Jerusalem: There’s No Place Like Home

yom yerushalayim joyish

I’m headed to Israel this weekend. Eeeeee! I can hardly think about anything else. My countdown has begun.

I start my trip in Jerusalem, a city I was privileged to live in several years ago. Although spiritual, I’m not the most religious person you’ve ever met, particularly by Jerusalem standards. And honestly, when I imagined myself in Israel, I always thought I’d be in Tel Aviv with my tush in the Mediterranean as much as possible! But when it came time to go, I asked those who’d gone before me: what’s it like?

“Tel Aviv is amaaaaaaazing!” they’d gush, clearly rooting for that choice. “The beaches, the nightlife—it’s like the best of New York meets the best of Los Angeles.”

“Wow,” I’d reply, not really needing to be sold. “And Jerusalem? What’s it like?”

“Well…,” they’d ponder. “There’s no place like Jerusalem.”

I’d lived in New York. I’d lived in LA. So, much to my own surprise, I wound up in Jerusalem of gold.

Being in Jerusalem is like being in Hashem’s living room. You’re so close to Him, you can feel His heartbeat and along with it, the heartbeat of the Jewish people. It’s unexplainable, irrational, and exemplified by this story: A few years ago, I was a madricha (counselor) on a Birthright trip. I brought twenty-or-so 20-somethings to Israel for the first time. Though Jewish by birth, most of them were otherwise disconnected and non-practicing. The tour delighted them of course, who doesn’t love to travel? But then Friday night rolled around.

We were at the Kotel (the Wailing Wall or Western Wall) for Kabbalat Shabbat. As the sun set, Jews from around the world gathered to pray and sing and dance. They didn’t know each other or each other’s languages, but they knew the same songs and sang them together, arms around one another, stranger beside sabra, soldiers beside religious, Jews beside Jews. The reverence of the day combined with the passion of the songs and the thunder of the dance reached high and deep and beyond. The holiness was palpable.

Too soon, it was time to go. I stood at the back waiting for my group. One after another, the participants returned, their eyes brimming with tears. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” they said. “I just, I was there, and suddenly this!” For a surprisingly large number of them, that evening was the highlight of their trip and the most powerful experience of their lives to date. And it wasn’t because they had strong religious upbringings.

Israel speaks to our souls, and our souls respond.

Yesterday was Yom Yerushalayim or Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the reunification of the capital of Israel. Before the Six Day War, Jerusalem was split, and Jews were forbidden to access their holiest sites. Now under Israeli sovereignty all religions’ holy sites are protected and visitors of all denominations can visit and pray in peace. Incredible moments, like the one above, happen regularly. That’s the power of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is at the heart of Zionism, after all, Zion is the ancient name for Jerusalem. What is Zionism without Zion? What is the Torah without Jerusalem?  Jerusalem is mentioned 669 times in the Tanach (Hebrew bible), we pray facing Jerusalem, next year in Jerusalem! We break the glass on our wedding days to remember the temple in Jerusalem, and if I forget you, O’ Jerusalem, תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי…may my right hand lose its skill!

“Without Jerusalem, the land of Israel is as a body without a soul.”
— Elhanan Leib Lewinsky, Hebrew writer & Zionist leader

I am so grateful to have lived in and to be returning to Yerushalayim where the stones that witnessed history’s most epic events shine gold under its people Israel’s flags; to return to the heart of the Jewish people, and to spend time with Hashem in His home, our home. What’s better than going home?

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A Jewish Definition of Freedom

Image courtesy of Light Matters Studio
Image courtesy of Light Matters Studio

A contemporary definition of freedom, according to magazines and ads might be chocolate without consequences, bungee jumping, or abandoning work responsibilities for a trip to Mykonos.

If you ask the Kardashians, they would say true freedom is the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want with whomever we want.

Pesach inspired a lot of “freedom” talk, but Judaism relates to freedom as an inside job. True freedom is the ability to choose who you will be in any situation. It’s the ability to behave differently from animals who have no choice but to react instinctively and to instead rise above impulsivity to live deliberately, consciously.

All of us have habits, beliefs and behaviors that happen automatically. Whether it’s blaming others, negative thinking, reaching for a cigarette, checking out, or procrastinating, these reactions or ways of interacting with life can feel beyond our control.

“This is the way I always do it.”
“I must be the best.”
“I must control everything and not be controlled by anything.”
“I must do it all myself.”
“I can’t help it, this is how I am.”

We put ourselves in bondage. We limit ourselves and shut ourselves off from the enormous abundance Hashem wants for us. Freedom is the ability to get out of the way and let Hashem in. It means rising above our impulses so that we are not slaves to animalistic desires, habits, impatience, the past, or fear.

This real freedom lives in the balance between initiative and partnership with Hashem. It empowers us to turn off the autopilot and steer, to lead our own lives. To choose:

“No, I won’t raise my voice.”
“Yes, I will ask for help.”
“Yes, I can change.”
“Now, I will begin.”
“I’m not alone. Hashem is my partner.”

Freedom does not only depend on external circumstances. Free is the man who is master of himself.

Watch out for the self-limiting story you or others have told you that keep you a slave. Freedom starts the moment you truly believe you can be free, the moment you walk into the unknown with faith, the moment you decide who you will be.

And this is holy work. It’s a great mitzvah for each of us to feel that we ourselves have personally left Egypt.

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6 Suggestions for a more Spiritual Seder

Because my family and I live in different states, others have generously extended their Pesach tables to me over the years. In this way, I’ve gotten the chance to see lots of Seder styles. Some have been fun and fast, others dry and boring. But I can attest that meaningful Seders take the afikomen.

Elevating Ideas:

Set an Intention. At the start of the night, focus everyone on the purpose of the Seder.

Though a reminder of the past, the Seder also serves as a spiritual tool to plug us into the very same power the Israelites used to escape slavery. That mega-wattage can be accessed through the Seder, so that we can break free from our own modern-day limitations.

At some tables, everyone takes a turn sharing their focus, revealing their “pharaoh” per se, that they intend to leave behind.

Different Haggadot. Rather than have everyone use the same Haggadah, collect different ones so no two people have the same one. There are so many cool choices out there: illustrated Haggadot, kabbalistic Haggadot, children’s Haggadot, Sephardi Haggadot, Ashkenazi Haggadot, Haggadot from different synagogues, schools and rabbis! Let each person choose the one they fancy.

The main text of each Haggadah will be relatively the same, allowing round robin reading to continue. But, the footnotes, stories and tidbits will be different. Encourage each participant to share ideas s/he finds interesting. Because no two people share the same Haggadah, this is an easy way for everyone, even newbies, to contribute something unique to the Seder.

Lice, tzfardeah, action! Act out the story. Interactive, kid friendly and memorable, performing a mini-play helps everyone embody and internalize the story.

One family I know assigns roles to each person at the table. Of course, the Dad plays the pharaoh and the kids argue over (but decide in advance) who will play the heroes, Moses and Aaron. They throw on some costumes and bring the story to life through their practiced scene.

Plagues and corresponding props are assigned to everyone else at the table so that when we reach “tzfardeah!”(frogs/crocodiles) a bunch of mini-jelly frogs go flying into the air.

Gamify your Horseradish. Buy the horseradish root fresh. Cut it just before the Seder and make ‘em weep. Eating truly bitter horseradish serves an important purpose (beyond cleaning your sinuses).

Rather than swallowing as fast as possible to get it over with, try chewing and chewing the fresh stuff until the bitterness becomes sweet. Challenge yourself to stick it out. It will happen. It will. But not before smoke comes out of your ears, your neck turns bright red, and tears stream down your face! That’s ok. That’s part of it. No one said converting bitter to sweet was easy.

Bring it home. Have something specific in mind and convert your personal bitterness to sweetness. Sweat it out.

(A word to the wise: Have tissues on hand. Noses may run amuck.)

Make an Entrance: Open the door for Eliyahu, open the door to miracles. The ideal moment for prayers arrives along with Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the prophet). At this point in the Seder, Hashem is all ears. The gates are open to your biggest dreams! So, put it out there.

One family I know has a beautiful tradition. Each person takes a tea light and kindles it from the holiday candles. They go to the front door together and welcome Eliyahu inside with verbal greetings, “Bruchim HaBaim! Welcome!”

Then, they step outside with their tea lights and take a private moment to themselves to focus on their intention. Everyone shuts their eyes, meditates, silently talks to Hashem, and dreams under the stars. After taking this time, everyone comes back in, leaving the tea lights outside.

Packed with kavanah (intention), those 10 minutes or so add a lot.

Get into the Hebrew. Look, let’s be frank—English translations don’t cut it.

I assume I’m not the only one for whom the term “Passover” conjures up images of that creepy green “Angel of Death” smoke from The 10 Commandments that passed over the Jewish homes, sparing their first born sons. (That smoke terrified me so much as a kid that I would crawl into bed with my brother at night. Not to save him, let’s be clear. I’m the first born, you see, and…I guess I figured the Angel of Death was hip to the women’s lib movement.) How did Pesach become creepy-green-smoke-evoking Passover?
Tsk. Tsk. A poor translation.

Pesach literally means “a talking mouth.” (peh=”mouth,” sach=”is talking”) Right away, the Hebrew reflects the mitzvah of Passover which is to read the Haggadah and communicate the story ourselves.

Curiously, the word Haggadah comes from the Hebrew root higgid, which means “to tell.” We use the Haggadah to tell the story during the seder.

Seder translates to “order.”

Aha! The Hebrew itself shows us that on Pesach, we use our mouths to tell the story with the Haggadah and in so doing, we create Seder, order.

Order from what, you ask? Well, Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow straights, limitation.” (mi = from,” tzar= narrow/tight) There’s the answer: the Seder restores balance, order and freedom from dire straights and limitation.

Hebrew words hold secrets. Just by looking at a few key words, the holiday’s core essence begins to emerge.

Whether trying these traditions or creating your own, the only thing we should pass over during Passover are our limitations. A spiritual Seder can part the sea.

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Passover Made Personal

Pesach: The Power to Break Free from Limitation

I’d venture to say that everyone from Martha Stewart to Target to Glamour Magazine all jumped on the annual Spring Cleaning craze thanks to us Jews. For millennia, we’ve been scrub-a-dub-dubbing around this time of year in preparation for Pesach (Passover) to completely rid our homes of every last spec of chametz (Passover unfriendly foods like bread, rice, most carbs essentially).

Still, getting the credit doesn’t convert the chore to a cinch…but, perspective does.

Zoom out: Passover gives us the opportunity to break free from our own personal Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt. This insight hides within the word itself: Mitzrayim מצרים comes from the word m‘tzarim meaning, “narrow straits.” (mi = from,” tzar= narrow/tight).

When we left Egypt, we didn’t just leave a country—we left our limitations. Every generation is commanded to recount the story and feel they too left Mitzrayim, and this is possible because we each have a Mitzrayim to escape.

Zoom in: Whether a slave to doubt, fears, insecurity, the scale, your account balance, habits, addictions or other people’s opinions, that reality is not a sentence. The opportunity to break free exists during Pesach. That’s why we clean.

The external cleaning process facilitates an internal one. The cleaning serves as a meditation during which we take a personal inventory, identifying crumbs of old behaviors we feel reluctant to or powerless to change. (You won’t find this soul-ular exfoliating scrub at Sephora—lather up!)

Without this important cleaning process, the Passover seder could easily devolve into mere ritual! But with a personal purpose identified, the spiritual technology of the seder סדר, which literally translates to “order” can do just that: transform inner-and-outer limitation to order and light.

This awesome opportunity to exit Egypt ourselves is what we’re preparing for as we clean. By doing this work, we set ourselves up to leave our own Mitzrayim, split our own red sea, and boldly walk through it to freedom.

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When Hashem’s Timeline Doesn’t Match Yours

“How wonderous are your deeds, Hashem.
All of them are done with wisdom.
The heavens tell of your glory.
And the earth is filled with your kindness.” -Tehillim
Art by Yochana Chavah Sandler

There are certain lessons that are particularly difficult to learn. One of the hardest ones for me is acceptance when Hashem’s timeline is different (sometimes dramatically different) than my own.

Example: I wanted my chosen career set by this age, the love of my life by that age, and my summer home in Israel by another age…and these important deadlines have passed.

Admittedly, I’m a big dreamer. Always have been. But never a magical thinker—I’ve also always been a fiercely hard worker (Thanks, Dad!), throwing myself toward my goals wholeheartedly. So, when that hard work doesn’t pay off in the way that I want, or in a way I can see at all, uncertainty rears its ugly head. It challenges my core belief system that hard work must pay off. Right?

Stepping back, I know it does pay off…however, not necessarily in the way I expect. That’s the rub. It will pay off, but 5 years later. It will pay off as I use those skills in an entirely different profession. But that effort and dedication will pay off. You just don’t know how or when. And that. Really. Sucks.

Emunah or faith means believing in what you can’t see. It means believing in what you just somehow know, sometimes in spite of physical evidence that suggests otherwise. Emunah is a choice. There is no challenge to believe when the proof can be written before you. The leap happens when you believe despite what is written before you.

However frustrating, confusing or maddening, the reality is that we don’t want a Gd whose every step we understand, who we can out-think. What good is that?

Moments of doubt build character. Who are you really? Show yourself. A visionary, an upstander, one who is true to his values come what may? Then, what will you do now? Shrink and choose the easy route because the fear is too intense? Or breathe and walk into the unknown remembering, “In the end, it’s all good. And if it’s not good, it’s not the end.”

“.בסוף~הכל טוב
.ואם זה לא טוב~זה לא הסוף”
“In the end it’s all good.
And if it’s not good, it’s not the end.”

At the crux of my conviction lays the idea that Hashem is good, and that the circumstances aren’t just for the good, but are actually for the best. This knowledge soothes me in the face of challengers like time.

Time scares me. I never have enough of it. It races ahead, I always want more, and I measure myself ruthlessly against it. But, underneath my moments of inner pandemonium, I do know it’s working. I do know that ha-kol b’seder. (Literally: it’s all in order.)

I don’t get to see the big picture in real time. That’s the bad news and the good news for the future is determined in the very moment I decide whether to quit, or persist with the emuna/faith that it’s all happening in the most harmonious way for everyone involved.

Today was a day where I didn’t understand Hashem’s process or timeline. Yet despite my frustration and impatience, I suspect I will one day look back and say, “Thank Gd.”

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