Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shvat: Elevating the Physical

Dear Friends,

God willing, before each Hebrew month, I will be posting about that month from The Chazak Plan.

Rosh Chodesh and the first day of the month of Shvat is this Thursday, January 2nd.

The 15th of Shvat is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for trees. An aspect of this holiday is celebrating and elevating the physical. Part of sanctifying the physical is taking care of the body with which God entrusted you. During this month, choose to upgrade either your sleep, exercise or diet habits.

Pick one change you will make on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month, and using your own checklist or the Daily Checklist Template, track how often you do it; if you find the change very easy, add another one. Some examples: Go to sleep 15-20 minutes earlier each week until you feel refreshed in the morning; exercise 2-3 times a week or go for a daily brisk walk; cut out sugary drinks and/or foods from your diet. Making water your preferred beverage is a great place to start. If you don’t like the way your water tastes, consider getting a filter.

I came across a new book which has 50 suggestions for enhancing your health. You’re likely to find something which resonates with you. The title of the book is One Simple Change: Surprisingly Easy Ways to Transform Your Life by Winnie Abramson. You can read many of her ideas for free on her blog. Please note, a number of her suggestions are non-conventional, but interesting nonetheless.

Another point of focus for this month is to consider if there is an area of your life which has become unbalanced and excessive, e.g., overeating, overspending, overworking, overuse of the internet etc. Most of us have at least one area which, at a minimum, wastes our time and takes us away from more fulfilling activities. This month, after reading the suggested reading below, pick one behavior to reign in and one behavior you’d like to do more of instead.

Reading for the month: Overcoming our Soft Addictions.

If you found this post helpful, please help spread the word about The Chazak Plan by sharing it with family and friends. You can use the icons at the end of this post to do so.

Take care, and may God grant you success in the coming month,


Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Chazak Plan on Aish.com

Dear Friends,

Aish.com published an abridged version of The Chazak Plan entitled, "Meaningful Resolutions: A 12-month plan for spiritual growth." Please click on the title to access.

Take care,


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength

Each year, more than a third of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Yet, only 8% are successful. Why?

Many goals lack achievability or accountability. If a goal is too big or if you have too many of them, they lack achievability. If a goal is too vague and cannot be measured, it lacks accountability.

Many of us want to become better people, more spiritual, and fulfill the purpose for which God created us. That is a noble but big goal. How do we break that down into small steps – giving it achievability? How do we track our progress – giving our goal accountability?

The Chazak Plan is formulated to address this issue. This plan focuses on one area each month. The topics are general enough so that you will benefit regardless of your background.

The Hebrew word Chazak means, “Be strong.” Each of us was born weak, both physically and spiritually. As we got older, our bodies strengthened, but what about our souls? Are they any more developed than they were when we were kids?

The purpose of life is to strengthen our souls. This 12-month plan shows you how.

Each month, choose a specific behavior related to the theme of the month, which you aim to do daily or weekly for at least a month. Add this behavior to your checklist to keep track of how often you do it.

At the beginning of every month, decide whether you will continue the previous month’s goal and add to your checklist the new change you will make for the coming month. Regardless of how the previous month went, begin anew with an invigorated start.

At the beginning of the day, read your checklist 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 and give yourself positive reinforcement. At the end of the day, read over the sheet and perform any entries you have not done yet. When you lapse, encourage yourself to begin the next day with a fresh start.

In the beginning, you can pick mini rewards to give yourself for meeting your weekly goals. A reward can be a piece of chocolate, downloading a song track, or even just praising yourself for the achievement. Pick a reward that gives you something to look forward to. Soon, you will not need external rewards and the positive feelings which come with keeping your commitment and engaging in meaningful activities will be sufficient.

If possible, do this plan with a partner with whom you schedule weekly check-ins to encourage each other and discuss how you both did the previous week.

If you find that on a regular basis you are not performing your entry, do one or more of the following:

(1) Set an alarm or another reminder to make sure it is not a matter of forgetting.

(2) Try a different reward, one that is more enticing.

(3) Temporarily lower the bar or phrase the goal with a low and high range, so you are at least able to achieve the low range and then work up toward the high one. If that does not help, pick a different goal, one you are more motivated to achieve.

This plan is based on the Hebrew months and you can start the plan at any point. The Hebrew months are used because each one contains innate spiritual power which you will be tapping into. Also utilize the power of prayer, by asking God to help you achieve your goals.

