Thursday, November 29, 2012

5 Reasons for Suffering

Nothing in life is random. God sends suffering to accomplish a specific purpose; there are reasons for our difficulties. While we do not know exactly what they are, there are general reasons we can address which will enable us to grow from and transcend our challenges.

Frequently, people respond to suffering by putting all their efforts into material strategies to alleviate their difficulties. For example, in a power outage, they look for batteries, flashlights and other emergency supplies; in a health crisis, they go from doctor to doctor in search of a cure; or, in a financial crisis, they think of ways to save and earn more money. While material efforts are important, clearly, the reason God sends adversity is not to cause people to wait on long lines for scarce supplies, frequent doctors or worry over their finances.

Ignoring the underlying spiritual cause of our difficulties is an exercise in futility; we cannot override God’s purpose in sending us challenges. When we also focus on the spiritual, we give our material efforts much-needed potency.

Underlying all the reasons discussed below is one fundamental truth: The purpose of our challenges is to benefit us (Tractate Berachot 60b).

Do not think the reason for your suffering is that God abandoned you. Nothing could be further from the truth. During times of difficulty, God is with you in your pain. He is by your side holding your hand, strengthening and encouraging you. He knows that with His assistance, you will make it through and emerge even stronger and better off than before.

At times, the pain we feel due to suffering is overwhelming and intellectual reasons for difficulties do not resonate with us. In that case, we have to transcend our egos – the part of ourselves in pain – and connect with our souls, which are always at peace. For help doing this, see, “Surrendering to God: 3 steps to transcend your ego.”

5 Possible Reasons Why We Suffer:

1. To strengthen our faith and acceptance of God’s will. One of the core opportunities of life is to have faith in God. Difficulties serve to test and strengthen our belief that God guides our lives for our highest good, i.e., that everything will work out in the end for our benefit. Sometimes, later in life we realize how we benefited, or we will discover this in the Next World.

Ask yourself: How am I resisting my current challenge and thereby adding to my suffering? How can I be more accepting of the situation? If I knew for certain that everything would work out, how would I feel about this difficulty?

2. To help us grow and improve. Generally, we learn more from our failures and challenges than we do from our successes. Suffering teaches us important lessons, e.g., humility, empathy, patience and perseverance. Through suffering, we discover our hidden strengths and abilities we did not know we possessed.

Ask: How can I grow from this challenge? How can I use this difficulty to become a better person?

Suffering can also help us improve by reminding us to increase our repentance, prayer, and charity. A key High Holiday prayer states that by enhancing these three components we can annul a harsh decree. Use suffering as a catalyst to repent for misdeeds, pray with greater fervor and give charity more generously.

3. To help others. Our difficulties give others the opportunity to be kind, appreciate their blessings, and learn from our example. In Heaven, there are no needy or sick people. This world is the world of opportunity, the place where we can accomplish great good and earn the bliss of Heaven. Therefore, in this world, to provide opportunities to do acts of kindness there must be people who suffer and struggle.

Most of us do not suffer our entire lives. We take turns, so we get a chance to be both the giver and the recipient. Because of this, if you are suffering, allow others to help you (God gave them resources so that they can do so). Suffering in silence defeats the purpose.

When people see someone with significant difficulties, it reminds them that their own problems are not so bad, and to appreciate the blessings in their lives. If we accept our struggles with grace, we will be rewarded for serving as role models to others; we show them that one can still maintain faith and accomplish great things even amidst towering challenges.

Suffering also reminds us not to take our blessings for granted, to be thankful to God for what is going right in our lives; even with all our difficulties, in many ways, we are still fortunate.

Ask: Who can I ask for advice or help with my challenges? For which blessing in my life will I thank God? How can I use this blessing to help others?

4. To send us a spiritual wakeup call and to cleanse unrepentant sins. When we feel pain in our bodies, it is a sign something is not right and needs to be addressed. Similarly, when we experience the pain of suffering, it can be a message from our Father in Heaven that something is not right and needs to be addressed. Perhaps, in an area of our lives, we are acting unbecoming of one of His children, or our priorities need realignment and we are not fulfilling our potential.

Sin soils the soul. In addition to alerting us to make changes in our lives, suffering can also be used to cleanse the soul from unrepentant sin. To avoid this, we can cleanse ourselves through the purifying power of repentance.

When doing a self-accounting, perhaps we should focus first on correcting any lapses in interpersonal behavior. That was the area Joseph’s brothers turned to when they experienced suffering. The verse in Genesis states (42:21), “They said to each other, ‘It is true, we are guilty for our brother, because we saw his distress when he pleaded with us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.’”

When possible, seek guidance from a rabbi as to which area(s) to address. Sometimes, we are overly harsh with ourselves and blame ourselves for actions that were beyond our control or for which we have already repented. (Your rabbi may advise you that in your situation, it is best to skip this area and focus only on the other four reasons discussed here.)

Ask: Which life goals are truly important? How can I spend more time achieving them and less time on distractions? Am I engaging in sinful behavior? How can I use this difficulty as a wakeup call to change for the better?

5. To refine and elevate our souls. When we suffer, material distractions tend to lose their allure and we focus more on the spiritual. We also realize that only God can help us and we draw closer to Him, elevating our souls.

God purifies and brings close to Him those whom He deeply loves. If you are currently experiencing suffering, know that you are especially dear and precious to Him. You are among the spiritual elite of the world, God’s vanguard. By accepting your suffering and maintaining your faith in Him, you infuse creation with sanctity, thereby playing a key role in sustaining the world’s existence.

Whatever spiritual level we reach at the end of our lives is the level of bliss we will receive in Heaven and the way we will remain – forever. The temporary difficulties we experience in this world benefit us eternally by enhancing our spirituality.

Ask: How can I use this challenge to strengthen my connection to God and become a more spiritual person?

These five reasons provide an action plan on what to do when suffering strikes: Accept God’s will, look for ways to grow from the challenge, engage in repentance, prayer and acts of kindness, thank God for what is going right in your life, think about who you can ask for advice or help, and consider how this difficulty may be a wakeup call.

While doing all of the above as best you can and engaging in material efforts as well, draw strength from the knowledge that everything will work out in the end, either in this world or in the next. In addition, realize that through your suffering, you are helping others, enhancing the sanctity of the world and increasing your future eternal bliss.

Frequently, before engaging in soul searching, people wait for suffering to be intense and to exhaust all other options. As soon as the difficulties ease up they call off the search. In your life, begin the search early and often, using every difficulty as a stepping stone for growth. Never stop reaching for higher levels of spirituality. Never stop yearning for God.

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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Debunking 5 Myths about Repentance

Imagine the city in late winter: Cold, cloudy, with large patches of soot-covered snow.

Then the spring rains come and wash away the remnants of winter, rejuvenating the city. Repentance is that healing rain, our Creator’s gift, which washes away accumulated impurities. Here are five myths about repentance, which hold people back from making use of this amazing gift.

1) “I don’t need to repent; repentance is only for hardcore sinners.”

We all make mistakes that need to be fixed. A plane is off-course 90% of the time; only because pilots make constant corrections does the plane arrive at its intended destination.

If we want to arrive at our intended destination – living an elevated life and earning the bliss of Heaven – we also have to make constant corrections. This is the essence of teshuva, the Hebrew word for repentance, which literally means returning: Returning from drifting off-course, returning to God.

2) “It’s too late; I’ve already done the unforgivable.”

Never think you are too far gone. The spiritual damage caused by sin is not permanent and remains external to who you are – a Divine soul. Your inner essence of sanctity and innate worth stays with you regardless of your past behavior. As one of God’s children, you have intrinsic value and the potential to change and grow; nothing can take that away from you.

There is no such thing as being damaged beyond repair. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, “If you believe you can damage, then believe you can repair.”

There is no sin for which repentance does not work. As Maimonides states (The Laws of Repentance 3:14), “…For nothing can stand in the way of repentance.”

If you need a sign that the gates of repentance are still open for you, feel your pulse; as long as you are alive, your Father in Heaven still beckons you to return to Him.

3) “Repentance is arduous and time consuming.”

Changing our behavior is challenging, that is why it is important to focus on changes that are within reach and not take on too much at once. The process of repentance though, is straightforward and can take less than five minutes. Do not underestimate the power of repentance to turn around your life.

For sins against others, we must first ask for their forgiveness and make amends, when possible, and then ask God for forgiveness.

There are three essential steps to repentance. For those sins which are ongoing, there is an additional preparatory step of refraining from the sin.

The 3 steps of repentance:

1. Feel regret. If you have trouble feeling remorse, think about how our Creator gave us a pristine soul to safeguard, along with many gifts – the human body, money, leisure time, etc. – to be used to bring this pure soul close to Him. Instead, we took the very gifts He gave us and used them to defile our souls – distancing us from Him and causing our Father pain.

