Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chanukkah: Stop holding yourself back

Hanukkah is the season of outward miracles. Those miracles (the oil lasting 7 days longer than it was supposed to and us winning the military fight against the Greeks) happened because we did something. This is known in Yeshivish as hishtadlut, meaning G-d helped us out because we put in some effort.

Life doesn't happen waiting for things to happen. That's how life passes you by. Existence is constantly being recreated. That means every moment is a new opportunity to do the things you've wanted to do, but for whatever reason were holding yourself back. We are ultimately the only ones who are responsible for succeeding or failing in life.

Every holiday on the Jewish calendar happens when it does because the space/time situation then has certain power, greater potential than normal. The Maccabees couldn't wait to return to serving G-d in the Beit Hamikdash. They had to start as soon as they won, and ran to the Temple. Technically, they shouldn't have lit the Menorah - it's not supposed to be lit if there isn't a continuous source of fuel, and it takes 8 days to produce the oil that can be used in the Temple. However, their desire was so pure and holy, that G-d made the oil of the Menorah last for 8 days. They took one step, and G-d did the rest.

We can all take advantage of this power, this is a gift being presented to us every year at this time. Over the next 8 days, every time you want to fall into whatever bad habit you are trying to break, if you can take the smallest step to move away from that habit, you will be amazed to see what you are actually capable of accomplishing.

I know you can do it, G-d knows you can do it. All that's missing is for you to know - and to do.

Chanukah: You don't actually have to gain weight

Did you know you could shred any starchy vegetable to make latkes? It's a good thing my granma is nifter (actually I feel horrible writing that, but you know what I mean), because she would not know what to do with the colorful latkes that come out of kitchens nowadays. When I was growing up, if the latkes were any color other than brown, you obviously did something wrong. I'm not a fan of using potata or sweet potatoes, as they are known here for latkes. They end up too mushy. But zucchini and carrorts are great add-ins. The color of the zucchini always makes me feel like I'm eating something healthy, and not just fried in enough oil to light my menorah for the next 8 days.

3 cups shredded kishu'im (zucchini)
3 eggs
1 package of that stuff that's not quite sour cream but not cream cheese
2 heaping cups of flour of your choice
a few shakes of baking poweder
a few more shakes of baking soda
about 1/8 c. xanthan gum (for fluffiness)
1/3 c. olive oil (canola also works)
big handful of walnuts (optional)

Ok, I am going to be honest. This isn't going to taste like 'cake' - as you may have notices, there is abosolutely no sugar up in here. None. But you know what - it's only 150 calories per serving, 9 grams of fat, plus lots of protein, fiber, and vitamins (especially if you use a mixture of white flour and spelt like I did).

Giant baked latke (aka Chanukkah Quiche)
3 eggs
1 cup flour
2 large shredded carrots
1 large onion
2-3 kishu'im (zucchini)

shred the veggies in a bowl together. Mix together eggs and seasoning and add to the mix. Then fold in flour. Use non-stick spray to coat the pan. Bake at 225C for an hour. I would have sauteed the onions a little first next time I make this to bring out the flavor a little more. Live and learn

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sexless and the Holy City

It was Thursday evening, the end the work week here in Israel. Most of the people in my office had already left for the day, and the lights were turned off in the stairwell. As I was slowly inching my way down trying to get my bearing at every landing, I was struck by how this was so symbolic of my life right now - I can't see what's coming and I'm cautiously moving forward in order to not get hurt.
I finally reached the street, and began my walk home. All the things that had been bothering me, but I was able to ignore while busy working, started to fill my head. These things aren't unique for an olah chadasha - trying to figure out how I'm going to make ends meet while building connections at an unpaid internship. A guy I had been seeing, and growing to like, just informed me he was leaving the country for a while for work, and thought we should put things on hold. And to top it all off, my computer, which is the source of my income, just wouldn't stay on.
Rather than dwell on my problems, I decided to use the time spent walking to calm my thoughts. Any time anxious ideas crept into my head: How are you going to afford this new computer? Will your Hebrew ever be good enough to continue in your career in Israel? Am I ever going to meet the right guy? I would brush them aside, and instead focus on the sound of the cars rushing home. After a while, the intrusive thoughts seemed to have given up, and I was able to appreciate how musical the traffic could be. The chimes of the light rail, the cacophonous car horns, the accelerating and breaking of the cars; it was actually quite relaxing.
I found myself in the middle of the suspension bridge in Jerusalem, looking out over the cars coming into and going out of the city. Not having to hurry home, I decided to stand there and just watch the river of vehicles flow by. After a few more minutes of just being and not thinking, an idea popped into my head. One of my dear friends here had been struggling recently with making G-d's will her will. She was also worrying about how she was going to support herself after making aliyah, and being in her 40s, if she was ever going to have kids of her own. She had been going through her own rough couple of weeks, but one day I noticed a change in her attitude. I had to ask, what happened? "I threw up my hands and said 'Hashem, Your will is my will.' I figured that if I gave up holding on to what I want my life to be, and just accept it for what it is, I'll be a lot happier. And I am!"
I whispered into the night, "Hashem, I don't know why you decided to send this guy away when I felt like things were getting promising, or why it was necessary for my computer to break. All I know is that I trust you, and there is no point trying to fight what happens in life." I stuttered as I tried to say the next words, and as I let go of the last remnants of my stubbornness, I shed a few tears, "I want my will to be Your will. I do. Instead of fighting against the tide, I'm going to just go with the flow." I stood there for a few more minutes until I had regained my composure, and resumed my walk home.
As I was coming down the other side of the bridge, I noticed an outline of an older woman ahead of me, unsteadily trying to make her way to the next light-rail stop. I asked her in the best Hebrew I could muster if she wanted help. The look of joy on her face completely melted any other feelings I had been dwelling on. As we slowly made our way, she talked to me excitedly in Hebrew and French. It was hard for me to understand it all, but we managed to exchange some small talk, and even some bits of Torah. We eventually made it to the station, and I told her that I would wait with her until the train comes. She gave me many blessings for good things in life, and pinched my cheeks as she said the man who gets to marry me is very fortunate. Then the train doors closed and she was gone.
 It took me a moment to appreciate what had just happened. I found my demeanour had changed - gone were the feelings of despair, which had been replaced with warmth and even a self-impressed smile that I was able to follow her heavily accented Hebrew. Once again, I was on my way home. I didn't feel so helpless and adrift anymore: whether it's with dating, work, or even my computer staying on, I can relax, because Hashem is in control. And when you just relax and go with the flow, you never know what might float by.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

