Will you live a great life, productive and fulfilled? Will you look back on your life with a deep sense of satisfaction?
There is a simple test to find out. Think about your average day or week. Is it meaningful?
Because your life is made up of individual days, your answer to this question is a good indication of whether or not you are headed toward a fulfilled life.
Regardless of what you answered, your life can become even more satisfying. The following four-step action plan will assist you in coming closer to your Creator and following His wisdom for living. When you follow your Creator’s advice, you are guaranteed a meaningful life.
An essential element of life satisfaction is knowing you are making an impact, that life is not passing you by with little to show for it. Many search for fulfillment through fame, fortune or physical pleasures. As these pursuits are fleeting and rooted in the body – which does not last forever – by definition they cannot provide the lasting meaning we seek. True fulfillment is found when we enhance our spirituality; our souls are eternal and the benefits we receive when we nourish them are everlasting as well.
This action plan is not all or nothing; you will benefit from doing any one of its suggestions. Look through this plan, and choose one small change that resonates with you; make it part of your daily or weekly routine. Once you are comfortable with this new behavior, choose another one. Small changes will lead to consistent and sustainable growth. Overtime, you will uncover the path to your idealized self, the amazing, fulfilled and Godly person you were meant to be.
1. Enhance my relationships with others:
a. Do no harm. Avoid: speaking negatively about others, saying hurtful things, mistreating them, causing them distress in any way, causing financial harm or withholding items or monies due. If you lapse in this area – even inadvertently – as soon as possible, make amends and ask for forgiveness.
b. Use humor judiciously. Humor is a potent tool to enhance our and other people’s moods. At the same time, misused humor can be very damaging. Consider the following guidelines, both for the jokes you say, as well as those you listen to:
i. Never use other people (or groups of people) as the but of your joke, even if they tell you they don’t mind. It is lowly to make fun of others and frequently people do mind, even if they are too embarrassed to admit it.
ii. Avoid jokes where you need to add at the end, “Just joking” to clarify your intent. Frequently, “Just joking” is another way of saying, “The jokes on you.” We have to ensure that we are laughing with others, not at them.
iii. Do not make vulgar or lewd jokes, or joke about serious topics. The Talmud cautions us (Avodah Zorah 18b), “All those who mock and ridicule, great pain will befall them.”
If we take everything seriously, life becomes burdensome. If we take nothing seriously, life becomes one big joke – devoid of meaning.
c. Walk in God’s ways by doing acts of kindness. When we act Godly – following our Creator’s example of being a force of goodness – we feel deeply fulfilled. Start with family members and those with whom you interact daily. Show appreciation, consideration, interest, and empathy, and give warm greetings, compliments, and encouragement. Give generously, preferably putting money in a charity box daily. Look for opportunities to be of assistance to others. Aim to do at least one act of kindness daily or weekly, e.g., volunteering, giving emotional or physical support, advice, or helping someone find a job, a spouse or a needed resource.
One form of kindness is helping someone spiritually, assisting them in reconnecting with their heritage. Reach out to others by sharing an inspiring article, inviting them to study with you, go to a lecture or to a Shabbat meal.
Use your strengths to help others. Whether at work or during your free time, a key source of satisfaction is when you use your God given abilities to help His other children. Ask yourself, “What am I good at and enjoy doing? How can I use my strengths to help others?”
d. Look for the good in others and in myself. One of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in others and in ourselves (Likutey Moharan I, 282). When we view others and ourselves with a broad lens, not ignoring faults but also acknowledging good points, we will be more forgiving toward others and ourselves.
A complementary practice is to realize that we all have difficulties and to feel compassion for our own challenges and for those of others. Each day, look for the good in yourself and others, and feel compassion for the struggles we all have.
e. Forgive. Those who live fulfilled lives are not stuck in the past. The Sages advise us to be slow to anger and quick to forgive (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:14). Anger and hatred festering in our hearts harm us, and without them, we are able to benefit most from the present. Each day, while not forgetting lessons learned, turn a new page and let go of bitterness from the past.
f. Learn the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal behavior. Begin each day studying the laws of relating to others. A fascinating book on this topic is, The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver. This highly recommended book is divided into small segments for daily study. You can subscribe to a free email of each day’s segment at http://jvalues.ohrsites.com/subscribe.php.