Remorse is part of the purification process and motivates us to abandon harmful behavior. At the same time, always remember our Father’s endless love for us; He is waiting to grant us forgiveness and bring us close to Him, even after we have committed the worst sins.

2. Verbally confess to God and ask for forgiveness. “God, I have sinned by ___(preferably specify the sin). Please forgive me.”

3. Make a verbal commitment not to repeat the sin. If you doubt you will be able to keep your commitment, Rabbi Shaul Wagschal, in The Practical Guide to Teshuvah, advises you only focus on the present. Do not think about your past failures to improve or your doubts about future successes. Right now, do you sincerely want to never repeat this sin? If yes, then go ahead and make whatever commitment will help strengthen your resolve. Our Creator knows our limitations and does not expect perfection; all He asks is that we do our best to follow His will, and repent when we lapse.

A mnemonic to remember the three steps is RCC: Regret, confess, commit.

Writing down your resolution and reviewing it regularly can be helpful. When appropriate, tell others of your resolution, as an added incentive to keep it strong.

Have faith that after sincerely doing these three steps, your Father has forgiven you. Let go of guilt, let go of shame. You are now a new person, no longer burdened with that past mistake. According to the Sages, even in Heaven you will not be reminded of sins for which you have repented.

If you have trouble believing God has forgiven you, perhaps it is you who has trouble forgiving. Focus on becoming a more forgiving person. Then, you will have an easier time believing God has forgiven you. For details, see, “The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go.”

4) “I’ve committed too many sins; I’ll never be able to repent.”

Repentance is not all or nothing; even just thoughts of regret and longing to return to God elevates your soul and brings you closer to Him.

You will benefit from any amount of the purifying effects of repentance. The more you cleanse yourself, the more you repair and restore your connection to God which sin compromised.

The Talmud (Yoma 86b) teaches, that when people repent out of love for God (wanting to come closer to Him and fulfill His will) versus out of fear of Divine punishment, their past sins are turned into merits. The more sins you have committed, the more deeds you have waiting to be converted into merits. This is an incredible gift God is waiting to give you. Take advantage of this amazing opportunity.

If there is a particular sin you are especially motivated to repair, start with that one. If you do not know where to start, make a list of your sins. For help compiling your list, you can look at the section in the back of the Artscroll Yom Kippur prayer book which details the many sins people commit.

First do a basic repentance on all your sins by feeling regret and verbalizing both your sins and that you will do your best to avoid them in the future. Then go back and choose the easiest sin for you to stop doing. Make a firm commitment not to repeat this sin and focus your energies on keeping your commitment. If you do not think you can stop cold turkey, then break down the sin into small parts and commit to stopping one part at a time, or to a gradual reduction of the behavior along a specified schedule. You can speak to your rabbi or rebbetzin for personalized guidance.

Once avoiding that sin or doing that mitzvah which you had not been doing becomes routine, put a check mark next to it and pick another one. Eventually, with God’s help, you will succeed even in areas that are currently very challenging.

5) “I’ve tried to do better and failed; I’ll never be able to change.”

In the beginning, you might have trouble keeping your commitment. Sin has an addictive quality and it is challenging to break free from addictive behavior. To illustrate, smokers attempt to quit, on average, eight to ten times before they are successful. When attempting to separate yourself from the tentacles of sin, be prepared to fail, and be prepared to recommit and try harder each time, until you succeed.

Try the following three strategies to prevent repetition of the sin:

1. Implement safeguards to keep you far away from temptation.

2. Say to yourself, especially when thoughts of sin enter your mind, “I am the son/daughter of the King of kings. I refuse to act in a lowly manner,” or, “I’m not the kind of person who does that,” and think about something else. By letting the evil inclination know that your commitment to avoid sin is non-negotiable, you take the wind out of its sails.

3. Ask God to help you triumph in this struggle. With His help you will succeed and be cleansed of the harmful effects of the sin.

Your self-image plays a pivotal role in whether you will repeat a sin. If you think of yourself as a sinner, that is how you will act. Instead, if you lapse in your commitment to avoid a sin, immediately do the three steps of repentance. Then, tell yourself, “I am no longer the type of person who does that act.” Begin again with a clean slate and a fresh start.

King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (24:16), “Even if a righteous person falls seven times, he will get up…” The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explained that it is the rising from every fall which enables a person to become righteous. This means that every one of us – no matter how far we may have fallen – has the innate ability to become righteous by refusing to give up. If we pick ourselves up after every fall, our falls will serve as a springboard to incredible growth and achievement.

Tell yourself, giving up is not an option. Keep striving; keep getting up after every fall and with God’s help you will transform yourself into the person you were meant to be.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Repairing Our Mistakes: How to Ask for Forgiveness

Ever tell a child to apologize? Frequently, he or she would rather do almost anything else than ask for forgiveness. As adults, it is not much different. Why?

Requesting forgiveness means admitting we were wrong. This is a blow to our egos, which think we never make mistakes. But we can shrink our egos down to size by increasing humility.

One way to enhance humility is to remind yourself daily of the following: Everything I am and have accomplished is due to the help of my Creator. My successes and achievements come only from Him. He is my strength and with Him, I can do anything. Without Him, I can do nothing and would be totally helpless. In truth, without God, I am nothing; I wouldn’t even exist.

When we acknowledge our human frailty, we can then be on the lookout for our inevitable mistakes and immediately correct them.

There are numerous ways we harm others: Speaking negatively about them, making hurtful comments, ignoring or mistreating them, causing financial harm or withholding items or monies due.

The above list encompasses common behavior. Yet, many times we do not realize we have committed them. People frequently think they have done the right thing, even when they are grossly mistaken. As the saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” A frightening thought – if we often do not realize we harmed someone, emotionally or financially, how can we be certain we are not walking on that road?

1) Be brutally honest. When we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we are very good at rationalizing sinful behavior and fooling ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is technically OK. Ask yourself, “Even if what I’m doing is within the letter of the law, am I doing, “…What is straight and what is good in the eyes of God...(Deuteronomy 6:18)?”

The more complex and self-serving the logic needed to justify our behavior, the greater the chances that it is evil in God’s eyes. In the end, His view is the only one that matters.

Ask, “What do I want more: To be right or to do right? Am I willing to admit I was wrong in order to do what is right?”

When you are ready to do the right thing – your Creator’s will – at all costs and ask Him for assistance, He will help you achieve your goal.

2) Learn the law. Study the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal behavior. One resource is Rabbi Yitzchok Silver’s fascinating book, The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships. In addition, Rabbi Silver recently authored, Money in Halachah: A Comprehensive Guide to Business and Domestic Money-related Halachos.

Another important work on monetary laws is Halachos of Other Peoples’ Money by Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner. The title is telling; a common error which leads many to violate the prohibition of stealing is the assumption that “I’m not a thief; the money in question is mine.” When discussing a situation with a knowledgeable rabbi we may discover, in more scenarios than we expect, that God says, “The money in question is not yours, it is other peoples’ money.”

3) Ask your rabbi. Even when you think you know the law, in matters where you have a vested interest, it is important to consult with a rabbi for an unbiased perspective. King Solomon taught us (Proverbs 12:15), “The way of the fool is correct in his own eyes, but he who is wise listens to advice.”

In general, if someone has made a claim against you, financial or emotional, or if you caused someone distress in any way, either apologize and make amends, or go to a rabbi well versed in Torah law and find out how the Torah guides one to act. If possible, invite the other party to present their side, as you have a biased view of the situation.

A quick guide to asking for forgiveness

Motivate yourself: Asking someone for forgiveness requires sufficient motivation. To start, realize that God does not overlook the harm done to one of His children; if we do not do our best to right the wrongs we have committed, those sins will come back to haunt us.

In addition, think of the sense of freedom that comes with being forgiven, when the heavy weight of harm done to others has been lifted from your shoulders.

Some people do not want to apologize because they are concerned they will repeat the same mistake and make asking for forgiveness meaningless. Apologizing is not the equivalent of taking an oath never to repeat the offense. When we say we are sorry, we are saying: We feel badly we have caused them distress, we will make it up to them, if appropriate, and we are committed to do better in the future.

Make a list of those whom you have harmed: Consider family members, friends, neighbors, fellow congregants, business associates, former classmates, individuals with whom you are not on good terms and those with whom you have had a conflict in the past. (Even when we were right, frequently, we may have needlessly hurt other people.) Consult with your rabbi if you are unsure about the need to apologize to someone or if you think it will only make matters worse.

Commit to approaching the person: Once you have compiled your list, choose the person you think will be easiest to make amends with and pick a date on which you commit to call, write, or approach them. Focus on one or more people each week, until you have cleared your slate.

