Saturday, December 20, 2014

New Website!

Dear Friends,

Happy Chanukah!

I am excited to announce that I have a new website, www.thechazakplan.com. I hope the website makes it easier to locate the free e-book, articles and audio classes.

The rest of this post is about the Jewish month of Tevet, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Tevet begins this Sunday night, December 21st and lasts for two days.

The theme we will focus on for Tevet is faith.

The month of Tevet encompasses two moods: Celebration and mourning. During the beginning of the month, we celebrate Chanukah, commemorating, among other events, the rededication of the Second Temple. Later in the month, on the 10th, we fast and commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the destruction of the First Temple.

In one month we commemorate two diametrically opposed events. Faith is the bridge between them. Even while we mourn an event which led to the destruction of the Temple, we have faith that like the miracle of Chanukah, another dedication of the Temple will occur, when the Messiah comes and dedicates the Third Temple.

Each day, to enhance your faith, think of a challenge in your life and say to yourself words of faith. One possibility is to say to yourself, “This is from God for my eternal benefit. Part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. This will work out in the end; either in this world or in the next. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.”

Readings for the month:

Is Faith Logical? One Answer in Ten Questions

Unshakable Faith: What It Is, What It’s Not and How to Build It

Everything Works Out in the End: Even when it doesn’t appear to

Take care and may we see success in the coming month,

Yaakov

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Recording of Chanukah Class

Dear Friends,

Here is a recording of a class I gave on Chanukah: LessonsFrom Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy
For the link, please click the title.

Please note, this time I’m using Dropbox, so you should be able to listen to the class right in your browser. 

If you want to download the file, right click over the play/pause button and click “Save video as…” and the file will save as an MP3.

Have a good week and a Happy Chanukah,


Yaakov

Saturday, December 6, 2014

New York City Class Dec 10th, 7:30pm

Dear Friends,

This Wednesday night, December 10th at 7:30pm in New York City, I will God willing be giving a class at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, 120 West 76th Street. (The synagogue is between Amsterdam and Columbus.)

The title of the class is: "Lessons from Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy."

The class will focus on practical ways we can live with more clarity, act with more purity and feel more joy.
For those who cannot attend, it will be based on these articles:

Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy

Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You

If you know anyone who might be interested in the class, please forward this post to them. Thank you.

Have a Happy Chanukah,

Yaakov


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

30 Minutes to Stronger Faith

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, I gave a class on how to build stronger faith. The class was a short one, just a little over 30 minutes.

To download the class, click here. (This link expires December 16th).

On a separate topic, Arutz Sheva published this week an article I wrote:

How to Respond Effectively to a Tragedy or Crisis

Please share the class or article with family and friends by using the icons below.

Take care,

Yaakov

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

How Do We Respond to Such a Tragedy?

Dear Friends,

We are deeply shaken by the terrorist attack in Har Nof. We mourn those who were killed and we pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded.

How do we respond to such a tragedy?

By allowing it to change us for the better.

By insisting that it does.

I updated two articles on this topic:

Who Caused This Crisis?

How to Respond Effectively to a Tragedy or Crisis

This Tuesday night, November 25th, at 8:30pm, in New York City, God willing I will be giving a class at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, 120 West 76th Street. The synagogue is between Amsterdam and Columbus. The class is entitled: "Unshakable Faith: What It Is, What It's Not and How to Build It." The class will be based on articles from this blog.

The rest of this post is about the Jewish month of Kislev, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Kislev begins this Motzai Shabbat (Saturday night), November 22nd and lasts for one day.

The theme we will focus on for Kislev is gratitude.

During this month we celebrate the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the miracle of the oil, the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple. A key message of the festival is expressing gratitude to God for the miracles He performs on our behalf.

Each day, preferably at the beginning of the day, spend time feeling grateful for the blessings your Creator gave you. Thank Him for His many gifts, for the bright side/silver lining of your difficulties, and for signs of His help amidst your challenges. In addition, express appreciation when someone does something beneficial for you.

The readings for this month focus on Chanukah and related themes. Additional discussion on gratitude is covered in the beginning of the article, 6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.

Readings for the month:

Clarity + Purity + Joy = Transcendence

Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Yaakov

Please forward this post to at least one person you think may benefit from it. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

3 Fundamental Mitzvot

If you were asked, what are three fundamental mitzvot, what would you answer?

Many would say: Keeping Shabbat/holidays, observing the laws of Family Purity (which relate to marital intimacy) and eating kosher.

Why is that? Even though every mitzvah is important, why are these three often singled out as being fundamental?

Each represents harnessing a basic human drive and elevating it as a means to connect with our Creator: The drive to work and create (Shabbat), the drive to procreate (Family Purity) and the drive to eat (keeping kosher).

God created us to give us the opportunity to develop a relationship with Him. In the Torah, He outlines how we can elevate our souls and come close to Him. Everything in this physical world has the potential for good. These mitzvot (and others as well) teach us:

(1) How to enjoy physicality.

(2) How not to be harmed by it.

(3) How to utilize it to deepen our relationship with God.

Enjoying physicality

Mitzvot do not limit pleasure, they maximize it.

Shabbat is a paradigm of how mitzvot help us enjoy the physical world, while enhancing our spirituality and relationships at the same time. On Shabbat, we connect with God through pleasurable activities, e.g., singing during prayer services and meals, and studying inspirational Torah teachings. But Shabbat is not only about us and God. The Sages teach that Friday night is an especially suited time for martial intimacy. In addition, they encourage us to eat lavish Shabbat meals surrounded by family and guests. On Shabbat, all three mitzvot coalesce and are used to deepen our relationships with our Creator, our spouse, our family and our people.

Any physical pleasure will significantly lose its appeal when engaged in often. The laws of Family Purity, by forbidding intimacy during certain days each month, keep the desire strong and enhance the bond between husband and wife.

The laws of keeping kosher ensure that we do not eat mindlessly, without checking the status of the food. By eating mindfully, we savor the experience, and enjoy the unique textures and tastes of each food. In addition, by eating kosher, we elevate the mundane act of eating to the spiritual experience of living as God intended when He created us.

The next time you eat kosher, speak out loud to your Father in Heaven, and say to Him with feeling, “I am eating kosher, as You, my Father, intended.” With time, or perhaps right away, you will be filled with joy and a feeling of closeness to your Father. Never again will you eat alone; you will always eat with God.

Staying away from harm
We have to work, procreate and eat for humanity to survive. The desire to engage in these activities though, is a double edged sword. The unrestrained pursuit of these activities can lead to addictive behavior and bring destruction in its wake.

People have ruined their careers and marriages due to infidelity. People have ruined their health by overworking and eating unhealthily. (The latter two can happen even to those who observe the mitzvot; but mitzvah observance helps us rein in our tendency toward excess, the root cause behind much self-inflicted harm.)

God says to us: I created you to live a pleasurable and fulfilling life in this world. Enjoy creature comforts but do not destroy yourselves in the process. Observe the mitzvot to help you safely engage this physical world, and as a means to come closer to Me.

These three mitzvot – Shabbat, Family Purity and keeping kosher – teach us how to live a balanced life, avoiding the extremes of asceticism and hedonism. God tells us in His Torah: Yes, work, but not on Shabbat. Yes, be intimate, but not every day of the month. Yes, eat, but not these foods.

