I'm grateful to announce the publication of a new book:
The Wisdom of King Solomon—An in-depth look into the historic Biblical event that revealed Shlomo Hamelech's insight & understanding.
*Linguistic note: Shlomo (shloh-moh) is the original Hebrew of the Anglicized "Solomon." And Hamelech (hah-meh-lech) means "the king" in Hebrew. Shlomo Hamelech is how religious Jews across the world refer to "King Solomon."
The ebook is up now at Amazon & available for free download from Monday, December 14 – Friday, December 18, 2020.
It's a Chanukah present from me to you.
Also, the Torah portion read this upcoming Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) in synagogues across the world deals with the famous future-telling dream of Pharaoh and its interpretation by Yosef (Josef of the-coat-of-many-colors fame).
This prophetic interpretation led to a stunning rise for Yosef, who then used his wisdom to save Egypt from starvation—which ended up saving much of the world of that time and earning a generous stream of income for Egypt, who became the world's provider for those 7 years.
Along with a weekly reading of the Torah (called a parsha in Hebrew), a reading from Prophets or Writings (called a haftarah) follows the reading of the parsha.
So after the reading in the synagogue of this week's parsha (with Pharaoh's dream & Yosef's wisdom), the accompanying haftarah consists of Kings I:3:15-28—the court case brought before King Shlomo by 2 women, each one claiming to be the birth mother of one surviving baby. (The other died when his mother rolled over on him in her sleep.)
King Shlomo showcased his legendary wisdom by pretending to decide to slice the baby in two, and thus allowing each mother to take a half.
With the birth mother unable to bear this ghoulish end for her child, she speaks up and relinquishes custody of her child to the other woman.
At that point, King Shlomo declares her as the rightful mother and the entire Nation of Israel rejoices.
But I always wondered...how on earth does that show wisdom?
It always seemed to me that it showed which one was a psychopath—and a particularly stupid psychopath. (After all, the lying woman calls out, "Neither to you nor to me be shall he be—cut!")
No normal person does that. Even a perfect stranger would object to such a brutal "solution."
You don't need to be the child's biological mother to protest against such an atrocity or to relinquish your custodianship of the threatened baby—whether it's your baby or not.
So I followed my curiosity and researched as many commentaries as I could find, and not only discovered the answer to this issue, but much more.
For example, the women are never named in the text—only described by occupation.
Who are they really? What are they really doing?
Traditional rabbinical sources offer 4 descriptions of the two women (including the first one mentioned outright in the text)—and the 4th one is pretty bizarre.
Also, did you ever wonder which woman was the child's birth mother—the accuser or the accused?
I never did! I never wondered which was which until research led me to a discussion about it in the classic rabbinical sources.
Furthermore, the way King Shlomo handled this historic event provides us with many lessons—one of which was instituted way back then and continues until today as part of the official procedure in any rabbinical Jewish court.
Even with all the sources, it's a pretty short book because the entire episode only consists of 13 verses.
But I put mostly everything I could possibly find into this little book.
I hope you'll find the information, background, details, interpretations, and revelations as fascinating as I found them.
And I hope it answers any questions or issues that pricked at you too.
Because most of the sources exist only in Hebrew or Aramaic, this book features information you probably won't find in English anywhere else.
If you wish to read the original text online in English translation by expert rabbinical scholars, you can see it here:
The Complete Jewish Bible: Melachim/Kings I, Chapter 3
So again, the link to the free download is here:
Remember, it's only free temporarily. After that, it's going up to a still affordable (but no longer free) $2.99.
The paperback is newly available here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QFG2ZH1, sold at the introductory low price of $6.99.
There's meaning in everything, but we often struggle to understand the message.
One major help in understanding God's messages is Perek Shirah — Chapter of Song, which features prominently in Finding My Father's Song.
(Here's a downloadable PDF of the entire song: Perek Shirah in English.)
Perek Shirah is an ancient collection of over eighty verses put together by King David, whose most famous book is the Book of Psalms.
But after King David finished writing the Book of Psalms, Perek Shirah came to him as a type of even higher revelation.
Each part of Creation has its own song, and this is what was revealed to King David.
Perek Shirah was first mentioned in written Jewish texts around two thousand years ago (although knowledge of Perek Shirah could exist long before its textual mention, especially since much of Jewish scholarship was passed down orally, in addition to the wealth of written scholarship lost or destroyed throughout the ages).