During the exchange: When you ask for forgiveness, be sincere and to the point. Acknowledge what you did and that it was wrong. Do not give excuses or minimize what happened. Express regret and make amends, when applicable. Use phrases such as: “I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” “Please forgive me,” or, “Do you forgive me?” Most of the time, people will graciously forgive us if we show sincere regret and a desire to make things right.

Sometimes, people are dismissive and respond to our request for forgiveness with, “Don’t worry about it,” “It’s OK,” or, “It was no big deal.” In that case, it would be best to say to them, “To get the most closure, I’d appreciate it if you said, ‘I forgive you.’”

The High Holiday season is an especially good time to ask for forgiveness. People are more likely to be forgiving then and the holidays provide a natural lead-in for the conversation, e.g., “Rosh Hashanah is around the corner and I would like to begin the New Year with a clean slate. I feel badly about the time I….”

Afterward: If they forgive you, thank them; they have just given you a gift. In the future, do the best you can to prevent a recurrence of the wrong that was done, and go out of your way to be helpful to them.

Once you have secured a person’s forgiveness, put a check mark next to his or her name and move on to the next person on your list.

Repairing the world one person at a time

Each individual is precious and is compared to an entire world (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). Therefore, when we harm someone, it is as if we have damaged the whole world. When we make amends and request forgiveness, it is as if we have repaired the entire world.

The world is in dire need of repair; many are hurting from wrongs done to them. From whom will you request forgiveness?

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Dealing with Distressing Memories

King David compared one who has faith in God to “…A suckling child beside its mother…(Psalms 131:2)” Imagine how an infant feels while resting after being nursed. When we realize our Creator is guiding our lives and we unconditionally accept His will, the peaceful feeling of complete reliance and contentment can be ours.

Maintaining an attitude of reliance and contentment can be very challenging, especially when faced with a distressing incident or memory. You may find the following exercise helpful. The first part of this exercise is based on the pendulation technique by trauma expert and author Peter A. Levine. In this technique, a person gently shifts awareness back and forth between focusing on something which currently brings up emotional distress and something which brings up emotional calm. This can help neutralize the emotional distress which the incident used to bring up.

Only do this exercise with memories you feel safe thinking about and not with ones that are overwhelming or very disturbing. In those cases, seek professional help, or at least read works focused on the treatment of trauma, such as those by Peter A. Levine, among other authors. If while doing this exercise you feel increased distress, stop the exercise, and do something else which you find calming and relaxing.

Exercise: Sit comfortably or lie down. Bring to mind the image of an infant resting after being fed. Imagine you are that infant, resting in the protection of your Creator who provides for all your needs. As best you can, try to tap into feelings of trust, safety, peace and contentment. To facilitate this, you can recall a time when you felt those feelings. You can also use a different calming image if you find that more effective.

Now, think of a distressing event – start with only a mild one. While visualizing yourself in the unpleasant situation, realize that you are like that infant, always resting in the protection of your Creator, no matter where you are. Gently shift back and forth, between visualizing the distressing incident and feeling the emotions associated with it, and visualizing the comforting image of the infant (or a different image) and feeling the emotions associated with that. Keep doing this, until you generally feel calmer, and/or are able to feel some feelings of safety and protection even while thinking about the distressing event.

When you are ready, begin the second step of this exercise which will incorporate the use of affirmations. While thinking about the distressing incident, say out loud, “My Father is always by my side.” Imagine a trusted confidante asking you, “How does it feel to have your Father always by your side?” Pause, while you tap into the feeling.

While still visualizing the distressing incident, say, “I relax into my Father’s support.” Imagine being asked, “How would it feel to completely relax into your Father’s support?”

Clear your mind of the incident and take a deep breath in. As you exhale slowly through the mouth, with a sigh of relief, feel your body go limp; allow yourself to completely let go and relax into your Father’s support. Do this for at least two exhalations.

Now rest in a state of being completely supported and protected.

After you have done the above technique a number of times, you can try the digest version: While thinking about or experiencing a distressing event, take a deep breath in and as you exhale slowly through the mouth think, “I relax into my Father’s support.” Do this for at least two exhalations.

An alternative exercise is to think while slowly breathing in, “God is with me” and while slowly breathing out, “I relax into my Father’s support.”
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Monday, August 6, 2012

Discover Your Inner Peace

Inner peace, the feeling of deep tranquility, is often sought after, yet seldom achieved. At the core of inner peace is acceptance: Accepting ourselves, and the life our Creator has given us. We achieve acceptance by making peace with ourselves over past mistakes and by making peace with our Creator over life’s challenges. After we have made peace with the way life has unfolded on the outside, we can find peace on the inside.

Making peace with ourselves

Forgiving and accepting ourselves is challenging. Yet, when we berate and harshly criticize ourselves, we do more harm than good. If a person views himself as worthless and bad, that is how he will act. We need to have a positive image of ourselves, one we will be motivated to live up to.

Do damage control: Before attempting to make peace with yourself for a mistake – whether as minor as burning dinner or as major as getting scammed – first take responsibility for the error and repair the damage as best you can. Depending on the situation, see if you have to first ask for forgiveness from others and/or from God (if you are unsure, speak to a rabbi).

Reflect:
Consider what you learned from the experience and what you will do differently in the future; write these down to refer back to. Then see if you can let go of the blame or guilt you feel about the event.

What if you cannot let go?

Acknowledge God is guiding your life: Unless you willfully did what you knew was wrong or negligent, your mistakes come from God for your highest good; nothing, not even our errors, happens without His permission. What you thought was a mistake was just one step along a path leading to where you need to go.

Embrace your imperfections: Who gave you your flaws? Who made you prone to error? God. Accept the way He created you – which is the optimal setup to fulfill your life’s purpose. In addition, acknowledge that no one is perfect; we all have challenges and make mistakes. Ask yourself, “At the time of the incident, was I doing the best I could in a difficult situation? Am I certain that if others where in my exact position – with the all challenges and issues going on – they would have done any better?”

Treat yourself as you would others: Frequently, we are harder on ourselves than on others. We may overlook a wrong someone else did, but consider our own mistakes unforgivable. Don’t we deserve the same compassion and acceptance? After repenting, God forgives us, shouldn’t we forgive ourselves?

Forgive: When you are ready, look in the mirror, think about the mistake you made and say out loud, “I forgive myself.”

If you have trouble forgiving yourself, perhaps you need to first focus on forgiving others. When you become a more forgiving person, you will have an easier time forgiving yourself. Also, focus on enhancing your self-image to help you realize that you are worthy of forgiveness (see, “How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself).”

Making peace with God


When life does not go as expected – especially when we experience physical, financial or emotional pain – we may feel that we have been treated unfairly by our Creator. We may even be bitter, resentful and angry. How do we handle such strong emotions? How can we become more accepting of the life our Creator has given us?

Express your pain: Nothing is wrong with respectfully questioning God. Throughout Psalms, God is asked why He is sometimes silent and appears to have abandoned us (Psalm 13 among others). We need to express our hurt to Him. We need to ask Him to reveal His sometimes hidden love. At the same time, we need to realize that God never promised a pain-free life – that is not the purpose of this world; this world is about overcoming and growing from challenges. Each challenge comes from God out of His love for us and is for our eternal benefit. We just do not understand the mystery of His ways. He is, after all, infinitely wise and we are not.

Expand your perspective: We can learn to be appreciative of the blessings God gives us and has given us throughout our lives. When we do, we will view the times we did not see His guiding hand in context with all the times He was clearly present, providing and protecting us. The periods of our lives marked by dark clouds do not reflect a change in His involvement, just a change in our ability to perceive His providence.

Accept unconditionally: The aspects of our lives we like – the gifts – and those we do not like – the challenges – both come from our Creator; they coalesce and form a unified whole. As Job said (Job 2:10), “…Will we accept the good from God and not accept the bad?”

Challenges, open us up and enable us to discover our inner gifts; the more intense our struggles, the more intense the gifts waiting to be uncovered.

Weave your unique tapestry: In truth, everything is a gift, some sugar-coated, others very bitter. God gives us the strands we need to fulfill our life’s purpose; we have to weave them together, the sweet and the bitter, into an exquisite tapestry that only we can make. If one strand was prematurely removed or absent, our life’s work would be deficient. At the end of our lives, we will present our handiwork to our Father in Heaven, with the hope that we have made our Father proud.

Reveal your inner sweetness: Sometimes, we call out to God in pain and ask, “Why? Why this suffering?” In the next world we will understand. For now, consider the following metaphor: Only when an orange is squeezed does incredible sweetness pour out. Within each one of us, emanating from deep within our souls, is incredible sweetness. When life is difficult – when you are squeezed and “hugged” by God – let your soul’s sweetness burst forth, returning His embrace, with an outpouring of heartfelt faith, sincere repentance, fervent prayer, and selfless acts of kindness. When God hugs you, hug Him back. When you hug God, out pours from the Heavens healing and blessing; not always when we want or in the way we want, but always when and what we need.

