Monday, March 26, 2012

How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan

(This post might be easier to read in the e-book format. The e-book is available here.)

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 help us find out. Think about your average day or week. Is it meaningful?

Because your life is made up of individual days and weeks, 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; even following just one suggestion has the power to enhance your life. Read through the plan and select one suggestion to try. Make that change part of your daily or weekly routine. Once you have given this new behavior an adequate trial (usually around a month), decide if you want to continue it and/or choose a different suggestion to incorporate into your routine. 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. Do acts of kindness. Start with family members and those with whom you interact daily, and branch out from there. 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 material 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 talents to help His other children. Ask yourself, “What am I good at and enjoy doing? How can I use my strengths to help others?”

c. 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.

d. 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.

e. 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

Other resources on how to elevate our interpersonal behavior are, 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.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has a number of popular books on the topic of Jewish ethics, which are especially suited for those with minimal background.

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, to be ethical and moral 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, the bright side/silver lining of your difficulties, 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 to the best of our ability – 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 the struggles of others to 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. Right now, this is the best possible situation for me. A key part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. 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 me. 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 three steps: (A) Feel regret (B) Verbally confess to God and ask for forgiveness (C) 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 for forgiveness.)

4. Become spiritually refined:

a. Study Torah daily. Set aside daily inviolate times to study Torah – even if only to read a few pages from a book. Study an area that interests and inspires you, preferably with a partner. Your local synagogue can help you locate one, or you can contact 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

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. Use humor judiciously. Humor is a potent tool to enhance our moods as well as those of others. At the same time, misused humor can be very damaging. Here are five types to avoid:

i. Using other people (or groups of people) as the but of your jokes, 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.

Some forms of kibitzing (joking around with people), fall into this category. People often kibitz with those with whom they are close. There’s nothing wrong with – when appropriate – cracking jokes or making lighthearted comments. However, when kibitzing involves making fun of someone or saying things which would be considered insensitive if said to those with whom we are not close, it should be avoided. Here are three reasons why: 1. Usually, the only one enjoying the kibitz is the one doing the kibitzing and it is easy to cross the line and offend the other person. 2. Even if we do not offend the person, making fun of them certainly does not strengthen the relationship or make them feel good – what our goals should be when speaking to others. Family and friends deserve to be spoken to with extra care and tenderness, not less. 3. It is pas nisht (unbecoming) to speak in that manner and we can easily get into bad habits and speak that way to those who will get offended.

ii. 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. Vulgar jokes.

iv. Cynical or sarcastic comments.

v. Mocking or ridiculing serious topics. It is destructive to make jokes which cheapen or degrade how we view that which is holy or important.

If we take everything seriously, life becomes burdensome. If we take nothing seriously, life becomes one big joke – devoid of meaning. Instead, take the middle path: Don’t take things too seriously, but don’t make light of serious things.

d. 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,, 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.

e. 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.

Your thoughts – your innermost core – determine your actions and define you. As Rebbe Nachman said, “You are where your thoughts are (Likutey Moharan I, 21:12).” When you think Godly thoughts, you 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, ask God to help you achieve this goal and commit to making small doable changes to turn your goal into a reality. Start by downloading a copy of the Daily Checklist (or make your own). Input into this weekly checklist the behavioral change you have chosen to start with. At the end of the month, choose an additional area for the coming month and add it to your checklist.

For suggestions on which topic to focus on each month, see the chapter, “The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.” 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. Do acts of kindness

c. Look for the good in others and in myself

d. Forgive

e. 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 me

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. Use humor judiciously

d. Seek an uplifting environment

e. 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 For a discussion on just the laws of gossip, email For a discussion on the mitzvah of loving kindness, email For a discussion on faith and integrity, email For a discussion with anecdotes on the power of speech, email 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

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 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

c. A detailed compilation of foundational laws of Jewish living is the English book, Shaarei Halachah: A summary of laws for Jewish living by Rabbi Zev Greenwald.

d. A book, also published by Feldheim, which complements Shaarei Halachah is, Guide to Halachos: Volume 1 and 2, by Nachman Schachter, edited and approved by Rav Moshe Heinemann.

e. 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 wise words. This book can be read for free at (Please note, this work was written for those who grew up religious. If you did not, speak to your mentor before reading).

