Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Don’t Anyone Laugh Anymore?

Life Lessons from Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Vaera
Where Did all the Playfulness and Laughter Go?
I miss having a baby or a grandchild that’s a baby. My youngest granddaughter is already five! What is so delicious about babies that I miss? I believe it is their joyous, free unrestrained laughter. Especially when you make them laugh, then their contagious laughter makes you laugh with them. They will just laugh and laugh from that deep place of carefree unblocked simcha (happiness). I remember, as a little girl when my friends and I couldn’t stop laughing for no reason at all. This sometimes happened in school, especially when we had a substitute teacher. We would just look at each other and get a fit of unstoppable laughter. We would laugh so hard until our stomach hurt. How sad that today I cry so much more than I laugh. It seems like many of us adults have completely forgotten how to laugh. This is why several Rabbis allow us to hear music during the semi-mourning period between Pesach and Shavuot. Since we are in such a state of general unhappiness, music no longer bring us extra joy, it just helps lift us up from our extra sadness. Perhaps it is hard for us to laugh because we are too serious. We take upon ourselves the burdens of the world, rather than surrendering all control to Hashem. Yitzchak, who is born in this week’s parasha, completely surrendered all control to Hashem in his willingness to be sacrificed. We can surrender in smaller ways, by placing our burden on Hashem, and allowing Him to take charge. We would be so liberated and free while releasing much shoulder tension. Then we could laugh again like Yitzchak, whose name means, “He will laugh.” In Hebrew the word for laughing לִצחֹק/litzchok and for playingלְצַחֶק /l’tzachek share the same root. Often we are too serious and not enough playful. The Torah states that Yitzchak played with Rivkah, his wife (Bereishit 26:8). We need to bring playfulness and laughter into our relationships. What once used to be natural and spontaneous, now takes conscious effort. We may even consider inserting playtime into our busy schedules! My husband and I have a dancing date one evening a week in our dining room. Not only is this great cardiovascular exercise, dancing has brought so much joy into our relationship, I highly recommend it!

Why did Sarah Laugh?
When we lose the ability to laugh freely out of unbridled joy, unhealthy laughter leaks out and causes us to laugh in unrectified ways. A friend once told me that as a girl whenever she would tell her mother about some difficulties she had in school or with friends, her mother would laugh scornfully. Because of her inability to feel compassion, her mother reacted with a nervous laughter, since she was unable to deal with her daughter’s pain in an emotionally mature way. There are many kinds of unrectified laughter. People may laugh at others in a way of putting them down, or cynically in disbelief. Sarah, our Mother laughed when she was told the wonderful message that she would bear a son at the age of 90.
ספר בראשית פרק יח (יב)וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן: (יג)וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל אַבְרָהָם לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי: 
“Sarah laughed within herself saying, now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my lord being so old?” (Bereishit 18:12-13).

Sarah is reprimanded for this laughter of slight disbelief by no other than Hashem Who asked, “Why did Sarah laugh saying, shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am? (Ibid. 13). Sarah’s laughter was a result of her tinge of lack of emuna. Understandably, it is difficult to believe in Hashem’s unlimited control and power of bringing about the greatest miracle that completely defies scientific reality. When Hashem told Avraham about the son Sarah would bear for him he also laughed, “Then Avraham fell upon his face and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?” (Bereishit 17:17). Rashi compares to two kinds of laughter and explains, “Sarah’s laughter was mocking. We learn that Avraham believed and was happy, but Sarah didn’t believe and mocked, and therefore G-d criticized Sarah but didn’t criticize Avraham” (Rashi, Bereishit 17:17). Two types of laughter greeted the news about the birth of Yitzhak. The difference between them is that Avraham spoke in a general language stating how unusual it would be if a hundred-year-old man had a child. He didn’t put himself in the center, as did Sarah when she began by describing her own situation. From this difference, there is a hint to the different quality of their laughter. Avraham laughed at the absurdity that something should change from the usual way of the world, while Sarah laughed privately in disbelief that the nature of her own body would actually be altered. A support for this view can also be found in the different tense of their language. Avraham spoke in the future form, indicating, that the future might deviate from what has been the usual way until now, whereas Sarah spoke in the past tense emphasizing that the way it was is the way it will be, not accepting drastic changes from the past.

Rectifying Adam and Chava
How do we understand that Sarah, who took G-d’s will on faith and accepted every situation with equanimity, would have any lack of emuna? And why did she deny having laughed? First of all, according to Ramban, Sarah was never told about Hashem’s prior promise to Avraham that she would bear him a son (Bereishit 17:15-16), secondly, how could Sarah know that the angel dressed up as an Arab was a messenger of Hashem? Yet, at her level of righteousness and trust in G-d, she is still held accountable for not taking the blessing of the stranger as an encouraging sign of hope. When confronted about her laughter she realized that the message was from G-d. Therefore, she denied having laughed, as she would never have had a tinge of disbelief, had she known that it was a Divine promise. At her level of righteousness and trust in G-d, she is still held accountable for such a minor misdeed as laughing quietly to herself without anyone hearing it but Hashem. Avraham and Sarah together with the rest of our mothers and fathers were in the process of rectifying the sin of Adam and Chava. In my life-lessons on Bereishit I wrote how their major sin needing rectification was their failure to take responsibility for their actions. My friend Yedidah Goldstein once told me the following in the name of Rabbi Twersky: Avraham and Sarah worked as a team to learn taking responsibility for their actions. When Avraham confronted her, “You did laugh” (Bereishit 18:15), Sarah learned to take responsibility for even a matter as small as a minute, miniscule laughter of disbelief, which hardly ever existed. Avraham enabled her to reach this very high level of refined rectification of Adam and Chava’s sin.