Pray: When you are ready, say to your Creator, “I know my suffering and difficulties come from You; they are out of Your endless love for me and for my ultimate good. I know You are all-powerful and infinitely wise and that I cannot understand Your ways. Help me accept, grow from and transcend my challenges.”

Discovering inner peace


You have an oasis of peace inside you. The door through which you enter this oasis is unconditional acceptance. To help you find this door, think about, throughout the day, that God is with you. He is guiding your life, protecting and strengthening you, and giving you exactly what you need for each moment. 

With faith, comes the awareness that nothing bad will happen to you, ever. Painful events? Definitely, but always for your highest good. You realize that come what may, “God is with me, I have no fear…(Psalms 118:6)”

While making reasonable efforts to improve your life, give over your problems to God and rely on Him to take care of you. Let go of worry, let go of fear, and relax into your Father’s support.
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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go

Learning to forgive takes effort. But here are two reasons why it is worth the bother.

First, forgiveness is an act of self-care. If you are bitter over the past, then the damage continues. Hatred festering in your heart harms you, physically, emotionally and spiritually. By choosing to let go of resentment, you no longer hold yourself hostage to the past. When you forgive, you choose to be free and cut the cords that bind you to the hurtful party, cords of hate, anger and bitterness.

Second, the Torah tells us, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). The Sages teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of hatred among our people, and that the redemption will come when we remove this poison from our midst. During a period called The Three Weeks, which culminates with Tisha B’Av, we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. We have to mourn, we have to pray; we also have to remove hatred from our hearts, ensuring that we are not holding up the redemption.

Forgiveness is not all or nothing; it exists on a spectrum. At one end is full forgiveness, where we release a person from our claim against them (excluding any money owed) and let go of resentment. At the other end, we reduce – even if only slightly – the animosity and bitterness we feel.

If the perpetrator is evil, it may not be appropriate to extend full forgiveness. Wicked people have brought themselves to a level lower than that of an animal. Sometimes, the best approach is to think of them as rabid dogs, protecting ourselves from them, and feeling neither bitterness nor forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean excusing the hurt or forgetting the past. We have to learn from our experiences and when necessary, keep a polite but safe distance from those who may hurt us again. For others, even after forgiving them, we have to be assertive and let them know how we would like to be treated and which behaviors are unacceptable.

Utilize the following three strategies to help you forgive:

1) Tap into your faith. Remind yourself that while people are responsible for their actions, no one can harm us without our Creator giving permission. As Jeremiah said (Lamentations 3:37), “Whose decree was ever fulfilled, if the Lord did not will it?” When we have this mindset, we no longer blame others for our pain and difficulties. They were only messengers; our challenges come from God for our eternal benefit. (For more on this topic, see, “Who Caused This Crisis?”)

In addition, our faith addresses a hesitation many have to forgiving. They think, “If I forgive this person, they are getting off scot-free.” This is not true. Every violation against another person is also a violation against God’s Torah; He prohibits harming His children. Even when we extend forgiveness and release our claim against the offender, unless the person repents, God still holds that person accountable for transgressing the Torah. With faith, we trust God and rely on Him to ensure that justice is done; there is no need to hold on to our personal claim against the offender and certainly no benefit in holding on to bitterness.

2) Do not assume people were intentionally hurtful. A large degree of the anger and hurt we feel toward others is fueled by mistaken assumptions of malevolent intent – we think people were out to get us. Ethics of the Fathers teaches (1:6; 2:5), “Judge every person favorably” and, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.” Most hurtful acts are not done to harm others; people usually think they did nothing wrong. Hurtful acts are often committed out of ignorance or due to misguided notions of what is appropriate. Factors leading to lapses in good judgment include being blinded by self-interest and sinful impulses, and failing to overcome difficult life circumstances and emotional issues.

Think about people who have wronged you and ask, “Is it possible they think they did nothing wrong? Do I sometimes make mistakes in judgment? Can I guarantee I would have acted differently had I been in their situation?”

3) Speak to the person who hurt you (when appropriate), or use imagery. Often, when people wrong us, instead of approaching them to discuss the issue, we give them the cold shoulder or cut off all contact. Here are three reasons why this is frequently a misguided approach.

(1) Has this person ever helped us in some way? Just because they did something hurtful, is it fair to ignore all the good they have done for us?

(2) Just because someone did something bad, does not make them a bad person. There is a lot more to each of us than one act or behavior. Do we ever make mistakes? Is it fair to expect perfection from others, when we have failings ourselves?

(3) Many times, people do not even realize we were hurt by them. Or, they feel badly about what they did and would like to ask for forgiveness, but are too embarrassed or afraid they will be rebuffed. When we bring up the issue with them, we give them the opportunity to either explain their behavior or apologize. Giving people this opportunity is a mitzvah, as Maimonides writes (The Laws of Moral Conduct 6:6), “When one person wrongs another, he (the wronged party) should not remain silent and despise him… Rather, it is a mitzvah for him to inform him and say, ‘Why did you do such and such to me? Why did you wrong me regarding this matter?’ As it states (Leviticus 19:17), ‘You shall surely admonish your fellow.’”

Speak to the person privately and when you are both calm. Be factual and do not make accusations. Focus on your side of the story, without passing judgment on their actions. Tell them what they did, how it made you feel and the ways in which you were affected. When done tactfully and respectfully, most decent people will apologize when they hear about the pain they caused. A sincere apology goes a long way toward helping us forgive.

Depending on how the above interaction goes, you may want to spell out exactly what you would like from them, e.g., “I would like an apology,” or, “I would appreciate if you did the following…(to make amends or prevent a recurrence).” Even if they refuse, you have done your part and aired the issue. Alternatively, instead of confronting them in person, you can write a note. This has cathartic benefits even if you decide not to send it.

An effective way to induce the other party to apologize is to take responsibility for the part, however small, that you did wrong (if applicable). When you ask for forgiveness for your part, the other party will frequently ask for forgiveness for theirs. Not only do you clean your slate and receive the apology you deserve, you also do an act of kindness by helping them apologize.

Use imagery

If you decide that it is not appropriate or practical to approach the person, you can still use the power of imagery. Close your eyes, relax your body and visualize telling the person who hurt you what he did, how it made you feel and how you were affected. After expressing your hurt, you can end the imagery there, by imagining the person receding into the distance and you moving on with your life. Or, you can continue the exercise by imagining him expressing remorse and sincerely asking for forgiveness (as he would likely do if you approached him in this way). Then, either tell him that you forgive him or that you will think about it, and then repeat this exercise at a later date.

Putting the strategies to work

Make a list of the people who wronged you in some way; include even close friends and family members, who we may harbor resentment toward, even though we love them. Start with the mildest hurt and ask yourself, “Do I want to forgive them?” If you do not, move on to the next person on your list; perhaps at a later date you will choose to forgive them.

For the ones you would like to forgive, before trying to forgive them, ask God to help you forgive them and remove the bitterness from your heart. Then, use any or all of the above three strategies. Afterward, if you are ready, picture the person’s face and say out loud, “___(his/her name), I forgive you.” You might find it helpful to look at a picture of them. After doing this, you may feel a perceptible shift or a feeling of release. Even if you do not, over the next couple of days, you may notice that you feel lighter and less bothered by the incident or person.

Now move on to the next person on your list that you would like to forgive. You can always return to an earlier hurt to see if you can let go of even more resentment and bitterness.

Learning to forgive takes practice. In the beginning, you may find the process challenging, but over time you will be able to let go of resentment with greater ease. Then, if someone says or does something hurtful, you can either discuss the issue with them, or picture the person’s face and say, “___(his/her name), I forgive you.” (If neither approach is appropriate, you can always try the other strategies.)

By making forgiving others a priority, we eventually free ourselves from the poison of hatred, leaving more room in our hearts for love and joy. Then we will say to God, “Father, we’ve stopped fighting; we’ve removed the hatred from our hearts. Can we please come home now?”

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Monday, March 26, 2012

How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan

(This post might be easier to read in the e-book format. The e-book is available here.)

Will you live a great life, productive and fulfilled? Will you look back on your life with a deep sense of satisfaction?

There is a simple test to help us find out. Think about your average day or week. Is it meaningful?

Because your life is made up of individual days and weeks, your answer to this question is a good indication of whether or not you are headed toward a fulfilled life.

Regardless of what you answered, your life can become even more satisfying. The following four-step action plan will assist you in coming closer to your Creator and following His wisdom for living. When you follow your Creator’s advice, you are guaranteed a meaningful life.

An essential element of life satisfaction is knowing you are making an impact, that life is not passing you by with little to show for it. Many search for fulfillment through fame, fortune or physical pleasures. As these pursuits are fleeting and rooted in the body – which does not last forever – by definition they cannot provide the lasting meaning we seek. True fulfillment is found when we enhance our spirituality; our souls are eternal and the benefits we receive when we nourish them are everlasting as well.

