Friday, December 07, 2007

Yield or Resist?

An article from, insight into scripture from a Jewish perspective:

Is it a Jewish value to yield or to resist?

The El Al security official at the L.A. airport eyed my mother-in-law suspiciously. She couldn't imagine what the problem was. The security official looked hard at my mother-in-law, studied her passport, looked up again at her face, gazed down again at her passport, and finally called over his colleague.
"Look at this woman," he commanded. "Her passport says she is almost 90 years old. Can that be true?"
Like the El Al security official, I have always been perplexed by my mother-in-law, Evelyn.
Visiting Jerusalem at the age of 88, she made daily pilgrimages to the Western Wall, trekking up 135 steps. Even while celebrating her 90th birthday this week, she still walks with a bounce in her stride.
Even more mystifying is her universal popularity. Everyone she meets -- no matter how distant from her in age, geography, or background -- adores Evelyn. This includes: her young Persian neighbors; my religious friends; the Hispanic plumber and his wife; the single, 40-something daughter of her best friend; and a young Israeli mother in Austin, Texas, who met Evelyn five years ago and continues to call her every Friday to wish her "Good Shabbos."
One Sunday Evelyn didn't answer the phone when we expected her to be home. "I was at a graduation," she explained the next day. "It was the son of this big Italian family. I was the only non-relative invited."
What is the secret of my mother-in-law's universal popularity?
Recently, at a class on the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles, I discovered the answer.
Many Jewish women follow the custom of lighting one Shabbat candle for every member of her family, honoring not only Shabbat, but every member of the family.
Honoring other people is a core value in Judaism. Ethics of the Fathers, our 2,000-year-old guide to interpersonal relationships, proclaims: "Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, the honor of your friend like the honor of your Rabbi, and the honor of your Rabbi as much as the honor of Heaven." As for marriage, the Talmud directs: "A man should love his wife as much as he loves himself, and honor her more than himself."
Take a step back and allow another's reality to prevail.
How does one actually honor other people? The key is to validate their reality. Usually our own reality is so intrinsic to us that we dismiss other people's reality as insignificant, flawed, or warped. To take a step back and allow another's reality to prevail permits the other to feel his/her own importance. This is the essence of giving honor.
And this is why everyone loves Evelyn: she honors them by validating their reality. When she is with the family of her eldest son Bob, who moved to San Francisco in the 60s and joined the counter-culture, she appreciates their life style, the quaintness of their Mill Valley home with its hot tub, and her daughter-in-law's talents in making pottery and jewelry. When she is with her second son Leib Yaacov in Jerusalem, she embraces our religious ways and admires our choices. When her youngest son Jamie, who heads a foundation for the arts, takes her to a formal dinner honoring Pavarotti, she enjoys the elegance of the event, hobnobs with the stars, and appreciates Jamie's kindness in bringing her. No wonder everyone adores her!
Such validation requires much yielding of one's own propensities and choices, and poses a challenge to the ego. It would require a physicist to validate the reality of his teenage son who gets bad grades in science and who spends his evenings strumming his guitar. It would require a wife who's an expert at multi-tasking to have patience for her husband who can't be left to both take care of the kids and remember to take the roast out of the oven on time.
Validating another's reality is the key to honoring others, which is the key to peace in the home and is the inner depth of the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles.
How different are the candles of Chanukah! Chanukah is the holiday of standing up boldly for your beliefs, of not yielding an inch.
Chanukah commemorates the historical victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks. The Jewish rebellion started in the year 167 B.C.E., after a century of Greek cultural hegemony and increasing assimilation. In the village of Modiin, Greek forces commanded the Jews to make offerings to a pagan god. One submissive Jew complied. This so enflamed the elderly priest Mattathias that he sprang up, killed the servile Jew, and led his five sons and handful of followers into the hills for a protracted guerilla war against the Greeks and their Hellenistic Jewish cohorts.
The message of Chanukah is: Hold onto your religious convictions, never submit to the assimilated majority, no matter how numerous or sophisticated they are, and fight for your ideals.
So which is the Jewish value: to yield or to resist?
The salient difference between the lights of Shabbat and the lights of Chanukah are their location. Shabbat candles are always lit inside the home. Chanukah candles should ideally be lit outside, by the entrance to the house. (This is how we still do it in Jerusalem.) Only when the Jews were exiled to the Diaspora did safety dictate moving the Chanukah lights inside, but even there they are to be kindled in a window where they can be seen from outside. The mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles is to publicize the miracle of the oil.
While the Shabbat candles illumine the private domain of the home, the Chanukah candles are a statement to the public domain.
Yield in the home, but stand up and fight in the public realm.
Similarly, the place for yielding is in the home, within the family. The place for standing up for one's convictions is the public realm.
Unfortunately, we often reverse the two: A Jewish college student who is afraid to stand up to his politically correct friends and defend Israel refuses to yield to his mother's entreaties to wear a tie to his grandparents' anniversary party. A Jewish woman who sits mutely during coffee break while her co-workers joke about "cheap Jews," finds her tongue and waxes eloquent in her self-defense when her husband asks her to put the kids to bed on time.
The place to stand up for your beliefs is the public realm. In the home, yield, yield, yield.
If you are chronically tardy, and your spouse likes to arrive everywhere 15 minutes early, yield. Ask yourself, "What is his/her reality?" and validate it.
If you are a spendthrift and your spouse is frugal, yield. Ask yourself, "What is his/her reality?" and validate it.
If your idea of a vacation is a five-star hotel, and your children want to vacation in the national parks, ask yourself, "What is their reality?" and validate it. Then decide what is best for the whole family.
But in the public realm, when Judaism, Jews, or Israel are under attack, stand up and fight! That's the lesson of Chanukah.
Happy 90th birthday, Mom!
Published: Sunday, December 02, 2007

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunshine and Cancer

This article from

If vitamin D3 levels among populations worldwide were increased, 600,000 cases of breast and colorectal cancers could be prevented each year, according to researchers from the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

This includes nearly 150,000 cases of cancer that could be prevented in the United States alone.

The researchers estimate that 250,000 cases of colorectal cancer and 350,000 cases of breast cancer could be prevented worldwide by increasing intake of vitamin D3, particularly in countries north of the equator.

The study examines the dose-response relationship between vitamin D and cancer, and is the first to use satellite measurements of sun and cloud cover in countries where blood serum levels of vitamin D3 were also taken.

Serum vitamin D levels during the winter from 15 countries were combined, then applied to 177 countries to estimate the average serum level of a vitamin D metabolite among the population.

An inverse association between serum vitamin D and the risk of colorectal and breast cancers was found.

Protective effects began when 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (the main indicator of vitamin D status) ranged from 24 to 32 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). In the United States, late winter 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels ranged from 15 to 18 ng/ml.

Previous research has suggested that raising levels to 55 ng/ml was actually optimal to prevent cancer, the researchers said.

To increase your vitamin D3 levels, the researchers recommended a combination of dietary methods, supplements and sunlight exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes a day, with at least 40 percent of your skin exposed.