Physicality is a powerful force: Unrestrained, it can destroy us; but properly harnessed, using the Divine guidelines of the mitzvot, it elevates us to otherwise unattainable levels.

Deepening our relationship with God

The main purpose of the mitzvot is to serve as a bridge, enabling us to come closer to God in this world and earn the bliss of the next world. Only our Creator knows fully how the mitzvot elevate our souls and enhance our connection to Him. By observing the mitzvot, we can feel some of the elevation and refinement that is taking place. Through Torah study, we can learn about some of the benefits of the mitzvot. But it is beyond the limits of our corporal bodies to fully experience or understand all the ways mitzvot benefit us. Instead, we trust our Creator that He knows best the optimal way to live.

Every mitzvah, each in its own way, enables us to deepen our relationship with God. Shabbat gives us a weekly opportunity to spend time with Him in song and celebration, Torah study and prayer; to sing and celebrate with rapture, to study with delight, and to pray with longing. Observing the laws of Family Purity and eating kosher, enable us to stay away from forbidden experiences that weaken our connection to God and bring Godliness into every aspect of our lives: Our most intimate act, and the very cells of our body, formed from the foods we eat.

When we do not give in to the desire for the forbidden, our true desire can be revealed – the soul’s intense yearning for God. As King David said to God (Psalms 39:8), “…My longing is for You.”

It’s all a gift

Underlying these three mitzvot is the realization that everything we have is a gift from God. There are many people who cannot work, are impotent, or receive sustenance from a feeding tube. When we observe these mitzvot, we say to God, “Everything I have comes from You. You have given me the ability to work, be intimate, and eat, for which I am deeply grateful. Since You want me to utilize these gifts in a specific manner – for my benefit – I will unconditionally follow Your will, regardless of the challenge.”

We observe the mitzvot not because we feel like it, or because of social pressure or even because they are logical; we observe them because God commanded us to. Instead of feeling burdened by the mitzvot, we view the opportunity to fulfill our Creator’s will as the greatest possible privilege and honor. We say to Him, “To do Your will, my God, is my desire...(Psalms 40:9)”

The Prophet Zechariah describes a dialogue that will take place before the Messiah comes (Zechariah 13:9). To paraphrase, God will say to us, “You are My people” and we will answer Him, “The Lord is our God.”

We see from Zechariah that to merit the redemption, we must make ourselves recognizable to God that we are His people. How can we do that?

By making our actions proclaim, “The Lord is our God.”

Each time you observe a mitzvah because God commanded you to, especially those which involve sacrifice, you are saying to your Creator, “You, are my God.”

To learn more about the mitzvot from Aish.com, click here.


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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Everything Works Out in the End: Even when it doesn’t appear to

Many mistakenly think that having faith in God means believing that if we pray and make reasonable efforts, our difficulties will go away. What perpetuates this myth is that thank God, many difficulties do eventually go away. However, we cannot deny that sometimes they do not. For example, even after prayer and effort, some people never regain their health, find a spouse or have kids. With this reality in mind, what are you to believe, that things will work out or that maybe they won’t?

God loves you and has helped others in even more dire situations. With faith, you are hopeful and optimistic that He will help you as well. At the same time, you realize that some difficulties may not go away in this lifetime or before the Messiah comes. With faith, you are able to accept that possibility and draw strength from three key beliefs:

(1) All your difficulties – those that last a short time and those that last a lifetime – are from a loving God for your eternal benefit.

(2) God will support you throughout your challenges, giving you the tools you need to handle them.

(3) Whatever you lack in this world, will be made whole in the World to Come, where your soul will experience complete fulfillment and eternal bliss. Until that time, you just need to pray to God, do your best, and use your difficulties as opportunities for growth.

To answer our original question, will things work out? The answer is an unequivocal yes! They always do. The question is only when, in this world or in the World to Come.

This perspective enables you to face challenges with equanimity. Regardless of what happens, you are optimistic things will soon improve, and are accepting if they do not. You are able to be patient because you know that if something is truly good for you, you will eventually receive it, at the optimal time and way.

King David exemplified this perspective that everything works out in the end. He wrote in Psalms (27:13), that his faith in God enabled him to handle intense challenges. He shudders at what would have happened had he not had unshakable faith, when he wrote, “Had I not believed that I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living!”

The Sages teach that the “land of the living” refers to the World to Come. We see from this that what gave King David strength was that regardless of what might happen in this world, he “would see the goodness of God” in the World to Come.

The same applies to us. While our difficulties may get resolved even in this world, we never know for sure. With faith we trust that regardless of the challenge, one of two outcomes will occur. Either, (1) God will turn around even a seemingly hopeless situation, or, (2) we will receive the ultimate good in the World to Come, where we will experience the “goodness of God.”

With this knowledge, “Place your hope in God; strengthen yourself and He will instill courage in your heart, and place your hope in God (ibid: 14).”

This verse mentions twice the phrase “place your hope in God.” Why?

Perhaps, the first “place your hope in God” is referring to the first outcome – where God turns around in this world even a dire situation. As long as that is still possible, King David encourages you to “place your hope in God” – pray to Him and have faith that He will help you if it is for your highest good. In addition, “strengthen yourself and He will instill courage in your heart” – strengthen yourself to make reasonable efforts and God will give you the courage you need.

The second “place your hope in God” refers to if the window of opportunity for that issue has closed, e.g., a woman yearns to give birth to children but the years of fertility pass, or an ill family member passes on. In those cases, King David advises you to “place your hope in God,” – trust that in the next world, God will give you what you currently lack.

Knowing that everything will work out in the end, why wait until then to be happy and free of worry? Be happy now. Let go of worry now. Refuse to waste time and energy feeling down or worried.

We do not know how life will turn out; often, life does not go the way we expect. Our Creator made life that way on purpose: It’s what humbles us before an all knowing God; it’s what challenges us to have faith in Him; it’s what makes life an adventure into the unknown, where if we do our best, we are guaranteed success.

Instead of insisting life go your way, open up to the way life is right now, without needing anything to change. Living life to the full – just the way it is – is your ticket to a fulfilling life.


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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cheshvan: Prayer

Dear Friends,

This Shabbat is the Shabbat Project. For an article about this worldwide initiative click here.

The rest of this post is about the Jewish month of Cheshvan, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Recording of Lecture: You Get Out What You Put In

Dear Friends,

For those who were not able to attend the lecture, you can click here for the link. 

After accessing the link, hit the play button. If that doesn't work, then click download. After downloading the file you should be able to play it. 

Please note, before uploading the file, I scanned it for viruses using AVG Antivirus software. 

For additional material relating to Yom Kippur which I did not have time to cover in the lecture, please see my Elul post on repentance by clicking here.

Shana tova,

Yaakov 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Upcoming Lecture: You Get Out What You Put In

Dear Friends,

If you live near the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I want to invite you to a lecture I will be giving,
God willing, Tuesday, September 30th, at 8pm.

I will be speaking at Congregation Ohab Zedek (OZ). The topic will be on preparing for Yom Kippur and focus on five possible areas for us to strengthen. It will use my article How to Remove Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block as a springboard for further discussion.

The OZ is located on 118, West 95th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. There is a suggested donation to their learning program of $5.