The most respected Jewish sages throughout history praised the power of Perek Shirah to save a person’s soul, both in this world and in the Afterlife.
Perek Shirah isn't widely known outside the ultra-Orthodox community, where it is popular due to its powerful spiritual attributes.
Yet several stories exist of how Perek Shirah helped people understand the message hidden in a distressing event.
For example, Sara Yoheved Rigler writes about how the Song of the Rat helped her & her husband understand what the giant rat in their home needed to tell them:
My Rat's Tale
Another couple realized that the invasion of scorpions into their new apartment hinted at their unintentional callousness in leaving a homeless man with whom they'd been sharing their meals. Upon contacting him to inform him of their new location (accompanied by a sincere offer to continue hosting him for meals), the scorpion infestation disappeared.
(The Song of the Scorpion within Perek Shirah is Psalm 145:9: "God is good to all and His Compassion is upon all His creatures." Thus, the couple realized their unintentional abandonment of the homeless man lacked compassion.)
It's not always clear to exactly what creature Perek Shirah refers. For example, the smameet mentioned toward the end of Perek Shirah could either be a small lizard or a spider. (And therefore, you can feel free to apply the message of the smameet to both the spiders you encounter, and the cute little gecko lizards.)
Furthermore, the meaning of the song isn't always as apparent as it was in the above instances.
But it's still worth taking a look to see whether the song of a particular creature or phenomenon holds a special message for you.
Of course, sometimes the reason for the event is something else entirely, something far less obvious & far more esoteric.
Judaism very much embraces paradox and isn't about a "bibbity-bobbity-boo!" approach to tackling life's challenges.
But it's still worth seeking out the message.
You never know what you'll find.
Free Inspirational Posters for Free Download: A Millennia-Old Short Jewish Prayer to Start Your Morning in the Best Way Possible
At the end of this post, you'll find graphics to download for free.
(If you use them online, I'd be grateful for attribution & a link back to this site, but since I'm offering these for free, so you don't have to link or attribute.)
You can also print them out as posters.
Upon waking up in the morning, a Jew is supposed to thank God for returning one's soul to the body.
There is an idea in Judaism that sleep is 1/60th of death.
The human soul comprises different aspects & levels (which is why Judaism has several different names for the soul — to describe its different aspects & levels).
When one goes to sleep at night, part of the soul rises to another plane and tells of its deeds that day. (Yes, part of this process can be expressed in a metaphorical dream.) It is judged and usually given yet another chance for a better tomorrow.
The soul then descends back into the body and then at some point, the person wakes up.
So for millennia, Jews have said the following short prayer immediately upon waking:
Thankful am I before You, Living & Enduring King, that you returned within me my soul with mercy — Great is Your Faithfulness!
Modeh (or Modah for a female) ani lifanecha Melech Chai v'Kayam sheh hechazarta bi nishmati b'chemlah — rabbah emunatecha!
In Hebrew, the guttural throat-clearing sound is often represented by "ch." There is no native "ch" (like the English "ch" of "cheese") in Hebrew, so whenever you see a Hebrew word written with "ch," please know that it represents the guttural throat-clearing sound.
For the images, there are 3 options:
Of course, you can also feel free to download all three graphics.
Hover your mouse-arrow over your chosen image, then press right-click on your mouse, then choose the option that best suits you.
In a previous post (How Limits & Boundaries Produce Real Creativity), we discussed how limitations and boundaries enhance creativity and genius, rather than dull them.
In fact, in yet another post, we saw the way a brilliant marketer used his unusual and complex name to his advantage, showcasing what a good marketer he really is.
Had he just decided that since he can change his name to any other name, that he should find a more conventional and pronounceable name (or just break the boundary on names and choose something simply to be different or offensive), he wouldn't have been able to come up with as nearly an effective and appealing ad.
Working within the limitation enhanced his creativity and cleverness.
The Best Art
Likewise, the best art works within structure.
Let's look at the field of writing.
Publishers of mysteries often say things like, "I would love to see a really good locked-room mystery!"
(A locked-room mystery is when a body is found in a locked room with no window and therefore, no apparent exit for the perpetrator.)