Unanswered/Answered Prayer

What happens when God doesn't answer our prayers?
An article from
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe, are the time of year when we talk with God.
Yes, we are supposed to talk with God all year long, but we really feel it on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. These are days devoted to prayer. They are days when we struggle to express our thoughts, our hopes, and our fears to the Almighty. These are days when we try to engage the Master of the Universe in conversation.
We hope that the Almighty smiles on us, grants us our requests. But here is a particularly searing question that we must confront at this time of year: What happens when He doesn't? What, if anything, is left of our relationship with God then?
Imagine a woman who prays deeply and sincerely for the success of an operation on her severely ill 6-year-old daughter. The time comes -- and the operation fails. The girl dies under the surgeon's knife. What is a mother to feel after this? What would we feel?
In the swirl of emotions following a tragedy, one feels indescribable anguish -- the terrible, searing pain of overwhelming loss. But sometimes, one feels something else too.
At first, the feeling might be unidentifiable, hidden underneath layers of sadness and pain. But then, slowly it might emerge. "How could God have done this? We trusted in Him. We prayed with all our might. We placed our every hope in His Hands. And He let this happen..."
How can we expect to love God if one feels betrayed by Him?
And these questions -- spoken or unspoken -- then provoke a completely new swirl of emotions. Fear. Guilt. "Who am I angry at?", we ask ourselves, "God? How can I be angry with God?"... We're not supposed to be angry with God. We're supposed to feel that He's compassionate, loving. One cannot easily "make up" with someone one feels has betrayed him; how, then, can we expect to love God if one feels betrayed by Him?
I don't know if there is a single, definitive, way out of this problem. Perhaps the answer differs from person to person. But I think a change in perspective can begin to point in a useful direction:
We can ask a fundamental question: When one prays to God for something -- be it for health, happiness, or even for a new car -- what is it that one hopes to achieve? What does one hope the prayer will accomplish?
On one level, the answer is obvious. One hopes that God will bequeath to him that which he prays for. If one prays for his daughter's recovery from a terrible illness, for example, one obviously hopes that this will somehow help her recover. But there is, I think, a deeper aspect to the meaning and purpose of such a prayer.
Allow me to relate a story a friend of mine tells about one of his early childhood experiences. This is how he relates the event:
"When I was about four years old, I awoke from my nap one day, ventured out of my room, and walked through the house. No one was there. I tentatively called out for my mother, but there was no reply. Slowly, a realization dawned on my little mind: 'It's finally happened. My parents have abandoned me...'
"I raced to the phone on the kitchen wall and dialed the operator. 'That's it,' I told her, between sobs, 'my parents are gone; I'm all alone now.' The operator stayed on the phone with me until, sure enough, my mother did come home. She had slipped out for a few minutes to pick up some milk. It was, however, an experience I shall never forget."
Now, if you will, perform a little mental exercise. Imagine for a moment that you are four years old. Your parents are everything to you. Consider the terror you would feel thinking they have abandoned you, leaving you to somehow manage life on your own. Of course, as an adult, you know that this would never happen. However, as a child, you would not have known this. The threat would have seemed real. How does that terror feel?
Now, proceed further. Imagine you are six years old. Climbing on a chair, you have found your mother's cookie jar on the kitchen counter. It's filled with chocolate-chip cookies. You approach your mother, cookie jar in hand, and ask her for one. Now consider the following two scenarios:
Your mother kindly and lovingly looks at you and says: "No, dear, I'm sorry. It's not time for a cookie now; it's too close to dinnertime. As much as I know you'd like to have it, I can't give it to you right now."
Your mother has had a very hard day, and is at wit's end when you have approached her. She stares at you a little coldly for a minute. Then she turns and walks away. "I don't care," you hear as her voice trails away, "Your little cookie doesn't matter much to me at all right now. If you want it, take it."
As a 6-year-old, which of the two scenarios would you rather have faced? In the first, you are denied the cookie; but you get the loving attention of your mother. In the second, you get your cookie -- but a gnawing pit swells in your stomach. In some small way, your mother has abandoned you...
Let us continue. Imagine that you are older now. You and your spouse live in a small apartment. Unfortunately, your financial situation is bleak; you cannot afford to buy yourselves even a small, used car. Even routine grocery shopping has become an ordeal. Your husband's employer, however, has hinted he may be in line for a raise -- enough, perhaps, to allow you to afford a vehicle.
So you pray to God with added devotion, and ask for this raise to come through. We, of course, have no way to directly perceive how God accepts our prayers -- but for the sake of argument, let us imagine that you could somehow "hear" His response. Imagine, again, two scenarios:
God responds to you: "My child, I want you to know that I am with you. I know the stress you feel due to your financial situation, and I feel your anguish. But for reasons I cannot now reveal to you, it is not within the scheme of things for your husband to receive this raise."
God responds to you: "In the past, you have not displayed enough faith for Me to take your concerns seriously right now. I choose not to involve Myself in your plight; I shall allow events to unfold as they would on their own. If your husband's employer decides to give him the raise, then so be it; but I will not be involved."
Again, which would we prefer to hear? The first response firmly but gently denies our request, whereas the second leaves open the possibility that we will indeed get the money. But in the second response, we also feel the hard, cold shock of God abandoning us. If we do get the money, what price will we have paid?
And now, finally, consider a last situation. A man suffering the effects of leukemia is wheeled into the operating room for a last-chance operation to save his life. The doctors give him barely fifty-fifty odds. As he feels the anesthesia begin to take effect, he realizes quite clearly that this may be his last moments of consciousness on Earth. He opens his heart to God and prays that he will survive.
Imagine that in his last fleeting seconds of consciousness, this man would be privileged to hear God's response to him. Consider, again, two scenarios:
God responds to him: "My child, I want you to know that I am very close to you now. As you drift into sleep, I shall stay by your side, and I shall not leave you.
"I feel your anguish, and I know how much you want to live. But I must tell you that now is the time I have chosen for you to end your stay on Earth. You cannot understand why. But now, My child, is the time."
God responds to him: "You have not made yourself worthy of My becoming intimately involved in your affairs. The doctor who is operating on you is as competent as any; I shall leave your fate in his hands."
In his final waking moments, which response would the man rather hear? Is it not conceivable -- even probable -- that he would prefer God's intimate and loving denial of his request, than God's cold withdrawal from his life? If so -- if this is what we would feel were we in this man's situation -- then we may have discovered something truly profound about our values: An intimate relationship with our Parent in Heaven is something we would trade anything for -- even life itself.
When we truly open our hearts to God, we make God real in our lives.
This, then, says something important about why we pray, and what we get out of the experience.
Yes, it is true that we pray for the cookie, the car, or indeed, for our very lives. But these are only the apparent purposes of our prayers. For when we truly open our hearts to God -- when we genuinely reach out to Him in our times of need -- we make God real in our lives. We build a relationship with Him.
As in any good relationship, feelings tend to reciprocate. Our connection with God is no different. When we reach out to Him, He reaches back to us. Each word of prayer becomes a brick in the edifice of that relationship. And when all is said and done, we value that relationship more than anything.
I think that when we truly understand this, we have given ourselves the tools to deal with the possibility that God may not, in fact, grant us the object of our prayers. For we can realize that the more profound our need, the more deeply we have fashioned a relationship with our Creator by telling Him about it. Thus, whether we receive what we have "asked" for or not, we have certainly not been "betrayed" by God. A refusal can be loving, too. And the relationship we have built by asking has not gone away.
We live in a flesh and blood world, and this is a difficult truth to internalize. Our needs are real to us. We really do want the cookie or the car; our heartfelt desire for the object of our prayer is not simply imagined. However, if we pause for a moment, we can focus on the deeper things, too. Through our heartfelt communication, we have drawn closer to God, and He has drawn closer to us. And as we sense this closeness, we may find that we have not only achieved a deeper appreciation of prayer -- and of these Days of Awe -- but we have also gained newfound strength to deal with whatever response God ultimately bequeaths us.
Listen to Rabbi Fohrman's free audio classes at
Excerpted from "INSPIRING DAYS" published by K'hal Publishing in conjunction with The Afikim Foundation

Friday, September 14, 2007

Carrot Recipe

A Rosh Hashana Story from

My mother's tzimmes became a bridge from the past, connecting me to a rich and tasty heritage.

It's the afternoon before Rosh Hashana and once again I'm spooning an odd assemblage of fruits and vegetables into the clear glass bowls I keep just for this purpose. These special foods are called simanim, or signs because their Hebrew or Aramaic names allude to blessings we would like God to give us in the new year.
For the most part this display of pomegranate seeds, black eyed peas and beet greens has nothing in common with the Rosh Hashana table I experienced as a child. Only the apple and honey and the tzimmes come from my past.
In a way, it's odd that I've clung to the tzimmes. As a kid I never liked it. My mother, a Holocaust survivor and a Hungarian, was a great cook. Her palachinta, Hungarian crepes stuffed with ground almonds and raspberry jam, were superlative, her chicken soup golden and heavenly, her stuffed cabbage wonderfully sweet and sour; but her tzimmes was not on the hit parade for me.
Tzimmes was part of the holiday, but its reason for earning this coveted spot was never discussed. Not that I ever thought to ask. Explanations weren't part of our family culture. For survivors existential inquiries were just too painful. As my parents saw it, our lives were best conducted by staying firmly anchored in the here and now. Neither of my parents liked to talk about their younger days before the war. We had no family myths, no stories, no religious traditions, not even any physical heirlooms.

The only place where my parents dared to venture into their former lives was through their taste buds. Every night my mother performed a seance recreating the flavors of her former home in the Carpathian Mountains: dishes like mamliga and rumpl krumpl (a layered potato, sour cream and egg casserole), kraut pletzl and in the summer, sweet cold soups made of frothy whipped eggs combined with stewed apple, canned sour cherries or gooseberries, if they were available.
I didn't always appreciate this culinary richness. I would have preferred to be ordinary, to eat fish sticks, mashed potatoes and steak, not unpronounceable foods whose names were sure to provoke a fit of giggles from my Americanized classmates.
Then in my mid twenties I unexpectedly fell in love with all things Jewish and moved to Israel. During that first year, I ate Rosh Hashana dinner with a family who had the custom of serving as many symbolic foods as possible. Their table was overflowing with agrarian oddities: gourds and leeks, beet greens and black eyed peas, even the head of a sheep. Much to my surprise, included among this colorful display was a plate of cooked carrots which looked suspiciously similar to my mother's tzimmes.
What was my mother's tzimmes doing here in Jerusalem? As we dug our forks into the tzimmes the father, who also happened to be a rabbi, recited a prayer and explained the meaning of eating carrots at the Rosh Hashana meal. I could hardly believe it! My mother never said anything about a prayer. To her, tzimmes was just another dish in her Hungarian Jewish repertoire like goulash, flanken or Hungarian cheesecake.
But my host was saying something else. He was suggesting that by making the tzimmes and serving it on Rosh Hashana, my mother was performing a religious act, unconsciously carrying on a sacred tradition that may well have been in my family for centuries.
I was beside myself with glee, like an orphan who had suddenly discovered her pedigree. Before this experience I never thought that my family had any religious customs at all and now I'd discovered one, and a rich one at that.
"It's a word play," my host said, "The Hebrew word for carrot, gezer is phonologically linked to the Hebrew word gezeira, which means evil decree." The prayer said over the carrots asks for God's protection from any manifestation of an evil decree. It all fit so well.
My mother got to Aushwitz so late in the war that the Nazis didn't even tattoo her. They thought they'd just kill her right away.
I thought to myself, "Was there anyone on earth who'd get this better than my mother, who got to Aushwitz so late in the war that the Nazis didn't even tattoo her. They thought they'd just kill her right away."
But that was only part of it. In Yiddish carrots are called mehren, which means to increase. Tzimmes carrots are sliced into rounds resembling gold coins. Eating them was a segula, a good omen for prosperity. Right away I thought of my mother at the helm of a successful family business dressed in silks and wools instead of concentration camp rags.
A few months later I got married. One of the first things I did as a new bride was to call my mother in New York to get her tzimmes recipe. Although my cooking style leaned towards improvisational, with this recipe I was determined to be exact, to prepare it just the way she did, and her mother before her, and her mother before her.
I'm reminded of a story of the Ba'al Shem Tov. He used to go to a special place in the forest, say a prayer, light a fire and somehow convince God to perform a miracle and save the Jews.
Years passed, the Ba'al Shem Tov had died and the Jews were in trouble once again. His students approached the Ba'al Shem Tov's grandson who was now their Rebbe. "I can't find the place in the forest, I can't light the fire, I don't know the prayer, but I can tell the story and that is enough," he answered.
And so it was for my mother. She didn't know the words of the prayer or even that it existed, but she remembered the recipe and when to serve it and somehow that was enough.
My Mother's Tzimmes Recipe Here is the recipe if you want to give it a try. Peel a dozen or so carrots -- only fresh, never frozen or canned. Hand slice them into rounds. Don't use a food processor. The slices will be too limp and thin. Combine two heaping tablespoons of flour and a quarter cup of oil into a thick brown paste (roux). Add the carrots and gradually drizzle in up to a cup of honey and a third of a cup of water. Cover the pan and let it simmer until it's soft and sweet.
A version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post and in House and Garden.
Published: Sunday

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

God Sees

This from

I'm invisible.
It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I'm on the phone and ask to be taken to the store. Inside I'm thinking, "Can't you see I'm on the phone?"Obviously not. No one can see if I'm on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all. I'm invisible.
Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this? Some days I'm not a pair of hands; I'm not even a human being. I'm a clock to ask, "What time is it?"
I'm a satellite guide to answer, "What number is the Disney Channel?"
I'm a car to order, "Right around 5:30, please."
I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated summa cum laude - but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again. She's going ... she's going ... she's gone!
One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself as I looked down at my out-of-style dress; it was the only thing I could find that was clean.
My unwashed hair was pulled up in a clip and I was afraid I could actually smell peanut butter in it. I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, "I brought you this."
It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn't exactly sure why she'd given it to me until I read her inscription: "To Charlotte, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees."
In the days ahead I would read - no, devoure - the book. And I would discover what would become, for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work:
(1) No one can say who built the great cathedrals - we have no record of their names.(2) These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished.(3) They made great sacrifices and expected no credit.(4) The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.
A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, "Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof?
No one will ever see it." And the workman replied, "Because God sees." I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, "I see you, Charlotte. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you've done, no sequin you've sewn on, no cupcake you've baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can't see right now what it will become."
At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride.
I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on. The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.
When I really think about it, I don't want my son to tell the friend he's bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, "My mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table." That would mean I'd built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add, "You're gonna love it there."
As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we're doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women.
God Bless You as you build your Cathedrals!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Wheelchair Healing

Here's a testimony on the Hallelujah Acres website I got in their newsletter today. Read more testimonies at

“Hello George and Rhonda: I just want to thank you both for doing what you do! I attended Health Minister(SM) Training at Hallelujah Acres® in July of 2006. I am not only still on The Hallelujah Diet®, but am teaching as many people as will allow me, the correct way of eating, as God instructed us in the Bible in Genesis 1:29.