Rectified Overflowing Blessed Laughter
Laughter is triggered by the surprise element of something completely unexpected. Rectified laughter indicates a belief in G-d’s unlimited power and ability to run the world, which is beyond anything expected, breaking through all the physical boundaries of the world. Eventually, Sarah expands her level of emuna when, despite all odds, she gives birth to a son:
ספר בראשית פרק כא (ו)וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים כָּל הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצֲחַק לִי: (ז)וַתֹּאמֶר מִי מִלֵּל לְאַבְרָהָם הֵינִיקָה בָנִים שָׂרָה כִּי יָלַדְתִּי בֵן לִזְקֻנָיו:
“Then Sarah said, ‘G-d made laughter me; anyone who hears will laugh with me.’ She said, ‘Who would believe that that Sarah suckles children for Avraham? I have given birth to a child in his old age!’” (Bereishit 21:6-7).

Here Sarah rectifies her tinge of disbelief expressed to herself in her private laughter. Now as she is cradling her baby in her bosom there is no doubt that her laughter is one of exuberant joyful happiness, the source of overwhelming blessing for all humanity. “At the time that Sarah gave birth, many barren women conceived, many deaf people began hearing, many blind people started seeing, many insane people became sane” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 53:8). Whereas, Sarah’s first laughter included an element of disbelief in G-d’s power to completely change reality, her laughter after having given birth is the rectified laughter of complete joy for the amazing miracle, which brings blessed repercussion to the world.

Health Benefits of Laughter and Mashiach
One of the healthiest things a person can do is laugh. Sometimes we can see that those who have the most developed sense of humor are those who have been through the most traumatic events in life. Laughter has a preserving quality to it: it helps us through our darkest moments. Even on a physical level, medical studies reveal that laughter is healthy: it produces endorphins, aids our digestion, and helps us recover more quickly from illness. There are three possible reactions that we can have when receiving information: 1. The “A-Ha” reaction to logical and compatible information. When two pieces of information come together to create a more complete picture it elicits an affirmative response, as when one says “A-Ha.” 2. The negative “Uh-Uh” response, which is a second and opposite reaction that occurs when we receive incompatible information. When the pieces of information don’t make sense together. 3. The “Ha-Ha” reaction is when incompatible information fits together briefly in an amusing way. This is when two or more bits of data make sense together, but only temporarily. For a moment, we catch a glimpse of a reality that delights us, but then dissipate. Such is the nature of laughter. It is elicited as the result of looking at things in a new and unexpected way. When Mashiach arrives, Yitzchak will stand up for the Jewish people (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 89:2), and herald the new dawn of consciousness, and he will herald it with laughter. It will be all-knowing laughter, the laughter of the one who knew all along that something good was awaiting for us at the end. “Then our mouths shall be filled with laughter” (Tehillim 126:2).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

My Journey Back Home

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Lech Lecha

Our Stories of Return Paralleling Avraham’s Journey
Rebbetzin Chana Bracha with Chava who originally
brought her to Yiddishkeit 36 years ago
Lech Lecha is one of my favorite Torah portions as we all have our own lech lecha (go to yourself) stories and journeys. That’s why I have taught this parasha for many years in Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin. Not only my students who come from various walks of life can identify with Avraham who was Divinely guided to leave his parent’s home, his birthplace and country journeying into an unknown future. I too have my own lech lecha story, which began in 1974 and brought me to Israel in 1980. For some its hard to imagine that I used to be a hippie – flower power girl, others can easily visualize it. My journey back home to my roots is similar to that of so many others by the destiny albeit not by its beginning-point. I’m pretty sure you can count the ba’aeli teshuva (returnees to Judaism) from Denmark on less than one hand. About 20 years ago, I wrote down my personal teshuva story and I thought it appropriate to share it with you at the time when we read about Avraham’s journey back home.

My Secret Comforter Since Early Childhood
“What made you return to Judaism?” you ask crowding around me on the sofa. As I look into your eager faces, you remind me of myself, when I first set out to explore the unknown world of my Jewish heritage. The truth is that, although I grew up in an assimilated secular home, I seem to have been born religious. My religiosity was not expressed through any conscious observance of Jewish laws or rituals; yet, as far back as I can recall, I remember praying to G-d every night. Even as a preschooler I folded my hands and spoke the following words to G-d before closing my eyes for the night: “Dear G-d, thank you very much for all the good things you have done for me, and please forgive me for all the bad things I have done. I promise I’ll try be better.” I never spoke to anyone about my simple prayer. Although I hardly ever heard the word G-d mentioned in my environment, it felt quite natural to address Him every night – my own secret comforter, who was always there for me.

