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Unbreakable Faith

January 31, 2010

A few weeks ago, Shavei Shomron resident Rabbi Meir Chai was cold-bloodedly murdered by terrorists as he was driving his car near his home.

His teenage son spoke at the funeral—words that bespoke super-human courage and faith.

After reading this brave boy's words, I couldn't help but wonder: how could such a young boy demonstrate this inner fortitude in a moment of so much anguish?

One of the most dramatic scenes in our nation's history unfolded as Moses descended Mt. Sinai holding the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. As he witnesses his people worshipping the Golden Calf, he throws down the tablets, shattering to pieces the priceless covenantal agreement between the Jewish people and their G‑d.

The commentaries offer various reasons as to why Moses broke the tablets. One of the explanations given is that Moses was attempting to spare the nation of G‑d's wrath, by destroying the binding contract that contained the holy pact that His nation flagrantly breached.

Rashi (on Exodus 34:1) explains:

This can be compared to a king who went abroad and left his betrothed with the maidservants. Because of the immoral behavior of the maidservants, she acquired a bad reputation. Her "bridesman" [the person appointed to defend the bride should any problems arise] arose and tore up her marriage contract. He said, "If the king decides to kill her, I will say to him, 'She is not yet your wife.'"

But in breaking the tablets, Moses was also perhaps trying to engrave on his people's psyche an essential message that would remain with them for all eternity.

Moses was telling them that due to their grave sin their "contractual agreement" with G‑d had been violated and hence shattered. G‑d was now effectively freed from any commitment to them.

Yet Moses wanted them to see and understand that though the tablets had been shattered, G‑d will not desert them. Even without any "contract," they will remain His chosen people. G‑d's connection to the Jewish people is beyond contractual agreements, beyond circumstances and bad choices, and even beyond logic itself.

It is an essential unbreakable bond of love, for all times and places.

And perhaps in doing so, Moses was beseeching the Jewish people to reciprocate in kind, by rededicating themselves to G‑d for all times as His chosen people—even when it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. Even in circumstances when it is not rationally beneficial...

Even if it seems that He isn't keeping His promises to us… Even if it entails a more exacting code of moral behavior… Even if the nations of the world hate us for it… And even if it means reaching deep within our souls to access a tiny ember of a flickering flame of faith.

Our people understood the lesson of Moses' dramatic act. It became etched into the very fabric of our being. It is a message that has helped us to respond to G‑d in kind, even during the most trying times.

Rabbi Meir Chai was described as a "special man who never said a bad word about his fellows, only good."

"Father!" his sixteen-year-old son Eliyahu cried out emotionally at the funeral, "Father in heaven! What would we do without faith in You?!"

Chai's firstborn continued: "If we want to commemorate my father, we must increase our Torah study.

"Abba (father) wanted Torah. Abba wanted greater observance of mitzvot.

"Abba would not want that we should go out and take revenge. That would be the natural solution. But that's not our solution.

"We are Jews. We are holy. We are G‑d's chosen people."

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Is Anybody Listening?

Have You Had Your Daily Dose of Empathy?

January 24, 2010

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives."

-– Stephen Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"

Over fifty years ago, my parents were sent by the Rebbe to serve as his emissaries here, in Toronto, Canada. Though Toronto is a flourishing Jewish community today, the spiritual terrain that awaited them then was far bleaker. Their mission was to reach out to the Jewish community, and enrich spiritual life by opening more avenues of Jewish education and observance.

In addition to the adjustment of newly married life and starting a family, my mother had a hard time adjusting to her new role in the community. She found herself in an alien culture far from home, needing to learn a foreign language, living under extreme financial constraints.

During her visits to New York, my mother was privileged to have private audiences with the Rebbe on many occasions. Since her father was living thousands of miles away in Israel and her mother had tragically passed away soon before her marriage, my mother felt especially close to the Rebbe, whom she regarded as a surrogate parent. She spoke candidly with him about the hurdles of adjusting to her new life.

The Rebbe would listen, full of compassion. And then, after acknowledging her struggles, he added simply, "Who is to say that somewhere else would be better?"

As a child, I often heard this story repeated by my mother.

To this day, so many years later, my mother remembers the Rebbe's response and how these words carried her through the ensuing years, helping to lighten her burden. Whenever she felt overwhelmed by her situation, she reminded herself that there was no guarantee that she wouldn't be meeting similar or harsher challenges elsewhere.