“I know what this diet can do, because I know what it has done for me. Let me share some of the physical problems I have overcome since adopting The Hallelujah Diet®. Prior to making the diet change, I sat in a wheelchair for 21-years, after being told by the doctors I would NEVER BE ABLE TO WALK AGAIN. At the time I made the diet change, I was on OVER 30 DIFFERENT MEDICATIONS, and suffered with GRAND MALSEIZURES. I was also paralyzed on my right side and had many, many other problems.

“My physical problems began in 1982 when I was involved in a hit and run accident which was followed by my going in and out of a coma for the next two years. I was then sent home to be a vegetable for the rest of my life. My family was told that I would never walk again. George, I had 5-children to raise and to make matters worse, my husband took off with one of my nurses.

“I was left to raise the children, and I did, with the Lord’s help! I had to do it, because those little eyes were looking to mother for their upbringing, and I looked to God for His help and support. I just believe that when you ask and seek God with all your heart, believing, it will happen! George, so often I wondered what I was going to do, but God always gave me the strength to do the next thing, while bed bound or sitting in a wheelchair. It was during this time I had learned to sit again, touch my nose, and do little things a baby does.

“In 1998, I met a wonderful man by the name of Scott. We got married in 2000 while I was still in a wheelchair. One night, while watching television, Dr. Lorraine Day was on and we heard her tell her story of how she was cured from cancer through a diet change. Scott ordered her tape and insisted I watch it. I tried to explain to him that there was no use in my watching it, because the doctors had told me that I would always be sick and confined to a wheelchair.

“Scott was finally successful in getting me to watch the tape, and while watching it, a little voice came to me and said: ‘I have work for you to do.’ I followed that voice, and contacted Hallelujah Acres®, to learn about the Hallelujah Diet® Dr. Day had recommended on her tape. We went to Hallelujah Acres®, met some of the most wonderful people, learned the finer details of The Hallelujah Diet®, made the diet change, and the rest is history. Now I want to help other people to know that they do not have to be sick – that their health is a matter of choice!

“Following is an incomplete list of the problems I have overcome since adopting The Hallelujah Diet®:

1. My paralysis is GONE!
2. My high blood pressure is GONE!
3. My obesity is GONE (lost 98 pounds and gone from a size 24 to a 10)
4. My back problems are GONE!
5. My leg problems are GONE!
6. My wheelchair is GONE!
7. Swelling in my hands and feet are GONE!
8. My IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is GONE!
9. My headaches are GONE!
10. Grand Mal seizures are GONE! (Have only had one in the past 3-years.)
11. My dependency on morphine for pain is GONE!
12. Thirty-one of my thirty-two prescription medications are GONE!
13. Brain Stem damage has healed!
14. Fractured Lumbar Vertebra has healed!
15. Now WALKING 2-miles a day!
16. Equilibrium problem GONE!
17. Kidney problem GONE!

“George, these are only a few of the multiple problems I have overcome since adopting The Hallelujah Diet®. Now my husband no longer has to push me around in a wheelchair, because I WALK BESIDE HIM! If there is someone reading this, I want them to know that it is NEVER too late, no matter how old they are, to take control of their health. I changed my diet and took control of my life at age 66, and if I can do it, anyone can do it.

“P.S. I just want to add that my baby son got married on May 26, 2007. It was a beautiful wedding in our backyard attended by 160 people. I had a houseful of people for a week and we went many places together and I had all the energy anyone could ever ask for during that entire time. I thank God every day for guiding me to Hallelujah Acres® and teaching me the right way to eat. I want to thank you George and Rhonda and all those at Hallelujah Acres® so very, very much for all you do to help others.”
***Over 1,000 additional testimonies are available at On our home page, in the left column under “Resources”, left click “Testimonies” to access. Enter text to search testimonies or browse over 100 categories.

Monday, July 23, 2007


How to cope with the emotional and spiritual issues a person faces at this difficult time

This article from can be used to draw analagies and set guidelines for our own process of mourning. Similarities can be seen in our own Christian burial and mourning rites.

