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You, The Miracle Worker

March 21, 2010

Do you believe in miracles?

Take a look in the mirror.

If a miracle is the ability to transcend nature, your reflection should be proof enough.

That there is a Jewish face looking back at you, after so many centuries of pogroms, expulsions, holocausts and massacres—not to mention the lures of assimilation—is beyond natural.

Even more of a wonder is that the Jewish face looking back at you still has a desire to be Jewish and live as a Jew.

But the miracle that is looking back at you is more than a uniquely Jewish phenomenon.

Every morning people wake up with hope, faith and optimism that today will be a better day. We awake with the belief that justice and goodness will prevail, despite the news that bombards us with overwhelming misery, hopelessness, despair and unfairness.

Take a look in the mirror and see that miracle. See someone transcending the natural ways of our world.

Where does this supernatural leap of faith come from?

In his seminal philosophical work, the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi elaborates on the fundamental existential question of why G‑d created our world. An issue tackled by many of the greatest Jewish philosophers—why G‑d chose to create a lowly physical world where the materiality almost completely obscures the G‑dly, spiritual light.

In a nutshell, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that G‑d desired to create for Himself "a dwelling place, here in our nether, physical world." It is precisely in this spiritual darkness that feels so devoid of G‑dliness and goodness that every G‑dly act that we do shines so brightly. It is here that every act of goodness and connection with our Creator becomes all the more significant. The darkness, challenges and difficulties are precisely what makes our world such a special place for G‑dliness to shine—because of it being such an antithesis and hindrance to spirituality.

So, we overcome the heaviness of our material existence by permeating it with G‑dly significance, but does the physicality itself have any intrinsic value, other than its lowliness which we need to battle and uplift?

At the end of his life, Rabbi Schneur Zalman revealed (in Igeret HaKodesh, epistle 20) a positive element to our physical world, a quality it possesses that no other spiritual realm – no matter how lofty – can lay claim to.

Our physical world is a creation ex nihilo, something from absolute nothingness. There is no natural progression from an infinite, spiritual G‑d to a finite, material world; the creation of our world requires an absolute, total and infinite leap. The radiance of G‑d's light can create infinite progressions of spiritual realities – or "spiritual worlds" – as offshoots of His light, but there is no natural progression to a finite physical world.

And the power to create ex nihilo rests with G‑d Himself. Only He, His very essence that is, has this ability to make something out of absolute nothing.

Therefore, it is precisely in this physical reality that G‑d's infinite essence is most manifest. (Or to be more accurate, G‑d's essence that equally transcends the qualities of finiteness and infiniteness.) Ours is a world whose very existence is utterly dependent, at every moment, on His quintessential essence, just in order for it to "be."

Our world is not only a place of darkness where every act of G‑dliness illuminates the dense materiality with a spiritual light. Our world is actually the place for the greatest expression of G‑d's essential "self."

And perhaps it is from this connection to G‑d's infinite essence that sustains our world that each of us finds the power in our own little worlds to transcend our natures and make our own leaps of faith. Perhaps it is this connection to the Infinite that allows us to wake up in overwhelming darkness and tap into illogical hope and miraculous courage.

Look at the faces around you and you will see people who face another bleak day and yet see light. Finite humans who witness overwhelming suffering and yet find the infinite strength to bring new life into our world. Beings who face another insurmountable challenge and yet discover a fortitude that they never knew they had, and an irrational optimism that things will get better.

Look in the mirror and you will see a nation who experiences a long and difficult exile and yet nurtures the seed of faith for an unnatural redemption.

And as you do, you will witness a self that seeks to attach itself to Something miraculous, Something beyond our reality, and Something infinitely transcendental that is inherent in each and every one of us.

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.

If You Could Speak at Your Own Funeral, What Would You Say?

A Tribute to My Aunt

March 14, 2010

My aunt, Sara Rochel Schochet, passed away recently, just days before the joyous holiday of Purim.