Here is an outline of the topics covered each month, followed by a discussion of the month:

Elul: Repentance

Tishrei: Torah study

Cheshvan: Prayer

Kislev: Gratitude

Tevet: Faith

Shvat: Overcoming addictions

Adar: Enhancing our health and joy

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

Iyar: Enhancing our relationships

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

Tammuz: Forgiveness

Av: Kindness

Elul: Repentance

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah, and is the time of year we take stock of our lives and prepare for the High Holidays. Most of us have at least one area in which we struggle; perhaps it is being ethical in business, being moral, being charitable and kind, learning more Torah, refraining from hurting others, or an area of observance we are ready to strengthen. 

Pick one area on which to focus and choose a manageable change you will make on a daily or at least weekly basis; input this change into your calendar or checklist. If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance. The focus on repentance continues into next month until after Yom Kippur.

During Elul, we ask others for forgiveness for the times we wronged them, as Yom Kippur alone does not atone for those sins.

The main ways people harm others is financially or emotionally. Examples of emotional harm: making hurtful comments, gossiping about them or being hypercritical. Being well intentioned is not an excuse. There is often at least one person in our lives, whether at work, at home or in our family, that we are not treating appropriately. That has to stop. Now.

Examples of financial harm: withholding money that belongs to others or not giving partners their fair share of a partnership - even temporarily - not paying back money you owe when you are able to do so, using underhanded or dishonest methods to enrich yourself, or using your position of power to get your way, for example, to stamp out competition or to coerce people into signing agreements that are not in their best interest. If you have done any of these in the past and you have not apologized and made amends, now is the time to do so. 

The lure of money often clouds people’s judgment leading them to act in ways that are not in keeping with their general conduct. Some examples: A person may treat their family and associates well, but mistreat their workers. A person may be very generous with friends and family, but are stingy when it comes to giving charity. A person may give generously to charity, but when it comes to money matters they act ruthless. Lastly, a person may look the other way when their partner is acting unethically, even when they know it is wrong. Because of this money bias, carefully review how you have conducted your affairs, both with business associates and family members, to make sure that your behavior was above board. When in doubt, consult with a rabbi expert in monetary laws. 

During the High Holidays we pray for our life and the lives of our family members. What we want most is for our prayers to be accepted by God. Yet, the Sages teach (Shemos Rabbah 22:3) “Anyone whose hands are soiled with stolen wealth, when he calls out to the Holy One blessed is He, (God) does not answer him.” Before we spend hours in prayer before God, we need to make sure that our hands are clean from ill-gotten gains, as Job said (Job 16:17), “For there is no robbery in my hands and my prayer is pure.” One’s prayer is pure and accepted by God, only after they have first removed the robbery from their hands. 

This month, compile a list of those you have hurt. One by one, go through the list and apologize and make amends if applicable. If you have trouble with one name, skip it for now and come back to it later. If you can’t think of anyone to apologize to, think about if there’s anyone you are in conflict with, or someone who is upset with you. While they may be partially to blame, likely you share some blame as well. If you take responsibility for your part, they will often take responsibility for theirs.

During the month of Elul it is customary to study works on ethical development. One classic is The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. You can either study it from the beginning, or start with Chapter 11, which covers key areas of conduct, and then go back and study the rest of this work. Chapter 11 can be found here. Another classic is Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda. You can either study it from the beginning (the first gate is often not studied nowadays), or you can study the third chapter of The Gate of Introspection, where there is a list of 30 fundamental ideas. Aim to study one idea each day of Elul and finish it in time for Rosh Hashanah. You can read the third chapter in English here.

As the High Holidays involve reciting many prayers, for suggestions on how to enhance your prayers, see, “How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer.”

Questions for the month:

“Which area do I struggle with that I’m motivated to address this Elul and what commitment will I make?”

“Who have I wronged but never apologized and made amends? When will I contact them?”

Tishrei: Torah study

Until after Yom Kippur, the focus on repentance continues. If you have not done so already during the month of Elul, there is still time before Yom Kippur to choose an area of your life to upgrade and to apologize to those who you have wronged.

After Yom Kippur, the focus switches to the festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of the Five Books of Moses and begin a new cycle with the book of Genesis. Now is a great time to join this annual study of the Bible. There is tremendous spiritual power in learning the same portion studied by millions of Jews around the world. Next Simchat Torah, when you finish the Bible, your celebration of the holiday will be even more meaningful.

Spend time each week learning the weekly Torah portion – there are many excellent articles, translations and commentaries available, e.g., The Stone Edition Chumash and The Gutnick Edition Chumash (sections of The Gutnick Chumash can be read for free here). Preferably, each day, study 1/7th of the weekly portion (also known as an aliya) or study the whole portion on Shabbat.

If possible, study at least weekly with a partner, either the Bible or a different area of the Torah. To find a partner, you can contact your local synagogue, kollel, or go to http://www.partnersintorah.org/, who will pair you with a partner free of charge.