Judaism provides a beautiful, structured approach to mourning that involves three stages. When followed carefully, these stages guide mourners through the tragic loss and pain and gradually ease them back into the world. One mourner said her journey through the stages of mourning was like being in a cocoon. At first she felt numb and not perceptively alive, yet gradually she emerged as a butterfly ready again to fly.
The loss is forever, but the psychological, emotional, and spiritual healing that takes place at every stage is necessary and healthy.
This article will examine the following topics: Stage one: shivaSitting shivaArranging the shiva houseAfter the cemeteryTiming of shivaPaying a shiva callPrayer servicesLeaving a shiva houseThe three day "shiva"Getting up from shivaStage two: shloshimStage three: the one-year periodAnnual remembrances: yizkorYartzeitUnveiling of tombstoneVisiting the cemeteryGrief and bereavement
* * *
After the burial, the immediate mourners return to a home called the "shiva house," to begin a seven?day period of intense mourning. Shiva is from the word sheva, which means seven. This week is called "sitting shiva," and is an emotionally and spiritually healing time where the mourners sit low, dwell together, and friends and loved ones come to comfort them with short visits referred to as "shiva calls."
A person sits shiva after having lost a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. All other loved ones are also mourned, but the observances of shiva do not apply.
Ideally all of the direct mourners sit shiva in the house of the deceased, for it says, "Where a person lived, there does his spirit continue to dwell." Thus the presence of the person who has passed away is strongest in his own home. But one may sit shiva in any home. Particularly, a home of one of the direct mourners will be filled with the spirit of the loved one who is now gone. Memories will come easily there, and part of the comfort of the week of shiva is sharing such memories.
It is best for mourners to move into the shiva house together for the week. If this is not possible, designate one home as the shiva house, and those who cannot sleep there may leave after dark to go home, and return to the shiva house early in the morning.
To be seen in public would force one to put on a "public face" which is inappropriate during this time.
Mourners should ideally not leave the shiva house at any time. Others must take care of any errands or outside commitments for them. To be seen during the day in public would force one to put on a "public face" which is inappropriate during this time. When family, friends and neighbors help out during the week and provide for the needs of the mourners, an atmosphere of love, caring and kindness is created. This helps to soften the pain that the mourner so deeply feels.
With some exceptions, a mourner refrains from going to work during the week of shiva. Consult your rabbi if pressing financial matters are at hand. Again, shiva is a deeply personal time of reflection, coming to terms with loss and grief, and contemplating the inner spiritual dimensions of life. The workplace draws our thoughts and feelings outward, thus if at all possible, should be avoided.
* * *
From the time of death until the conclusion of the funeral, the primary focus and concern is on the care of the deceased and the burial preparations. The care for the departed before burial, the eulogy, the actual burial -- all are done to honor the one who has died, and not to comfort the mourners. (hyperlink to Lamm article - the Jewish Way of Death)
However, once shiva begins, the focus shifts to the mourners. The mourners experience a week of intense grief, and the community is there to love and comfort and provide for their needs. This is a critical point, for if one must feel the heart-wrenching pain of grief and loss, it should be done at a time when all those around are there to help and comfort.
People are confused as to how to sit shiva and how to properly pay a shiva call. Because people do not know, and because talking about death makes people nervous and awkward, the shiva house often turns into a festive gathering filled with nervous chatter, instead of the proper house of mourning.
The laws of mourning have the purpose of focusing a person on their own spirituality. We experience an overall feeling of physical discomfort as we totally focus on the soul of the one who has departed. We de-emphasize our own physicality by not pampering our bodies, so we remember that what we are missing at this time is not the physical person who is gone, but the essence of who that person was, which of course is their soul.
The overall focus throughout the week is: I am a soul, my loved one is a soul.
* * *
The physical set-up of the shiva house includes the following:
MEMORIAL CANDLE -- A person's soul is compared to a flame, since each person brings light into the world. And just as one can take from a flame to light more candles without diminishing the original flame, so too a person can give of him/herself, touching many lives, without ever being diminished.
The wick and the flame are also compared to the body and soul, and the strong bond between them. And just as a soul always strives upward for what is good and right, so too a flame burns toward the heavens.
Thus a memorial candle is lit in the shiva house and remains burning publicly 24 hours per day throughout the entire week. When you look at the candle, remember that your loved one's soul is eternal. This thought can help bring light into the darkness in which you are now immersed.
CHAIRS -- The people sitting shiva are required to sit low as a sign of mourning. Funeral homes often provide chairs with shortened legs for this purpose. One can also remove the cushions of a couch or chair and use that. Some have the custom of actually sitting on the floor. This is a physical symbol of the loneliness and depression that a mourner feels.
Regular chairs should be placed in front of the mourner, so visitors paying a shiva call can sit close and provide emotional comfort. (see "Paying a Shiva Call" below). (hyperlink to anchor below)
MIRRORS -- It is proper to cover the mirrors (with sheets, or fogged spray provided by the funeral home) in the shiva house for the following reasons:
During shiva, a mourner is striving to ignore his/her own physicality and vanity in order to concentrate on the reality of being a soul.
A mirror represents social acceptance through the enhancement of one's appearance. Jewish mourning is supposed to be lonely, silent; dwelling on one's personal loss. Covering the mirrors symbolizes this withdrawal from society's gaze.
Prayer services, commonly held in the shiva house, cannot take place in front of a mirror. When we pray, we focus on God and not on ourselves.
Physical relations between a husband and wife are suspended during the week of shiva, and thus the need for physical beauty is removed.
SHOES -- A mourner should wear either stocking feet or slippers not made of leather. This symbolizes, again, the disregard for vanity and physical comfort.
One who is mourning should also refrain from the following:
Bathing or showering for pleasure (one can do so for cleanliness)
Wearing make-up and anointing (with creams, perfume, etc.)
Getting a haircut (applies for the first 30 days)
Nail trimming
Wearing freshly-laundered garments for pleasure (can be worn for cleanliness)
Wearing new clothes
Washing clothes
Marital relations
* * *
Immediately upon returning from the cemetery after the burial, and before entering the shiva house, the mourners and anyone else who attended the burial perform a ceremonial washing of the hands (using washing stations provided by the funeral home, or buckets and a cup).
When one has come in contact with death, it is proper to pour water three times over each hand (alternating hands each time) in order to focus on life. Water is the source of all life, and thus we pour it over our hands as a physical act that has spiritual ramifications.
The first thing the mourners do upon entering the shiva house is to sit down (again, low) to a "meal of condolence." This meal should be provided by neighbors or the community, in order to show the mourners that those around them wish to provide consolation.
Water is the source of all life, and we pour it over our hands as a physical act with spiritual ramifications.
Another, deeper psychological reason lies behind this gesture, for it recognizes that mourners, having just returned from the heavy trauma of the burial, may harbor a death wish for themselves and not want to go on any more without their loved one. The meal they must eat speaks to that part of them and says, "No, you must go on. You must affirm life and live."
This first meal is eaten silently, and includes the following:
Bread -- considered the sustenance of life
Hard-boiled eggs -- a food that is round, like the cycle of life
Cooked vegetables and/or lentils (lentils are round)
All other meals during the shiva should ideally be prepared or sent by others. The mourner always eats sitting low.
* * *
The seven-day period of mourning begins immediately after the burial. Thus, the first day of the shiva is the day of the burial. If the funeral was on a Tuesday, the last day of shiva is the following Monday. If a Jewish holiday (for example, Rosh Hashana) falls during the seven days, shiva ends the afternoon just prior to the holiday. In such a case, it is considered that you mourned for seven days, even though it was cut short.
If a person passes away during a holiday, the burial and shiva are done when the holiday is complete. If one passes away on Shabbat, the burial is done the next day.
When Shabbat falls during the shiva, it is counted as one of the seven days of mourning, but one does not mourn publicly. This means that the outer signs of mourning (covering mirrors where others can see, sitting low, wearing no make-up, wearing mourner's garments, etc.) are suspended, because the joy of Shabbat overrides even public mourning. The outer signs of mourning are suspended before the beginning of Shabbat so that a person has time to properly prepare (shower, dress, etc.). On Shabbat, people sitting shiva mourn in their hearts. On Saturday night, the shiva resumes.
* * *
When one pays a shiva call, the focus is on comforting the mourners in their time of greatest grief. Traditionally, one enters the shiva house quietly with a small knock so as not to startle those inside. No one should greet visitors; they simply enter on their own.
Food or drinks are not laid out for the visitors, because the mourners are not hosts. They do not greet the visitors, rise for them, or see them out.
One who has come to comfort a mourner should not greet the mourners. In fact, it is best to come in silently and sit down close to them. Take your cue from the mourners. If they feel like speaking, let them indicate it to you by speaking first. Then you can talk to them, but what about? Let them lead and talk about what they want to talk about. It is best to speak about the one who has passed away, and if you have any stories or memories to share with the mourner, this is the time to do so.
If you have any stories or memories to share with the mourner, this is the time to do so.
This is not a time to distract them from mourning. Out of nervousness, we often babble on about nonsense because we do not know what to say.
Often, the best thing to say is nothing. A shiva call can sometimes be completely silent. If the mourners do not feel like talking at that time, so be it. Your goal is not to get them to talk; it is to comfort them. Your presence alone is doing that. By sitting there silently, you are saying more than words can. You are saying: "I am here for you. I feel your pain. There are no words."
And sometimes there aren't. Here are examples of things not to say:
"How are you?" (They're not so good.)
"I know how you feel." (No you don't. Each person feels a unique loss.)
"At least she lived a long life." (Longer would have been better.)
"It's good that you have other children," or, "Don't worry, you'll have more." (The loss of a child, no matter what age, is completely devastating.)
"Cheer up -- in a few months you'll meet someone new." (He/she has just lost the other half of their soul!)
"Let's talk about happy things." (Maybe later.)
Comforting a mourner does not mean distracting a mourner. Don't fill in the time talking about happy subjects or inconsequential topics like politics or business. Remember that speaking about the loved one they lost is comforting. It's alright if they cry; they are in mourning. It is all part of the important process of coming to grips with such a loss.
When Michael Dan lost his mother, he composed this notice and posted it outside their front door:
"In a Jewish House of Mourning" -- Each culture approaches death and the mourning period in its own unique fashion. As a family, we only request that an effort be made to create an atmosphere that is congruous with our Jewish values. Conversations should focus on the life and legacy of Judy Dan. No effort should be made to portray her in an artificial light, since this would offend her memory. Painful as it may seem, attempts at distracting family members from thinking or speaking about their loss are not considered appropriate at this time.
Thank you, The Dan Family
Perhaps those in a similar situation could use these words as a guide for composing their own notice. Visitors, upon reading such a message, will walk into the shiva home knowing what is proper to say and do. Such a message will help them and, by creating the proper atmosphere in the shiva home, will also help the mourners themselves.
* * *
Prayer services are held in the shiva house, not in the synagogue. One reason is to insure that for the week of shiva, the mourners do not have to leave the home where they are best able to fully experience the mourning process. They do not have to dress up to go out, or put on a public face for anyone. The services come to them.
It is certainly appropriate and poignant to have services in the home itself, for the center of Jewish life is the home. This is the place where Jewish values are passed down. This is where family celebrations take place and where joys are shared. It is also where pain and loss are shared. It is where Judaism lives.
Traditional services are usually held in the morning (Shacharit) and in the late afternoon (Mincha) and evening (Maariv). Between the Mincha and Maariv services, it is appropriate for someone to share some thoughts from the Torah, in memory of the departed. It is good to pay a shiva call during these times, because a quorum of people is needed to conduct the service and for the mourners to recite Kaddish.
* * *
Even if this was a visit in silence, a traditional statement of comfort is said to the mourners just before leaving the shiva house. It can be said in either Hebrew or English:
May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Ha-Makom y'nachem et'chem b'toch sha'ar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim.
God in this line is referred to as HaMakom -- "The Place." By saying this to the mourner, you are saying that God is everywhere, that we exist within Him -- here and in the next world. The person who is gone is still connected to you, for you are together, contained within "The Place."
"Among the other mourners" speaks about the Jewish people. You are saying that we are family. Some people are close and some are distant cousins, but the loss of even one Jew makes us all mourners.
"Of Zion and Jerusalem" speaks of our collective mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the central point of the Jewish relationship to God that was destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago.
The mourner should nod or say "Amen," and you should quietly depart, making sure that the mourner does not get up to see you out.