The Rebbe showed empathy. He listened with total concentration and acknowledged what my mother was experiencing, from her frame of reference. He didn't dismiss her concerns but felt at one with her suffering. He allowed her to fully express her frustrations, without any judgement or condemnation. And only after identifying with her did he venture to suggest a perspective that broadened her own, allowing her to see beyond her difficulty to a more enriched outlook that gave her some comfort and direction.

Gregorio Billikopf, who specializes in Labor Management for the University of California Davis, uses the analogy of the Panama Canal—which he crossed many times in his youth traveling from his home in Chile to New York—for effective empathetic listening.

The Panama Canal was built for ships to travel easily between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The special challenge involved in the construction of the canal was that the landmass that separates the oceans – and therefore the canal that would be built upon it – is well above sea level. How do we hoist ships up into this canal and then lower them back down on the other side?

Therefore the canal was built with "locks" that serve as water lifts. The ship goes through a set of gates into a lock chamber where more water pours in through valves, thus elevating the ship to the level of the Canal. The ship crosses the Continental Divide, and is then lowered back to sea level on the opposite side of the isthmus in a lock with lowered water level.

A suffering individual conversing with another who is not in an identical emotional strait is comparable to the water level behind a set of closed locks being much higher than that of the next compartment. With disparate water levels, there is a build-up of pressure behind the closed locks, and if one were to open the gates, the flow would be unidirectional. Similarly, one who is restraining his emotions needs a release, and when that release comes, he is unlikely to be receptive to constructive input.

The role of the listener is to allow the individual to open the lock gates. When he does, the water will gush out. During this venting process, there is still too much pressure for a person to consider other perspectives. Only after the water level has levelled off does it begin to flow evenly back and forth.

The role of the listener is to help empty the large reservoirs of emotion, anger, stress, frustration and other negative feelings until the individual can see more clearly.

This ultimately is the magical effect of empathy. It has been proven to have even physical, medicinal value.

In "Living Beyond Limits," David Spiegel documents an experiment at Stanford University on women with advanced breast cancer who were placed in support groups. By then, the cancer had spread throughout their bodies and there was little or nothing doctors could do.

The women found that the only place they could openly discuss their feelings was at their support group. Their families and friends held such dread talking about the illness, but with other women facing the same harsh reality, they were able to cry and weep, to rage against the unfairness, and be utterly free to express their emotions without guilt. They were also were able to show care and empathy for each other by offering emotional support, hugs and tears.

To the surprise of the physicians who had set up the groups, there was a powerful medical effect on the women in these groups. These women lived twice as long as comparable breast cancer patients who did not have such groups, an average of thirty-seven months versus nineteen months.

A human being has the need to be understood deeply. We all want to be appreciated and recognized for who we are and what we experience. The quality of feeling "known" is a powerful healing force.

Even at the age of two, toddlers will begin to display the fundamental behavior of empathy by comforting or showing concern for others. By four years, most children have the ability to understand that other people may have differing beliefs.

By showing empathy, we emulate the G‑d-like attribute of caring for others by being sensitive to their situations and offering our compassion.

The healing power of empathic support helped prolong the lives of women with life-threatening illnesses. It provides just as much comfort and solace for all types of suffering, traumatic experiences or emotional wounds.

Who is to say that somewhere else will be better?

Somewhere else may not offer a better alternative to our situation, but someone else listening and understanding may.

Empathy is a priceless gift. Let that someone be you.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Once Upon a Customer

January 15, 2010

While looking around our Manhattan photo store, my customer marveled, "I love the human landscape in your store, it's beautiful!" The flow of people in our retail photo shop, whether a gentle stream or a raging river, is always remarkable. Yet these big numbers are made up of interesting and unique individuals from all around the world. Yes, everybody has a story. Yes, everyone is interesting if you know how to smile and ask the right questions.

I did not know that my job at our photo store would transport me to China with counter-revolutionary journalists who risk their lives trying to give their people hope; to Antarctica with preservation activists; to exotic locales I have never heard of with in-the-know locals; to ponder the future of education with the president of the New School; to discuss medical research with top specialists; to analyze the human condition with people who survived extreme illness; to talk about art and the photo world with published and award-winning photographers.

