When I used to read Mishpacha magazine, Libi Astaire was one of the writers whom I would always read no matter what topic she addressed, and even whether it was fiction or non-fiction (though I no longer read fiction, although I write it, funnily enough). Being a history buff – especially women’s and Jewish history – I’ve had my eye on Day Trips to Jewish History for a long time.
So I finally bought it and was not disappointed.
Libi covers all sorts of stuff that isn’t widely known, but is very intriguing. For example, I’d always wondered about the following:
And for some reason, I’m always very interested in what people ate at different times and in different cultures.
Libi covers this, too.
The book also addresses a wide variety of periods, topics, and cultures in Jewish history:
This book is a real gem in the Jewish history genre.
I first discovered Rivka Levy when she was writing for Breslev Israel Magazine and I finally realized that the majority of articles that resonated with me the most were written by her. When she announced she was creating her own blog, I surfed over there to check it out, liked it, and decided to stay. Ditto for all her other blogs as she opened them.
In conjunction, I read Garden of Emuna and had an epiphany which finally propelled me to sporadically talk to God until my conversations with Him settled into a regular thing.
Then a lot of other stuff happened (one of which was my dad died with no warning whatsoever) and I lost my spiritual equilibrium. No, losing my father didn’t call my faith into question, but a lot of strange things happened in connection with that, which opened my eyes to realities that I’d been ignoring or whitewashing (which is easy to do when you are thousands of miles away from those "realities").
Because Rivka Levy’s writings continued to deeply resonate with me, I reached out to her for – well, I wasn’t sure what. She didn’t and still doesn’t have much spare time outside her work and family, but she still managed to send me short messages bursting with meaning and emuna. In just one or two sentences, she would manage to say exactly what I needed to hear even though I was a complete stranger to her. It also meant a tremendous amount to me that she was speaking on my behalf during her daily conversations with God.
I could feel the difference.
And with some bumbling and fumbling of my own, I managed to get back on track, more or less.
Since getting to know her a bit more, I pay closer attention to almost anything she publishes. When she came out with The How, What, and Why of Talking to God, I knew I had to read it.
And even though I’ve read Outpouring of the Soul and In Forest Fields, I still discovered helpful guidance in Rivka’s book for certain struggles I’ve been having.
For example, I never have the problem of not having what to say to God – a problem that is common in other people who talk to God. I have the opposite problem: too much to say, too many thoughts at a time, and getting distracted, unfocused, or streaming into daydreaming – which I hadn’t seen covered in other writings on hitbodedut (talking privately to God in one’s own words).
This little book helped wallow out of other areas in which I’d gotten mired down and couldn’t see my way out. There is a lot of problem-solving, which is very helpful.
As a pre-teen and teenager, I wanted to talk or write in a journal to God, but I didn’t really know where to start. Sometimes I kind of tried, but immediately felt overwhelmed or lost. I could’ve really used something so short and so easily digestible, yet so thorough, to help me get started.
Another plus is that this book uses not only the personal experience of the author and others, but also scientific studies.
Personally, I've seen how talking to God in a meaningful way changes everything - literally. Things I just couldn't get to work out or situations that "experts" insist can't be changed or improved without intense and complex intervention, actually did improve or even got resolved once I started talking to God regularly. Many things either improved or resolved on their own or else I suddenly received a new insight for a method that actually worked. But even the things that are still hard are at the same time, not as grueling as they were before.
I highly recommend this book for beginners, for the religious and spiritual seekers, and for the doubters.
Now I bet you think I’m doing this as a favor to the author because I know her.
Well, I’m not.
I know other journalists and authors, and I don’t necessarily plug their books or articles. Rivka Levy has never asked me or even hinted at me to do so, and I could just ignore her stuff if I wanted.
Except that I don’t.
This book really, really helped me now as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and it would have really, really helped me when I was a completely secular teenager.
Having said that, when it’s a book about God and spirituality, it’s important to know whether the person behind the book practices what she preaches.
And in this case, I've really seen that she does.
I was brought up in a traditional-secular home. Though proud of my Jewish identity, I wasn’t interested in keeping the parts that either seemed inconvenient or meaningless. At one point, I even believed that it didn’t matter if I married a Jew because my kids would be Jews and I’d raise them with the Jewish stuff I found personally meaningful, so who cared who the father was?