To Live or not to Live as Jews
I was born in Denmark in 1960, and I grew up in a clean green suburb of Copenhagen. My grandfather had been a great Jewish scholar, who later became captivated by the secular “enlightenment.” After having traveled the world, he settled in Denmark where he married and raised three children. Soon after their oldest daughter was married and I was born, my grandparents immigrated to Israel with their two younger children. Lacking any significant background in Judaism, my parents sent all their children to the Jewish school, hoping that in this way we would gain enough exposure to Judaism to choose for ourselves whether or not we wanted to live as Jews. However, the Jewish school was not very Jewish. We made fun of the few kids who dared to wear a skullcap to school. The weekly hour of religious instruction was our time to have fun at the teacher’s expense.

My Secular Upbringing – a Never-Ending Merry-Go-Round
As I entered seventh grade, I began to question all the values of the society in which I had been raised. The Judaism to which I had been exposed seemed like an empty, hypocritical religion. People who called themselves religious would drive to the synagogue on Shabbat, and park the car a few minutes’ walk away to pretend they had walked the entire distance. Of course, no one believed they had actually walked the 25 kilometers from their green suburb to the synagogue located in the heart of Copenhagen. Only the elderly came to synagogue to pray, while the vast majority came to socialize and to show off their newest outfit. My parents never set their foot in the synagogue, except for Simchat Torah when the synagogue was packed with ‘worshippers’ who eagerly came to exchange sweets and candies. I respected my parents for at least being consistent in their non-belief. Yet, it seemed to me that their lives seemed filled with emptiness. Material comforts were the focus of all their endeavors. The son of Russian immigrant shoemakers, my father regarded it a major accomplishment to have worked himself up to become a doctor. He had decided that his children would never lack anything. Little did he know that although we had everything which money could buy, we still felt spiritually deprived. I started wondering about the purpose of life. My parents’ lifestyle seemed meaningless to me. They believed that the most important thing was to get a good education, work hard, make a lot of money, get married, have children, give them a good education and so on. This struck me as a never-ending merry-go-round. Everything was for the sake of something else; nothing had a purpose in itself.

The Empty Space in My Soul Yearning for Meaning
I knew that I had been created for something more than getting a good education, so I embarked upon my spiritual journey, searching for meaning in life. I found no shortage of people who were eager to satisfy my thirst. My spiritual starvation must have been written in my clear blue eyes. As I strolled through the busy streets of Copenhagen, people from all sects and religions approached me with their pamphlets and invitations. I recall reading some of those pamphlets in my religious instruction hour at the Jewish school. I had become a real provocation. Perhaps I was secretly hoping that the teacher would notice the literature I had smuggled in and use the opportunity to explain the various concepts in a Jewish light. I felt utterly alone and without direction, susceptible to anyone who approached me. I danced in the streets with the Children of G-d, ecstatic at the idea of opening up my heart and being at one with my Creator. Yet, whenever Jesus was mentioned, my heart froze. I had no room in my heart for a human being whom others claimed was the son of G-d. I argued, and asked all kinds of questions which the “born again” Christians were unable to answer. It was as though they had been programmed to mouth their pat replies. They far from filled the empty space in my soul, which was yearning for purpose and meaning.

Experimenting with Expanded Consciousness
By the time I enrolled in high school, I had become a real hippie, draped in flowing Indian tunics and wearing flowers in my hair. In school, I insisted on sitting on my little rug on the floor. The basement of my parents’ villa, that had become my teenage den, was the gathering place for my circle of friends all of whom were experimenting with expansion of consciousness. We read Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, and Castaneda and listened to Pink Floyd and the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. We tried to relate to each other by every conceivable means, dancing around wildly, giving one another massages, using nonverbal communication, and breaking into spontaneous drama. There was no social norm, which we didn’t try to break. We idolized the American Indians and other exotic peoples, whose cultures seemed so much richer. Western culture was so inhibited! Why did it arbitrarily exclude alternative kinds of behavior or relationships? Reasoning that man-made laws were transient, with no intrinsic value, I questioned everything in the establishment including heterosexuality and the sanctity of marriage.

Experiencing the Entire World on One Side and I on The Other
Although not politically inclined, I was introduced to Marxism on my high school campus. I found myself involved with a group of people who were trying to change the world through demonstrations and street theater. However, the Marxist soon struck me as also being far too materialistic. Furthermore, their idealism seemed to be misplaced. They were avoiding having to develop their own characters by claiming to be working on changing the world. My mother’s words must have made an impression upon me after all. She used to say; “If you kids would only learn to get along, perhaps there would be peace in the world.” I realized, and deep down, had probably always known that in order to change the world one must first change oneself. I turned to yoga and meditation to get in touch with my inner self. This of course was going to the other extreme. The Yogis were concerned only about their own inner experiences without being involved in the world. Such a frame of mind was too alienating for me, too detached from daily reality. My next involvement was with the Green-peace movement. I went on midnight hikes, and enjoyed listening to the nightingale. When I turned eighteen, I refused to learn how to drive, because driving would be inconsistent with the buttons I was wearing, which proclaimed “Cars out of the City.” I fought against pollution and for the preservation of wildlife. Yet, I was still restless. My sensation of a spiritual vacuum seemed to be growing to the point where it threatened to consume me. I became paranoid and depressed. I felt so alone as if the whole world were on one side and I on the other. I was later to learn that this is the meaning of the title הָעִבְרִי/Ha’Ivri – the Hebrew, given to Avraham (Bereishit 14:13). because “Avraham distinguished himself from all the people of his environment as if the entire world was on one side and he on the other” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 42:8).

