Posts

The darkness seems to be lifting…

Every end of Summer, I have a mini nervous breakdown, and I’m thrilled to report that this year was no different. My kids are bigger now – 16 and 18 – so the problem wasn’t one of having to keep them entertained for six weeks straight.

One of them was jet-setting off all over the place (and thank God, is now thoroughly sick of travelling.) The other one was communing with nature, and camping out by the Kinneret for the best part of the Summer, trying to detox from her awful school.

So until around Tu B’Av, I was managing OK, mostly. Sure, sitting in 40 degree heat with no air-conditioning for three months has been a little challenging. Sure, having one massive deadline, one massive project, after another has been raising my stress levels. Also sure, it’s been hard for me to get a good night’s sleep all year, as 5779 has been the year of ‘no shut-eye’.

But aside from all those things, I was mostly OK.

Until three weeks ago, when all of a sudden the pressure seemed to ramp up a billion times over and I was walking round feeling like a gasket was going to explode any minute. Partially, it’s because my husband badly twisted his ankle playing tennis, which meant I’ve been ferrying him to work and back in the Jerusalem traffic.

Partially, it’s been the never-ending list of things ‘to do’ – including get stuff for the kids for another new institution a piece come September. Partially, it’s been working like a dog on all these unexpected things that keep popping up, and that seem so very important.

But mostly, the stress was just in the air, and was driving me crazy.

Last week, I reached cracking point, exacerbated by my kids deciding that they were going to stay out until 4am every night because it’s the last week of holiday.

For them.

For me and my husband, we’ve still been trying to get up at our normal, early time, to pray, do hitbodedut, get on with all the stuff we need to get on with.

But by Thursday, I just couldn’t anymore. I felt like a totally overwhelmed zombie of misery and rage, as my kids stuffed up yet another night of sleep, which meant I just didn’t have the head required to work on the latest book.

At 4am Thursday night, when the oldest still hadn’t come home, the scud got lit, and exploded, in a rage fit that lasted most of Friday.

It didn’t help that some kid had cleaned me out of every last piece of nice, wearable clothing, for her new school wardrobe… and that I had to do all the Shabbat shopping and cooking by myself, as my husband was laid up still… or that it was still so frigging hot, and because I’d only got my act together to leave the house at 9am, instead of 7.30, I was being roasted by the sun.

I came home in a foul, foul mood, just feeling so unhappy and put upon and taken for granted.

And man, did everyone know about it.

====

The mood continued until I lit my Shabbat candles, ushering in Rosh Chodesh Elul – and I started to feel a little better. I went to bed straight after supper, and the next day I woke up feeling way, way happier.

For no obvious reason.

But it’s like Elul has shone some light into the darkness again.

Which is so lucky, because at 3am Saturday night, the day before she was starting a new school, my youngest tried to smuggle a dog into the house. Some ‘friend’s’ dog had cute puppies, so my retarded teen decided to buy one, stick it in her jumper, and then smuggle it in my spare toilet.

I caught her in the act.

What, are you doing drugs, that you came up with such a retarded idea?!?!?

I mean, I hate dogs, we have no garden, not even a mirpeset, and on top of that the kid was starting a new boarding school the following morning.

If this had happened in Av…. I dread to think.

As it happened in Elul, I could half see the funny side. She stuck the thing in a box with one of her old tops, gave it a plate full of Shabbos chicken and a bowl of water, and we all went to sleep for three hours.

The next morning, it was crying.

Why’s it crying???? She wanted to know.

Ooooof, why did I bring the stupid thing home, what’s wrong with me????

Ah, finally she’s talking some sense.

Long story short, as soon as the thing was out of its box, it weed on the floor. (My husband dealt with that.) And then it spent the next half an hour trying to gnaw my shoes – while they were still on my feet.

Kid, the dog can’t stay a second longer. What’s the plan?

The plan was to dump it on a friend for two days, until my kid comes back from school and figures out the plan. The friend showed up yesterday, and I happily shoved the box of cute dog into her arms and breathed out.

A respite! At least for two days.

And so, for the first day in many, many weeks, I finally have a little time to myself, a little ‘space’, mentally, to relax into.

The Israeli government is currently busy trying to provoke a war with our neighbors. Only the Rav’s prayers are stopping the situation spiraling out of control. Things are still crazy, and getting crazier, I know, we all feel it.

And yet….

Elul has brought with it a hair of hope, that maybe, just maybe, the turnaround is going to come in a totally different, ‘sweetened’ way after all.

Ken yiyeh ratzon.

====

You might also like this article:

Photo by Reka Dora on Unsplash

In our prayers, we ask God to save us from the ‘Medina of Gehinnom’.

I think I’m starting to figure out what that’s really referring to.