If you can make it, I'd love to see you there. If you know people who may be interested in it, I'd appreciate it if you forwarded this post to them.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life, for a healthy and happy New Year,

Yaakov


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tishrei: Torah study

Dear Friends,

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

Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, which is also Rosh Hashanah, begins next Wednesday night, the 24th of September, and lasts for two days.

From now until after Yom Kippur, we continue our focus on repentance and turning over a new leaf. The first reading for this month (see below) can be helpful in identifying areas of your life to repair and upgrade. Choose one suggestion from the reading and add it to your daily checklist (at least for the 10 Days of Repentance, which start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur).

After Yom Kippur, the focus switches to the festival of Sukkot, the topic of the second reading.

After which are the festivals of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of the Five Books of Moses and begin a new cycle with the book of Genesis. Now is a great time to join this annual study of the Bible. There is tremendous spiritual power in learning the same portion studied by millions of Jews around the world. Next Simchat Torah, when you finish the Bible, your celebration of the holiday will be even more meaningful.

Spend time each week learning the weekly Torah portion – there are many excellent articles, translations and commentaries available. Preferably, each day, study 1/7th of the weekly portion (also known as an aliya) or study the whole portion on Shabbat.

If possible, study at least weekly with a partner, either the Bible or a different area of the Torah. To do so, contact your local synagogue, or go to http://www.partnersintorah.org/, who will pair you with a partner free of charge.

Torah study nourishes the soul as food nourishes the body. Study Torah every day of your life – even if only for a few minutes, e.g., reading a few pages from a book, an article, or listening to a lecture during your commute. Preferably, have a set inviolate time for Torah study.

The two most important areas of Torah to study are (A) teachings which inspire you and (B) Jewish law – so you know how to act. For suggested readings for both categories, see endnotes (3) and (5) at the end of the first reading for this month.

Readings for the month:

How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan

Taking Refuge in a Sukkah of Faith

Have a Shana Tova,

Yaakov

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Are You a Balaam, a Job or a Jethro?

A fascinating passage in the Talmud sheds light on who Job was and why he suffered so much. The Talmud (Sotah 11a) recounts how when the Jews were in Egypt, before they were enslaved, Pharaoh took counsel with his wise men; his advisors were Balaam, Job and Jethro. Pharaoh asked them how to deal with the increasing Jewish population. Balaam advised Pharaoh to persecute them, Job was silent, and Jethro fled after he saw Pharaoh’s malevolent intent.

Each one received their due. Balaam was later killed by the sword and lost his share in the World to Come, the otherwise righteous Job suffered severely before God healed him, and Jethro merited having his descendants serve in the Supreme Jewish Court. In addition, Jethro merited Moses as his son-in-law, the greatest prophet who ever lived.

We all experience defining moments, times we face moral dilemmas. The decisions we make shape the course of our lives. Through our choices, we will reap what we sow, for good or vice versa.

Moral dilemmas are as unique as we are. Each one is custom made by God to give us the opportunity to define what we want our lives to be about and to earn the bliss of Heaven. They are key reasons God put us in this world.

Examples of dilemmas: A very attractive person flirts with you, and you know the relationship will only spell trouble. Your friends pressure you to do something or go somewhere which you know is not a good idea. You come across an opportunity to engage in shady dealings, take what does not belong to you, or withhold monies due to others. You discover that your partner or boss is engaged in underhanded behavior from which you stand to gain if you go along with it. Your lawyer or accountant advises you to do something which you know is not doing, “…What is straight and what is good in the eyes of God...(Deuteronomy 6:18).”

For many of these life defining moments, we have three options:

1. Actively pursue the sinful choice, i.e., acting like Balaam.

2. Be passive, exhibiting silent acquiescence to something we know is wrong, i.e., acting like Job.

3. Stand up for our values, and if we think we will be unable to sway others, then to flee from sin like one running from a fire, i.e., acting like Jethro.

You will face defining moments; it is only a question of when. When you do, you will choose one of the above three courses of action. Whatever choice you make, there will be consequences.

Like Balaam, those who choose evil will pay a price eventually and that price is never worthwhile. Like Job, those who choose to look the other way will be held accountable for their inaction. While those who stand up for their values, become Jethros, and will reap tremendous and eternal reward.

The consequences of our actions are measure for measure. Balaam, who sought harm and destruction for the Jewish people, experienced that himself. Job, who was silent, experienced such difficulties that he could no longer maintain his silence and cried out in pain. Jethro, who stood up for what he believed in and fled from evil, had descendants who did the same.

One of the greatest rewards people can receive in this world is seeing their children and grandchildren thriving and following in the proper path. That was Jethro’s reward; he saw his descendants reach the pinnacle of greatness. If we also want to receive that reward, then, like Jethro, we also need to be role models of greatness.

Our children and grandchildren watch how we act and model what they observe. In essence, as we live our lives, we are “writing” an autobiography, one that our children and grandchildren will “read”. Write one they can be proud of and from which they will draw inspiration throughout their lives.

Choosing to emulate Jethro is not easy, but it is simple. It begins with one word: No. “No! I will not do that,” “No! I will not go along with that.” To do this, we need to be bold and resolute, reminding ourselves that when we are doing the right thing, it does not matter what other people think of us.

Often, the hardest part is evaluating each situation and deciding whether or not we will live our values. Once we decide that we will always live our values, doing so in every situation becomes automatic. (When you are not sure what to do, or your biases are likely clouding your judgment, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance.)

Greatness is found not only in rejecting evil, but also in embracing good. Jethro not only left his respected position as an idolatrous priest, he embraced Judaism, joining Moses and the Jews in the desert.

Become great, become a Jethro, by committing to yourself, that starting today, “I will act in keeping with my Torah values.” Make this nonnegotiable. Do this even when it’s difficult, even when it involves personal sacrifice. Then, you will live a life of meaning, one that will be an eternal source of pride for you, your family and your Creator.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Elul: Repentance

Dear Friends,

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

Rosh Chodesh Elul begins this Monday night, the 25th of August, and lasts for two days.

Elul is the time of year to take stock of our lives and prepare for the High Holidays. Most of us have at least one area with which we struggle; perhaps it is being ethical in business, living a moral life, being charitable and kind, or refraining from hurting others. Correcting our key flaw(s) is a main component of our life’s mission and why God put us in this world.

Pick one area on which to focus and break it down into manageable behavioral changes you will make on a daily or weekly basis. If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance. The focus on repentance continues into next month until after Yom Kippur.

As the High Holidays involve reciting many prayers, you might want to take a look at the article, Unlocking the Hidden Power of Prayer. (This article and the topic of prayer is the focus of the month of Cheshvan.)

Readings for the month:

You: As God Intended

Who Are You? A Balaam, a Job or a Jethro?

How to Remove Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block

Unmasking 5 Misconceptions about Repentance

Asking Forgiveness: A Crash Course

Take care, and may God grant us success in the coming month and bring peace to the land of Israel,

Yaakov

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Arutz-7: What Does God Want From Me?

Dear Friends,

Have you ever asked yourself, “What does God want from me? Why did He create me?”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, Moses addresses this very question and asks the Jews, “And now, Israel, What does Hashem, your God, request of you? (Deuteronomy 10:12)”

His answer, discussed in the article below, may surprise you.

