A Story for Shabbat: Counting the Omer

The walls in Dana’s office were bright white and empty, except for the giant poster sitting behind her desk.  The words, emblazoned in thick black ink read, simply “Be what you want to be.”
careerproblems_400.jpgA day earlier, Oded had returned from yet another walk around the park, the third of that afternoon alone. It was the only way he knew to calm his nerves while he waited for the phone to ring, still hoping the last of the interviews he had been invited to would yield his first job since graduating. When the phone finally rang it was not good news. “They said they would keep my resume on file,” he told his mother, looking down feeling the burden of another knock back. It was the fifth rejection in a matter of two months.

“Do you think it’s worth seeing a coach,” his mother asked gently. “It could be, they might have some good advice?”   Without any good reason why not, Oded had agreed to an initial meeting.

“That’s the key,” Dana said, pointing to the words jumping out from the wall, that seemed, somehow to fill the room. “So tell me,” she fired at him, “What is it you want to be?”  

Slightly taken aback, at her directness, he stammered, “A sports writer.”  Looking straight at him, as if searching his soul, she shot back her reply, “How much?”  Oded shuffled in his seat preparing his answer.

“This is the first step,” she continued, “Building up your desire for the things that you want. Every day you need to tell yourself over and over again, how much you want this, why you want this, what it means to you and what you will do with it.” She continued, “You need to do this so much that becomes alive in you,”  Oded listened intently, “The Second step, is about becoming that which you desire so strongly to be, but that,” she added, “will come later.”

Over the course of the following two weeks, Oded spent five minutes each day talking to himself aloud, awakening and strengthening his desire to find his perfect job. Soon his face began to shine with the glow of a person living with a purpose so real he could almost taste. As he continued to visualise what it would be like to be working in his dream job, he began to feel like he was already a successful sports writer, it felt it was getting closer.

As his next coaching session approached Oded called Dana, happy to relate that he wouldn’t need to attend after all. He had just received an offer from the leading sports news service in Boston. 

These few weeks in the Jewish year are weeks of ‘desire and the ‘will to make change’’ or in Hebrew ‘ratzon.’ This is encompassed in the mitzvah of the Counting of the Omer, which began on the second day of Pesach and continues through Shavuout.

abacus_0.jpgThe daily count up is meant to instill into our deepest essence, an empassioned desire for the gift of the Torah that awaits us – and was given on Shavuot at Mount Sinai. The more we want it, the more likely we are to acquire our portion in it. We learn here, profoundly that the yearning for something, is a prerequisite for receiving it.

Perhaps we can say, when bracha comes into the world, we have to have open hands and be ready to receive it.

sapphire.jpgThe Maggid of Koznitz, one of the great Hasidic leaders of Poland from the 18th century explained that the words given in the Torah ‘Usphartem lechem’ – count for yourselves – can also be read, -’and explain to yourselves,’ with the word ‘lispor’ – to count,  spelt with same letters as the word l’saper meaning to explain. and closely connected to ‘sapir’ meaning a sapphire. Here’s his message:

The more you explain something, the brighter the idea becomes until it shines like a sapphire.

The Maggid of Koznitz explains that this is the key to reaching any kind of goal – is to increase your will and desire for it, by ‘telling it to yourself’, again and again and again.  To make it so real that it actually starts to shine bright in you.  Once this desire for something has such energy, he adds, it is only a matter of time before the goal you are dreaming of, like  a magnet, is drawn to you and starts to take shape.

download (8).jpegDuring this process of increasing our ‘ratzon’- our will, we have to get over a number of obstacles. These can be doubts of our own ability or inability, self worth and challenging the things we have subconsciously already placed into the realm of the impossible.  In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav ‘A person is where they are thinking about being,’ when that light is strong, its starts to guide the way.

This also explains why the Torah commands that we count 50 days, whereas in reality we only actually count 49.  The 50th day, our rabbis explain is finished up for us by some divine assistance – which teaches us we can reach our goals when we put in our maximum effort and t
ruly desire something that is for the sake of heaven. Then these efforts will be blessed and the shortfall made up.  