Other resources on how to elevate our interpersonal behavior are http://www.chafetzchayim.org, which has books you can read for free online, and The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, which sends out free daily emails. See endnote (1) for details.
In addition, read works targeting the specific area of interpersonal relationships you are currently dealing with, e.g., dating, marriage, parenting or relating to your parents.
2. Enhance my relationship with God:
a. At the start of each day, ask, “Why am I here?” Remind yourself that God created you to come closer to Him through the choices you make, thereby earning the bliss of the Next World. Every day, choose wisely: Choose to have faith in your Creator, to be grateful to Him, to follow His guidelines, to be kind, and to make time for Torah study and prayer. Each day, through your choices, you will either come closer to your Father in Heaven or further away.
b. Thank my Creator for one of His blessings, and express love for Him. Each day, spend time feeling grateful for the blessings your Creator gave you. Thank Him for His many gifts, that your difficulties are not worse, and for signs of His help amidst your challenges. Throughout the day, when you notice something going right or that benefits you, say, “Thank you God!” Aim to awaken daily feelings of love and gratitude to your Father for all that He does for you.
We need to be grateful not only to God, but also to His messengers, thanking those who benefit us. When expressing your appreciation to God and to others, keep in mind these three principles. First, do not take anything for granted. Even if you receive a particular benefit regularly, you still need to thank the giver. Second, instead of just saying a perfunctory, “Thanks,” elaborate on how you have benefited and how much it means to you. Third, be on the lookout for ways to help the other person. Although God does not need our help, we show our appreciation to Him by keeping His Torah – which is for our benefit anyway.
c. Take care of the body my Creator entrusted with me. When we neglect our bodies, we not only disrespect ourselves, we disrespect our Creator. By making eating a healthy diet, and getting adequate sleep and exercise a top priority, we do our part to preserve our Creator’s precious gift of health.
d. Pray with understanding. Pick at least one section of the daily prayers to say with understanding. For that section, make it a rule not to say the next phrase until you focused on the meaning of the previous one. Read the words with the speed and intonation you would use when speaking to someone, after all, you are speaking to God. Ask yourself, “How would I say these words if I really meant them?”
e. Recite Psalms daily. Every day, recite at least one Psalm with understanding (longer Psalms can be read over two to three days). This will enable you to complete the book of Psalms twice, in under a year. Think about your personal situation and infuse the timeless words with new meaning.
f. Study the Bible daily. Preferably, study each day one seventh of the weekly portion, called an aliyah. Or, learn the whole portion on Shabbat. By the end of the year you will have studied the entire Bible. For more details, see endnote (2).
g. Throughout the day, sense God’s all-encompassing presence, and feel awe before Him. Remind yourself that God’s glory fills the world – His presence is in every cell and atom. Realize, that you are standing before God at all times. Feel reverence and awe before the Almighty. Men, can periodically touch their Kippot and think, “I have set God before me always...(Psalms 16:8)” Women, can use their modest clothing as reminders that they too have set God before them.
h. Practice Hitbodedut. Each day, talk out loud to your Father in your native language. Thank Him for His many gifts and tell Him how you yearn to come closer to Him. Describe your struggles and ask for His help. As part of Hitbodedut, review your day and consider how you did in living your values. Repent your mistakes, decide on changes you will make and build on your successes.
i. Increase my faith in God and my acceptance of His will. Use difficulties to bring you closer to your Creator. Ask for His help and make reasonable efforts to improve the situation. Each day, think of one challenge in your life and remind yourself, “This is from God for my eternal benefit. Every aspect of it is from Him for my highest good. Right now, this is the best possible situation for me. Doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge is the optimal way for me to currently fulfill my life’s purpose. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.”
