her feel a bit happier, and a bit less disgruntled.

Because I really can’t do it.

Have you ever wondered where that phrase ‘under the weather’ – meaning, not feeling so good – comes from?

The last few days, I’ve been feeling ‘under the weather’ – lots of head pressure, headaches, exhaustion and snot.

And it seems there’s a lot of that stuff going around at the moment.

‘Under the weather.’

And the weather is continuing to be pretty strange in most parts of the world, at the moment. Record-breaking snow, record-breaking cold snaps, in Jerusalem it’s been raining for almost a month non-stop which is highly unusual for Israel.

Usually, you get a day, three days maximum, of very heavy rain, and then it goes all sunny again for two weeks.

But not this year. It’s raining on and off nearly all the time at the moment, which is great for the water situation, but not so great for my mood.

‘Under the weather’.

I had that a lot in the UK. The sun would totally disappear sometime in September, and only reappear again sometime in April, and in the meantime, I’d feel quite down and claustrophobically ‘stuck’ indoors and cut off from the world.

That’s happening again a little bit, what can I do. Grey rainy skies are good for the Kinneret, but not so useful for feeling full of energy and enthusiasm.

At least I figured out how the radiators work yesterday, which is an unheard of bonus.

Cold weather with working radiators is a completely different beast from cold weather with just that one, aging space heater that only works if you sit within two feet of it.

I guess what I’m trying to convey here is that at the moment, I’m feeling like I’ve run out of energy, a bit. I don’t have the headspace to respond to emails. I don’t have the energy to get on with my million and one writing projects. Even making supper is challenging.

I’m ‘under the weather’.

Some people will say it’s a virus, or bug, going around, and that’s probably part of it. But I tend to believe that we only come down with these things – that are around us 24/7 – when we’re feeling a bit weak anyway, or environmentally-stressed.

‘Under the weather’.

I think we’re due some more big earthquakes this week. We’ll see.

And in the meantime, my ability to think straight, and to communicate properly, and to reach out past my dalet amot seems to have disappeared, so please forgive me if I’m a little quiet at the moment, dear reader.

There is a lot going on under the surface.

What does it really mean to be Jewish?

When I first met my husband, he wasn’t an observant Jew. He was raised ‘traditional’, and the synagogue his family didn’t go to was always orthodox. He came back home for Rosh Hashana, and ate matzah on Pesach, and fasted for Yom Kippur – but he didn’t really know why he was doing any of that Jewish stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHAT DOES A BODY LIKE?

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

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

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

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

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

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THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SOUL-DIMENSION

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

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

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

And what is that job?

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

How does this work, in practice?

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

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

How do we do this?

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

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

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

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

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This is the real argument for why be a Jew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do we do that?

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

Each time that a person exercises their free choice to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HOW KEEPING THE TORAH HELPS US OVERCOME ‘SNAKE BRAIN’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do we fix the problem, tachlis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the fundamental problem remains.

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TO SUM UP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what I tell my kids.

That’s what I try to live myself.

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

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

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

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Before I threw all my secular CDs away, Queen was one of my favorite bands by a long chalk.

The beats, the melodies, the guitar riffs, the clever lyrics. I loved Queen to bits. One of my all time favourite songs was ‘Under Pressure’.

Dum dum dum diddy dum dum. Dum dum dum diddy dum dum (oo-wa-oop).

Just now, my husband told me that since Chanuka, he’s been feeling like he’s been under non-stop pressure, without any let-up. Thank God, we can pay our bills and nothing particularly ‘major’ is happening to explain this big build-up of tension and stress, but there’s no doubt about it: we’re under pressure.

And we aren’t the only ones.

As ‘the matzav’ in Israel continues to wind its way towards whatever Heavenly goal it’s being designed to achieve, I’ve noticed more and more short tempered outburst going on around me. People are honking more; they’re walking faster (or staying home…); they have less patience for people, they’re more out of it.

In short, they’re under pressure.

All of us are feeling the stress at every level of our being. That much is clear. What’s less obvious (at least to me) is what all this pressure is meant to be achieving. Because for sure, God is doing it for a good reason.

Is He trying to provoke a collective national melt-down, that will lead to a mass teshuva movement?

Is He trying to show us all that we simply can’t get by without Him any more, and He’s going to keep upping the ante until any semblance of arrogance and independence is crushed out of us?

Is He secretly working for Big Pharma, and has bought a bunch of shares in Prozac et al?

I don’t know – which is actually quite strange for me, as I like to think I at least have a small inkling of what God might be planning with all this stuff.