What Does God Want from Me?

This week, Arutz-7 published a digest version of this article, available here.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Yaakov

PS The above article is an updated and retitled version of “Is God Part of Your Judaism?”

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Chazak! Chazak! Venischazaik!

Dear Friends,

With our brothers and sisters in Israel living under a barrage of rockets, with mounting IDF casualties and a steep rise in anti-Semitic acts and rallies around the world, this is clearly a challenging and traumatic time for our people.

During times like these, we need to strengthen our faith: Our faith in God and our faith in ourselves, that with His help we will overcome.

It is inspiring that during this time period, over 1,000 Jews made Aliya to Israel. For a video of the arrival of 228 olim from America, click here.

Below, I have compiled a list of articles from this blog which may help you during this time, or during any time of worry and anxiety. They have helped me.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Who Caused This Crisis?

Our instinctive response to crisis or tragedy is to look for people to blame (including sometimes ourselves) and to think they are the sole cause of our difficulties. We say to each other, “It’s all their fault. If only they would have acted differently.” But this is a mistake.

The underlying cause behind everything is God. Things happen because God made them happen; all other causes are superficial. At least three prophets taught us this principle:

Isaiah: (Isaiah 42:24), “Who gave over Jacob to the oppressor and Israel to looters? Was it not God…?”

Jeremiah: (Lamentations 3:37), “Whose decree was ever fulfilled, if the Lord did not will it?”

Amos: (Amos 3:6), “…Can there be misfortune in a city, if God had not brought it?”

This means that if you made an innocent mistake, which God forbid led to a tragedy, do not blame yourself; it was ultimately God who caused your mistake to turn into a tragedy. For how to make peace with yourself, see, “Discover Your Inner Peace.”

There are two reasons why people often have a hard time accepting that everything ultimately comes from God, even the evil acts of others. First, they think this lets people off the hook. Nothing could be further from the truth. God holds people accountable for their actions (and so should we). Nevertheless, God uses them as His tool or sword to bring about His desired result. As King David said to God (Psalms 17:13), “…Rescue my soul from the wicked one, who is Your sword.”

When wicked people’s evil acts are needed, they are successful, when not needed, they are not. This explains the countless times people have plotted to commit a crime and failed. Whether they are successful or not, because wicked people have chosen to pursue evil, they will be severely punished, either in this world, in the next or both. We do God’s work when we pursue and punish evil doers. That is what King David did and what we must continue to do.

The second reason people have difficulty with this concept is they do not understand why a loving God would cause pain. But do loving parents never cause their children pain? Sometimes, painful actions are necessary for a child’s growth or wellbeing.

God is our Father in Heaven. The whole reason He created us and put us in this world is so that we can earn the bliss of the next world through the choices we make. He is willing to do whatever is necessary to help us make the most of the opportunities of this world. The eternal benefits we receive from our difficulties far outweigh any temporary pain.

There are general principles as to how suffering elevates us and helps us earn eternal bliss (see, “5 Reasons for Suffering”). For example, suffering can remind us to increase our repentance, prayer, and charity. A key High Holiday prayer states that these three things can annul a harsh decree. Use suffering as a catalyst to repent for misdeeds, pray with greater fervor and give charity more generously.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught (Likutey Moharan 7:1), “…When faith will spread throughout the world, then the Messiah will come.” The first step to spreading faith is strengthening our own and a crisis is an opportunity to do so. (Our faith is tested when times are rough and we are hurting.) Perhaps this is one reason why the period before the Messiah comes will be a tumultuous one (Tractate Sanhedrin 98b). When we use a crisis to strengthen our faith in God and our commitment to follow His Torah as best we can, we hasten the redemption.

Understanding why specific difficulties are needed or exactly how they benefit us is beyond our ability. Because God is infinitely wise and we are not, there will be times we do not understand His ways. In fact, we never fully understand His ways. Sometimes, we get a glimpse of why events occur, other times, we do not.

Rav Chaim Volozhin taught that during times of danger, a person should focus on the phrase from Deuteronomy (4:35), “…Ein od milvado,” “…There is nothing beside Him (God).” This verse means that there is no force in the universe other than God. Nothing exists or has power outside of His will. God is the ultimate cause behind everything. By focusing on this truth, we bring special merit and protection to ourselves. We realize that no matter how strong the forces of evil may appear, they are nothing before God; in an instant He can render them powerless.

The next time you read about a crisis, say, “This is from God for our eternal benefit.” Then ask, “What can I do to help those affected? How can I use this crisis to change for the better?” (See, “How to Respond Effectively to a Crisis or Tragedy.”)

This mindset toward adversity enables us to read the news with compassion, and at times grief over a loss, but no longer worry. We no longer feel compelled to read the news obsessively, anxiously following every development. We realize God is in complete control and will not allow anything to happen to us that is not for our ultimate good. We know He will only give us challenges we can handle and that in the end, with His help, we will triumph.

When faced with a crisis, just do your best, pray, and look for ways to grow; leave the rest to God. When you do that, you will reach the level described by King David, (Psalms 112:7), “Of evil news – he is not afraid. His heart is steadfast, trusting in God.”

Trusting in God means believing He is guiding your life and doing what is best for you, even though you do not understand how. Do not be passive. Instead, make spiritual and material efforts to overcome your challenges. While making those efforts, realize God is by your side, encouraging and strengthening you, every step of the way.

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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

What Happens to Our Seemingly Unanswered Prayers?

We pray because we believe that prayer works, that God hears our prayers and will help us. 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?

1. God’s love is stronger than our prayers. Some Divine decrees can be rescinded through prayer, others cannot. This is not a sign of the weakness of prayer; it is a sign of the strength of God’s love for us. Certain hardships need to happen for our eternal benefit, for reasons we do not understand. Those difficulties will occur, even if we pray.

As an analogy, if a child needs to undergo a painful medical procedure, no amount of pleading will change the parent’s minds; not because they do not care, precisely because they do care. Although they will insist the child undergo the procedure, they will do whatever they can to support and comfort the child.

So too with God, our Father in Heaven, if something is for our highest good, it will happen, even if it is painful for us and even if we plead with Him. He will though, use our prayers to ensure that we receive the support, strength and comfort we need to get through the challenge.

When you pray to God and ask for His help, know that whatever happens will be God’s will and for your highest good. Know that good will come from your prayer; it may be in a manner you did not expect, at a later date, in another area of your life or benefit a loved one.

2. We will eventually receive what is truly good for us. When we pray for something which does not occur, either the right time has not yet arrived or God has decided that it is not for our highest good. Many of us can think of prayers we said which were eventually answered, at a time and manner God deemed optimal. We might also be able to recall prayers we are glad God did not fulfill, as we see in hindsight how it would not have been beneficial to us.

At times, God decides that it is best if we do not receive a certain blessing and that we endure a particular hardship. Even for those areas – the ones we cry over – when the Messiah comes, God will heal them. The prophet Isaiah tells us that during the Messianic era (Isaiah 25:8), “…The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…”

In the meantime, while we continue to pray to God for what is lacking in our lives, we must be patient and accept His will. We must make the most of what we have and realize that right now – without any change in our life circumstance – we can still live a meaningful life.