On My Way to the Promised Land
After graduating high school, I managed to earn enough money to travel the world. Barely nineteen I set out on my own, with a backpack and an outstretched thumb, leaving dear old Denmark behind. Perhaps it was because Denmark was such a flat country that its people were also flat without any spiritual height. My parents’ great horror that I was travelling this way on my own, had no power to stop me. I was determined to try everything in my quest for truth. Many questions were still burning within me: “Who created the world? What is the purpose of Creation? And what is my particular function within this world?” I soon realized that hitchhiking alone through Europe is not the safest way for a young girl to travel. Only when other Jews crossed my path did I feel secure. I could always identify a Jewish face. There was something different about the eyes, a depth, which I could only share with other Jews. I began to wonder whether having been born Jewish was supposed to make a difference in my life. Soon, I had acquired the habit of seeking refuge in the Jewish communities. There, I was invariably invited in for a meal and treated with respect. Travelling had in fact, started to wear me out. I had run out of money and courage. Despondent, a stranger in a strange land, I phoned home from Paris. Despite all our previous difficulties, this time my parents were enormously helpful. They offered to wire me a ticket to Israel, where I had relatives. There I wouldn’t be among strangers. I would be safe and have the option to join a Kibbutz or perhaps, a study program for overseas students. I accepted this offer without the slightest hesitation. The next day I was on my way to the Promised Land.

Tea with Chava – My New Friend from the Yeshiva
Any tourist visiting Israel ends up sooner or later at the Western Wall. I just stood there, in awe of the sense of sanctity that pervaded the place, without a word of prayer crystallizing on my lips. The intense light reflected by the ancient stones penetrated into the empty space in my very heart and soul. As I entered the square in front of the Wall a bearded man approached me. We soon began talking comfortably about everything and nothing. I enjoyed the feeling of being among Jews. Everyone around me seemed like family. A little while after, a girl named Chava a few years older than I, joined our conversation. She asked the man whether he had told me about their school. “The school? What school?” I heard myself ask in wonder. Chava invited me for tea in her room in the Old City. She told me about the Yeshiva where, for the past two years she had been learning what it meant to be a Jew. “Our heritage has so much to offer,” she said, that it was a lifetime study. Chava sparkled with intelligence and humor, and I instantly felt very close to her. I asked her all the questions with which I had challenged the members of various religions and sects. Unlike my experience in the past, Chava was able to answer my questions. Her answers not only made sense intellectually, but also touched a chord of recognition within me that resonated emotionally. One of my first questions concerned woman’s role within Judaism: “weren’t women treated like second-rate citizens?” “A woman is the queen in her home, which she makes into a miniature sanctuary.” Chava explained. I had yet to experience this myself in a way that no words can describe. I was prepared to admit that Western culture had brainwashed us into looking at the world through blinders. Title and career should not determine a person’s value. It is the deeds that counts, and not whether the person can occupy the spotlight. “But, don’t all the laws and regulations limit one’s personal freedom?” I persisted; certain that ‘freedom’ to express oneself fully was the highest value in life. Judaism seemed to be one big doctrine of limitations. Don’t mix milk and meat; don’t drive on the Sabbath; don’t dress immodestly; don’t marry a non-Jew and so on. How was it possible to keep all these rules without suffocating? Chava patiently taught me a different way of viewing the concept of freedom. “Real freedom,” she explained “is being true to one’s inner self.” If Jewish law seems to limit our personal freedom, we need to understand the essence of freedom in a deeper way. Someone who does whatever he feels like is not necessarily free. He may be a slave to other people’s opinions, his taste dictated by fashion. He might be enslaved to his own instincts and materialistic desires, without even realizing the power they exert over him. He may eat whatever he feels like but be unable to control his impulses and appetite. G-d gave us the commandments to help us actualize our inner potential through their performance, so that we reach the state of self-control that is the highest form of freedom. I left Chava’s room elated. I had found a friend, someone who shared my quest for truth. I was no longer all alone.

Awakened to the Truth I had Always Known
Learning to Live Judaism with All its Vibrancy

I received Chava’s invitation to return for Sabbath with excited expectation. Perhaps there was more to Judaism than the empty rituals, which I had encountered in Denmark. I was determined to give my own religion a chance. The following days proved extremely difficult for me. Many contradictory thoughts razed through my mind. Could I really take upon myself all of Judaism’s laws without feeling horribly constrained? Could I truly relate to this new view of freedom? Would I be able to change my life so profoundly? Yet, whenever I recalled Chava’s words, I felt strengthened, and awakened to something that I had somehow always known. Friday afternoon arrived and Chava introduced me to her friends in the dormitory. A French girl who was braiding the long glittering black hair of her Israeli roommate kissed me warmly on both cheeks. The Israeli girl then took out her guitar and started to play. Sara, from Germany, and Lea, from Holland joined us shortly afterward. Like me, they all wore colorful skirts and flowing tunics. All had stories of a spiritual journey similar to my own. We sang together, and danced in a circle. Here, in the heart of Jerusalem, we had reclaimed our roots. Our yearning – theirs and mine – had finally come to fruition. We were fulfilling our spiritual thirst by learning to live Judaism in all its vibrancy.

