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Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

Less than a speck of dust

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Have you ever considered the vastness of the universe? It makes you feel kinda small and insignificant, doesn’t it? Think about this: Imagine if Grand Central Station were filled from the floor to the ceiling with dust, one speck of dust would be roughly equivalent to the size of earth. And each one of us are basically like a seventh of a billionth of that speck of dust. That’s without even taking into account the unpopulated areas of earth - not to mention the plants, animals etc.

That’s mind-bogglingly insignificant.

But that’s not the whole story. You see, the Torah begins with the creation narrative. And however you choose to understand it, one thing is certain: G-d brought the world into existence. The entire universe was created before humanity was brought on the scene.

And this points to how mind-bogglingly significant we actually are. From G-d’s point of view.

While our world may be equivalent to a tiny speck of dust, G-d decided that all of existence is worth it for what we can accomplish during our time inhabiting this tiny speck.

All of existence was brought into being so that we could partner with it’s Creator in perfecting this world.

It’s a mighty powerful idea with massive implications. Think about it.

It means we have inherent value, every single one of us. It also means that G-d is invested in our success, He doesn’t want us to accept failure - our own personal failure - as final. We always have the ability to turn our life around and our biggest cheerleader is G-d.

Powerful ideas indeed. 

Were you gypped by your Hebrew School Education?

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If your Jewish education taught you that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most important Jewish holidays, you’ve been gypped! Seriously, you should ask for your money back. 

 

I mean how inspiring is it that the most important holidays are serious, with endless prayers and deep regret and repentance? I know that more than one Hebrew School student has checked out of the whole Jewish thing simply for this reason - if this is what it’s all about, I’m outta here!

 

The truth is that Sukkot (which ends today) and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, which begin tonight, are the real High Holidays. And Simchat Torah is actually the highest holidays of them all.

 

While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tell us in stark and somber tones of the need to return to G-d, Simchat Torah celebrates our innate bond with G-d and Torah that spills over into every aspect of our lives; no matter who, no matter where.

 

So really, whatever your plans may have been for Saturday night, reschedule them. Instead, join us for the Simchat Torah celebration (details below). Joyous dancing, great food and treats for the kids - trust me, you don't want to to miss it! 


Chag sameach!

 

When are the wicked forgiven?

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So, it’s behind us. Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - all who wish can return to G-d and begin over with a clean slate. It’s an amazing concept and a powerful holiday. It reflects the deep and abiding belief that G-d has in each of us, that we are worthy and redeemable despite our flaws. G-d sees in us what we sometimes don’t see in ourselves.

Many think that Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of the Jewish calendar (and they may be right in some ways) but the truth is that Sukkot has something over Yom Kippur. And it’s message is so relevant and needed nowadays.

Sukkot, which begins tonight, is such a wonderful holiday. With deep meaning and significance, the rituals associated with it are so rich and colorful - Sukkot is my favorite holiday. The obvious associations of the holiday are the Sukkah, the Lulav and Etrog and the dancing and celebration. 

But there is something more - it’s also the time of forgiveness. The Midrash tells us that the unity of Sukkot affects forgiveness for those who are so wicked that even the holiness of Yom Kippur can’t bring about forgiveness for them.

Consider the power of this idea; someone might be considered so far gone that Yom Kippur can’t help them - yet the power of unity brings about forgiveness for them.

It certainly helps us realize how powerful unity actually is. 

Just as a reminder - there’s minimal value in being united with those who share your values and outlook. True unity is when it includes those who bitterly disagree with you and everything you believe. Consider the Four Kinds, the Mitzvah which we observe on Sukkot; they are all different, yet the mitzvah is specifically to bring them together. The Sukkah itself reflects the same idea - it equally surrounds people of any and all creeds in its holy embrace.

Perhaps Sukkot is a good time to consider how we view and treat those who differ from us? Give it a try, you might be surprised to find that letting go of division and discord actually makes your life lighter and happier.

Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom!