If you open up just a little, a conversation about a camera product can take you anywhere without the expense and burden of air travel, or even further, into a stranger's life and heart.

Once, roaming the aisles looking for customers to help, I encountered an elderly lady from Europe. I became her guide. She wanted a simple pouch for her G10, something unstructured. I showed her a Zing neoprene pouch. As she touched it and held it up to her eyes for closer inspection, she exclaimed, "It's fantastic!" She wanted me to show her another one, just to compare, which I did. As she saw the other choice she exclaimed with resonant voice, "No, the other one, the other one is fantastic!"

I show her the color options on my computer screen, she makes her decision, and we wait. The pouch comes; I show her the color to see if she is satisfied - but also to see what word she will use. In an exotic accent laden with emotion, she exclaims again, "Yes, it's fantastic!" I couldn't hold myself back from remarking, with a gentle smile on my face, "It's so refreshing to hear somebody use the word fantastic on a $12 pouch, or anything for that matter. Most people just say it's ok, or it's good, but never have I heard any customer say it's fantastic!"

She smiled, and surprised me with her unexpected answer. "It's how you look at life. If you see life as a gift, you appreciate everything, even a small thing. If not, everything is miserable and gray." Instantly inspired and taken aback, I figured she must be a therapist of some kind who achieved this appreciation after many years of work. I asked her, "Are you a therapist?" She replied, "Thank G‑d, I'm not; therapists and psychologists can cut people up with analysis. I am an artist! I try to add beauty into this world!"

A simple purchase, an inspiring encounter. Her lens offers a view of the world which I wish more people could look through, looking at their life and exclaiming with appreciation about every little thing, "It's fantastic!"

Another European customer who happened to publish photo books told me, "I believe a photograph is not finished until it is shared with others. Then, and only then, is it complete."

Our stories are not complete until shared with others...

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Snapple Facts

January 12, 2010

I was sitting at my desk, engrossed in a project, when I poured myself some Snapple iced tea. From the corner of my eye, I noticed the "Snapple Fact" printed beneath the bottle's cap, and for a reason I'm still unsure of, I took a moment to read the following piece of trivia:

Snapple Fact #831: Six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15 to 100 times a day.

Pretty neat piece of information.

(The only thing I have to add to it is that I'm certain that parents of six-year-olds laugh much more than people who are not parents of children in that age group. And the more time parents spend with their children, the more they laugh...)

But why? Why do children laugh so much more often than their adult counterparts?

I think that perhaps it's because kids read more Snapple caps than adults, who are too busy with what they are doing to be bothered to take notice.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Why Hasn’t the Self-Esteem Movement Given Us Self-Esteem?

January 10, 2010

"Great job, Princess! Look at how realistically you drew that girl, paying such close attention to the details on the features of her face," Sara praises her four-year-old budding artist for the stick figure she scribbled.

Sara is very careful to validate her child. By dispensing specific praise rather than just a generic comment like "beautiful," Sara hopes to build her child's self-esteem.

Ever since the late 60s when Nathaniel Branden defined self-esteem, parenting and psychology experts have been touting its importance.

Branden saw self-esteem as a basic human need that is indispensible to normal and healthy self-development. It provides us with a sense of our own ability and competence and enables us to grow, develop and successfully deal with the challenges of our lives.

Self-esteem, so the theory goes, will give us the confidence to make our own independent choices, based on our morals and understanding of right from wrong.

And so, as parents, we all jump on the self-esteem wagon making sure to encourage every act that our little prince or princess performs, noting particular aspects of their talent with especial relish. After all, what parent wouldn't want to equip their child with such necessary tools of autonomy and independence?

So, is all this self-esteem providing the desired results? Are we raising children who are more confident in their ability to make their own choices?

A brief study of the writings of the great European founders of psychology shows how our lack of autonomy and independence in our way of thinking and acting has been with us for a long time.

Ten years before Freud's first book was published, Nietzsche proclaimed that the disease of man in his time was that "his soul had gone stale," "he is fed up," and that all about there is a "bad smell...the smell of failure." Kierkegaard, too, who wrote the first known book about anxiety, depression and despair, felt that these maladies resulted from the individual's "self-estrangement," an estrangement of one man from another and ultimately man's alienation from himself. Freud, as well, describes the neurotic personality of the late nineteenth century as one suffering from fragmentation, blocking off of awareness, and a loss of autonomy.