This action plan is not all or nothing; even following just one suggestion has the power to enhance your life. Read through the plan and select one suggestion to try. Make that change part of your daily or weekly routine. Once you have given this new behavior an adequate trial (usually around a month), decide if you want to continue it and/or choose a different suggestion to incorporate into your routine. Small changes will lead to consistent and sustainable growth. Overtime, you will uncover the path to your idealized self, the amazing, fulfilled and Godly person you were meant to be.

1. Enhance my relationships with others:

a. Do no harm. Avoid: speaking negatively about others, saying hurtful things, mistreating them, causing them distress in any way, causing financial harm or withholding items or monies due. If you lapse in this area – even inadvertently – as soon as possible, make amends and ask for forgiveness.

b. Do acts of kindness. Start with family members and those with whom you interact daily, and branch out from there. Show appreciation, consideration, interest, and empathy, and give warm greetings, compliments, and encouragement.

Give generously, preferably putting money in a charity box daily. Look for opportunities to be of assistance to others. Aim to do at least one act of kindness daily or weekly, e.g., volunteering, giving emotional or material support, advice, or helping someone find a job, a spouse or a needed resource.

One form of kindness is helping someone spiritually, assisting them in reconnecting with their heritage. Reach out to others by sharing an inspiring article, inviting them to study with you, go to a lecture or to a Shabbat meal.

Use your strengths to help others. Whether at work or during your free time, a key source of satisfaction is when you use your God given talents to help His other children. Ask yourself, “What am I good at and enjoy doing? How can I use my strengths to help others?”

c. Look for the good in others and in myself. One of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in others and in ourselves (Likutey Moharan I, 282). When we view others and ourselves with a broad lens, not ignoring faults but also acknowledging good points, we will be more forgiving toward others and ourselves.

A complementary practice is to realize that we all have difficulties and to feel compassion for our own challenges and for those of others. Each day, look for the good in yourself and others, and feel compassion for the struggles we all have.

d. Forgive. Those who live fulfilled lives are not stuck in the past. The Sages advise us to be slow to anger and quick to forgive (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:14). Anger and hatred festering in our hearts harm us, and without them, we are able to benefit most from the present. Each day, while not forgetting lessons learned, turn a new page and let go of bitterness from the past.

e. Learn the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal behavior. Begin each day studying the laws of relating to others. A fascinating book on this topic is, The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver. This highly recommended book is divided into small segments for daily study. You can subscribe to a free email of each day’s segment at http://jvalues.ohrsites.com/subscribe.php.

Other resources on how to elevate our interpersonal behavior are http://www.chafetzchayim.org, which has books you can read for free online, and The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, which sends out free daily emails. See endnote (1) for details.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has a number of popular books on the topic of Jewish ethics, which are especially suited for those with minimal background.

In addition, read works targeting the specific area of interpersonal relationships you are currently dealing with, e.g., dating, marriage, parenting or relating to your parents.

2. Enhance my relationship with God:

a. At the start of each day, ask, “Why am I here?” Remind yourself that God created you to come closer to Him through the choices you make, thereby earning the bliss of the Next World. Every day, choose wisely: Choose to have faith in your Creator, to be grateful to Him, to follow His guidelines, to be kind, to be ethical and moral and to make time for Torah study and prayer. Each day, through your choices, you will either come closer to your Father in Heaven or further away.

b. Thank my Creator for one of His blessings, and express love for Him. Each day, spend time feeling grateful for the blessings your Creator gave you. Thank Him for His many gifts, the bright side/silver lining of your difficulties, and for signs of His help amidst your challenges. Throughout the day, when you notice something going right or that benefits you, say, “Thank you God!” Aim to awaken daily feelings of love and gratitude to your Father for all that He does for you.

We need to be grateful not only to God, but also to His messengers, thanking those who benefit us. When expressing your appreciation to God and to others, keep in mind these three principles. First, do not take anything for granted. Even if you receive a particular benefit regularly, you still need to thank the giver. Second, instead of just saying a perfunctory, “Thanks,” elaborate on how you have benefited and how much it means to you. Third, be on the lookout for ways to help the other person. Although God does not need our help, we show our appreciation to Him by keeping His Torah to the best of our ability – which is for our benefit anyway.

c. Take care of the body my Creator entrusted with me. When we neglect our bodies, we not only disrespect ourselves, we disrespect our Creator. By making eating a healthy diet, and getting adequate sleep and exercise a top priority, we do our part to preserve our Creator’s precious gift of health.

d. Pray with understanding. Pick at least one section of the daily prayers to say with understanding. For that section, make it a rule not to say the next phrase until you focused on the meaning of the previous one. Read the words with the speed and intonation you would use when speaking to someone, after all, you are speaking to God. Ask yourself, “How would I say these words if I really meant them?”

e. Recite Psalms daily. Every day, recite at least one Psalm with understanding (longer Psalms can be read over two to three days). This will enable you to complete the book of Psalms twice, in under a year. Think about your personal situation and the struggles of others to infuse the timeless words with new meaning.

f. Study the Bible daily. Preferably, study each day one seventh of the weekly portion, called an aliyah. Or, learn the whole portion on Shabbat. By the end of the year you will have studied the entire Bible. For more details, see endnote (2).

g. Throughout the day, sense God’s all-encompassing presence, and feel awe before Him. Remind yourself that God’s glory fills the world – His presence is in every cell and atom. Realize, that you are standing before God at all times. Feel reverence and awe before the Almighty. Men, can periodically touch their Kippot and think, “I have set God before me always...(Psalms 16:8)” Women, can use their modest clothing as reminders that they too have set God before them.

h. Practice Hitbodedut. Each day, talk out loud to your Father in your native language. Thank Him for His many gifts and tell Him how you yearn to come closer to Him. Describe your struggles and ask for His help. As part of Hitbodedut, review your day and consider how you did in living your values. Repent your mistakes, decide on changes you will make and build on your successes.

i. Increase my faith in God and my acceptance of His will. Use difficulties to bring you closer to your Creator. Ask for His help and make reasonable efforts to improve the situation. Each day, think of one challenge in your life and remind yourself, “This is from God for my eternal benefit. Right now, this is the best possible situation for me. 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.”

3. Enhance my Torah observance:

a. Live the Torah to the best of my ability. When we follow our Creator’s wisdom for living, we fulfill our Divine potential. We bring the Torah’s holy teachings inside us, cleansing and elevating us.

Observance is not all or nothing. The Torah’s laws contain multiple tiers, starting at the bottom with the most essential, on up to more optimal performance. A common mistake is to ignore a whole section of laws just because some of the higher – more optimal – levels seem beyond our ability.

Focus on the laws within your reach and do not attempt too much at once. Accomplish what you can and do not berate yourself or discount what is currently beyond you. With God’s help, you will be able to reach those levels as well. To facilitate this, study the laws regularly, preferably daily. The Sages teach that one who studies the laws every day is assured a place in the Next World (Tractate Niddah 73a). For guidebooks on Torah observance see endnote (3).

b. Choose a rabbi to guide me. Ethics of the Fathers encourages us (1:6), “Make for yourself a rabbi…” Your rabbi will advise you which tier of observance is currently most appropriate for you and how, overtime, to upgrade your observance at a pace that is achievable. Choose a rabbi you respect and one who is accessible and understands your situation. For tips on how to find a suitable rabbi, see endnote (4).

Everyone needs a mentor and guide to advise them on life issues. If you cannot find a rabbi or rebbetzin to serve as one, locate someone wise with life experience who shares your values.

c. Observe the Torah as mindfully as possible, to fulfill God’s will.

In addition to following the Torah, the goal is to do so in order to fulfill God’s will – without ulterior motives – and to fulfill His will as mindfully as possible. Before doing a commandment, ask, “What am I about to do and why? Before whom am I going to do it?” Bring to mind that you perform the commandments before God to fulfill His will and that through them you draw closer to Him.

d. Stay away from temptation. When we are vigilant and stay away from temptation, we are usually able to refrain from sin. Ask, “Which areas do I frequently stumble in? What safeguards can I implement to keep me far away from sin?”

e. Repent and begin anew. Repentance, a precious gift from our Creator, enables us to remove the damaging effects of sin. It repairs and restores our connection to God. Repentance is best done regularly, as soon as we veer off track. To repent, do the following three steps: (A) Feel regret (B) Verbally confess to God and ask for forgiveness (C) Make a verbal commitment to do your utmost not to repeat the sin. (For sins against another, we must first make amends and/or ask for forgiveness.)

4. Become spiritually refined:

a. Study Torah daily. Set aside daily inviolate times to study Torah – even if only to read a few pages from a book. Study an area that interests and inspires you, preferably with a partner. Your local synagogue can help you locate one, or you can contact http://www.partnersintorah.org/ and study with someone free of charge.

Every Jew has a unique portion in the Torah – one that resonates most deeply. Part of our life’s mission is discovering and claiming our specific portion. It might be a particular commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the entire 24 books of the Bible (also called the Tanach), Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, Jewish law or thought, works on spiritual development, the deeper meaning of Psalms and the prayers, Chassidut or a combination of the above. You will know you have found your portion in Torah, when your learning becomes a highlight of your day or week.

Many find Chassidic thought to be especially inspiring. There are excellent works from Chassidic Rebbes available in English. You can sign up for free emails of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s teachings at http://www.narrowbridge.org.

For more details on utilizing the power of Torah study, see endnote (5).

b. Speak calmly and in a refined manner. As best you can, always speak calmly and respectfully, even when provoked. When you are upset, it is best to wait until you calm down before talking to someone who is likely to further upset you.

Rebbe Nachman taught (Likutey Moharan 19) that the purity of our speech influences our moral purity. Ask, “Are there any inappropriate words which I choose to remove from my vocabulary?”

c. Use humor judiciously. Humor is a potent tool to enhance our moods as well as those of others. At the same time, misused humor can be very damaging. Here are five types to avoid:

i. Using other people (or groups of people) as the but of your jokes, even if they tell you they don’t mind. It is lowly to make fun of others and frequently people do mind, even if they are too embarrassed to admit it.

Some forms of kibitzing (joking around with people), fall into this category. People often kibitz with those with whom they are close. There’s nothing wrong with – when appropriate – cracking jokes or making lighthearted comments. However, when kibitzing involves making fun of someone or saying things which would be considered insensitive if said to those with whom we are not close, it should be avoided. Here are three reasons why: 1. Usually, the only one enjoying the kibitz is the one doing the kibitzing and it is easy to cross the line and offend the other person. 2. Even if we do not offend the person, making fun of them certainly does not strengthen the relationship or make them feel good – what our goals should be when speaking to others. Family and friends deserve to be spoken to with extra care and tenderness, not less. 3. It is pas nisht (unbecoming) to speak in that manner and we can easily get into bad habits and speak that way to those who will get offended.

ii. Jokes where you need to add at the end, “Just joking” to clarify your intent. Frequently, “Just joking” is another way of saying, “The jokes on you.” We have to ensure that we are laughing with others, not at them.

iii. Vulgar jokes.

iv. Cynical or sarcastic comments.

v. Mocking or ridiculing serious topics. It is destructive to make jokes which cheapen or degrade how we view that which is holy or important.

If we take everything seriously, life becomes burdensome. If we take nothing seriously, life becomes one big joke – devoid of meaning. Instead, take the middle path: Don’t take things too seriously, but don’t make light of serious things.

d. Seek an uplifting environment. Are your current friends, work and community supportive, or at least do not negatively affect your spiritual growth? If they are negatively affecting you, do what you can to find a better environment and surround yourself with those who are a positive influence and role models. In addition, visiting Israel and especially moving there is supremely elevating. Nefesh B’Nefesh, http://www.nbn.org.il, is an organization that helps people move to Israel.

Social support is crucial for our spiritual, emotional and physical health. Make sure you have family members, mentors and/or friends with whom you share your struggles. We need people who will encourage us to strive for greatness and reach beyond our comfort zones; people who will celebrate our successes, help us regroup after disappointments, support us during challenging times and set us straight when needed.

We all have blind spots. When you are ready to be courageous, ask someone close to you which area of your life most needs strengthening. Positive feedback is also important, so also ask them in which areas you excel.

e. Purify and elevate my thoughts. The Torah cautions us (Numbers 15:39), “…Do not stray after your heart and after your eyes…” Throughout the day, we need to protect our thoughts and eyes from impurity as best we can. These include thoughts of committing any sinful act. Although what pops into our heads or fields of vision is largely out of our control, we can decide to redirect our focus elsewhere – to thoughts of God, His Torah and helping His children –and when possible, to avoid temptation in the first place.

Your thoughts – your innermost core – determine your actions and define you. As Rebbe Nachman said, “You are where your thoughts are (Likutey Moharan I, 21:12).” When you think Godly thoughts, you say to God, “I want to be with You.”

Below, is an outline of this action plan. After reading it, ask yourself, “How would my life be if I lived this plan to the best of my ability? Would my life be much more fulfilling and satisfying than it is now?”

Once you have decided that living this plan, or part of it, is your long term goal, ask God to help you achieve this goal and commit to making small doable changes to turn your goal into a reality. Start by downloading a copy of the Daily Checklist (or make your own). Input into this weekly checklist the behavioral change you have chosen to start with. At the end of the month, choose an additional area for the coming month and add it to your checklist.

For suggestions on which topic to focus on each month, see the chapter, “The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.” If you hit a snag, or for personalized guidance, consult with your rabbi, rebbetzin or spiritual mentor.

Read your checklist at the beginning of the day and aim to fulfill each entry at the earliest opportunity, or at a designated time. As you do each entry, put a check mark by it. At the end of the day, read over the sheet and perform any entries you have not done yet. Congratulate yourself for each entry you do and for those you lapsed in, encourage yourself to start fresh tomorrow.

As you progress and come closer to living the life your Creator intended for you, you will discover that you feel happier, more content. Pursuits which enhance sanctity become sweeter, more enjoyable. Life is richer, more meaningful. Your relationships are deeper, more genuine. You are kinder, more compassionate. You have become more like your Father, more Godly. Your hard earned spiritual growth will enable you to have a deeply nourishing and satisfying relationship with God in this world, and to an infinitely greater extent, bask in the bliss of His presence in the World to Come.


Outline of, “How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan.”

1. Enhance my relationships with others:

a. Do no harm

b. Do acts of kindness

c. Look for the good in others and in myself

d. Forgive

e. Learn the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal behavior

2. Enhance my relationship with God:

a. At the start of each day, ask, “Why am I here?”

b. Thank my Creator for one of His blessings, and express love for Him

c. Take care of the body my Creator entrusted with me

d. Pray with understanding

e. Recite Psalms daily

f. Study the Bible daily

g. Throughout the day, sense God’s all-encompassing presence, and feel awe before Him

h. Practice Hitbodedut

i. Increase my faith in God and my acceptance of His will

3. Enhance my Torah observance:

a. Live the Torah to the best of my ability

b. Choose a rabbi to guide me

c. Observe the Torah as mindfully as possible, to fulfill God’s will

d. Stay away from temptation

e. Repent and begin anew

4. Become spiritually refined:

a. Study Torah daily

b. Speak calmly and in a refined manner

c. Use humor judiciously

d. Seek an uplifting environment

e. Purify and elevate my thoughts


Endnotes:

1. Regarding daily emails from The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation: For a discussion on the laws and deeper significance of guarding against gossip, email alesssonaday@chofetzchaimusa.org. For a discussion on just the laws of gossip, email dcompanion@chofetzchaimusa.org. For a discussion on the mitzvah of loving kindness, email kindness@chofetzchaimusa.org. For a discussion on faith and integrity, email truth@chofetzchaimusa.org. For a discussion with anecdotes on the power of speech, email positive@chofetzchaimusa.org. For all of the above, type “subscribe” in the subject heading.

2. After you are comfortable reading the weekly portion in a language you understand, the next level goal is to fulfill the Rabbinic enactment of Shnayim Mikra. This is done by reading each verse of the weekly portion in Hebrew twice (if you recite the portion softly while hearing the Bible read in the synagogue on Shabbat, then you only need to read it once more on your own) and to read a translation once. Translations/commentaries in order of preference are: Targum (a translation in Aramaic) or Rashi (a commentary originally in Hebrew and also available in English), or an authentic translation in a language you understand. Artscroll’s Stone Edition Chumash has an excellent translation and commentary.

A next level goal, in addition to studying the weekly portion, is to study the Prophets and the Holy Writings as well (part of the Tanach, of which Artscroll has an English translation). By learning one chapter a day, you will complete them in two years. This practice is called Nach Yomi. One resource to assist you is http://www.ou.org/torah/index#/nach.

3. Guidebooks on Torah observance:

a. An informative and entertaining overview is Gateway to Judaism: The what, how, and why of Jewish life by Rabbi Mordechai Becher. It is currently available at a steep discount through the publisher’s website http://www.artscroll.com/Books/gtjee.html. Two chapters are also available as a free download.

b. Aish Hatorah features a currently free online course on the laws of daily living at http://www.jewishpathways.com/daily-living.

c. A detailed compilation of foundational laws of Jewish living is the English book, Shaarei Halachah: A summary of laws for Jewish living by Rabbi Zev Greenwald.

d. A book, also published by Feldheim, which complements Shaarei Halachah is, Guide to Halachos: Volume 1 and 2, by Nachman Schachter, edited and approved by Rav Moshe Heinemann.

e. Nidchei Yisrael (available in English), was authored by the towering sage, the Chofetz Chaim. He wrote this book for those Jews who had left their European communities and needed guidance on how to stay observant. We still struggle with the issues he mentions and will benefit from his wise words. This book can be read for free at http://www.chafetzchayim.org. (Please note, this work was written for those who grew up religious. If you did not, speak to your mentor before reading).

f. The Chofetz Chaim addresses integrity in business in his Sfat Tamim, available in English, and can be read at http://www.chafetzchayim.org. In addition, you can receive from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, free daily emails in English which feature Sfat Tamim, by emailing truth@chofetzchaimusa.org with “subscribe” in the subject heading.

g. The 39 Melochos: An Elucidation of the 39 Melochos from Concept to Practical Application by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat, is a multi-volume set which clearly explains the laws of Shabbat.

h. The Kosher Kitchen: A Practical Guide and A Woman's Guide to the Laws of Niddah, both by Rabbi Binyomin Forst, teach the laws of these fundamental observances.

i. Money in Halachah: A Comprehensive Guide to Business and Domestic Money-related Halachos by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver. This is an important work to have in the house; read the chapters which apply to you and consult with the rest as needed.

j. Here is a possible study schedule of the above: Beginners should start with a and/or b; this is optional for others. Then move on to c and d. Afterward, study e and f. Then branch out and study specific areas in depth, for example, g, h and i. If a particular work does not resonate with you, find a substitute (there are many other fine books to choose from) or skip to the next topic for now. (This study schedule presumes you are already reading, via email or the in-print version, Rabbi Yitzchok Silver’s The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships.)

It is important to keep in mind when reading books on Jewish law, that some books may incorporate stringencies which are not appropriate for your situation. If you read a law which seems overly difficult for you to fulfill, discuss it with your rabbi.

k. In addition to learning the laws, read inspirational stories about people who have chosen to live the Torah’s guidelines. Ask yourself, “How can I follow their example on my level?”

i. One collection of such stories is Like Water on a Rock: True stories of spiritual transformation, which is a compilation from http://www.Aish.com, by Rabbis Nechemia Coopersmith and Shraga Simmons. Feldheim, Artscroll and Targum, among others, publish works of this genre.

ii. Most Jewish biographies are written about famous rabbis and rebbetzins. The following one is not. It is about a business man who utilized his talents and resources to help others. Shlomie! A life of growth and achievement By Rabbi Shimon Finkelman.

4. Tips to find a rabbi:

a. Consider the rabbinic members of your community: Pulpit or shtieble rabbis, those who learn in kollel, teach, work in some other capacity or are retired. In addition, ask friends, neighbors and family who their rabbi is. Some communities have few rabbis. While this can make it more challenging, it can also narrow the search.

b. Think of rabbis who have crossed your path or those of your children or spouse and try to reconnect with them. A frequently overlooked resource is the rabbis who taught you in school or taught your children.

c. When you hear of rabbis visiting your community, you can go to their lectures, host them or otherwise assist them. If you connect with them, ask if it would be OK to contact them periodically with questions. Alternatively, gather a few families and sponsor a scholar-in-residence to come for a Shabbat at least annually, and maintain contact with him during the year.

d. Compile a list of possible rabbis to choose from and select one who seems most appropriate. Attend his classes or ask him questions and see if you can foster a connection. If it doesn’t work out, move on to the next one on your list. It can be challenging to find a suitable rabbi; keep searching until you find the right one.

e. There is nothing wrong with having more than one rabbi, e.g., one to ask questions on observance and another, on Jewish thought or life issues.

f. If you are unable to find a rabbi to ask religious questions, there are websites which offer, “Ask the Rabbi” services. Make sure you use one that is authentic.

g. Pray to God to help you find a suitable rabbi from whom you can learn and grow.

For women, having a rebbetzin they consult with is also very important. The above tips can also be helpful in locating a rebbetzin.

Be respectful of a rabbi or rebbetzin’s time. If you avail yourself of their expertise, especially ongoing, it is appropriate, when possible, to become a member of their synagogue, or support their school/organization.

Especially if you have limited access to a rabbi, having a spiritual mentor can be very helpful. If there are no such individuals in your community, contact http://www.partnersintorah.org/, who will pair you with one to study with for free.

5. Further discussion on Torah learning:

a. Search for authentic teachers who resonate with you and pick your preferred medium – audio, visual or print. An underutilized resource is MP3 Torah classes, which are great to listen to while commuting and when doing tasks that do not require your full attention. There are many excellent classes freely available online or reasonably priced.

b. The 6 Constant Mitzvos. This book is based on a series of lectures by Rabbi Yitzchok Berkowitz, and written by Rabbis Yehuda Heimowitz and Shai Markowitz. The table of contents and an excerpt can be found at http://www.artscroll.com/images/insides/sixh-1.html#view-link.

c. Step by Step: A Weekly Program for Self-improvement compiled by Rabbi Dovid Weinberger. The table of contents and an excerpt can be found at http://www.artscroll.com/Books/SBSH.html. This contemporary work explores 52 traits, one per week. Each day, focus on embodying the trait of the week, or its positive expression.

d. Passionate Judaism: An Inspirational Guide For A Happy And Fulfilling Life by Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss, contains wise advice on a variety of fundamental topics.

e. Building A Sanctuary in the Heart (Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh), is a popular and very helpful book which explains how to deepen your relationship with God. This book can be read online at http://bilvavi.net/content/category/8/49/57/.

f. Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter’s inspirational writings can be read here.

g. English translations and adaptations of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings can be found at http://www.breslov.org/.

h. Those with sufficient background can listen to audio classes on Rebbe Nachman’s Likutei Moharan given by Reb Nasan Maimon at http://www.breslovtorah.com/section/likutei-moharan-book-1/.

i. The classic, The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto is published by Feldheim and Artscroll, the latter publishes this work under the title Mesillas Yesharim: Way of the Upright. You can study this work at your own pace, or follow the schedule below (based on the Feldheim edition) which will enable you to finish this book in a month. Read one chapter a day, with the author’s introduction counted as a chapter. Exceptions: Chapters 11 and 12 are read over four days – around 8 pages a day. For chapters 14 &15, and 24 & 25, read each set on one day. Read chapter 19 over four days – around 7 pages a day. The epilogue is not included in this cycle and for months that are not 30 days, adjust accordingly.

Pay special attention to chapter 11, an eye-opening discussion on commandments which many stumble in. By reading around one page a day (in the Feldheim edition or three pages a day in the Artscroll), you can finish this chapter monthly and maintain an ongoing awareness of those commandments.

j. The classic, Duties of the Heart by Rabbeinu Bachya (available from Feldheim) is divided into gates which deal with specific subjects and those gates are further divided into chapters. Traditionally, the first gate is not studied nowadays. The most famous gate is the fourth one: The Gate of Trust. You might want to study that one first. As you go through the gates and chapters, if one of them does not resonate with you now, skip to the next one; you can come back later. If one especially resonates with you, revisit it at a later date, savoring each point.

After finishing the book, consider studying each day of the month one of the thirty concepts mentioned in the third chapter of the eighth gate, the Gate of Self-Accounting. This way, each month you will review these fundamental ideas.

k. A fast track method to spiritual growth is to take a couple of days or weeks off to immerse yourself in intensive Torah study. See if you can do this once a year or at least every other year. You will then receive an infusion of renewed spiritual strength. A number of places, especially in Israel, can tailor a program just for you. As an example of what is available, here is a listing of Aish Hatorah’s programs for all levels http://www.aish.com/ai/ip/96276423.html. If taking time off is not currently feasible, perhaps you can go on a Shabbaton or invite an inspirational rabbi or rebbetzin to your community for a Shabbat.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The 2 Forms of Divine Providence: Purim and Passover

Divine providence exits in two forms. One, symbolized by Passover, is explicit providence. This is when it is clear God is in charge. During the Exodus, when He brought the Ten Plagues, even the Egyptians realized God was orchestrating events to free the Jews.

The second form, symbolized by Purim, is implicit providence. This is when God guides our lives behind the scenes. There were no blatant miracles during Purim, no plagues brought against the wicked Haman. The commentators point out that to symbolize this concealment of Divine providence, in the Megillah, the written story of Purim, God’s name does not appear once! Nevertheless, we are awed at how our Creator wove disparate story lines into a breathtaking tapestry, culminating in our salvation.

Only if God wills it

Both Passover and Purim illustrate the key principle of faith that no one can harm or help us without God willing it to happen; nothing occurs without His permission. During the Exodus, who enslaved the Jews? Pharaoh. Who later begged them to leave? Pharaoh. During Purim, who authorized the extermination of the Jews? King Achashverosh. Who was later instrumental in saving them? King Achashverosh. Both were powerless to act against or for the Jews without God’s permission.

If God does not will something to happen, it won’t. Before attempting to benefit yourself, ask your Creator for help; you will only succeed with His assistance. Because God is all powerful, there is no difficulty or crisis He cannot solve; He can do anything. No situation or person is too far gone; God can still redeem them from the abyss. Because of this, never give up: Never give up on life, on others and especially not on yourself. With God’s help, anything is possible.

“God, are You there?”

Most of us believe God created the world. For some of us though, there is a doubt which lurks in our hearts. “Does God care about me? Will He help me?” During times of profound darkness this doubt rises to the surface and we ask, “God, are You there? Are You guiding my life? Where is Your help?”

Perhaps, during the period of slavery in Egypt and when threatened with extermination during the era of Purim, some of our people had similar questions. God answered them then and His answer continues to be a source of faith for our people. During the Exodus, God showed through wondrous miracles that He does care about us and that He is there for us. He is willing to move heaven and earth to redeem His people. Later in history, during Purim, God demonstrated that He does not need to perform blatant miracles to show us His love; His love is the undercurrent running through our lives, helping us behind the scenes.

The Jewish people have experienced many perils, many times when we asked, “Where is God?” You are alive because the Jewish people have survived in the face of unrelenting threats. The survival of our people is clear proof that God has continued to answer our questions. He has continued to show us His love and care. Not always when we want or in the way we want, but always when and what we need.

Even when our lives are filled with pain, nevertheless, we still have experienced sufficient blessings and help to answer doubts about God’s involvement in our lives. To each one of us He has whispered in our ears, “I love you. I care about you. I am with you in your pain. Trust Me and come close to Me.”

Make a list of the times God helped you in the past, the blessings He currently gives you, and the ways He is easing your burden, amidst your difficulties. Use this list to remind yourself that God is there for you, giving you comfort, guidance and strength.

Transcending our limited perspective

During the Exodus, it was clear to the Jews that God was orchestrating their redemption. In contrast, during Purim, the Jews thought they were in mortal peril. Yet, in truth, Haman’s decree of annihilation was as much for the benefit of the Jewish people as the splitting of the sea. The Talmud states that when King Achashverosh removed his signet ring to sign the decree against the Jewish people, he triggered among them an unprecedented spiritual awakening and return to God (Megillah 14a).

In our lives, we may think we know which circumstances would be beneficial to us and which ones would not. The reality is we don’t have a clue. Even as we do the best we can to improve our lives, we need to humbly let go of insisting on a specific outcome. Only God knows what is truly beneficial to us.

To gain an accurate perspective of events in your life, picture the Jews during the Exodus, crossing amidst parted waters. They knew with the same certainty as they felt the dry ground beneath their feet, that, “God is my shepherd, I shall not lack (Psalms 23:1).” Pick a specific challenge in your life. Regarding this challenge, imagine you have the same clarity they had. You know for certain that as you reach stormy passages, God will clear a path for you. You know without a doubt that He is guiding the issue for your eternal benefit, and that this struggle is there to bring about your personal redemption.

How does this viewpoint change the way you feel about this challenge? Like the Jews who sang the song at the sea, if we fully had the realization that God is our shepherd – guiding our lives – we would be singing praises to Him for all that He does for us.

In truth, we will sing these praises to God. King David describes the time when we will understand the Divine plan and perceive the incredible hidden goodness within our lives, “Then, our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with joyous song…(Psalms 126:2)”

It is hard to imagine laughing over painful events. Yet, even now, there may be past challenges which we understand in hindsight were for our benefit. In addition, in the future, we will measure our lives against the ultimate good – that which benefits our souls and our eternal existence in the Next World. We will then appreciate the endless love our Creator has for us and how He filled our lives to capacity with Divine goodness. We will realize that the temporary difficulties we experienced in this world were well worth the eternal benefits we will receive.

As in the story of Purim, if we maintain our faith, our struggles will turn into joy, guaranteed, either in this world or the next; it is only a question of when. Furthermore, we do not have to wait for our difficulties to end to celebrate; nor do we have to wait for God to reveal the reason behind our challenges to be happy. Just knowing He is guiding our lives for our eternal benefit is reason enough to celebrate. Just knowing He is with us always and will never abandon us, is reason enough to be happy.

On Passover, we celebrate God’s mastery of the world through His explicit miracles and His redeeming us from Egypt to be His people. On Purim, we celebrate that His providence and our indestructible bond with Him continues to this day. Not only are we joyous over the events we understand in hindsight, but also over the realization that we do not need hindsight to celebrate; we can be happy, right here, right now.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Speech Given at Ephraim Dovid Weiland’s Bar Mitzvah

I gave this speech on the 30th of Shevat, 5772 (2-22-2012) at the Bar Mitzvah of my nephew, Ephraim Dovid Weiland (my brother Mendy’s son). Please note, in this speech I used a number of Hebrew/Yiddish words which some may not be familiar with. Below is a glossary of possibly unfamiliar words:

Chasheva Rabbanim –esteemed Rabbis.  Simcha – joyous occasion. Dvar Torah – Torah thought. Parsha – portion of the Bible. Hashem – God. Moshe Rabbenu – Moses, our teacher. Mishkan – Tabernacle. Rashi – a classic commentator. Alav hashalom – equivalent of “may they rest in peace.” Gemarah – Talmud. Kabbalas Hatorah – receiving the Torah. Minyan – prayer with a quorum. Daf Yomi – daily study of the Talmud according to a specific schedule. Chesed – acts of loving kindness. Yibadel lechaim – term used when mentioning someone living right after having mentioned someone who has passed on; it is a prayer that the person lives a long life. Savta – grandmother. Baruch Hashem – thank God. Middos – good character traits. Davening – prayer.


Chasheva Rabbanim, family members, and honored guests, it is a pleasure to celebrate this simcha with you.

Many moons ago, some of you might recall that I spoke at Mendy’s Bar Mitzvah. I don’t remember what I said, so it’s possible that I might repeat myself, but doubtful. I guess I did an OK job, because Mendy asked me to speak today. Or, perhaps he’s hopeful that I’ve improved since then.

And now for the Dvar Torah. This week’s parsha, Parshas Terumah, begins with Hashem saying to Moshe Rabbenu (Exodus 25:2), “Veyikchu li Terumah.” “Let them take for me the Terumah,” the contributions for the Mishkan. Rashi explains that “take for me” means to give the donation for Hashem’s sake. Not to give because it looks good, or even because it feels good. Rather, to give because that is the will of Hashem.

Ephraim Dovid, perhaps the most important decision you will make in your life is hinted at, at the very beginning of your Bar Mitzvah parsha. You will decide whether to live for yourself, to do what looks and feels good, or, to live for Hashem. As you go through life, will you ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?  What benefits me most?” or, will you ask, “How does Hashem want me to act?”

Your great, great aunt Reba, alav hashalom, would advise me, “Yaakov, become ‘an epes,’ become a somebody.” When a person lives for themselves, he is a nobody; a manikin going through the motions of life. But when a person lives for Hashem, he is everything. The Gemarah teaches (Sanhedrin 37a) that a person is obligated to say, “For me the world was created.” When you live for Hashem, you’re a ganze velt! You’re an entire world.

Hashem said to the Jewish people (Jeremiah 2:2), “Lechtaiych acharie bamidbar, b’eretz lo z’ruah.” He praised them that after leaving Egypt they were willing to follow Him into a desert, a barren land. We need to be willing to follow Hashem, no matter where He leads us. When we do, like our ancestors, we will merit living our lives accompanied by the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Like our ancestors, we will merit our very own kabbalas Hatorah, Hashem will reveal to us the beauty and the sweetness of His Torah.

Your grandfather, whom you are named after, my father, alav hashalom , did his utmost to fulfill Hashem’s will. Even when he was sick, as best he could, he would go to minyan, study the Daf Yomi and use his free time to raise money for poor students in Israel. He loved to help people in any way he could. He lived for Hashem and to do chesed for Hashem’s children.

Yibadel lechaim, your savta, my dear mother, chesed is a driving force in her life. No matter the inconvenience, she gives of herself. But not only that, she gives with a smile, with an open heart.

Your other grandparents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Zweiback, are also wonderful examples of living for Hashem, doing chesed and spreading Torah.  

I don’t need to elaborate about your parents, as you see daily how dedicated they are to your family and to the community, selflessly giving of their time and attention. They live their lives to fulfill the will of Hashem.

Ephraim Dovid, Baruch Hashem you are already following in their footsteps, with your wonderful middos, davening and learning. May you continue on this path, and may you always remember Moshe Rabbenu’s call (Deuteronomy 30:19), “Uvacharta bachaim!” “Choose life!” And when you choose Hashem and following His Torah, you choose life.

Mazel tov!

For links to audio classes and articles, see www.thechazakplan.com.