This article by Rechy Frankfurter was originally printed in Ami Magazine for an issue that came out during the week of Lag Ba’Omer (the anniversary of the passing of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.) We spoke about Kabbalah, how to apply it to our lives and how it pertains to women. I thank Rechy and Ami Mag for permission to reprint it here. (Minor adjustments have been made to clarify concepts for a wider audience.)
You’re called a Kabbalah coach which is a term that can scare people.
It can. The term also kind of associated me with the Kabbalah Center whose teachings I don’t believe are authentic.You can’t have the Tree of Life without the Tree of Knowledge. To my understanding, that relegates the “Kabbalah” to New Age vagueness and psychobabble.
Along with all of the new-agey things that come with it.
Exactly. My program was designed as an antidote to what I saw which was many spiritual seekers looking for answers in the New Age world. I have an hour-long class on what’s wrong with new-age and how it differs from Jewish thought. Although there are truths in many of these programs, there are also many falsehoods. The analogy I use to explain this is of taking a ship from New York to London. If you’re even only one degree off on your journey then by the time you cross the ocean you won’t end up in London. You’d be off by miles…All of these global movements about change and new-age thinking and utopianism aren’t grounded in reality so they ultimately don’t work.
We’ve been taught that we’re not allowed to learn Kabbalah until we’re 40 years old, and that even then only certain people are allowed to learn it. So when you say Kabbalah what does that mean exactly? Are you studying the texts of Kabbalah?
Kabbalah refers to the Hidden dimension of Torah. In Judaism there are two bodies of learning Torah: the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. The Tree of Knowledge is the revealed dimension of Torah and includes Mishnah, Talmud and the legal code. The Tree of Life is the mystical dimension, which is what I (primarily) teach. One of the things I make very clear is that you have to have both trees.
A lot of what I developed and teach comes from the Arizal and Sefer Yetzirah, but most of it comes from Chassidut. I was taught that Chassidut is the highest level of Kabbalah and its purpose is to bring those teachings down in a way that is usable. Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism. It is as based on the same revelation to Moses at Sinai as any other aspect of Torah…My teachings are based on spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and behavioral intelligence. I call these for components SQ, IQ, EQ and BQ. If we’re going to change, we need a multi-dimensional approach. You can’t do only one thing. The word Kabbalah has two etymological roots. One is from the word l’kabeil, “to receive.” The second is from the word l’hakbil, “to align.” We have to align one thing with the next.
You speak about changing and going out of your exile it isn’t a one-time Exodus from Egypt. It’s constant work.
Right. We are taught, “In each and every generation, a person must regard themselves as if they personally had left Egypt.” The Alter Rebbe says this means, “each and every day.” I do a lot of work with addiction of all kinds. For addicts, leaving Egypt must sometimes be enacted on an hourly basis. They don’t just take it one day at a time; they take it one moment at a time in the work of “coming home” and back to center. Many people are trying, but they don’t have accurate maps. I’ll give you an example: There is an idea out there that if you just try hard enough, you’ll succeed. We’re being sold the power of Positive Thinking all the time. But I think the actual construct is much more subtle than the way it’s packaged. Of course our thinking impacts our lives! “Think good and it will be good,” is a common aphorism. And we are cautioned not to believe someone who says, “I tried but didn’t success” – or “I didn’t (even) try yet succeeded.” We trust, “I tried and found success.” But the true power of positive thinking is way deeper than insisting to ourselves and others that everything is going to be fine. It’s so much more than a vision board. It touches the core of what we’re here for – to pierce through the delusion of cosmic amnesia. Positive Thinking is about finding the positivity in the negative. Each of us must work to internalize the fact that when G-d tests us (nisayon in Hebrew,) its purpose is to elevate (lenasot) and generate miracles (nissim) for us. We have to find the point of light within the darkness. Once we do that we don’t need the test anymore.