3. Enhance my Torah observance:
a. Live the Torah to the best of my ability. When we follow our Creator’s wisdom for living, we fulfill our Divine potential. We bring the Torah’s holy teachings inside us, cleansing and elevating us.
Observance is not all or nothing. The Torah’s laws contain multiple tiers, starting at the bottom with the most essential, on up to more optimal performance. A common mistake is to ignore a whole section of laws just because some of the higher – more optimal – levels seem beyond our ability.
Focus on the laws within your reach and do not attempt too much at once. Accomplish what you can and do not berate yourself or discount what is currently beyond you. With God’s help, you will be able to reach those levels as well. To facilitate this, study the laws regularly, preferably daily. The Sages teach that one who studies the laws every day is assured a place in the Next World (Tractate Niddah 73a). For guidebooks on Torah observance see endnote (3).
b. Choose a rabbi to guide you. Ethics of the Fathers encourages us (1:6), “Make for yourself a rabbi…” Your rabbi will advise you which tier of observance is currently most appropriate for you and how, overtime, to upgrade your observance at a pace that is achievable. Choose a rabbi you respect and one who is accessible and understands your situation. For tips on how to find a suitable rabbi, see endnote (4).
Everyone needs a mentor and guide to advise them on life issues. If you cannot find a rabbi or rebbetzin to serve as one, locate someone wise with life experience who shares your values.
c. Observe the Torah as mindfully as possible, to fulfill God’s will.
In addition to following the Torah, the goal is to do so in order to fulfill God’s will – without ulterior motives – and to fulfill His will as mindfully as possible. Before doing a commandment, ask, “What am I about to do and why? Before whom am I going to do it?” Bring to mind that you perform the commandments before God to fulfill His will and that through them you draw closer to Him.
d. Stay away from temptation: When we are vigilant and stay away from temptation, we are usually able to refrain from sin. Ask, “Which areas do I frequently stumble in? What safeguards can I implement to keep me far away from sin?”
e. Repent and begin anew. Repentance, a precious gift from our Creator, enables us to remove the damaging effects of sin. It repairs and restores our connection to God. Repentance is best done regularly, as soon as we veer off track. To repent, do the following four steps: (A) Feel regret (B) Refrain from the sin (C) Verbally confess to God and ask for forgiveness (D) Make a verbal commitment to do your utmost not to repeat the sin. (For sins against another, we must first make amends and/or ask them for forgiveness.)
4. Become spiritually refined:
a. Study Torah daily. Set aside daily inviolate times to study Torah – even if only for a few minutes. Study an area that interests and inspires you, preferably with a partner. Your local synagogue can help you locate one, or you can contact http://www.partnersintorah.org/ and study with someone free of charge.
Every Jew has a unique portion in the Torah – one that resonates most deeply. Part of our life’s mission is discovering and claiming our specific portion. It might be a particular commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the entire 24 books of the Bible (also called the Tanach), Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, Jewish law or thought, works on spiritual development, the deeper meaning of Psalms and the prayers, Chassidut or a combination of the above. You will know you have found your portion in Torah, when your learning becomes a highlight of your day or week.
Many find Chassidic thought to be especially inspiring. There are excellent works from Chassidic Rebbes available in English. You can sign up for free emails of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s teachings at http://www.narrowbridge.org.
For more details on utilizing the power of Torah study, see endnote (5).
b. Speak calmly and in a refined manner. As best you can, always speak calmly and respectfully, even when provoked. When you are upset, it is best to wait until you calm down before talking to someone who is likely to further upset you. Rebbe Nachman taught (Likutey Moharan 19) that the purity of our speech influences our moral purity. Ask, “Are there any inappropriate words which I choose to remove from my vocabulary?”
c. Seek an uplifting environment. Are your current friends, work and community supportive, or at least do not negatively affect your spiritual growth? If they are negatively affecting you, do what you can to find a better environment and surround yourself with those who are a positive influence and role models. In addition, visiting Israel and especially moving there is supremely elevating. Nefesh B’Nefesh, http://www.nbn.org.il, is an organization that helps people move to Israel.