None of these three thinkers was directly influenced by the other, but they all speak of fragmentation, alienation, a lack of autonomy and estrangement.

More than a century has since elapsed. Has the self-esteem movement helped alleviate these problems?

In The Discovery of Being, a fundamental book on the philosophy of existential psychology, Rollo May writes about every person's need to become in touch with his "sense of being":

"When we push to the extreme and know everything about drives, instincts and mechanisms, we have everything except being. Being is that which remains."

May explains that a sense of being cannot be reduced to social and ethical norms. It is something that is "beyond good and evil...It is precisely not what others have told me I should be but is the one Archimedes point I have to stand on...A sense of being gives the person a basis for self-esteem which is not merely the reflection of others' views about him. For if your self-esteem must rest in the long run on social validation, you have not self-esteem but a more sophisticated form of social conformity."

To further explain this experience of acquiring one's own "sense of being," he presents a case history of an intelligent woman who had been born as an illegitimate and unwanted child and was often reminded of that during her sad childhood. After undergoing several months of therapy she describes how she "came to a contact and acceptance with 'I Am,' which once gotten hold of, gave me the experience 'Since I Am, I have the right to be.

"'What is this experience like?' She articulately explains. 'It is a primary feeling... It is the experience of my own aliveness...It is my saying, "I Am, therefore I think, I feel, I do..." It is like a child in grammar finding the subject of the verb in a sentence—in this case the subject being one's own life span. It is ceasing to feel like a theory towards one's self...'"

May calls this the "I am" experience—the emergence and strengthening of the "sense of being" in a person that justifies his right to his own autonomy.

What these great thinkers of psychology seem to be saying is that a healthy self-esteem and "sense of being" should provide an individual with that sense of "I am" and "therefore I have the right to be." This should all lead to feeling of self-love and result in my autonomy to be a unique and original being.

It should. But it hasn't.

"Patient after patient I've seen (especially those from Madison Avenue) chooses to give up his power in order not to be ostracized," May asserts. "The real threat is not to be accepted, to be thrown out of the group, to be left solitary and alone... One's own meaning becomes meaningless because it is borrowed from somebody else's meaning...

"Perhaps the most ubiquitous and ever-present form of the failure to confront nonbeing in our day is in conformism, the tendency of the individual to let himself be absorbed in the sea of collective responses and attitudes to become swallowed up...with the corresponding loss of his own awareness, potentialities and whatever characterizes him as a unique and original being. "

May's diagnosis of the problems of our times sound so reminiscent to those discussed by the thinkers of the last century. The outward symptoms may have changed, but the underlying cause is the same.

Despite our society's growing awareness of the importance of self-esteem, today more than ever we are held hostage by the iron grips of conformity. Despite our emphasis on developing an independent sense of being, our definitions of ourselves are not coming from within—but are more than ever defined by others.

Rather than developing a sense of "I am," too many of us are feeling "I am—only if others tell me so."

So maybe we need to revisit how to acquire this "sense of being" and how this healthy sense of self should lead us to important conclusions about our self-identities.

There seems to be a missing piece in the equation that perhaps is terrain that psychology is not equipped to explore.

How does "I am" automatically equal "I have a right to be"?

Why am I?

I am because G‑d made me.

And through His act of creating me, G‑d, in essence declared my inalienable right to be. I am and therefore I have a right to be because I am G‑d's creation.

G‑d who is the source of all goodness created me and therefore I am also good. At the core of my being is a goodness—a goodness that is ever-present whether I choose to access it or act upon it or not. It is a goodness that is deserving of being and deserving of love. It is a goodness that is independent of my abilities, talents and choices—and independent of someone else validating me, or my abilities, or my talents or even my right to be.

I am simply because G‑d chose me to be.

I have the right to be because my being here is a testimony of G‑d's desire for me to be here.

Only with G‑d drawn into the picture can we hope to convey to ourselves and our children our right to be, our right to self-love, and our right to make our own independent decisions based on who we are or want to become, without being shackled by the grip of social conformism.

"Great job, Princess! G‑d loves you! And look at the talent that He has given you..."

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

How a Quarter of a Second Can Change Your Life

January 3, 2010

You feel it coming. The urge is there and you just can't stop yourself. Or can you?