 

 

Unleashed

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Yom Kippur. Everyone has a different association. Some focus on the fasting, others on forgiveness. For some, it’s a matter of spending much longer than they’d rather in the synagogue. 

Personally, I find it to be a profound and extremely meaningful holiday.

How can Yom Kippur be meaningful, you wonder? I’d happily share my thoughts in person, but suffice it to say that if you’d like to appreciate it too, you need to tune in. Radio waves are everywhere, but without a device; a radio that is tuned in, you will be completely oblivious to the music.

On Sunday night we will gather and hear the Kol Nidrei solemnly intoned by the chazzan (cantor). Many people in the room will close their eyes and sway, others will furrow their brow in deep concentration. Between the haunting tune and the reaction of the crowd, you would imagine that this prayer, “Kol Nidrei,” the one that sets the tone for the entire Yom Kippur, would be a truly profound and moving prayer. Yet, when you turn your attention to the English translation you will find that it’s more or less a technical statement that “the vows that I make shall be null.”

Is that the best we’ve got? Is that all we could come up with to begin Yom Kippur??

As always, when we dig a little deeper we find treasures:

The prayer begins with the words “Kol Nidrei V’esorei” - “All vows and prohibitions.” Hebrew is a very precise language, and therefore often a word can have a different connotation depending on the context. “Kol Nidrei V’esorei.” The word “V’esorei” in this context can mean “that which binds me.”

When Yom Kippur begins, we turn to G-d and we say: We are letting go - we are no longer allowing ourselves to be defined by the limitations, habits and choices we’ve lived with in the past.

When we communicate our choice to disengage from the negative bonds that constrain us, we pray to G-d that He, too, not treat us in the limited fashion that may be in store for us; rather we ask that the bonds and limitations be removed and that we truly be blessed with a great New Year!

Yom Kippur is about unleashing ourselves from our limited self view and allowing us to view ourselves from G-d’s perspective, with unlimited potential.

Shabbat shalom and G’mar chatimah tova!

 

Does 9/11 make a difference to you?

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I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing and I’m sure you do too. For all of us who were old enough at the time, 9/11 will never be forgotten. 

The question is, so what? So what if we will never forget the events of that morning? Does it truly make any real difference to us?

While there are many emotions and thoughts associated with 9/11, I think that one important takeaway - relevant to all of us - is that each of us can literally change the world. 

Think about it: a group of 19 young individuals, driven by hatred and misplaced religious zeal, hell bent on destruction, were able to detrimentally alter the course of history. Their cause was and remains wrong and downright evil, but they had one thing that enabled them to succeed in their nefarious mission - a deep commitment to their misguided cause.

Imagine what we can accomplish with our commitment to a just and holy cause. Imagine what we can achieve if we deeply commit ourselves to our cause - making this world a G-dly place and encouraging those around us to do the same.

If they can succeed in their mission of destruction, we can surely succeed in our holy work. It’s time for each of us to be leaders in our own lives and positively alter the course of history. 

If so few people could cause so much harm, imagine how much good we all could accomplish!

Kahoot!

Copy link into your browser: https://kahoot.it/challenge/09554860?challenge-id=904bc288-4909-43dd-9ab3-2f84ec268e2c_1589334365p602 PIN: 09554860

This inspired me - what inspires you?

Coffee mug - begin.jpg Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

It’s been a while since I’ve been astonished to the point of being speechless. Last night was one of those times. 

We had the privilege of hearing a first hand story of miracles from my friend Rabbi Elie Estrin. His son, Nissi, was diagnosed in utero with multiple heart defects and they were told he would never survive more than a few hours. 

Fast forward four+ years and Nissi is a happy and lively, mischief-loving four year old. Yes, he has had multiple major surgeries and procedures; yes, he is physically limited in some ways but he is alive and bringing much joy to many. 

The presentation raised many fundamental matters; trust in G-d, the limitations of doctors’ expertise and above all the value of life.