On Sunday, I stuck an overnight bag in the car, unplugged my laptop and drove up to Kadita, a small village made mostly of recycled wood, close to Tsfat.

Kadita is hidden in the middle of the Birya Forest’s pines and hills – and even with a map and directions to guide me, it still took me the best part of an hour to find it. Part of the problem was that what my host was calling a ‘road’ was actually sign-posted as a bike track. After the fourth attempt, I finally found the ‘road’, and pretended my Hyundai i20 was really a jeep.

Sometimes, a car’s gotta do what a car’s gotta do.

And my car had to drive up a steep dirt track that was much better suited to goats than tyres.

====

I didn’t really notice how bad the road was, as I was just concentrating intently on following instructions for how to find the place, a small rental shack in the middle of a farm, with no internet and barely any electricity.

Everything was solar powered, which meant the fridge switched off at night, and I was left with the light of two struggling lightbulbs. For the two days I was there, I spent most of the time trying to get my manuscript describing the 16 4 Element personalities into good enough shape so that I could send it off to an editor, for the next stage.

I went to bed early – 9pm – because the light was so bad and it was pitch black outside. I started to get that this is how people used to live, before the advent of electricity and street lighting, and I could see it had some big pros – and also some big cons. Life was certainly simpler and more ‘home’ focused in the past, because really, there wasn’t any other choice.

The roads were treacherous enough to traverse in the daylight, let alone when you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.

====

I woke up early in the morning, around 6am, and went to explore the neighborhood as part of my daily hour long hitbodedut, or ‘talking to God’ session. Which is when I stumbled across the tomb of Rabbi Tarfon, a tanna, who was buried halfway up a hill at an achingly beautiful site where his tomb was partially covered by one of the biggest, wide-trunked trees I’d ever seen in my life – ‘The Tree of Mercy.’

That ‘Tree of Mercy’ had to be at least a 1000 years old, if it was a day.

I had the place to myself, and as I sat there watching the sun come up over the surrounding hill, backlighting the groves of olive trees dotted all around, I sighed a deep sigh. If not for electricity pylons and their bobbing bright orange buoys, this same sight could have been seen for the last 5000 years…

I started poking around Rabbi Tarfon’s tomb, wishing that I knew a little more about him and who he was, when I came to a sign that had been hung against that massive tree. I’m reproducing exactly what the sign said, below:

====

The Tree of Mercy

The tree you see before you used to be a sapling. At that time, Jews had hope that one day, Hashem, in His great strength, would place His holy nation within the borders of the Land of Israel. The tree grew tall, and stands strong for the world to see.

At the end of one long and wide branch, the tree grows once more, but in small form. The short growth on the branch reminds us that we ourselves as only a remnant of a mighty nation, the generation that returned.

We should not be satisfied and settle for less than Hashem asks of us.

Hashem will hear us, on the day we call. Call to Hashem, that He grants His mercy to our generation; that through this mercy Israel will be restored to its former state and to its former spiritual status.

May it be that through our love, fear and unshakeable belief in Him, through our Torah study, mitzvahs and good deeds for one another, He will continuously keep us close to Him, so we never wander away again.

====

Under this message, which quite took my breath away, was the following:

Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short and the work is multiplying, and the workers are lazy, and the salary is great, and the Baal HaBayit (owner) is insistent.

He used to say: It’s not for you to finish the job, but you are also not a ‘free agent’ to absolve yourself from doing it.

If you learned a lot of Torah, you will be given a lot of reward. The ‘owner’ of the operation is trustworthy, to pay you for your work. And know! The reward of the tzaddikim is given in the world to come.

Pirkei Avot 2: 15-16

====

What can I add to that, that wouldn’t just detract?

I felt like Hashem was talking straight to me, via Rabbi Tarfon. I stood up to go, and noticed a peeling sticker that had been stuck to the backside of the ner tamid, the memorial light set up over Rabbi Tarfon’s marker stone. It said:

I believe with total faith in the coming of the Moshiach. And even though he tarries, despite this, I will continue to wait for him every single day, that he should come.

====

My husband asked me to stop here. I’m respecting his wishes.

====

You might also be interested in these articles:

I opened the door to find Susannah standing there: “I have cancer,” she told me.

One day a few months’ ago, there was a buzz at the door. I opened it up to find a scrawny old woman dressed in the lightest of summer dresses standing on my stoop. She wore a pair of oversized, fake black Crocs on her feet, and she was pushing a black trolley on wheels, that was full of an odd assortment of food.

I looked at her, she looked at me. She blinked, cleared her throat, then told me:

“I have cancer. Do you have some money you can give me?”