Paying a shiva call can be awkward at first. Keep in mind that you may have to modify it for those who are unaware of our traditions. If the mourner would think it odd that you would come in and not say anything, then of course you can speak and offer your condolences.
But at one shiva call I paid, to a person who is not completely observant, I came in, sat beside her, took her hand, and said nothing. She started to cry and said, "There are no words." I said, "I know." And let's face it, there aren't.
* * *
Nothing in Jewish tradition supports the concept of sitting shiva for three days. The actual word shiva is related to the word meaning seven. The number seven in Judaism is very significant, for it symbolizes completion in this world, as in the seven days of creation.
The current trend to sit for only three days comes from the mistaken belief that it will somehow make the mourning easier "not to drag it out." It's true that if a shiva, because of a lack of knowledge, becomes a series of festive social gatherings, then who would want to do that for seven days after experiencing a devastating loss?
I had an adult student who was told to sit shiva for her mother for three days. I wanted to convince her otherwise but felt uncomfortable about doing so at such a time. I paid a shiva call to her, and if I hadn't known someone had died, I would have thought I had walked into a cocktail party with a lot of food, laughter, and drinks. I finally found my student, who was directing the waitresses in the kitchen. I took her by the hand, sat her down, and talked to her about her mother and about the soul and the afterlife.
If I hadn't known someone had died, I'd have thought I walked into a cocktail party with food, laughter, and drinks.
I told her that she didn't have to do this -- all the food, drinks and entertaining. She said, "I know, but everyone expects me to."
I mentioned that really a shiva should be seven days, but she answered, "Who would want to do this for seven days? I want everyone to leave me alone. My mother is dead!"
Weeks later she called to tell me that even with the whole "party" atmosphere, sitting for three days was a mistake. She said at the end of the three days, people left, her husband went back to work, and everyone expected her to resume her life. "But," she cried to me, "I haven't mourned my mother."
Observed in the proper way, each one of the seven days is important. These are not easy days, for sitting shiva is emotionally and physically draining. But this time is crucial both for the mourner and for the soul that has departed to the next world. Observing shiva gives honor to the departed, and the merit of the observance is an elevation of their soul. If part of the family wants to sit for only three days, so be it. Just go to your home after their shiva ends and sit for the rest of the days in personal mourning. You don't have to make a public statement about it, as you must be careful of their feelings.
* * *
The seventh and final day of shiva is observed for only a few short hours, although this counts as a whole day. After the last Shacharit service, the mourners sit low again for a short time. Then those who have come to comfort the mourners say to them, "Arise." The comforters then say:
No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end. (Isaiah 60:20)
Like a man whose mother consoles him, so shall I console you, and you shall be consoled in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)
The mourners acknowledge that the shiva is over by leaving the shiva house publicly for the first time, taking a short walk around the block with those who have come to comfort them.
The house that the mourners live in for the week of shiva becomes a house of mourning. It takes on an ambience of solemnity, filled with memory, contemplation, and meditation. But it is a house where people will continue to dwell. The concrete act of physically stepping outside, walking around the block, and coming back in, says that this house and our relationship with this house will now be renewed.
* * *
The first 30 days following the burial (which include the shiva) are called shloshim, from the word meaning "thirty."
Most restrictions that applied to mourners during the seven-day shiva period are now lifted. For the next 23 days, mourners are allowed to leave their house and begin to work again. However, they should severely limit social engagements during this time, and certainly avoid festive outings where music is played. Mourners do not shave or cut their hair during this time.
One is still mourning, but during shloshim the laws allow for a gradual re?entry into everyday life. For mourners to get up from the shiva and jump back into a normal routine would not be healthy. They are still mourning, even though the intense pain has now become almost bearable. Moments of deep sadness and longing are to be expected, and having these few restrictions reminds them, and reminds the people around them, that this is a process that certainly isn't over.
After the completion of the shloshim, if mourners are mourning anyone but a parent, the official mourning now ends. That means Kaddish is no longer recited and they can resume activities without restriction.
Why 30 days? The Jewish calendar is marked by lunar time. As the moon waxes and wanes in a cycle, the 30?day period of mourning is an opportunity to emotionally come full circle. The process begins with the funeral and first days of shiva, when not even a glimmer of light is seen. As time goes on, the light slowly comes back, fuller and fuller. The 30 days is an important central cycle of time, a time to renew and to come to grips with a new reality.
Of course mourners still feel the pain of the loss, but Judaism recognizes that to a certain degree, the passage of time is able to ease and heal the pain. Being able to return to everyday life freely helps achieve this healing. The shiva was the worst period, the shloshim was very hard, and this stage is bad. In time, it will get better.
* * *
During the 12?month period from the day of death (which includes the shiva and shloshim), only one who has lost a parent is still considered a mourner after the first 30 days with the restrictions discussed below. Why this extra stage of mourning only for a parent?
Psychologically and spiritually, our connection to our parents is the essential relationship that defines who we are as people. Therefore, the loss of a parent requires a longer period of adjustment.
This period of time guides us into a deep state of gratitude for all they gave and all they did. As children, we spend most of our lives in "taking mode," and our parents, being parents, are almost constantly in "giving mode." It is hard to say thank you from a taking perspective (that is why it's hard for our children to say thank you). In a relationship where it is the most difficult to show gratitude, this period of time helps us focus on recognizing the good that our parents desperately tried to give in the best way that they could.
Parents also represent values and ideals. They are God's representatives in this world.
Parents also represent values and ideals. They are God's representatives to us in this world. They try to impart in their own way essential tools for living. This extended period of mourning recognizes that the loss of such a relationship has deep spiritual ramifications.
After the shloshim period, life slowly begins to return to normal. Social engagements are allowed, but the pursuit of entertainment and amusement, especially where music is involved, is curtailed. One is allowed to actively engage in business activities. After the year is complete, one is not considered a mourner.
* * *
Yizkor means "remembrance" and is marked with a special service held in the synagogue on significant holidays:
Yom Kippur
The last day of Passover
The last day of Shavuot
The eighth day of Sukkot (Shmini Atzeret)
We stop on these major holidays to remember, because the holidays are expressions of the Jewish nation celebrating together. We realize that we are only here as Jews because of those who came before us, who made the decision to be Jews sometimes against all odds. The connection to generations past and loved ones gone is made at Yizkor.
In some synagogues, before the private Yizkor prayers, the congregation as a whole recites Yizkor for those who perished in the Holocaust, and for the soldiers who gave their lives for the State of Israel.
On the afternoon before these days, when ushering in the holiday, one should light a yartzeit candle at home in memory of the loved one. These candles burn continuously for approximately 24 hours, and are available at any supermarket or Jewish bookstore.
On the day of Yizkor, one should attend services in the morning. Midway through the service, those who have never been mourners will be asked to leave the sanctuary, while those who have sat shiva in the past will remain. Often someone will speak briefly, and then all recite prayers in personal tribute to their loved ones.
We pray that in return for our devotion and generosity, God should recognize the new source of merit for the soul whose memory is now influencing our conduct.
After the holiday is complete, be sure to give tzedakah, a charitable donation, in your loved one's memory.
* * *
Each year on the Jewish anniversary of the death of a loved one, a proper commemoration should take place. If you are not sure of the Jewish date, contact a synagogue, yeshiva or funeral home and they will surely help you. Some people are careful to do the following:
Light a yartzeit candle at home the night before, because the Jewish day begins in the evening.
Give tzedakah in your loved one's memory.
Learn Torah that day. Read from a book about Judaism or Torah ideas, or arrange to learn with someone from the community.
Recite Kaddish. If you cannot, arrange for someone to recite it on your behalf. Call a local synagogue or yeshiva for help.
Sponsor a kiddush in synagogue on that day, or on the Shabbat that falls at the end of that week.
Fast from sunrise to sunset.
It is significant to note that in Judaism we downplay birthdays, never commemorating the date of birth of one who has passed away, yet we are careful to mark the anniversary of someone's death.
The Talmud compares this to a ship. How odd that we hold a big party when the ship is about to sail, yet when it arrives at its destination, nothing is done. It really should be the other way around.
Although the day of birth holds all the potential for the life that will be, the day of death is the marker of who we actually became. Our worth is measured according to how much of our potential was realized. Did we live up to who we were to the best of our ability in the time that we had?
When our loved ones die and go back to God, to their "port of call," we mourn not having them here with us, yet we remember what they were able to accomplish in this life. The yartzeit's annual commemoration is a time to feel the sadness -- but also to celebrate who they were and the life they lived.
* * *
The erecting of a tombstone gives honor to the body that housed the soul. No tombstone is placed at the time of burial. Rather, it is the Jewish custom to erect the stone at a later date. Some do it right after the shiva, while others wait until sometime within the year.
Recently the ceremony -- called Hakamat Matzeivah (raising up the stone) -- has been referred to as an "unveiling." Those close to the family are invited to the gravesite where the mourners unveil the stone covered by a cloth.
The ceremony is usually short. Psalms are recited, and people often share thoughts about the deceased. Some of the following ideas could be shared at an unveiling ceremony.
The Hebrew word for stone is tzur. This word is also used to refer to God. At this time, we remind ourselves that God is our rock, our strength, and support. He is our one constant, always there to comfort us at our darkest times.
A stone is also symbolic of eternity, like the cornerstone of a building, placed to last for all time. And what is eternal about our loved ones? It is their lasting qualities that we can still rely upon. Our loved ones live on because they affected us on the deepest of levels. We erect stones and remember what they erected in their lifetimes -- their deeds, their character. They will never be forgotten.
A person is created B'tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. This is not a physical image, but an image that is internal and ultimately eternal: a person's soul.
* * *
Although a person can visit the cemetery any time after the stone is erected, there are special days for visiting the grave:
On the seventh day, after ending the restrictions of shiva
On the shloshim, the 30th day of mourning
On the completion of the first 12 months of mourning
On the yartzeit, the anniversary of the death, every year
the day before Rosh Hashana
the day before Yom Kippur
Why these days? These are naturally reflective times when a person is focused on what is really important in life. Visiting the grave of a loved one opens us up and makes us realize that we need help in many aspects of life. We pray to God at these times and ask our loved one to be an advocate on our behalf.
The Jewish custom is not to bring flowers to the graves, but instead to place a simple stone on the gravestone itself. Rather than spend money on flowers -- which do nothing for a loved one -- it is better to give money in the person's memory to tzedakah, which helps to elevate the person's soul.
We place a small stone upon the gravestone as a sign that we were there -- not so the person who passed away will know, for their soul already has awareness. But so that we will know. We, who are physical, need physical acts to express the reality that we are indeed there. The stone is the "calling card" of the visitor. Flowers die, but the small, simple stone, a symbol of eternity, represents our eternal devotion to upholding the memory of our beloved. Our connection lives on and will never die.
We give honor to the body with a proper funeral, only as recognition that the body had sanctity because it housed and served the soul. In the same way, the casket should be plain and simple, with the money allocated instead to spiritual things that will affect the person's soul.
* * *
The process of mourning is not easy, and the Jewish way provides a structure to let mourners feel their aloneness, separating them from the outside world and then gradually reinstating them back into society.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in "Horeb" that when people are in a state of grief, they physically feel a vacuum within them. This is the most painful state, because the essential drive of every person is the drive for fullness and completion.
The different stages of mourning allow us to come to grips with the loss. Eventually we realize that the empty hole is not nearly as deep or as vast as we initially felt.
Time does heal. But not because we are busy and the memories fade. With time comes objectivity. We realize that the person we are now is the result of the loved one we lost. The elements of our character, actions and values all result from this special soul and the experience of loss.
The body, being finite, does die. Yet the soul, the essence of our loved one, is eternal. The connection between us lives on. This reality begins to slowly fill the vacuum, but not completely. We can never fully grasp the eternity of the soul. There will always be that space inside. We are human beings who are limited in our capacity to truly understand the ways of God and the afterlife.
May the Almighty comfort all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem
Excerpted from "Remember My Soul," by Lori Palatnik (Leviathan Press --
Published: Sunday, August 26, 2001
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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Silent Married Couple