As we count up toward the Omer, we all have an opportunity to increase the desire within ourselves for the things that we want, or want to become. It all starts with ‘telling ourselves’ repeatedly until it starts to feel real, and before we know, with help from shamayim, Bezrat Hashem we are already halfway there.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.  

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Doctor orders: Counting the Omer

Hodaya overcoming her disability to become a doctorEarlier this year, 27 year old, Hodaya Oliel became Israel’s first doctor to graduate with Cerebral Palsy. Overcoming huge odds and showing dogged persistence, she realised a childhood dream having been inspired by her own many stays in hospital as a child where she underwent multiple operations. The department opposite hers always caught her eye, and as she looked on, sometimes for weeks at a time in wonder, she vowed to herself  that she too wanted to become a pediatric neurologist. Now she is well on her way.

screenshot-2019-05-10-at-1.55.43-am-e1557442703500.pngIn a moving ceremony this week, she was honored with lighting one of 12 torches for Yom Haatzmaut, chosen for her tenacity, drive and power to overcome adversity. She dedicated her honor to all those living with special needs as well as their families and friends, paying tribute to her own parents who kept believing in her.  

There is no doubt Hodaya will inspire many people in Israel and beyond, and her story is particularly poignant at this time, as we find ourselves mid way through counting the Omer, where we are all trying to get somewhere….

Seeing someone else achieve something incredible, helps us all get a little closer to realising the things we can often decide are way out of reach. It can help us get over certain glass ceilings we place for ourselves.  When we actually feel that something could be possible it unlocks us to mobilise ourselves a little more into action.

CountingOmerThe mitzvah of counting the omer is all about self growth, our own development, seeing what it is we want to become, how we can better ourselves – and then making it happen, but first comes, pausing to really feel the vision, and be clear where it is we want to go.

I know after hearing myself say I want to change or develop in a certain way for so many years, I stop taking myself seriously, and the words can be more lip-service than a meaningful attempt at change. It’s frustrating, and maybe there is a good reason to rethink my approach before just jumping back into the ring. Everyone is wrestling with one thing or another.


It is not only true about character development, but about all areas of our lives that we are looking to grow, to develop and to progress in – the ability to actually believe it is possible, to see it, to own it, is perhaps a precondition we have to master first before we start counting up to achieving our goal.

The journey from Pesach to Shavout, one of freedom from Egypt on Pesach to the heights of Mount Sinai starts with our us tasting the epic freedom from the world’s most powerful tyranny, which can give us the confidence to start our own journey with vision.

May we all be blessed for vision, clarity and an extra dose of self belief.

Shabbat Shalom

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A story for Parashat Kedoshim

Tips-from-an-Administrator-Improve-Your-Lesson-Plan-with-Questions-1024x512Two teenage boys are brought before Rabbi Levy, the headteacher of their school after teasing a deaf student in the playground. Sitting them down in his office, he paces around in front of them silently for a few long moments, before telling them, “I know, that boy couldn’t hear you. In fact, I saw what happened from the window in my office, and he didn’t even see you teasing him.”  They raise their faces towards him, “All that considered,” he pauses, “Maybe we should say that no harm was done?” They both look a little confused, expecting at least a detention, as the rabbi pulls a book from his shelf and turns the pages. “The Torah addresses this precisely and it’s worth us learning what it has to say,” he says, joining them at the desk.

bookswp“Did you know, there is a mitzvah not to curse a deaf person,” he continues, showing them the words to read. “Do you know the reason our rabbis give for this?” he asks, as they shake their heads, in response. “It’s not to tell us the hurt they will cause him,” he says sternly, “that’s obvious,” he adding gently, “can you imagine how he would have felt,” then lowering his voice to a whisper he continues  “It’s taught in this way, precisely this way, to emphasize the damage we do to ourselves by cursing him. This is the Torah’s message. Everything we say and do, affects our most inner core. We are what we say, our words can either raise us, or the opposite. They have a deep impact on who we become.”

Indeed this is a theme of this week’s parasha, Kedoshim dedicated to achieving holiness, which includes several laws dedicated to teaching the holistic nature of living, and the way we are encouraged to see the intertwined relationship between body and soul. 

