Category Archives: jewish

It’s Not Enough: In Pursuit of a Life on Fire

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You may have a nice job, good friends, and a happy family life. You may be fortunate enough to peer out of your bedroom window as the sun peeks out in the early morning. You might be blessed to have health, a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly. Still, it won’t be enough.

If we stop a moment, the reality that we need more sets in. Practice gratitude by counting all the wonderful gifts you were given. That helps. But, most days, you need more.

A teenager with good grades, good looks, and good fun will need more just as a senior living in a retirement community enjoying the golden years needs more too.

What’s the more?

What are we searching for? Why are we empty?

We crave a life on fire.

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We desire to live in an inspired, meaningful way. We want lives that are rich with cause, depth, importance. We want to impact. We want to mean something.

How do we live a life on fire?

I marvel at my powerhouse friends and family who do great big things with their lives. They start organizations. They  travel globally to share a message. They help thousands of people through unconditional support with a wide open heart, broad smile, and sparkle in their eyes.

How can we make every moment count? What can we do to uplift ourselves and those around us? What do we need to build to be worthy of living a life on fire?

Maybe nothing.

Maybe, we just need to audit our current lives and see what needs are right in front of us. Everything that has led up to this moment, this very moment, was by design. We are walking through a movie set, characters intentionally placed just so, backdrop calculated by a masterful Director. We are just asked to look around, take it all in, and react.

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What is being asked of us? Something needs our attention and only we can figure out what that is. A difficult relative. Financial strain. Worries about health. A void in some area. There is a lesson buried underneath our individual worlds and we can uncover it when we live our fiery lives with our eyes wide open.

What does my life demand of me right now vs. what do I feel like doing? If we go through each day in pursuit of truth, working on ourselves, wanting to help the world – no matter the home, the family, the career- life will be more than enough. We will live a life on fire and set the world ablaze.

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It’s Not About Me (but I think it is)

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I really should make a video about this because I love telling the story. I laugh every time (horrified). There I was, in downtown Jerusalem, enjoying frozen yogurt with my sister, who was visiting me for the week. Somehow the cold stuff that was meant for my mouth lands on my skirt. The nearest paper towel was a good 50 feet away back in the yogurt store.

As I walk, holding my skirt,  a man sitting on the ground gesticulates at me. Embarrassed, I react in a broken Hebrew, “I know, I know. there’s a stain on my skirt. Don’t worry, I’m going to clean it now.” He doesn’t respond so I hurry past  him.

Two minutes later, my skirt is drenched but clean. I turn around and find my sister laughing. “What’s so funny?” I smile wanting in on the joke. She says, “Rachel! That man wasn’t pointing at your skirt! He was holding out his hand for charity!”.

I take a moment to process what she tells me. I am mortified by how preoccupied I was with my Number One Focus- me! I laughed, shocked by my own behavior.

Thankfully, my quick-thinking, generous sister had already offered the bewildered man a few shekalim (Israeli money) for his trouble so there was nothing left for me to do but reflect on my own self-absorption. My little splotch compared to his challenges? I was too wrapped up in my spilled snack to think about his empty stomach? Our minds are so fixated on our own personal narratives that we end up missing out on so much color and character, pain and joy, richness and texture from the the world around us.

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I’ve come to see that thinking the world revolves around me is a recipe for misery. Why does my colleague hate me? Why did that driver cut me off? Why is my friend not calling me ? Maybe, just maybe, the answer has absolutely nothing to do with me.

Now, I’m well aware that I write this in an age when the “selfie” is a socially acceptable photograph to share with thousands of strangers. Sales revenue for the selfie-stick back in 2014 was about $6 million. If our self-absorption is so blatant on the outside, imagine the monster within.

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I attended a workshop on running a home with happiness and energy a few years ago. The teacher shared an insight that sticks with me today. People who are masters of their study don’t ask themselves how they can appear to be masters. They just are. For example, an authentic community leader doesn’t ponder on what clothes best position him/her for leadership. Rather the lenses are pointed outward. How can I better serve these people?

