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A Writer's Confession

September 28, 2008

I know that the first paragraph of an article is supposed to be powerful, compelling and attention-grabbing. This article is an exception; this paragraph won't say much. Nevertheless, I beg your indulgence; please read on. There is a point I want to express, I'll get started on it soon. I won't ramble on much longer, bear with me just a moment...

Whew! I finished the dreaded first paragraph. Now we can get down to business.

As a writer, I find that ideas are thankfully not so difficult to come by, and I really enjoy the mental process of developing a nascent idea into material for an essay. And once I've penned the first paragraph, the rest usually flows rather easily. But actually getting started on writing is where I always get stuck.

I habitually create a Word file, name it and save it. I then suddenly find a million and one other pressing tasks that simply can't wait. During the following days, every once in a while I'll open up the blank file I created and consider starting to write, but the words elude me, and, to my relief, the phone rings or there's an urgent email that requires my attention. And then suddenly the article's deadline is looming... I then force myself to sit down, focus and write. And once I'm writing, all's well. I'm lost in my little world; my phone and inbox don't exist until I've finished the final sentence.

We all are writers. As possessors of freedom of choice, we write our own story. At birth we are given a fresh blank piece of paper and the mandate to write on it whatever we wish. We can scribble and cover it with colorful doodles, we can turn it into a paper plane and shoot it around in the breeze—or we can use it to record the story of a life full of meaning and substance.

Nothing is more difficult than penning the beginning of a new chapter in our book. We have plenty of ideas that we'd like to include in the book, we have developed and finely-tuned these ideas—they are all ready, just waiting for us to write them.

At such times, we must bear in mind that things just get easier after the first paragraph. Take the plunge, and the rest will come so much easier. Decide today on your next chapter and start writing.

See, I finished. Wasn't that hard after all. Hopefully next time I'll take this lesson to heart.

Do you have any tips how to get started on writing a chapter? Feel free to share in comment section below.

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.

Feminine Scholarship Unparalleled

The Life of the Rebbe's Daughter

September 14, 2008

The eighteenth day of Elul is a very significant date on the Chassidic calendar and marks the birthday, in 1745, of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, otherwise known as the Alter Rebbe, was the founder of the Chabad movement. In honor of this day, here's a special story about his eldest daughter, Fraida. (In a future blog, we'll write about another incredible woman, Fraida's sister, Devorah Leah.)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman's daughters were each exceptional in their own unique way. His oldest daughter, Fraida, was known to have a profound knowledge of the mystical dimension of Torah. Her understanding was so keen that her father often delivered special scholarly discourses specifically for her. On many occasions when her brother, Rabbi Dov Ber – whose works contain some of the deepest and most brilliant insights of Chassidic thought and who was the successor of the Alter Rebbe – would be apprehensive to ask his father a scholarly question, he would have Fraida ask on his behalf.

On one such occasion, Fraida was questioning her father about the mystical significance of the High Priest's clothing. Dov Ber was hiding in the room so he could listen to his father's response firsthand. Rabbi Schneur Zalman patiently clarified the complicated subject to his daughter omitting, however, the details of the Avnet, the belt of the High Priest.

Unseen in the corner of the room, Dov Ber signaled to his sister to ask for an explanation of the belt of the High Priest, by pointing to his own belt. Fraida obligingly ventured the question to her father. The Alter Rebbe, smiling at his daughter, answered her with his own question. He then wanted to know where Dov Ber was hiding in the room, for he insightfully understood from its content that rather than being Fraida's question, it was, in fact, Dov Ber's!

This short episode, besides demonstrating the intimate bond between the Alter Rebbe and his daughter, Fraida, also is an indication of her sharp and elaborate knowledge of Jewish studies.

Although not many details have been recorded about Fraida, another episode, much later in her life, also emphasizes how she internalized her scholarship to achieve greatness.

After Fraida's death, a chassid by the name of Reb Mordechai Yoel met Rabbi Nochum, the son of Rabbi Dov Ber, at the grave of his grandfather in Hoditch. The chassid asked Rabbi Nochum why his aunt, Fraida, was buried right beside the Alter Rebbe's grave. In response, Rabbi Nochum told him of an incident that occurred just prior to Fraida's death.