But I don’t. Despite all my hours of praying, and all my efforts to talk to God, and all my attempts to read the runes and decode the hints He’s sending me, and everyone else, I feel that I’m currently sailing in unchartered waters.

To put it another way, I haven’t had a clue what’s been going on in my life, or around me, since Succot, and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. I know the pressure is building – we can all feel it, and you’d have to be crazy to not recognize that ‘something’ is bubbling under the surface.

What the something is, or how it’s going to manifest in the world, is anyone’s guess. I hope its Moshiach. I hope its redemption. I hope it’s chanukat habayit (both personally and nationally). But right now, all I really know is that I’m under pressure, and some days, it really feels like I just can’t take it anymore.

I opened my inbox today, read a few emails, then shut it down again before responding to anyone.

Why?

Because I didn’t know what to say.

BH, I have the enormous privilege of being in touch with some of the most amazing, big souls in the whole wide world. And over recent months, so many of them have been sent such big tests, such never-ending tribulations, such feelings of confusion and doubt – that I’ve reached that point of not really knowing what to say, or how to share their pain with them.

I do have one piece advice left, but I know it’s often still so hard to hear, and so hard to act on, that I save it for when there is literally nothing more I can say or suggest. And this is it:

Get in touch with Rav Berland.

Connect with this tremendous tzaddik somehow, because when I was going through years and years of terrible, awful suffering, and when I felt like I didn’t really want to carry on, or be around anymore just to be so miserable all the time, Rav Berland was the single thing that turned that tanker around.

I’m in touch with people who are doing hitbodedut for hours a day; people who have more emuna in their little finger than I do in my whole body; people who are trying their best to be super-machmir in any way they can, religiously, to try to get all their problems to abate and turn around.

And I read what they’re going through, and I feel so sad about it all, because this is also what happened to me. I also got stuck trying to be more and more frum, and more and more strict, and more and more down on myself, and more and more harshly self-critical about all my faults and failures, because I thought that’s what God wants, and that is how I’ll get things to turnaround.

But I was so, so wrong!

God didn’t want that at all.

What God really did want, was for me to admit I couldn’t do it by myself, and that I couldn’t do it alone, and to once and for all accept that I needed to be connected to a true Tzaddik, in order to function as a human being.

And Baruch Hashem, around that same time, God clued me in who that person actually was, in our generation: Rav Eliezer Berland.

Again, from the moment I picked up the phone to the Rav’s attendant (because the Rav himself was in South Africa, at that point) – my life started to improve.

I started to feel happier and healthier than I had for years. My husband also started to feel so much happier again, when he moved over to the Shuvu Banim yeshiva to learn in the mornings. Finally, some of the mountains started to flatten out. Some of the internal maelstrom started to abate. Some of the issues and problems started to resolve and disappear.

It’s been a long, slow process, but Baruch Hashem, my family is a million times happier and calmer since we got connected to Rav Berland.

So, for all the people who are at the end of their endurance and who just can’t take it anymore, that is really the only piece of advice I can give. It’s the only thing that worked for me, that got me out of my thousand prisons, that got me past all the places I was so stuck and drowning in misery.

I needed all that suffering, because it softened me up so much, and made me so much more humble and ready to accept that I needed the Rav’s help.

If I hadn’t been through the ringer for so many years, my arrogance would probably have repelled me away from the Rav, God forbid, because the Tzaddik is just a mirror. I’ve seen time and time again that when people are criticizing the Rav, or telling me yucky stuff, they are really 100% just projecting their own inner ‘bad’ onto the mirror.

The Rav is operating at such a high level, us regular folk simply can’t grasp him, we simply can’t get hold of what’s really going on. So, if we’re full of arrogance and bad middot, all our doubts and confusions will rush into the vacuum, and we’ll find ourselves being repulsed faster than you can say ‘the tzaddik is just a mirror’.

(To give just one example: some woman I knew sent me an email accusing the Rav of being a rapist, God forbid a million times. After pondering on how the mirror principle was working in that case, I realized that this person goes around forcing her ideas down other people’s throats, and forcing her opinions on others. Whereas a rapist is bodily forcing himself on others, she was assaulting people with her unwanted opinions, but it’s actually rooted in the same bad middot, i.e. an inability to see other people as anything more than a tool for their own personal gratification.)

So, that’s my one piece of advice.

Take your troubles, and flee to the Rav.

Of course, keep praying, keep making teshuva, keep talking to God, keep going to Uman, of course, of course.

But also, get connected to the true tzaddik of our own generation.

So many of us seem to be hitting that wall at the moment where we realize that we just can’t do it by ourselves.

And really, we don’t have to.

  • The easiest way to contact the Rav direct is through the RavBerland.com website, HERE. If you have the evil Whatsapp, then put it to good use and join the English Shuvu Banim Whatsapp group HERE.