Torah study nourishes the soul as food nourishes the body. Study Torah every day of your life – even if only for a few minutes, e.g., reading an article, a few pages from a book, or listening to a class during your commute or while exercising. Preferably, have a set inviolate time for Torah study. Input into your checklist what and when you will study.

Two important areas of Torah to study are (A) teachings which inspire you and (B) Jewish law – so you know how to act.

There are many cycles of sections of the Torah that are currently being studied. Such as cycles to finish Nach, Talmud or Mishnah. There are many very engaging teachers who offer free resources to join in the cycle and study together with thousands of others around the globe.

Questions for the month:

“Which translation or commentary on the Bible will I use for the upcoming annual cycle?”

“What area of Torah am I currently most drawn to? Who can I study it with, or from which resources?”

“Is there a particular cycle of Torah study that I want to join, such as Nach Yomi, Talmud (Daf Yomi, Amud Yomi or Daf Hashavua), Mishnah Yomi or Halacha Yomis?” (outorah.org hosts many of these cycles).

Cheshvan: Prayer

On the 7th of Cheshvan, in Israel, prayers for rain begin. For this month, focus on enhancing your prayers. You can pick a section of the prayers to say daily with understanding and input this into your checklist. In addition or instead, you can recite daily one Psalm with understanding (longer Psalms can be read over two to three days).

One type of prayer, popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is called Hitbodedut; this is where we talk out loud to God in our native language, unburdening ourselves to Him. Try this daily practice for at least a week, preferably a month. See if it helps you feel closer to God and to feeling His support and guidance.

Part of upgrading our prayers is showing reverence for the sanctuary, and not talking during the prayer service.

Even while we pray for help in specific areas of our lives, we surrender to God, acknowledging that only He knows what is truly best for us.

Questions for the month:

“Which section of the prayers will I focus on saying this month with understanding? Or, what can I do to enhance my prayers?”

“What issues are weighing on my mind that I can informally speak to God about?”

“Do I want to start saying the Psalms every day, with the goal of saying all of them over a month or a couple of months?”

“How can I enhance the reverence I show for the sanctuary?”

Kislev: Gratitude

During this month we celebrate the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the miracle of the oil, the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple. A key message of the festival is expressing gratitude to God for the miracles He performs for us.

Each day, preferably at the beginning of the day, spend time feeling grateful for the blessings your Creator gave you. (Many find it helpful to write down daily a few things they are grateful for and why.) Thank Him for His many gifts, for the bright side/silver lining of your difficulties, and for signs of His help amidst your challenges. Consider inputting this daily practice of expressing gratitude into your checklist.

In addition, express your appreciation to others. You can do this in person, on the phone, via an email or text, or with a written note.

For a discussion on gratitude, see, “The FAR Plan: Three Steps to Emotional Health” and “Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy.”

Questions for the month:

“What is something I am very grateful to God for? What can I say to Him to express my appreciation?”

“Do I want to spend a few minutes each day keeping a gratitude journal?”

“Who is someone who has helped me? How can I express my appreciation?”

Tevet: Faith

The month of Tevet encompasses two moods: Celebration and mourning. During the beginning of the month, we celebrate Chanukah, commemorating, among other events, the rededication of the Second Temple. Later in the month, on the 10th of Tevet, we fast and commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the destruction of the First Temple.

In one month we commemorate two diametrically opposed events. Faith is the bridge between them. Even while we mourn an event which led to the destruction of the Temple, we have faith that like the miracle of Chanukah, another dedication of the Temple will occur, when the Messiah comes and dedicates the Third Temple.

Input into your checklist to do the following daily practice to enhance your faith: Think of a challenge and say to yourself:

“This is from God for my eternal benefit. Part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. This will work out in the end; either in this world or in the next. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.”

Questions for the month:

“What life challenge will I use to help me strengthen my faith?”

“Is there an area of my faith where I have doubts and questions? If yes, who can I speak to for clarity?”

Shvat: Overcoming addictions

The 15th of this month is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for trees. An aspect of this holiday is celebrating and elevating the physical. We elevate the physical by using it to enhance our spirituality; when the two work in harmony we live a balanced life.

This month, consider if there is an area of your life where your relationship with the physical has become unbalanced or a full blown addiction. Some of the things we can become addicted to: shopping, eating, video games, the internet, gambling, alcohol, cannabis, smoking, pornography, or drugs.

The first step to addressing an addiction is to realize if you have one. Any behavior that you would like to curtail or stop and are having difficulty doing so is an addiction. Write down the benefits you get from the behavior as well as the costs. Also write down your life goals: spiritual goals, interpersonal, family and career goals, and the type of person, spouse or parent you want to be. Now ask yourself, "Is this behavior negatively affecting my ability to achieve my goals?" If yes, is it worth it? If the benefits of the behavior are not worth jeopardizing your life goals, then make a commitment to either stop the behavior or set firm limits (depending on the type of addiction).