You've had an argument with a co-worker. It begins with a genuine difference of opinion. You feel he isn't taking your point of view seriously. You fume about how he never does. It escalates to insults. Then it reaches its crescendo by leaving a poisoned atmosphere punctured with angry yelling or suppressed fury.

The pattern is the same, each time and every time, no matter how many times you vowed it would end differently.

Or, you're feeling particularly dejected and unloved. Your project didn't materialize as you had hoped. Your friends didn't come through for you this time. You feel alone and sad. You need comfort.

Somehow you find yourself in your kitchen…the bar of chocolate in your hands. Before you even notice, the chocolate has disappeared. And you don't even remember chewing it.

Where did you go wrong? Why do we so often feel like a machine that's been triggered into unrestrained motion? Like chapters of our lives are being played out from a script that cannot be altered?

Dr. Benjamin Libet1 is a neurosurgeon who made dramatic discoveries regarding the human brain that also shed light on our ability to break habitual patterns.

Brain surgery patients are not given general anesthesia because the brain has no nerve endings and feels no pain. Throughout surgery, neurosurgeons communicate with their patients asking them to speak or move a part of their body. This lets the surgeon know that all is well and he hasn't, G‑d forbid, inadvertently strayed into the wrong area of the brain.

Libet took advantage of this opportunity. He used a special clock that tracked time in the thousandths of a second, and asked his patients to move their finger while he monitored the electrical activity in the brain that regulated that movement. He noted when the brain actually began the activity that would culminate in the finger being moved.

Through his experiment, Libet was able to identify the moment of intent to move the finger, the moment of awareness of that intent, and the moment of actual action.

Libet discovered that the part of the brain that regulates movement began its activity a quarter of a second before people became aware of the intent to move the finger. In other words, the brain begins to activate an impulse prior to the dawning in our awareness of the intent to make that very action. Once the patient was aware of the intent to move, there was another quarter second before the movement began.

In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi develops a holistic approach to leading a psychologically and spiritually fulfilling life, in which the "mind rules over the heart." The mind and intellect must play the leading role in our decision making.

When we allow ourselves to be guided by our emotions, by the flurry of automatic responses to situations, we begin a chain of reactions that culminates in our succumbing to our lowest instincts. In the words of William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, "Everyone knows how panic is increased by flight, and how giving way to the symptoms of anger increase the passions themselves. Refuse to express a passion and it dies. Count to ten before venting your anger and its occasion seems ridiculous." Or as the Chassidic masters succinctly put it, "Silence is the antidote for anger."2

Can the ordinary "everyman" realistically expect to conduct his every act mindfully? Can we stop the downward spiral of reactions, triggered by anger, fear, neediness or resentment?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman says that it is possible, and prescribes a regimen that every person can use to achieve this goal. It is a life long journey to harness our emotions and to contain our destructive responses—but it is the accomplishment of this goal that defines the human being.

What I found interesting about Libet's conclusions is that the ability of the "mind to rule over the heart" doesn't end at the moment when the "final" decision is made to take action. Even after that point, if we can foster a level of mindfulness and awareness, we have a quarter of a second to "veto" the decision and stop the chain of automatic sequences.

We still have a quarter of a second to rewrite the script.

So, what about you and your argumentative co-worker? Who knows…by tapping into this magical quarter of a second, you may even set off a whole new relationship of mutual respect and appreciation…

Now that would be an occasion to celebrate with chocolate.


Behavioral and Brain Sciences, volume 8, 1985, pp. 529-566. Dr. Libet spent a lifetime refining his theories of mind, brain and consciousness. Interestingly, though many philosophers opine that his conclusions indicate that "free will" might not exist in humans at all, Dr. Libet disagreed. To the contrary, he argued that his experiments showed that if his subjects were told not to move a finger, or to stop moving it, their conscious will would maintain complete control—"could veto it and block performance of the act," as he described it. "These discoveries have profound implications for the nature of free will, for individual responsibility and guilt," he wrote.


First discourse in Sefer Hamaamarim 5659.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
Often we need a break from our daily routine. A pause from life to help us appreciate life.

A little pat on the back to let us know when we're on track. A word of encouragement to help us through those bleak moments and difficult days.

Sometimes, we just yearn for some friendship and camaraderie, someone to share our heart with. And sometimes we need a little direction from someone who's been there.

So, take a short pause from the busyness of your day and join Chana Weisberg for a cup of coffee.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
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