G-d's Free Pass on Life's Tests

By: Shayna Chana Hulkower

I was recently catching up with an old friend over some delicious instant coffee at a local cafe (only in Israel), with a close friend. There was a pause in the conversation, she took a deep breath, and shared with me some problems she was having with her parents. Like many Jews who were raised one way, and then decided to become more observant, her parents were giving her a very hard time about her new lifestyle. She was distraught that her once close, loving relationship with her family was devolving into something you would expect to see on Jerry Springer. "Why does it have to be this way?" she asked out loud.

There are two types of uncomfortable situations in life: the ones we put ourselves in and the ones G-d puts us in. Rav Shlomo Wolbe says when we act less than tzaddik-like, we can find ourselves in situations where we are forced to make an uncomfortable decision. For example, rather than being honest and ending a relationship you know has no potential with someone after a few dates, you stick around for whatever reason (unsolicited advice side note - this is why being shomer negia is always a good idea!), and after being with that person for much longer, you still realize you don't want to marry them, and are forced to break up with them after they have invested so much time and energy into you and the relationship. These types of situations are easier to rationalize, because as long as you are honest with yourself, you will know how you got there.

Then there are the instances where you really have no idea why or how you are put in a situation.  I'm not talking about things like having a stranger fall asleep on you on the subway and deciding whether to push them off or let them shluff. I mean the really big things in life: a loved one getting sick, a parent who treats you in a hurtful way, a terrorizing boss. Unfortunately, almost everyone will find themselves in a situation where they say to themselves, "What on earth did I do to deserve this?!"

The answer is - you didn't.

All of us are here because there is something we didn't get right in a previous life. We can't ever really know what our tikkun is in this world, but chances are, if we are in a painful or upsetting situation, it is probably on purpose, and therefore, by doing the right thing, we are bringing ourselves closer to accomplishing our purpose in life. This may be cold comfort when in the middle of a painful experience, but if we can keep this idea in mind, it should help us to navigate through rough waters.
There are a number of explanations as to why we are put in uncomfortable situations: Rav Dessler explains in Michtav MeEliyahu that for most people, many of the lo tiseh - 'don't do' mitzvot aren't really such a challenge. That is, how many of us are really going to commit murder if given the opportunity. However, there are many more that we have real free will as to whether or not we'll actually commit. For example, you are buying an item at a store and the cashier accidentally gives you an extra $20 too much back - for many people there is a real temptation to keep the money, especially when you are short on cash. The main purpose of being in Olam Hazeh (this world), is that we are supposed to get through challenges in life, in order that we feel like we earned an awesome experience in the after-life.  So right away, we can see that challenges, big and small, are part and parcel for life.

The Ramban says that there are only tests in our lives when there is a suffeik (doubt) - that is, the person has total free will to choose right or wrong. He goes on to say that G-d only tests tzaddikim (holy people) when He knows they will succeed, and is only doing it because He wants to give the holy person more zchar (merit). Why should G-d give out free mitzvah points? Isn't the whole point of this world to work hard and earn Olam Haba? The fact is, that if someone has the potential to do the right thing, how can they ever benefit from that unless they are put in a situation to actually test it? This is an important insight to keep in mind. We have to be given experiences to live up to our potential. If G-d puts you in a really unpleasant situation, keep in mind that it's because He knows you can succeed. It's up to us to get ourselves across the finish line.

Knowing that the Creator of the Universe believes in our capacity to do the right thing, well, that should help to boost our confidence at least a little bit. Sure, it might not take the sting out of the situation, but it should at least help us to  get through it with grace and dignity. And maybe make it a little easier to behave properly the next time someone falls asleep on us on the bus.