Our Patriarch, Abraham, reversed human nature. Usually, we concern ourselves with our own physical and emotional well-being. Am I hungry? Thirsty? Hot? Cold? Tired? Sick? Sad? Happy? When we think of others, by default, we consider their spiritual well-being. She really shouldn’t talk like that. He has an anger issue! I guess they don’t keep kosher- a shame! Incredibly, Abraham did the opposite. He worried about his own spiritual health and took care of others’ physical and emotional well-being. Even when in tremendous physical pain, he hosted guests with gusto that most of us can only dream to attain.

Bishvili Nivra HaOlam The world was created just for me. V’Anochi Afar V’Efer I am but dust and ashes. In a world where self-absorption is the new normal and our minds are programmed to focus on ourselves, it is critical that we re-calibrate. Let’s together turn our attention outward and invest in the needs of others. The others in our home, the others in our community, the others in our world.

Made or Broken: We didn’t sign up for this life. Now what?

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Made or Broken: We didn’t sign up for this life. Now what?

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I was the only woman in an office filled with rabbis when the phone rang. Someone was calling. I picked up the phone.

At 23 years old, my job was to create inspiring programs for Jewish women on the Upper West Side (I was elated). The caller was female and would only speak to a woman. She sounded upset and I wanted to help. I’ve replayed that call many times in my mind over the last decade and know that the responsible thing to do would have been to ask someone older and wiser to call her back. Luckily, I was irresponsible.

Sarah was brought up in a religious home. She was a sweet little girl with her family and a good student in school. She was kind to others and had friends. As she got older, she volunteered in after school activities. She knew that she was a “good girl” and expected to have a good life in return for her efforts. Sadly, in her teenage years, she was exposed to an adult male character who was no good at all. Following high school, when she traveled to Israel for her gap year, she experienced another negative incident.

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Sarah was a good girl and wanted a good life so she tried to shake off her unpleasant encounters. At 21, she was set up with a nice Jewish boy and married him. They had a few children and she tried to build her home and move on with her life. Despite her best efforts and what should have been a happy stage in her life, she felt trapped in her pain and sadness.

Why had God put her in a position to suffer? She was a good girl, after all.

Despite my youth, I knew to validate Sarah’s pain and listen. When she was finished, I told her what I was sure she already knew. Life is not meant to be a stroll in the park. We’re here to work. Life is full of pleasures and we should savor every one but we are meant to climb and develop, rung by rung, to reach the greatest heights we can reach. At times, those rungs come in the form of painful circumstances. We are made or broken by those circumstances.

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She asked what happens if that’s not the kind of life she signed up for? It was not the life she wanted. She preferred to follow the rules and, in exchange, be granted shelter from sadness, anger, and pain. She came into this world with an expectation of an unspoken deal with her Creator. If she’s obedient, then she’s protected from heartache.

We spoke for a long time and ended up keeping in touch for years. I relate to Sarah in that we both share a false expectation. The human experience seems to be hard-wired with a cycle of process, milestone, and then process again. We think we have everything figured out and in that very moment of confidence, the rug is pulled out from underneath, leaving us disoriented and forced to adjust to a new reality. It often comes as a shock and just as often humbles us to our core. I would argue that the rug-pulling may be for the express purpose of jarring us from our feelings of security, confidence, and (perhaps) complacency.

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So many examples come to mind.

  1. Dating- You work so hard to meet The One. When you do, no matter your education, a part of you is sure you’ll ride off into the distance together. Details for the ride are fuzzy. GPS not included.
  2. Parenting- You spend your childhood (just me?) sure you will be the best parent. Then you have a child and realize you are clueless and the most knowledgeable experts in the world have less insight than you do about your child. (Note: That shouldn’t stop us from consulting them).
  3. Personal Development- I finally figured out how to be a good person after years of study and practice only to realize that I’ve mastered an exceptionally narrow lane and I have miles to go.
  4. Reputation- After significant effort invested in community service or professional endeavors, I make a mistake or suffer a humiliation in the presence of others.