If an addictive behavior has already started causing harm, consider attending a 12-step group and/or seeing a recommended therapist who specializes in addictions. Seeing a psychiatrist may also be beneficial, as mental health issues can worsen an addiction and there are some medications that can help reduce the addictive urge. At a minimum, discuss the issue with someone you respect who has life experience and shares your values.

To prevent or address addictive behavior, put temptations out of sight as best you can. For example, many people struggle with internet use and social media. Install an internet filter to put limits on the time you spend online and block access to inappropriate sites. (Even if right now you do not have an issue with harmful internet use, damaging sites are only a few clicks away, which in a moment of weakness could lead to a full blown addiction; all because one did not take basic precautions to protect themselves and their children).

During addictive behavior, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and we seek additional pleasure/stimulation. This leads us down a slippery slope where increasing levels of the problematic behavior are needed to provide pleasure/stimulation. You want to short-circuit this pattern and instead of going down the rabbit hole of ever increasingly harmful behavior, you want to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system through relaxing activities. The next time you feel an addictive urge, instead of giving in to it right away, delay it and look for a calming behavior to do instead, such as gentle stretches, going for a walk, especially in nature, or meditation. Even just being mindful of the present, and tuning into your senses and relaxing into the moment can help lessen an addictive urge. This month is a great time to begin or to strengthen a meditation practice, learning how to quiet the mind and calm the body.

In addition, commit in writing to concrete limits on the addictive behavior. Make it a doable limit but non negotiable. Gradually, increase the limits or reduce the frequency of the problematic behavior until you reach where you want to be. You can set consequences if you break your commitment, such as having to tell someone you respect that you broke your commitment or to give a specific amount of money to an organization you do not like for each lapse. For further discussion, see “Overcoming our Soft Addictions.” One form of addiction is overspending or running after money, see “The Spirituality of Money.”

Input into your checklist the behavioral change you will make for at least this month. At the end of the month, you will decide what your commitment will be for the next month.

Questions for the month:

“Is there an area of my life that has become unbalanced and excessive, which at the very least wastes my time? How will I rein it in and regain control?”

“Do I feel good about how I’m living my life? If not, what is one change I can make that would help me feel better about myself?”

“Is there an addictive behavior that I’m struggling with? With whom will I discuss the issue?”

Adar: Enhancing our health and joy

Our Sages teach that with the arrival of Adar we increase our joy, culminating in the festival of Purim. Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people during the Persian exile.

The three core areas to enhance our physical health, sleep, exercise and diet, also enhance our emotional health and are the focus of this month. (During a Jewish leap year, the two months of Adar are both spent on this topic.) For additional suggestions geared specifically toward emotional health see, “The FAR Plan: Three Steps to Emotional Health.”

Pick one change you will make on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month, and using your checklist, track how often you do it. Some examples: Go to sleep 15-20 minutes earlier each week until you feel refreshed in the morning; exercise at least three times a week or go for a daily brisk walk; cut out sugary drinks and/or foods from your diet, limiting them to special occasions. Make water your preferred beverage. If you do not like the way your water tastes, consider a filter. Pick at least one concrete action you will take to enhance your health (or ideally one change for each of the three areas of sleep, exercise and diet) and input it into your checklist.

Questions for the month:

“What is negatively affecting my physical or emotional health and how will I address it?”

“What positive change will I make this month to upgrade my physical or emotional health?”

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

During Nissan, we celebrate the holiday of Passover. On Passover, we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. It is a time of freedom, when we free ourselves from that which brings us down spiritually.

Even today, many of us are still not yet completely free and are enslaved to our passions, to varying degrees. At the same time, we still maintain some level of moral purity. The goal is to upgrade our purity, thereby increasing our freedom. Do not let past behaviors or setbacks hold you back. Each day is a new beginning and an opportunity to start fresh.

When you prepare for the holiday by removing leaven from your house, also remove spiritual pollution. To whatever extent you’re ready, go through your books, magazines, music and videos, and get rid of those which are filled with profanity, lewdness or vulgarity. Use an internet filter to block inappropriate websites and be more discerning what websites and videos you expose your soul to. If you wouldn’t show it to a teenager, you probably shouldn’t be watching it either. Go through your wardrobe and donate to charity clothing that is unbecoming for you. If you have been lax in the laws meant to keep us on the elevated path, e.g., forbidden seclusion – yichud – or forbidden touching – negiah – now is the time to strengthen your observance and set redlines you will not cross. Staying away from temptation and impurity will enable you to have a closer relationship with the ultimate source of holiness and purity – God Himself.