One of The Method Isms is “pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice.” I want people to understand that it’s inevitable that we’ll feel pain. Pain is what we experience when we leave a more limited level and ascend to a higher one. For example, think about a seed decaying in order to germinate or a chick hatching out of an egg; there’s always an element of pain as you grow. Suffering though comes from attachment to the previous level. People are being sold a hyped version of positive thinking, meaning that if they think positively they’ll create a manifestation and there won’t be any challenges in their lives, but that’s nonsense. It isn’t true; it isn’t grounded in reality.
Can you define what you just said on a practical level?
Let’s say someone is having trouble finding a job and is being told that if he would just think positively, he would get the job he needs and life would be ideal. That isn’t true. I encourage people not to ask “What do I want from life?” but “What does life want from me?” and “What does G-d want from me?” I might default to bemoaning the fact that business is quiet, but if I’m introspective and ask “What is being asked of me?” everything ends up differently. When you ask different questions you end up with different solutions.
We’ve also been sold lies about relationships. We equate “working” with something, but that isn’t true. We have to accept pain in our lives. The notion of utopianism has infiltrated our lives, which causes us to be very dissatisfied. However, if we accept that pain is an integral component of our lives—as the Talmud says, “A person sees from the black of the eye.” then we have a softer approach to our relationships and to life in general.
We become more accepting and even convert it into something more active?
Yes. In a very practical sense it means I’m not confessing everyone else’s sins; I can be more forgiving of them and of me. People are very into self-awareness, but that isn’t enough on its own; you also need to have self-acceptance. Often religious people are wary of the notion of self-acceptance. They equate it with self-indulgence. That isn’t the case. Self-acceptance means that I accept the dark underbelly of human nature and of life, that I have an evil inclination and, in addition to my Divine Soul, another one that functions very much like an animal. I accept the fact that I’m limited. One of those limitations might be, for example, that I feel jealous. I don’t indulge the jealousy but I do have to create a holding space for it. It’s useful to speak from a part of ourselves rather than generalizing that voice. Saying “I’m mad at you” is very different from saying “A part of me is mad at you” or even “a part of me is mad at a part of you.” It may sound like semantics, but you don’t mistake the part for the whole. Similarly, when it comes to self-acceptance a person will say to himself, “I am limited, and I have an inclination to be selfish. Now let me understand that so I can work with it and generate some self-mastery!”
Negative behavior always arises from a pain point. Often, if we can just sit there and have some compassion, we can redeem the light that is in that pain. I’ll give you an example. One time I was sitting at home and my son, who was around ten years old at the time, came home from school, ignored me, threw his briefcase across the floor and ran upstairs. My first inclination was that his behavior was unacceptable; it was angry and chutzpadik on so many levels. I wanted to rebuke him for it, but then I reminded myself that the behavior grew out of something; let me sit for a little bit with what that might be. Then I went up to him and said, “What happened is really not like you.” When I walked into the room he might have thought I was going to rebuke him, but when I said that and there was a place of acceptance—not that it’s okay to be disrespectful or angry but that something happened so let’s look at that—he began to cry and told me what had happened. He had gotten a basketball as a gift that day and some other boys had taken it and lost it. Once I was able to sit with that and offer him some compassion he was able to begin to master himself. I want to model for him that he has to look after himself. Much of our job as parents is modeling for them how to parent their own selves.
Okay, but I assume that anyone can appreciate what you’re saying without connecting it to Kabbalistic terms. My question is, is it really necessary to do so? Can we divorce what you’re saying from Kabbalah and still make it work?
I don’t think so. I’ll give you an example: Kabbalah teaches that there are ten mystical spheres, sefirot, at every level of creation, the spiritual worlds, the physical world, our soul, our body. In conjunction with my sister, who is a very renowned therapist, we created a course called Healthy Attributes. We go through each of the soul powers and look at how they correspond to spiritual, mental, emotional and behavioral health. The crown power is faith. What would the signs of healthy faith be, and what is unhealthy faith? Love and respect – what is healthy love and what is unhealthy love? Everything that I do comes back on some level to either the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge – law and behavior. So you can speak about acceptance, but it never becomes indulgence because there’s a Divine legal framework. I’ll give you another example: Sefer Yetzirah identifies six core relationships. Those relationships correspond to the six days of creation and to the six emotional powers. Those relationships are: husband and wife, parent and child, sibling to sibling, friend to friend, teacher to student, and King to the people. King and the people is also about follower and leader such as a boss to an employee; it’s about power relationships and hierarchy. Sefer Yetzirah doesn’t speak about it this way, but I call it the relationship cube—it has four sides and a top and bottom.