I’m really glossing over these big categories but you catch my gist.

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Sometimes, nothing goes wrong but the things that were supposed to go right just never happen. We wake up and look at our lives through the eyes of our past selves. This is NOT what I signed up for. 

If you’re reading this – or if you’re not reading this- you did NOT sign up for your life. You were supposed to have kids by now. You weren’t supposed to get divorced. You were supposed to have a great job that you love. You weren’t supposed to be this old. Your finances were supposed to be better. You weren’t supposed to suffer with physical pain or illness.

So what now?

Dear family, friends, and me: Our lives are not what we signed up for but they are exactly what we need. Your life is tailor-made for what you need right now. The big gaping holes and the terrible messes are by design. So what is life asking of you right now? What are you supposed to be doing?

Maybe you need to focus on healing. Maybe you need to focus on sharing. Perhaps more time doing and less time thinking (perhaps more time thinking and less time doing). Move faster. Invest more. Slow down. Be deliberate. Whatever circumstance you have in front of you, there is something important being asked of you. Someone is calling.

Pick up the phone.

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Why I Get Depressed & How I Feel Better

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I’ll conveniently skip over my gross neglect of nearly two years and get right down to it. You know the thing that gets so many people down? We go through phases (if not longer) of sadness, low self-esteem, and feeling lost. Sometimes there’s a reason and other times, it’s foggy. On this eve of Cyber Monday, I’d like to make a suggestion. Perhaps Thanksgiving weekend is the quintessence of what plagues us.

I hate to pin this on Thanksgiving. I, for one, love Thanksgiving. As an orthodox Jew, Thanksgiving embodies a value that defines the Jewish people- gratitude. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word for Jew is Yehudi. The Hebrew root of Yehudi means thankfulness. I love the opportunity to be grateful in a country that has allowed me to connect with God as a Jew. (Side note: the irony that the patriotic and unifying holiday of Thanksgiving almost immediately followed an especially divisive election is not lost on me.)

So, I hate to pin this on Thanksgiving BUT consider this: Thanksgiving weekend begins with a shortened Wednesday of school or work for many. A break! A rest! A respite! Following that, Thursday brings a smorgasbord of delicacies from roasted turkey to mashed potatoes to a variety of pies. Oh, the eating! Many spend the afternoon flip-flopping between assuming the couch potato position in front of a televised football game or in a justifiable food coma. Just as a turkey-induced sleep threatens to become permanent, we are motivated out of bed by Black Friday. Ah, Black Friday. Who doesn’t love a good sale? Friday, for the die-hard shoppers begins early with a strong latte and ends late with a severely depleted bank account. On Saturday and Sunday, we begin pre-shopping for Cyber Monday, the Digital World’s parallel creation to Black Friday. I received an email on Sunday suggesting I urgently begin shopping NOW since by the time Monday actually begins, many items will be sold out (the horror!).

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To wrap up, there’s an inordinate amount of eating, napping, and shopping. Outrageously excessive. If this weekend came but once a year and was an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be concerned. I write because Thanksgiving weekend is a mere culmination of a general culture that considers consumerism to be a lifestyle.

We feel low because we can’t stop consuming. We feel depressed because we can’t stop consuming. We feel unproductive, unaccomplished, and incapable…because? You guessed it. We can’t stop consuming!

How do we climb out of our depression?

It’s actually simple. We just need to start DOING. Imagine giving instead of receiving! Creating instead of devouring! Take me for example. I just need to get up and write the blog post I procrastinated for two years. Alternatively, I can clean my room or even my inbox. Last resort, I can call a friend or feed my children (joking. sort of.) I just start doing something. Anything. Immediately.

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Sometimes, we need to pick ourselves up by our post-Thanksgiving fat pants, and DO. Self-correct and adjust as necessary but go directly to ‘DO’ mode before we become too bloated  and lazy to move.