Coming Home to A Truth to which I Belonged
I was led to a room were two silver candlesticks awaited me. Chava taught me to say the blessing, and I lit the candles. As I gazed at the lights of the Sabbath candles, the world was transformed. The room was aglow with holiness and serenity, as though we had entered a higher realm of existence. It struck me that here was the expanded consciousness for which I had been searching all along. I had never expected to find it within my own tradition. Here, I was no longer a stranger exploring other people and places. I saw truth very clearly for the first time, and it was a truth, to which I belonged. I would keep learning and exploring together with others like myself. I had finally come home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nature in the Parasha

Easy access links to Rebbetzin Chana Bracha's parasha insights

The Book of Bereshit
Parashat Bereshit: Life Lessons from the Shemittah Year
Parashat Noach: The Dove and the Olive Leaf
Parashat Lech Lecha: From ‘Valley of the Fields’ to the ‘Dead Sea’
Parashat Vayeira: Avraham’s Hospitality Tree
Parashat Chayei Sarah: Discovering the Camel Connection
Parashat Toldot: Re-digging the Wells of Tradition
Parashat Vayetze: The Secret of the Dudaim Deal
Parashat Vayishlach: The Weeping Oak
Parashat Vayeshev: The Grapevine Dream
Parashat Miketz: The Menorah Shaped Sheaves
Parashat Vayigash: Shepherding: The Traditional Jewish Vocation
Parashat Vayechi: The Deer Sent Forth

The Book of Shemot
Parashat Shemot: The Burning Bramble Bush
Parashat Va'era: The Late Blooming Grain
Parashat Bo: The Self-Restrained Dog
Parashat Beshalach: The Bitter Tree Sweetener
Parashat Yitro: The Mountain – A Window to Heaven
Parashat Mishpatim: The Sabbatical Year & Blessings of Redemption
Parashat Terumah: The Multicolored Unicorn
Parashat Tetzaveh: The Mystical Turquoise Colored Snail Fish
Parashat Ki Tisa: The Holy Anointing Oil
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: The Crimson Creating Creature

The Book of Vayikra
Parashat Vayikra: The Levona Spice
Parashat Tzav: The Twilight Ram
Parashat Shemini: The Pig of Return
Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Plants of Purification
Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Ingrained Giving
Parashat Emor: The Problem of Pet Sterilization
Parashat Behar: The Redemptive Secret of the Yovel Year
Parashat Bechukotai: The Desolate Land from Desert to Bloom

The Pesach Torah Reading: The Hyssop Paintbrush 

The Book of Bamidbar
Parashat Bamidbar:The Whisper of the Wilderness
Parashat Naso: The Barley Offering: Mistress or Mastery
Parashat Beha’alotcha: The Celestial Cloud Covering
Parashat Shlach L’chah: The Secret of Challah
Parashat Korach: The Time-Lapse Blossoming
Parashat Chukat: The Perfect Mother Cow
Parashat Balak: The Donkey Vision
Parashat Pinchas: The Cryptic Caper Bush
Parashat Matot/Masai: The Weeping White Broom Bush

The Book of Devarim
Parashat Devarim: The Lyre Shaped Kineret Sea of Galilee
Parashat Va’etchanan: Longing for the Land
Parashat Eikev: The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel
Parashat Re’eh: The Shoulder of the Land
Parashat Shoftim: Does the Torah Permit Tree-Hugging?
Parashat Ki Tetze: Is Sending Away the Mother Bird an Act of Compassion?
Parashat Ki Tavo: How Can We Relate to the Mitzvah of Bikkurim (First Fruits) Today?
Parashat Nitzavim: Uprooting the Bitter or Making it Sweet?
Parashat Vayelech: Why is this Land Flowing with Milk and Honey?
Parashat Ha'azinu: Blessed Droplets of Torah
Parashat V’Zot Habracha: The Land of Paradisiacal Blessings

The Human ‘Group Animals’

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Noach
You are Where You Live
Human beings are ‘group animals;’ we come in flocks. We may not even notice how much we are influenced by the people in our environment. When we lived in the US. I wore a wig and pointed shoes. When I settled in Bat Ayin, I dumped my wig into the Purim box, and exchanged my shoes for comfortable orthopedic sandals (Naot). My husband ditched his tie but not yet his suit except for on the holidays when he wears the beautiful gold and blue striped robe, I bought for him. Everyone transforms when moving to Bat Ayin. It is not only that we wear flowing colorful scarves and drink wheatgrass juice; it’s the Eretz Yisrael Chassidic spirit that sweeps us away into a meditational world of hitbodedut (being alone with Hashem). Just 20 minutes’ drive from the unconventional colorful Bat Ayin is the chareidi settlement of Beitar, filled with black and white suited men and stylish buttoned up ladies. Wonder how I would look and what kind of person I would have been if we lived in Beitar, or even Ramat Beit Shemesh?