An aspect of enhancing your purity is speaking in an elevated manner. Are there any words you choose to remove from your vocabulary, at least for this month?

Using your checklist, you can check off each day you succeeded in speaking in a refined manner and/or staying away from spiritual pollution (or limiting your exposure as best you can).

Questions for the month:

“What is a source of spiritual pollution in my life? How can I shield myself from it or at least limit my exposure?”

“How will I strengthen my observance of the laws of yichud and negiah?”

“What word(s) do I choose to remove from my vocabulary, at least for this month?”

Iyar: Enhancing our relationships

The period known as The Omer occurs during this month. During part of The Omer, we commemorate thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died in a plague. The Talmud teaches that the plague occurred because the students did not treat each other with proper respect.

This month, we focus on treating others well and enhancing our relationship with them.

Our relationships play a pivotal role in either enhancing or negatively affecting our emotional, physical and spiritual health; toxic relationships drain us, while healthy relationships nourish us.

Make a list of your key family, work and social relationships. Decide which ones to strengthen or repair, which ones need better boundaries or for you to distance yourself from, and ways to foster new healthy relationships.

Input into your checklist the following practice or a related one: At least once a week, schedule one-on-one time with someone in your life to strengthen that relationship; silence your cell and give him or her your undivided attention.

In addition, this month, work on being less critical of others. Start by focusing on the person of whom you are most critical. Consider using your checklist and check off each day you were able to avoid criticizing them.

Questions for the month:

“Which of my relationships do I need to strengthen? What is the first step to doing that?”

“Which relationships need better boundaries or for me to distance myself from? What is the first step to doing that?”

“Do I want to form new healthy relationships? What are some ways I can do that?”

“Which person in my life am I most critical of? For this month, am I willing to commit to give them at least as much compliments as criticisms?”

Read up on the type of relationship you are currently dealing with. Here are links to Aish.com articles on specific relationships:




Relating to your parents

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

The festival of Shavuot occurs during this month. On Shavuot, we celebrate receiving on Mount Sinai the Torah, God’s instruction manual for life. Even those who are unaffiliated, without realizing it, observe part of the Torah. Take for example the 10 Commandments, many already believe in God, do not worship idols, honor their parents, do not commit murder, adultery etc.

Begin at whatever level of observance you are currently on, and pick one area you are motivated to strengthen this month. Preferably ask your Rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance or you can focus on upgrading your observance of Shabbat or keeping kosher (take small, manageable steps you can build upon). At the end of each day or week, mark off on your checklist if you kept that observance.

Question for the month:

“What area of observance will I strengthen this month?”

“Which class, study partner or book will I utilize to learn more about Jewish observance?”

Tammuz: Forgiveness

On the 17th of this month, we fast to commemorate the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple. This is the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks which ends next month on Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The Sages teach that a key reason the Messiah has not yet come to rebuild the Temple is because of the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew.

We are a small nation surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction. To defeat the hatred against our people, we must defeat the hatred within our people. This month, go out of your way to be forgiving and overlook the faults of others.

One of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in ourselves and others (Likutey Moharan I, 282). 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 face. Then, you will be more forgiving and loving toward yourself and others.

Make a list of those who have wronged you or you hold a grudge toward. It can even be people you love, but who said or did something for which you have still not forgiven them. Using the techniques discussed in “The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go,” see if you can be more forgiving of them. At times, you may choose not to forgive, but only to reduce the hurt that you feel.

To rid ourselves of hatred toward a fellow Jew, we need to do what we can to resolve our conflicts. Make a list of those with whom you are in conflict; this often includes family members and former business associates. Conflicts are messy and often both sides share some of the blame. Be courageous and take the first step by apologizing for your share in the disagreement and express your interest in making peace. Often, this will trigger the other party to apologize for their share and to accept your offer to put the matter to rest or work towards a resolution. 

Check off on your checklist each day you complimented someone, or at least spent time thinking about a person’s good points (including your own).

For additional discussion on the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew, see, “What is Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block?

Questions for the month:

“Who in my life do I feel hatred toward or greatly dislike?” (Pick one person and depending on the situation, either work on forgiving them or on reducing the hurt you feel.)

“Who pushes my buttons? Can I focus on their good points and be more complimentary and understanding?”

“What is the first step I can take to try to resolve a conflict I have with someone?”

Av: Kindness

On the 9th of this month – Tisha B’Av – we fast to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Last month, we focused on forgiving others and removing hatred from our hearts. This month, we will focus on the next step, doing kindness and fulfilling the commandment to, “…love your fellow as yourself…(Leviticus 19:18).”

