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Interrogate your inner critic, and be your own champion

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Parshot/Festivals

This past year has been tough for all of us. The thought of another potentially tough year is daunting. How easy it is to become paralysed by fear and dread as we contemplate the coming year. How easy is it to be harsh with ourselves as we wonder where we might have gone wrong, and where we may have been responsible for some of the difficulties we faced, personally and as a community.

But how mistaken would we be to fall prey to this fear and to our destructive thoughts, to prognostications of doom and gloom? While this reaction may well be understandable given the sadness and struggles of the past year, it would be a travesty. In truth, we are meant to approach the yom tov of Rosh Hashanah with a strong sense of our unique and inestimable value as the children of Hashem. It’s only with this awareness of our dignity and worth that we can stand before Hashem, proclaim Him as our king and father, and envision a new year filled with meaning, purpose, and growth.

To combat this default standpoint, we need to experience ourselves as worthy of our own esteem, as people who matter greatly to Hashem and who are needed for a purpose and mission that only we can fulfil in the year to come.

This may resonate with you, but you could easily ask, “Yes, but how? How do I move from a space of negativity and despair when I look at my failings, my fragility, my brokenness? How do I combat the chokehold my thoughts have on me, the self-accusations, and endless criticism, my failure to meet the demands my mind places on me? Is it even possible to free myself from this dark place?”

I tell you categorically that the answer is yes. Just as your mind has the power to submerge you in misery, so equally does it have the power to lift you out of despair, into hope and vision. Further, not only is it possible, it’s also not that hard. It may take some work, but the results will be phenomenal. Are you ready for the ride? Is it worth putting in the effort required to release yourself from fear and anxiety, to empower yourself to face the new year with hope and trust? If your answer is yes, then let me share a simple tool from the More to Life Program which you can use whenever you wish to move into a happier and more productive space.

I want you to identify an area in which you struggle and often fail to meet your own demands. It could be in your work, in a certain relationship, or in regard to a characteristic you possess which you don’t like – your weight, exercise, anything at all that has you coming down hard on yourself. It could be that you have a difficult relationship with a member of your family. You find yourself getting angry easily and expressing yourself harshly in response to their provocation. You miss the mark often, and you feel guilty and ashamed. Now listen to your inner dialogue, to what your mind is saying. Use the words, “I have to, I should, I must” as well as “I shouldn’t, I mustn’t … or else”. Here is an example from my own inner dialogue.

“I have to be thoughtful and sensitive, I have to be understanding. I should be the bigger person, I should bite my tongue, I shouldn’t give in to my impulses, I shouldn’t attack back, I should be calm, I should be more mature.” Or else, “I will be a destructive person. I will be a failure as a human being. I will be worthless.” This might sound familiar to you, or it might not. We each have our own set of demands for who we should be, how we should behave, and our own set of accusations about what it would mean if we fail to live up to our expectations of ourselves. But the pressure of these inner demands is felt by each of us in a similar way. As I hear these demands, these “shoulds” and “have tos” I feel heavy, tense, anxious, stressed, and generally miserable. I feel trapped and hopeless. And then I take a breath and ask myself whether any of this is actually true.

Do I have to be more sensitive and thoughtful? The answer is no. No-one is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to be more sensitive and thoughtful! I’m the only one demanding this of myself. And telling myself lies about what it would mean if I didn’t meet this demand. For example, my mind tells me that if I fail to be sensitive, it would mean that I’m an insensitive, hard hearted, and thoughtless person. Really? Is that truly who I am, fundamentally? No, absolutely not. In my essence, I’m a caring and kind person. My job is to let go of the accusations and lies that my mind is hurling at me, and to hold onto the truth. The way I do this is by knowing that there are no “have tos” or “shoulds”, there are only choices and truths. I’m now ready to battle my inner demons. I evaluate each demand and ask, “Is this actually true?” I end up saying “false” to each of the “have tos” that I hear in my mind, and in so doing, I free myself from their grip and destructive power. As I say, “false, false, false”, I clear a space for the real me to speak. Instead of “I have to”… “or else”, I move into choice and purpose – “I choose to … because”.

