Pondering Jew

Being Brainwashed

December 18, 2014 12:55 PM

I remember hearing the word when I was young, and it terrified me. I imagined an actual brain being scrubbed down on a washboard. That's what I thought of when I heard the word "brainwashed." But I also remember thinking that it probably wasn't so bad once they put the clean brain back in your skull.

No, I was told clearly that "brainwashing" is a bad thing done by bad people. There is nothing worse than being told what to think and what not to think.

So you can imagine what I thought every time I went into the homes of my new friends, the Lubavitchers. There wasn't one house that didn't have a large, prominently displayed picture of the Rebbe.

I know about people like you, I thought. You've been brainwashed.

Then there were other people I spoke to who only confirmed my suspicion. They would say, "We really like Lubavitch. We just have a problem with . . . the Rebbe."

I knew what they meant. I had never seen a leader so totally revered by his followers. Americans didn't put up pictures of the president, and I had never seen a rabbi’s picture anywhere in a Jewish home.

I liked their pride in being Jewish

There was only one problem: I really liked the Rebbe's followers, and they seemed to really like me. And I knew it wasn't because they wanted to brainwash me.

I liked their pride in being Jewish, the way they helped people, the fact that they talked about G‑d and the meaning of life. I understood that this was all inspired by the Rebbe, but it still seemed strange that their religious observance was so connected to a human being.

It didn't take me long to see that the Rebbe was someone people turned to when they wanted or needed something. What could be wrong with getting little help? Besides, the Rebbe didn't demand loyalty or any commitments in return. What did I have to lose, especially if I could get some help in the blessings department?

I took full advantage of the Rebbe's ability to look out for me when my husband Zev and I had a personal audience with the Rebbe in 1989. I was expecting a child, so naturally I wanted to ask the Rebbe for a blessing for a healthy baby. But my wish list kept getting bigger as I realized I should cover all my bases, grandchildren and great grandchildren included. You have to ask for what you want, right?

It's hard to remember when exactly it occurred to me that if I really wanted to be covered forever and ever, I needed to ask the Rebbe to bring Moshiach, the Messiah. But that's exactly what I did.

I said to the Rebbe, "If you would bring Moshiach, all of our prayers would be answered." The Rebbe answered that he was ready, but that he needed the cooperation of all the Jews around him.

I then asked the Rebbe for a blessing to work harder to bring the Moshiach as soon as possible. The Rebbe answered, "Yes, and as soon as possible, because Moshiach is ready to come tomorrow . . . or maybe the day after tomorrow."

Now, 25 years later, I am starting to understand that I got my personal charge from the Rebbe on that day.

We saw the Rebbe many times before he passed away in 1994 on the third day of Tammuz. Together with thousands of others, our family would line up for hours outside the Rebbe's office so that each of us could receive a blessing from the Rebbe, along with a dollar that we would then exchange for another dollar to give to tzedakah. Little by little, I realized that the Rebbe was more than a holy intervenor, that he was also a spiritual guide whose teachings could help me clean out not just my brain, but my soul.

I only have one real recollection of hearing the Rebbe speak from his headquarters in 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. The women were standing on benches, pressed together, with only our heads facing forward. It was so crowded that your feet didn't have to touch the floor for you to be held up. I couldn't see the Rebbe, and he spoke in Yiddish, so I couldn't understand, but none of that mattered. I knew that it was good for me to be there.

I knew that it was good for me to be there

I remember asking the woman next to me what the Rebbe was saying. She answered, "When you give something to someone else, it should be better than what you keep for yourself." So this was how the Rebbe was trying to brainwash me. If I want to get clean, "good enough" is not good enough when it comes to doing for others.

You can imagine how often I hear those words resonating in me, how many times over the years I have deliberated over my two bags of mandel bread, forcing my hand to give away the bigger one because I know that this is what the Rebbe wants me to do.