This on its own is humanism, and that is what all other coaching programs do—they come from the perspective of humanism. I hear people say that religious people are square but that is as far from the truth as possible. Humanism is square. Humanism is a cube. Everything in this world is front, back, top, bottom, left and right. When I teach about relationships I say, “Well, something is missing here. Which relationship is missing?” There are actually two: One is with your own soul which on the Tree of Life is Malchut, Mastery. It corresponds to Shabbat, the seventh day of the week. The other is Keter, the Crown sphere, which encompasses your entire relationship with G-d. One of G-d’s names is Hamakom, literally “The Space.” In other words your “cube” is floating in Divine space. When I approach relationships I acknowledge the humanistic, interpersonal dimension, but I’m asking people to put an emphasis on their relationship with their soul and on that with their Creator.
Here’s another example: Regular coaching looks at people’s existence. Your existence is how you are, what you are, where you are, and where things take place. The bookends of your existence are your identity and your purpose—who you are and why you are. Torah’s perspective necessitates asking, “Who am I and where am I going?” The short answer? I am a spark of G-d embodied in flesh and I’m going towards Mashiach, redemption. Once people begin putting emphasis on that, so many things about their existence fall into place. Someone who was writing his doctoral thesis on psychology and religion once asked if he could interview me. At first I resisted but then I thought, figuring that he must be an eligible young man, that I might know a gal for him. I meet so many fabulous women on my travels, many of whom want to meet their soulmate. Turned out he was the founder of the first online bank and after success in business he decided to go back to school to work on his passion which was psychology. He interviewed me after doing three years of research. Following the interview he decided to enroll in my program for a year, and then he wrote his thesis after that. He said, “There is a lot of inspiration out there but very little transformation. Your program is transformational.” The reason why it’s transformational is that it’s Torah-based. When you work from the perspective I’m describing you have a completely different paradigm; your tools are different.
I’ll speak to people about the fact that intellect according to Chassidut are the mother and father, and parents give birth to children – your emotions are the children of your thoughts and intellect. Your six core emotions then give birth to children, which are your behaviors. So you have to think of your actions as the grandchildren of your mind, and then there is the great-grandparent, which is faith. The Tree of Life and Healthy Attributes modules of The Method take people through that perspective going from the supraconscious crown of faith through the intellectual attributes and then the emotions and finally self-mastery and manifestation through action. Once they have that paradigm they become much more capable of effecting change.
As I said, I do a lot of work with addiction. I’m very familiar and supportive of 12 Step programs but I also see the absence of a principle that precedes the Steps. The first of the 12 steps is “I am powerless over it” – whatever that “it” is. My question, from the perspective of Kabbalah, is why are you powerless? What’s the reason we become powerless? It’s because our deepest desire is unity with G-d; we want to be one with Him. We want to be a true being who lives a meaningful life. All our addictions are a substitution of this yearning for oneness with
G-d. Self-management and mastery requires awareness of our multi-dimensional nature and conflicting impulses, a recognizing that, albeit often unconscious, our deepest desire is oneness with G-d. Then we can attend to the deep underlying desire rather than try to fill the hole in our heart and soul with futile substitutions. This is the bedrock that underlies the powerlessness of Step One.
On a clinical level, does someone who uses the desire for oneness with G-d as a substitute for his addiction have a better handle on it than someone who doesn’t do that?
Absolutely. In Step One I acknowledge I am powerless. Step Two is coming to belive that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. Either you are a slave to Pharaoh or you’re a slave to G-d.
But the 12-step programs work for atheists as well.
They do but not as well. I think they are less successful today than they were years ago because G-d has been somewhat removed from the picture. When the original founders of AA spoke about a higher power they meant G-d. Today, many people say that their higher power is the group or some other personally defined factor. If you don’t have the relationship with G-d then you can’t heal. I’m showing people the functioning of their soul – this is the map—and there’s no way to heal without dealing with the real core issues.
You’re talking about people who substitute their spiritual cravings with other things, but there are also those who are emotionally dead and don’t have cravings. They are living a life of contentment without feeling any need.
There is no one in the world who doesn’t feel any needs and we all meet those deep needs in different ways. On the Tree of Life there are two sides – lovingkindness or chesed and respect or gevurah. There are people who have too much chesed. I call that the sugary side of the tree. Those are the people who want the sugary effect of addictive substances; they go out and soothe the soul’s need by replacing it. On the other side is gevurah, which I call the salty side of the tree. Those people cope by shutting down. Neither is more beneficial than the other. They’re both unhealthy. We have to come to a place embodied by our patriarch Jacob – the attribute of truth or harmony which is that I can be awake to my pain, and I can attend to it the way I would look after a child. I can look at my soul and say that what it really wants isn’t this substance, what it really wants is G-d. There are two ways of attaining this. One is through self-awareness and acceptance of the pain point. As it says, “There is no sweetening of severities other than at their source.” You have to go to the root in order to sweeten it. That’s working from below but if you want to really heal it you also have to approach the issue from above which is to bring some of G-d’s light down into your life. We need to incorporate both. We can break our problems down into segments and attend to each piece of it. That’s what I’m trying to do through the Tree of Life.
Let’s assume that we established that a person’s deepest craving is for unity between his soul and G-d. How important are all of these Kabbalistic concepts to get there?
They are vital because they are the map. Steven Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People writes that he once rented a car at the airport in Chicago but he couldn’t find his way out. He had a map in front of him but it wasn’t helping. Eventually he realized that he thought he had landed at O’Hare Airport when in fact he had landed at Midway. You can’t get out if you don’t have an accurate map. The information is like a guidepost.
But there’s another aspect here, which is that the Torah is G-d’s wisdom. When we learn Torah we are connecting with the mind of G-d so to speak. And just as when you stand under a shower you’re going to get wet, so too when you stand under the light of G-d you’re going to feel warm. There is a power to that. All I’m doing is making it user-friendly. On some level, ideas are also a kind of action. When you have information you have the capacity for self-mastery but if you don’t have accurate information you can’t begin to manage in the world. If someone thinks that the entire battle is between the soul and the body then you have to nullify the body for the sake of the soul. The Alter Rebbe however frames it very differently. He explains that there are two souls struggling for control over one body. That is a very useful construct for people because they can begin to understand themselves in terms of parts. One of the modules in the method is called Tribe Work. I took a Midrash that speaks about the tribes and what they correspond to in ourselves. We all have the 12 tribes, or parts, within ourselves; the Torah is a map of who we are. The idea again is to look at ourselves as consisting of various parts.
For people who want to make that change, what’s the most important thing to know?
If you focus on your identity and purpose, your existence will be taken care of. The relationship cube is also very useful to people. One of the ways I break this down further is that you can flatten down the cube and think of it as a graph with an X and Y axis. The X axis is all about the interpersonal relationships and we all try to fix our lives by tending to that. But imagine yourself standing at the center of that axis. The Y axis from the center down is your relationship with your soul and looking up your relationship with G-d. We have to primarily focus on the Y axis. As people pay less attention to their relationship with G-d and become more surface-oriented, the more weight and pressure is placed on their interpersonal relationships. As such they begin to collapse under the weight of our expectations. When we focus on ourselves and G-d and see ourselves as the source of our own well-being – I’m not saying happiness because I don’t feel the goal in life is to be happy…happiness is more of an outgrowth of living a life of truth – when we focus on that, we have fewer expectations of our marriage, our children, our friends etcetera. When you’re in a relationship with someone and he feels freer and more accepted, warts and all, he will respond remarkably well. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t setting boundaries. Some people are enabling others. Giving in can be very unhealthy but the general notion here is, why are you looking to others, whether the cube or to humanism, to fix yourself? It’s like trying to get sustenance from the earth. The earth makes everything grow but you have to eat food. The same applies to your soul. If you aren’t feeding it correctly you won’t be able to emerge from your personal exile. It won’t happen through others.
As a mother, can you share some examples of ideas that can help out?
The song Eishet Chayil, traditionally sung at the Friday night table, can make anyone feel inadequate. The archetypal woman described seems to be and have it all. But it’s a composite of all women over all generations. You don’t have to be a perfect mother or an excellent mother or a very good mother or even a good mother. You just have to be good enough. Accepting our imperfection is the greatest breakthrough to becoming better. I tried to teach that to my children as well. You don’t have to be perfect to perfect the world. I’ve tried to guide them to accepting their dual identity and that has really been powerful.
The other thing that helps very much for parents in their relationship with their children as well as their own parents is the following: The Gemara in Kiddushin says that there are three partners in the creation of a child – G-d, the father and the mother. The Gemara then lists five things that come from the mother, five from the father, and ten attributes that come from G-d. The Gemara doesn’t call them soul powers but that’s how I understand them based on Chassidut and you can see how they can be mapped on the Tree of Life. But how does that apply practically to a person? I explain that your parents are the parents of your body, and G-d and the Shechinah, the “female” aspect of our Creator, are the parents of your soul. One of the commentators on the Ten Commandments says that the reason why the commandment to honor our parents is on the tablet that sets forth our obligations to G-d (in contrast to the second tablet that outlines interpersonal laws) is because it isn’t speaking about your earthly, physical parents. It’s speaking about G-d. This is why those who pray according to the Sefardic and mystical liturgy say, “May the Merciful One bless my father, my teacher, the master of this house, and my mother, my teacher, the mistress of this house” even when they aren’t in their parents’ home. They are also referring to G-d. Similarly, at the Passover Seder when we ask the Four Questions there are many who ask them even when they don’t have their father present because we’re also asking them of G-d, our Supernal Father. This concept can be very liberating to people. Our relationships collapse under the weight of our expectations. We expect so much from our parents but we should really expect nothing more than that they gave us life. That’s the core of why we honor and respect our parents.
I can understand it from the perspective of accepting our parents, but why should a mother say, “I’m not a perfect mother?” Why shouldn’t she strive for more?
Of course you strive but if you don’t accept that you’re limited then you’re going to be beating yourself up. I’ve seen mothers who feel they’ve made a wrong choice with their children and then the children react badly. Then the mother gets very angry with the children when in actuality she’s really angry with herself for not having made the right decision initially. We have to be able to be flexible and soft rather than hard and stiff. As the Talmud in Taanit says, “One should always be flexible like a reed rather than unyielding as a cedar.” How can you be like the reed? All of my work is about trying to help people connect with their Unwoundable Self, with that spark of G-d that is our soul. When you’re connected with it, you’re more capable of interacting with other people and accommodating them because you know that you’re never going to lose yourself. I’d like to tell you a story.
My son was young, I think he must have been nine, and he was chutzpahdik. I opened the Bible to the portion of Yitro and I had him read the verse about honoring one’s parents together with Rashi’s commentary. Then I went to the portion of Va’etchanan. By the time we turned to it he was crying but I told him to continue reading. I asked him why he was crying. When he said that he doesn’t know I said, “You’re crying because you understand that G-d is your father and mother. You don’t honor me because I’m a good person or because you like me or my decisions. Your relationship with me is defined by G-d.” We all get into trouble because we think that the relationship can be defined in human terms. According to humanism marriage is about the relationship I choose to have with whomever I like. But if you want to understand marriage you have to look at what it really is. G-d gave us the concept of marriage.
I’ll give you an analogy I use that helps people a lot in marriage. I say, “You’re like a diamond, and your husband is also a diamond. Before you get married you’re a diamond in the rough. It is bigger than a cut diamond but it also doesn’t shine like a cut diamond. It’s less valuable. And we use a diamond to cut another one. That’s what marriage is. It is about repair, tikkun in Hebrew, and healing. Rav Levi Yitzchak Schneerson obm, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote a letter to the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin on the occasion of their third anniversary. He wrote that the Bible states that “G-d saw that it was good” twice in relation to the third day of Creation. The number three represents tikkun. The first day correlates with lovingkindness, chesed. We have the creation of a mystical light. The second day is connected to severity and restraint, gevurah. We have the separating of the waters. On the third day we see the purpose of the division. This is tikkun – recitification, resolution, repair. Marriage is tikkun. Your life before marriage corresponds to the mystical world of Tohu. It is a dimension of chaos and unbridled light. And through marriage you cut each other down to the right shape and size that will help each other shine. Expect to be cut down to size; expect to be uncomfortable. Part of what I do is to explain to people that it’s normal for them to have difficulties; there’s no marriage without challenge. It’s the fact that we expect there to be no challenges that gets us into trouble. In fact, regarding day six of Creation, the Torah says that G-d saw that it was “very good.” One opinion is that “very good” refers to the Angel of Death. That was very good because death gives boundaries to life. It defines life. At another level, my teacher, Rabbi Kesselman, once told me that insistence on perfection is an angel of death. When you accept that you can begin to work and begin to listen to another person.
I’m sure people ask you how they can have a relationship with G-d if they simply don’t have it.
People come to me after going through terrible suffering. I’ve heard things that I never imagined existed. They say that they no longer believe in G-d after so much suffering. I’m not judging a person who has lost access to their faith but we are all “believers the children of believers” and our faith is there in a latent form. In truth they haven’t really lost faith. They’ve lost trust. Faith is believing in G-d. Trust is believing that G-d believes in us. This is very important. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote a letter, which I teach in the program, to a husband who had apparently lost a child and whose wife subsequently suffered from depression. After expressing his condolences the Rebbe said, “I ask you to encourage your wife to think about the following three things to the fullest extent of her ability, and I give my guarantee that if she does so every day she will find peace.” Those three things are: G-d is one, G-d is good, and G-d loves you like an only child. That’s the key to happiness; it has an element of trust. People say that they’ve lost a personal relationship with G-d. They speak about “the Divine” as an absent, amorphous Being. That deprives us of so much. The Biblical framing of G-d is that He is intimately involved in creation. So if G-d is one, then that means that everything happens under His jurisdiction. If He is good, then even if I don’t experience it as good it must be good. The last part is the one that’s most difficult for people – He loves me like an only child. This is very powerful, and that’s why I tell people that they can be sad but they can never not be happy. As the Zohar says, “Weeping is lodged on this side of my heart and joy on the other side.”
So even in the midst of great sadness, loss and tragedy there can still be joy.
You’ve mentioned the Lubavitcher Rebbeim and Chassidut, yet what you’re doing is referred to as Kabbalah. Which one is it?
To my understanding, Chassidut is the fifth and highest level of Kabbalah. There’s Sefer Yetzirah, the Zohar, the Arizal and Rav Chaim Vital, and then you come to the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov effected a social revolution as well, where simplicity and pure faith were celebrated. He was bringing down these deep concepts to a place of being actionable and user-friendly. I am working from this mystical knowledge. It is the basis of everything I do. The relationship cube is something I developed but it comes from Sefer Yetzirah. I have something called the Purpose Quadrant, which helps people in business and actualizing potential. Even just developing a roadmap for life is rooted directly in the Eitz Hachaim. All of these tools are connected to this mystical map of reality.
Some people love music and find it tremendously inspiring, while others might just hear noise. And the truth is that people can go through periods where they feel one way or the other. Is it possible that some people will respond very well to what you’re saying, while others are “tone deaf” and not tuned in?
I don’t know if I would use that analogy because unlike music this is air and water. You can’t live without them. When you look at the Tree as it pertains to personality types, some people are more spiritual, some are intellectual, some emotional, and some are more behaviorally intelligent. People who are very connected to BQ feel that action is the main thing. Of course the vitality of deed applies to everyone but that’s because everyone has to have everything. As the Rebbe says about the four species of Sukkot, we have to bring all of the attributes they represent together. A sage who doesn’t have good and refined character traits isn’t one we can learn from. As the Gemara (Taanit 7a) says on the verse “A person is a tree of the field”: “If he’s a proper scholar then ‘you may eat from him,’ but if not…” The four species embody all aspects of who we are but we all have more of one bent or focus. Those who are more spiritual or are interested in intellectual pursuits are more likely to be drawn to this. My program isn’t easy; it isn’t a quick fix. You can feed your body by eating candy but you can also eat a sweet potato or grains, and they’re going to do very different things to your body and your brain. This isn’t a quick fix. It’s the long-short way.
How did you arrive at this? Was it a gradual process?
In my late teens I met my teacher, Rabbi Kesselman. The first time I met him I stormed out of his class. But I went back the next week and 31 year later our children got married. It has been a long journey. I started off by teaching in high school and seminary, and my students needed advice and mentorship. I tried to do that for them, but once it became too much I began charging for it. When I started charging I felt that I wanted to give people more and also measure the growth, so I would send a summary email with notes from the session along with suggestions. Over time I saw that there was a lot of commonality. The stories might be different, but the current was the same. I had a client who said, “I think I’m done and I’ve gotten what I want but can we be friends?” I told her that I don’t really have time to be social outside of my extant inner circle. She said, “Well, maybe you can teach me to do what you do.” I told her that it was an interesting idea and I would send out an email asking if people would like to be certified in my method. Within an hour of sending the email I had 78 people respond. I then set up four groups of six people; there were 24 people in that first trial run. Each group did a different semester of the method. Around that time I met someone who told me that I had to record my classes and create online content that people could study when I’m not teaching them. He was a master businessman and he guided me in setting up the way the content is delivered on the website. That’s how I got to where I am. But I would like to add that I was really my own first client. I went through many difficulties in my life. I didn’t want to just survive; I wanted to thrive. I felt that G-d had given me the gift of life, and I wanted to give Him the best life I could live. That’s why I always test things out on myself before I try them on others.
Where are your originally from?
Johannesburg, South Africa.
Was your family observant?
No, but South African Jews are very traditional. Anyone in my family who stayed in South Africa ended up becoming observant, largely through Bnei Akiva. I was national director of education for Bnei Akiva. That was wonderful; I learned a lot from it. I was a young person working with young people. My sisters became observant, and all their children are observant, and then my mother became observant and my father went along for the ride.
I’m very grateful for having been born in Africa, especially because we were so connected to the earth. I received an outstanding secular education which has given me a lot of access to Torah. For example, I studied linguistics, which helped me understand much of the commentary and etymology. Also, when I was growing up there wasn’t any television in South Africa. I don’t think I even saw one until I was 12 years old. That meant that we read and played and we were outdoors and we spoke to each other. I didn’t deal with the challenge of having a television demand my attention and steal my life.
I guess you had to be connected to the earth to be able to touch heaven.
Yes. You bend your knees so you can jump higher. If you aren’t pushing off the earth, there’s no way to jump up.
When did you move to Crown Heights?
I came here to study, and I got engaged about a year later, but ten days before my wedding my fiancé died in a car accident. When I got engaged to my husband a year later we were advised not to have the wedding in South Africa, and that’s how we came to be living in New York.
I’m sure you met the Rebbe.
Certainly, and I had a few interactions with him. I wrote a few articles about the story of my marriage and how the Rebbe guided it. In short, I went to the Rebbe to ask for a blessing for children for someone and he spoke to me in French about a husband. At first I thought the Rebbe was speaking about my friend’s husband but afterwards I found out that the French-speaking young man whose name had been suggested to me for about eight months had called the rabbi who had been pushing the match to ask what was going on. I realized that had been the Rebbe’s intention in speaking to me in French about a husband, so I agreed to meet him. He was a very unusual person; he was a convert who was an astrophysicist and an opera singer. He was from Belgium, and French was a common language though his English was way better than my French. When we got engaged I went to the Rebbe to inform him. The Rebbe looked at me very intensely and said, “May G-d Almighty bless you to hear good news all the days of your life.” But then my fiance passed away. When I went to the Rebbe afterwards, he spoke to me in Russian. I felt very hurt. I wouldn’t have gone out with that young man if he hadn’t spoken to me in French, and now the Rebbe was speaking to me in Russian. I was confused by the whole thing. Exactly a year later, on the anniversary of the passing of this young man, I married my husband who is from Russia.
Interestingly, when I was 18 years old I had gone to Israel and visited my father’s first cousin in Bnei Brak. Her husband tried suggesting a match for me but I said absolutely not; I wasn’t interested in Chasidim, and I wasn’t interested in getting married when I was 18 anyway. When I got engaged I called my cousin to tell her and she put her husband on the phone. He said, “If you would have listened to me when you were 18 you would have had five children by now because Avremel Tzukernik is the boy I wanted to introduce you to!” They used to work together. The fascinating thing is that one of the things that brought me to Chassidut was a book called Return by Professor Branover. It had a big influence on me being an intellectual and academic approach to Judaism. When I had my twins I attended a lecture that Professor Branover was giving. After the lecture I went to ask him a question. When I told him my name he asked if I knew Aharon Leib Tzukernik—my father-in-law, who had passed away a short time before and after whom the baby I was holding was named. I held up the baby and said, “This is Aharon Leib Tzukernik; he’s named after my father-in-law.” He became emotional. “I used to live in Riga, and there was a group of Jews there who influenced me to become observant. One of them was Aharon Leib Tzukernik” he said. I thought to myself how remarkable it was that my father-in-law influenced a fellow Jew who in turn influenced me. It’s amazing how G -d makes matches.
I know that you speak about Lag Ba’Omer.
I have an article about it on my website that talks about curses and blessings. There’s a beautiful excerpt from the Zohar about Elijah the Prophet and the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (whose passing was on Lag Ba’Omer) and how he dealt with the suffering in his life. The Zohar says that a cave can be compared to either a womb or a grave. They’re both the same thing. Birth is a death and death is a birth just in opposite directions. That’s how we have to look at our lives. I go into a cave and it’s dark. Is it going to be a womb that helps me give birth to something new, or is it a place where I’m going to curl up and die? Another aspect of Lag BaOmer is love of one’s fellow and inter-inclusion. Holiness is characterized by subtlety. Truth is not monochrome. Truth is counter-intuitively harmonious, tiferes. It has many aspects and components. That means that we have to open our hearts to other people’s truths. What people tend to do is either go to a place of moral relativism where there’s no truth other than one’s subjective perspective, or they say that there’s only one “truth.” Neither is accurate. Truth is G-d. Truth is a beam that traverses from one end to the other end, itself encompassing a broad spectrum of inter-included truths. I think that Lag Ba’Omer is about that as well, saying that I have my way of being and someone else has his or her way of being, although obviously not in a way that contravenes Torah law. “These and these are the words of the Living G-d.” Harmony, truth, containing our parts and holding others…I think that’s a very big theme of Lag Ba’Omer.
Join me for more at the Global Geulah Summit with Shifra Chana Hendrie
Want to find out more? Check out the Global Geulah Summit. My friend Shifra Chana Hendrie is hosting it. I’ll be speaking with her LIVE on 12 Tammuz! (That’s July 15) It’s going to be outstanding. And I don’t say that lightly. You’ll have a chance to ask questions and I’ll be doing some live coaching as well for those who want it. See you on the inside.