Social support is crucial for our spiritual, emotional and physical health. Make sure you have family members, mentors and/or friends with whom you share your struggles. We need people who will encourage us to strive for greatness and reach beyond our comfort zones; people who will celebrate our successes, help us regroup after disappointments, support us during challenging times and set us straight when needed.
We all have blind spots. When you are ready to be courageous, ask someone close to you which area of your life most needs strengthening. Positive feedback is also important, so also ask them in which areas you excel.
d. Purify and elevate my thoughts. The Torah cautions us (Numbers 15:39), “…Do not stray after your heart and after your eyes…” Throughout the day, we need to protect our thoughts and eyes from impurity as best we can. These include thoughts of committing any sinful act. Although what pops into our heads or fields of vision is largely out of our control, we can decide to redirect our focus elsewhere – to thoughts of God, His Torah and helping His children –and when possible, to avoid temptation in the first place.
Our thoughts – our innermost core – determine our actions and define us. As Rebbe Nachman said, “You are wherever your thoughts are. Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.” When we shine the light of Godliness into every area of our lives – including our thoughts – we say to God, “I want to be with You.”
Below, is an outline of this action plan. After reading it, ask yourself, “How would my life be if I lived this plan to the best of my ability? Would my life be much more fulfilling and satisfying than it is now?”
Once you have decided that living this plan, or part of it, is your long term goal, download a copy of the Daily Checklist Template (or make your own). Input into this weekly checklist the behavioral change upon which you will be focusing. At the end of the month, choose an additional area for the coming month and add it to your checklist. When applicable, write down in your checklist the specific action you will take. Ask God to help you achieve your goal. If you hit a snag, or, for personalized guidance, consult with your rabbi, rebbetzin or spiritual mentor.
Read your checklist at the beginning of the day and aim to fulfill each entry at the earliest opportunity, or at a designated time. As you do each entry, put a check mark by it. At the end of the day, read over the sheet and perform any entries you have not done yet. Congratulate yourself for each entry you do and for those you lapsed in, encourage yourself to start fresh tomorrow.
As you progress and come closer to living the life your Creator intended for you, you will discover that you feel happier, more content. Pursuits which enhance sanctity become sweeter, more enjoyable. Life is richer, more meaningful. Your relationships are deeper, more genuine. You are kinder, more compassionate. You have become more like your Father, more Godly. Your hard earned spiritual growth will enable you to have a deeply nourishing and satisfying relationship with God in this world, and to an infinitely greater extent, bask in the bliss of His presence in the World to Come.
Outline of, “How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan.”
1. Enhance my relationships with others:
a. Do no harm
b. Use humor judiciously
c. Walk in God’s ways by doing acts of kindness.
d. Look for the good in others and in myself
f. Learn the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal behavior
2. Enhance my relationship with God:
a. At the start of each day, ask, “Why am I here?”
b. Thank my Creator for one of His blessings, and express love for Him.
c. Take care of the body my Creator entrusted with me
d. Pray with understanding
e. Recite Psalms daily
f. Study the Bible daily
g. Throughout the day, sense God’s all-encompassing presence, and feel awe before Him.
h. Practice Hitbodedut
i. Increase my faith in God and my acceptance of His will
3. Enhance my Torah observance:
a. Live the Torah to the best of my ability
b. Choose a rabbi to guide you
c. Observe the Torah as mindfully as possible, to fulfill God’s will
d. Stay away from temptation
e. Repent and begin anew
4. Become spiritually refined:
a. Study Torah daily
b. Speak calmly and in a refined manner
c. Seek an uplifting environment
d. Purify and elevate my thoughts
1. Regarding daily emails from The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation: For a discussion on the laws and deeper significance of guarding against gossip, email email@example.com. For a discussion on just the laws of gossip, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For a discussion on the mitzvah of loving kindness, email email@example.com. For a discussion on faith and integrity, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For a discussion with anecdotes on the power of speech, email email@example.com. For all of the above, type “subscribe” in the subject heading.