f. The Chofetz Chaim addresses integrity in business in his Sfat Tamim, available in English, and can be read at In addition, you can receive from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, free daily emails in English which feature Sfat Tamim, by emailing with “subscribe” in the subject heading.

g. 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.

h. The Kosher Kitchen: A Practical Guide and A Woman's Guide to the Laws of Niddah, both by Rabbi Binyomin Forst, teach the laws of these fundamental observances.

i. Money in Halachah: A Comprehensive Guide to Business and Domestic Money-related Halachos by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver. This is an important work to have in the house; read the chapters which apply to you and consult with the rest as needed.

j. Here is a possible study schedule of the above: Beginners should start with a and/or b; this is optional for others. Then move on to c and d. Afterward, study e and f. Then branch out and study specific areas in depth, for example, g, h and i. If a particular work does not resonate with you, find a substitute (there are many other fine books to choose from) or skip to the next topic for now. (This study schedule presumes you are already reading, via email or the in-print version, Rabbi Yitzchok Silver’s The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships.)

It is important to keep in mind when reading books on Jewish law, that some books may incorporate stringencies which are not appropriate for your situation. If you read a law which seems overly difficult for you to fulfill, discuss it with your rabbi.

k. 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?”

i. One collection of such stories is Like Water on a Rock: True stories of spiritual transformation, which is a compilation from, by Rabbis Nechemia Coopersmith and Shraga Simmons. Feldheim, Artscroll and Targum, among others, publish works of this genre.

ii. Most Jewish biographies are written about famous rabbis and rebbetzins. The following one is not. It is about a business man who utilized his talents and resources to help others. Shlomie! A life of growth and achievement By Rabbi Shimon Finkelman.

4. Tips to find a rabbi:

a. Consider the rabbinic members of your community: Pulpit or shtieble 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 also 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, 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. 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

c. 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 This contemporary work explores 52 traits, one per week. Each day, focus on embodying the trait of the week, or its positive expression.

d. Passionate Judaism: An Inspirational Guide For A Happy And Fulfilling Life by Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss, contains wise advice on a variety of fundamental topics.

e. Building A Sanctuary in the Heart (Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh), is a popular and very helpful book which explains how to deepen your relationship with God. This book can be read online at

f. Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter’s inspirational writings can be read here.

g. English translations and adaptations of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings can be found at

h. Those with sufficient background can listen to audio classes on Rebbe Nachman’s Likutei Moharan given by Reb Nasan Maimon at

i. The classic, The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto is published by Feldheim and Artscroll, the latter publishes this work under the title Mesillas Yesharim: Way of the Upright. 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.

j. The classic, Duties of the Heart by Rabbeinu Bachya (available from Feldheim) 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.

k. 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 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 a Shabbat.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The 2 Forms of Divine Providence: Purim and Passover

Divine providence exists in two forms. One, symbolized by Passover, is explicit providence. This is when it is clear God is in charge. During the Exodus, when He brought the Ten Plagues, even the Egyptians realized God was orchestrating events to free the Jews.

The second form, symbolized by Purim, is implicit providence. This is when God guides our lives behind the scenes. There were no blatant miracles during Purim, no plagues brought against the wicked Haman. The commentators point out that to symbolize this concealment of Divine providence, in the Megillah, the written story of Purim, God’s name does not appear once! Nevertheless, we are awed at how our Creator wove disparate story lines into a breathtaking tapestry, culminating in our salvation.

Only if God wills it

Both Passover and Purim illustrate the key principle of faith that no one can harm or help us without God willing it to happen; nothing occurs without His permission. During the Exodus, who enslaved the Jews? Pharaoh. Who later begged them to leave? Pharaoh. During Purim, who authorized the extermination of the Jews? King Achashverosh. Who was later instrumental in saving them? King Achashverosh. Both were powerless to act against or for the Jews without God’s permission.

If God does not will something to happen, it won’t. Before attempting to benefit yourself, ask your Creator for help; you will only succeed with His assistance. Because God is all powerful, there is no difficulty or crisis He cannot solve; He can do anything. No situation or person is too far gone; God can still redeem them from the abyss. Because of this, never give up: Never give up on life, on others and especially not on yourself. With God’s help, anything is possible.

“God, are You there?”