Another similar example is given of a farmer who, seeing his friend has fallen on hard times but sensing he will not take kindly to receiving a donation, instead hatches a plan.  sheep-16-390x285Knowing the Torah’s punishment for stealing animals is to return them along with a fine,  he visits his rabbi to get approval for his benevolent strategy to steal one of his friend’s sheep. “It is totally forbidden,” the rabbi says without a thought. “Your intentions are pure,” he says, “but the Torah will not sanction a Jew to inflict his soul with the crime of theft,” adding, “It makes an terrible imprint on your inner core.”

Both of these laws, and many others about the sensitivity we need to have for ourselves are taught precisely in this Torah portion dedicated to attaining holiness. Essentially, any external act, can have an internal ramification.  The way we speak, and the way we act impact us deeply inside, perhaps even in ways we may not even be aware of. The Torah’s message is to live holistically, with great care and see the body as a gateway to the soul.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom 🙂

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Saying thank you for the little things

barleyOn Pesach we bring a barley offering, and seven weeks later we bring a wheat offering. Barley grows two months quicker than wheat, it’s easier to grow, and although is used a lot in food production for human consumption it is far more a staple part of an animal’s diet than wheat.

images (13)The journey from Pesach through Shavuot is a journey of growth from the animal raw side of us, to the elevated human. Our Jewish ancestors in Egypt left as slaves and required these seven weeks to internalise the message that they were free, should respect themselves as such, and set themselves higher goals to strive for.

The mitzvah to count the omer, instructs us to count the days of the barley offering all the way through Shavuot. There are many explanations for this command which we perform every night from the second night of Pesach onwards, and many of them have to do with character perfection necessary in the build up to Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.

I would like to share one idea on this theme that particularly resonates with me:

06-4-col-malting_barley-copy1Precisely because barley is wheat’s cheaper brother, we disregard it far more. Although we may not be farmers, we have barley’s  equivalent in our lives, the things that are minor in our eyes, that we perhaps take for granted. Here we are told to take those things in mind, appreciate them, and thank Hashem for the little things as much as for the bigger things.

The Jewish People have just left Egypt, plagues, fireworks, sea splitting its a major event and the next big epic adventure is in seven weeks time. It’s so easy to only focus on the big events and just wish away the days in between looking forward to the next hit of pleasure, excitement or adrenalin. Weddings, births and birthdays, holidays, vacations, major milestones and promotions these are the events that can so easily punctuate our lives and what happens in between is a blur. The mitzva to count the barley offering reminds, instructs and brings back into proper focus the value of every day and every moment. Each one is a gem to pick up and make the most of. By doing this we can merit to lives of gratitude, heightened appreciation and enjoyment as we savor even the minor details of life.

Chag Sameach!

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A Story for Seder Night

Office-cleaning-Manchester-1Aharon, the 25 year old cleaner of a large high tech firm, was doing his usual rounds at the end of the day, emptying garbage cans and vacuuming floors, reaching the executive office of one of the vice-presidents of the company where a late meeting was still taking place.

As he moved on to clean the adjacent office first- accidentally knocking the vacuum cleaner against the door – some of the heads in the executive office turned towards him, then a few seconds later he heard the voice of VP himself, a man he had a usually cordial relationship with, and froze. “He just cleans,” he heard him say in disbelief, inching closer to hear more, “I doubt he could do anything else.” The other senior managers all laughed before the Vice-president added, “I certainly wouldn’t give him any more responsibilities, he’s like any machine, just one that can only clean.”

depositphotos_129488864-stock-photo-autumn-leaves-on-ground-inDejected, the cleaner finished up for the day, and walked home, but the more he thought about what the VP had said, the more angry he became. “How dare he say that about me,” he brooded pacing around a nearby park for almost an hour, before turning to his grandfather’s home for some advice on how to respond.

“How dare he say I’m no more talented than a machine?” He fumed, as his grandfather put the kettle on. “I feel so hurt.” Calming the situation, his grandfather, paused to think and handed him a drink. “You want to get revenge?” he asked, laying a hand on his shoulder, “Then, prove him wrong. Show him that you can be more talented than he thinks. Get a qualification.” Aharon was taken by the idea.

images (12)Two days later after scouring the prospectus of a local college he enrolled in a three year, evening course in computer programming. Maintaining his work in the company, three evenings a week, tired from a hard days work, he headed to the college until 10 pm, catching up on project work and assignments early mornings and in his spare weekend hours. Every time he slipped behind and felt like throwing in the towel, he heard those same words ringing through his ears. “He’s no better than any other machine. All he can do is clean,” and found a way to catch up and push on.

Three years later, he graduated with a merit, inviting his grandfather to watch him collect his certificate. That afternoon, with his degree in his hand, he headed straight for the Vice-president’s office, knocking firmly three times on the door, but not even waiting for a reply before marching in. There he was staring face to face with the same man who had insulted him so deeply years earlier.

“Yes?” said the VP, looking up, noting Aharon’s smart shirt and tie. “What’s the occasion?” Thrusting his freshly signed certificate down on the plush mahogany desk, Aharon almost spat the words he had recited over and over the last few years. “This is what I can do. You thought I was worth nothing,” his voice trembling with emotion. “That’s the last time you insult one of your employees.”

“What?” the VP asked with a confused look, taking the certificate in his hands. “This is marvelous,” he said looking up,  “But I think there’s some misunderstanding. I’ve never insulted you.” This was enough for Aharon, who repeated the painful conversation he had overheard almost three years ago to the day. Finishing, he said, “Do you realise how hurtful that was for me?”

“I don’t recall this at all,” the VP said, leafing through his old diary for the date Aharon said the conversation had taken place. Sitting down and pausing for thought when he reached the week in question.

“Aharon,” he said, pointing to an entry in the diary, “Allow me to explain,” he said, tapping the diary entry. “Earlier that week I purchased a robotic cleaner for my apartment. You switch it on and leave it for the day, it first vacuums and then mops the floors.”  Looking up meeting Aharon’s now confused eyes he added, “It can only clean, it’s just like any other machine, and I was joking to my colleagues that I certainly wouldn’t give it any other responsibilities.” Aharon sank into the seat in front of the VP’s desk, “You mean, I’ve done all of this for nothing?” He said, looking broken. “No,” the VP said, standing up and closing the door. “I think it’s clear that you needed to hear those words three years ago. Look what you’ve achieved. Look how far you have come and what you have proved to yourself you can do.”

passover-1Every year, we sit together on Seder Night and retell the story of our leaving Egypt freedom, savoring our freedom, and reminding ourselves that we are no longer slaves, not slaves in Egypt, and also not today.

With glasses of wine, matzah and bitter herbs, we relive the last meal before the Jewish People’s departure from the fortress of their oppression that they and their ancestors had endured for hundreds of years.

“It is time to become a free nation,” Moses told them. “Take the god of the Egyptian people, paint its’ blood on the doorposts of your homes, and along with your own slave mentality, consume it entirely, because greatness awaits you.”download (7)

We all live with a set of values and principles that somewhere deep inside guides us, and a conscious or even subconscious image of who we can be or how we can be. We live all year round with the par between this quiet voice and what actually materialises in the reality of our daily lives. Seder night is the powerful night where we reconnect, unlock, and allow ourselves to be spoken to by that divine voice, exclaiming “From tonight you are free men and women, you are no longer slaves – you are not like any other machine.”

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From Purim to Shabbat…

Depositphotos_61091355_original-750x430What happened on Purim? ….

The answer. Absolutely nothing.

Not this year, we had a great time with family and friends eating, drinking, delivering, receiving etc… I mean on the original Purim. Back then on the 14th and 15th of Adar respectively, nothing happened.

These dates, mark the day after the Jews had finished battling their enemies. Ahashverosh had given them permission to defend themselves against their enemies and even attack in the streets of Shushan and the 127 lands of the Persian empire. The original Purim marks the day of rest from all of this and from the terrible cloud of worry and fear that rested over our nations heads in the months preceding. Purim was a day of rest…. Yes, just like Shabbat.

The hint of this is to be found in the text of Hadvallah at the end of Shabbat:

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂוֹן וִיקָר
“The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honor,”

… A direct quote from the end of Megilat Esther describing the Jews of Persia after the story’s happy ending, but in Havdallah we follow this with: “may we have the same.”

Just as the cloud lifted for the Jews in Persia on Purim and they enjoyed a rest floating on a cloud of weightless happiness and relief, so too we taste this every Shabbat. We place our problems large and small on ice. Hashem is in control.  We sit at his table ,so to speak, with an escort of angels Friday night, we dressed up in our best clothes,  sang ‘Lecha Dodi’ and dug ourselves out of any sadness, tears and pity we were feeling, appreciated all which we have, and bathed ourselves in spirituality –  tasting eternity. 

The rest from all of life’s battles, clouds and struggles – is something we so deeply crave and lovingly await each week. Inspired by those weightless Jews in Shushan for one precious day a week, we give ourselves a sense of perspective and renewed energy to take on another week with a timeless smile.

“The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honor,…. May we all have the same.”

Shavua tov!

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My Car Roadworthy Test – Jerusalem Style

20190314_142416Today, I took my car for its annual roadworthy test, and everything was going smoothly, brakes, gas, steering, front lights, until the last station check when the mechanic called out something in Hebrew whilst pointing to the back of the car.  Although I didn’t understand exactly what he was saying, the fact that he was shaking his head was enough to spell trouble. It was raining, I had to pick up the kids from kindergarten in an hour – and my one job to do today was get the car the green light before last year’s test expired.

As I sighed, and called back, ‘ma baya?’ what’s the problem? A man appeared at the driver window with a smile and asked, ‘ata rotzeh lhitpalel mincha?’ do you want to pray the afternoon service?   

Assuming perhaps he hadn’t realised his surroundings, and also whilst trying to ascertain what the problem was with my car, I replied ‘yes I was interested in praying’ but not kinda right now, seeing as I was in the middle of a car test. The fact that my rear wheels were currently sitting in a brake test machine, it did seem a little odd for this man to think I was expendable at that precise moment, but hey it’s Israel.  

Nevertheless, he persisted with those famous two words, ‘ata asiri’ you’re the tenth man beckoning me to join. O.K. so, I’m the tenth man, they need me. It’s compelling, but it didn’t change my predicament vis-a-vis the car. Just as I was about to explain, he cut in, “Don’t worry, I can see what’s wrong with your car, the light bulbs above your registration plate are out’, follow me, I’ll fix them while we pray. “Ha kol yiyhe beseder,” – everything will be fine, “Follow me.”

“You’ll fix my rear lights as we pray?” I thought. “Well, it sounds like a good deal, but what does he mean?” Without so much time to mull it over, I gave the mechanic a nod – who had seen and heard the whole exchange – that I was off, and drove to the next turning along, following the man into another mechanic yard, where he signalled me to park up alongside a KIA being serviced, calling, ‘Mahmoud’ fix this man’s rear lights we’re going to pray. With that I followed him up some metal stairs to a small shul above the forecourt where 8 other men – most of them mechanics – were patiently waiting to start the afternoon prayers.

‘Ah, Baruch Hashem’ they called out as we walked in, and the prayers began.

20190314_140841Afterwards I found out, the man’s name, Menachem the owner of the KIA repair garage, and that every day they break work for the afternoon prayers in this unique little shul for local mechanics and a few plucky customers. Sure enough, as requested, my7 car was ready, Mahmoud had fixed my rear lights and Menachem insisted it was on his account, he was just delighted to have found a tenth man. Now I understood why the mechanic mid way through my MOT test had been totally unfazed by the whole episode. It had probably happened many times before.

Our rabbis teach, the  key to maintaining a healthy spiritual relationship is regular commitment, however little or much we are able to do, whatever we find is the level we can maintain, the important thing is that we are building a relationship and we are committed, as much as possible day in, day out.  Indeed, of the 3 daily prayers, the Talmud acknowledges the afternoon prayer is the hardest to make happen as it falls in the middle of the work day, and it’s not so easy to put things on hold, keep client’s waiting or club together 10 men.

But, when you’re committed like Menachem is, what’s the price of a pair of rear light bulbs?

Ain Kmocha Am Yisrael! – There’s nothing quite like the Jewish People!

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

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