Over the years, I have seen so many people change and conform to their environment, not just in the outer layer of their wrappings. I once had a wonderful student let’s call her Lisa. She was completely new to Torah but so excited about learning to say berachot, dressing modestly, and keeping Shabbat. She really resonated with the Torah lifestyle and the teachings at our midrasha, but a special job offer in California tempted her to shorten her stay in Bat Ayin to less than three months. As she embarked to return to her previous environment, which was spiritual but not holy the Torah way, I tried everything I could to convince her to stay, but to no avail. I know the power of the environment, and that without a Torah community and mentors she would quickly become reabsorbed into her past lifestyle. Had she stayed for even just six months, she would have been a different person today. Most likely, she would have been happily married and a mother of several children, living on a farmland with a vegetable garden, chicken and even goats. Instead, she now lives with her boyfriend in an ashram, enjoying yoga and meditation in the Himalayan Mountains, practicing the spiritual teachings of Swami Sivananda. So is there a way to go against the grain and prevent absorbing the secular influence and culture of our environment?

Implementing the Proper Balance between Shielding and Exposure
Some people employ an extreme way of screening their children from secular culture. I just heard about a ba’al teshuva (returnee to Judaism) family here who do not allow their children to visit their parents in fear of their secular influence. Furthermore, they have strict conditions for their parents to visit them. They make their moms wear modest dresses and wigs, while their dads need to wear black hat and suit! I was amazed that their parents actually comply. While I feel that these extreme requirements go against the mitzvah to honor our parents, on the other hand sometimes we may be sacrificing our kids for the sake of honoring our parents, when we bring them to their environment for super-fun Disney world vacations. Rav Daniel Stavsky once told my husband and me, that it is best if our parents could visit with our children on our turf. Sometimes ba’alei teshuva parents are overwhelmed by life, they turn every penny, and have little resources to offer their kids, while their secular grandparents give them the greatest fun secular exposure. Is it any wonder that these children often gravitate towards the secular values of their grandparents, most of whom even have a hidden agenda to provide them with exposure. It is a miracle if these children remain devoted to their parents’ Torah values. On the other hand, sometimes children of ba’alei teshuva who are raised too protected, prohibited from playing computer or read anything vaguely secular etc. come to loathe the Torah world. Their strict upbringing backlashes and they crave to be part of the world from which they so carefully had been screened. Some of these children grow up to become the teenagers you see Friday night, gathering outside of the synagogue, boys with long hair and earrings with girls in short skirts and tank tops. Although children are like tender plants that respond to whatever soil, compost and watering you give them, I don’t believe in screening them completely from the world at large, especially not if you are a ba’alat teshuva, and secularism is part of your background and family constellation. Yet, too permissive an upbringing without Torah values and proper boundaries is no less damaging. It is important to protect children from a spiritual toxic environment including TV shows that teach foul language, gluttony and immodesty. Most important is to give our children and grandchildren lots of fun Torah experiences. We need to find the right balance for each child, as King Solomon teaches, “Educate a child according to his way, then even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Mishley 22:6).

Rising Above the Environment
Noach was one of the few outstanding people who was able to rise above his environment.
ספר בראשית פרק ו פסוק ט
אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ:

“These are the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous and wholehearted person in his generations. Noach walked with G-d” (Bereishit 6:9).

Rashi explains that the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו /b’dorotav –“in his generations,” can be understood either to his detriment or as a praise. Noach’s righteousness was possibly only relative to the wicked people in his generation, who robbed and stole from one from one another. They were interested only in their own personal pleasures and comforts. On the other hand, “in his generations,” could be a praise for Noach, indicating that in spite of the corruption of his generations, Noach was able to rise above his environment. (Rashi, Bereishit 6:9). It is one of the greatest challenges not to be influenced by our environment. Therefore, in the entire ten generations between Adam and Noach, when the spiritual atmosphere was downhill, there were hardly any righteous people, who withstood the influence of their surroundings. It is not clear how Noach managed to remain righteous in such a corrupt environment. Although he wasn’t able to bring people of his generation close to Hashem like Avraham, that doesn’t mean he didn’t try. Rashi explains that there were numerous ways by which G-d could have saved Noach, why then did He burden him with the construction of the Ark? So that the men of the generation of the Flood might see him employed on it for 120 years, and ask him, “What do you need this for?” Noach then warned them, “The Almighty is about to bring a flood upon the world. If you mend your ways you can be saved from perishing in the flood” (Based on Rashi, Bereishit 6:14).

Influencing Others Positively Saves us from Negative Influence
While the environment of Noach’s generation was extreme in its corruption, we may fall prey to the influence of various degrees of devotion to Hashem prevailing in different environments. We need to learn from Noach when moving to a new environment, even if it is only a little less Torahdik. My husband and I had to move temporarily from our protected Jerusalem setting to live outside of Israel while he fulfilled his obligation to the US government and paid back his medical student loans by working in a physician shortage area. We were uprooted from our Yeshivish community and placed in a modern environment where I became one of the only 30 married women who covered their hair within a population of 7000 Jews. While the community was lovely, caring and kind in so many ways, and we made many wonderful friends, we did come from a community centering around Torah and Divine Service, and landed straight into a community that revered secular education. What kept us from sliding down into the more secular lifestyle where most people lived as Jews only on Shabbat? We learned a principle from the basic rule of koshering chicken through removing its blood via salting. Although generally, the chicken is placed on a special slanted board and the poultry is opened and salted inside and out, you may have noticed that some kosher chickens remain whole and unopened. This implies that when they were being salted, the blood from the upper part of the chicken would be dripping down into the lower part, and seemingly, the blood would be reabsorbed into this part of the chicken. However, there is a halachic rule that as long as the blood is still being drained from the chicken it will not absorb any new blood (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 70). Likewise, if you have to be in an environment, which may not measure up to your standard of Torah lifestyle, the way to protect yourself from being influenced is by influencing others. This is the main principle of the spiritual survival of all the Chabad sheluchim, (emissaries) and this is my personal experience while living in a more secular environment. I kept my spiritual sanity by giving classes and organizing Rosh Chodesh gatherings for women. You don’t have to be a teacher to find alternative ways of bringing people closer to Hashem. Even if you don’t succeed, just the effort has a protective effect, as in the case of Noach!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Taking Responsibility for our Actions and their Effect