My aunt was 65 years old. She was an active woman, a teacher and a mentor par excellence. She died suddenly, without notice or warning. One moment she was planning for her many commitments, the next she suffered an aneurysm, leading to her death.

The aftermath is, of course, tragic for her family and all whom she touched with her warmth and wisdom. Death is always painful, but all the more difficult to digest when it comes so suddenly, without any prior preparation or final words of parting.

Thousands attended her funeral in Los Angeles, from where she was flown to Israel, to be buried in her birthplace. Her friends, students and acquaintances, the many who turned to her for advice, help or compassion, all came to say their final goodbyes to this dignified, noble woman, and to share the tragedy with her loved ones – my uncle, a renowned personality and Rosh Yeshiva, as well as her six children, all educators.

The pain was still raw, yet my uncle courageously chose to address the many present. It was obvious how difficult the task was for him, and so unlike his usual calm demeanor, he broke down throughout. But my uncle felt compelled to speak. He needed to do this for her, as his last gesture of love.

My aunt and uncle live on the West Coast. Due to the distance, we saw them only occasionally. But even from the few memories I have of my aunt, my uncle's words resonated. As is Chabad custom, he was not eulogizing her, but rather speaking the way she would have, conveying what would have been her last parting words had she been given the opportunity.

There are those who sermonize throughout their lives on how they expect others to live. There are others who have the opportunity to prepare for their end and share their wishes. And then there are those, like my aunt, who, through the way they lived, leave a legacy of who they were and what they valued.

My aunt had the rare combination of being a woman of strong values and noble character, but who was also gracious and welcoming. She wouldn't bend her beliefs, but didn't judge others for theirs. Now, in death, by my uncle sharing what he felt would be her parting message, she continued to teach, by example, what she wanted others to strive to be.

Below are condensed points from my uncle's talk, essential messages for us to contemplate in our own lives:

1) I'm sorry: As human beings, we all make mistakes. Sometimes we say things we shouldn't. Sometimes we forget to say things we should. How often do we think that we have time to apologize for a hurt? There will always be a tomorrow… or so we think…

My uncle asked all those present to recite the following words with him, words we say nightly before retiring to bed, on behalf of his wife, to forgive her for any possible misdeed. "Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who has angered me or vexed me or sinned against me, either physically or financially, against my honor or anything else that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed…"

2) Thank You: How often do we take things for granted? We neglect to express our appreciation for big, or little, things. My aunt did not get the opportunity to thank those who had showed support, kindness, love and help. On behalf of his wife, my uncle thanked all those who helped her, the doctors and members of Hatzolah (the Jewish volunteer ambulance service), those who prayed or took upon themselves good resolutions on her behalf.

3) Unite: Unfortunately, we are no strangers to tragedy. Every community suffers at some point. Whenever my aunt attended a funeral and saw people come together in grief, she cried, "Why do we see everyone unite only when it comes to sorrow?!"

We are all unique human beings. We may have different customs or a different emphasis in the way we serve G‑d. But, as Jews, we have one Torah and one G‑d. Our long, difficult exile began due to senseless hatred and divisiveness. We need to put away our pettiness, and unite in joy. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, wrote that the obligation to love your fellow applies even to those whom we never met. Nowadays, we need to focus on loving those whom we do know and bear a grudge against.

4) Retain Your Dignity: Our inner struggles are not only about particular actions, but are struggles of identity. My aunt would have said to her students, "Know that you are daughters of royalty, chains in the link of our heritage since the beginning of time. Act and dress to reveal your inner dignity, and to demonstrate your pride in your birthright. Even in the darkest moments of exile, we must not forget who we are."

5) Treasure Your Heritage: To my aunt's six children she would have said, "I'm sorry that I'm leaving you… I didn't have riches in this world, but you were my treasures, my nachas, and my happiness. Remember what I tried to give you. I tried to make a life for each of you—to show you the beauty of a Shabbat, to create the mood and atmosphere of each special holiday. I tried to give to you what I received from my own parents. Please don't forget this! Give this message over to your children. I will always be there for you, but you must also be there for me."