I came to Eretz Yisrael for the first time with a traditional-secular summer program and absolutely fell in love with the Land. Though I never considered myself spiritual, I felt a beautiful tranquility at the Kotel (the last remaining Wall of the original Jewish Temple) and kept coming back for more. The program also made us keep some semblance of Shabbat. That, combined with the Israeli Shabbat atmosphere, sparked within me the need to seek out a more Sabbath-observant lifestyle, which led me to the Orthodox community.
Following the Torah Road
I went along my newly religious path, mostly loving it and wanting more of it. The only thing I was not able to resolve was the issue of emuna (faith in God's loving kindness and grace) and trust in God. I was able to mouth the words in order to fit in, hoping to "fake it 'til I make it," but though I’d always believed very deeply in God and often felt Him guiding me, I still possessed some inner resistance to the idea of total emuna.
It wasn’t anybody’s fault as many people possess emuna on only the most superficial level without even realizing it, making it impossible to pass it on to others.
So when it came to emuna, I was basically presented with two role models.
Role model #1:
The simple Jews who believed that God runs everything and who are quite generous, giving freely to Jewish charities, the poor, the sick, Jewish schools, and the like.
They truly believe that charity and acts of kindness, like visiting the sick, bring them blessing. And they certainly did talk to God whenever they had a problem – though with many of them, their God-directed conversations often seemed to consist exclusively of complaints and embittered requests. But that was still far above what I and most of the people I knew were doing. The problem was that many of these simple people (but not all!) seemed pretty unhappy. They also frequently transgressed some very serious and fairly obvious prohibitions. Spreading rumors, slandering, hating others, inciting petty controversies between others, a certain immaturity, and the like were standard by many of these people. To confuse things even more, I kept hearing about how much we should admire the emuna of these simple people. (I realized later that it was their deceased parents and ancestors who were the truly God-intimate and self-sacrificing simple Jews I’d heard so much about.) Of course, their religious beliefs and their willingness to speak directly to God were spot-on and far more elevated than those of the oh-so educated traditional-secular Jews with whom I’d grown up, but outside of their basic belief in God and their dedication to certain commandments, many of these simple Jews were simply not people to emulate.
Role Model #2
Then there were the Jews who constantly chirped, "Just have emuna!" or "Just pray!"
If they ever saw someone struggling with an issue, they tried to cut them off as soon as they could with one or both of the above phrases, often accompanied by a smile and chuckle that implied the sufferer was a bit of a nitwit. They never lent a listening ear nor a shoulder to cry on (so to speak), and rarely offered any meaningful help; they just chirped their comfy platitudes. I couldn’t help noticing that they often had some pretty serious problems in their own lives which they handled by pasting on a beatific smile, relegating even the most pressing problems to the status of spilled milk, playfully mocking anyone who took the issues more seriously. They recited Psalms and some even spoke to God, while keeping everything very superficial. I couldn’t help getting the impression that they more interested in finding a philosophy that justified their chosen state of denial - and a declaration of emuna simply fit the bill. A very few gave lip service to searching for God’s message in it all, but gave no sign of actually doing so. They reminded me of little girls who enjoy playing house and stumbling around in a pair of Mommy’s old pumps and costume jewelry – except the emuna-chirpers sincerely didn’t seem to know they were pretending.
So I got the impression that emuna meant either that I’d be generous but kind of depressed with a bad character OR that I’d be lazy, superficial, and delusional.
But I didn't want to be either one.
Going through the Motions of Gratitude and Emuna
Furthermore, the other reassuring concepts were actually not so reassuring in my ignorant state. Every time I heard how everything is from God, even the bad stuff, I didn’t find that comforting – in fact, I found it frightening. Some pretty nasty stuff happens. If Hashem is actively making that happen, well, then...?
Plus, I would hear a lot about seeing the good in everything and feeling grateful, but every time I felt inspired to get all appreciative ("Changing diapers is a huge kindness! Think of all the childless women who yearn to perform this tedious and yucky chore!"), I’d always come crashing down shortly after, leaving me with a kind of spiritual PTSD that meant I couldn’t pick myself back up again because I so dreaded the inevitable smash and burn.
Furthermore, the benefits of gratitude and appreciation were rarely explained, just that it was something you were supposed to do. I was getting lengthy and profound explanations about the benefits and truths inherent in Shabbat, keeping kosher, and listening to the shofar-blowing on Rosh Hashanah, and the Creation of the Universe as written in Genesis...but when it came to the Jewish fundamentals of emuna and gratitude to Hashem, it seemed like there was no deeper understanding or compelling reason for them – except to quip that internalizing such concepts would make me a happier person. (And as I described, it did for a very short while...until the smash and burn, making me feel even worse than before.)