And that's just for starters. I don't always do what the Rebbe wants. I know that, but I'm committed to trying.

And I know one other thing: I haven't been sorry yet.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.

The Unlimited Trust Fund

December 7, 2014

When I was becoming observant, I used to try to explain all my amazing revelations to the people I was closest to, but quickly saw how uncomfortable it made them, so I stopped. Well, let's just say I tried to stop, lessening the frequency with which I bombarded and beseeched them.

"Show me, don't tell me" was the advice I got many years ago from Gail, my best friend from college, after I sent her an impassioned letter about the truth of Torah. When I told her about the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, she said that it was like I was speaking in French. When I suggested that she light Shabbat candles, that it was a sacred time for Jewish women to thank G‑d, she responded with her characteristic candor: "Thank G‑d for what? Another lousy week?" (I don't think "lousy" was actually her word choice, but you get the idea.)

Show me, dont tell me

I didn't know what to say to her then, and I wouldn’t know what to say now, to her or to anyone whose life hasn't lent itself to a relationship with G‑d. But I do know one thing: G‑d really needs better PR.

Why are calamities known as "acts of G‑d," while all the wonderful miracles that happen every day are known as "Mother Nature"?

No wonder people don't think they believe in G‑d; they've just stopped talking to Him. Who wants to believe in a G‑d who only wants to trip us up so that He can punish us?

Is it better to believe in nothingness or a not-so-intelligent designer? At least these kinds of thoughts let the true, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-everything G‑d off the hook for all the suffering in the world. And that's before we talk about the Jewish experience. Let's face it, we could look at our collective history and make an excellent case that G‑d may indeed love the Chosen People, but He sure has had an interesting way of showing it.

And yet, there is something that makes Jews still want to be Jewish, even in today's open society.

Such is the power of the Jewish soul that burns within.

Superficially, a mitzvah may seem like a restriction, but it shares the same root as the Hebrew word, tzavta, “connection.” The observance of mitzvahs connect us, in the most mundane aspects of our lives, with G‑d, helping to turn up the flame in our relationship with Him.

My early conversations with G‑d were not always so pleasant. After my initial religious enthusiasm wore off, I remember feeling like I was doing Him a favor much of the time. I didn't particularly like to cook, but I had to in order to keep kosher. Passover preparations felt like torture. And while I was inspired by the selflessness and kindness part of the mitzvah package, trying to attain these qualities proved harder than it looked.

But I kept on talking the talk and walking the walk. And G‑d and I became closer as I saw that He was right about everything. Especially when it came to His unlimitedness and how I could, and should, tap into that in order to be truly happy. Finally, we were getting somewhere.

One of the ways G‑d wants us to connect to Him is through bitachon, trust. It's straightforward to explain, though it is meant to be a service (read: hard to do). I only learned about it in detail a couple of years ago and was amazed that G‑d had embedded such a force in the world. It can only be a good thing to try to share it, even though you might not believe that it's true.

But here goes.

When a person, any person, attaches to G‑d from the depths of his or her heart, certain that G‑d is the source of everything and is all good, a suprarational bond with G‑d is forged. When one has that complete and sincere trust, that bitachon, then—regardless of that person's merit—G‑d bestows revealed good upon that person, in a way that is also beyond the natural order.

I kept on talking the talk and walking the walk

This is not to say that we simply "trust" and expect miracles. G‑d has set up the world so that He works through natural channels. The farmer has to plant in order for the crops to grow. But a farmer with bitachon understands that it is G‑d, not the sun or the rain or his farming talent that make the crops grow. G‑d wants us to work through nature, but ultimately, to trust in Him totally for the desired results.

In other words, it is a very un-Jewish thing to worry!

But let’s be honest. Historically speaking, people have had reasons to worry—especially Jewish people. Which is why it takes work to access this unlimited trust. Still, G‑d’s gift of bitachon belongs to all Jews eternally, and the whole world wins when we tap into it.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
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