2. After you are comfortable reading the weekly portion in a language you understand, the next level goal is to fulfill the Rabbinic enactment of Shnayim Mikra. This is done by reading each verse of the weekly portion in Hebrew twice (if you recite the portion softly while hearing the Bible read in the synagogue on Shabbat, then you only need to read it once more on your own) and to read a translation once. Translations/commentaries in order of preference are: Targum (a translation in Aramaic) or Rashi (a commentary originally in Hebrew and also available in English), or an authentic translation in a language you understand. Artscroll’s Stone Edition Chumash has an excellent translation and commentary.
A next level goal, in addition to studying the weekly portion, is to study the Prophets and the Holy Writings as well (part of the Tanach, of which Artscroll has an English translation). By learning one chapter a day, you will complete them in two years. This practice is called Nach Yomi. One resource to assist you is http://www.ou.org/torah/index#/nach.
3. Guidebooks on Torah observance:
a. An informative and entertaining overview is Gateway to Judaism: The what, how, and why of Jewish life by Rabbi Mordechai Becher. It is currently available at a steep discount through the publisher’s website http://www.artscroll.com/Books/gtjee.html. Two chapters are also available as a free download.
b. Aish Hatorah features a currently free online course on the laws of daily living at http://www.jewishpathways.com/daily-living.
c. A detailed compilation of the most regularly practiced observances is the English book, Shaarei Halachah: A summary of laws for Jewish living by Rabbi Zev Greenwald.
d. A book, published by Feldheim, which complements Shaarei Halachah is, Guide to Halachos: Volume 1 and 2, edited and approved by Rav Moshe Heinemann.
e. The 39 Melochos: An Elucidation of the 39 Melochos from Concept to Practical Application by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat, is a multi-volume set which clearly explains the laws of Shabbat.
f. Nidchei Yisrael (available in English), was authored by the towering sage, the Chofetz Chaim. He wrote this book for those Jews who had left their European communities and needed guidance on how to stay observant. We still struggle with the issues he mentions and will benefit from his words of encouragement. This book can be read for free at http://www.chafetzchayim.org.
g. The Chofetz Chaim addresses integrity in business in his Sfat Tamim, available in English, and can be read at http://www.chafetzchayim.org. In addition, you can receive from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, free daily emails in English which feature Sfat Tamim, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe” in the subject heading.
h. Those with sufficient background can learn Mishnah Berurah Yomi, studying each day the decisive work on Jewish law authored by the Chofetz Chaim. There are online resources to support this practice.
i. In addition to learning the laws, read inspirational stories about people who have chosen to live the Torah’s guidelines. Ask yourself, “How can I follow their example on my level?” One collection of such stories is Like Water on a Rock: True stories of spiritual transformation, which is a compilation from http://www.Aish.com, by Rabbis Nechemia Coopersmith and Shraga Simmons. Feldheim, Artscroll and Targum, among others, publish works of this genre.
4. Tips to find a rabbi:
a. Consider the rabbinic members of your community: Pulpit or shtiebel rabbis, those who learn in kollel, teach, work in some other capacity or are retired. In addition, ask friends, neighbors and family who their rabbi is. Some communities have few rabbis. While this can make it more challenging, it can also narrow the search.
b. Think of rabbis who have crossed your path or those of your children or spouse and try to reconnect with them. A frequently overlooked resource is the rabbis who taught you in school or taught your children.
c. When you hear of rabbis visiting your community, you can go to their lectures, host them or otherwise assist them. If you connect with them, ask if it would be OK to contact them periodically with questions. Alternatively, gather a few families and sponsor a scholar-in-residence to come for a Shabbat at least annually, and maintain contact with him during the year.
d. Compile a list of possible rabbis to choose from and select one who seems most appropriate. Attend his classes or ask him questions and see if you can foster a connection. If it doesn’t work out, move on to the next one on your list. It can be challenging to find a suitable rabbi; keep searching until you find the right one.
e. There is nothing wrong with having more than one rabbi, e.g., one to ask questions on observance and another, on Jewish thought or life issues.
f. If you are unable to find a rabbi to ask religious questions, there are websites which offer, “Ask the Rabbi” services. Make sure you use one that is authentic.
g. Pray to God to help you find a suitable rabbi from whom you can learn and grow.
For women, having a rebbetzin they consult with is also very important. The above tips can be helpful in locating a rebbetzin.
Be respectful of a rabbi or rebbetzin’s time. If you avail yourself of their expertise, especially ongoing, it is appropriate, when possible, to become a member of their synagogue, or support their school/organization.
Especially if you have limited access to a rabbi, having a spiritual mentor can be very helpful. If there are no such individuals in your community, contact Partners in Torah, who will pair you with one to study with for free.
5. Further discussion on Torah learning:
a. Search for authentic teachers who resonate with you and pick your preferred medium – audio, visual or print. An underutilized resource is MP3 Torah classes, which are great to listen to while commuting and when doing tasks that do not require your full attention. There are many excellent classes freely available online or reasonably priced.
b. Those with sufficient background can listen to audio classes on Rebbe Nachman’s Likutei Moharan given by Reb Nasan Maimon at http://www.breslovtorah.com/section/likutei-moharan-book-1/
c. Study works on spiritual development. Two classics are The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Duties of the Heart by Rabbeinu Bachya (both are available in English from Feldheim Publishers; Artscroll publishes Rabbi Luzzatto’s work under the title Mesillas Yesharim: Way of the Upright). Two contemporary works are Step by Step: A Weekly Program for Self-improvement compiled by Rabbi Dovid Weinberger, and The 6 Constant Mitzvos, both published by Artscroll.
i. The Path of the Just. You can study this work at your own pace, or follow the schedule below (based on the Feldheim edition) which will enable you to finish this book in a month. Read one chapter a day, with the author’s introduction counted as a chapter. Exceptions: Chapters 11 and 12 are read over four days – around 8 pages a day. For chapters 14 &15, and 24 & 25, read each set on one day. Read chapter 19 over four days – around 7 pages a day. The epilogue is not included in this cycle and for months that are not 30 days, adjust accordingly.
Pay special attention to chapter 11, an eye-opening discussion on commandments which many stumble in. By reading around one page a day (in the Feldheim edition or three pages a day in the Artscroll), you can finish this chapter monthly and maintain an ongoing awareness of those commandments.
ii. Duties of the Heart is divided into gates which deal with specific subjects and those gates are further divided into chapters. Traditionally, the first gate is not studied nowadays. The most famous gate is the fourth one: The Gate of Trust. You might want to study that one first. As you go through the gates and chapters, if one of them does not resonate with you now, skip to the next one; you can come back later. If one especially resonates with you, revisit it at a later date, savoring each point.
After finishing the book, consider studying each day of the month one of the thirty concepts mentioned in the third chapter of the eighth gate, the Gate of Self-Accounting. This way, each month you will review these fundamental ideas.
iii. Step by Step: A Weekly Program for Self-improvement compiled by Rabbi Dovid Weinberger. The table of contents and an excerpt can be found at http://www.artscroll.com/Books/SBSH.html. This contemporary work explores 52 traits, one per week. Each day, focus on embodying the trait of the week, or its positive expression.
iv. The 6 Constant Mitzvos. This book is based on a series of lectures by Rabbi Yitzchok Berkowitz, and written by Rabbis Yehuda Heimowitz and Shai Markowitz. The table of contents and an excerpt can be found at http://www.artscroll.com/images/insides/sixh-1.html#view-link.
d. A fast track method to spiritual growth is to take a couple of days or weeks off to immerse yourself in intensive Torah study. See if you can do this once a year or at least every other year. You will then receive an infusion of renewed spiritual strength. A number of places, especially in Israel, can tailor a program just for you. As an example of what is available, here is a listing of Aish Hatorah’s programs for all levels http://www.aish.com/ai/ip/96276423.html. If taking time off is not currently feasible, perhaps you can go on a Shabbaton or invite an inspirational rabbi or rebbetzin to your community for Shabbat.