Around 6-7 years ago, I went through a bunch of experiences that made me extremely wary of other people.

Long story short, Hashem arranged for pretty much every relationship I had at that time, from the most serious to the most casual, to explode in my face in an extremely traumatic way.

Clearly, I had a lot of work to do on my own bad middot (character traits).

Clearly, other people also had a lot of work to do on theirs, too.

Things got so bad, that I kind of took the equivalent of a social vow of chastity: no more friends! No more Shabbat guests! No more making an effort with anyone outside my immediate family!!

It was just too hard to have a relationship that didn’t seem way too complicated, exhausting and toxic, back then.

Thankfully, the last 2-3 years, God has slowly been moving me out of that space.

A lot of the improvement came when I stopped trying to be a ‘fake frummer’, and playing a part that didn’t suit me, and pretending to be something and someone I’m not.

I realized that for as long as I was secretly yearning for my life in London, that was translating into very harsh judgement calls against people who hadn’t (yet…) made aliya.

And, for as long as I was missing reading secular books and watching secular movies, I was so ‘anti’ all those people who felt they could combine the ‘ultra-orthodox’ or ‘chareidi’ label with massive i-Phones, Youtube and subscriptions to the National Enquirer.

Today, I read some secular stuff, non-fiction, and I’m trying to find a way of serving God with my yetzer hara, as well as my yetzer tov.

But the real breakthrough came as a result of my children, my teens.

My two precious girls who combine their father’s sweet personality with my ability to argue.

These girls have taught me so much.

They taught me that lashon hara even counts (or maybe, especially counts) in the home, and that’s there is no heter, or permission, for slagging people off behind closed doors.

They taught me that often, the very best girls, spiritually, are doing the weirdest things with their hair, clothes and nose-rings.

They taught me to stop holding the whole world, including them, including myself, to ridiculously high, unrealistic standards, that no-one can ever really get to, or maintain, at least, not before 120.

And the last, but perhaps most precious thing they taught me, is to not take things so personally, and to keep looking for reasons to play down issues and forgive other people.

Dear readers, that so was not my way, my derech, before these precious girls took me in hand.

In the past, I excelled at finding a million reasons why people are unfixable psychos, or ‘erev rav’, or toxic relations, or religious hypocrites, and once I’d found that out about them, I couldn’t speak to them or like them anymore.

And then my girls came along, and held a big mirror up, and I started to realise that sometimes (often…) I was also acting like an unfixable psycho, an erev rav, a toxic relative, a religious hypocrite.

And so many times, they forgive me for not treating them so nicely, or making their life difficult, and we worked together to try to turn things around.

And that taught me the importance of not taking things so personally, when people say things I don’t like, or act in ways that hurt me.

Sure, I don’t have to stand there while someone slaps my face because they’re having a bad, or tries to make me feel bad just to make themselves feel good, but now when that happens, I don’t automatically put that person on the ‘unfixable psycho’ list.

I take sensible measures to protect myself, and stay at a safe distance, but then, I try to understand where they’re coming from, and to see how ever-so-easily, if I didn’t have Rabbenu, and hitbodedut, and big tzaddikim like Rav Berland in my life – I could act in exactly the same way.

And more, sometimes I do act in exactly the same way.

Because I’m not perfect, and neither are they.

And then, I don’t hate that person in my heart anymore (which is not to say I automatically like or love them. If they have pronounced emotional issues that they are in denial about, I still do my best to steer clear of them.)

But even then, I don’t hate them, and I can even still find reasons and occasions to enjoy their company.

And so, the door to the social dungeon I’ve been in for well over 5 years is slowly starting to creak open again. And what’s oiling the hinges is Azamra, Rebbe Nachman’s lesson of seeing the good and focusing on the good.

First in ourselves, and then in others.

And above all, in our kids and spouses.

Challenging as they can be, my teens have been the biggest blessing in my life, and they have taught me – almost single-handedly – how to like people again.

Oooahh, there is nothing like having a couple of days off the evil internet to start to regain some optimism and joie de vivre again.

Here’s what I did yesterday:

  • Volunteered for 2 hours a local school’s garden in Jerusalem
  • Wrote up something deep and meaningful on how to forgive people who have really hurt us, for spiritualselfhelp.org
  • Went for three hours to ‘paint me pottery’ with my husband and teenage kids – we all had the best time. And my two teens even left their phones behind for the occasion, unprompted, which was stoo-pen-dous.
  • Spent two hours painting a picture of the Rav.
  • Spent an hour walking around and smelling the roses, literally and figuratively, need to where I live.
  • Swept the huge dust balls off the floor, hung up some washing, did some washing up and generally tidied the house.
  • Exercised twice – some stretching, and then some energy exercises.