Article from

by Emuna Braverman
Why the couple in the restaurant aren't talking to each other.

It's an old cliche that you can identify the married couple at a restaurant because they're the ones not talking to each other. They have long ago run out of things of say.
I have decided that the married couple is a much maligned species. The other night my husband and I went out for dinner as a belated anniversary celebration. The setting was elegant, the food delicious and the conversation...well, a little stilted, a little stop and start.
Oh no, I thought. We've reached that point. It must be that 24 years is the maximum amount of conversation allowed a couple and we have fulfilled our quota. All that's left are the details -- complaining about bills, jobs and children.
Yet when we left the restaurant, after the obligatory moaning about having overeaten, conversation burst forth -- spontaneous, animated, intimate and unending.
Which is when I decided to defend the married couple. It's not that we frequently don't speak in restaurants because we have run out of things to say, but rather because when you know someone deeply, when you have shared life's most profound moments, you can't revert to social chit chat. And the kind of real conversations that married couples have don't belong in a public forum.
They're too private, too intimate, too sacred. Who can I talk to, if not my husband, about whether I am fulfilling my life's goals, whether I have any regrets, how I see the future. But it's not a conversation I want interrupted by, "How is your steak?"
If my husband wants to discuss new ideas and challenges, thoughts about what it means to be a husband and father, accepting the inevitable aging process gracefully, "Would you like pepper with that?" is a grating note.
For busy couples, a night out is an important break. It's good to try not to talk about the children. But I sometimes find that once we "break free" from the house, the dialogues we have about our children (not always easy to practice what you preach) or ourselves can be so impactful or serious that tears may result. Which makes it harder to face that smiling waitress with the dessert tray.
So I think that perhaps it's safer to keep the conversation superficial, to just enjoy the break and the relaxed moments, and know that the real issues that unite us can be discussed in the car on the way home, in privacy where they belong.
Maybe married couples have a greater sense of separation from others and want to preserve this intimacy by not making their private lives public fodder. (Of course the person one table over is eavesdropping!) I have stopped condemning or scorning these silent couples and begun to applaud.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sarcasm on Despair

An article from
by Sol Herzig, Ph.D.
The sobering fact is that serenity and joy are natural states for us all. Fear not. Practiced regularly, these strategies vastly improve our odds of attaining despair.

