Category Archives: Pirkei Avos

Time to Move

Life moves forward. Phases come and go. Situations change. And time continues to move.
I look back and see how I always thought that wherever I was, I would be there forever. I would forever be in elementary school. Then, of course, I’d be forever in high school. As a young newlywed, I thought I’d be at that stage forever – and I certainly couldn’t imagine being the mother of teenagers.
But time does not stand still – and neither do we.
Sometimes we find ourselves in troubling circumstances. A difficult teacher, a fight with a friend or a painful family situation. We might think we’ll be in that situation forever.
Or we can find ourselves in a great situation and loving it. Maybe we have wonderful social status, a great family or a teacher we’re thriving under. We might be lulled into thinking that things will always be pleasant and easy for us.
But I learned that life propels us forward. Ready or not, the phases come and go. It doesn’t only have to do with age. Situations change. The minutes blend into each other, creating hours. The hours merge together forming days. And suddenly we are at a different stage of life.
Actually, I cannot lay sole claim to these observations. Take a look at Pirkei Avos, ה: משנה כה – פרק “בן חמש שנים למקרא, בן עשר שנים למשנה…בן שמונה עשרה לחופה, בן עשרים לרדף…”. The mishnah talks about the stages in life and tells us what a person is ready for at each stage. During each stage there are changes that happen to us, preparing us for the next stage.
As life progresses we are presented with various situations, some difficult and some joyous. But through each one Hashem wants us to grow emotionally, to work on ourselves to change and be ready for the next situation that life will bring. And more: the way we handle the experiences that life hands us will hopefully make us into better ovdei Hashem.
As we came into the season of Purim this year, I remembered how the conversations in my house used to sound. The big decisions were about whether to dress up as a lion or a tiger or maybe even a British soldier.
Boy, how times have changed. Now the conversations are centered around other topics. “Ma, I’ll get drunk anyway, so can’t you buy me schnapps? “Guess what! This year I am smoking on Purim.” I look at my teenage boys and wonder when they got so big. When did we stop deciding which costume they would choose?
Then Purim ended, and I was thrown into Pesach. I remember how Shushan PUrim used to be the start of the countdown for going to spend yom tov with my parents. Now, Shushan Purim is panic day because somewhere along the lines of time I learned how to make Pesach, and it’s time to do it again.
It only seems like minutes from season to season. I have to stop and ask myself – Am I changing, growing emotionally, as my life pulls me along? Did a year’s worth of experiences prepare me for the next set of experiences? Have I grown closer to Hashem? Have I become more compassionate toward others?
The Mishnah can be used as a constant reminder to look at ourselves and evaluate if we are continuing to grow and change through each stage in life.
The Torah gives us all the tools we need to navigate everything we’ll experience. How will we make the most of each life situation? That’s up to us. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes said, “The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”
Let’s make sure that we are moving in the right direction.

 

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

I Deserve It

 

Hello. My name is entitlement. And I am here to protect you. You see, you have been through a lot, and therefore it is important to know that yes, you deserve whatever it is that you may desire. You deserve it by virtue of what you have been through, and I am here to ensure that you know that. I know that there aren’t too many girls in your school or neighborhood who sat shivah for a parent. So if you feel the need for leniency from you teachers, then, yes, you should get it. You need an extra outfit, or a new pair of earrings – then go for it. Of course you should. After all, how many girls in your camp had to pack without their mother’s help? So make sure that you get whatever you want. If someone says something insensitive to you, it is okay to feel angry at that person and maybe even mumble nasty comments under your breath. After all, there aren’t that many girls who watched their parent wither away from sickness. No one has any right to say anything hurtful to you, even it was unintentional.
You want to know why I am qualified to talk this way. Simple. Because according to Webster’s, the definition of me is: the condition of having a right to have, do, or get something; the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something (such as special privileges).
And you deserve it. So I am making sure that you know that. I am your friend who only wants you to be happy.