Most of us believe God created the world. For some of us though, there is a doubt which lurks in our hearts. “Does God care about me? Will He help me?” During times of profound darkness this doubt rises to the surface and we ask, “God, are You there? Are You guiding my life? Where is Your help?”

Perhaps, during the period of slavery in Egypt and when threatened with extermination during the era of Purim, some of our people had similar questions. God answered them then and His answer continues to be a source of faith for our people. During the Exodus, God showed through wondrous miracles that He does care about us and that He is there for us. He is willing to move heaven and earth to redeem His people. Later in history, during Purim, God demonstrated that He does not need to perform blatant miracles to show us His love; His love is the undercurrent running through our lives, helping us behind the scenes.

The Jewish people have experienced many perils, many times when we asked, “Where is God?” You are alive because the Jewish people have survived in the face of unrelenting threats. The survival of our people is clear proof that God has continued to answer our questions. He has continued to show us His love and care. Not always when we want or in the way we want, but always when and what we need.

Even when our lives are filled with pain, nevertheless, we still have experienced sufficient blessings and help to answer doubts about God’s involvement in our lives. To each one of us He has whispered in our ears, “I love you. I care about you. I am with you in your pain. Trust Me and come close to Me.”

Make a list of the times God helped you in the past, the blessings He currently gives you, and the ways He is easing your burden, amidst your difficulties. Use this list to remind yourself that God is there for you, giving you comfort, guidance and strength.

Transcending our limited perspective

During the Exodus, it was clear to the Jews that God was orchestrating their redemption. In contrast, during Purim, the Jews thought they were in mortal peril. Yet, in truth, Haman’s decree of annihilation was as much for the benefit of the Jewish people as the splitting of the sea. The Talmud states that when King Achashverosh removed his signet ring to sign the decree against the Jewish people, he triggered among them an unprecedented spiritual awakening and return to God (Megillah 14a).

In our lives, we may think we know which circumstances would be beneficial to us and which ones would not. The reality is we don’t have a clue. Even as we do the best we can to improve our lives, we need to humbly let go of insisting on a specific outcome. Only God knows what is truly beneficial to us.

To gain an accurate perspective of events in your life, picture the Jews during the Exodus, crossing amidst parted waters. They knew with the same certainty as they felt the dry ground beneath their feet, that, “God is my shepherd, I shall not lack (Psalms 23:1).” Pick a specific challenge in your life. Regarding this challenge, imagine you have the same clarity they had. You know for certain that as you reach stormy passages, God will clear a path for you. You know without a doubt that He is guiding the issue for your eternal benefit, and that this struggle is there to bring about your personal redemption.

How does this viewpoint change the way you feel about this challenge? Like the Jews who sang the song at the sea, if we fully had the realization that God is our shepherd – guiding our lives – we would be singing praises to Him for all that He does for us.

In truth, we will sing these praises to God. King David describes the time when we will understand the Divine plan and perceive the incredible hidden goodness within our lives, “Then, our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with joyous song…(Psalms 126:2)”

It is hard to imagine laughing over painful events. Yet, even now, there may be past challenges which we understand in hindsight were for our benefit. In addition, in the future, we will measure our lives against the ultimate good – that which benefits our souls and our eternal existence in the Next World. We will then appreciate the endless love our Creator has for us and how He filled our lives to capacity with Divine goodness. We will realize that the temporary difficulties we experienced in this world were well worth the eternal benefits we will receive.

As in the story of Purim, if we maintain our faith, our struggles will turn into joy, guaranteed, either in this world or the next; it is only a question of when. Furthermore, we do not have to wait for our difficulties to end to celebrate; nor do we have to wait for God to reveal the reason behind our challenges to be happy. Just knowing He is guiding our lives for our eternal benefit is reason enough to celebrate. Just knowing He is with us always and will never abandon us, is reason enough to be happy.

On Passover, we celebrate God’s mastery of the world through His explicit miracles and His redeeming us from Egypt to be His people. On Purim, we celebrate that His providence and our indestructible bond with Him continues to this day. Not only are we joyous over the events we understand in hindsight, but also over the realization that we do not need hindsight to celebrate; we can be happy, right here, right now.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Speech Given at Ephraim Dovid Weiland’s Bar Mitzvah

I gave this speech on the 30th of Shevat, 5772 (2-22-2012) at the Bar Mitzvah of my nephew, Ephraim Dovid Weiland (my brother Mendy’s son). Please note, in this speech I used a number of Hebrew/Yiddish words which some may not be familiar with. Below is a glossary of possibly unfamiliar words:

Chasheva Rabbanim –esteemed Rabbis.  Simcha – joyous occasion. Dvar Torah – Torah thought. Parsha – portion of the Bible. Hashem – God. Moshe Rabbenu – Moses, our teacher. Mishkan – Tabernacle. Rashi – a classic commentator. Alav hashalom – equivalent of “may they rest in peace.” Gemarah – Talmud. Kabbalas Hatorah – receiving the Torah. Minyan – prayer with a quorum. Daf Yomi – daily study of the Talmud according to a specific schedule. Chesed – acts of loving kindness. Yibadel lechaim – term used when mentioning someone living right after having mentioned someone who has passed on; it is a prayer that the person lives a long life. Savta – grandmother. Baruch Hashem – thank God. Middos – good character traits. Davening – prayer.

Chasheva Rabbanim, family members, and honored guests, it is a pleasure to celebrate this simcha with you.

Many moons ago, some of you might recall that I spoke at Mendy’s Bar Mitzvah. I don’t remember what I said, so it’s possible that I might repeat myself, but doubtful. I guess I did an OK job, because Mendy asked me to speak today. Or, perhaps he’s hopeful that I’ve improved since then.

And now for the Dvar Torah. This week’s parsha, Parshas Terumah, begins with Hashem saying to Moshe Rabbenu (Exodus 25:2), “Veyikchu li Terumah.” “Let them take for me the Terumah,” the contributions for the Mishkan. Rashi explains that “take for me” means to give the donation for Hashem’s sake. Not to give because it looks good, or even because it feels good. Rather, to give because that is the will of Hashem.

Ephraim Dovid, perhaps the most important decision you will make in your life is hinted at, at the very beginning of your Bar Mitzvah parsha. You will decide whether to live for yourself, to do what looks and feels good, or, to live for Hashem. As you go through life, will you ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?  What benefits me most?” or, will you ask, “How does Hashem want me to act?”

Your great, great aunt Reba, alav hashalom, would advise me, “Yaakov, become ‘an epes,’ become a somebody.” When a person lives for themselves, he is a nobody; a manikin going through the motions of life. But when a person lives for Hashem, he is everything. The Gemarah teaches (Sanhedrin 37a) that a person is obligated to say, “For me the world was created.” When you live for Hashem, you’re a ganze velt! You’re an entire world.

Hashem said to the Jewish people (Jeremiah 2:2), “Lechtaiych acharie bamidbar, b’eretz lo z’ruah.” He praised them that after leaving Egypt they were willing to follow Him into a desert, a barren land. We need to be willing to follow Hashem, no matter where He leads us. When we do, like our ancestors, we will merit living our lives accompanied by the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Like our ancestors, we will merit our very own kabbalas Hatorah, Hashem will reveal to us the beauty and the sweetness of His Torah.

Your grandfather, whom you are named after, my father, alav hashalom , did his utmost to fulfill Hashem’s will. Even when he was sick, as best he could, he would go to minyan, study the Daf Yomi and use his free time to raise money for poor students in Israel. He loved to help people in any way he could. He lived for Hashem and to do chesed for Hashem’s children.

Yibadel lechaim, your savta, my dear mother, chesed is a driving force in her life. No matter the inconvenience, she gives of herself. But not only that, she gives with a smile, with an open heart.

Your other grandparents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Zweiback, are also wonderful examples of living for Hashem, doing chesed and spreading Torah.  

I don’t need to elaborate about your parents, as you see daily how dedicated they are to your family and to the community, selflessly giving of their time and attention. They live their lives to fulfill the will of Hashem.

Ephraim Dovid, Baruch Hashem you are already following in their footsteps, with your wonderful middos, davening and learning. May you continue on this path, and may you always remember Moshe Rabbenu’s call (Deuteronomy 30:19), “Uvacharta bachaim!” “Choose life!” And when you choose Hashem and following His Torah, you choose life.

Mazel tov!

For links to audio classes and articles, see