Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Av: Enhancing Our Relationships

Dear Friends,

This is a post about the Jewish month of Av, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Av begins this Sunday night, the 27th of July, and lasts for one day. Rosh Chodesh marks the beginning of the period known as the "Nine Days."

On the ninth of this month – Tisha B’Av – we fast to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. We remember a time when God “hid His face” from the Jewish people and we felt distant from Him. During this month, reestablish and deepen your relationship with God through the practice of Hitbodedut – talking informally to Him in your native language.

Speak to God for at least five to fifteen minutes, unburdening yourself to Him. Try this practice at least once, although preferably for a week or month and see how it can help you feel closer to God and to fortifying yourself with His comfort and support.

Continue last month’s focus on forgiveness and letting go of bitterness from the past. What is a step you can take to reduce or resolve an interpersonal conflict in your life? How can you bring more peace and acceptance to your relationships? How can you keep a disagreement from deteriorating into personal animosity?

We are a small nation surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction, as we see clearly with the fighting going on in Gaza. To defeat the hatred against our people, we need to defeat the hatred within our people. Between now and Tisha B’Av, go out of your way to be forgiving and overlook the faults of others. Go out of your way to be kind and loving to others.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

God’s Love is Stronger than Our Prayers: 4 Answers to, “What Happens to Our Seemingly Unanswered Prayers?”

We pray because we believe God cares about us and is all powerful. He wants us to have a relationship with Him and ask for His help. Yet, what are we to believe when we pray for something and there is no change in the difficulty, or the person we were praying for passes away? What happens to those seemingly unanswered prayers?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tammuz: Forgiveness (In the merit of the kidnapped teens)

Dear Friends,

This is a post about the Jewish month of Tammuz, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Tammuz begins Friday night, June 27th and lasts for two days, Shabbat and Sunday.

On the 17th of Tammuz we fast to commemorate the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple. This is the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks which ends next month on Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The Sages teach that a key reason the Messiah has not yet come to rebuild the Temple is because of the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew.

Especially now, when three of our own are being held hostage by terrorists, we must come together as a people and let go of hatred and infighting.

As a merit for their safe and speedy release, pick one person from whom you are estranged or feel bitterness toward, and take the first step to peace or to removing some of the bitterness from your heart.

The first article below discusses how to forgive others and the second, how to forgive ourselves. If you find one form of forgiveness particularly challenging, start with the other one. The third article is an updated and retitled version of a previous post about how to respond to a crisis.

The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go

Discover Your Inner Peace

4 Steps to an Effective Response to Someone Else’s Crisis

Take care, may we hear good news soon and may God grant us success in the coming month,

Yaakov

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

4 Steps to an Effective Response to Someone Else’s Crisis

Usually, when people hear about a crisis or tragedy, they either feel helpless or indifferent. But there is a third option, and that is to respond effectively. Here are four steps how.

1. Take responsibility. When a crisis happens to someone we know or to specific people we can identify with, we automatically want to help. However, when a crisis happens to a group of people, especially those we do not identify with, we may need to shake off our indifference. Instead of saying, “It’s not my problem,” we need to say, “It is my problem,” as we have an obligation to our Creator to help His children and creations as best we can. We need to feel a sense of personal responsibility. (Our level of responsibility will depend on our connection to those affected, our abilities and resources, and if adequate help is already being provided.)

The opposite of taking responsibility is looking for whom to blame. We have to hold people accountable for their actions and learn from the past. But assigning fault for no constructive purpose is counterproductive and distracts us from addressing the crisis.

We must also not lose sight of the fact that ultimately whatever happens comes from God, as the prophet Amos said (Amos 3:6), “…Can there be misfortune in a city, if God had not brought it?”

When we acknowledge the Divine hand in crisis and tragedy, we realize that God expects us to respond appropriately and effectively. He expects us to take responsibility, do what we can to help, look for ways to grow from the event, and strengthen our faith in Him.