NEW! Life Lessons from Rebbetzin’s Heart
The holidays are behind us, and we are starting over anew. As we begin a new cycle of Weekly Torah readings, I am called to share a new parasha perspective with you. I thought this year to do something very different. Rather than engaging in lots of research, I wanted to share with you concepts from my heart, issues and matters that I care deeply about, that I will try to tie to each of the weekly Torah portions. I can’t think of a good title yet, if you have any suggestions please share!

Parashat Bereishit
A Saga of Two Grandmothers in Conflict
Taking Responsibility for our Actions Adds a Brick to the Temple Wall
Coming out of Yom Kippur, one of the things on my mind lately is the importance of asking forgiveness, which includes apologizing to anyone we may have hurt or wronged in any way. It’s hard to believe that the story I’m about to share with you is not about two teenage girls but rather about two middle-aged grandmothers. It is a saga between Tziporah and Miriam, who had been best friends for years. For more than 30 years, they had the most amazing relationship. In the beginning, Miriam was the one who helped and gave advice, but that shifted, and it was so special to for both of them to have a friend with whom they could share an equal relationship. For years, they both supported each other through hardships, each of them helping her friend deal with husbands, children, personal development issues and more. Over the summer a conflict developed between them, which Miriam very much wanted to work out, yet Tziporah kept retreating and avoiding her. Miriam – a leader type could be headstrong, and it was difficult to convince her in any discussion. Tziporah was more of a soft-spoken, people-pleaser type of person, so it is understandably that she was trying to avoid conflict with Miriam. For many years, Miriam had supported her in working on facing people and dealing with conflict, even if it may not always be comfortable. Based on this understanding of both of their personalities, it was clear that in order for them to work things out, they both had to come toward one another. Miriam needed to soften her approach, moving from netzach to hod, and put an effort into hearing Tziporah’s perspective. Tziporah needed to move from hod to netzach in order to muster up courage to deal with what had come up between them rather than sweeping it under the rug, pretending that everything was just fine. If they were able to do this then they could both meet in yesod, ultimately learn from each other and truly grow. Our matriarchs Rachel and Leah who were such opposite personalities paved the way for us to follow their path of working out clashes, overcoming anger, jealousy and hurt feelings. Their true soul work and tikun (repair) are the bricks that build the walls of our eternal Temple. This is why the place of the Holy of Holies is on the border between the lands of Yehuda and Binyamin – the sons of Leah and Rachel.

Taking Responsibility to Go Out of Our Way Not to Hurt Anyone Accidentally
Miriam cried and prayed, prayed and cried but Tzipporah didn’t respond when she suggested that they work things out through a Rabbi or therapist. No matter how much Miriam apologized for her part of the tango, Tziporah remained silent. The day preceding Yom Kippur, they finally had a good talk. The energy of the day definitely helped, and they both felt really heard by one another. It was such a good feeling for both of them to finally talk and hear each other out that Miriam was totally ready to overlook that Tziporah still didn’t apologize for causing her all that hurt for several months. She was satisfied that Tziporah seemed to understand that it was extremely painful for her when she closed off and retreated rather than having an open an honest discussion. Tziporah had been learning The Work of Byron Katie, and Miriam listened to her point that she should be less sensitive and not get hurt so easily, as often people do not mean to hurt us. Miriam did not answer her back what she had learned from Nechama Leibowit z”l, who had told an anecdote about a person who stepped on someone else’s toes in the bus, exclaiming, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you!” Nechama explained, “It is not enough not to mean to hurt others, we need to go out of our way and take precautions to ensure that we don’t hurt anyone inadvertently.” Anyway, when Yom Kippur kicked in Miriam had forgiven Tziporah completely, never mind about the apology.

Are We Responsible for the Feelings of Others?
The reason it is so hard to forgive people who don’t ask for forgiveness, is that you don’t know if they really truly understood, and you can never be sure that they may not repeat the offensive act. This is exactly what happened following Yom Kippur. After Miriam had just explained Tziporah how hurtful it was when she closed off the communication, Tziporah wanted to hang up again rather than communicating when something painful came up. It was painful for Miriam that Tziporah preferred visiting briefly Thursday afternoon rather than spending a Shabbat together, and when Miriam asked her to please say something that would help give her the feeling that Tziporah still loved her, Tziporah retorted, “It is almost Shabbat and I have to get off the phone. “But there is more than three hours before candlelight, please let’s not end our conversation like this,” begged Miriam. “If we hang up now it will be hard for me to stop crying.” She added. Tziporah’s response to this remark was like rubbing salt in Miriam’s sore wound. “I am not responsible for your feelings,” Tziporah remarked, before hanging up.