During this month, think about what you are doing for others. Are you giving to charity generously (according to your means)? Are you generous with your time and expertise? Do you give preference to family members in need (emotionally or financially) before helping others?

Each day this month, consider checking off on your checklist if you did an act of kindness; it can be something small. If the day is coming to a close and you have not yet done an act of kindness, ask yourself if there is someone you can call or email, who would appreciate that you reached out to them. At the very least, put some money in a charity box. Do not let a day go by without doing something for someone else. As the Sages teach, (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14), “…If I am [only] for myself, what am I?”

Question for the month:

“Who can I help and how?” (Some examples: Giving emotional, financial or physical support, advice, or helping someone find a job, a spouse or a needed resource.)

Next year’s cycle:

During the coming year, go through this cycle again, focusing on a different aspect of the 12 topics.

Each person working to strengthen their spirituality is like a single light, shining ever brighter, in a sea of darkness. The world is currently very dark. To overcome this, we have to focus not only on our own spiritual development, but also on that of others. Encourage your family members and friends to join us on this journey to spiritual strength. Together, we will light up the world and usher in the time when, “…The earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).”

Free e-book:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood

When was the last time you felt really good, happy and content?

Many of us experience periods of low mood, anxiety, or irritability. How can we deal with these emotions and bring more peace and joy into our lives?

Here are six tools we can use to enhance our moods: Gratitude, acceptance, self-compassion, expressing ourselves, addressing festering issues and making lifestyle enhancements. Many times, even just using one tool will help us feel better and increase our enjoyment of life. Read through the tools and pick one on which to focus. If you are experiencing severe emotional distress, seek help from a recommended professional.

(1) Gratitude

According to research, being grateful increases our happiness. Begin your day expressing appreciation to God for at least one blessing in your life, preferably out loud and in your native language; elaborate on how you have benefited from this blessing.

Try this powerful practice to supercharge your mood: First, focus on life’s deepest joy: That God – the Creator of the entire universe – wants to have a personal relationship with you (no matter what you’ve done in the past). Then, pick an upbeat Jewish song and dance and/or sing to God, expressing your desire to come closer to Him and your appreciation for all that your Father in Heaven does for you.

This is one of the quickest ways to improve your mood. Try it at least once, even if you do not feel like it and even if you think it is silly. If you find this practice beneficial, do it each morning.

(The music of Shlomo Carlebach is one great choice to dance and/or sing to. Even just listening to his music can uplift your mood. You can listen to full-length tracks at http://www.sojournrecords.com/artist/shlomo_carlebach. Some fast paced songs available on this webpage are: Oseh Shalom, Tov L'hodot, Harachaman Hu Y'zakeinu, Yamin Usmol, Hashem Melech, Tshuatam, Siman Tov and Am M'kadshai.)

Each day, make a conscious decision to focus on and be grateful for what goes right, the blessings inherent in every day. Savor and delight in life’s pleasures, enjoying them mindfully. Express appreciation for the help others give you.

In addition to appreciating what God and others have done for you, appreciate yourself. Focus on and take delight in your positive qualities; praise yourself for your achievements, good deeds and the challenges you have overcome. Also look for and praise the good you see in others.

At the root of a low mood is often a mindset of minimizing the good in our lives and maximizing the bitter (the things we have we wish we did not and the things we do not have we wish we did). To feel happier, do the opposite: Maximize what you have and what is going right and minimize what you do not yet have and what is difficult. (Minimizing difficulties means not blowing them out of proportion but still addressing them as appropriate.)

The next time you are in a low mood, ask yourself, “What bitter aspect of my life am I over focusing on? What blessed aspect am I ignoring?” Then switch focus; think about how the bitterness in your life is really manageable, and how the blessings in your life are really amazing.

A fundamental belief in Judaism is that whatever happens to us is from God, out of His love for us and for our benefit (Tractate Berachot 60b). While the main benefit of a difficulty is likely obscured from your view, try to find some benefit or bright side to a challenge, for which you can be grateful.

When we are grateful for the blessings in our lives, we are more likely to not take things too seriously. Look for the humor in life. Throughout the day, remind yourself to smile, even if only a slight one; this will help you cultivate an inner sense of lightness and joy.

Part of gratitude is realizing that the gifts God gives us are not exclusively for our own use; He expects us to share a portion of them with others. Research shows that giving to others enhances our health and happiness; it even increases our longevity.

Helping others reminds us that there are those who are less fortunate and to be grateful for what we have. Look for ways to share your time, talents and resources; volunteer or adopt a cause or charity. Each day, see how you can be of service to others.

