Over Shabbat, I dusted off some of my journals from the last few years, and I had a quick leaf through.
What struck me – almost instantly – is how much better my life has got since I found out about Rabbi Eliezer Berland, and took that leap of faith to pay that first pidyon over to him, when he was still in South Africa.
I wrote about that HERE, but long story short, by the time I’d got to Rav Berland and Shuvu Banim, I was totally exhausted and miserable from trying to live a life filled with what I’d like to call ‘ugly’ emuna.
Ugly emuna works like this:
You deeply internalize that God is doing everything, that everything is for the best, and that there is no “suffering without sin”. You try to find the message in everything, and as your fear of being punished for sinning grows – because let’s face it, we’re all full of sins 24/7, even when we’re doing our very best to act and dress and speak appropriately – you live in fear of the bolt of lightning striking at any second, because no-one is perfect.
Then, you get caught up in what I call the ‘unwinnable game’.
This is where you know that ‘spiritual perfection’ requires that you never speak badly of anyone; and judge everyone favorably; and never lose your temper; that you should wear bullet-proof tights and only dark clothes; that you should spend hours reciting the shemoneh esrei, and only live in Jerusalem, and only ever say ‘thank you’ for everything that happens, however hard and horrible it feels, and only have emuna 24/7.
And you just can’t do it.
You try, you really try, but you just can’t do that, or at least not all the time, not consistently.
And that’s when the emuna you’re trying to have can turn pretty ugly.
Because you’re sitting there, waiting for the lightning bolt to strike, because that’s what you’re being taught, that everything that’s going ‘wrong’ in your life is because you don’t have enough emuna, or because you’re not praying enough, or not ‘properly’, or because of all the terrible sins you’re doing….
And on some level, this is all true.
That’s why it’s so devastating.
And then, life gets pretty hard and miserable and horrible, because all these yucky things keep happening to you, and no-one is talking about tikkunim that you have to go through from previous lives, that just have to happen regardless of how much teshuva you make in this lifetime (more on this in a mo….)
And no-one is talking about things like ‘inherited stress’, where so many of your bad middot and deepest emotional issues have actually been passed down the chain from your grandparents, and great-grandparents, exactly as described in the Torah, in Ki Tetzae.
And no-one is explaining that only coming closer to the generation’s True Tzaddik, and doing pidyonot with the True Tzaddik, and following the True Tzaddik’s advice, and praying in the True Tzaddik’s minyan is the only way you can really get all that stuff ‘sweetened’ and cleaned up without having to go through a lot of terrible suffering.
So then, even though your ‘authentic’ self occasionally just has an overwhelming need to do something ‘bad’, like listening to Sweet Child O Mine, or to watch some Superman clips on Youtube, or to dress like yourself, instead of ‘perfect Meah Shearim’, you don’t do that because you’re so worried about getting immediately punished by the lightning bolt.
There is no suffering without prior sin.
And let’s not even talk about the awful pressure you pile on your kids to be perfect!!!!
Because if they aren’t perfect, you live in fear of what terrible judgments they could bring down on their heads, God forbid – and on yours, too.
And then, you start to hate every single moment of your life, because you can’t really live it as ‘you’, and instead you’re trying to maintain a façade of perfect, emuna-dik ‘perfection’.
When there is such a profound disconnect between who God created you to be, and who you’re pretending to be, that can effect your mental and physical health in a whole bunch of very negative ways.
In my case, I had at various times debilitating exhaustion, chronic and severe aches and pains in every part of my body, stomachaches, headaches, eye aches, skin issues – clearly, I’m not even telling you all the gory details. Suffice to say, trying to live that life of ugly emuna was making me miserable, ill – and also horribly judgmental and jealous of those people who weren’t stuck trying to win the unwinnable game.
In that way, ugly emuna was like growth serum for all of my worst bad middot.
It made me callous and even pleased when other people hit a tough patch, because then I felt it wasn’t just me who was suffering so much. It made me jealous of all those people who weren’t dressing so tznius, or praying so much, and who still had nice homes, and nice incomes and bigger families and better health and much better prospects than me.
What’s going on here, Hashem???? Where’s the justice??? Why haven’t they been struck by a lightning bolt yet????
As this continued on, I got more and more miserable, judgmental, harshly critical, bitter and arrogant, until absolutely no-one wanted to hang out with me and even my siblings started avoiding my phone calls.
And honestly, who could blame them?
And then, the judgments start piling up thick and fast, because Hashem prizes peace between people so very highly, and He can’t stand it when you keep preaching your arrogant emuna screeds at everyone, and having so little compassion for their suffering, and judging everyone so very harshly, because clearly they deserve all their suffering!!!! Look at the way they dress!!!!
This is ugly emuna.