This is one of the hardest mysteries to write. Therefore, anyone who can write it well shows greater genius than one who writes a, say, a whodunit that takes place in an open park in a crime-ridden neighborhood at night.
In the field of music, the works considered genius are those of classical composers, such as Bach and Mozart, who composed their works according to certain rhythms and structures.
In the world of religious Judaism, a popular form of art includes Hebrew verses or even entire books incorporated into a painting on that theme.
Why do we admire art which incorporates verses of Psalms into a thematic painting?
Because doing so demands such skill and innovation.
The Innovative Beauty of Prohibitions
Millennia of Jewish scholarship has emphasized the importance of limitations, from limiting our speech to expressing gratitude for the limits God set on the oceans at the seashores.
Yet the idea of being limited often leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the modern millennial; limits are often seen as confining, strangling, suffocating, strait-jacketing, and so on.
Yet our Sages tell us that limiting our speech can merit us a light so great that even the greatest angels cannot perceive it. And without limits on our oceans, our world would be flooded and mostly uninhabitable.
"Restraint" seems like a quaint idea or else something necessary in only very extreme situations. Yet it is also arguably the best translation of the word gevurah, a highly prized quality in Judaism (often translated as "strength" or "might"). Gevurah is also one of the Kabbalistic Sefiras.
While some see Judaism as a list of prohibitions, many religious Jews discovered enhanced spiritual growth by asking themselves, "How can I do this within the parameters of Jewish Law?" Or, "What can I do instead?"
Finally, it's possible to expand this idea of limitations from art to expression of the human soul by examining the following idea:
Who is the greater person?
It is limitation which allow our soul's potential to truly shine.
A couple of years after I'd left my secular assimilated lifestyle for an Orthodox Jewish life, I met a woman who'd once been immersed in her life as an artist.
She'd painted and sculpted whatever she felt compelled to create, clothed herself as her spirit moved her, and hung out in Greenwich Village.
There were no boundaries or limitations on how she could express herself.
"Wasn't it difficult to channel your art in a religious way?" I asked her. "I mean, after you were used to painting and sculpting whatever you wanted, wasn't it difficult to limit yourself after you entered the more structured and limiting world of Orthodox Judaism?"
Nodding to herself, her brow wrinkled in thought before she said, "I wouldn't say 'difficult'...."
She paused again, searching for the right words until she finally said, "Yes, it's true that I can't create whatever I want—although in a way I can, because my soul expresses different and better aspects now—but my art became better." She pursed her lips, thinking over what she was saying, then she nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I feel that Orthodox Judaism actually improves your art."
"Really?" I said. After having read books by people who felt confined by Orthodox Judaism, it was startling to hear such a contrasting view. "Having your art conform to Orthodox standards actually improves your art?"
"Yes," she said. "Because without limitations, there is no real creativity."
Now, that really stumped me.
In so many different ways, the secular world always insists that creativity demands total uninhibited freedom.
And throughout my life, I kept seeing that the definition of good art in any field was always how much it pushed past the current boundaries—whether the end product was actually any good or not.
For example, the highly lauded field of "experimental art" or "experimental music" is often merely something that hasn't been done yet.
And at this point, what is left to do is often ugly, disturbing, and in bad taste.
Noting my perplexity, she explained, "If you can just do anything you want, then what's the challenge in that? How can you be truly creative and how can you even begin the cultivation of artistic genius if you just do 'whatever'?"
She told me to imagine a pipe channeling water toward a certain destination.
The very act of channeling the water causes the water to be limited in its direction and its form.
Yet that same "limited" water is much more productive and valuable than if it were just flooding around everywhere with no direction or purpose.
"When you can only create within certain limitations," she continued, "then that forces you to think outside the box and to stretch your mind in ways you never would have before. And doing that increases your creativity and makes your art even better."
Needless to say, she's right.
Many people complain about the formulaic structure of movies today. Many novels resemble each other too, just in different genres. The same characters pop up in different guises, all expressing the same ideas in different voices.
And then yet another boundary is crossed, which seems either exciting or distressing, depending which side of the boundary you stand on. But that eventually becomes copied ad naseam until the next boundary is violated.
Breaking boundaries isn't necessarily creativity.
It takes no innovation to say, "What are the taboos of society and how can I push past them?"
