Sunday, March 01, 2020

100 Days of Thanking Hashem

Now available on

I once heard a Torah teacher speak about what animates her teaching. She described how, whenever she learns something new, she can't wait to share that new insight with others.

That's pretty much why I just published a Jewish gratitude journal: 100 Days of Thanking Hashem: Build Your Spiritual Capacity for Gratitude, One Day At A Time

Once I discovered the spiritual tool of gratitude, I wanted to share it with as many people as possible. It's based on Jewish sources, accessible to absolutely everyone, regardless of background, and is incredibly life-enhancing. 

On a spiritual level, gratitude helps us practice now what it will mean to see all the good - to see God’s Hand in everything. It’s a concrete way we can strengthen our spiritual muscles NOW while we wait for Moshiach (the Jewish messiah).

The reality is that Hashem performs kindnesses for us all day long. When we take time to notice them and say thank you, it draws us closer to God. 

There are also proven psychological benefits to gratitude. The regular expression of gratitude helps a person feel more positively inclined towards others. It can also help relieve stress by refocusing your attention on the good things in your life.

Why 100?

In Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:12, Moshe (Moses) tells the Jewish people:

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul,

"What (mah) does God ask of you?" The Talmud (Menachot 43b) explains that the word mah
מה  can be read as me'ah מאה, meaning 100. In other words, God obligates us to recite (at least) 100 blessings every day (Orach Chaim 46:3).

On a typical weekday, a person who wears tzizit, tallit and tefillin (by which I mostly mean an Orthodox man) can come close to 100 blessings, just from praying the three daily services.

But that didn’t apply to me.

I decided that, I may not be able to recite 100 blessings a day, but I can certainly express gratitude to Hashem 100 times a day.

It's basic human nature that most of us get caught up in what we don’t have, instead of being grateful for what we have already received. I wanted to focus on saying thank you to Hashem 100 times a day.

When you ask yourself what you're grateful for, you'll likely think of the big things first (e.g. your family, your health, etc.). But when you need to come up with 100 gratitudes at a time, you really have to dig deeper (e.g. sweatshirts that help keep me warm in the winter, floating on my back in the pool, sweet white wine, the long-awaited check that finally arrived, etc.) 

I developed 100 Days of Thanking Hashem to share what I've discovered. It’s filled with gratitude prompts - things to consider that will help you complete your daily list of gratitudes (e.g., What disease don’t you have? What do you own that makes your life easier? What pleasant surprise did you experience today?), quotes from Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers about the power of gratitude and Biblical verses about the importance of being grateful.

This uniquely formatted journal allows you to start slowly and build a foundation of gratitude. On Day 1, you write down one thing you’re grateful for. On Day 2, you list two things you’re grateful for, and so on until Day 100. It’s based on the idea of building your gratitude muscle, one day at a time. 

When Leah, the first wife of Yaakov (Jacob), gave birth to her fourth son, she named him Yehuda. The name Yehuda is derived from the Hebrew verb l’hodot, which means to thank.

The Jewish people are referred to in Hebrew as Yehudim. In a fundamental way, to be a Jew means to be grateful. The trait is embedded in our very name.

At the same time, this gratitude journal is completely appropriate for anyone, Jew or non-Jew, religious or not, who wants to develop the habit of noticing all the blessings in their lives and expressing appreciation for them.

Just a few days ago, I got an email from one of the first people, a woman from the UK, who bought 100 Days of Thanking Hashem. She wrote: "Dear Rivkah, I  just want to say thank you for your book, 100 days of thanking HaShem. I’m on my 6th day and it’s already changing my life!"

Her expression of gratitude has now become one of my 100, thus proving that when you begin noticing and openly expressing gratitude for Hashem's many kindnesses to you, you can even impact the gratitude level of others.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Changing Tires. Changing Minds.

It’s been cold in Israel this winter. I know if you’ve never been to Israel, you probably imagine it’s hot here all the time, but it’s not. It’s been really cold. Uncomfortably cold. And rainy. Very rainy. And did I mention cold?

So last night, when I noticed that one of our car’s tires was low, I was happy that my husband was willing to get out of the nice warm car at the air pump and fill up the tire.

As we pulled up, we saw that a young man was helping a woman in the car in front of us and my husband hoped a few shekels would convince this young man to put air in our tire as well. So when it was our turn at the air pump, we were both delighted that he, who was A) much younger than us and B) already out in the wet and cold night air, was willing to help.

A few things became obvious very quickly. One, the lack of air in the tire was due to what Israelis call a puncher, which is the endearing way Israelis say puncture. Turns out we had a nail in the tire. After dark. In the cold and rain.

The other thing that became obvious was that this young man was an Arab. He spoke to us in Hebrew, but he spoke much louder to another man in what sounded to me like angry Arabic. So I was apprehensive. Because we were in a difficult spot. The nearby “puncher place” was closed and, together my husband and I have been given many gifts, but tire changing skill is not among them.

The young Arab man indicated that if we pulled over, he would take off the bum tire and put on our spare. This kind of situation can make a person feel vulnerable. Besides the fact that he spoke no English, the language in which I can best express myself under all circumstances, my people haven’t always had a, ahem… neighborly relationship with his people.

Frankly, I was prepared to get ripped off. That was the best possible outcome I could imagine.

I had left the house without any money at all, and my husband only had big bills in his wallet, so he went into the convenience store to get change. While my husband was a hundred yards away, inside the convenience store, getting coffee and change, I asked the young man, in broken Hebrew, what this little adventure was likely to cost us. I was sure I misunderstood his response because I thought he said, “I just want to help.”

It was dark. It was cold. It was wet. We were strangers. Not only strangers, but English-speaking Jewish immigrants from America type of strangers. And he was a local Arab, the exact age and gender of the majority of those who carry out terror attacks against my people.

When my husband came back, holding a steaming cup of coffee and smaller bills, I asked him to employ his significantly better Hebrew to ascertain how much we were going to get ripped off for.

What actually happened: After the pump and punctured tire were put back in our trunk, my husband gave him 50 shekels (about $15) and asked if it was enough. The young Arab man replied that it was more than enough because he really just wanted to help.

You’ll never see harmonious exchanges like this in international media report about Israel. I’ve been told that they actually happen here on a regular basis, but I was skeptical.

Now I have an image of a young Arab man changing our tire by hand, in the dark and cold, just because he wanted to help.

In truth, he didn’t just change our tire.

He also changed my mind.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Why I Gave Up On Daf Yomi Just A Few Days In

Women and their volumes of Talmud
(photo credit Nishmat: The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women)

I admit it. 

I got caught up in Daf Yomi fever.

For the past seven and a half years, I’ve watched my husband sit with a volume of the Talmud in his hands. I’ve cheered him when he announced that he was caught up to the day’s daf. And I was exceedingly impressed that, before the siyum, he pushed himself to make up the pages he missed learning while sitting shiva, first for his mother A”H and then for his father A”H a few years later.

I even agreed to attend a huge Siyum haShas in Jerusalem to help him mark his outstanding achievement. I so wanted to shep nachas, but that siyum turned out to be a huge disappointment. It started with the fact that I had to sit separately, in the balcony, cloistered away, with the other women, while an endless parade of men celebrated themselves for two hours, without acknowledging the possibility that a single Jewish woman had ever cracked the spine of a single mesechta.

I’m not gonna lie. The all-men-all-the-time program zapped a bit of my joy.

A few nights later, balance was restored in the universe after I read all the glowing reports of the Hadran, the Siyum haShas attended by 3,300 Jews, women and men together, celebrating women who completed the latest Daf Yomi cycle. I didn’t attend, which, in retrospect, I regret. I did watch clips and read many reports of how encouraging it was to see women’s Torah learning being celebrated at that level.

In the midst of all these Siyum haShas festivities, my book club began reading If All The Seas Were Ink, Ilana Kurshan’s memoir of healing from a painful divorce and building a new family, over the span of the Daf Yomi cycle.

Studying a page of gemara a day, consistently, for seven and a half years, is a pretty remarkable achievement. The fact that there were women just like me doing it made me consider, for the first time ever, learning Daf Yomi as well.

And so I did. I got the sefer off the shelf. I signed up for a women’s Daf Yomi podcast, joined a women’s Daf Yomi Facebook group and cracked the book open for myself.

One of the pages of Talmud I actually learned.

Talmud is well-known for its meandering style. The rabbis transition from one topic to another with sometimes only the thinnest thread connecting the two. It was a pleasant reminder to me of an engaging Shabbat meal, where the conversation flows naturally from one topic to another.

It was pretty gratifying to be learning the same daf as my husband, for the short time it lasted. I gave it up rather quickly. I would like to emphasize that I didn’t give it up because I thought it was intellectually over my head.

I gave it up because I lack the imagination to transcend the blinding maleness of Talmud. I was braced for an assault on my gender every time I turned the page, because I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know from which direction. I knew enough Talmud to know that, to the Talmudic mind, throughout its 2,711 pages, women are profoundly "other".

I also quickly discovered that I really didn’t care about the hairs they were splitting, especially since each page I learned was, primarily, a minute dissection of a positive, time-bound mitzvah (reciting Shema twice a day) that doesn’t even apply to me as a woman and that speaks of mitzvot, like tzitzit and tefillin, that also don’t apply to me.

This kind of learning nurtures some women. I see from the enthusiasm and the increasing numbers of women investing themselves in learning gemara that it brings them something meaningful.

I couldn’t be more delighted for them.

But I see that my soul needs something else.

I admit I got caught up in the fervor, in the whole Daf Yomi fever. That’s what pushed me to try, when I’d never considered trying before.

But I realized very quickly that this is not the kind of learning I want to spend my time on. For me, I’m happiest learning about the different parts of the soul and where they come from, about gilgulim, about geula and Moshiach and chassidut and Tanach.

For some people, the kind of Torah that makes my soul sing strikes them as not serious or substantial enough to be considered Torah study. For some people, only gemara and halacha count.

This puzzled me until I learned a new understanding of a piece of gemara, ironically enough. In Tractate Niddah (30b) one finds the well-known legend that each fetus is taught the entire Torah while in utero. And just when the baby is born, an angel comes and taps the infant on the mouth. With that tap, the entire Torah is forgotten, according to the gemara. 

I’ve always understood that this was done so that when a person learns Torah again, the echo of their prenatal learning makes it somehow familiar to them. And this story is also a source for explaining why we have an indentation between our nose and upper lip; that's where the angel touched us just before we were born.

But there’s more. In his sefer Even Shlayma, the Vilna Goan explains that each fetus does not learn the same approach to Torah. Some learn nigleh – revealed Torah. And later in life, those people are happiest studying Talmud and halacha.

Other are taught nistar – concealed Torah, namely kabbalah and chassidut. And for those people, Torah nurtures most when it’s connected to the mystical.

Both kinds of Torah are Torah. But not everyone is equally comfortable in both realms. For me, my soul vibrates with nistar.

This whole rapidly truncated experiment made me realize that the worldwide hype, all the press, all the attention to Daf Yomi and the Siyum haShas over the past few weeks is a celebration of nigleh. Which made it a bit like celebrating someone else’s birthday.

It’s a lovely party.

Just not mine.

How I look forward to the world celebrating, with as much attention, the Torah topics that sing to my soul.

I’ve been told that, in the Chabad world, Yud Tes Kislev is a celebration of the annual cycle of learning Tanya, a text I recently started to learn again, after failing to pierce its depth some years ago.

Maybe next year, I’ll celebrate with the Chabadnikim.

And I will finally feel at home.