3. The purpose of prayer is not to change God, it is to change us. The Sages teach that God is always sending us blessing. If we or the world in general are not fit to receive this blessing, we experience it as a difficulty. When we pray, we change ourselves, making ourselves better able to receive the blessing God sends us. (Because of this, as long as the possibility exists for a particular prayer to be answered, we should continue to pray and enhance our ability to receive that blessing.)

There are times when we have to experience hardship (see, “5 Reasons for Suffering”). In those cases, our prayers will not transform the difficulty; instead, they will transform us. Fervent prayer transforms us by strengthening our faith that everything comes from God and that He can do anything. Intense prayer lowers our attachment to materialism and raises our spiritualty. It uplifts our souls, bringing us closer to God. Through prayer, we can come so close to God that during challenging times, we feel enveloped in the safety of His embrace.

4. We build a crown for God. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov writes that each of us is a crown for God (Likutey Moharan 6:15). We are His crown in the sense that as His children, when we lead exemplary lives, we bring Him glory. In light of this teaching, when we pray for others, we are adding precious gems to their personal crown for God. If they pass away, after countless prayers have been said on their behalf, they carry with them this shining crown to Heaven. There, they present this crown, bedecked with countless gems, to their Father in Heaven; it is a crown He wears with special pride.

The same goes for ourselves; when we pray for ourselves, we enhance our own crown for God and reveal an even more intense level of His glory to the world.

Address your challenges from three different angles: (1) Pray, (2) Make reasonable efforts to overcome the difficulty and (3) Look for ways to grow and make the most of the situation. This way, whatever happens is win-win: Even if you do not see tangible results from your prayers and material efforts, you still use the challenge as a catalyst for growth. You still draw strength from the knowledge that in the end, you will receive what is truly good for you. With this perspective, you can be accepting of your challenges, even as you work to improve your difficulties.

Bottom line: Do not pray solely to receive a specific outcome; only God knows what is best. Pray because you’re hurting; pray because your Father in Heaven wants to soothe your pain; pray because through prayer you can feel His embrace.
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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

How to Respond Effectively to a Crisis or Tragedy

Often, when we hear about a crisis or tragedy, we feel helpless. After all, what can we do? But there is a way to respond effectively. Here are three steps how.  

1. 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. Spiritual. Choose something to do in the merit of those affected. For example, each day, say an extra Psalm, give extra charity, do an extra mitzvah or be extra careful to avoid a sin.

b. 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.)

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. If you do not know the people personally, see if you can find someone you know in common to ask them if they are interested in your help.

While giving guidance can sometimes be helpful, do not 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. You can ask them again at a later date, if you think they may be open to it then.

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.

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 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. With our encouragement and assistance, people can often do much more than they or we envisioned.

Some crises are loud – everyone knows about them. Others are silent and are easy to overlook, e.g., a person out of work or chronically ill, a family unable to pay their bills, a single having trouble finding a spouse, a child struggling in school or in a difficult family situation, or a teen at risk. They too require our attention and help. Use a “loud” crisis, especially a distant one that you are unable to be actively involved with, to motivate you to get involved with the “silent” crises taking place locally in your community; choose one and take the first step.

2. Look for ways to grow. No one knows for sure why crises or tragedies happen; only God does. But what we do know is that they are an opportunity for growth. Ask, “How can I grow 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 for guidance.

There is often an area in our lives 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 have been contemplating.

We frequently stumble in the area of interpersonal relationships. We may make excuses as to why it is okay to gossip about or hate certain people, why it is 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 or to those whom you have wronged. Take the first step toward peace or asking for forgiveness.

There are times when we pray intensely but the crisis continues. 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 did not do enough or that our prayers were in vain. God’s ways are beyond us and no prayer is ever wasted. Good will come from those prayers; what and when we do not know.

3. 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 in the next (as long as we put in our best effort, especially spiritual ones). With faith, we cannot 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 may initially feel helpless when we hear about a crisis or tragedy, there is no time or reason for despair. We have work to do, and God will give us the strength we need to do it.

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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

A number of people have told me that they do not like or feel good about 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 now to develop a loving relationship.

To start, complete the following sentence: “I dislike/hate (or do not feel good about) 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, have psychological or medical issues, disabled, single, childless, broke, in a dead-end job, 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 your 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. Or, they may be unemployed for a while but then find a fulfilling job.) 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 is a misnomer to say, “I hate myself,” as there is nothing about a spiritual soul to hate. What you might hate or dislike are aspects of your material life 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.

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.

Feel good about yourself and what you have achieved. For the area of your life in which you want to improve, make a plan on how you will do so. But at the same time, feel proud about what you have accomplished amidst many challenges.

Sometimes, 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. Speaking to a mentor or a recommended therapist can be beneficial. They will help you realize that with hypercritical people, it was their issue not yours. 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 are hypercritical, and to spend time with those who value you and are complimentary. For other suggestions, see, “6 Ways to Deal with Critical Family Members.”

3. You blame yourself for your mistakes. Have you ever done the following? You made a mistake and got so upset with yourself that you mentally screamed out, “I’m such an idiot! I hate myself!”

If yes, then you took credit for something that is not yours. Unless you willfully did what you knew was wrong or negligent, your mistakes come from God for your highest good. God is guiding your life; do not take your mistakes personally. What you thought was a blunder was just one step along a path leading to where you need to go.

Even as you accept that whatever happened was God’s will, take responsibility for your actions, repair the damage as best you can, repent when necessary, and learn for the future. For details, see “Discover Your Inner Peace.”

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 are we? Since those weaknesses where given to us by God for our benefit, what are we ashamed of?

If one thinks, “I’m to blame for all my weaknesses. I should be able to do better,” that may be a sign of hidden arrogance. When we are humble, we realize that everything comes from God, both our strengths and our weaknesses. By learning how to deepen your humility, you can become more patient and accepting of yourself. See, “You’re Not Arrogant, But Are You Truly Humble?

When we do not accept our weaknesses, 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 is about doing the best we can. In God’s eyes, the playing field is level; everyone has equal access to their highest potential.

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

This is from God for my eternal benefit. Part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. This will work out in the end; either in this world or in the next. 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 (Likutey Moharan I, 282). 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 to help you compile your list. Daily, or when feelings of self-loathing erupt, look over your 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.”

For more on acceptance and self-compassion, both key to feeling good about yourself, see, “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.”

Our life’s journey is about accumulating good points, e.g., helping others, and living an ethical, moral and meaningful life, as outlined in the Torah. Combine living an elevated life with praising yourself for your achievements and the difficult choices you make to uphold your values; this will enhance your self-esteem and self-love.

If you find it hard to compliment yourself, try this exercise: At the end of each day, think of something praiseworthy you did that day and while smiling at a mirror, compliment yourself out loud. 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 feel good about themselves.

(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 accept responsibility and 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 their strengths, shoring up key weaknesses which get in the way, and accepting the rest.

(5) They compliment themselves for each challenge they overcome. When they have to correct themselves, instead of hurling insults, they use soft words of understanding and encouragement. They are hardworking, good and kind people, 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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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Aish.com: Remembering the Holocaust: My two takeaway lessons

Dear Friends,

This past Monday was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Here is an article I wrote four years ago, “Remembering the Holocaust: My two takeaway lessons.”

In this article, I focused on the importance of having a Divine based morality and realizing what it means to be a Jew.