I looked at her, she looked at me. I went to look in my purse and as usual, there were only a few shekels hiding out in its creases. When there are teenagers in the house, it’s rare for a 100 shekel note to last more than 10 minutes after they’ve woken up. I handed the small change over with an apology.

“That’s ok, darling.”

She reassured me.

Then she cleared her throat for another request:

“Maybe, you have some food you can give me?”

I’m not a balabusta who has my cupboards stocked for all occasions and contingencies. Now my girls are much older, and now that I live in Jerusalem, I tend to shop on the go, and to really just buy what I need for that day. So I blinked nervously, and started scrounging round the back of the fridge, and the back of the cupboard, to see what I could turn up.

“Tuna in water?” I offered her, over my shoulder. I’d bought them for Pesach, and we still have four cans left because no-one really likes it. Susannah’s eyes lit up.

“Perfect! I can’t have oil because of the cancer, you know.”

It was a win-win. I loaded her up with unwanted tuna, a big box of cornflakes and a bottle of water. I’d done a mitzvah, I felt good.

====

The next week, Susannah came back.

I opened the door, and eyed her a little more suspiciously. Was this going to turn into one of those ‘charidee nightmares’, where I’d get to the stage of being scared to open my own front door? I looked at her, and she looked at me. I think she forgot that she’d already told me her shpiel, because she started again:

“My name is Susannah. I have cancer. Do you have some money for me? My medications are very expensive, and I need some money.”

She spoke English with an Eastern European accent that added a strange sense of poetry to her words. I fumbled in the purse – nothing, nada, totally cleaned out by the teenage hordes. I shrugged my shoulders, sorry. She hesitated, then again cleared her throat.

“Maybe you have some food for me? I have nothing in my house to eat.”

====

I knew she wasn’t lying.

I could see it in her face. So once again, I rummaged around the fridge, and loaded her up with some bananas and pears, and a tin of lychees I’d just bought that morning in anticipation for a snack attack. She was very grateful, and I closed the door with half a quizzical smile on my face.

The next week, she was back. And I decided I had to put a ‘boundary’ down, a marker to show – to myself! – that whatever I gave in future was coming from a place of free choice, and not from a place of unhealthy manipulation. That time, I told her I had no money, and no food. Sorry. Not unpolitely, not harshly, still respecting the soul of this person who stood on my doorstep. But showing both of us that my giving wasn’t automatic, and that I could say ‘no’ sometimes.

She responded in such a gracious, gentle and dignified manner, that I realized it was safe to carry on giving to Susannah in future.

The next week when she came back, I greeted her with more friendliness, and she relaxed enough to ask me if I could make her a cup of coffee. Of course!

Anything else?

“Do you have any food you can give me to eat now?” She asked. Big blue eyes bulging out of her too-red face. “I haven’t eaten anything all day.”

It was already 3pm.

====

Again, I’m not a balabusta, but God helped and I offered her some cornflakes. “Yes!” she said excitedly. I brought her the box, but before I could bring her a bowl and some milk, she’d stuck both hands in the foil lining and was stuffing the cornflakes into her mouth. I was shocked. Susannah was poor, but she was also genteel. She really was starving.

That time, I gave her more money and more canned goods, and she spent an hour in my kitchen just recovering from who knows what she’d just been through, the last couple of days.

The next week, she came later, when my kids and husband were home. I let her in, and one of my kids started stage whispering:

What do you know about her, Ima?! How do you know she’s not going to rob us?!

That kid has a lot of fear about ‘stranger danger’. I don’t know who got to her in junior school, but they did a great job of making her a paranoid lunatic, when it comes to interacting with strangers.

First, we have nothing to steal. And second, she’s been here a few times already, and I trust her.

The kid didn’t so believe me, but her phone started beeping and she got distracted.

====

That time, I gave Susannah coffee and supper, and a tiny bit more cash – literally, 10 shekels or something – and just let her sit in my kitchen, trying to arrange some of her affairs on her phone.

There but for the grace of God go I.

That’s really all I could think. God forbid, I should end up poor, destitute and sick in my old age, and no-one would even give me a hot cup of coffee or a place to sit quietly for an hour. Just as Susannah was leaving, the kid on the phone burst out in very loud gales of laughter. I didn’t pay any attention to it – it’s the usual teenager thing that goes on all the time – but apparently, Susanna did.

Two days later, the door buzzed in ‘her’ way, and to be honest, my heart sank a bit. I could do once a week happily, but if it got more than that, I’d have to put my foot down. Susannah stood there looking even more gaunt and vulnerable than usual.

Rivka, I have to ask you something.

Ok…..

Here it comes, I thought to myself.

Here comes a request for $300, a plea to come and cater for 30 house guests, or something else OTT and totally unreasonable. I was completely unprepared for what she said next.

====

“Rivka….were you laughing at me?