I choose to notice when I’m feeling triggered. I choose not to react immediately. I choose to take a breath, and consider my response. I choose to tell the truth and share my feelings. Why do I make these choices? Because I’m someone who wants to build relationships, who wants to grow in the moment of challenge, who wants to manage my own emotions and to reach out with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. And I want this because I’m fundamentally a deep and caring person, a person of value. As I breathe into these choices, I feel empowered and uplifted, capable and energised, willing and ready to implement these choices.

With this renewed sense of self-worth, I can stand before Hashem on the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, and make a firm commitment to bring my best self forward, to keep reaching for clarity and purpose. I can appear before my G-d, my master, and say, “Here I am, ready to do my best. My soul is connected closely to my maker. I stand straight and breathe deeply and freely.”

  • Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler is the co-founder and director of Koleinu, the helpline for victims of abuse in the South African Jewish community.

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Parshot/Festivals

Eli Kay was a modern-day Maccabee

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Eliyahu David Kay is a hero of the Jewish people. He was murdered in Jerusalem this week for only one reason: being a Jew. He was a proud Jew and a committed Zionist. He was a chayal boded (lone soldier). He came to Israel on his own, served in the Israel Defense Forces, and then began to make his life in Israel. His brothers, too, served as lone soldiers.

Eli was born to parents who live these ideals deeply, and who instilled them in their children. And he comes from a community in which the flame of Zionism burns brightly – and has done for generations.

Through the life he lived, Eli reminded us all of the original Zionist ideals and the incredible self-sacrifice of the early pioneers, many of whom gave their lives to protect and preserve the dream of a Jewish state.

Where does such idealism originate? It didn’t begin in Basel in 1897 but thousands of years before, at the very onset of Jewish history. In the famous opening words of parshat Lech Lecha, G-d tells Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, “Go – from your country, from your birthplace, from your father’s home – to the land I will show you.”

Abraham was called to leave the comfort and familiarity of the home he grew up in; to leave everything behind and journey to the land of Israel to fulfil his G-d-given role in Jewish history and destiny. Zionism begins right there, rooted in this original call from G-d; in our sense of mission and our very identity as a nation.

Eli Kay lived this Zionism, a Zionism rooted in the divine ideals of our people, a Zionism that transcends mere Jewish nationalism and speaks to something far deeper. The same idealism, the same noble-minded Zionism, of the founding father and mother of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah.

It’s the golden thread that runs throughout Jewish history, that connects one family of brave, selfless heroes to another. We are about to celebrate Chanukah, when we remember how Matityahu and his brothers, known as the Maccabees, a family of Torah scholars from a tribe of priests, single-handedly defeated the mighty Greek empire, reclaiming the land of Israel.

But this was more than a military victory. The Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem had been overrun by the Greek army and converted into a shrine for idol worship. And the Greeks had imposed not just political dominion over the Jewish people, but cultural and ideological hegemony too. In seeking to impose Hellenistic values and philosophy and to supplant Torah values and a Jewish way of life, the Greeks outlawed the performance of many crucial mitzvot, including Shabbat and circumcision. It was an attempt to subvert the entire Jewish value system.

Unlike the Romans who came after the Greeks, and who actually burnt the Temple to the ground, the Greeks were more intent on redirecting the Temple towards their own ideology and beliefs. They brought idols into its sacred precinct, and used the Temple and its facilities for pagan worship.

This wasn’t a fight for physical survival or a simple conflict over territory and resources. The Maccabees weren’t just political freedom fighters. This was a struggle for spiritual values and ideals.

That’s why our sages focused on the menorah and the miracle of the oil as the symbol of Chanukah rather than the miraculous military battle. The menorah – the rededication of the Temple to its holy service, the spiritual values and practices of the Jewish people, the light of Torah – is what the Maccabees were fighting for.

It’s deeply significant that the modern state of Israel chose the menorah as its official symbol. It reminds us that to be a Jew and to be a Zionist isn’t a simple nationalistic identity; that our connection to the land of Israel and to our people is rooted in our values and in our Torah.

The senseless murder of Eli Kay makes this clear. The cold-blooded gunning down of a tour guide doesn’t fit into a political or nationalistic narrative. Our struggle with those who would banish us from our land isn’t, in essence, a territorial battle but one of values. If this were a mere political dispute over borders, the conflict would have been resolved long ago.

Eli was murdered in the Old City of Jerusalem, on the way to daven at the Kotel, metres away from the very place the Maccabees entered the Temple. And with their same heroic spirit and clarity of vision and values, Eli sacrificed his life for the same cause.

May the memory of Eliyahu David ben Avraham Chaim be a blessing.

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Parshot/Festivals

Oily clash of civilisations in one lamp

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Most of us use candles for lighting the chanukiah, but our sages lauded the use of olive oil. The reasons for this are more revealing than you might have imagined. The oil used for salad dressing and good cooking turns out to be the focal point of the clash between ancient Greece and the Jewish people.

As you know, on Chanukah we celebrate the victory of our ancestors against foreign invaders. In 165 BCE, after three years of hostilities, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, finally drove out from Jerusalem the Greek-speaking occupying forces, led by the Selucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes.

But this wasn’t just a military victory of Israel’s Jews over the Greco-Syrians, it was also a cultural victory of Judaism over Hellenisation — the assimilation of Jews into ancient Greek culture.

Each year, we light the eight-branched chanukiah to remind us of the miraculous story of the small jar of unsullied olive oil that our ancestors discovered and used to rededicate the menorah in the ransacked Temple. A miracle occurred, and the menorah’s lights continued to burn for eight days until more pure oil could be produced.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that though any kind of oil is acceptable to use for the chanukiah lights, olive oil is most preferred (Shabbat 23a). Another scholar, Rabbah bar Nachmani, suggested that sesame oil might be better as its light is longer-lasting, but then he yields to Rabbi Yeshoshua because, he says, olive oil “produces a clearer light”.

Now that’s a surprise. Surely longer-lasting sesame oil would better remind us of the long-lasting little jug of oil? A second surprise is that no one cares to mention that it had always been olive oil that was used to light the actual menorah. As the Torah says, “Now you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure olive oil, pressed for illumination, to light the menorah continually.” (Exodus 27:20). Instead, what matters here seems to be the special clear light that’s unique to olive oil. What’s going on?

The continuation of the Talmud here is even more surprising. The discussion of Chanukah is interrupted so that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi can introduce another issue. He says that all oils are also fit for the production of the ink used to write our sacred scrolls, such as a Sefer Torah, but that, again, olive oil is most preferred.

As well as binding agents, this indelible black ink was produced by collecting the soot from the light of an olive oil lamp dissolved in yet more olive oil. So, although the ink for a modern Sefer Torah is now produced from alternative ingredients, the ideal Sefer Torah, as described by our Talmudic sages, clearly involved the copious use of olive oil to write every single letter. So it must be that this type of oil has some central importance to Jewish religious culture.

It turns out that olive oil was essential to Greek culture too. Athens, the ancient capital of Greece, took its name from Athena, the goddess of wisdom, because she introduced them to the olive tree.

The most common coin in ancient Greece depicted Athena on one side, wearing an olive wreath on her helmet, and an olive branch and owl (for wisdom) on the other. Even today, the Greek one euro coin has Athena and the olive branch on one side.

Olive oil is a staple of the Greek diet, and it has been an international supplier of this precious liquid for more than four millennia. Olive groves were considered sacred in ancient Greece, and Aristotle wrote that the olive tree was state-protected.

For more than a thousand years, the winners of the Olympic Games (which began in Olympia in 776 BCE) were crowned with a wreath made from an olive branch, and their reward was a lifetime’s supply of olive oil.

It’s no wonder then that olive oil-based lights became the symbol of Chanukah. That pure light represents the clash of civilisations between Greece and Israel. Essentially, the light symbolises wisdom. Its clarity meant you could read and study by it after dark, late into the night. And, just as gaining wisdom requires a huge investment of effort and time, so similarly, it takes 6kg of olives to produce just one litre of olive oil. So, olive oil represents the pursuit and attainment of wisdom for both cultures.

In fact, our sages had a deep respect for ancient Greek thought. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Chochmei Atunah (the sages of Athens) are all given some recognition in rabbinic literature, and there are hundreds of Greek words in the Talmud. The rabbis sensed that the Greeks, like them, took life seriously and wanted to understand the nature of this world as well as humanity’s role in it.

But Greek thought had a dark side too because it over-emphasised physical beauty both in nature and in the human body. It understood the great virtues — glory, wisdom, love, etc —as manifestations of multiple gods rather than coming from one creator. Many Jews were seduced by this, and a large part of the Chanukah story was the intra-communal conflict between loyal and Hellenised Jews. That was a failure of our people which we must never allow to be repeated.

Today, we can still appreciate the best of Western philosophy, an approach which is rooted in ancient Greek wisdom. Crucially, though, Chanukah must remind us to be ever dedicated to our own particular faith, a faith that gave us G-dly wisdom to live by.

The rabbis of the Talmud valued both Chochmah (wisdom from great minds) and Torah (wisdom from G-d). The precious lights of your chanukiah symbolise enlightenment, both worldly and divine. Rather than clashing, these can be unified in order to live a most meaningful life and “see the light”. May you have an enlightening Chanukah.

  • Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies.

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Parshot/Festivals

Finding your why, not your what

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Have you ever heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley? I hadn’t before listening to author and organisational consultant Simon Sinek talk about “How great leaders inspire action”.

In the early 20th century, Samuel Pierpont Langley was on the path to be the first person to invent a flying machine. He had every tool at his disposal – money, support, a Harvard education, and great market conditions. The New York Times followed him around everywhere and people were rooting for Langley. So why haven’t I heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?

A few hundred miles away in Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright had none of what we consider to be the “recipe for success”. They had no money. Not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education, including Orville and Wilbur. The New York Times didn’t follow them around.

So why did they succeed? Sinek suggests that the recipe for success is leading from the why. Most people and most organisations begin with what. They know what they want to do – what their product is and what they are doing. Most know how they will do it – what the strategy and plan is to achieve the what. But very few people know why they do what they do. As Sinek suggests, we should strive to “to answer why: what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why do you get out of bed?”

According to Sinek, this is the reason why Orville and Wilbur were successful. Langley was in pursuit of a result: being rich and famous. The Wright brothers were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. And on 17 December 1903, the Wright brothers took flight.

I was thinking about the ethic of leading from why as I thought of the Chanukah story. Yehuda Hamaccabee is actually remembered much more for his what. The First Book of Maccabees praises Yehuda’s valour and military talent, suggesting that these qualities made him a natural choice. We remember that he led a small army. As we recall in Al HaNisim in our liturgy:

מָסַרְתָּ גִבּורִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים (You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.)

He led the Jewish people to reclaim and rededicate the temple. But what we don’t talk about as much is that his reign of leadership was short lived. The priesthood in the aftermath of the Maccabean victory was corrupt and a puppet of the non-Jewish king.

Within two years, Judah the Maccabee was dead and many of his men had been executed. This is the likely reason why chazal were resistant to creating a tractate of Talmud dedicated to Chanukah. I know very little about his why.

Our celebration of Chanukah and the way in which we ritualise it has little to do with Yehuda Hamaccabee’s military victory. If it did, perhaps we would celebrate Chanukah by dressing up as soldiers, with swords and shields, and by re-enacting the victory.

Instead, we celebrate by lighting candles to commemorate the story of the oil. The miracle of one pach, one jar of shemen that lasted for eight days. This is the why of Chanukah.

In fact, the Gemara (Shabbat 21b) asks, “Mai Chanukah?” (What is Chanukah?) This is actually a surprising question. Nowhere else does the Gemara ask what. “Mai Pesach? Mai Sukkot?”

What’s more, people had already been celebrating Chanukah for hundreds of years by the time this question was asked. The question of the Gemara becomes even stranger once you realise that the Gemara has already discussed many details of the holiday. We have already learned about the basic mitzvah of lighting, the method of lighting, and the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as to whether we begin with eight candles and count down, or one and count up. And then suddenly, the Gemara asks, “Mai Chanukah?”

The question cannot be “What is Chanukah”, but why. Why do we celebrate? Rashi reformulates “Mai Chanukah”, and explains, “Al eyzeh nes? (What’s the underlying miracle?) Why did the rabbis establish Chanukah as a holiday?”

The Gemara answers that we celebrate Chanukah because they found “but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the high priest, but there was in it only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days.”

When we celebrate Chanukah, we are celebrating the courage and faith that the people had in searching for the one jar, and then against all odds, in lighting the menorah.

This is the why of the holiday. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how you want to be remembered and, therefore, how you will live your life. As Sinek points out, Martin Luther King Jr inspired thousands of followers not by his what, but his why. He gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

So on this Chanukah, let’s get back to your why. Find your inner flame, and let it dance boldly, lighting up our world. This is a world that needs all your light.

  • Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the co-founder and president of Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, also serves on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City.

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