I went to bed feeling stoo-pen-dous!

I got so much done that wasn’t just sitting here typing.

I also had some ‘space’ in my head to think, and here’s some of the thoughts that bubbled up:

  • I need to start writing proactively again, instead of re-acting to everything that’s going on, or not going on.
  • I need to stop writing about geula stuff, even though it’s mamash unfolding before our eyes. People are falling into yeoush and despair left, right and centre, and hitting them over the head with ‘reality’ is not going to help anyone at this point.
  • Unity is the thing to focus on – even the Queen was talking about it in her speech. “One must have achudus at this difficult time, and stop hating one’s selfish, retarded jerk of a neighbor.” I’m paraphrasing, natch.
  • I need to go back to writing creatively about life as a believing Jewish woman living in Israel. That means getting on the second volume of the Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife – but doing it with a twist. I’m currently working with Alizah, the very talented fiction editor from SassonMag.com to turn the raw material from the blog into something that’s actually a good read, as a book.

It’s time to make a new start – again!

I know I write about that a lot, but I just saw something on the RavBerland.com website that really underlined for me again how important it is to just keep starting over again when things aren’t going how we want.

Every day is a new creation, that’s what the Rav says! The path of Breslov is to just keep sweetening, and reassuring, and strengthening and picking ourselves up from the bottom of the pit, over and over again.

And not to get stuck in all the doom and gloom.

Man, I keep getting stuck in that myself, and probably I’ll get sidetracked again in the future.  But then I just have to try to pull it back faster, and start over again.

Life is good!

So, that’s what I got from my day off the evil internet, and it was so useful, BH I want to have at least one ‘internet-free’ day a week now.

With God’s help.

In Likutey Moharan 1: 74, Rebbe Nachman gives a whole discourse about Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah, most of which is extremely obscure and hard to understand.

But these are the parts I picked out as speaking to me, at least, going into our next few days of chag:

“Hoshana Rabbah corresponds to unintelligent speech, for it corresponds to the willow branch leaf, which resembles the lips…So, Hoshana Rabbah which represents judgment, the aspect of the Fear of Isaac, is drawn from immature consciousness (mochin dekatnut, literally ‘small mindedness’, which is why its speech is still without intelligence (da’at).

“However, Simchat Torah corresponds to intelligent speech, which is the life-force of the soul, as stated in the Zohar, “Fortunate are those who know the paths of the Torah and toil in it in an upright way. They plant Above a tree of life of all healing.

“This corresponds to Jacob, the aspect of wisdom, of mature consciousness, which is the healing of the soul, as in, “A charitable sun with healing in its wings.” For the sun corresponds to Jacob, who corresponds to wisdom, to intelligent speech, which is an aspect of the Torah, of Simchat Torah, which corresponds to the tree of healing.”

Feel free to come up with your own ideas of what Rabbenu is trying to put across here, as Rebbe Nachman himself firmly encouraged his followers to develop novel ideas and interpretations from his teachings, as long as they stayed firmly within the bounds of Torah law.

But here’s what I think Rabbenu is teaching us about this time of Hoshana Rabba / Simchat Torah:

In a nutshell – that we need to work on our communication with the people we love, to ensure that we’re speaking openly and honestly and from a place that will ultimately result in a ‘healing of the soul’.

When the soul is happy, the emotions are balanced, and the body and physical health is also usually the best it can be.

And vice-versa.

So many of us today find it so hard to speak honestly and gently, especially to our spouses and children.

Especially to the people we most love in the world. So many of us are scared to be ‘the real us’, or to feel our real feelings, and certainly to express them in an open way.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons we take the willow branches on Hoshana Rabba and smack them into the floor a few times, because we’re trying to dislodge all the superficial, plastic ‘small minded’ speech that keeps us so far away from really connecting to our loved ones.

Today is the day for breaking down the spiritual and mental barriers that are preventing us from speaking openly about the things that really matter, and from telling out spouses and kids (and others…) how much we really love and care for them.

And then tomorrow, once we’ve freed our soul and our facility of speech from the klipot that are encasing them, we can really celebrate the giving of the Torah with full-on, deeply-felt, sincere joy and simcha.

In this generation of i-Phones and emails, so many of us are hiding behind Facebook posts and Instagram because it’s easier to feel superficially ‘connected’ like that, than to really risk a genuine soul-connection.

But today’s the day that can all change!

So take your willow branches, and smash them into the floor.

And then go tell your significant others how much you really love them, and how much they really mean to you.

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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