I looked at her in disbelief, and she stared back, tears pricking up around the bulging blue eyes.

“Rivka, I have my problems and I’m poor and I’m sick. But….were you laughing at me?”

Susannah, where is this coming from? Why on earth would you think I would be laughing at you?!

I was so shocked she thought that, I was so upset that’s what she believed.

I looked at her, she looked at me, and then she smiled a relieved smile.

“I had to check, Rivka, that’s all. Don’t mind that I asked you.”

That time, she didn’t ask for anything. No food, no money, no toilet paper. She came all the way to my flat just to check I really was who and what I was holding myself out to be.

Later that night, when I told the story over to my husband, he told me that he’d noticed she’d had a funny look on her face as she’d left, because the kid on the phone had started laughing just then.

“I thought then it could look a bit bad, like we were mocking her,” he told me.

I had no idea.

====

For two days, I tried to make some teshuva about this. It’s so easy, to cause hurt to other people. It’s so easy, to ride rough shod over another person’s feelings.

God, I don’t find Susannah’s visits so easy or comfortable, but I will do my best to be friendly and welcoming to her once a week, whenever she comes, and to treat her with proper respect!

This week, she came back. I opened the door and looked at her, and she looked at me.

What can I do for you this week, Susannah, what do you want?

She cleared her throat.

“Rivka, can I have some coffee? And do you have some food you can give me now?”

Her timing was perfect. For once, I’d gone off to the supermarket mid-day, and I had a juicy watermelon waiting to be cut up and was in the middle of making some supper.

I gave her a plate of watermelon chunks, made the black coffee with two sugars, and disappeared back to my writing, while the potatoes for supper continued to boil.

Everything OK?  I asked, when I came back in to check on them.

“Rivka, it’s heaven!” she told me. “The melon is so good!”

Ten minutes later, she’d conked out on the kitchen table, and slept the sleep of the exhausted for a little while, until I’d finished making the fish cakes. I gave her some mashed potato, the ubiquitous canned goods, and two rolls of toilet paper.

====

She’ll be back.

And each time she comes, I’m strangely grateful. Susannah is not a pious woman, not at all. But this last time – on a Wednesday – she wished me Shabbat Shalom.

And I know I’m buying my way into Gan Eden for the price of a tin of beans, and a box of cornflakes.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin @belart84 on Unsplash

====

You might also like these articles:

 

Refreshing the soul, with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

The last few days, I was really feeling the heat allegorically and physically.

My landlady has been telling me since last Summer’s 43heatwave that you ‘don’t feel the heat’ in Jerusalem – but of course, she’s wrong. And since L’ag B’omer, I was sitting in my house slow roasting along to constant 40plus heat for weeks already – and I was starting to crack.

Then there was all the ‘regular’ madness if you can call it that. So much to do every day, so many chores to take care of, so much stuff on the boil, personally and nationally.

So I told my husband: we need to go to Uman for Shavuot.

Despite our lack of cash, he borrowed some money and made it happen, God bless him. Then there was another wrinkle in the plans: women weren’t allowed in the Kever for the whole of Shavuot. Did I mind? Of course, yes I did. But I had to get there one way or another, so I made up my mind to have a different sort of Uman trip, minus Rebbe Nachman’s actual grave.

The hotel was understated but quite nice, quite quiet (relatively…) food was simple buy yummy. I had three whole days to try to get my head in order. There was yet another ‘wrinkle’ in the plans, inasmuch as we made plans to head out to Uman the same night that Rabbi Berland then called his atzeret in Hevron last week.

So, we figured we’ll go early to Hevron stay for half an hour, then bomb it back home, try to catch some sleep for an hour a half, then roar off to ben Gurion. In the meantime, there was another wrinkle in that plan, too: when I got home at 11pm Thursday night, it turns out one of my kids needed some urgent help to get her bagrut art project done and turned in on time.

So (long story…) I spent two hours sewing body parts together for 18 felt dollies, before spending 10 minutes packing my case like a madwoman, before departing for Uman.

Obviously, our taxi man didn’t show up in Kiev. Or rather, he did, but just not where we were expecting him, so we had to spend an hour combing the carparks to find him.

But when we actually got to Uman it was nice. Like, pretty much almost ‘normal’ – which was so weird to me, I spent the first day and a half trying to work out how to react to it. Usually, I hit Uman and I get the massive stomachache, the massive challenge, the massive insight, the massive something…. This time, nothing massive.

This time, just lots of walking around and around Uman itself, as I couldn’t get near the Kever and I couldn’t stay in a hotel room for 3 whole days without going totally bonkers. So I discovered all sorts of back alleys and new places in Uman that I’d never been to before, and certainly never by myself.