(2) Acceptance

Gratitude works well when we focus on the positive aspects of our lives. What about the painful ones? For those we need acceptance. Just like there are three forms of appreciation – appreciating what God and others do for you and appreciating yourself – there are three forms of acceptance, accepting the challenges God gives you, accepting others and accepting yourself. When you find yourself in a low mood, ask, “What am I resisting? Can I be more accepting of that? What aspect of my life can I be more grateful for?”

For discussions on acceptance, see, “3-Dimensional Acceptance: A Pathway to Peace and Power,” “Discover Your Inner Peace,” “Surrendering to God: 3 steps to transcend your ego,” and, “Adversity + Humility + Acceptance = Transcendence.”

Our self-talk plays a pivotal role in enhancing acceptance and our mood. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin discusses self-talk in his practical book, Conversations with Yourself: A Practical Guide to Greater Happiness, Self-Development and Self-Empowerment.

(3) Self-Compassion

There is a growing awareness of the importance of self-compassion, being kind to oneself, with books and websites devoted to the topic. Self-compassion flows naturally from self-acceptance; once we accept ourselves the way we are, we can be kind and loving to ourselves.

Ever notice that people may hate themselves because of a weakness they have, yet when they are dealing with others who have the same weakness, especially children, they feel no hatred, only tenderness and compassion? Why is that?

Because when dealing with others, we are better able to see the overall picture and not just focus on the weakness. When we look at the child, we are able to see the innocence, the inherent goodness the child possesses, and their struggle to overcome difficulties, which are no fault of their own.

Although our bodies age, the child inside of us remains. Never shame or insult that child. The next time you are about to berate yourself over a perceived flaw or failure, instead, bring to mind your many struggles and feel tenderness and compassion for yourself. Talk to yourself, in the second person, soothing words of support and encouragement. Show yourself the same kindness, warmth and care you would show a child who is going through a tough time.

When you need to give yourself constructive criticism, do so lovingly and respectfully, after all, you are speaking to one of God’s children. Do not dwell on the past mistake, instead, focus on encouraging yourself to do better in the future.

In addition to extending compassion to yourself, tap into the compassion God gives you. He is constantly supporting you (Song of Songs 2:6), “His left hand is under my head and His right arm embraces me.” God tells you (Isaiah 66:13), “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you…” Pray to Him to send you comfort and strength. Then imagine waves of these feelings washing over you.

When you feel emotional distress, think while slowly breathing in, “God is with me,” and while slowly breathing out, “God is soothing and comforting me.”

After feeling Divine compassion, see if you can feel a sense of oneness with God. As Moses taught us (Deuteronomy 4:35), “…There is nothing beside Him.” In this state, there is no separate self receiving compassion from God. Instead, there is only compassion; there is only God.

(4) Expressing ourselves

When we keep emotions bottled up, and do not express ourselves, we begin to feel weighed down by our challenges. Talk to God about your difficulties and try writing in a journal, or utilize other methods of healthy emotional expression.

Part of expressing ourselves is letting people know, calmly and respectfully, when they have hurt our feelings. It also means being assertive and setting healthy boundaries. We are assertive when we stand up for ourselves, letting others know which behaviors we would appreciate and which ones are unacceptable. We set healthy boundaries when we explain to people what we can and cannot do for them; a key part of this is learning to say no, when appropriate.

Social connection and support is crucial for our emotional health. Make sure you have family members, mentors and/or friends whom you talk to on a regular basis, enjoying their company and sharing with them your struggles. Sometimes, you need to vent, other times, you want their advice or encouragement; let them know what you want.

An underutilized resource for social support is senior citizens. Many of them are good listeners with wise input. If you are going through a difficult time and cannot find the support and guidance you need, see a recommended therapist.

(5) Addressing festering issues

Emotional distress can be a message from our subconscious. Perhaps we are avoiding dealing with an issue – maybe at work or in our relationships – or that we feel unfulfilled in an area of our lives. Ask yourself, “What’s my biggest stressor? What issue have I been avoiding? Is there a past hurt I need to let go of? In which area of my life do I feel unfulfilled?” Make an action plan, preferably with outside input, to address what comes up.

An issue which many struggle with is a lack of meaning. We all need to feel that we are working toward something of value. Choose and write down your goal, something significant and worthwhile to strive for. Break your goal down into mini goals and choose mini rewards you will give yourself as you achieve each mini goal. At least once a week, engage in an activity which brings you closer to your goal. Have at least one goal which transcends yourself and is for the greater good. According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, “Find a happy person and you will find a project.”

What’s your project? What gives you meaning? How can you do those activities more often?

(Click on the title of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s book for a listing of, “Happiness-Enhancing Strategies.”)