Blame Rather than Claim
It takes spiritual maturity to take full responsibility for our actions, recognize and express that we are less than perfect, and our imperfections may sometimes be pitted against someone else’s imperfections. When this happens, we may have a tendency to evade responsibility since we can easily blame it on someone else. This is what happened in the Garden of Eden when Hashem confronted Adam with eating from the Tree, and he blamed it on Chava saying, “The woman that you put at my side she gave me of the Tree and I ate” (Bereishit 3:12). Chava was no better when she blamed everything on the snake saying, “The serpent tempted me and I ate” (Bereishit 3:13). The tendency to blame rather than claim has been carried down from our first ancestors in the Garden of Eden to become ingrained in our spiritual genetics. Yet, it is precisely the ability to overcome this inclination to blame that eventually will repair the breach and return us to the Garden.

Extracting the Sparks from the Husks of The Work
Byron Katie teaches that we shouldn’t judge our neighbor but look at things from a different perspective. This is definitely in line with the Torah that teaches us to give the benefit of the doubt (Vayikra 19:15). I have no doubt that The Work has helped countless people get closer to one another and pull themselves out of negativity, and I too try to apply its principles when appropriate. However, as with all systems that are not Torah-based, we cannot follow them to the tee. Rather, we need to extract all their good sparks while discarding the husk. One of Byron Katie’s principles is that no one can ever hurt you, as it is your own attitude that causes you to feel hurt. While there is truth to this principle to a certain extent and we can alleviate our pain with a positive attitude, it is not an absolute truth. There are actions, which can be objectively hurtful such as murder, rape etc. This applies on a lesser degree as well. If no one could ever hurt anyone else there would be no need to take responsibility for our actions, we could just blame the victim for feeling hurt, as Tziporah did. Miriam had just told her that she had a sore toe, and she was stepping on it while exclaiming that it was her own fault if this caused her pain. Miriam wished Tziporah would at least have said something like, “I know this is painful for you, but I just don’t know what to say right now, I wish I could say something that would make you feel loved, but no words are coming to me. Perhaps after I process my feelings I will be able to better communicate...”

Getting Credit by Remaining a Victim
It took some time for Miriam to realize that is was not her job to judge Tziporah, she too, needed to take responsibility for her own actions and feelings. She needed to apply the principle that everything that happens to us is from Hashem, for a purpose to help us grow. So Miriam tried to really look inside of herself and came up with the following: The pain Tziporah caused her is like a plant, if you stop watering the plant it will die, but if you keep brooding over your pain, you are choosing to remain a victim. Being a victim, the one who is hurt, is also a way of trying to get credit and empathy from others. It is like saying, “Poor me, look what others are doing to me, I’m so miskena (pitiable). I am right and others are wrong, I deserve love and kindness.” Miriam realized that when she told Tziporah that she wouldn’t be able to stop crying if they ended their conversation with a dead end like this, Tziporah must have felt that Miriam was blaming her, and that’s why she reacted to what she perceived as a blame, although in truth Miriam was just describing her feelings at the moment. As Nechama taught, it is not enough not to intend to hurt Tziporah, even while feeling seriously hurt herself, Miriam also needed to learn to think of the other person rather than about her own pain. She too needed to go out of her way to ensure that she wouldn’t say anything that may be even subtly hurtful to others. Knowing Tziporah as a people-pleaser, Miriam should have known better than to throw in her face that she was causing her pain. Miriam realized that Tziporah would never come to her. “What a pity to ruin a precious friendship,” Miriam thought, and so she took a deep breath and called Tziporah to apologize for using her pain to cause Tziporah pain. Tziporah was very moved by the phone call, she too was truly sorry and they made plans to spend a Shabbat together.

Taking Full Responsibility Rectifies Adam and Eve
When we ask for forgiveness, we need to take full responsibility for our actions, and not mention the extenuating circumstances why we acted as we did. An apology that goes something like, “I’m sorry for what I did, but it is because you did x, y, and z,” is worse than no apology. Hashem allowed the other person to squeeze us to our limits in order to test whether we would remain composed and act righteously. If we lost it, even in an excruciatingly difficult situation, we still need to take full responsibility, as Hashem never gives us a test we cannot pass. It is hard to take responsibility for our actions because it makes us feel lower than the person we have wronged. It is especially hard if they have also wronged us. We need a good dose of self-confidence to admit our lowliness without going under. This is how Yehuda son of Ya’acov was able to take responsibility for his actions and publicly exclaim, “She [Tamar] is more in the right than I!” (Bereishit 38:26). He could have blamed Tamar for dressing up as a prostitute and tempting him. He could have blamed her for the death of his two sons who were married to her. Instead, he chose to take all the blame on himself. Taking responsibility for our actions brings redemption. From Yehuda’s words of acknowledging his fault and taking the blame on himself the seed of Mashiach sprang forth. Through Yehuda’s apology, he merited that King David, the exemplar penitent, descended from him. When King David took full responsibility for taking Bat Sheva, exclaiming, “I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin” (Tehillim 51:5), he repaired the sin of Adam and became the progenitor of Mashiach. So next time we have an chance to take responsibility for our actions and apologize, let us not pass it by, perhaps it is the opportunity to repair the sin in the Garden and add a brick to the Temple wall.