On Isru Chag, I decided to spend the day walking around Gan Sofia.

In the past, I’ve seen extending walks around Gan Sofia as something only ‘lightweights’ do, instead of pulling all-night prayer sessions by the kever, but as the Tzion was still barred to womenkind, it struck me as just the thing to pass the time. I spent the best part of a day just walking under trees that were three storeys high, bathing my eyeballs in luxuriant green and Victorian water features, and felt so very lucky.

Hey, there’s something to this, after all….

Walking back from Gan Sofia, I got some insight that Rabbenu’s grave is very chazak spirituality – so chazak, it can and does fry people’s brains out of their heads, sometimes. In our spiritually-dead days, most of us need a jolt like that, an electric shock of kedusha like that, to try to get the soul back from its flat-lining position.

But this time around, I also got why Rebbe Nachman used to request that his followers also visit Gan Sofia when they come to Uman, too.

Gan Sofia is total gashmius – the polar opposite of the intense kedusha that is the Tzion.

But we need both, in order to serve God properly.

But in the correct order and dosage, i.e. first the spirituality, and only as an after-thought or a dessert, the gashmius and materiality.

Second day in, I had this amazing dream that Moshiach is coming into the world next week.

I woke up in a really good mood, and it seemed like a ‘real’ dream to me. I needed that good vibe, as I came home to a tip.

We let a teenager have the house with her friends, and one of them managed to shatter the shower door all over the bathroom floor. There’s no milk in the house, they’ve moved all my stuff around…

But I got another ‘message’ from Uman this time around, which was to shower my teenagers with as much love and compassion and understanding as I can, whenever I can, because in this dark generation, unkind words can just propel our children straight into the clutches of  the tumah, God forbid. So I kept my temper and didn’t go off into rant mode.

The world is very hard to ‘be’ in at the moment, especially if you’re trying to put at least some focus on kedusha and God.

The filth is literally seeping in under the doors and through the walls. It’s permeating the atmosphere and degrading everything it comes in contact with. It’s hard to continue, some days. It’s hard to think straight. It’s hard to pray.

Before I went to Rebbe Nachman in Uman, current events had made me feel more than a little despairing about being able to raise my children in anything like a ‘healthy’ spiritual environment. We’re in a little bubble here in Jerusalem, but even here, the cracks are starting to deepen and the tumah is seeping through.

There is a relentless and effective ‘war’ being waged against the soul, and against kedusha, and against God, especially by the media. It’s claiming so many casualties, it’s truly frightening to witness how fast the moral fabric of the world is unravelling.

Which is where Rebbe Nachman really came in to his own.

Torah is eternal. Tzaddikim are eternal. Mitzvot are eternal. The Jewish people are eternal.

Even though the battle for the Jewish soul is currently very intense, if we stick close to our true tzaddikim like Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Berland, they will act like spiritual bulwarks, absorbing and deflecting most of the ‘cack’. So somehow, us and families can come through the fighting unscathed.

But without that bulwark?

I dread to think.

You might also like these articles about Uman:

The Uman Experience – Part 9

Uman Redux

Uman explodes

We’re all in this together.

You know how I came to realise that so many of my own opinions and attitudes were dripping with sinat chinam, or baseless hatred of my fellow Jew?

My teenagers.

I know a lot of parents bemoan those polite times of yesteryear when your kids just had to nod mutely as you behaved like a jerk, or treated them (and others…) abusively, or felt too scared to tell you the truth because they didn’t want a slap or a cold shoulder or some other form of parental punishment.

But you know what?

My chutzpahdik teenagers have helped me to work on my middot like no-one else.

They’ve magnified every little bit of arrogant self-righteousness, every tiny speck of lashon hara that I was trying to pass off as ‘chinuch’, and challenged every rage fit that was more befitting of a two year old than a grown woman.

And one of the main areas they’ve been working on is my attitudes towards other groups of Jews.

It’s human nature, to find your ‘place’, your milieu, your level in the world, and then to start defending it to the hilt as being ‘the best’, ‘the only’, while everyone else is awful, terrible, disgusting, yucky or inferior.

That’s why people who move to Israel love to point out the flaws in the people and places they left behind; that’s why people who have no intention of moving to Israel love to point out the flaws in the people and places of the Holy Land; that’s why ‘frummers’ rail against secular people, and secular people rail against chareidim, and national religious people have no idea who to rail against, so they take it all on a case-by-case basis.

And underneath all this self-righteous judgment and indignation and anger and finger-pointing and accusations lies….

Our own bad middot.

And nothing else.

This is what my teenagers helped me to learn. Every time I’d start telling them about the founding fathers of the State, and how many bad things they got up to (to try to counteract the hagiography going on in school about people like David Ben Gurion) – my youngest would go for the jugular.