Many people innocently believe that all they have to do is sit back, coast through life, and misery will come to them. Nothing could be further from the truth! The sobering fact is that serenity and joy are natural states for us all. Just observe a child at play, yourself on a favorite vacation, or anyone absorbed in creative activity. As our minds clear of clutter and negative thinking, a profound sense of peace and contentment often emerges. Does this mean there's no hope? Absolutely not! The strategies outlined below, practiced regularly, vastly improve our odds of achieving misery.
You are perfectly entitled to feelings of entitlement. It is your birthright to expect unfailing attention, loyalty, respect, and subservience from others. Contemplate the inherent, self-evident unfairness of anyone having something you want. Strive to see compromise, accommodation, patience, and responsibility, as somehow relevant only to "the other guy." In general, be aware that life owes you and that you were put on this planet to collect.
Malicious intent is always present if you just look carefully enough. This is particularly true regarding family members. Suppose your spouse overlooks one of your preferences. Seize the opportunity to view this as conclusive proof that you don't really matter to them and probably never have. If your children dawdle at bedtime, see them as viciously spiteful and yourself as a sorry excuse for a parent. It's really very simple. Ignore nothing, and always assume evil intent. Remember, if you don't take things personally no one will do it for you.
There is really very little sense in having problems if you don't focus on them. It's crucial therefore to keep careful track of all your problems and constantly review them. Nurture the attitude that you can't really move on to anything unless everything is resolved first. Remember also that there is no solution without a problem, if you look closely enough. Always resist the temptation to ponder where problems go when you don't think about them.
Too often people cheat themselves out of misery by maintaining perspective. This is both needless as well as extremely counter productive. Why would anyone ever want to think of themselves as "just human" when "fatally flawed" and "irredeemably warped" are available? Similarly, when recalling past mistakes, why stop at instructive regret when paralyzing guilt is within reach? Sure it requires a bit of effort, but the payoff can be enormous. Just imagine the benefits of eventually believing that your negative thinking actually reflects reality.
It is critical to remember that really terrible things can occur at any moment. Let's start with the body. Begin by paying close attention to changes in bodily sensation, no matter how trivial. Next, let your imagination run wild. Anything involving flesh-eating bacteria or intestinal parasites will usually do the trick. People sometimes protest that their bodies feel perfectly fine. Not to worry! Think "Silent Killers." Feeling perfectly fine places you squarely at risk for these. Of course, there is no reason to stop at personal health issues. The range of potential catastrophe is vast. For example, there are suitcase bombs, encroaching asteroids, global recession, pandemics, killer bees, and so on. Simply use your imagination to craft a realistic sense of impending doom. Savor the pride you'll feel on your death bed knowing that nothing ever caught you by surprise.
Gratitude is to misery what Kryptonite is to Superman. All the hard work you've invested in misery will go down the drain if you start fiddling around with gratitude. A zero tolerance policy is very much in order. This is very challenging, however, as life runs rampant with opportunities for gratefulness. Begin, therefore, by thoroughly discounting all the good in your life as a "given." Next, focus your mind on the many ways in which life continues to disappoint you. At an advanced level, you can even learn to see the bad in the good. For instance, should you get a big raise you could immediately focus on the tax implications. Eliminate gratitude from your life and misery will be right around the corner.
A final word. The beauty of misery is that the more you share it with others, the more you wind up having. So share generously. After all, misery loves company.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hearing God's Voice

An article from

by Sara Yoheved Rigler
God is always communicating with us. Sometimes it takes a miracle for us to get the message.

On Sarah Apel's fifth birthday, her grandfather Jacob presented her with an olivewood-covered siddur (prayer book) which his father had acquired decades before during a pilgrimage from White Russia to Palestine. In the front of the siddur, he wrote: "Always be proud that you are a Jew, and know that you have a holy land."
Sarah put the siddur under her pillow and kept it there for the next seven years. Although she lived in Upland, a small town in central California, her dreams were of a faraway Golden City. In a recurrent dream, repeated hundreds of times, she saw herself walking on a narrow bridge toward the Golden City. Then she heard a voice from heaven saying, "If you look only at the light coming from the Golden City, you will get to the Golden City."
But as she walked, she heard other voices, coming from beneath the bridge. There she saw beautiful people dressed in beautiful clothes, singing beautiful songs. They called to her to come and join them, but when she moved toward them, she would fall off the bridge and be in "Nowhereland forever, like an empty shopping center, with nothing real inside."
One day in her twelfth year, Sarah's father announced that he had bought a bigger house in an adjacent town, and soon they would be moving. Sarah loved her house, especially the big elm tree in the yard, where she would spend hours yearning to come closer to her Creator. "You may be moving," she told her father sadly, "but I'm not."
One night a few weeks later, while Sarah was sleeping soundly, her father lifted her up and put her into the family car. The next morning, she awoke in a different house in a different town. Appalled, Sarah jumped onto her bicycle and cycled for half an hour until she reached her old house. There a horrifying scene greeted her. A moving truck was parked in front of her house, and a strange family with three sons was moving in. She watched them, disconsolate. Finally, wretched, she got back onto her bike and pedaled away.
The dreams of the Golden City vanished. Instead of heeding the heavenly voice to focus on the light emanating from the Golden City, Sarah responded to the siren call of the "beautiful people." By the time she graduated high school, the sixties were in full swing. Beautiful people abounded: hippies with their free-flowing clothes and soulful folksongs, meditators with their religion of universality and love, and native Americans with their exotic culture and bond to nature. The Golden City was forgotten.
In 1965, Sarah was studying art at U.C.L.A. A non-Jewish friend said to her, "I always knew you were a Jew because there is such trust in your eyes. I recently met a young man who also has trust in his eyes. You should meet him." The friend introduced her to Dana Fox, a tall young man who had not known he was Jewish until he was eighteen years old, when someone cracked a derisive Jewish joke in Dana's living room. When Dana laughed, his mother upbraided him, "Don't laugh. You're also a Jew."
Sarah and Dana discovered that they were astonishingly compatible. One day, their conversation drifted to their childhoods. Dana told her that he had grown up in the small town of Upland. Sarah was amazed.
"I grew up there, too, until I was twelve years old. What street did you live on?"
"Sixth Street," Dana replied. "I lived at 554 North Sixth Street."
Sarah turned white. That was her house. Dana was one of the three boys she had seen moving into her house.
In 1966, Dana and Sarah decided to get married. Her mother, ecstatic, planned a wedding in their Reform temple for a Sunday afternoon in July.
The Golden City was burning. All its residents were screaming in anguish.
On the morning of her wedding day, Sarah woke up frantic. She had had a horrific dream of the Golden City of her childhood. This time, however, the Golden City was burning. All its residents were screaming in anguish.
Sarah phoned Dana and told him, "We can't get married today. I don't know why, but it's a terrible day to get married." When Dana reached her side, he realized that she was intractable. But why?
They decided that a rabbi might solve the foreboding mystery of her dream. They looked in the Los Angeles yellow pages under "Rabbis, Orthodox," and found a name and nearby address. Quickly they drove to the rabbi's house and knocked on his door. When the rabbi opened the door, Sarah blurted out plaintively, "Why can't we get married today?"
The rabbi gazed at them and replied, "Because it's Tisha B'Av, the calamitous day of the burning of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It's a day of mourning and fasting for Jews."
Dana, Sarah, and the rabbi all stood there with tears streaming down their cheeks. The rabbi cried because these young Jews had planned to get married on the day so laden with tragedy throughout Jewish history. Dana cried because this rational explanation meant that he would have to postpone his wedding. Sarah cried tears of joy because she had finally discovered the name of her Golden City -- Jerusalem! Suddenly she fathomed the meaning of all her dreams.
Much to their families' chagrin, Sarah and Dana postponed their wedding for two days. On Tuesday, the 11th of Av, the rabbi they had found married them in a traditional ceremony. "Our wedding meal was the first kosher food we ever ate," recalled Sarah years later.
Dana and Sarah moved to the San Francisco Bay area. They rented a modest house on a steep hill, with a lovely backyard surrounded by an eight-foot-high redwood fence. By the summer of 1970, they had two children, and Sarah was nine months pregnant with their third. Dana worked as an elementary school teacher, and Sarah taught art.
One day, Sarah was working in the kitchen. Her two small children were playing in a little plastic swimming pool in the backyard.
Suddenly Sarah heard an urgent voice inside her head, commanding: "Run fast! Bring in the children! Quickly! Now!"
Under the wheels of the truck was the little pool.
Sarah sprinted into the backyard, grabbed one child in each arm, and dashed back into the kitchen. As soon as the screen door slammed behind her, Sarah heard a deafening crash. She turned around to see a huge semi trailer truck filling up her entire backyard. The redwood fence was smashed like so many toothpicks. Under the wheels of the truck was the little pool.
The Foxes' oldest daughter suffered from recurrent earaches. A doctor suggested that they move to the dry climate of Arizona. So, in 1971, the Foxes drove their VW bus to Arizona. There, in a trailer on a hill in the desert near a dramatic cliff drop, they settled, among Mormons, Catholics, and Native Americans.
Two years later, the Yom Kippur War struck Israel. One night Dana had a nightmare. He cried out, "They can't take my land away from me!" When he woke up in the morning, he told Sarah that he wanted to go to the nearest Aliyah office to inquire about moving to Israel.
The Foxes and their three young children piled into their VW bus and drove to the Aliyah office in Phoenix. The aliyah representative there asked them if they had ever been to Israel. They answered, "No."
"Well, do you know anything about Israel?" he queried.
"No," they replied.
"Are you part of a Jewish community?"
"So why do you want to move to Israel?" he asked them, baffled.
Sarah told him about her olivewood siddur from Palestine, and about her dreams of the Golden City, which on her wedding day she understood to be Jerusalem.
The aliyah representative was visibly moved. In a tone uncharacteristic of Israeli officials, he told them: "My children, my children, come home."
They hesitantly decided to make aliyah. They filled out all the forms, and arranged to leave in exactly one month. Then they drove back to their desert home on the cliff.
Sarah was scared. After all, a war was going on, which at that point Israel was not winning. When she and Dana alighted from the VW bus, with the children still playing inside, she told her husband, "If we go to Israel, our lives and our children's lives could be in danger."
The VW bus was careening down the hill at 100 mph, heading straight for the cliff.
No sooner had the words left her mouth than the VW bus started to roll, with the three children still inside. In seconds it picked up speed, until it was careening down the hill at 100 mph, heading straight for the cliff. Dana, Sarah, and some dozen of their neighbors stood frozen in horror. Nothing could stop the vehicle. In moments, it hurtled over the cliff -- then stopped in mid-air. Its back wheel had caught on a small bush. To everyone's amazement, the bus hung suspended in the air, held only by the bush.
All their neighbors started screaming, "A miracle for the Jews! God has done a miracle for the Jews!"
Everyone ran up to the vehicle and with ropes managed to pull it back onto the cliff. The children were uninjured.
Sarah and Dana, spent with horror and relief, walked with a Mormon friend back to their trailer. When they entered the trailer, they were greeted by a ghastly sight. Dozens of strange black insects were everywhere-on the floor, in the frying pan on the stove, even climbing up one of Dana's boots as they stood there. In two years living in the desert, they had never seen a single insect like these. "What are they?" Sarah asked their friend.
The friend quickly grabbed a towel and flitted the insect off of Dana's boot. Then he motioned them out the door. "They are deadly scorpions," he warned. "I have never in my life seen so many at one time."
Sarah and Dana understood that God was sending them a clear message. Suddenly Israel did not seem so dangerous. On the spot, they both resolved to follow through with their aliyah plans. That very afternoon, they started selling their furniture. As soon as they sold their first piece of furniture, the scorpions disappeared. Every last one of them.
A few months later, the Fox family arrived in Israel. As they descended the stairs from the airplane, Dana -- now Shlomo -- said, "We have come home to become Jews again."
Twenty-eight years later, Shlomo and Sarah Fox-Ahshrei have 8 children and 18 grandchildren, all learning and practicing Torah throughout the Land of Israel. Shlomo translates religious texts from Hebrew to English. Sarah has a unique vocation. A time-honored tradition promises that if one prays for something specific at the Western Wall for 40 consecutive days, the prayer will be answered. Sarah, who spends hours each day praying at the Western Wall, performs the service of "doing 40 days of prayer at the Kotel" for those who live too far away to do it themselves.
God is always communicating with human beings. While the messages most of us receive may not be as dramatic as the Foxes', most of us at one time or another experience Divine guidance -- through intuition, dreams, or the uncanny unfolding of unlikely circumstances.
How can one know if a "message" is really from God rather than from that notorious ventriloquist, the ego?
The Torah specifically prohibits reading omens. Two white doves circling around the heads of you and your date should not be interpreted as a sign that you should get married. The sudden appearance of scorpions in your home is not an omen. Rather, it presents a clear, rational fact: life-threatening danger. If you were worried about following a certain course because of its prospective dangers, now you must weigh those possible dangers against the reality of your actual, present danger. Omens are open to diverse interpretations. Messages present facts; we may or may not want to draw the obvious conclusions.
From Sarah and Dana's story, we can garner three clues as to when to trust a "message":
If the message bids you to do something inconvenient, difficult, or downright distasteful, it is probably not coming from your ego. Sarah's message to postpone her wedding cost her the ire of her mother, who had spent months planning the event. Dana's dream-message to move to Israel in the middle of a war was a challenge that ran counter to all their preferences. Rebbetzin Hinda Adler used to say: "If it's difficult, that's a sign that it's good."
When in doubt, consult a spiritual guide well versed in Torah. Sarah's dream convinced her that that was not the right day to get married, but she couldn't understand why. They intuited that an Orthodox Rabbi would be able to shed light on her dream-message, which he did. Many spiritual guides are charlatans, who interpret messages according to their own personal profit. Someone who in all matters subserviates his or her will to the will of God as revealed in the Torah is more likely to be an objective interpreter of your message.
If it contradicts the Torah, then it is not a message from God. The Torah is the ultimate Divine message: direct and irrevocable. The Torah specifically warns against false prophets. They are false, even if their prophecies come true or they can work miracles, if they bid you to do anything that contradicts the instructions of the Torah. The same principle applies to all kinds of "Divine messages." There has not been a single day since Sinai that God has not communicated indirectly with human beings. However, there has not been a single Divine communication since Sinai that contradicts the message of Sinai. If a married friend tells you that he knows from a dream or his intuition that it's God's will that he have an affair with his secretary, you can tell him with total certainty that it isn't a message from God.
The more we see God's hand in our lives, the more manifest His hand will be.
Divine messages work like mother's milk. Just as the more the baby nurses, the more milk is produced, so too the more we look to God to direct our lives, the more He will. The more we see God's hand in our lives, the more manifest His hand will be. And the more we obey His directives, however difficult, the more the flow of Divine communication will course through our daily lives. If Sarah had ignored her dream of the burning city, or decided that, in spite of the message, postponing the wedding was too difficult, one wonders whether she would have been able to hear the inner voice that warned her to save her children.
The key to understanding God's messages is honesty. If you scrutinize such messages honestly, intelligently, and without prior agendas, and you seek guidance from someone who is committed to the will of God above his or her own will, and you are willing to follow even directives which are scathingly difficult for you, then you can trust your inner guidance as having a Divine source. What the Prophet Elijah called, "the still, small voice" of Divine inspiration is always speaking to us. The more honestly we listen, the more clearly we'll hear.
In the comment section below, share with readers a miracle that has happened to you, and the message you have learned from it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Bad Things Don't Happen