You can access the article by clicking on the title.

Take care,

Yaakov




Monday, April 28, 2014

Iyar: Helping others and not causing them distress

Dear Friends,

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

Rosh Chodesh Iyar is on April 30th and May 1st.

During this month occurs the period known as The Omer. During part of The Omer, we commemorate thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died in a plague. The Talmud teaches that the plague occurred because the students did not treat each other with proper respect.

To strengthen ourselves in this key area of treating others well, each day during this month, check off on your checklist if you did an act of kindness that day. If you didn’t yet, ask yourself if there is someone you can call or email, who would appreciate that you reached out to them. At the very least, put some money in a box designated for charity. Don’t let a day go by without doing something for someone else. As the Sages teach, (Pirkei Avot 1:14), “…If I am [only] for myself, what am I?”

In addition, at the end of the day, review your day and consider if you may have caused someone distress, by what you said or did. If yes, commit to apologize to them as soon as possible.

The reading for this month is an action plan containing key points found throughout this book which will help us live a more fulfilling life. Anyone can benefit from this plan, regardless of their affiliation.

The plan starts off with a simple test to help you determine if you are on track to living a meaningful and fulfilling life. The plan will help you prepare for next month, when we celebrate receiving on Mount Sinai the Torah, God’s instruction manual for life. Choose one suggestion from the action plan and add it to your checklist.

Reading for the month:

How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan

Take care and may God grant you success in the coming month,

Yaakov

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On OU.org: Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt—4 Lessons from the Exodus

Dear Friends,

This week the OU published an article of mine. If you did not catch the blog post of this article, here is the link to it on the OU's website:

Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt—4 Lessons from the Exodus

Have a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Passover (Chag kasher vesameach),

Yaakov

Sunday, April 6, 2014

On Aish.com: 6 Ways to Deal with Hypercritical People

Dear Friends,

This week Aish published an article of mine. It is an abridged and modified version of my post discussing how to deal with criticism from family members.

You can access the article by clicking on this link:
http://www.aish.com/sp/pg/6-Ways-to-Deal-with-Hypercritical-People.html

 If you have a Facebook account and like the article, please consider clicking on the "Like" link.

Thank you,



Yaakov

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

6 Ways to Deal with Critical Family Members

Many people have at least one critical family member. We may come away from our interactions with them feeling angry, hurt and upset. It does not have to be this way. Here are six strategies to help you effectively handle criticism.

(While we will focus on family members, you can use these strategies to deal with criticism from others as well.)

1. Don’t take it personally. Some people are overly critical; it is a flaw they have to work on. Remind yourself that it is their issue, not yours. Their frequent criticism does not reflect poorly on you, it reflects poorly on them, that they have not yet learned how to speak to people.

When you don’t take people’s criticism personally, you will be able to step back and be more objective. This will help you let criticism roll off your back; you may even be able to see the humor in the situation and think to yourself, “There they go again.” (But make sure not to roll your eyes.)

Generally, family members criticize us because they want the best for us. They are afraid we will make a mistake, suffer the consequences and not fulfill our potential. It is their way of expressing concern and love. Feel compassion for their fears, and try to see past their surface remarks to the underlying love. Often, when they criticize us, what they really mean to say is, “I believe in you. I know you can improve even more and fulfill your amazing potential.”

Frequently, the more critical the family member is, the more they lack contentment and happiness. Critical people often also drive away family members and former friends, living lonely and bitter lives. See if you can feel compassion for them and ask God to help them overcome this issue.

2. Be proactive. Relatives usually say the same criticism each time we see them; this is a good thing because then you can come prepared. Have a pat phrase ready that you can say in response to critical comments; use the broken record technique and repeat your pat phrase until they get the message. For example, a relative tells you, “You have to get a PhD because then you can leave your dead-end job and earn more money.” In response, you can say any of the following: “Good point. Thanks for your concern,” “Thanks for sharing that. I'll think about it,” or, “I hear your point. Let's talk about something else.” Have conversation topics you can switch to, e.g., what’s going on in their or your life, a future event you are both looking forward to, talking about their past, a happy memory you both share or family history.

3. Inoculate yourself with positive feedback. We all need positive comments – praise and expressions of appreciation. They help us handle negative feedback. If you are not receiving enough positive feedback, try the following four tips:

First, each day, give others positive feedback; compliments and expressions of appreciation are contagious.

Second, if someone is miserly in giving positive feedback, let them know that you would appreciate it if they would point out the things you do well. Tell them, “I value your positive feedback and compliments.”

Third, spend time with people who are complimentary. For example, visit friendly senior citizens; they generally are very appreciative of your company and will sing your praises.

Forth, do not depend on others for positive feedback – give it to yourself instead. Search for the good in you. Appreciate and be thankful for your positive qualities and talents; praise yourself for your achievements and for how far you’ve come.

4. Let go of wanting approval. Part of the reason we may cringe at criticism is because we want others to approve of us and we view their critical remark as a sign that we have lost their approval. We have to remind ourselves that just because someone finds fault in a specific behavior of ours does not mean they think poorly of us; it just means they think we can improve even more.

The sooner we admit that it is OK to make mistakes, the sooner we will be able to accept criticism without becoming defensive. Ironically, accepting criticism gracefully will make people think more highly of us, not less.

On a deeper level, we have to realize that we only need approval from God. As long as we do the right thing, it does not matter what others think of us; there will always be people who think we are wrong. As far as we are concerned, even the whole world can think we are crazy; they did about our Forefather Abraham, and we are here today because of what he stood for.

The next time you feel stung by an unjust criticism, ask yourself, “Am I hurt because I want them to think highly of me?” If yes, then tell yourself, “God approves of me and that’s enough.”

5. Look for the nugget of wisdom. If you found a filthy diamond ring on the street, would you pick it up? Similarly, do not dismiss valuable criticism just because it was given in an inappropriate manner. People spend large sums of money for the feedback of others; you just got some for free. Consider if there is anything of value in their comment that can benefit you.

When someone criticizes you, hear them out, thank them for their comment and ask questions if you're not sure what they mean. Then, either agree and take responsibility for the point that has value, or let them know that you will give their comment serious consideration; if needed, use a pat phrase as discussed above. Arguing with them rarely works and often only exacerbates the situation. At the same time, if they are criticizing you because of a misunderstanding, you may want to clarify the situation.

6. Confront the person.
If someone says something hurtful, call them on it. To avoid being judgmental, use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. For example, “I felt hurt when you said…” instead of, “You were insensitive when you said…” Let them know how you would like to be treated and which behaviors are unacceptable. When appropriate, share with them my article, “6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit.” People can change and improve their behavior, if they choose to.

If they don't stop their harmful behavior, walk away when they speak in a hurtful manner and distance yourself from the relationship as much as possible. If you are being subjected to verbal abuse (e.g. a pattern of constant criticism or criticism done in a degrading or hurtful manner), seek professional help; it is often difficult to deal with such a situation on your own. One book on this topic is The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Expanded Third Edition: How to recognize it and how to respond by Patricia Evans.

Handling criticism gracefully is a learned skill; you will improve overtime. To begin, make a list of critical family members and write down an action plan how you will deal with each one – different people require different approaches. When formulating your plan, keep in mind what worked for you in the past.

Remember, you can handle critical family members. With these tools in mind, prepare yourself before your interactions with them. In addition, ask God for the strength and wisdom to respond to their comments with finesse and grace.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Give Constructive Feedback without Sounding Critical

Ever notice that when we criticize people, they usually get defensive?

But if they get defensive, they will not benefit from what we have to tell them. So how can we help others improve without butting heads?

One way is to avoid telling them directly that they did the wrong thing. This approach works the majority of the time and I discuss how to do this in, “6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit.” But what do you do when that method is ineffective, or for pressing issues that need to be discussed as soon as possible?

In those situations, we have to sit down with the person and give constructive feedback.

6 steps to giving constructive feedback:

Before the conversation:


1. Be humble. Sometimes, we think we know better than others and that only we can set them straight. The truth is that our criticism may be unfounded, our solution ill-advised and God has many messengers to lead people back to the right path. Even if you give the best advice, the person may not follow it. Ask God to help you give proper advice and to give the recipient the strength to make needed changes.

Each of us is filled with flaws and have made many mistakes. We have to acknowledge that, and when we give feedback, to do so humbly; one flawed human being trying to help another. If applicable, when giving feedback, let the person know about an area in which you struggled and overcame.

2. Establish rapport. To be most effective, the person receiving the feedback needs to know that you like and care about them, that you are on their side and want to help them. One way of building rapport is by giving compliments and expressing appreciation, i.e., giving much more positive feedback than negative feedback. If you have lapsed in giving ample positive feedback, either hold off on your negative comments until you do so, or at least start off the conversation with positive feedback.

3. Avoid giving unsolicited feedback; ask first. Speak to the person privately, when you are both calm and in a gentle tone of voice, without edge, frustration or anger. Ask them if they are open to your feedback. You cannot force someone to change; people change only if they want to. If someone is not interested in feedback (or doesn’t think your concern is an issue), there is no point in proceeding; the attempt will only antagonize them and frustrate you. Sometimes though, we still have to let others know what is expected of them and the consequences of not meeting those expectations.

Often, people are willing to discuss the issue, just not when we bring it up; in that case, schedule a specific time for the discussion.

During:

4. Keep it short and sweet. Most people will get the point right away and belaboring the issue will only annoy them. Give the context of what you are talking about and be specific and factual. After stating the facts, explain the effects of their actions from your perspective. To be nonjudgmental, use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. For example, “I was inconvenienced…” instead of, “You were inconsiderate…”

Speak respectfully and talk in a way that preserves their dignity; after all, you are speaking to one of God’s children. Keep the main focus on encouraging them to do better in the future; be specific how they can improve, explain the benefits and express your confidence in them to rise to the challenge.

5. Make it a joint effort. When giving your opinion or view of the situation, make it clear that this is the way you see things. Ask them what their view of the situation is; maybe there is a misunderstanding. It can be helpful to phrase the topic as “our issue” and not “your issue.” This shows that you’re on their side and want to work with them to overcome the difficulty. Get their input on the best way to address the issue; people are more likely to follow through on an idea they think of than one you suggest.

Depending on the situation, you may want to agree on a time to meet again to follow up. In the interim, do not bring up other concerns; people generally do best when they focus on improving one issue at a time.

After:

6. Use positive reinforcement. It is demoralizing when a person tries to improve, only to be told it’s not good enough. Follow Dale Carnegie’s advice in How to Win Friends & Influence People, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be ‘hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.’” (He has a number of other helpful tips for giving constructive feedback, some of which I touched upon in this article.)

Giving empowering and effective feedback is a learned skill; you will improve overtime. When done right, you can change people’s lives, helping them overcome weaknesses and develop strengths. You help them transform into the people they were meant to be.


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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nissan: Spiritual Spring Cleaning

Dear Friends,

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

Rosh Chodesh Nissan begins on the night of March 31st. Passover begins on the night of April 14th.

On Passover, we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. It is a time of freedom, when we free ourselves from what brings us down spiritually.

Even today, many of us are still not yet free and are enslaved to our passions, to varying degrees. At the same time, we still maintain some level of moral purity. The goal is to raise a notch the level of moral purity to which we keep, increasing our freedom.

When you prepare for the holiday by removing leaven from your house, also remove spiritual pollution. To whatever extent you’re ready, go through your books, magazines, music and videos, and get rid of those which are filled with profanity, lewdness or vulgarity; they downgrade your spiritually.

An aspect of maintaining your purity is speaking in an elevated manner. Are there any words you choose to remove from your vocabulary, at least for this month, that do not reflect the type of person you are?

Using your checklist, you can check off each day you succeed in speaking in a refined manner and staying away from spiritual pollution.

Readings for the month:

4 Lessons We Can Learn From the Exodus

4 Steps to Safeguarding Your Moral Purity

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

Yaakov


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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt: 4 Lessons from the Exodus

Our rabbis inform us that we are currently in the final stages before the arrival of the Messiah. The Sages teach that the future redemption will parallel the redemption from Egypt (derived from Micah 7:15). By understanding what occurred then, we will gain insight into what is occurring now.

Before the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, the hardships of slavery intensified. The Jews used to take for granted that Pharaoh would provide straw for their bricks, but then he demanded that they find this bonding material themselves.

According to Jewish tradition, what occurs in the physical realm parallels the spiritual realm. For the Jews in Egypt, their need to find their own bonder in the physical realm paralleled their need to find their own bonder in the spiritual realm. The Sages teach that before the redemption from Egypt, the Jews did not have sufficient merit to be redeemed. They could not rely on the merit of their Forefathers; they needed to forge their own bond with God. For this reason, God gave them the commandments of circumcision and the Pascal lamb – the slaughtering of the god of the Egyptians – through which they demonstrated their loyalty to God (Rashi, Exodus 12:6).

Perhaps a similar dynamic is occurring today. For centuries, Jews took for granted that they would marry within the faith and maintain a connection with their Jewish heritage. Today, skyrocketing assimilation rates and large numbers of off the derech (formerly observant) youth make clear that we can no longer take this connection with Judaism for granted. To maintain our Jewish identity, like our ancestors in Egypt, our generation needs to forge our own bond with God.

How do we do that?

By following what worked for the Jews in Egypt. Here are four lessons we can learn from them:

1. Pray. Talking to another deepens the connection. Talking to God will deepen your connection to Him. The Torah says that before God redeemed the Jewish people, He heard their cry (Exodus 2:24). We need to cry out to God, asking Him to bring us closer to Him.

We have to realize that we cannot do anything without God’s help. Speak to Him daily about your struggles, preferably out loud and in your native language. This practice, called Hitbodedut, was popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

2. Demonstrate your loyalty to your Creator. Just as the Jews in Egypt slaughtered the god of the Egyptians, we also need to show our devotion to our Creator by slaughtering the gods of western society. Examples of modern day gods: The pursuit of money at all costs, the unbridled pursuit of physical pleasure and the pursuit of escapist activities which waste one’s time and often pollute one’s mind.

Ways to slaughter the gods of western society:
             Be ethical, even if you think no one will catch you.

             Live a moral life, even though temptations abound.

             Make time for Torah study and acts of kindness, even though other activities clamor for your              attention.

3. Help God’s other children. The Egyptians appointed Jewish officers over the Jewish slaves. When the slaves were not able to fulfill their quota of bricks, now that they had to collect their own straw, the Jewish officers could have punished the slaves. Instead, they took the beating themselves. They turned the difficulty of others into their difficulty.

In our lives, when we see others struggling, we also must not turn a blind eye. The Torah cautions (Leviticus 19:16), “…Do not stand aside while the blood of your fellow is shed…” We have to help others; we have to make their challenge our challenge.

As we come closer to the final redemption, God has increased the opportunities for us to help each other. We face so many crises: Spiritual ones of people feeling disconnected from Judaism or assimilating altogether, physical ones of mental and physical illness, staggering tuition bills and other high costs of living, and relationship ones, with rising divorce rates and singles having difficulty finding a spouse. We must turn these challenges into opportunities to help others, even as we struggle with own issues.

When you hear about someone who is struggling or their name pops into your head, take a moment to think about if there is anything you can do to help them. Throughout the day, look for opportunities to be of service to others.

4. Get and stay inspired. The Jews in Egypt had Moses, our greatest leader, to inspire and teach them. Who inspires you? Who teaches you how to come closer to God?

Our Father in Heaven says to us (Proverbs 23:26), “My child, give your heart to Me, and your eyes will desire My ways.” Observance with heart is how Judaism is meant to be lived. By finding inspiration – awakening our hearts – we will desire God’s Torah and mitzvot. 

Ask those you respect, which teachers, books and websites provide them with inspiration. Beseech God to lead you to the ones best suited for you. Do not give up. Keep trying and searching, until you find the spiritual lifeline you need to survive as a committed Jew.

Choose one of these four strategies to start with, and strengthen your bond with God. Encourage your family and friends to join you as well.

Just as God did for our ancestors in Egypt, may He use our fortified bond with Him to lift us up from the pit of exile and into His embrace. May it be today.

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit

How often are your criticisms effective, with people appreciating the feedback and improving their behavior?

Many times, criticism just antagonizes others and strains relationships. So why do we keep doing it?

It is much easier to criticize than to take the time to figure out the best way to help someone improve. But criticism can be very risky. When we are overly critical of ourselves, we may give up trying to improve. When we are overly critical of others, we may lose friends, alienate family members and drive away employees. Countless marriages are marred by hypercritical spouses, and hypercritical parents can leave children with emotional scars.

It does not matter if we call it, “sharing advice,” “giving constructive feedback,” or “just trying to be helpful.” If it is unsolicited and it is finding fault with what someone did or did not do – it is criticism and should be avoided whenever possible.

The good news is that we can become less critical of ourselves and others. For starters, the next time you feel the impulse to criticize, keep your lips together. Then, during a calm moment, decide on the best course of action from the options below.

6 ways to be less critical:

1. Hold off for now. Criticism is often unnecessary. When you forgot to pay your credit card bill or mortgage payment on time, did you really need to berate yourself? What you needed was compassion and understanding for the painful lapse. Before criticizing someone, ask yourself, “Do they realize they made a mistake?” If yes, then just be supportive; they will likely learn on their own from the experience.

Look for patterns. If the mistake happens two, three times, then it is appropriate to brainstorm with the person ways to address the issue.

2. Be accepting. None of us is perfect. God created each one of us with a unique set of weaknesses and strengths. By overcoming our weaknesses and developing our strengths, we best fulfill our life’s purpose.

We have to accept ourselves the way we are and to accept others the way they are, with all the flaws, failings and imperfections we all have. Trying to fix every weakness – your own or others’ – will lead to frustration and failure. Instead, focus on developing strengths, shoring up key weaknesses which get in the way, and accepting the rest.

3. Look for and praise the good points. Everyone has good qualities. Often, we are quicker to highlight the flaws in ourselves and others than the good points. Is that fair?

We have to praise and compliment ourselves and others much more than criticize. Researchers John Gottman (working with couples) and Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy (working in the business field) discovered similar findings. The optimal ratio of positive reinforcement (e.g. praise) to negative reinforcement (e.g. criticism) is approximately 5 to 1; in other words, we do best when we receive many times more positive feedback than negative comments.

Think of people of whom you are critical, perhaps your spouse, children, or employees. What is your ratio with them of positive to negative comments? Use that as a starting point upon which to improve. Each day or time you see them, give them at least one sincere and specific compliment or expression of appreciation.

4. Criticize indirectly. Often, the best critiques are those delivered indirectly. If the person does not even realize you are being critical, even better. This approach takes finesse, but with practice, you will get the hang of it.

Here are some ways to criticize indirectly: Mention in passing what has worked for you or others, praise them when they do things right, or email a pertinent article. For example, if you know people who are very critical of themselves or others, email them this article.

For your own weaknesses which get in the way, instead of berating yourself, read self-help articles and books to strengthen that area.

5. Be future focused. Instead of saying to yourself or others, “You blew it this time,” which is unhelpful and hurtful, say, “In the future, please…” or, “I would appreciate it if you…” or, “You may want to consider…” By focusing on the future, phrasing it as a request, and/or an option and not a command, your comment is less likely to come across as a personal attack. If possible, phrase the statement in the positive – what to do. Phrasing the statement in the negative – what not to do – is often perceived as a direct criticism.

It is not only what you say, but also when and how you say it; do not give criticism in the heat of the moment and make the comment sweetly with a smile (when appropriate).

If the person is not able to take immediate corrective action and is unlikely to encounter a similar situation in the near future, it is often best not to mention the error, as drawing attention to the mistake will only make the person feel bad.

6. Choose your battles. Often, we criticize to let off steam or get an issue off our chest. But that does not help the other person. If you want the person to actually benefit from what you have to say, focus on one issue at a time. The same applies to ourselves; choose one issue to work on. When you start criticizing yourself about another topic, remind yourself, “Right now, I’m only focusing on improving X.”

Make a list of the criticisms of others you would like to make. During a calm moment, look over each one and ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to point this out? Is there a good chance they will listen to me?” If the answer to either one is no, then accept the issue for now; give it over to God and ask Him to guide the person to the proper path. We need to remind ourselves that God is much more effective in guiding people than we will ever be.

When it makes sense to bring up a topic with someone, pray to God for guidance and ask yourself, “What’s the best way to help him or her improve in this area?”

Often, the answer is to wait for an opportune time to make an indirect criticism or a future focused comment. Even when using these methods, make sure that overall, you give roughly five times more positive feedback than negative. Start giving positive feedback now, so when an opportune moment for giving negative feedback arises, the person will be most receptive to your comment.

For pressing concerns which require a sit-down discussion, see, “How to Give Constructive Feedback without Sounding Critical.”

To help you achieve your goal of becoming less critical of others, share with those you frequently criticize (or pick one person), that you are working on being less critical and more complimentary. Ask them weekly or monthly for feedback on how you are doing; see if they have any suggestions, in this area, how you can improve even more. Do not argue with them, just thank them for their feedback and give their comments serious consideration.

You might find it helpful to use a checklist and check off each day you were able to avoid criticizing the specific person you are working on. You might want to start off with just avoiding giving criticism during a set time of day, i.e., morning, afternoon or evening, and build from there.

Words have incredible power; use them to make people feel good about themselves and to encourage them to reach their highest potential (yourself included).
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