You’re talking lashon hara!!! Why are you only seeing the bad in people, why can’t you see all the good they did, too?!?!

But, what about all the Yemenite children they kidnapped and sold to the highest bidders?

But, what about the awful treatment they doled out to the Sephardim (including your Saba?)

But, what about the 500,000 Jews in Hungary that they could have rescued, but chose not to?

Ima, I’m not saying they were good people, but they did a lot of good things, and they were still Jews! Why are you always looking at the bad?!

She had a point.

So, I started trying to work on it, and it was really, really hard going to keep identifying bad behavior without going off on big, generalized rants about the Jew themselves. As Rebbe Nachman teaches us, the soul of every Jew is only pure, it’s only good. It’s just surrounded by so much trauma, so many klipot that’s eating up all their innate good.

But then, as God likes to use the mirror principle both ways, after we had this discussion when my youngest started ranting about ‘chareidim who don’t serve in the army’, and ‘chareidim who go around abusing everyone’ etc etc – I had to give it back to her:

You’re talking lashon hara!!! Why are you only seeing the bad in people, why can’t you see all the good they did, too?!?!

Man, did she hit the roof. Because while it’s easy and enjoyable to point out other people’s blind spots and prejudices, it’s so very much harder to accept them being pointed out in yourself, and in your school, and in your classmates.

Over the next two years, we came back to this subject a lot, because me and my husband skew much more to the chareidi side of things, even though we aren’t chareidi, while my two kids are very much in the national religious camp.

Between us, and all the arguments about different groups, and different Jews, we eventually figured out that there are people doing very good things in all groups of Jews, and there are people doing very bad things in all groups of Jews.

It comes down to the idea that in Judaism, there are no ‘good people’ or ‘bad people’.

There are only ‘good actions’ and ‘bad actions’, and we are all a collection of our actions that ultimately, only God will judge as being overall ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

So, my kids act as a guard-dog on my natural tendency to start criticizing in others what I really just need to work on in myself. And I do the same for them – and while the arguments are not so pretty, while they’re happening, I can feel how much good they are doing us all.

These days, my kids are far more careful about throwing out derogatory statements about ‘chareidim’, because they know they are going to be challenged to bring real facts, and not just a collection of chareidi-bashing rumors and headlines.

(We’ve had some very interesting discussions around the Rav, for example, and that’s also what spurred me on to set the facts of the story down and write the book. Sadly, they don’t read English… but it’s going in the right direction.)

And on my side of things, they keep prodding me to look for the nekuda tova, the good point, in even the most yucky, anti-God Jews, and to keep trying to inject some compassion for them, and all the trauma they must have gone through as kids, to be such messed-up, hate-filled, yucky derangos.

Ultimately, we are in this together.

All the problems we see in everyone else are just our problems that WE need to acknowledge and work on, and there are no exceptions to this rule. The more we all internalize this, the less we’ll be pointing our fingers all over the place, and the more we’ll be putting our hands up to the fact that the main people holding up the geula is…us.

So, if you have a teenager at home, take a deep breath and unmuzzle them. It’s hard to hear – often so hard to hear!!! – when you get assailed with a strong dose of ‘teenage trufe’, but it’ll help you work on your middot like nothing else in the world.

There are crazy people all over the place. In every section of our community, there is sinat chinam and lashon hara and arrogance and jealousy and self-righteous anger.

We can’t fix those problems in anyone else. We can only work on ourselves.

And if we do that, we’ll accomplish everything God sent us down here to do.

====

We just put together a website for the book telling the true story of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, which includes the back story, FAQs and the video. You can see the website at the address below, so please stop by and take a look – and if you want to help someone else get over their media-induced sinat chinam of Rabbi Berland, please feel free to share the link:

http://oneinageneration.com

School A had a problem with the girls in school using their phones too much, and probably surfing inappropriate content.

School A was a ‘religious’ school, inasmuch as it wanted its students to keep Shabbat and kosher, and to believe in Hashem, and to grow up wanting to live in Eretz Yisrael, and being good people, and keeping the Torah as much as they could.

With no pressure.

Many of School A’s students had their nose pierced, and five earrings in their ear, and the school also turned a blind eye to the girls who wore jeans under long tunics. The school also encouraged the students to decorate the walls, and were thrilled when one girl drew a massive ‘Ha Esh Sheli’ picture on the upstairs wall, while another girl penned a saying from Rebbe Nachman next to it.

For the end of year play, the school decided to stage a drama that was based on the story of a young woman who used to be chareidi, but who fell off the path – but then returned wholeheartedly and more sincerely than before, after a trip to Uman. School A isn’t perfect, not at all. There’s a lot of issues, a lot of people struggling with their yiddishkeit and their emuna.