Have you ever had this voice of entitlement reverberating inside your head? Maybe it’s even there subconsciously, without you realizing it. It might be something that you don’t even want to admit, and you push it away.
But I think that I can introduce you to this “voice” because somewhere along the journey of my life, this friend that calls itself entitlement wormed its way into my head and heart. You see, I can tell you why I feel entitled.
If I would repeat the words that my sister’s friend said to me, you would agree that she is mentally unstable. How could anyone say such a thing? And yet she is very normal and said the most hurtful and untrue words. I know I am entitled to be angry at her forever.
If all my neighbors upgraded their kitchens, then shouldn’t I be able to do it as well? After all, I am the one who spends the most time there cooking, serving and cleaning up. And with all my hardships, I would think that at least I am entitled to what has become the norm in my neighborhood.
And if Hashem is still sending me hard situations after everything I have been through, can’t I say, “Hashem, it is enough. I don’t deserve this. I am entitled to only good things from now on.”
But one fine day, I turned to entitlement and I said, “Are you really helping me to be happier, or are you making me feel angry that my life isn’t perfect? And besides, why do you think that I am entitled to that perfect life? Yes, I know that I have been through challenges that most others haven’t been through. But it is what Hashem chose for me. Looking toward Hashem and asking Him for help in accepting the pain and to guide me in how to deal with it will bring me to a much happier place. Having entitled feelings will only keep me in my unsettled frame of mind.
You see, really, I believe in Hashem. And everything that happens is straight from Hashem. Even a person who is hurtful to me is only the shaliach of Hashem. So if Hashem gave me many painful nisyonos and then continues to put me in painful situations, it is because He knows what is best for me. It doesn’t make me entitled to anything. And staying angry or constantly running to keep up with everyone isn’t what will bring me to happiness.
In Pirkei Avos, perek gimmel,mishnah ches, it says “Ten lo mi’shelo she’ata v’shelcha shelo.” Rabbi Twerski explains that we should never feel resentment toward someone to whom we are giving tzedakah because we aren’t entitled to that money. When Hashem blesses someone with money, he is also being told to distribute it to those who need it. It isn’t all his to keep.
Each brachah that we have in our life is something Hashem in His kindness gave to us. He didn’t give it to us because we are entitled to it. He gave us lots of gifts because He loves us. We aren’t entitled to physical or mental health. We aren’t entitled to loving parents, looks or popularity. By recognizing that all these are gifts from Hashem, we can appreciate all the wonderful berachos He has given to us. And did He put me and you in some excruciating, painful situations? Yes. Does that make us entitled to now live on easy street? NO. Can we still feel happy? Yes. It’s a decision we can make. To decide to want to feel the happiness and accept what Hashem chose for us and to be grateful for the good that He gives us along the way.
And so I say to entitlement, “I am sorry. I do not want to be your friend. You are not here to make me happy. You are here to feed your own ego. I will not listen to you. I am ready to have a more serene existence. I will recognize that good. And I will recognize the challenges as something that Hashem has given to me to grow from. But entitled? Sorry, no room for that in my life. Bye-bye.”

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here with permission.

When the Journey Can Be the Reward

I have traveled many roads. Some were straight and easy, while others were dark and winding. Some of the roads led deep underwater into long eerie tunnels, while others were narrow and mountainous, so that I feared that one wrong step would lead me over a cliff.
If I would have a choice I would only choose to travel roads that are straight, with bright sunlight lighting up the way and beautiful scenery to enjoy as I coast along. But who is given a choice? In this life, we don’t get to choose which roads we have to travel.
As I once slid into the driver’s seat of my van, my son commented on his desire to drive. “It’s so much fun to drive. It means you’re in full control – like you’re the master, and the car is the servant,” he told me.
I couldn’t help but think to myself, Really? Do we ever have full control? Oh no. The roads we travel on aren’t the ones that we choose, but rather the highways and byways Hashem has chosen for us. The only choice that we have is how we will deal with the roadblocks we bump into on these windy, dark, narrow and mountainous roads.
In Pirkei Avos, פרק א’:פסוק ג’we are told, “אנטיגנוס איש סוכו…אומר: אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין…לקבל פרס” – Don’t be like servants who work only to get reward. But that seems so impossible. I should work and work on doing all the mitzvos and doing them with the right intentions and never get a reward? I am not a car, which my son says is like a servant. I am a real person with thoughts and feeling, desires and wishes. As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld says, “If I am doing and doing and never getting anything in return, then the whole relationship seems meaningless. It feels like a master-slave relationship. And if Hashem is giving me all these challenging roads to travel with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks and without a thought of reward, then how can I continue onward?
Author and educator Rabbi Yaakov Astor explains that time moves slowly when you’re expecting, waiting, pushing for something to happen – and it’s not happening. But when you’re focused on the process – accepting that what is happening is the way things are supposed to unfold, then the result doesn’t matter.
I remember a difficult road I had to travel when I was in high school. I was chosen to head a big project. I was excited and felt honored to be the chosen candidate. However, the other girl that was chosen to work with me had social issues. It was really difficult to work with her. The whole project wasn’t working out the way I had hoped it would. I felt incompetent – like a failure. I also felt stuck. I am doing this with someone who is incapable, therefore it is a disaster, and I can’t fix it.
I could have become angry at the hanhalah for doing this to me. I could have judged and criticized this girl for her wayward thinking and odd behaviors. But I recognized that that would keep me on a dark road of anger and resentment, devoid of any shining sun and beautiful scenery.
If Hashem placed me in this situation, which required me to work with this girl, then perhaps He wanted something from me. I had to learn how to explain things over and over again with patience. I had to learn tolerance for her emotional incapacities. And I had to learn to let go of the outcome. Perhaps that year Hashem didn’t want this project to be a smashing success. But He wanted me to work on my middos.
This is one of the deeper things אנטיגנוס comes to teach us. Do good without expectation of reward: when focusing on the process – which for me was working with this girl and making sure she didn’t feel put down because of her deficiencies even if the desired results wouldn’t follow – the right frame of mind that one comes to when working for pure motives becomes its own reward.
My roads may be winding and twisty. They can be dark and scary, with roadblocks of all kinds. Bur I ask Hashem to please help me to be like the servant who wants to serve Him in order to go through the process of bettering myself.
After all, what do I know about what’s really best for me? But doing His Will will undoubtedly bring me to bright and airy roads.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

Do You Know Who You Are?

Do you remember that girl in your class who was really pretty, whose hair was always perfect? Did you compare yourself to her and feel ugly? How about the girl who always had a witty response? Did being around her make you feel as if you were just so dull?  Do you still find yourself thinking like that? Does your super-clean sister-in-law make you feel like an incompetent housekeeper or your stay-at-home neighbor make you feel like an incompetent mother? Do you ever feel that you are boring, that you always mess things up, that you’re not so smart or talented or just a complete failure?
Guess what? You are normal. Probably many of the people you think are better than you look at others and also feel inferior in some way. It’s almost as if this is a mandatory qualification for being a woman.
I know a tenth grader who is on top of her class academically. She has a wonderful personality and lots of friends, and her middos are extolled by many of her teachers. Yet when I asked her why a teen who has everything going for her would have low self-esteem, she looked at me as if I was crazy and answered, “Isn’t it obvious why?”
Low self-esteem doesn’t stay behind in a classroom. If it isn’t worked on, it follows us straight into the workforce, marriage and motherhood.  But no matter our stage in life, it’s never too late to work on improving the way we feel about ourselves.
In פרקי אבות, פרק ב: משנה ו, it says, “.ולא הבישן לומד” What does this mean? One can’t learn because of embarrassment? Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes that if a person has a question in learning but won’t ask because he feels that he should know it, or he must not be smart because no one else has this question, then he loses out on very important learning opportunities. How can a person learn if he always feels embarrassed? This is not a good embarrassment, nor is it humbleness. It comes from feeling bad about one’s self and the repercussions are not positive.
With these kinds of feelings it is hard to achieve anything. How can you accomplish if you always feel that if your ideas had merit someone else would have come up with them or that you’re just not capable of carrying them out? Nowhere in the Torah does it say that you should feel incompetent or unqualified. And as the Mishnah says, your shame will stop you from understanding, learning and accomplishing.
There is one kind of embarrassment that is praiseworthy. This comes from anivus, true humbleness, like Moshe Rabbeinu displayed. We all know that Moshe Rabbeinu was an ענו מכל אדם. Yet, Moshe was the leader of Klal Yisrael. He knew his strengths and used them for עבודת השם.
We are all mirrors reflecting tiny pieces of Hashem’s various middos. Therefore, we must be careful to acknowledge when a talent exists within us. It is not egotistical to know that you are a great organizer, a wonderful listener, a talented party planner or a very patient, loving mother. Rather, realize that you are a reflection of Hashem’s attributes. When we can acknowledge that the strengths we have are from Hashem and we are ready to use them for our own growth or for the sake of those around us, then we are acting in a G-dly way. This is a positive kind of “embarrassment.”
So let’s say you are the typical mother and wife fighting those nasty voices in your head telling you that you aren’t good, that you are inferior to others. You don’t know how to handle this child’s issue. You aren’t sure that you are showing enough support to your husband. And maybe in general you are doing something wrong because your children almost never show responsibility. What are practical applications to help you like yourself?
You can know that like every living person, you are perfectly imperfect. Your flaws were given to you by Hashem, Who wrapped them all up together in a box for your life’s journey. (You can imagine what color your box is, the size of the box and whether it has a bow or not.)
Accept your limitations – they are from Hashem. But don’t become complacent about them. Work on them with Hashem. Ask Him to help you make changes to turn your negatives into positives. And don’t forget to recognize your strengths. Find them. Remind yourself every day about the qualities that are specific to you.
Talk back to your negative voices. You can tell them, “Listen here, Voice, I know you are trying to making me feel bad about my flaws. But guess what?  Everyone has flaws. I also have strengths. That’s what I am trying to focus on. So you can keep telling me that I am not good enough, but I will keep telling you about all my strong points.”
Consider the following quote: “It’s not what you are that is holding you back, but rather, what you think you are not.”
Learn what you are so that you can use your kochos fully.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

Friendships Can Make all the Difference

Do you remember how the years of high school can be filled with social stigma and social anxiety? Social circles and social acceptance are of utmost importance. I remember girls who wouldn’t walk down the hall to get a drink without a friend, as others might view them as being friendless. That was not a risk worth taking. Are you nodding along, even as you laugh at how silly this sounds?

The truth is, friendship really is important. Friends are influential – for the good and for the bad. A friend can help a person find herself – who she is and who she wants to become. A friend can encourage and inspire. A good friend continues to fill this role as one moves on through the various stages of life.

In the first perek of Pirkei Avos, the sixth mishnah tells us: “קנה לך חבר” – be mindful of who your friends are. Make sure that you are forming relationships that will help you grow and change, relationships that will allow you to learn and teach, relationships that will make you feel good about yourself so that you can be a positive, productive person.

A negative friendship will put you on a downward spiral. You might find yourself doing things you don’t really feel comfortable doing, going places you never went before, wearing clothing that are not up to your tznius standards or letting your children do things that are not really on par with your chinuch standards.  In such a friendship, you might feel anxious, confused and down on yourself, and when you stop to think about it, you might feel that the things you are busy with are not really “you.”

A positive friendship, on the other hand, can help bring out your ma’alos and strengths. Such a friendship engenders good feelings and pushes you to want to be a better “you.” In the company of a good friend, it is often easier to make the right decisions.

On the first day of my year in sixth grade, a new girl walked into the classroom, and we all realized we had a star in our class. I felt so lucky that she chose me to be her friend – her best friend. My new friend brought out my fun side, as well as the introspective side of me. As the years went by, and this girl continued to impress our teachers and amaze the principals, I really felt lucky that she was my very best friend. I had my social standing with a friend who was helping me grow.

Eventually we grew apart. But I can look back and see how our friendship helped mold me as a person. Years later, already married with children, I became acquainted with a woman in my town. Over time and with shared experiences, we eventually became close friends. I know how lucky I am for the friendship that we have. My friend is there for me whenever I need her. We share chinuch concerns and ideas – both practical and theoretical – and support each other when making difficult decisions. She is there for me when I am down because of a parent or sibling’s yahrtzeit; she helps me to get to the crux of what I’m experiencing so that I can move on. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; we build on the strengths and encourage through the weaknesses.

 And so I try to use my friendships for growth, and I try to be a friend who can inspire growth.  I hope I am passing down to my children the lesson of having a good friend and of being a good friend.  I hope that my parents are looking down and having nachas from the friends I have, the friend I am and the friend I have taught my children to be.

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.