For example, if your society frowns on stealing, it takes no genius to identify that boundary or to break through it. You just go out and steal something.
Likewise, self-indulgent expression takes little creativity or genius. Your emotions merely lead you to chafe against a society that doesn't cater to your individual quirks or tastes. You chafe against it and then you rant against it with mind-numbing slogans and meaningless symbols. Maybe you even express your self-righteous ranting in a book or via some other art in a way that seems fresh at the time, but will seem shallow and melodramatic in another generation or two.
And despite all the hype and self-congratulations of those who indulge themselves this way, there's no real creativity there either.
The above applies to any creative endeavor, which is why we quip, "Necessity is the mother of invention."
Inventors create because something is missing.
Real innovators create because of the limits.
Genuine creativity and genius is born from limitation.
Finding My Father's Song
What if you're lost, but being found just makes you feel lost again?
Rina Brown is a young professional with a hidden talent for music who’s in love with her successful fiancé, Troy Ash.
But when she reveals that she wants to eventually have children, despite having promised him she wouldn’t, he dumps her.
Losing Troy causes Rina to lose everything else—their home, her friends, the winter cabin in the mountains—plunging Rina into despair.
Combined with the recent death of the mother who never really loved her and bitterness toward the father who abandoned her as a child, Rina makes her way to the winter cabin she once shared with Troy, determined to end her life by freezing to death outside on a snowy night.
Yet bears awakening from hibernation chase Rina into the lonely cabin, where she discovers music CDs and equipment that enable Rina to upload her songs of heartbreak, eventually creating an Internet sensation.
But when Rina’s past won’t leave her alone, Rina finds herself spiraling once again into despair.
Will Rina be able to grasp onto those reaching out to her from her past?
Can she find the lifeline she needs in an ancient Jewish book said to be the key to unlocking a secret chamber in Heaven?
Or will she finally lose herself forever to her own despair and self-destruction?
Perek Shira & The Secret Chamber of Melody
This new book focuses on Rina Brown, a Jewish girl so assimilated, she barely realizes she's Jewish.
As she tries to make her way around heartbreak, Internet fame, suicide attempts, unsettling childhood memories, and unexpected meetings with people from her past, Rina discovers the existence of a short ancient Jewish book said to be compiled by King David himself called Perek Shirah—Chapter of Song.
Note: Much of the following is excerpted from the Author's Note of Finding My Father's Song.
Well-known today among Orthodox Jews, but practically unheard of in other circles, Perek Shirah/Chapter of Song is a compilation of 84 verses inaudibly sung by different species of mammals, insects, birds, fish, and other parts of nature.
Most of the verses derive from the Jewish Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar, although one is a paraphrase of a verse from the Jewish Confession (Vidui).
King David is credited with compiling Perek Shirah after he finished writing and arranging the Book of Psalms.
Perek Shirah is available in English with variations in translation due to the multi-layered meaning of most of the verses and the struggle to accurately identify a couple of the animals mentioned. For example, the retzifi (who “sings” Isaiah 40:1) is often translated as “bat,” but my Hebrew version features a photo of an owl (both are nocturnal winged predators, albeit from totally different species). But this word isn’t found in the Jewish Bible or the Talmud, so its translation isn’t clear. However, God knows what you mean. (You can also just call it “retzifi” instead of the uncertain translation, but recite the rest of the verse in English.)
Rabbi Chanoch Zundel Luria (a rabbinical sage who lived in Poland during the early 1800s) compared Chapter of Song to a symphony of musical instruments, each with its own sound, which blends together under the guidance of a conductor.
Many of the verses contain expressions of joyful gratitude to the Creator along with other inspirational messages, including verses containing ethical metaphors encouraging the reader to overcome laziness, avoid theft, and live a meaningful life.
The deeper secret behind Perek Shirah is the Jewish tradition that there is a special place in Heaven (and is not a physical 3-dimensional location like, say, Jamaica) that contains a great spiritual treasure under lock and bolt (again, not a physical iron lock and bolt).
Only certain angels can entire this chamber, which is called Niggun (pronounced nee-goon, it means “Melody”). Perek Shirah is the key that opens this chamber. Needless to say, to really access the beautiful holy power of Perek Shirah, it needs to be said from your heart as sincerely and joyfully as you can.