Emuna – It’s the Real Thing
So I did what many others seemed to be doing and I pushed it to the back of my mind, living a life of spiritual dissonance – which was still a million times better than my former life of secular dissonance.
At one point, I read Gate of Trust in Duties of the Heart, and that helped a lot. But I was too stuck to really internalize the concepts.
Finally, after a lot of resistance, I forced myself to read Garden of Emuna.
"Only a paragraph a day," I promised myself so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed.
But to my surprise, I couldn’t stick to just a paragraph. The book was answering every single one of my reservations! All the things I never wanted to admit to anyone or felt to overwhelmed to discuss were addressed – and resolved – in this one little book.
Now I understood why so many of the romanticized simple people seemed so miserable: Connecting with Hashem consists of three parts:
I also finally understood why the second group was such a turn-off:
Needless to say, pushing buttons and turning dials on a radio does nothing if it's not plugged in.
Now that I finally had the whole truth whomped in my face, I realized what I ultimately needed to do.
A Spiritual Awakening - Take 2
Gritting my teeth (so to speak), I forced myself to ram against certain attitudes I’d clung to my whole life (including in my adopted Orthodox life) – attitudes that were essentially against the Torah and actually harming me and keeping me from having any chance of breaking out of the klippah (a type of obstructing spiritual "shell" or "peel") I’d always sensed had ensnared me. So I went against my nature and did what the book said. And I had a momentary breakdown that was painful yet liberating – sort of like shattering out of a glass prison: You break free, but gosh, all those little shards hurt like the dickens while you're doing it.
But only for a few moments.
Getting a Glimpse
Okay, this next part gets a bit weird, but that's how life is sometimes.
In His great Kindness, God then sent me a few dreams which were clearly glimpses of past lives. And even though I didn’t (and still don’t) have the whole picture, I finally understood a smidgen of why I’d had to go through certain painful events and why other things had never (and still haven’t and may never) worked out, no matter how hard I’d tried. And I got a taste of God's tremendous Loving Grace in allowing a one-time good deed in an otherwise barren former incarnation to be the window into getting yet another chance in this lifetime to get it all right. Or realizing that in His great Generosity, God had previously given me all the things I lacked and craved so badly in this life – but I’d wasted those gifts or used them wrongly in past lives.
Those wonderful gifts had ended up becoming stumbling blocks.
Depriving me of them now wasn’t punishment, but merely a removal of stumbling blocks in order to facilitate my way to the victory I’d missed several times before. God gives us LOTS of chances, but eventually, you end up on your last. So this lifetime was now more grueling, but also less likely to end in failure.
And at this point, I divide my life between before I read Garden of Emuna and after I read Garden of Emuna.
Tending the Garden
With newly discovered emuna, it was like becoming religious all over again. The excitement and passion was back (along with the normal newly religious ups-and-downs and the newly Orthodox state of "I'm Not Always Sure What the Heck I'm Doing, But At Least I Know The Right Direction, So I'll Just Give It My Best Shot!"). And I wanted to share my new-found knowledge with everyone and engage in lots of exploratory discussions, but couldn’t because other people weren't always on the same page. (Just like when I become Orthodox while still in the secular world.) This was jarring at first, but it taught me some valuable lessons and paved the way toward meeting like-minded people from whom I could learn.
After reading Garden of Education and applying the principles, I saw how even the most unsolvable child-rearing problems were either now solved or at least improved, and I got rid of all my other child-rearing books. The emuna method both demanded more effort yet was simpler than any other method I’d ever tried. Although I was told that I was burying my head in the sand, it was obvious that facing head-on the ugliest parts of myself only because I know that’s best for my child demands more courage and grit then all the running around to different experts, lectures, and schools (which I’d been doing before – with hardly any result, except feeling exhausted and beaten).
Now that I've gone through Garden of Gratitude, I understand more that true gratitude is not a superficial or lazy. Real gratitude is work!
And presently, I’m grateful for all those role models of false emuna because they were such a turn-off (especially the well-meaning chirpers) that they kept me from taking the easy way out and forced me to hold out for the real thing. If I hadn’t kept searching, I never would have found it.
Obviously, I am not a pillar of trust and faith in God and may never be. And I still fall on my face (even though it’s not the smash and burn of yore).
But words can’t express the tremendous joy and relief of at least knowing the path that can lead me there if I try.