Jul 24, 2018

I have life

by Noa Cacharel

How Shabbat and the teachings of an early 20th century Polish Kabbalist helped me find purpose, meaning and my true place in this world.  

I was born in Herzliya, but I live in Tel Aviv.

I’ve always felt that there is deep meaning to existence – something below the surface of the everyday, deep and hidden and waiting for us to discover. My whole life I’ve been looking for it. My search for meaning has taken me to Mexico and Brazil. To India and Australia. To England, France and Germany, and the rest of Europe.

I guess I was fortunate that my job as an Israeli film marketer enabled these globe-trotting adventures. But the more I searched, the more this state of spiritual restlessness grew. Then one day my dad died. The floor of my world dropped out, and with it came the realisation that this search for meaning had really just been a way to escape – from life and from family and even from myself. In the days and weeks after his passing, I came to understand the importance of family, of what really matters in life. Gradually, I stopped searching for answers outside of myself, stopped wandering all around the world, and journeyed inwards, looking for ways to connect to myself and my Source.

This new inner search brought me back home, where I discovered Judaism. My point of access was through the mystical side – the Kabbalah, and my guide was a holy Polish Kabbalist from the early 20th century, the “Baal HaSulam” (Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag). I devoured his commentaries on the Zohar and on the writings of the Arizal (the 16th century mystic from Tzfat) and the ideas spoke to the depths of my soul. But, what really inspired me was his somewhat unexpected emphasis on more earthly matters – in fact, his entire worldview could be summarised by “love thy neighbour”. He wrote at length on doing good for its own sake, on helping others without wanting or expecting anything in return, of being G-d-like in our unconditional kindness and love for our fellow. For the Baal HaSulam, the Torah was a means of profound personal transformation; specifically, of transforming human consciousness from egocentricity to altruism, from the "desire to receive" to the "desire to give" (Ratzon LeHashpia).

My other access point to Judaism was Shabbat. And these two avenues would later collide in a surprising and sublime way.

Many people ask me why I started keeping Shabbat. My only answer is that it just feels like the best thing I can do for myself. It sparks some kind of inner feeling I wasn't familiar with before. But, more than that, it feels so good and so natural. I began taking my first steps three years ago, and gradually began taking on more – a slow, organic process.

My first Shabbat, I didn’t switch on any lights, but I did turn on the TV beforehand, with three movies locked and loaded and playing in succession. For my first few Shabbats, that was my Friday evening. In those early days, many challenges confronted me. Some were relatively simple, like learning how to prepare the house for Shabbat, setting the hotplate timer, setting the air conditioning to the right temperature. But loneliness was the real challenge. It was stifling. I knew it could be different, that Shabbat could be happy and joyful. I just needed people.

I wasn't connected to a community, and on Shabbat I was alone most of the time. I didn’t yet know the beauty of Shabbat and Friday night Kiddush – but I longed to belong, to be a part of a community.

While searching online, I found The Shabbat Project. I’ve read of many people whose lives have been forever changed by The Shabbat Project. For me, the impact was more indirect, but no less profound. I decided to sign up for a Friday night dinner in celebration of the first international Shabbat Project. The dinner was hosted by Inspire Tel Aviv, the Tel Aviv branch of the Jerusalem-based Shalom LaAm organisation. Shalom LaAm, headed up by the great Sephardi Kabbalist and halachic decider, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, runs a variety of programmes nationwide connecting Jews with their heritage and with one another.  

The wonderful families connected with Shalom LaAm host hundreds of people every Shabbat and festival. The uniqueness of the Tel Aviv branch is that the organisation takes care of olim from all over the world, while Israelis like me are also welcome. I have an opportunity to meet people from many different countries and cultures. For example, at last year’s Pesach Seder, I heard Ma Nishtana in Japanese, Persian, French, Russian and German. I no longer needed to explore the ends of the earth. I had found my home.

Nowadays, Shabbat is never lonely. I spend it with the most wonderful, loving families. People whose love and sincere warmth is beyond description. People who have breathed life into my Shabbat experience. With G-d’s help, when I have my own family, I will merit to bestow such wonderful hospitality on others.

And now this is truly where my journey comes full circle. My involvement in ITV led me to the non-profit NGO, Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama. And I can think of no other organisation that better exemplifies the communitarian ideals of the Baal HaSulam. Staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers, Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama provides food baskets to families in need every week before Shabbat, as well as before Rosh Hashana, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. It also renovates houses for Holocaust survivors and the poor, puts on bar mitzvah celebrations for youth from broken homes, and runs holiday activities in hospitals, old-age homes, and children’s hostels. This was my opportunity to really live the Baal HaSulam’s teachings.

I am involved in delivering Shabbat food parcels. It is an emotional rollercoaster. A few weeks ago, we couldn’t gather enough donations to cover the cost of the parcels. I had to explain to families that for that week, they would have to go without. There were two responses. Some said they would manage this time, but would not be able to go another Shabbat without them. Others broke down in tears, saying they had no food at all and had no idea what they were going to do. It was maybe the most devastating experience of my life. At the last minute, thank G-d, some funds came through and we were able to make the deliveries. Seeing their heartfelt appreciation and profound relief was among the happiest experiences of my life.  

There are so many ways to help others and so many people who need help. Baal HaSulam’s creed is to “give everything you can, take only what you need”. It’s not easy, but this is how I, too, try to live my life.

Today – thanks to my Torah teachers, to the families that have adopted me as one of their own every Shabbat, to Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama and Shalom LaAm – I have meaning, I have purpose, I have life. And Shabbat is at the centre of it.

Noa Cacharel

To find out more about Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama and how you can volunteer your time or contribute in other ways to helping the organisation deliver weekly food baskets, renovate dilapidated homes and run various care programmes, visit www.nara.co.il.

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