2. Do what you can to help. Assistance can be divided into four areas. Sometimes, we can only help in one or two areas, other times, in all four:

a. Financial. A crisis can quickly throw a family or individual into debt, with people needing to take time off from work and incurring additional expenses. Offering an interest free loan, a cash gift or directing them to organizations that help people in their circumstance, can be a real lifeline. (As best you can, support those organizations.)

b. Spiritual. Choose something to do in their merit. For example, each day, say an extra Psalm, give extra charity, do an extra mitzvah or be extra careful to avoid a sin.

c. Material. Cook or shop for them, or invite them for Shabbat meals. Carpool, offer to watch their kids or take the kids on an outing.

While giving guidance can sometimes be helpful, don’t offer unsolicited advice. First determine if they are interested; people can easily become overwhelmed by an onslaught of well-intentioned suggestions.

Those in crisis are more likely to accept your offer of assistance if you are specific. Say, “Can I do X for you?” instead of, “If you need me for anything, you have my number.” Talk with them to identify the areas that would be most helpful for them, and respect their decision if they are not currently interested in your assistance.

d. Emotional. Just offering a shoulder to lean on or a listening ear goes a long way. We often overlook the importance of this type of help, but to people going through pain, the emotional support of family and friends is essential.

Some crises are loud – everyone knows about them. Others are silent and are easy to overlook, e.g., a person losing their job, a family unable to pay their bills, a single having trouble finding a spouse, or a teen at risk. They too require our attention and help.

Frequently, we are quick to offer support in the beginning, but if a crisis drags on or lessons, then our help slackens. For example, some widows have said that for the first month after their loss, people called and invited them. But then the calls petered out and now it’s as if they don’t even exist.

We need to have two phases of help. The first phase is in the beginning, when we do whatever we can to stabilize the crisis. Then comes the second phase, when we figure out how much help we can offer on an ongoing basis without depleting ourselves or ignoring our other responsibilities.

Enlist the help of others and coordinate who does what. This will ensure that no one person is overburdened and that the people receive the help they need, for as long as they need.

Our goal is to help people get back on their feet and help themselves, to the extent they can. This is especially important to remember when dealing with those who have dependency issues and expect us to solve their crises for them.

3. Look for ways to grow. No one knows for sure why crises happen; only God does. But what we do know is that they are an opportunity for growth. Ask, “What can I learn from this? How can I use this to become a better person and stay focused on what’s really important in life?” If nothing specific resonates with you, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor.

There is often an area where we have been sitting on the fence, either something we are doing we know is wrong and want to stop, or a mitzvah observance we want to strengthen. Use a crisis to propel you off the fence and make that one change you’ve been contemplating.

We frequently stumble in the area of interpersonal relationships. We may make excuses as to why it’s okay to gossip about or hate certain people, why it’s not a sin to cause them emotional or financial harm. But when a crisis strikes, all those excuses sound hollow and we realize how petty and wrong we were. Use a crisis as a catalyst to reach out to those from whom you are estranged and take the first step toward peace.

Sometimes, we pray and pray, but there’s still no change in a crisis. We cry out (Psalms 44:24), “Awaken! Why do you seem to sleep O Lord?” Often though, aren’t we the ones who are asleep and continue in our misguided ways? We need to wake ourselves up. Once we have changed for the better, we strengthen our prayers that God change the crisis for the better.

If a crisis turns into a tragedy that does not mean we didn’t do enough or that our prayers were in vain. God’s ways are beyond us and no prayer is ever wasted. Some good will come from those prayers; what and when we do not know.

4. Strengthen your faith. Having faith can help you be appropriately concerned about a crisis, without becoming consumed by it. If you are constantly checking the news, thinking about the crisis all the time, and walking around in a cloud of despair and worry – no one benefits; not you and not those affected.

With faith, we believe that God runs the world and that whatever happens – whether an outcome we want or one we dread – it will be for the ultimate good; everything will work out in the end, whether in this world or the next (as long as we put in our best effort, especially spiritual ones). With faith, we can’t explain how things will work out, but we know they will.

With faith, we know that God is by our side and that if we try to assist those in need and grow from a crisis, He will help us.

Although we might initially feel helpless when we hear about a crisis, there’s no time or reason for despair. We have work to do, and God is leading the way.


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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Revamped Checklist and Possible Entries List

Dear friends,

In response to comments, I have revamped the Daily Checklist as well as the listing of possible entries for your checklist. You can access either one, by clicking on their title.



The Daily Checklist can be used to incorporate any behavior into your daily routine. For example, exercise, reading a chapter from a book, decluttering etc. Using a checklist can be a very useful tool to stay on track and help us do the things we would like to do.

Feel free to reply to this email with any comments or suggestions. Or, you can use the comment section on the blog.

Have a Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,


Yaakov 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

Dear Friends,

This is a post about the Jewish month of Sivan, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Sivan begins Thursday night, May 29th. The holiday of Shavuot begins Tuesday night, June 3rd.

On Shavuot, we celebrate receiving on Mount Sinai the Torah, God’s instruction manual for life. Even those who are unaffiliated, without realizing it, observe part of the Torah. For example, take the 10 Commandments: Many believe in God, do not worship idols, honor their parents, do not commit murder, adultery etc.

Begin at whatever level of observance you are currently on, and during this month, pick one area to strengthen for at least this month. At the end of each day/week, check off on your check list if you kept that observance. (If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance.)

The majority of the 10 Commandments focus on what not to do. In the article below, we take a look at the hidden side of the commandments – the positive actions we can do to enhance our lives.

Reading for the month:

The Hidden Side of the Ten Commandments

Take care, have a Happy Shavuot and may God grant you success in the coming month,

Yaakov

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself: Discovering the gem that you are

Recently, a number of people have told me that they do not like themselves; some, even hate themselves. Many of us struggle with this issue. If you do, consider the following: You are going to live with yourself for the rest of your life, so take the time to develop a loving relationship.

To start, complete the following sentence: “I dislike/hate myself because I am _____.”

Most likely, you gave one or more of the following reasons: Unpopular and have few friends, not athletic or fit, overweight, unattractive, socially awkward, not smart, full of psychological issues, chronically ill, disabled, single, childless, broke, or out of work.

Those are superficial reasons. There are people who fit those categories who do not hate themselves; in fact, they love themselves. The question is why do those things bother you more than them?

Self-hatred is not caused by the circumstances of your life; it is caused by the thoughts about your life. Here are five unhealthy thought patterns which can lead to self-hatred and what to do about them.

1. You define yourself by external and temporary characteristics. Most of the qualities mentioned above define your current abilities or situation and change over time. (For example, a person may have few friends while in school but have a wider circle of friends later in life.) None of those qualities define who you are – your essence.

Your soul is your essence; the part of you that never changes, never ages and never leaves you. Your soul is with you in this world and will be with you in the World to Come.

Because you are your soul, it’s a misnomer to say, “I hate myself,” as there is nothing about a spiritual soul to hate. What you might hate are aspects of your material life and characteristics which you think are bad.

With our limited perception, it is understandable to wish things were different than they are. At the same time, you can learn to be more accepting of your difficulties by acknowledging that God, in His infinite wisdom, created every aspect of your life for your benefit.

2. You think others are better than you. Maybe in certain areas they are. So what? Your worth is not tied to what you can do; it is tied to who you are – one of God’s children, created in His image. As one of His children, you have intrinsic value and no one is “better” or more worthy than you. We all deserve respect, kindness and love.

In addition to the greatness inherent in every one of God’s children, there is something special about you: Your physical body and characteristics were custom made by God specifically for you. Your unique combination of strengths and weaknesses gives you access to your highest potential and enables you to fulfill your life’s purpose.

The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 37a) that each individual is obligated to say, “For me, the world was created.” The spiritual power you possess is so awesome that it would be worthwhile for God to create the entire world just so you could live an elevated life in it. Ignore anyone – including the critical voice in your head – who tells you you’re not good enough. God thinks you are and that’s all that matters.

Often, people who think others are better than them had someone hypercritical in their lives, and/or they did not receive enough positive reinforcement growing up. Seeing a recommended therapist can be beneficial. The therapist will help you realize that with hypercritical people, it was their issue not yours, and that you have done much to deserve praise, even if others never acknowledged your efforts and achievements. Going forward, it is important to avoid or at least minimize, contact with those who insist on being hypercritical, and to spend time with those who value you and are complimentary. For other suggestions, see my article, “6 Ways to Deal with Critical Family Members.”

3. You blame yourself for your mistakes. God is guiding your life; do not take your mistakes personally. Unless you willfully did what you knew was wrong or negligent, your mistakes come from Him for your highest good. What you thought was a mistake was just one step along the path leading to where you need to go.

Bring to mind a mistake for which you blame yourself and ask, “At the time of the incident, was I doing the best I could in a difficult situation?” (If you answered, “No,” discuss the issue with someone you respect.) Repair the damage to whatever extent you can and decide what you will do differently in the future. Then accept that whatever happened was God’s will for a reason you do not understand.

4. You have not accepted your flaws. Many of us feel deep shame over our weaknesses as if we are personally to blame for them. But since those weaknesses where given to us by God for our benefit, what is there to be ashamed of?

When we do not accept our flaws, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, often leading to failure. We may set the bar too high because we are trying to outdo others. But life is not about competing against others, it’s about doing the best we can. In God’s eyes, the playing field is level; everyone has equal access to their highest potential.

To reach your highest potential, look for pursuits which tap into your strengths and sidestep your weaknesses. Make the most of what you have – that’s all you need. If possible, see how you can turn a weakness into a strength. For example, you overcame a particular difficulty and now you want to help others do the same.

To help you accept your flaws, try the following exercise. Each time you think about a weakness, say to yourself:

This is from God who loves me; every aspect of it is from Him for my highest good. A key part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.

5. You ignore your good points. One of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in others and in ourselves. Make a list of your admirable qualities, your life struggles and how far you have come under very challenging circumstances. Preferably, ask your family and/or friends for help compiling your list. Daily, or when feelings of self-loathing erupt, look over this list: Appreciate your positive qualities and talents, feel compassion for your struggles and be proud of your accomplishments.

Use your good points to be more accepting of your weaknesses. The next time you are bothered by a weakness, read over your list of good points and say to yourself, “Well, I can’t have everything.”

Part of our life’s journey is accumulating good points, e.g., helping others, engaging in meaningful activities, and living an ethical and moral life. Combine living an elevated life with praising yourself for the choices you make and your achievements; this will enhance your self-esteem and self-love.

If you find it difficult to compliment yourself, try this exercise: At the end of each day, think of something praiseworthy you did that day and compliment yourself out loud. (Preferably do this while looking in a mirror.) Start by picking anything, even that you got out of bed and did your best to get through the day. If it feels fake to praise yourself, remember the advice, “Fake it, til you make it.” As you get into the habit of acknowledging your achievements, you will feel better about yourself.

To summarize, and phrase them in the positive, five healthy thought patterns characterize people who are not bothered by their weaknesses.

(1) They realize that a temporary characteristic can improve overtime and even if it doesn’t, that quality is only part of the overall tapestry that is their life; it does not represent their essence.

(2) They realize they have innate value; no one is “better” or more worthy.

(3) They do the best they can and when they make a mistake, they clean up after themselves. But they do not take their failings personally; they acknowledge that their mistakes are part of God’s overall plan.

(4) They strive for goals appropriate for their current abilities. They focus on developing strengths, shoring up key weaknesses which get in the way, and accepting the rest of their flaws.

(5) They compliment themselves for each challenge they overcome. When they need to correct themselves, instead of hurling insults, they use soft words of understanding and encouragement. They are hardworking, good and kind, and they know it.

Follow their example and over time, you will discover that you too are a likable person; in fact, you’re downright lovable.


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In the articles below, I discuss the following related topics which may be of interest to you: Self-acceptance, self-compassion, forgiving yourself, being less critical of yourself, and in the last article, an exercise to enhance feelings of self-worth:

3-Dimensional Acceptance: A Pathway to Peace and Power

6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood

Discover Your Inner Peace

6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit

Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You