But School A is honest about what’s going on, and isn’t trying to hide things under the carpet.

So when School A realized there was a phone problem, they decided to organize a panel, and to invite student representatives from each of the classes, to sit on it, together with some parents and teachers. They also decided to bring in a bunch of different speakers, and to start sharing around educational material about the dangers of smartphone addiction – for everyone, grownups included – for the panels to discuss, and to help formulate a healthy, workable policy for the school that really tried to tackle the problem at its root.

They sent a letter home to the parents to inform them of what was going on, and invited any interested parent to come and join one of the panels.

School B also had a problem with the girls in school using their phones too much, and probably surfing inappropriate content.

School B was a ‘religious’ school, inasmuch as it had a reputation it felt it had to maintain, and a public image to guard. Of course, it also wanted its students to keep Shabbat and kosher, and to believe in Hashem, and to grow up wanting to live in Eretz Yisrael, and being good people, and keeping the Torah as much as they could.

But that wasn’t the priority.

The priority was for the school to retain the appearance of its students being the ‘right sort’ of religiously observant, and to dress the right way publically. Nose rings were banned (so the girls who had them bought clear bits of plastic to stick in their noses during school hours.) Skirt lengths were religiously policed (so the girls bought skirts that were super-easy to roll down for school, and then way, way up for on the way to and from school).

And the end of year play could only be done by students who were either studying dance or drama as part of their curriculum, because the main thing was that it should appear to be a totally professional production.

School B isn’t perfect, not at all. There’s a lot of issues, a lot of people struggling with their yiddishkeit and their emuna.

But School B isn’t being honest about what’s going on, and believes that lots of pious lectures from the school’s educators about having emuna, etc, is all that’s required to really tick the ‘personal development’ box.

(Most of the students in School B are on Ritalin or Concerta.)

So when School B realized there was a phone problem, they decided to resolve it in a very superficial way. They sent a pompous letter to all of their parents informing them that any student coming to school without the Etrog filter on their phone, or otherwise with a ‘kosher’ (WHATever) smartphone would have the phone confiscated and get into lots of trouble.

In the meantime, lots and lots of the girls figured out how to bypass the filter. Lots and lots of girls had a ‘kosher’ phone for school, and a totally unfiltered phone for everywhere else. The school knew this was happening, but the school didn’t care, because the only thing it was really worried about was looking the part.

As the months wore on, more and more of the girls in School B started to drink alcohol. And to smoke cigarettes. And to stop dressing tzniusly. And even, to stop keeping Shabbat. As long as they didn’t do this on the school’s time, or on the school’s premises, the school turned a blind eye to it.

It didn’t send out any letters to the parents, it didn’t organize any special educational events, because doing that would be an admission that School B’s students had a problem, and School B wasn’t about to do that in a rush. There was an appearance of perfection that needed to be maintained.

But the behavior, attitudes and environment in the school continued to erode.

Eventually, things got so bad, that even School B realized it had to do something. So, it sent out a carefully worded letter to the parents, informing them that from now on, there would be zero tolerance for any lack of respect towards the teachers, or absence of derech eretz.

The problem was definitely all with the students, and School B would be launching another series of preachy, fake-emuna type lectures from its highly unpopular and hypocritical educators, to try to get the student in the school to stop being so bad.

When the parent of one of the girls in both these schools read those emails – which popped into her inbox 10 minutes apart – she called up the kid in School B, and she told her:

We need to get you out of that place ASAP. It’s only going to get worse from here.

And thankfully, Hashem heard that parent’s heartfelt prayer that her kid should go somewhere far less hypocritical, and far more spiritually healthy, where the people in charge saw their students with a good eye, and did their best to relate to them as precious, if struggling, human beings, instead of ‘robots’ or enemies.

The End.

Or really as we all know, just the beginning.

I have to tell you, when Ori Ansbacher was brutally murdered in the Jerusalem Forest two weeks ago, I found it so upsetting, I kind of blocked it out.

Me and my girls went into shock for a few days, then we all tried to pretend that it was life as usual, because when you live in Jerusalem, and you are a teenage girl yourself, or the mother of one, really what else can you do?

But the fear and anxiety about what had happened still started to seep out, in all sorts of subtle ways.

All of a sudden, I couldn’t sleep easily again if my girls were out by themselves, and I started phoning them up and texting them every five minutes to check on them, which they both really hate.

And who can blame them?! They are 18 and 15 ½! But I’d gotten so nervous again, after what had happened with Ori.

After a couple of weeks of this, I realized I was driving my kids bonkers again, and I have to try and get a grip on the fear again.

God is running the world. God is deciding everything. OK, there is a certain amount of common sense that’s required when raising teens in our world, but ultimately, so many ‘bad’ things can happen in such normal circumstances in the middle of the day.