He explained that Fraida was not a physically strong woman and became even weaker after the death of her father. She was taken to the countryside, where it was hoped that the fresh air would revitalize and refresh her. As the days wore on, though, even in the scenic country, it became obvious that Fraida was continuing to grow weaker and that her life would soon come to a close.

Fraida decided to gather together a group of chassidim. She informed them that her end was drawing near and requested that the chassidim bury her on the right side of the grave of her holy father. The chassidim were bewildered. They knew the respect and high esteem which her father had held for Fraida. Nevertheless, they were uncertain about the appropriateness of her request.

A few days later, Fraida, once again, called the chassidim together. At this point, she was even too weak to leave her bedside. She asked the chassidim to encircle her bed. Beginning to recite the Elokai Neshoma prayer, Fraida, proclaimed, "My G‑d, the soul which You have given within me is pure. You have created it, You have formed it, You have breathed it into me, and You preserve it within me..."

As Fraida reached the next words "You will eventually take it from me..." she lifted her ten fingers heavenward and cried out, "Father, wait, I'm coming!" With those final words, Fraida's soul departed from her body.

The chassidim witnessing the event understood that an individual who dies in such a phenomenal manner deserves to be buried next to the Alter Rebbe. But even after her death, Fraida's holiness astounded them further.

Accompanying her body to the gravesite, the Chassidim decided not to lead the horse-drawn wagon, but rather allow it to find its way. When the wagon met a fork in the road, they were completely amazed when the horse knew precisely where to travel–all the way to the gravesite of her father, the Alter Rebbe.

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.

Are You a Cynic?

September 7, 2008

Look in the mirror. Take a long and hard look at who you are. Does the vision that stares back at you reflect the same depth of innocence that it once held?

At some stage in life, somewhere along the line, I think many of us lose some level of inspiration, innocence, faith, honesty or sincerity.

(Maybe the fatalities are greater for people in my profession—writing and lecturing to inspire others. Or maybe it's just what growing up is all about.)

But at some point, you take a realistic look in the proverbial mirror and note that the tranquil simplicity is gone. The clear black and white lines delineating right and wrong that you used to so vociferously defend have become blurred by a newfound appreciation of the nuances of the grays. You may still be defending the same right and wrong, but the strength of your persuasion has dimmed.

Perhaps the innocent faith in the goodness and uprightness of your Maker has been tarnished by what you now consider a realistic cynicism in the face of reality.

Perhaps too many of the standard answers no longer sound so profound, nor so true. At times, the questions may now seem stronger than the answers.

If you're really honest, you'll admit that your motivation to do something because it's the right thing to do, has become shadowed by calculated deliberations in which your ego comes into play. Big time.

And yet outwardly it is still the same you, still fulfilling the same religious, communal and personal responsibilities with the same degree of outward fervor.

But inwardly, you, and only you, know too well that there has been some paradigm shift.

What happened? And can you ever regain your former level of pure innocence? Can you ever rediscover the simplicity that you lost?

No, I don't think so. Just as there's no turning the clock of life back, there's no regaining a simple innocence and acceptance in your relationship with your Creator.

But then perhaps that's what the challenge is meant to be.

For you. Right now.

Maybe the point is not to turn backwards or regain an innocence, but rather to find a new meaning, to discover stronger answers within your struggle.

To discover your identity within your ego, not by negating it, but by utilizing it. To reveal a G‑d who can tolerate the questions, just as much as the answers. To find a faith that can tolerate cynicism and protests, yet still remains faith.

To uncover the real spirit behind the deed, even when it feels like a hollow act lacking vigor.

And perhaps, that is really the message of our nation's long sojourn through this spiritually displacing exile.

Perhaps our challenge is not to reach the prior heights of purity, faith, acceptance and spirituality of the great predecessors of our nation—people who blindly followed and trusted implicitly in their Maker. Maybe we aren't intended to reach the devotion and depths of sincerity of the great shepherds of our people, or even of the simple folk whose lives they inspired.

But maybe the challenge that our nation faces today is despite the overwhelming cynicism, despite our sophisticated questions, despite our numbness and lack of any spiritual feeling—to still find and maintain our connection.

On some level, maybe overcoming the challenges facing each of us today, nationally, after this long exile is the greatest challenge ever.

And perhaps, personally too, finding this connection despite our cynicism makes it even more real than any realness we may have originally had.

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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