It’s not unusual to take life for granted; we wake up in the morning and we go about our day with nary a thought about how amazing it is that we are alive. Hearing the story last night reminded me of the value of each and every life, beginning with my own life.

Don’t get me wrong, we all value life and appreciate the time that we have. But do we truly make an effort to ensure that our time here is well spent? That the investment of resources in our life is justified by the return?

I know myself that there is always room for growth and improvement. And today is just the day to consider it. You see, today is called the “Second Passover”.

The “Second Passover” came about due to a group of people who had missed the original opportunity to bring the Passover sacrifice and begged for another chance. Their entreaties resulted in a holiday added to the Jewish calendar, the “Second Passover”.

Nowadays the holiday is more symbolic than observed since we don’t have the ability to offer sacrifices, however the meaning of the day is deeply significant.

The “Second Passover” reminds us that it is never too late - no matter the choices we’ve made until now, no matter the life we’ve chosen for ourselves - we always have the opportunity to choose differently. 

There are often things that upon reflection we wish we could have done differently, choices that we could have decided differently. And many times those reflections conclude with resignation and acceptance of the status quo.

Today is a reminder that we should never be satisfied with the status quo just because that is what we’ve been familiar with until now.

The difficulty is the effort required to change. For me, hearing stories like the one we heard last night provides a boost and serves as inspiration to gather the internal resources needed to make the necessary change. 

What inspires you to make change? Take a minute and think about it.

Tweeting

Birds tweet.jpg Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

When the Torah portion converges with current events, you absolutely know that every rabbi is going to discuss it. This week’s Torah portion discusses quarantine - yes, it’s really true, check it up for yourself. 

But in all honesty there’s something else that struck me about the theme of this week’s Torah portion: The power of words. 

While the actual discussion in the portion doesn’t take place today - no one is being affiliated with spiritual ailments that physically manifest the way it’s described in the portion. Nor are we offering sacrifices as part of the process of refinement. That doesn’t mean we can’t glean guidance from the message - on the contrary, it brings it into greater focus. 

Briefly, the portion describes an instance where someone who was engaged in negative speech patterns would be affiliated with a particular skin disease. This would render them impure and would require extended sequestration and quarantine. 

Once the disease had cleared, an indication of the spiritual rectification accomplished by the individual, a peculiar ritual would take place as part of their refinement process. The Torah describes that the Kohen would take two birds (among other items), slaughter one and send the other out into the field. 

The commentaries explain that birds - known to tweet long before humans ever used Twitter - were a reminder that speech shouldn’t be used mindlessly. A person should think before speaking, not simply tweet excessively like a bird.

Why then were there two birds? And why was one slaughtered and the other set free?

Because there are two types of speech: negative, destructive speech and positive, constructive speech. 

Both are extremely powerful and far reaching. Both, once expressed, cannot be taken back. One should be “slaughtered” and removed. The other should be set free, into the field.

Nowadays the power of speech is even more relevant. We can use it to divide, deride and degrade. Or we can use it to unite, elevate and embrace.

Instead of taking to social media to rant about one thing or another, perhaps a better use of our phone and our time is to call someone and check in to see how they’re holding up. Never underestimate the power of speech - especially when employed to bring a smile to someone’s face and warmth to their soul.

Are you feeling inspired nowadays?

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Are you feeling inspired nowadays? I often don’t feel terribly inspired myself. 

I know, Passover just ended and I should be inspired by the message of freedom that it contains. Maybe I didn’t connect with it as much due to the current circumstances?

I know, we just began the second week of Sefirat HaOmer; the personal spiritual refinement program that leads to Shavuot. But I’m not sure I’m motivated to work on my spiritual refinement; the Coronavirus seems too distracting.

I can’t connect with people the way I’m used to; I can’t run our services and classes the way that I’m used to; I can’t even workout or take the kids to the park the way that I’m used to. Maybe that’s what’s derailing me?

One thing I know - if I’m expecting circumstances to change before I change my life, I’ll be stuck in a perpetual rut. 

Yes, circumstances have changed and we’ve all needed to make adjustments that are not familiar. But we can’t allow ourselves the comfort of shirking our personal responsibility due to these changes. 

We should acknowledge the changes, recognize the difficulties they might present and then, move forward. Stagnation is unhealthy; physically as well as spiritually. The best antidote for a lack of inspiration is to take a step forward. 

Do something, anything really, rather than just sitting and bemoaning the circumstances.

One step in the right direction is so powerful. It changes our state of being to one of forward motion, however insignificant it might seem. And it helps us channel the infinite power of our soul. 

This time is a true gift, it’s a push to each of us to develop and strengthen our internal selves. It’s an opportunity to prioritize what’s important to us based on our priorities, not just on what is expected from us by others. 

Let’s each take a step in the direction of growth.

It's Not About You

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Whether it’s nature or nurture, we tend to consider everything from the standpoint of our personal benefit. We engage in activities that make us feel good and refrain from things that don’t. Whether it’s simply physically pleasurable experiences or experiences that make us feel good from a moral standpoint, it’s all about what makes us feel good.

The issue is that if our barometer of right and wrong is based on our personal experience, we are obviously going to be extremely biased in our assessment. We cannot be honest arbiters if we have so much at stake.

Does that mean that we have to live a repressed life? Never feeling satisfaction and enjoyment from life? Constantly looking to avoid any personal benefit? That certainly doesn’t sound very attractive.

The truth is that our deepest satisfaction in life, our truest expression of self and our most profound connection to G-d, all hinge on abandoning this modern day measurement of value. We can never achieve true satisfaction when we focus on ourselves and our “feeling good” as the determining factor in our lives.

Life is not about what we need, it’s about what we are needed for. 

When our life is focused on our responsibility - to G-d and to others - rather than on ourselves, we are living up to our purpose of being and we can be honest about determining right from wrong. The ironic thing is that when we do focus on what we’re needed for, we actually gain personal satisfaction too.

 

TBU??

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When we read about Moses embarking on his historic Exodus mission, the Torah includes a seemingly random and irrelevant detail: he placed his family on a donkey. At first glance it seems like this may be a classic example of TBU - true but useless - information. What’s the relevance in knowing his family’s mode of transportation?

Strangely enough, the Torah doesn’t mention many seemingly central stories of our forefathers; they’re only discoverable by studying the Midrash and other sources. But this donkey is mentioned?

 

Taking into account a fundamental principle of Torah study that every detail in Torah is instructional, (as implied by its name - Torah meaning instruction), it only serves to create more confusion. The Torah is trying to communicate something by mentioning this detail - what could it possibly be? How is a donkey key to the Torah’s Exodus message? Or any message for that matter?

To thicken the plot even more - this donkey is described as The Donkey, i.e. the known and recognized donkey. A known donkey? A particular donkey?

When describing the final test that our forefather Abraham underwent, the Torah also mentions a donkey. And it gets even more strange: Moshiach, the ultimate redeemer who will usher in the utopian era of redemption, is described as arriving riding on a donkey. 

Is that The Donkey that Moses used to transport his family? What’s with this donkey that it keeps appearing??

With minimal investigation one can see a slight difference too - Abraham used his donkey as a mode of transportation for his supplies. In Moses’ case, he used the donkey to transport his family. And Moshiach himself will be riding on the donkey.

There’s an insightful and instructional message embedded in this distinctly and Divinely destined donkey. And in truth it doesn’t necessarily have to do with an actual donkey at all. The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor (חמור), uses the very same letters as the word chomer (חומר), meaning tangible, physical, matter.

Our role in this world is to elevate the physicality and corporeality of matter and transform it into something that displays the Divine. In other words, our world in its current state conceals the G-dly life-force that causes it to exist. Our role is to use the physical world for holy work, thereby elevating it and transforming it to holiness.

This work began with Abraham, in his time the “donkey”, i.e. the physical matter of the world, was only able to be used to transport tools and supplies. It wasn’t yet ready to be used for anything higher. By the time Moses was on the scene, the world had been refined to the extent that he could place his family on the donkey. 

Moshiach’s arrival will mark the completion of this process, that’s why Moshaich himself will ride on the donkey. 

Turns out that this donkey detail is much more than a passing reference to an ancient mode of transportation, it’s an insight into our very purpose in life: To transform and elevate the very physical nature of the world we inhabit.

And you thought this detail was simply TBU? Oh no - that’s never the case in the Torah!

 

Border Control

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with someone who works for the CBP, Customs and Border Protection, department within DHS. Over the years borders seem to have become a political issue - don’t worry, we’re not going to discuss politics today. But we are going to consider the concept of borders.

Many argue that borders are simply a social construct designed to divide and discriminate. They say that borders are unnatural and unnecessary and we’d be better off without them.

Without going in to the various sides of the political discussions, I’d contend that in fact the concept of borders is built into our very existence.

Think about it; there are natural, clearly defined and enforced (beyond our control, I might add) borders in our daily life. Take time. That’s a very clearly defined border. Today cannot be yesterday or tomorrow. Place, too - if you’re in California, you cannot simultaneously be in New York.

Borders are so much a part of our lives that we don’t even notice them. Night and day, male and female, the list goes on and on.

While these borders don’t depend on our involvement, they simply exist whether we like it or not. There are many borders that should be in our lives, and that do depend on our creating and enforcing them.

Often we need to enforce our personal borders; certain things simply don’t belong in our life. We each have the authority and agency to choose what to include in our lives and what not. Just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean it’s for us.

In addition to dividing from the outside, a border creates the space to create something within it too. This is true in our lives that when we don’t enforce our personal borders, we lose the ability to develop our personal identity. Enforcing our personal borders, choosing what to include in our lives and what not, provides us with the space to grow and become a true human being, living in tune with our soul.

News Year's Frustration

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Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash 

Have you found this week to be frustrating? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. So many people have all sorts of admittedly irrational high hopes for this time of year. Somehow they’re convinced that somehow everything would suddenly change due to being in a new calendar year.

Of course overnight change doesn’t get any easier; whether it’s a random night of the year or a night when we turn the page to a new year. Change remains hard. Life remains laden with the same baggage as before and it seems that our path is strewn with the same things that bogged us down before.

Is there any solution to this endless treadmill of life? Or are we destined to endlessly repeat the narratives of the past? How can we redirect this cycle?

There is a fascinating understanding of the narrative of Judah meeting his long lost brother Joseph described in this week’s Torah portion. Our portion begins with the words, “Then Judah approached him (Joseph).” 

Judah and Joseph are understood as representing two world views, two approaches with regards to how to engage the physical world we inhabit. Joseph was viceroy of the superpower of the time, Egypt. Joseph represents engagement with the world, with the intention of improving and elevating it. Judah, whose very name means submission to G-d, represents a complete dedication to G-d; conscientiously avoiding engagement with the surrounding physical environment.

Each mode has a strength and weakness. While Joseph has more chance of positively influencing the world, his mode of engagement also poses risk of being distracted and derailed by the concealment of the physical world. While Judah has less chance of being distracted or diverted by the world, his mode is less likely to elevate the world.

While they generally would represent two opposing worldviews, in this week’s portion, Judah approaches Joseph; they engage with each other. The secret to true success in life is embedded here in this first verse describing this historic meeting of the two brothers.

Life is heavy, it wears us down. Habits are difficult to break and it’s easy to get disillusioned. In order to successfully navigate our physical lives we need to be engaged spiritually as well. Judah approaching Joseph informs us regarding our attitude toward our physical lives; while we live physical lives, we need to ensure that we engage with and nourish our spiritual side. In fact, it can be argued that the spiritual side is even more important.

This is the secret to overnight change, whether tied to a significant date on the calendar or any other day of the year. Engage with your soul, tap into the spiritual and G-dly; this is the secret to incorporating significant and lasting change.

The Most Important Moment in History

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Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

When, in your opinion, was the most important moment in history? Would it be the Revelation at Mount Sinai? Or perhaps the advent of the printing press? Or maybe you would consider the introduction of nuclear energy to be the most significant moment in history.

 

To me it seems that Jewish teachings would regard the present moment as being the most significant moment ever. 

Yes, there were major turning points in history. Yes, they were major characters who played pivotal roles in shaping the world we live in today. However, as far as we personally are concerned, the most significant moment is right now. And the most significant choice is the one I will make right now.

We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future. If we get stuck in the past, if we think of the past to be more significant than the present, then we are giving up the opportunity to shape the future.

And if there is anything that history teaches us it should be to never give up an opportunity that comes our way.

The past may be filled with painful experiences, on a collective basis that is certainly the case. History is replete with accounts of mayhem and murder; pain and suffering seem to be the only constants in human history.

However this should just serve as greater impetus, it should motivate us to ensure that the future is not just more of the same.

We can gain our inspiration from Abraham. Our Torah portion this week begins with the narrative of arguably the single most influential individual in human history by describing his leaving behind his past. G-d tells Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s household, in order to journey to a “land that I will show you”.

In order to positively influence the people around him, and future generations, Abraham had to leave behind his previous influences. He had to leave behind his previous comforts and  his previous negative experiences too.

Abraham focused on the future. He did not allow himself to be discouraged by the fact that he was the only individual promoting monotheism. Today, the vast majority of human beings consider themselves to be monotheists.

We should never allow ourselves the comfort and complacency of our supposed inability to influence the world. 

Focus on the past, be distracted by history, notice negative trends and attitudes? Sure, we will be stuck repeating the same patterns. Focus on the potential for the future, the world that G-d intended for our universe to become, and there is nothing that can stop us from making it happen.

Get out of your way

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We each face huge obstacles to growth; we make an effort to change and we are stymied time and again. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we also hold the key to overcoming this obstacle. 

You see, our biggest obstacle to growth is also the one which is most in our control. Yes, that’s correct, we ourselves are our own biggest obstacle to growth. 

How often do you hear people say things like “I’m not a morning person” or that’s me “I always get lost”, or “I’m so bad with names”? Perhaps you tell similar tall tales to yourself as well? 

One of the most common responses I receive when encouraging additional mitzvah observance or Torah study is, “but Rabbi, I’m not religious”.

Let’s take a moment to understand what is going on here. Instead of working on myself to be able to get up and be ready in the morning, I give myself a preemptive built-in excuse: “I’m not a morning person”. Instead of making the effort to learn the directions or remember the name, I excused myself for failing - before I even made the effort. In fact, my excuse is so powerful that it allows me to fail without even attempting to make an effort!

And instead of learning and observing what I can, I define myself as non-religious and therefore “unable” to do anything Jewish.

The first step of positive growth is to allow ourselves to make the effort to grow. To take away our own built-in excuses and mentally re-frame the effort as something that we can work on achieving. 

“I struggle with getting started in the morning, I’d love to work out how to start the day on a better foot”; “I need to take a little more time to understand the directions so that I don’t get lost”; “Please remind me your name, if I use your name a few more times it will help me remember it”. “Rabbi, I haven’t been observant and I don’t know much but I’m always willing to learn new things”.

These sorts of responses remove our self imposed limitations and provide the context for growth. This doesn’t mean it comes easy; this means it can be done.

Everyone is familiar with Rosh Hashanah being the beginning of the New Year - but it’s also the close of the previous year too. Embedded in the observances of the day is the message that the past is exactly that - passed. It does not define our future. The new year is brought about by an entirely new Divine energy that creates and animates our universe - and enables us to emulate it by renewing ourselves.

This Rosh Hashanah make sure to delete the old tracks that have been playing in your head. Entirely delete the tracks that have held you back and blocked your path. With the beginning of the new year, start playing new tracks in your head - ones that are empowering and enlivening. Only play the tracks that encourage you and push you forward.

 

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