And man, it nearly totally ruined my life.
I literally got to the stage, which lasted for about two years, where I actually didn’t want to be alive any more, if this is how I’d have to keep living.
Stuck in the unwinnable game, where apparently the only way I could keep Hashem happy was to become a ‘fake pious’ version of myself that was totally disconnected from the person that God really created me to be.
I’m a bridge between worlds, a connection between Rabbi Nachman and Axel Rose.
And for as long as I wasn’t doing that job in the world, and not being the real me God created me to be, I was miserable, physically ill, and so very lonely.
But what could I do???? If I left that path of ugly emuna, I was so very scared that the lightning bolt was going to immediately crash through the roof. That’s why I kept it going for so long. I was petrified of what was going to happen, if I quit.
Thank God a million times, Hashem had mercy on me.
One day, my husband brought back a Knishta Chadar – a copy of the Shuvu Banim newsletter that contained a mixture of Rabbi Berland’s Torah, plus updates about his latest movements and miracle stories – and I was blown away.
Wow! There’s a tzaddik of this caliber in our generation?! I had no idea!!
I read 2, 3, 4 Knishta Chadars, and then I decided we should try to ask the Rav a question about what we needed to do, to get our lives out of ugly emuna mode, and into a healthier, happier place. The answer came back: my husband should start learning in Shuvu Banim.
So he did.
And we never looked back.
The change was instantaneous.
All of a sudden, we started to hear shiurim about how sticking close to the True Tzaddik can sweeten all the terrible tikkunim a person is fated to go through because they were slaughtering their children to Moloch 3,000 years ago, and a huge weight rolled off of me.
The more me and my husband started to drink from Rav Berland’s wellsprings of Torah and emuna, the happier we started to feel again. The more I started to internalize that God really loves me – and everyone else – and that He’s constantly looking for ways to justify me, and to judge me favorably.
The more I started to understand that as long as I keep doing my hitbodedut, and keep working on my bad middot, and keep trying to see the good in other people, instead of judging myself and everyone so harshly, and pretending to be what I really was not, the better my life would become.
Within a few months, my health improved tremendously, I got my joie de vivre back, and my relationship with my kids – which had basically gone totally off a cliff when I was stuck in ugly emuna mode, which demanded unattainable perfection from them, too – made a 180 degree turnaround for the better.
In a nutshell, I started to enjoy living my life again.
because now, I was living it as me, and trusting that the True Tzaddik was shielding me from the harsh judgments I’m still inevitably building up all the time, because I’m not perfect.
Sure, I have to still try to catch my bad deeds, and my bad actions, and to try to improve and take responsibility for them. But because the pressure is off and the awful, ugly emuna-induced fear has gone, I’m also finding that part of the process way easier, too.
Now that I’m so much happier myself, my jealousy has receded a million percent. Now that I’m doing a better job of judging myself with a good eye, I’m finding it way easier to judge other people favorably, too. And now that I’m enjoying my life again, I’m finding it so much easier to thank God – sincerely! – for so many of my blessings.
It’s not perfect, I’m not perfect. I’m a work in progress and still very flawed.
But learning that ‘4th rule of emuna’ changed everything around for me and my family, and turned the ugly emuna that was actually really just killing me, into something beautiful, and life-affirming and humbling.
So what is the 4th rule of emuna?
I would sum it up like this. The 4th rule of emuna is:
That there is a True Tzaddik in the world that we need to discover, and to stick close to, if we want to be able to avoid the terrible suffering that we would otherwise have to go through, because of tikkunim from our past lives.
That means following his advice, attending his minyan, learning his teachings, and humbling ourselves to be part of his community and his sphere of influence.
True, sometimes that’s hard.
But ugly emuna thrives wherever there is arrogance, harsh judgment and hypocrisy, and all of those things wither pretty fast when you’re at Shuvu Banim.
You get kids running you over with strollers, people smacking you in the face (accidentally…) with their bags, you stand up for hours during the prayers because there are no chairs. And when you tell people who your Rav is, that doesn’t always go down so well. It can be very humbling, very challenging, in a few different ways.
And sometimes, there are other tests designed to take you down a peg or two, like buying a house you can’t get a mortgage on, or starting a business (or three…) that goes no-where.
But all of these things are temporary issues, temporary challenges, just to scrub more of your arrogance out of the system, and to shine a spotlight on more of the bad middot you still didn’t work on, and to help you to understand that there is no perfection. And that’s ok.
God already knows that about you.
So, I read my notebooks today, and I was so very grateful that God had mercy on me, and let me get closer to Rabbi Berland, the True Tzaddik of the generation, so my ugly emuna could transform into something much more beautiful and life-affirming.
And that can happen for you, too.
You might also like this article: