Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are festivals that ask us how we have lived thus far. Have we drifted? Have we been travelling to the wrong destination? Does the way we live give us a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfilment? Judaism is the satellite navigation system of the soul, and Rosh Hashana is the day we stop and see whether we need to change direction.
Time is short. Down here on earth we only have one life to live; and unlike money, time lost can never be regained. Judaism is the world’s oldest and most elaborately refined time management system, designed to ensure that we live for the things that matter, that bring meaning and value and joy.
Here are some life-changing principles I have learned from our faith, offered in the hope that they may help you as you reflect on the year that has passed and the one that is to come.
Together with Elaine and my team, I wish you and your families a shana tova u’metukah. May this year be a sweet and meaningful one for us all.
(1) Give thanks. Praying, we give thanks to G-d for all we have, and for life itself. This may sound simple but it is life-transforming. It makes us notice what otherwise we would merely take for granted. It helps us see that we are surrounded by blessings. We are here, we are free, we have family, we have friends, we have opportunities our parents did not have and our grandparents could not even imagine. Yes, we have problems, fears, pains; but they can wait until we have finished giving thanks; and once we have given thanks, our problems seem a little smaller and we feel a little stronger. There is medical evidence that people who have an attitude of gratitude live longer and develop stronger immunities to illness. Be that as it may, the psychological evidence is incontrovertible: giving thanks brings happiness even in hard times.
(2) Give your children values, not presents. Presents give delight for a day, values bring happiness for a lifetime. Give your children materialistic values and you will spoil them forever; nor will they thank you for it in later life. Give them ideals, teach them to love, respect, admire, train them to take responsibility and to give to others. Help them be at home in Jewish life and let them give you Jewish pride, and they will grow in stature until they walk tall, proud of what they are and thankful for what you helped them become.
(3) Be a lifelong learner. Learning Torah will exercise your mind and keep it young. It will stretch your soul and give it strength. Virtually all the classic texts of Judaism are today available in English translation. Better still, learn be-chevruta, “with a friend,” so that you can each be the other’s personal trainer, helping one another to spiritual health. Even better than that, learn with your children. Daven with them. Send them to a Jewish school and let them teach you things you did not know. Help them to climb higher up the Jewish ladder than you did. That is parenthood, Jewish-style, and it is one of Judaism’s most glorious insights.
(4) Never compromise your Judaism in public. If you want your children to stay Jewish, be consistent. Don’t keep kosher at home but not outside. Don’t have a simcha in shul and then a non-kosher function elsewhere. That gives children a mixed message, and children respond to mixed messages by concluding that you cannot be that serious about Judaism, so why should they? Consistency matters not just within the family but way beyond. Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. Non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism. Those who make sacrifices for their faith usually succeed in passing it on to their children; those who don’t, often don’t.
(5) Forgive. Emotional energy is too precious to waste on negative emotions. Resentment, grievance and hate have no part in the inner life of a Jew. In chapter 19 of Vayikra, the Torah says, “Don’t hate your brother (or sister) in your heart.” Don’t take vengeance. Don’t bear a grudge. Those who forgive travel more lightly through life, freed of the burden of feelings that do no one any good.
(6) Don’t talk lashon hara. The Talmudic Sages define lashon hara, “evil speech,” as saying negative things about other people even if they are true. They were harsh about it, regarding it as one of the worst interpersonal sins. Those who speak badly about others poison the atmosphere in families and communities. They undermine relationships and do great harm. They say, “But it’s true,” forgetting that lashon hara only applies to truth. If an allegation is false it is called motsi shem ra (“spreading a bad name”) and is a different kind of sin. They say, “But it’s only words,” forgetting that in Judaism words are holy, never to be taken lightly. See the good in people — and if you see the bad, be silent. No-one whose respect matters, respects those who speak badly of others.
(7) Keep Shabbat. If Shabbat had not been created, someone would have made a fortune discovering and marketing it. Here is a one-day miracle vacation that has the power to strengthen a marriage, celebrate family, make you part of a community, rejoice in what you have rather than worrying about what you don’t yet have, relieve you from the tyranny of smartphones, texts and 24/7 availability, reduce stress, banish the pressures of work and consumerism, and renew your appetite for life. It is supplied with wine, good food, fine words, great songs and lovely rituals. You don’t need to catch a plane or book in advance. It’s a gift from G-d via Moshe, and for more than 3,000 years it has been the Jewish private island of happiness. To get there all you need is self-control, the ability to say “no” to work, shopping, cars, televisions and phones. But then, everything worth having needs self-control.
(8) Volunteer. Give of your time to others. There is no greater cure for depression than to bring happiness into the lives of others. Visit the sick. Invite someone lonely to your Shabbat or Yom Tov meal. Share your skills with someone who needs to acquire them. Join one of the many outstanding organisations in our community. Hebrew has a beautiful word for such acts: “chessed,” meaning love-as-deed, love-as-kindness. The great Jewish psychotherapist Viktor Frankl used to say, “The door to happiness opens outward,” meaning that feeling low often comes from feeling alone. Bring the gift of your presence to someone else, and you will no longer feel alone.
(9) Create moments of joy. It can be as simple as a walk on a spring day, or watching an internet video of an old song that brings back warm memories, or paying someone an unanticipated compliment, or giving someone a spur-of-the-moment gift. There is a place in Judaism for osher/ashrei, “happiness,” but the key positive emotion in the Torah and the Book of Psalms is simcha, “joy.” Ivdo et Hashem besimcha … serve G-d with joy. Happiness often depends on external circumstances but you can experience joy even in tough times. Like sunshine piercing the clouds, joy liberates the spirit and breaks the hold of sadness. Let yourself, in Wordsworth’s words, be “surprised by joy.” Joy means opening your soul to the radiance of life, refusing to let age or time dull your sense of wonder.
(10) Love. Judaism was the world’s first, and is still the greatest, religion of love. Love G-d with all your heart, soul and might. Love your neighbour as yourself. Love the stranger, for you were once strangers. Love is the alchemy that turns life from base metal to gold; that etches our days with the radiance of the Shechinah, the Divine presence. True happiness, whether in marriage or parenthood, friendship or career, is always the product of love. Where love is, there is G-d, for when we love others, G-d’s love flows through us. To live you have to learn to love.
Do any of these things and slowly, gradually, you will begin to notice a change in your life. You will be less pressured, less anxious, less hurried and harried. You will find you have time for the things that are important but not urgent, which are what you most neglect now. The result will be more satisfaction, fulfilment, joy. Your relationships will be better, especially in the home. People will respect you more. You will feel yourself blessed. This may or may not add years to your life, but it will certainly add life to your years. You will then feel to the full extent what it is to be written into G-d’s Book of Life.
This column was first published in 2018.