Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Metamorphosis: The Great Transformation



Let's be real.

The entire world is upside down.

I'm not going to list all the problems, shocking events and assumptions of normality that are being challenged every day because A) you probably know them already and B) it can be depressing/anxiety-producing to look at the whole list at once.

What is clear is that something dramatic is going on. The very foundations on which we’ve built our lives are shaking. Social norms (and statues) are crashing.

Is there a person alive who isn’t impacted by the global uncertainties that are rocking the world right now?

I’ve experienced a whole range of emotions in reaction to this new reality. Boredom. Slothfulness. Depression, Grief. Irritation (mostly, but not exclusively, caused by social media). Shock (mostly, but not exclusively, caused by news reports). Frustration. Fear.

Life feels surreal.

I can’t stay in these negative places for a prolonged period without losing my equilibrium. So I’ve been trying to find ways to regain balance.

Here’s what I have so far.

Sometimes in nature, something has to deteriorate before it can grow. A seed decomposes in the ground before it sprouts. A caterpillar dissolves into caterpillar soup before it recreates itself as a butterfly.

Similarly, we are undergoing some kind of global
metamorphosis. I feel, on a very deep level, that things are never going to “go back to normal.” Whatever is coming will look very different from that to which we had been accustomed.

We are on a new path.

Part of the way I’m coping is by turning inward. I’m trying to remember that God runs the world. It’s become ridiculously obvious that I have no control. I can’t make sense of anything of significance.

But I can still my racing thoughts.

I can spend less time reading and watching videos about the disquieting breakdown of what passed for society just four months ago. I can stop commenting on social media in a futile attempt to convince someone to change their mind about hot button issues.

I can focus on my breathing. I can remind myself that God is running the show. I can nestle in the knowledge that He has a plan and He is taking us somewhere. I can study more Torah. I can stay open to the something new that is being birthed.

These are the things on which I'm working now.

If you have your own spiritually-driven way to cope with the bewildering changes through which we are living, I would love to hear from you.

Let's strengthen one another.



Monday, April 20, 2020

The Jaggedness Of Everyday Life


I don't love every book, but I do love everything about books. And one of the things I most love is a book that makes me want to stay up all night reading.

I run a book project in my community that's basically a free little library. Neighbors donate books and I sort and shelve them in a bus stop, one building away. I call the project the Book Shuk, a name I repurposed from another, similar project that I coordinated in Baltimore, once upon a time.

I love contributing to my community in this way. And I'm not gonna lie. A major perk is getting first dibs on the books that get donated.

When the corona virus came to Israel, our local government, fearful of germs living on book covers, emptied out all the bus stop libraries in town, including the Book Shuk.

So I have stacks and bags and boxes of books in my hallway, waiting to be shelved when the local government decides that it's safe. And I have my own little stash, books I pulled out to read myself before shelving.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah won a bajillion awards when it was first published in 2015. It has over 600,000 ratings on Goodreads and over 43,000 ratings on Amazon. Even with all that, I had no idea the book existed until someone donated a copy to the Book Shuk.

It was actually the last book left in my private stash when I reached for it this past Friday night. At 7 AM on Shabbat morning, I wiped the tears from my eyes, closed the back cover and finally went to bed, just as my husband awoke.

Obviously, it's a wonderful book and I highly recommend it. But I want to tell you something about the experience of reading it in the wee hours of the morning, more than a month into the corona virus pandemic.

The story is set primarily in France during WWII. The main characters are two non-Jewish sisters. One is a conventional wife and mother, living in rural France and the other is her impetuous younger sister who whirls through life, taking irresponsible risks that allow her to accomplish amazing things.

There are many layers to the story, but I'm focusing here on just one of them.

As the war progresses, the everyday lives of ordinary French citizens begin to change... in some of the exact ways that our lives have changed due to the corona virus.

These parallel disruptions include enforced separation from, and, in some cases, mourning the deaths of, people we love, food shortages, needing to stand in line to buy food, even police-enforced curfews, coupled with a general sense of the jaggedness of everyday life.

Which pretty much describes how I am experiencing life right now.

On one level, I am profoundly aware of my blessings. I sleep in my own bed, wear my own clothes and cook in my own kitchen.

But it cannot be denied that there is an enemy outside my front door. That enemy has closed down much of what passed for normal life just six weeks ago.

The streets are mostly empty now. Major tourist destinations in Jerusalem sit alone, reminding me of nothing so much as the opening verse from Eichah. O how has the city that was once so populous remained lonely! (Eichah 1:1)

These images of an empty Jerusalem by photographer Yonit Schiller are chilling.




It also cannot be denied that no one knows who will survive. No one has any idea when this will be over.  No one can be certain what the ultimate economic consequences of this pandemic will be and no one knows what a post-corona world will look like.

Just like when the world is at war.

Being awake at 4 AM, reading a novel set in Europe during WWII, certainly makes it easier to take note of the parallels.
 

But here's the bottom line.

Even in "normal times", what we have is nothing more than the illusion of control, the myth of predictability.  In truth, only God is in control. 


This has always been true.

It's just easier to see now.


This is what I ruminate about, as I lay in my bed at 7 AM, hoping to fall asleep, just as the rest of the country rises to recite their Shabbat morning prayers.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

... And Now I Sit And Quietly Wait




It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
- Eicha (Lamentations 3:26)


For much more than a decade, I have been speaking of the impending geula, the Final Redemption, the era of peace and the permanent ascension of the spiritual over the physical.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I searched and searched for the spiritual significance of the unfolding events, certain that it was connected to God advancing the messianic redemption. The more I searched, the more I found.

This and these and also that are part of God's great calculus, why He brought such a plague to the world and what we are meant to take from it, how it is preparing us for the era of Moshiach and how our lives will change for the better.

These investigations have been meaningful and have helped me set a plan for myself, to determine how I am going to move forward through these times.

In truth, my investigations remind me very much of my experience in Torah study. We understand that each verse in the Torah exists on multiple levels; its meaning is never just the literal understanding of the text. The more I delve into a particular Torah text, the more and deeper meanings I uncover, to the extent that Hashem graces me with the ability to perceive anything about His sublime Torah.

Similarly, the more I look into what message Hashem is sending with this pandemic, the more I understand that there is no one message, no single reason, no unitary conclusion we are all meant to derive. Except maybe this.

The world has a Creator and a Sustainer and He is asking us to recognize that this is all from His Hand.

Shabbat recently ended in Israel. I spent much more of it in prayer and Torah study than I used to. As Hashem's hashgacha pratit (personal Divine supervision) would have it, I have been studying Sefer Yeshayahu (Isaiah) with my local Tanach study group. Yeshayahu speaks in poetic language, for which I require extensive commentary, so that I can understand his prophecies. He also speaks, more than any other Biblical prophet, about the messianic era.

These last few weeks, I sense that I have been speaking fewer words than I used to. And that  gives me more time to focus on the world that Hashem created, to notice things I am usually too busy to take note of.

Today, I sat on my couch, facing Jerusalem, and watched the clouds blow by through the windows in our living room. For 5780 years, Hashem has been moving clouds in the sky, and, for the most part, at least since I was a child, I have been too preoccupied to focus on the way the sky constantly changes.

I took a sip of cold water from a cup and was able to focus my attention on the miracle of being able to coordinate my lips and my tongue and my throat to be able to drink. I marveled at the fact that I have, at my disposal, a virtually limitless supply of fresh, cold water to slake my thirst.

The cup and the clouds were meditations to me, reminding me to notice all the gifts Hashem bestows upon me, literally at every moment, for which I have been, in the main, too overloaded to observe.

I believe, no less than I did before, in the greatness and the power of Hashem and in His ability to bring the Final Redemption. I believe, no less than I did before, in the likelihood that the changes COVID-19 has wrought are meant to bring us closer to the day when the Moshiach will be revealed and he can get on with the work of building the Third and final Temple in Jerusalem, of bringing the rest of the Jews back to Israel and to Torah, of bringing peace to the whole world and all the other promises of the Messianic era.

What's changed is that I have taken a deep breath and convinced myself that my work now is to sit and quietly wait. To turn inward. To pray. To study. To contemplate. To notice.

Those who know me in real life know that this is a chidush - a novel approach for me. I, who have spent a lifetime shouting from rooftops, am feeling humbled by the massive power Hashem has turned loose in the world.

In this, I am with Yeshayahu haNavi who said, "
And I will wait for the Lord, Who hides His countenance from the House of Jacob and I will hope for Him." (8:17)

For all my hubris, I know nothing.

And now I sit and quietly wait.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

100 Days of Thanking Hashem


Now available on Amazon.com

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.