I made a joke to a friend that I feel better eating my chocolate when I see her facebook photos of marathon running. While I perhaps won’t sign up for the next 5k run, I hope to keep moving, working, giving, and not waste a precious moment.

I’m A Masculinist

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Let me back up. I’m an advocate for the rights of women everywhere. Since I began my explorations in Judaism, I’ve taken particular interest in women’s creative expression, outlets, and roles. Part of this is because I’m naturally curious and passionate about the topic. The other part is…well, I’m a vocal and strong-minded woman! I never chose to be. Frankly, I never wanted to be! I always envied women who were a little docile, sweet types, the quiet ones. Those were ideal women to me.

But… not anymore. I have learned to appreciate all the different shades women are in the last decade or so. Now, I even appreciate the way I am. It’s for this reason that I choose to teach about the unique role of the Jewish woman and persist to ask tough questions. I find Torah values to champion women more than all other codes of conduct and value systems. As I continue to examine and understand, I am astounded by the lack of feminism in America today.

But I digress. Back to my new-found masculinism. I recently attended a lecture on the Jewish holiday of Purim and we were all speaking afterward about the prominent heroine, Queen Esther. We spoke about all the ways women today celebrate Purim and, for that matter, how women today celebrate Jewish holidays generally.

I (being vocal!) said that I wondered about how a Jewish woman can appropriately celebrate this holiday and all holidays when her primary role is the home. A Jewish woman is the foundation of the Jewish home and it is through her wisdom and strength that her home is built. On Yom Kippur, for example, when many go to synagogue to pray and repent, I lived in a neighborhood of Jerusalem where the women mostly stayed home that day with their young children. They barely saw the inside of the synagogue.

Is this the way Yom Kippur should be celebrated?

Moreover, Judaism today (for the vast majority of American Jews) is confined to the synagogue (or delicatessen- wink, wink). At present, the center point of a typical Jewish community is a synagogue. If only men show up on Yom Kippur, or only men are counted in the minyan, or men usually read from the Torah- where is the place in Judaism for women?

So women responded by: showing up, counting themselves in a minyan, and reading from the Torah. The sentiment being- if men can do it, so can we. The logic is certainly there.

But what if we’ve been looking at this whole Judaism thing backwards? What if our premise is altogether untrue and the decisions that have sprouted from that premise are then false?

I recently had a revelation thanks to a wise friend who quoted Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch zt’l. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that the Jewish people only recently began to view Judaism as being rooted in the synagogues. He was, of course, referring the synagogues of Germany at that time. He boldly declared that all the synagogues should be closed down for one hundred years because they were wrongly taking over as the center of Jewish life instead of the home. The actual center for the Jewish people, the way it’s been since the times of Abraham is, in fact, in the home.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold the phones!

If Judaism’s headquarters are the homes rather than the synagogues, and all the men are in synagogue and now all the women are shoving the men aside to lead the synagogues:

1. Who’s leading the Torah atmosphere in the homes?

2. Where does this leave men?

Ladies, I think we’ve made an error in our calculations. Our stake and our legacy in Judaism is our homes. Unmanned (unwomanned?), the Jewish home is desolate and lifeless.  We have a big gaping hole in the most critical Jewish location. Paging ground control!!

Also, because women are such powerful forces, where should men go when the one place they can express their Judaism has been taken over? There is no outlet for them anymore.

So, I guess I’m a masculinist. These poor shlubs need a woman to help them out of this rut!

To my lady readers, if you agree with me, let’s reclaim what’s rightfully ours and make space for the men who need real Jewish heroines in their lives to fight for their rights.

I’m not suggesting we boycott the synagogue. While I would support the brave words of Rav Hirsch, I somehow don’t see today’s Jewish leaders going to those extremes to make this point. SO if attending synagogue helps elevate your spirituality, why not go for it? But let’s renew our dedication to infusing the precious and holy Jewish homes with our intuition, joy, and infallible Torah values.