(This doesn’t mean you need to be laughing and hooting as you say it. Again, it’s the heart that counts, so the main idea is to cultivate a happy heart.)
If you can put the words to some kind of melody, it’s even more effective.
Several holy Jewish sages throughout history have emphasized the power of Perek Shirah to provide protection and healing. In light of this, there is a popular Jewish custom to recite it for 40 consecutive days as a prayer for the fulfillment of a specific request. Many Jews have seen blessing and even miracles from following this custom.
Here is a downloadable PDF of one English translation:
Perek Shirah in English
As you’ll see, there are different spellings of Perek Shirah. Sometimes perek is spelled pereq and sometimes shirah is spelled shira. As explained in Jews, transliterating Hebrew into English isn’t so straightforward, so we all just do the best we can.
There are laminated booklets available in the original Hebrew or translations of the Hebrew, accompanied by photos of the animal featured in each verse. (The illustrations are helpful in case you—like me—didn’t know what a swift or petrel was, for example; they’re both birds.)
But the website offering these booklets, plus more information, has since closed down and been transferred to a site for decking wholesalers. (Weird, I know.) To receive a laminated booklet of Perek Shirah with the accompanying photos, you can always try contacting an Orthodox book store (if you have one in your area) to see if they carry these booklets.
For an article by one of my favorite Jewish authors about her personal experience with Perek Shirah, please see: Nature's Song.
For an upbeat Hassidic musical rendering of the introductory paragraph of Perek Shirah, please see this video by Avremy Goldstein & friends (English subtitles appear at around 3:20): Perek Shirah Hassidic-Style
One traditional Jewish stricture I forgot to include in Jews—Stuff You Always Wanted to Know, But Didn’t Know Who to Ask is the custom of maintaining no physical contact with the opposite gender—including no shaking hands.
Note: Judaism allows and even obligates physical contact between genders in order to save a life. For example, a male must rescue a drowning female (if he can) and a female paramedic must treat a male heart-attack victim.
While refraining from any physical contact sounds extreme and unnecessary in today’s modern egalitarian society—after all, what is the big deal about a casual handshake?—Judaism is actually quite firm about this.
Here are just some of the issues with shaking hands:
It is merely a religious stricture mandated for the Orthodox Jew’s personal standards and out of respect for the Orthodox Jew’s marital relationship (or potential marital relationship, as the case may be).
Of course, because Orthodox Jews are the only Jews who still observe this law, this presents awkward situations for both Orthodox Jews and for the unsuspecting secular Jews or non-Jews they encounter,
So how do Orthodox Jews handle a situation in which shaking hands is expected?
For the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, it is paramount to avoid offending the innocent hand-shaker in any way. (Jewish Law strictly prohibits embarrassing or insulting others.) However, if despite apologies, explanations, reassurances, and candy-offerings, the potential hand-shaker still remains offended, most Orthodox Jews will feel that they have done their best and will not violate this religious stricture, despite the other's negative feelings.
Of course, this kind of thing can lead to some amusing situations like the following:
Funny Story #1
Upon meeting her male boss for the first time, a European Orthodox Jewish woman responded to his extended hand by saying, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry and mean no offense, but I’m very religious and don’t shake hands.”
Later, the boss brought his wife to the office and introduced her to this same Orthodox Jewish employee. When his wife extended her hand in greeting to the Orthodox woman, the boss said to his wife, “What are you doing? I told you that she doesn’t shake hands!”
Upon which the Orthodox Jewish woman explained that the prohibition was not against handshakes in general, but only against shaking hands with the opposite gender—at which point, she warmly shook the hand of her boss’s wife.
Funny Story #2
A young Hassidic woman found herself in a reception line to shake hands with Nixon’s vice-president in honor of some amazing community work she’d conducted.
Surrounded by cameras and faced with a very important person whom she did not want to offend, she needed to come up with the right response. Yet having been raised by a family who’d survived Auschwitz and then later maintained a quiet life infused with strong Hassidic values on American soil, compromising on her religious values was not an option for her.
So when she found herself face to face with the Vice-President, she gave him a nice head-shoulders bow and a big smile, and in her charming Southern accent, she said, “I am so sorry, Mr. Vice-President, but my religion simply doesn’t allow me to touch men.”