If God decides, you can be waiting for a bus near Beit El…or strolling on the boardwalk by the sea in Yaffo…or walking in the forest late afternoon near Ein Yael… and disaster can strike. God forbid a million times over.

As a parent, it’s so tempting to just try and bundle our children up in cotton wool, and to build big walls around them, and to try to monitor their every move and to keep them ‘safe’ in their rooms at home.

But we can’t.

Not if we want to raise emotionally-healthy people who aren’t going to spend their whole lives permanently looking over their shoulders, waiting for the hammer to fall.

God is running the world, not us.

It’s not always easy to accept that.

Yesterday, they held a huge concert just up the road from me at the First Station in Jerusalem, to remember Ori Ansbacher. There were a load of famous singers there, Ori’s mother spoke to the crowd, and there were also a lot of videos and ‘remembrances’ of Ori herself.

Half the teens of Eretz Yisrael tried to attend, so the roads around the First Station were closed to traffic, and swamped with thousands of people, many of whom couldn’t even squeeze in, so they watched the show on the big screens set up outside.

This morning, my kid told me all about it, and concluded:

She was a really good, kind person.

In so many ways, it would be easier if she wasn’t, wouldn’t it?

It would feel a bit more comfortable, if the murder victim had been some sort of low-life, so we could assuage our own fears by telling ourselves what happened was somehow ‘deserved’.

Instead, yet again, we buried the cream of the crop. The best of the best. The kindest of the kind.

God knows what He’s doing, God’s running the world, it’s all ultimately for the best.

But the heart still breaks.

And I’m still having trouble sleeping.

My 18 year old bounced up to me, and asked me:

Imz, can I show you something that made me cry?

Sure. Sure you can.

She waited for me to get the internet stick thingy switched on, and I steeled myself for another semi-pointless ‘teenage girl’ video that I’d have to make the right noises about. Like, a few days ago she showed me a video that was meant to be ‘the funniest thing ever’.

It was some aggressive little pooch called Quincy, trying to bite its owner’s hand off every time he was trying to retrieve a pair of socks or some other thing that dog was nesting on. It was kind of amusing, I guess, although by the 15th clip of Quincy trying to attack the owner, the one thought I had in my head was ‘that pooch should be put down’.

But I know better than to make comments like that to my teens, so I bit my tongue and tried to look sufficiently amused by Quincy, the killer poodle.

So my hopes weren’t high for the ‘emotional’ clip my teen wanted to share with me – and even less high when I realized she was clicking over to the ‘Star is born’ website, where wannabe singers get rated by Israeli celebs in heavy make-up.

Please eyes, don’t roll so far back in my head that my teens will notice. I’m trying to ‘bond’ with them here…

The 18 year old gave me some background:

Imz, this is a really special band that my hanichot (students from the Bnei Akiva group for disabled kids that my daughter was the madricha for) told me about. The two singers are blind, and all the band has some sort of disability. I cried so much when I saw it.

At 45, it takes a little more to get me emotional these days, (and in some ways, also a little less.)

The clip began, and there were the panel of celebs pulling celebrity faces and making celebrity noises like ‘Vow!’ and ‘Me-a-mem’.

But then half way through, something started strange happened.

The fake glitz and the fake glamor somehow disappeared out the picture, and the soul dimension started to shine through. As I watched the two blind girls singing, and the two young men with Down’s Syndrome playing percussion, and the other band members who were all doing their thing despite their own disability – some of whom had kippas on their head – I started to realise something profound:

I love the Jewish people. We’re amazing.

But that wasn’t all.

The ‘vows’ and the ‘me-a-mems’ dried up, and even the celeb panel started to dab tears off their heavily made-up faces. OK, you could say that maybe that was expected from the lady celebs, although for once, it all seemed far more real than scripted.

But when the young male singer who was carefully cultivating a cool image also found himself fighting back the tears, that’s when you just knew something very profound was going on.

The soul dimension had exploded in the most unlikely of places, a TV studio for ‘A Star is Born’ in the middle of secular Tel Aviv and fake celeb land.

It took two singers how couldn’t see, and a few band members who couldn’t give a hoot about coming across as ‘cool’ to break down some of the ‘fake’ that divides us all, and to reach past external appearances to remind everyone:

We Jews have a tremendously big soul. We’re all part of the same people. And very soon, that’s going to become obvious to everyone.

Having the cool male celeb tear up on TV is only the beginning of the good things that are about to start happening here in Israel.

And I can’t wait.

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.

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.

====

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.

====

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.

====

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.

====

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?

====

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.

====

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.)

====

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.

====

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.)

====

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.

====

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.

====

You might also like these articles: