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Learning the lessons of forgiveness

 

There are so many things we could learn about true forgiveness from the last few posts, and I’m sure that each of us will have our own insights. When I was trying to pull it together into a coherent ‘strategy of forgiveness’, the following elements jumped out at me:

In order to really forgive, and in order to really apologise, we need the following things:

  • Honesty

Namely, to admit that we genuinely have done things wrong, and that we aren’t perfect, even when that’s very painful.

  • Remorse

To feel bad about our negative actions, and the consequences they had for the people in our lives, and to want to avoid repeating the same mistakes again in the future.

  • Hitbodedut

Talking to God about what we actually need to do, in order to fix the mess we made,  as well as asking Him to give us the enormous emotional and spiritual strength required in order for us to own up to our faults.

  • Emuna – ie, Ein Od Milvado, God set the whole situation up, and He had His reasons for doing that

This is where we start to see that we’re not in control of our lives, and that often, we kind of get stuck playing a part that we don’t want or like. It also means that we see that the OTHER people in our life, who may have hurt us, are also just God’s ‘puppets’, in a manner of speaking, and just coming to teach us some sort of lesson, or to right some sort of spiritual wrong that may not even be from this lifetime (just like what happened in the Baal Shem Tov story).

  • Self-forgiveness

All of these things are key, and all of them are part of the secret of true forgiveness. But if I had to pick one thing out of this list to emphasise, then self-forgiveness would be it.

Because:

If we can’t forgive ourselves, we also can’t sincerely forgive others. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, we won’t have the emotional strength required to fix what we broke, and to ask others for forgiveness.

The Elul Forgiveness Exercise 

OK, let’s see if we turn everything we’ve learned into something practical that will directly help US to practise more forgiveness in our own lives. Ready?

Take a piece of paper and a pen.

Answer the following questions (these aren’t for sharing, so go ahead and be honest):

  • Who do you still need to forgive?
  • What do you still need to forgive yourself about?
  • Who do you need to ask forgiveness from? (Clue: kids and spouses nearly always make it onto this list)
  • What’s stopping you from doing it?

If you get stuck answering any of these questions, schedule in some quiet time and ask God for some help and guidance.

Kick-starting the forgiveness process

Remember, God treats us the way we treat others, midda kneged midda. So let’s kick-start the forgiveness process right now. Turn your piece of paper of, and write the following statement:

“I, NAME, unconditionally forgive anyone who has ever hurt me or upset me, under any circumstances, at any time.”

You can add anything you want to this statement, and yes, it’s very similar to what we say before we go to sleep. But a few months’ ago, my rabbi Rav Arush gave a shiur where he stressed the importance of actually writing this statement down, and signing it.

Actions carry a lot of weight in yiddishkeit, so please sign it and then breathe out!

You just forgave a whole bunch of people unconditionally, (or at least, took the first massive step towards doing that) – and for sure, God will return the favour, come Rosh Hashana.

While we’re on the subject of forgiveness, I just wanted to ask you, my readers to please forgive me for anything I’ve written over the past 12 months that may have touched a nerve, or upset you in any way.  That is never my intention, but I do make mistakes and I sometimes misjudge things. So please forgive me!!

And may we all be blessed with the most amazingly sweet, forgiving, kind and delicious year possible, Amen.

Learning how to forgive: The famous story from the Baal Shem Tov

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s students once asked him the seminal question: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ In response, the Baal Shem Tov sent him to a well in a nearby forest, and told him to go and climb a tree there, and keep his eyes peeled.

The student was a little confused, but hey, it’s the Baal Shem Tov! And he knew that his holy teacher certainly had good reasons for giving him these strange instructions. The student got there, climbed the tree, and waited.

The first person came along, stopped at the well, took a big shluck of water, then walked off – but the student saw that he’d left his fat purse of money behind him, at the well.

Next, a young lad came along, saw the purse full of money, and happily took it away with him.

The last person came along, stopped at the well for a drink – and got beaten up by the first person who’d discovered his lost purse, and had come back to claim it. When he couldn’t find it, he was convinced the last person there had stolen it, and started raining punches down on him, so that he’d confess where he’d hidden it.

When all this was over, the bemused student climbed down the tree, and came back to the BESHT for an explanation.

The Baal Shem Tov told him:

“In a previous life, the first person who lost the purse was a litigant in a trial where he should have lost and been liable to pay a lot of money – except that he bribed the judge to decide in his favour.

The second person who found the purse was the other litigant, who was dishonestly swindled out of his money. Now, the account was settled.

And the third person who got beaten up, was the bent judge.”

 

The secret of forgiveness

It’s a simple story, but it teaches us a profound lesson about we can start to forgive, namely:

God did, does and will do everything in the world. EinOdMilvado. Hashem is all there is.

That’s the first of the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith, and it’s a fundamental tenet of Judaism.

But how does knowing that God is doing everything in the world, which you can sum up in the phrase: ‘having emuna’ going to help us to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive others? Let’s find out.

Let’s start by seeing how this idea changes the whole picture when we need to ask for forgiveness.

 

Asking our kids for forgiveness

A little while back, I got an email from a lady who was having some ongoing, chronic health issues that no medicine or antibiotics could touch with a barge pole. My correspondent started talking to God about her health issues, and BH, they started to improve.

A little later, she sent me a heart-wrenching email asking for advice on how she could make teshuva for messing up her grown-up kids, who were depressed, angry and struggling emotionally and relationship-wise. My correspondent had had a very stormy relationship with her spouse, and there was a lot of anger, yelling and tension in the house, which spilled-over into her parenting. She was blaming herself mercilessly for all her kids’ problems, and didn’t know what to do next.

Before I continue, you should know that the situation my correspondent described is unfolding itself in most homes today, even orthodox Jewish homes. Spiritually and emotionally, Am Yisrael is in a huge mess, and part of the reason I wanted to refer to this particular bit of correspondence is because I know it resonates with that secret part of every parent, every mother, who secretly fears that she’s messing her kids up.

And we probably all really are!

So anyway, the main gist of what I suggested she should try to do to get things moving, forgiveness and teshuva-wise was as follows:

1) Apologise to the children themselves for her parenting shortcomings, and validate their experiences and reactions.

This cannot be overstated,in terms of setting things right with the people we’ve hurt, especially when those people are our children. But it’s so hard to do, I know!

And

2) STOP BEATING HERSELF UP!!

I explained to my respondent that she’d only parented the same way she’d been parented herself, and that I could guarantee it hadn’t been anything like ideal. The key to getting things to move was to practise as much self-compassion as possible.

So what happened next?

You’ll find out in the next post…

Why is it so hard to accept someone else’s apology?

 

OK, in the last post we were thinking about why it’s so hard to apologise. Now let’s switch sides and ask ourselves another question:

Q: When someone asks us to forgive them, why is it often so hard to do it?

I’m not talking about the small ‘nothings’ that most of us find it all too easy to apologise for, like ‘only’ putting out three salads for Shabbat lunch instead of the usual 6, because we’ve had a tough week. Or apologising because it took us a few hours longer to return the other person’s phone call.

I’m talking about the big stuff here.

The horrible comment someone made that devastated us. The completely thoughtless behaviour that ruined our wedding / bris / bar mitzvah. The decision or action that changed the whole course of our life, and caused us a lot of suffering and heartache.

Big stuff.

So now, that person finds out it’s Elul, and that they need to make amends to the people they’ve hurt, and they phone you up to apologise. If you’re like most people, you’re not going to immediately drop your guard and gushingly accept. Sincerely accepting apologies from people who have really hurt us is actually really hard!

Why is this?

Again, each of us will have our own particular reasons, but when I was musing about why it can be so hard to accept apologies, the following things came up:

  • We don’t trust it’s a sincere apology
  • We’re scared if we let our guard down, they might hurt us again
  • We want them to suffer EVEN MORE!! (ie, vengeance)
  • We still have a lot of feelings of hatred against them (not politically correct to say, I know, but true nevertheless)
  • If they person who’s doing the apologising has caused us a huge loss or damage, we can’t forgive them because we’re still blaming them for the horrible situation we still find ourselves in
  • It’s not fair!! Just saying sorry after the terrible thing they did to us is NEVER going to be enough…

Anything else you want to add to this list?

Genuine forgiveness is actually pretty hard

As you’re hopefully starting to see for yourself, sincerely asking for forgiveness when you know you’ve done something bad, and sincerely forgiving someone else who really hurt you in some way, is actually really, really difficult to do in practise.

(SO STOP BEATING YOURSELF UP IF ALL THE FORGIVENESS STUFF IS NOT COMING EASY! IT TAKES 120 YEARS TO PERFECT ALL THESE NEGATIVE MIDDOT!!!)

But Hashem still wants us to do all the ‘forgiveness’ stuff, and He’s particularly keen that we do it in Elul, so that we go into Rosh Hashana, the yom haDin, with as clean a slate as possible.

God relates to us midda kneged midda¸ which means ‘a measure for measure.’

If we forgive others, He’ll forgive us. If we ask forgiveness for others, He’ll forgive us. And this is a deal that has some eternal ramifications for us, because Gehinnom doesn’t atone for sins between man and man; it only takes care of the sins we did – and didn’t make teshuva for – between man and God.

If we stole something and didn’t give it back and ask for forgiveness – we’ll have to come back again to fix it.

If we hurt someone with harsh words and we didn’t sincerely make amends – we’ll get sent back here, and this time it could well be that WE’LL be the ones getting the verbal abuse, as spiritual payback.

If we didn’t somehow fix the fallout from that juicy piece of gossip we shared with 50 of our closest friends on Facebook, then guess what? God is going to send us back to rectify the blemish we caused to our soul.

So forgiveness, as well as being really, really hard, is also really, really crucial for our spiritual rectification process. So how exactly are we meant to do it (especially when the person who’s hurt us the most is still trying to pretend they’re perfect, and didn’t do anything wrong?) Stay tuned…

The secret of forgiveness – Part 1

With Rosh Hashana around the corner, I thought I’d treat you (and myself…) to a series of posts over the next couple of weeks, exploring the secret of forgiveness, and then the secret of teshuva – because as you’ll discover, we can’t really have one without the other.

Today, we’re going to kick-off the discussion by exploring:

Why is it so incredibly difficult to say sorry?

Before you read on, you might want to take a minute or two and think about what’s stopping you from making that much-needed apology to the person or people in your own life. When I started pondering this, the following things popped-up in my head as possible reasons why it’s so hard to ask for forgiveness sometimes:

Maybe it’s so hard to ask for forgiveness because it’s:

  • Embarrassing
  • Demeaning
  • Unpleasant
  • Makes us feel like we want to throw up
  • We actually don’t feel like we did anything wrong
  • We’re still far too upset at the other person to say sorry
  • Let THEM come to ME and say ‘sorry’ first!!
  • Going to cause me to lose my power or influence in some way – they won’t respect me anymore
  • Going to make me feel even more terrible about myself, if I actually admit to doing something wrong
  • Too painful

Anything else? Did I miss anything out? If yes, please fill in the blank in the comments section, and we’ll come back to this when we continue our discussion in the next post.

So, you remember my daughter’s friend who nearly died as a result of an allergic reaction to medication she was given, three weeks’ ago? (Baruch Hashem, she came out of hospital this week, thanks to everyone who prayed for her.)

Well, on the back of that, and my daughter’s reaction to what had happened, I decided we had to go to Uman ASAP.

Usually I try to go with a tour group where everything is taken care of and arranged for you, but this time round, I told my husband to book whatever flight he could find and arrange whatever lodging was available, to get us to Uman before school started.

We went for a 36 hour round-trip, and as with all trips to Uman, it was eventful.

Usually when I go by myself, I just in the Kever and do some longggg praying sessions. But this time, I had a couple of kids to think about, and when one of them showed up right at the beginning of my planned 6 hour prayer-a-thon, I realised God was giving me a steer to re-prioritise.

Getting my priorities right, and achieving balance between ‘me’ and ‘family’ has been an ongoing struggle for me, for years already. So when I got the nudge to stop praying, and to actually spend some time with my kids in Uman, I took it as a sign.

Rebbe Uman wrote something like:

‘It’s a shame to be in Uman, and not visit the Sofia Park.’

On most of my trips, I’ve shunned the outing to the Sofia Park to spend more time praying at the Kever, but this time round, we ordered the taxi, and went.

The Park is beautiful – full of the sorts of mature trees that I used to see in abundance in the UK (which is pretty much the only thing I actually still miss.) We spent a very calm, tranquil couple of hours walking around, and having the first ‘lazy Sunday’ type outing we’d had in a decade.

It was so nice.

But then I pondered, is this really what God wants me to be doing?

To put all this time, money and effort into coming to Uman just to spend time wondering round a landscaped park?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was ‘yes’.

Because even though we’re souls clothed in bodies, the body still needs some time and attention, and giving it what it needs is actually an enormous mitzvah. I’m learning this lesson very slowly still, but I felt this trip to Uman underlined it for me.

Usually, I dump my bags in my room, and rush straight off to the Kever. This trip, we wandered around the pizza place and makolet buying food before we even got to the apartment. Then, my kids started browsing in one of the local 24/7 trinket shops (that doubles-up as the French Crepe Café) before any of us had even got anywhere close to visiting the kever.

It was the opposite of how it usually is for me: materialism in place of spirituality; spending money on ‘stuff’ instead of giving it away to charity; doing the tourist thing around Gan Sofia instead of doing six hours by Rebbe Nachman’s grave.

But strangely, this trip to Uman started to teach me some very profound lessons about achieving balance, and noticing my family, and the importance of just being. I sat in the park, and just sat. I sat on the bench waiting for a kid to pick out a cheap ‘Uman’ souvenir, and I just waited. I sat by the side of the road for an hour waiting for the taxi to show up that was going to take us back to the airport, and I just looked at the sky and breathed.

I realised, I do this so little.

I’m so busy in my head, in my writing, in my ‘doing’, that even when I’m praying, I’m still ‘doing’ instead of ‘being’.

In Uman, you get that flash of clarity, that lightning bolt, that lights up the whole path for a moment, an hour, a day, and shows you where you could actually get to in your life. Then you get back on the plane, and it all goes dark again.

The challenge is to recreate that clarity, and to integrate it into your own, real life. That’s what I’m trying to do now, but I already know I have an uphill struggle to stop doing so much, and to start being more.

But now Rabbenu’s shown me the way, at least now I know it’s possible.

If someone asked you ‘what’s single thing is going the make the biggest difference to your child’s emotional health’ what would you say?

One person might say that the most important thing would be to teach them how to be a mentch. Someone else would maybe put the emphasis on self-discipline, and that their kid should know how to get places on time and tie their shoelaces right. Yet another person might say that the single most important thing should be that their child felt loved, ‘seen’ and respected (OK, that’s three things, but you get the idea.)

Me?

I think that the one thing that makes the single biggest difference to a child’s emotional health is how much humility their parents have. Let me explain what I mean.

When you’ve been working on your character traits for a while, and trying to get your ego reduced down as much as possible, that’s when you can actually start to internalise the idea that try as you might, you are not a perfect, infallible human being, and you never will be.

Let’s be clear that reaching this level takes a huge amount of spiritual striving and effort, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But once you start to even just approach this level of genuine humility, it completely changes how your view yourself and your interactions with other people, and particularly, how you view your relationship with your children.

Here’s my 5 top reasons why humility is the most crucial parenting skill of all.

A humble parent:

1) Doesn’t automatically assume that they’re always right.

This cannot be stated too many times. Sometimes, even the best-intentioned, most well-meaning, genuinely empathetic parent in the world can still be plain wrong about things. They can still make mistakes – sometimes, even huge mistakes – in how they relate to their children. They can still cause damage, pain and suffering to their children, even when it’s genuinely the last thing they’d ever want to do.

It takes humility to admit that to yourself.

It also takes a lot of humility to admit that to your children, and to openly acknowledge that you probably messed up a whole bunch of times, at their expense. The good news is that just the simple act of admitting we aren’t perfect too our children goes a really long way to fixing the damage.

2) Can ‘hear’ what their child is actually telling them.

One of the hardest things to deal with in an emotionally-healthy way is when your kid decides to travel a path that suits them, and who God designed them to be, but that goes against your dearest held principles or ambitions for them. When the first earring in the nose shows up, or the first tattoo, or they tell you that they want to drop out of medical school to go and be a gardener, or musician, or something, it can cut a parent to the quick. The more humility a parent has, the more respect they’ll accord to their children, and the better they’ll manage to react when their child chooses something that is not in alignment with the parent’s own wishes and desires.

3) Doesn’t make their own problem their kid’s problem.

The more humility you have, the less you try to pin the blame for your own character faults and issues on other people. If you’re yelling at your kids, it’s not because ‘they’re acting too wild’, or ‘winding you up on purpose’ (even if they really are…), or because they’re ‘acting disrespectful’, or to ‘teach them a lesson’. We yell at our kids because we have anger issues. Full stop.

We all have a whole bunch of negative emotions and issues that we all need to identify, acknowledge and accept, and our kids excel at helping us to uncover them.

Kids are just our mirrors. If we fix the issue in us, whatever that might be, we’ll fix it in them, too.

4) Understands that parenting is giving, not taking.

Writing in ‘Education with Love’, Rabbi Shalom Arush explains that parenting is giving. We give to our children all the time – and yes, sometimes it’s really, really hard work. But ‘giving’ doesn’t just means material things, like clothing allowances, luxury holidays and the latest i-Phones. Real giving includes a number of things that are sometimes much harder for us to part with. Like time, effort, sleep, comfort and always having things our own way. It’s impossible to really give, and to continually put what’s best for your child above what best suits you, as the parent, without a big dose of humility.

5) Asks God for help.

Humble parents realize that even when they make their best effort, they’re still going to make a whole lot of errors and mistakes with their children. They understand that they need as much help as they can get to raise happy, healthy, emotionally well-adjusted kids, and they’ll go straight to The Top to get it.

It requires humility to go talk to God about your parenting, and to admit that you’re not feeding your kids right, or spending enough quality time with them, or messing them up with your hyperchondriac tendencies, rage fits and obsessive house-cleaning habits.

The truth?

If we could fix these problems ourselves, we would. It takes humility to admit that not only are we flawed, we can’t actually do much to fix our parenting problems and own emotional issues. But once you put God in the picture, you can relax: your bit is to act humble and ask for help. His job is to help your kids turn out just fine, regardless of everything you did or didn’t do for them.

A little while ago, I got repeated phone calls from a young couple who wanted to come to for Shabbat. We’d had them a few months’ ago – it was OK, but nothing special. The conversation was pretty stilted, and my girls left the table after a few minutes, because it was borrringggg.

Unfortunately as the host, I couldn’t join them in their room. So I soldiered on with our taciturn guests, making polite conversation until it was the bless-ed time of bentching.

Like I said, I’ve had worst shabbos experiences, but I’ve also definitely had better, and I wasn’t so keen on repeating the experience any time soon.

In the old days, I had a huge fear of being ‘guest-less’ for Shabbat, but the last couple of years have been pretty solitary in many ways, and as a result I’ve learned to not only tolerate ‘family only’ Shabbats, but even to welcome them.

Add into the mix the huge amounts of stress I’ve been under, in various ways, over the past few months, and voila, we reach a situation where I often don’t have Shabbat guests, and I’ve got a lot more fussy about who sits by my table.

(I know: what can I tell you? I’m definitely not Artscroll Biography material.)

So when this young couple asked if they could come again, I told my husband to make our excuses and decline.

Behind the scenes, I was having quite an intense ‘teenager’ time, and I also didn’t have a lot of spare energy and koach for guests. It was that time a couple of months’ ago when even cooking for myself had become a bit tricky.

A few weeks’ on, the couple asked again. Again, we made our excuses. My kids had friends staying over, and from our previous experience with them, this couple didn’t really ‘combine’ well with anyone else.

A few weeks’ on, they asked again. Again, I had far too much going on in my life to handle guests, and I told my husband to decline. Which is when I started to ponder to myself: what’s going on here?

I mean, if I’d told them the first time to come whenever they wanted, and just call, and it would be a pleasure to have them, that would be one thing, and I’d have no complaints.

But I didn’t, and I hadn’t, and to keep calling after repeatedly being told ‘no’ set some alarm bells ringing.

Even in university when I was dead skint and had one armchair that I’d rescued from next to the dumpster, I used to invite my friends for meals and Shabbat suppers. Even when I was a young 20-something newly married (and still dead skint…) I used to have guests almost every week.

It’s just something me and my husband did, and it never depended on us having a lot of cash or a perfect home.

By contrast, something that me and my husband never, ever, did was invite ourselves over to someone else for Shabbat –

(barring the one time I asked really good friends if we could come for lunch last minute, as I’d been caught up in some crazy situation and hadn’t been able to buy or cook anything myself.)

With friends, you can do those things and it’s ok, because it’s clear that you’re not just after a free lunch, and that there’s some mutual caring and reciprocity going on.

So we can argue it’s just an age thing, a stage-in-life thing, but I don’t think I agree. I invited people decades’ older than me for meals in London, right from the first year I was married.

After pondering it, and wondering if I’ve just got plain mean, it struck me that’s what’s bothering me about all this is that there doesn’t seem to be any reciprocity on the table. It feels as though there’s an expectation that I’m just meant to happily have this couple for Shabbat, ad infinitum, with no friendship, caring or concern in return, simply because I’m 41 and been married for 18 years.

Why?

Who said?

I’ve had times – plenty of them – when I was terribly lonely on Shabbat. I’ve also had times when I could barely afford to buy a chicken for Friday night supper – but I never expected someone else to fill that lack for me. That would be making my problem their problem. What I have done to alleviate my loneliness, more times than I can count, is to reach out to someone else, someone new, and to invite them over to me.

I know, what a shocking thought!

But just maybe, God is giving this young couple plenty of quiet Shabbats for a reason. Maybe, He wants them to dig a bit deeper, to see past themselves and their wants, and to start to realize that if you’re the one that’s offering to cook, one way or another you’ll always have company around the Shabbat table.

That’s a heavy headline, isn’t it?

It’s also a quote from the Gemara, and it crops up in a whole lot of places whenever you get into a discussion about why apparently ‘bad’ things can happen to apparently ‘good’ people.

This idea underpins the basic fundamentals of living life with emuna, as set out by Rav Arush, namely:

 

1) God is doing everything in the world.

2) Everything that happens to me is for my good, even the stuff that’s hurting me and is very painful and incomprehensible.

3) God is using the event, incident, occurrence or suffering to send me a message that I need to work on something, fix something, or change in some way.

 

Now, there are many flavours of heresy in the Jewish world, but one of the most popular, particularly in frum circles, is the idea that God sends people suffering stam, for absolutely no good reason.

The basic complaint goes like this:

“I’m a kosher person; I keep tons of mitzvoth; I pray with a netz (sunrise) minyan every day; I stopped watching Superman movies 20 years’ ago; I’ve made a number of sacrifices to keep Hashem’s torah, ergo – I don’t deserve any of this hard, horrible stuff that’s happening to me.”

It sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it?

Until you remember one thing:

There is no suffering without prior sin.

If someone is being sent a difficult or hardship, it’s ALWAYS for a good reason.

Here’s where we hit a very necessary and often overlooked point of clarification: sometimes, the issue you need to fix in your soul is left over from a previous lifetime. It could well be that in this lifetime you are Miriam the super-pious light of the world, but in a previous lifetime, you may well have been Jack the Ripper – and that’s a spiritual debt that still needs paying down.

So you get sent a whole bunch of very difficult trials that really, Miriam the super-pious light of the world doesn’t deserve, but that are still a deep discount for Jack The Ripper.

This is where a person gets to really live their emuna, and this is often the whole test, and the whole ‘sin’ that needs fixing: are you going to see God behind everything that’s happening to you, and to acknowledge that He’s doing it all for your eternal good, and to get the message that you need to do some super-human work on your emuna?

Or are you going to complain, feel sorry for yourself, and convince yourself that you’re already perfect, and God must have made some big mistake so start picking on you so unfairly?

The rule is this:

If you’re alive, you have work to do. If you’re still alive, no matter how ‘perfect’ you think you are, there are still bad character traits to fix, mistakes to rectify, and levels of emuna to work on achieving. The process of self-improvement only ends when we die.

In his book Words of Faith, Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender puts it like this:

“Know yourself! Even if the entire world says that you are righteous, you have to know who you are…When a person truly knows himself, it is not possible that he shall not mend his ways…But when he deceives himself and imagines that he is something – why should he work to get better?”

On a personal note, a few months’ ago I went through a period of extreme difficulties and very hard tests in emuna. Initially, I couldn’t understand why God was sending me all this hard stuff. I mean, I’d sacrificed so much for my frum lifestyle, I spoke to God for an hour every single day, I was continually working on myself.

My underlying attitude was:

“You’ve got the wrong gal, Hashem! Stop sending me all these undeserved difficulties and go pick on someone else!!”

Really?

It took me many, many months of working things through, and at least one trip to Uman, but finally I realised that God really had sent me exactly what I was due – and had probably even giving me a huge discount on what I could have had coming to me.

I was so full of arrogance and pride about all my religious ‘accomplishments’, that I hadn’t realised just how flawed and occasionally nasty I still actually was (especially to my husband and kids…)

I was completely fooling myself as to my true level, and God didn’t want that state of affairs to continue any longer.

There really was ‘no suffering without prior sin’, even though it didn’t look like that to me, or others, at the time.

God is just.

He’s righteous. He only sends us what we need to do the work of fixing our souls for eternity. And if we don’t believe that, than however ‘pious’ and ‘perfect’ we may think we are, we still have an awful lot of spiritual work to do.

One of the more perplexing of Rebbe Nachman’s statements, at least for me, is the one where he says that the world will be amazed at the love that exists between his students.

To be blunt, I’ve been on the outskirts of different Breslev communities and groups for years, and I haven’t been feeling the lurve particularly strongly. But a few days’ back, I read something said by Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender, in a new set of books I picked up from the Meah Shearim Breslev Bookstore called: ‘Words of Faith’ that explained what’s really going on.

There, Rav Bender explained that to friends:

“it’s forbidden to tell what passed over you.” He continues: “Know this: To join a friend in personal matters – especially sins and iniquities, does much damage.

“However, it is fitting that friends encourage each other with soul-restoring words. But chalila to dig after mistakes – even if you mean well. This is absolutely prohibited.

“We often see people dig for another’s wounds. This is a very great defect. Relations between people should only be in chizuk, happy talk, encouraging words or Torah and doing good. And to seek the good points in each other. But it is forbidden to make sins known – except to Hashem Yitbarach alone.”

The real definition of ‘friendship’

This was a tremendous revelation to me, because I’d always believed that the hallmark of a close friend was that you could bare your soul before them, tell them everything going on with you, and that this would only strengthen your bond and connection.

Trouble was, in real life normally the opposite would happen:

It would get far too intense too fast; I’d find people dumping their biggest, most heart-wrenching problems straight in my lap; I’d get overwhelmed by all their troubles; and then sooner or later, I’d just want to run away.

This has happened so many times, and yet, until I read the wise words of Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender, it never occurred to me that my paradigm for true friendship was warped.

True friendship doesn’t mean you know all the deepest secrets, and darkest corners of your friend’s life. Rav Bender summed it up like this:

“I go in my way, he goes in his way. I have no interest to check after how he runs his personal life. What I have to say to him is only this:

My Brother – Be strong! Hold on and do not be discouraged by anything!…

“This is the whole point of speaking amongst friends. To unearth and illuminate your friend’s unique good points. And to shine to him from your special point. But not more than this.”

There’s a load more to say, and I may well come back to this topic in another post, but in the meantime, these few simple sentences have solved a massive difficulty, or kushia, that I’ve been wrestling with for years.

As Rav Bender makes clear, heart-to-hearts, where you spend a few hours moaning about your finances, or your husband, or your kids, or your work, or your in-laws, actually don’t  build friendships and people – they do exactly the opposite.

Just I didn’t know.

Now that I do, I’m going to ask God to help me avoid these types of ‘deep and meaningful’ conversations that always seem so holy and healthy, but usually lead to me getting enmeshed in trying to solve other people’s problems for them.

That’s not my place. That’s not my job. What I do need to do is to tell my friends and acquaintances:

My sister – be strong! Hold on and do not be discouraged by anything!!

And then, politely change the subject.

In some ways, I’m very lucky:

My oldest daughter has been in difficult ‘teenager’ mode since the day she was born, so I’m actually used to being challenged, argued with, and forced to look at that side of myself I’d rather just ignore.

The whole thing with teenagers, and with kids generally, is that, as Rav Arush explains, they are just coming to teach us something about ourselves. The sooner we work that out, the easier they are to deal with.

Their obvious ‘bad’ is just my secret ‘bad’, and once I realise that, (and I’ve got over my urge to run away from my family), some sort of solution to the problem usually starts to present itself.

So like I was saying, this particular kid is extremely strong-willed, and extremely difficult to control, in any way, shape or form (as well as being very sweet, and a genuinely good, kind, loving person.) Now, I also have those tendencies, but I’ve always seen them as positive: I’m very principled, determined and hard to corrupt. It’s quite a shocker to realise that maybe, at least occasionally, I might also be quite annoying and even (gasp!) plain wrong about things.

Anyway, my daughter is a huge neshama, and I know for sure she’s going to set the world alight at some point, hopefully in a good way.

But in the meantime, I’m having one ‘control’ argument after another, that’s driving me bonkers.

Let’s be clear that I really do know that I’m not in control of anything, and that God is running the world. At the same time, I keep coming up against my daughter’s yetzer hara, that’s insisting on keeping her out with friends until all hours; insisting on going to Netanya for Shabbat to spend time with people I’ve never even spoken to, let alone met or know anything about; insisting that she doesn’t want to come on holiday with us, or insisting that limiting her phone time to only 18 hours a day is completely unreasonable.

On the one hand, I’m trying to nullify my ego and control-freak nature as much as possible, and on the other, she’s only 14 and is occasionally plain wrong about things.

But it’s taking me hours of prayer to work out if I’m arguing ‘my side’ of things for her, or for me. If it’s ultimately for her – then I can stick to my guns and know it’s OK. If it’s for me – then I know it’s not going to end well, and I’m risking alienating her, God forbid.

It’s such a narrow bridge, and I frequently have no idea of where it’s actually taking me.

At its root, I’m struggling with two main issues:

1) To keep seeing the abundant good in my teenager, and to not believe the yetzer’s propaganda that she’s just doing things to be awkward or rebellious.

2) And, to remember that neither she, nor I, are really in control. God’s running the show, God’s setting up all the tests, God’s making me stubborn like a mule, and making her stubborn like a mule.

 

One of us has to break the deadlock by acting like a grown-up, and as I’m 41, that job seems to be falling to me.

But it’s so flipping hard! It’s so hard to let go of some of my deepest-held principles in order to send my daughter the clear message that SHE is what’s important here. More important than what I want; more important than keeping her elbows covered in 40 degree heat; more important than my daydreams of what she should be, and say, and look like and believe.

I want her to be able to serve God as her, which means letting her discover who that ‘her’ really is.

I was hoping that ‘her’ would like to plait her hair back, wear blue shirts and black loafers, and be enamoured with davening.

But just like that could never work for me, that’s not working for her, either. She has wild hair, a huge personality and a penchant for wearing the biggest earrings I’ve ever seen in my life.

Sigh.

Until I realise, I’m not in control here, and that’s the way God made her.

For His own very good reasons. For the best. Because she’s got her own unique job to do in the world, and blue button-downs simply don’t figure in there.

And who am I to question God?

But Shabbat in Netanya is still out of the question.