6) Keep Strong: We are taught that all G‑d does is out of kindness, for our own good. This long and harsh exile and even the most inexplicable tragedies are, on some level, for our good. Though these do not feel like kindnesses, we must believe they are.

Strengthen yourself! Use this as an opportunity to grow.

All the time limits for the redemption have arrived and passed, but, unfathomably, G‑d wants just a little bit more from us. Do that little bit more. And then let us ask that the long awaited time finally arrive, when tears will be removed from every face and when His goodness will be openly manifest.

Most of us are not comfortable to contemplate our end. The fragility of life makes us feel vulnerable and we avoid the topic of death—or anything that reminds us of it—at all costs. Yet none of us know when our sojourn in this world will expire and when we may take our last breath.

Occasionally it can be positive to reflect: What would you want your last words in this world to be? What message would you want to share with your loved ones? What legacy would you want to impart about what is precious to you and what values you hold dear?

A depressing thought? Perhaps. Or maybe an empowering one.

One that can actually change the direction or focus of how we choose to live our lives.

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.

Human in 7½ Pounds

March 7, 2010

How fast time passes… It's almost a month now since you, my first grandchild, were born and I acquired the exalted title "Bubby."

Born a week before the yahrtzeit of our Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, wife of the Rebbe, you were named Chaya Mushka. Chaya means life and as I hold you in my arms, I think about how to me and our family you epitomize the torch of life being passed from one generation to the next. I feel blessed to see you—and even more so to witness my own parents, your great-grandparents, seeing you—the beginning of a new chain in a circle that holds within it our four generations of precious life.

The attention that a newborn draws is quite amazing. Strangers stop to coo and smile, incredulous at the miraculous gift of life contained so compactly in this beautiful little wonder. Tiny fingers and toes…such a perfectly small nose and delicate mouth…such a wondrous miniature replica of every part of a full-grown human being, contained in a mere seven-and-a-half pounds.

My dear granddaughter, as I stare at your perfectly formed tiny self, I think that just as you have all your physical features—ten tiny fingers and toes and beautiful little eyes—how on another level you also already have within you all your inborn, innate characteristics and talents. True, they need to be nurtured and developed, refined and directed, but in their rawest state, they are there, just hidden within you.

And similarly, on another level, you already have within you all the strengths and qualities that you will ever need—still veiled and buried, but the potential very much alive inside of you—for any and every sojourn that your soul will encounter in this world.

None of us knows where life's turns will lead. But wherever your destiny will bring you, know that you have within you all the tools to become the best possible "you."

My sweet Chayale, such a short time ago, I held your own mother, my firstborn, in my arms, with a lot less experience and confidence than I now hold you. I would never have imagined then that in what feels like the blink of an eye, I'd be holding my daughter's own daughter—little you.

When I looked toward the future then, at a time when twenty years ahead seemed like an eternity, I imagined our world very differently. I would have liked you to have been born into a better world—that world that I dreamed of as I tenderly cuddled your mother.

I envisioned that there would be no want or need, no struggle or conflict. It would be a world where we are not so tenaciously caught in the grip of self-centeredness, but rather a world where our individual purpose and meaning is as bright as the sun's rays. In such a world, inexplicable tragedies, shattered dreams and sadness have no place.

Disappointedly, this is not the world which I can gift to you. Nor is it my gift to give. But what I can hope to provide for you instead, my sweet granddaughter, is a faith that there is a purpose to everything, even when we cannot see it. An optimism that our world is becoming better, even if too many days it feels like the opposite.

A wisdom to seek light, and a desire to give, to accomplish and to bring more goodness into our world. A clarity to know that you are making a difference and the confidence that you have the strength to overcome and thrive in all of life's situations.

And a belief that personal, global and cosmic struggles will soon end in a great climax that heralds a beautiful new beginning.

My sweet, little grandchild, welcome into our family. Welcome to our world. Our world has the potential to be such a wondrous place.

And you, my sweet baby, within your tiny self, you represent so much hope in all that can be.

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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