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,


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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt: 8 Lessons from the Exodus

Our rabbis teach that we are currently in the final stages before the arrival of the Messiah. We are also told that our 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 and how to respond.

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 Paschal lamb – the slaughtering of the god of the Egyptians – through which they demonstrated their loyalty to their Creator (Rashi, Exodus 12:6).

Perhaps a similar dynamic is occurring today. For centuries, Jews took for granted that they would marry within their 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, we need to forge our own bond with God.

How do we do that?

By doing what worked for our ancestors in Egypt. Here are eight 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 and redeem us.

Realize that you 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.

A bedrock of prayer is knowing that God cares about us and wants to help us. If a person feels forgotten by God, they will not be motivated to pray to Him. We learn from the Exodus and other times God has helped us that God never forgets about us; we are constantly on His mind. The question is, is He on our minds? Don’t let a day go by without thinking about God and praying to Him with intention.

Ask yourself, “How can I deepen my connection to God through prayer? Will I start reciting Psalms daily with intention and/or speaking to God in my native language, even if only for 5 minutes a day?”

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 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 and show your loyalty to your Creator:

Be ethical, honest and keep your word. When dealing with others, go above and beyond the letter of the law and be willing to compromise for the sake of peace. If you were not upright in past dealings with others, ask a rabbi how to make things right.

Upgrade your morality. Each person knows what change they need to make, whether in their behavior, dress, or in what they watch.

Spend time each day studying Torah, even if only for a few minutes, look for ways to be of service to others and use your time wisely.

God has done and continues to do an incredible amount for us. He redeemed us from slavery, gave us the Torah and performed countless miracles on our behalf, saving us from our enemies and giving us the Land of Israel. This is all in addition to the personal blessings He has given each one of us.

Ask yourself, “What do I do for God? How can I show my appreciation and loyalty to Him?”

3. Don’t give up. When the Jews were leaving Egypt, they almost lost hope when they saw the Egyptian army chasing after them. Moses prayed to God and God told him to keep going (Exodus, 14:15). By having faith in God and moving forward, even going straight into the sea, they witnessed the amazing miracle of the sea splitting before them.

In our own lives, we may feel overwhelmed by struggles and past mistakes. At times, there appears to be no way out. But we must have faith that there is always a way out. Instead of wallowing in our difficulties, we must keep moving forward, step by step, even if we have no idea how we will succeed. Success is up to God; it is up to us to do our best.

Each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity to overcome your challenges. Never give up. No situation is as seemingly hopeless as a nation enslaved for hundreds of years. Just as God freed us from slavery, so too can He free you from your difficulties. With faith in your heart, a prayer on your lips and ironclad determination, like the Jews leaving Egypt, may you too witness miracles and see your challenges split before you.

Think of a difficulty in your life and have faith that God has given you the strength to overcome it. Ask yourself, “What is one thing I can do to address this challenge? Who is someone I can ask for advice?”

4. Help others. 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 our own issues.

When you hear about someone who is struggling, take a moment to think about if there is anything you can do for them. At the very least, ask God to help them in their time of need. If you look, you will see the countless opportunities God gives us to help others, whether through financial or physical assistance, or emotional support, encouragement or advice.

Ask yourself, “What is a gift that God has given me (resources, talents, connections) and how can I use it to help others?”

5. Live your faith with pride. Passover is the holiday of faith. Through the plagues God brought upon Egypt, He taught us to believe in Him. He then asked us to act on that faith by slaughtering the Egyptian god, the lamb, right in front of their eyes. We firmly believed that God would protect us from the wrath of the Egyptians, and He did. God then asked us to follow Him into a barren desert, having faith that He would take care of us. And He did. You are alive today, reading this, because God has continued to take care of His people. The inexplicable survival of the Jewish people throughout centuries of persecution is proof enough of God’s existence.

We learn from the Exodus that belief alone is not enough. We need to act on that faith. If a person claims to have faith in God but is dishonest or mistreats others, clearly, his faith is weak. He does not really believe that God can provide for him in an honest manner and that God will hold him accountable for misdeeds. How strong is your faith? Where are the incongruencies in your life, behaviors that are not aligned with your faith and values? These incongruencies or outliers to otherwise upstanding behavior are the chametz, the leaven, that you want to remove. In preparation for the holiday, you searched for and removed the chametz from your home. Mirror that process by searching for and removing the spiritual chametz from your life as well. 

There will be challenges to living your faith as a Jew, difficult passages in life. We need to be ready to follow God wherever He leads us. Yet, like our ancestors, when we follow God even into a barren desert, we know that eventually we will reach the Promised Land (and receive our reward, either in this world or in the world to come).

Be proud of your faith. The Sages teach that the Jews were redeemed in the merit of maintaining their Jewish identity. Even though they were negatively influenced by Egyption society, they kept their Jewish names, language and clothing. Even as slaves in Egypt, they still remained proud Jews. When you are firm in your Jewish identity and observance, others will respect you for it. People who are weak in upholding their ethics or values, others look down on them with disdain. Live your faith and live it with pride.

Ask yourself, “How can I live more true to my faith? How can I strengthen my adherence to my ethics and values?”

6. Become truly free. Passover is the time of freedom, when God freed us from slavery in order for us to follow His Torah. While a person may be technically free, if they are a slave to materialism, addictions or to escapist activities, they remain shackled. But when we follow the Torah, God’s instructions for living, we are truly free, as it says in Ethics of the Fathers (6:2), “For there is no freer person than one who engages in Torah study.”

Ask yourself, “In what way am I still enslaved, to materialism, addictions or time wasting behavior, and how will I break free? Who can I ask for help?”

7. Know why you’re here. We all search for meaning and purpose in our life. Many mistakenly think that life is about making money and so they chase that. Or they think life is about physical pleasure and so they chase that. But in the end, money and physical pleasure are not enduring sources of meaning and leave people feeling empty. Our ancestors knew that God didn’t redeem them from Egypt just so that they could run wild. He redeemed them for a purpose. That purpose is clearly spelled out in Exodus (6:7), “I will take you as a people for Myself, and I will be a God to you…” God was not freeing our ancestors so that they could exchange being enslaved by Egypt with being enslaved by materialism. The reason He took us out of Egypt and the reason He created us is to have a relationship with us, to become His people, and for Him to become our God. How do you have a relationship with God? By talking to Him in prayer, by helping His children through acts of kindness, by studying His Torah and following His Torah as best you can.

Ask yourself, “How can I focus more on my purpose, the reason God created me and redeemed my ancestors from Egypt? How can I deepen my relationship with God?

8. 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.

Our Judaism cannot stay stagnant. One is either walking ever closer to God, or walking away. Those who stay connected to their Judaism are those who forge relationships with spiritual mentors and like minded friends, and who deepen their prayer and study of inspirational Torah teachings.

Ask those you respect, which teachers and books 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 Torah teachings that inspire you. 

Ask yourself, “Who can I ask what inspires them? Which Torah book can I learn or audio class can I listen to for inspiration?”

Choose one of these eight 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.

To contact Yaakov for life coaching, see here

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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