An article on viewing pain in light of the Bible, from

The book of Job is surely the most shocking book of the Bible.
Job is a righteous man -- there is "no one like him on earth; pure, straight, God-fearing, and does no evil" (Job 1:8). He is wealthy, accomplished, respected, and the father of ten children.
God decides to test Job. And it's not a stubbing-one's-toe type of test. In one fell swoop, his children die and his wealth is completely obliterated.
"Naked I left my mother's womb and naked shall I return. God gave and God took back. May the name of God be blessed" (Job 1:21). This is Job's answer. If ever there was a noble and dignified response to suffering, this is surely it. It seems as though Job's faith is unshakable.
Now God ups the stakes and covers Job's entire body with horribly painful blisters. Once again, his response is incredible. His wife asks why he is still blessing God when God has put him through all this, and he says to her, "We have accepted the good from God, shall we not also accept the bad from Him?" (Job 2:10)
His three friends come to visit him and are stunned by what they see has happened. They are left speechless. They sit with Job for seven days without a single word passing between them.
At the end of the seven days, for no apparent reason, Job snaps. A more drastic turnaround could not be imagined. He rants and he raves. He complains and he curses. He says, "Why did I not die in my mother's womb?" and "Never did I feel secure, never quiet, never at peace and now torment?" (ibid. 3:10 and 3:25). Later on, he says, "Even if I were to call and He [God] were to answer me, I don't believe He would listen to my voice. For He has shattered me in a tempest for no good reason" (ibid., 9:16-17). "I am disgusted with my life" (ibid. 9:21). "My days are so few -- leave me alone, distance Yourself from me so that I can find some respite. Before I depart, never to return, to a land of gloom and of death's shadow, a land darkened by the darkness of death's shadow and chaos - its brightest spots grim darkness" (ibid. 10:20-22). "His anger slashed me -- He hates me" (ibid. 16:9)
I could go on; Job certainly does. Within moments, he has turned from a righteous and holy man, accepting of God's challenges, to an embittered existentialist philosopher.
His friends try to comfort him. And these are no ordinary friends. All are prophets, men of spiritual greatness. Each tries to tell him of God's goodness and ultimate justice. And to each, Job's arguments back are scathing, sarcastic, and bitter. It's hard to believe that we are listening to the same man.
The oral tradition itself seems to struggle with the book of Job. On the question of when he lived, there are no less than 15 different opinions -- more than on any other topic in the Talmud. I once asked my teacher, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, how he understands the message of the book. He said that in his opinion, Job is certainly a good man. He is a righteous man, a man who trusts in God. But the bottom line is that suffering is not easy. It's not easy to lose all your property and not be bothered, to lose all your children and keep smiling. It's not easy to go through terrible pain and continue to bless God. Facing pain is not easy for even the greatest of human beings. Anyone can crack under pressure -- as did Job.
We may respond with frustration, bitterness, and even anger and resentment towards God. And that's okay.
To me, this is an incredibly encouraging message. Only God is perfect. We are mere human beings. And when we go through pain -- as we all do -- it can be overwhelming. We may respond with frustration, bitterness, and even anger and resentment towards God.
And that's okay.
God understands. As much as He does get frustrated, so to speak, with Job (and after 35 chapters of ranting and raving, we are all pretty frustrated with Job), at the same time, God still comes to him in the end and His soliloquies are the longest in the Bible, spoken by God directly. God takes the time to comfort Job's troubled heart and in the end turns him around. Job rants and raves, and God takes it from him and then comforts him.
I don't know how to emphasize this point enough. I'm going to write a lot about how to deal with pain, how to have a healthy attitude towards suffering. But throughout it all, this will be my underlying message. We're human. We can hear the most wonderful and uplifting ideas about what pain means and how to grow from it, but pain will still be pain, and sometimes we feel overwhelmed by it. If a man such as Job is allowed to lose it for a little while, then so is any one of us.
I'm not suggesting that we do! It's certainly better to remain strong and steadfast in the face of challenge. However, I'm saying that we're God's children and if suffering makes us angry at Him, He understands that it's not easy...
The question is one that Elana and I struggled with over the difficult years of her illness. Eventually, we found an answer that satisfied us both. And its simplicity always amazed me. It needs no drum rolls or introduction. The answer is simply this:
Bad things do not happen to good people.
And bad things don't happen to bad people either. Bad things simply don't "happen." I'm not playing with words. I'm merely using, as I'll explain, the most meaningful definitions available.
The question of why bad things happen is not a new one -- it's as old as Judaism itself and is raised in many, many places.
"It is not in our hands -- neither the suffering of the righteous nor the comfort of the wicked," says Rabbi Yannai in Ethics of the Fathers, 4:15.
How can we possibly understand, in the context of a loving Father in Heaven, people dying young, parents losing children, disease, starvation, wars, gas chambers, and crematoria? It just doesn't seem to work.
But as difficult as it is emotionally, as I have said, I believe it to be quite simple intellectually. And I believe this is exactly what Rabbi Yannai meant when he said, "It is not in our hands." It's like a hot coal. You can see a hot coal from afar; you can understand what it is and why it is; but that does not mean you can pick it up. You can never hope to hold it in your bare hands and feel comfortable with it, only to observe it from a distance.
The same is true when it comes to suffering. If we are able to distance our emotions from the issue, we will be able to deal with it and understand it relatively easily. Like the hot coal, from afar, it can be observed and understood.
But we can never touch.
Answers will always seem callous in the face of human pain.
We feel suffering deeply -- be it our own or that of others. We cannot merely stand back and give answers. As much as we might understand it intellectually, we will nevertheless never feel happy with any answer that we give ourselves. Answers will always seem callous in the face of human pain. We cannot merely "explain" to someone why their child died. The pain is tangible and the explanation is theoretical. The person is suffering, experiencing real pain, and we are merely parroting words. Answers don't solve the problem. They don't take away the horror. They don't soothe; they irritate. We can understand them, but never find complete comfort in them.
However, just because we might not feel comfortable with answers does not mean that they are wrong. When Elana found the lump, it was cancer. We did not like the fact that it was cancer, but that did not change the reality.
The answer to suffering is the same. It is not a pleasant answer, but a person who wants truth above pleasantries will see that it is correct.
I ask you, the reader, to put aside emotion as best you can and to try to listen with your head and not your heart. To the extent to which you are able to do so is the extent to which you will find meaningful answers in the following chapters.
As a start to this -- and most questions in life -- we need first to define our terms. And, most significantly, in dealing with why bad happens in this world, we need to begin with a definition of "bad."
I believe that much of our difficulty in dealing with bad things happening comes from a definition of bad that is entirely inconsistent with Judaism.
I would imagine that for most people, the working definition of "bad" is "pain." Bad and pain are basically synonymous. Be it the pain someone goes through while dying from a horrible disease, the pain of someone like Elana, knowing she will never dance at her children's weddings, or the pain of children starving in Africa or the Warsaw Ghetto. It's the pain involved in these situations that makes them "bad." If no one in the Holocaust went through any pain -- if they were gently put to sleep without any knowledge of what was happening -- it would still be a horrible thing, but it would not bother us in the way that it does. Take a few moments to consider this, because it's important to understand exactly what it is that bothers us before moving on.
If pain is to be in any way linked with our definition of bad -- be it emotional, physical, or spiritual pain -- then the question of why bad things happen to people is fairly well unanswerable. Because pain happens to every human being, righteous or evil, throughout most of their lives. And if pain in and of itself is bad, then God has clearly made a world that is just filled with "bad."
Let's re-examine our assumptions for a moment. Is all pain necessarily bad? Defining pain as "bad" is actually a modern phenomenon. Let me give a few very obvious illustrations as to why we cannot view all pain as automatically being bad...
Let's imagine that someone is walking down the street, minding his own business -- maybe even on the way to do a good deed! -- and a car, driven by someone who is drunk, mounts the curb and runs him over. His leg is broken in four places and he requires an immediate operation, with six weeks recovery in the hospital afterwards.
Good or bad?
Obviously it's bad, you say. And why did such a "bad" thing happen to a person who was on his way to do a good deed?
Yet, if we jump so quickly to this conclusion, we are again making the mistake of oversimplification.
Let's say the operation goes well and our patient is recuperating in a hospital ward. The next day, he meets a young lady in the same ward. She is also going to be in the hospital for a few weeks. They start talking. They don't get on so well at first, but as time goes by they begin to like each other. After all, if you talk to someone for hours each day, you will eventually find something you like about them. Their attraction grows over time. They find that they have many shared interests. They are from similar backgrounds and have the same life goals. Once out of the hospital, they start going out. After a short while, they become engaged. Eventually, they marry and live happily ever after.
Now, let's ask this man, 50 years later, as he sits with his great-grandchildren on his lap at his golden wedding anniversary, whether it was a good or bad thing that the car ran him over on that fateful day. Looking back, he would in no way consider it a bad thing. Painful, yes, but it was pain that brought an incredible amount of goodness in its wake. If you were to offer him the opportunity to go back in time and not be hit by that car, he would not dream of taking it.
This is an example of short term pain that brings long term results. The pain of his broken leg disappeared after a few weeks. The goodness of his marriage to the woman he met in the hospital was eternal.
Pain is not always "bad."
And when I talk about pain, I don't just mean physical pain. I'm just using it as the simplest illustration. The exact same points could be made and similar examples brought for emotional pain such as fear, terror, sadness, loss, and abuse.
In my situation, as a very simple example, the pain I went through - the loss, the sadness, the fear, the loneliness -- in losing Elana has made me infinitely more capable of reaching out and comforting others who experience loss.
I hope that by now it's obvious that "pain" is not useful as a definition for "bad." Perhaps some pain really is bad (though we as yet have no examples of that type of pain), but certainly not all pain is bad. And so we are going to have to refine our definition.
At this point, we might be tempted to redefine bad as "pain that brings no positive results." But then it would be impossible for us to ever decide whether something was good or bad. For who is to say what good might come in ten years or twenty, or perhaps not even in this world, but in the next one? Such a definition of "bad" would be of no use to us whatsoever. Until we were fully aware of the ramifications of any event - in both this world and the next -we could not make a judgment that it was "bad" (or "good" for that matter). To define "bad" in this way would be tantamount to having no definition of "bad" whatsoever.
Because of this, the best we can say is: Pain, in and of itself, is fairly neutral. It's not pleasant, it's not comfortable, it's not nice, but it's also neither bad nor good.
Why God might make something painful or create the entire concept of pain in the first place are issues that I will deal with at a later stage, but pain has no meaningful role in trying to define "bad."
We Jews have a very different definition of bad -- and based on this definition, nothing bad ever really "happens" in this world.
"Good" is something that enables you to become more Godly. And conversely, "bad" is something that makes you a less Godly person. Torah is good. Mitzvot are good. God Himself is good. Moving away from God -- the source and root of all goodness - is bad.
Put a different way, good is that which leads us towards self-perfection, that which enables us to become the great human beings we are capable of becoming, that which helps us to find the closeness to God that is available to us. Bad is that which takes us away from God, that which hinders us from achieving our potential.
These are the Jewish definitions and the ones I will generally use for the rest of this book. It's worth taking just a few minutes to consider the implications of these definitions before reading any further.
Let's take a look at pain in the context of these definitions.
As a rule, does pain and difficulty in life make it easier or harder to rise spiritually? If we are honest, we would have to say that challenge helps us towards greatness. Greatness is not usually found among those who spend their days lying on beaches and sailing around the world in million-dollar yachts. Greatness is much more often found among those who face adversity head on and overcome it. Those who achieve their true potential are those who struggle through difficult situations and build their character in the process. The Talmud tells us, "Be careful of the children of the poor, for from them Torah comes" (Nedarim 81a).
Far from being a hindrance, hardship is actually something that assists us in this world. If "good" is something that can help us come closer to God, then hardship is certainly "good."
Let's revisit the man with the broken leg -- even without knowing that he ended up meeting his future wife due to it. Let's look at it as a plain and simple broken leg; seemingly nothing more gained other than pain and temporary disability. Is that good or bad?
The Jewish answer is still, of course, neither. But now there is something to add.
It could be good, or it could be bad. It all depends on what this man does with it. A broken leg can make him angry and upset and take him away from God. Or it can push him to evaluate where he can mend his ways and bring himself closer to God.
The choice is entirely his.
We didn't have a choice as to whether or not she would have cancer. But we did have a choice as to how we would respond to that cancer.
The broken leg is certainly a challenge -- but if our friend rises to the challenge and overcomes it, he will lift himself to a more Godly realm. It is not good or bad. It is, however, a significant opportunity for good -- should he choose for it to be so. And if he does, then he will look back 50 years later and say that yes, it was wonderful that he met his wife through his broken leg, but even more wonderfully, the broken leg enabled him to employ his free will to lift himself to new levels of personal greatness.
There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- that happens to us in this world that is good or bad. It is all completely neutral. But everything that happens does have the potential to lift us to a greater level of goodness - or drag us further away from God. Everything has the potential to be good and everything has the potential to be bad. "Bad" things don't happen to good people. But neither do "good" things. Things happen that are either more or less painful. But they are not inherently good or bad. We human beings are the sole arbiters as to whether that which occurs in our lives will ultimately be good or bad. The choice is entirely within our hands.
Elana and I made a decision when she first became ill. We didn't have a choice as to whether or not she would have cancer. But we did have a choice as to how we would respond to that cancer. We knew that we could allow ourselves to despair, that we could hide ourselves away from the world and accept our "fate." Or we could decide to be happy with the goodness that we had. We could make sure we enjoyed our time with each other and our children and enjoyed our lives in general. We knew that we could grow closer to God at this time or we could move further away -- and that choice was entirely within our hands.
The Mishnah tells us that Abraham was tested with ten tests -- to show how much God loved him (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:3). At first glance this seems strange. Here's how you show you love someone? Firstly, you have him thrown into a furnace. Then, you tell him to pack his bags and move to a foreign country. When he obeys, you bring a famine to this country. And then, when he travels to find food, you have the ruler of the next place abduct his wife. He gets her back and returns to his ordained place of residence, only to find that his nephew has been kidnapped by four powerful kings. He manages to release him and is then commanded to kill his only son. Upon his return, having overcome the greatest challenge of his life, he finds that his wife has died and he is forced to pay an exorbitant sum for an inferior burial plot in a land that God has supposedly promised him as an inheritance. And all of this shows God's love for Abraham?!
Yes! This is precisely God's love. Because through these challenges, Abraham was able to come closer to God. He fulfilled his potential and became the great human being we know of, founder of the nation that has taught monotheism to most of the world. The pain was short-lived. The results were eternal. Abraham sits in his place in eternity, not in spite of his pain, but because of it. His pain is gone. His greatness remains forever.
What are you in this world for? To be comfortable? To live out 70 or 80 years of life with the least challenge possible?
And so, I ask you to ask yourself, and to be brutally honest -- what are you in this world for? To be comfortable? To avoid pain? To live out 70 or 80 years of life with the least challenge possible? If this is your aim, then many "bad" things will happen along the way -- because this is a world of pain and pain is antithetical to all that you are living for. If, however, you believe, as I do, that we are here to lift ourselves into Godliness, to grow and to ultimately attain self-perfection, then all that happens to us is a golden opportunity - and the more challenging it is, the greater that opportunity. The Mishnah tells us that "according to the pain is the reward" (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:23). It doesn't say "effort," it says "pain." The level of pain defines the level of potential for Godliness. Of course, we don't go looking for pain, but when it comes, we embrace it as an opportunity to strive towards perfection...
At the height of Elana's illness, and at the times of my deepest pain afterwards, this is what I kept reminding myself. I put signs up all around my house saying, "We are in this world to use our free will to get closer to God -- nothing else." We all have different scenarios in which we are placed - some more painful, some less. But it is all directed towards the same end. Specific circumstances merely give us a context in which to use our free will to lift ourselves towards Godliness. Borrowing from Shakespeare, I would think of every human being as acting in a giant play -- a play that lasts 70 or so years -- and a play in which there will be great drama and tragedy. Each has a different script, a different challenge. The acts and scenes may be different, but the underlying plot is the same for all six billion of us. We are charged with the mission of using our free will and lifting ourselves closer to God. Circumstances may be fluid, but challenge is a constant -- the purpose behind all events in life.
My friends, take it from me, pain passes. All pain passes. If not in this world, then certainly in the next. A cut finger might take a few minutes, a headache an hour, a stomachache a day, a sprained ankle a week, a broken leg a month, and a broken heart may even take a lifetime. But no pain will carry through to the World of Truth. It is the decisions we make, the way we choose to face that challenge and overcome that pain, which will remain with us for eternity. These decisions, and these decisions alone, are the purpose of our years in this world.
This article is an excerpt from Shaul Rosenblatt's new book, Finding Light in the Darkness.