In response, he gave her a smile, a nod, and some friendly small talk and then just continued on to the next person in line.
So what should you do when faced with an Orthodox Jew of the opposite gender in a situation in which a handshake is the perfectly acceptable norm?
As far as the Orthodox Jew is concerned, it’s usually preferable not to offer your hand in the first place, and to make do with a verbal greeting instead. But if you do extend your hand in greeting, I hope this article will help minimize any feelings of offense or discomfort if the Orthodox Jew reacts with any of the non-physical responses listed above.
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.
In The Way to Becoming Yaelle, Jan’s best friend and protector, Anna, expresses a strong identification with Pinocchio because just as Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy, Anna yearns to be a “real” girl after being numbed by years of abuse and neglect.
But I didn’t invent this idea.
This inspiration came from a very real little girl I once knew.
Shira was two years younger than me and died at the age of nine from a form of diabetes so rare that only 300 other children in the world were diagnosed with it at that time.
As a child, Shira captivated me. She was adorable with round blue eyes and chubby-bunny cheeks, and her very essence seemed different from the other children, evidenced in the way she looked you right in the eye, in the way she strode forward as she walked, and in her whole demeanor.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, Shira’s demeanor came from the mission her disease forced on her at age five:
And not just to live as long as she could, but to live as normally as she could.
Seeing how Shira walked and even ran while attached to a glass tank on wheels, an object almost as tall as Shira herself, awed the extremely shy child that I was. Uncomfortable in my own skin to the point that I hated games – like Duck-Duck-Goose – in which I needed to move while others watched, Shira’s freedom of movement while attached to a real impediment fascinated me and I was secretly in awe of her. In a way – and I know it sounds odd – I even envied her for her dignity and normality in the face of indignity and abnormality. After all, I couldn’t achieve those desired qualities – and I wasn’t even attached to a cumbersome machine!
I yearned to be friends with Shira, but I didn’t know how. Sometimes Shira would greet me and I would clam up. The friendly way she looked right into my eyes with that strange machine rolling behind her froze me into silence. Later, I cringed upon remembering how I would just stare back at her, aching to talk but not finding my voice. Shira would raise her eyebrows, shrug her shoulders and keep on going, that odd machine bumping along the pebbly floor behind her.
Once, Shira even asked me, "Can you talk?"
I think I nodded yes.
Shira tried to engage me in conversation, realized it was futile, and went on her way. But I never felt judged by her, like I did with a lot of other people, both children and adults. And she had more right to be offended than anyone else. Later, I realized that Shira was used to disabilities. She had her own and, spending so much of her life in the hospital, she realized that a lot of people had their limitations, some odder than others. She understood that it was nothing personal. And she understood that some people didn’t know how to deal with a little girl connected to this queer thing on wheels. I could have asked her and she would have explained it to me in a way I could understand and feel comfortable, and we could have been friends.
But I didn’t know how to overcome my shyness – especially with Shira.
Then she died.
I felt awful. I cried a lot. It was the first time I’d dealt with death and even more disturbing, the death of a girl not much younger than me. I hadn’t known she was that ill. And I felt terrible that I had basically – albeit helplessly – snubbed a little girl who’d been dying. And I regretted the missed opportunity to be friends with someone truly special, someone who could have taught me about the genuinely important things in life.
I was sure that if I had known she would die, I would have found the courage to speak to her.
Later, I found out just how heroic and special Shira really was – and how creative and spunky. Just like one can take stale old cake and turn it into scrumptious English trifle, Shira once dressed herself up as C3-PO and costumed her insulin machine as R2-D2.
(It was the Eighties and everyone had a Star Wars obsession at some point.)
Then a friend of mine showed me a book with a dedication inscribed by Shira’s mother and given to my friend’s family after Shira had died. It was the tale of Pinocchio – "because just like Pinocchio always wanted to be a real boy, Shira always wanted to be a real girl."
Her mother's words touched me deeply and I never forgot them.
I didn’t know that Shira – with all her sense of purpose and dignity – had felt like she wasn't really "real."
And I think we can all understand why Shira, who was often attached to machines and lived with the knowledge that she’d probably never grow up like all the other little girls, felt like she wasn’t a "real" girl.
But as young as I was, I also understood that Shira was more real, more authentic, and more accomplished in her nine years than many of us are over a lifetime.