(6) Making lifestyle enhancements

Our lifestyle habits have a big influence on our moods. There are three main areas on which to focus:

Sleep: Get adequate sleep. Go to sleep 15-20 minutes earlier each week until you feel refreshed in the morning. If you have trouble sleeping, consider the following tips: A few hours before going to sleep, stop looking at screens which give off blue light which can keep us awake, or install software, such as f.lux, to filter out blue light. Have a winding down routine, where you engage in relaxing activities before going to sleep, such as journaling, meditation, stretching, light reading, or listening to relaxing music. Avoid caffeine, except in the morning, if it keeps you up. Avoid heavy foods right before going to sleep. Do not take late naps and keep to a set sleep/wake schedule. Dietary supplements, discussed below, can also be helpful.

Exercise: The Mayo Clinic recommends exercising three to five times a week for thirty minutes or more, for mood enhancing effects. One study found that brisk walking for 20 minutes daily, for six weeks, enhanced people’s mood. You can also aim for between 8,000 – 12,000 steps per day, with 10,000 steps being the most often mentioned number. Aerobic exercise and strength training both have mood boosting properties; if one does not help, try the other. Some may need to do moderate/intense exercise or to alternate intensity to gain the full benefits. Exercising in a natural setting and/or in sunlight has added mood enhancing effects. If you exercise with someone else, you will also gain social benefits and increased motivation to stick to your routine.

Diet: The foods we eat affect our moods. According to one study, eating a whole foods diet (vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains) resulted in a 30% risk reduction for depression and anxiety compared to a typical western diet (processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer).

Some people are sensitive to specific foods which negatively affect their mood and health. Consider doing an elimination trial to determine if you have food sensitivities; the most common ones are to wheat, gluten or dairy. There are articles and books which explain how to do an elimination trial. There are also blood tests which can be helpful in identifying possibly problematic foods.

Some benefit from taking dietary supplements. On this topic, David Edelberg, MD, suggests on his website that you try a light box, which has proven therapeutic benefits. You can try it alone or with, “St. John’s wort (450 mg twice daily) and 5HTP (100 mg at bedtime). This combination has been proven to be as effective as a small dose (25 mg) of Zoloft.” Do not mix supplements with medications without first speaking to your doctor or pharmacist. There are other supplements which can be helpful, preferably see a healthcare professional who can guide you on their use and in selecting high quality products.

Everyone is different and may benefit from different approaches. Go through the above six tools and choose one on which to focus; begin with the one you sense will be most helpful for you. Frequently, strengthening the area you are currently most weak in will yield the greatest gains. After you have implemented that tool, add another one. Write down which tools work best for you and the next time you feel emotional distress, look at the list and do those tools.

The first three tools, gratitude, acceptance and self-compassion, are especially useful in the moment, as emotional first aid. So the next time you feel down or anxious, find something for which to be grateful, whether a blessing in another area of your life, or a bright side of the painful situation. Then, talk to yourself words of faith, and see if you can be more accepting of the challenge. Lastly, remind yourself that you are going through a difficult time; give yourself compassion and feel God’s compassion for you.

When it is not enough

If these six tools are not sufficient, or, perhaps in tandem with implementing them, look for a self-help book which describes psychological techniques relevant to your issue or see a recommended therapist. One book to consider by the self-help publisher New Harbinger Publications is Mind and Emotions: A Universal Treatment for Emotional Disorders by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Patricia Zurita Ona. This book, among others, is offered in an online format here.

Some people may require medication. Many emotional issues have strong biological underpinnings, which for some, like any medical condition, are best addressed with medication. Frequently, more than one attempt may be necessary before a person finds the right medication(s) and dosage.

Taking medication does not mean you will have to do so for the rest of your life. Once you are feeling better for 6-12 months, you can discuss with your doctor the possibility of gradually tapering off the medication or lowering the dosage.

When searching for healing, be patient and do not put your life on hold. Months or years may be required to resolve longstanding issues, or improvements may occur rapidly. God has a timetable for when and how you will find the healing you seek. All you need to do is make reasonable efforts and ask for His help.

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

What is Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block?

We all have weak links – areas in which we sometimes stumble. Often, these stumbling blocks fall under five fundamental areas. Unaddressed, they hold us back from fulfilling our potential for greatness.

Ethics of the Fathers teaches (1:2), “On three things the world depends: On the Torah, on the service (a reference to prayer), and on doing acts of kindness.” The health of our inner spiritual world also depends on these three things, and they encompass the five stumbling blocks below. For each section, we will include diagnostic questions to help you determine if it is a stumbling block for you, as well as action steps to address that area.

1. Neglecting Torah study. Our souls draw strength from Torah study. When we learn Torah regularly, we provide daily nourishment for our souls.

Diagnostic questions: Do I study Torah on a regular basis (preferably daily, but at least weekly)? Is my Torah study a highlight of my day or week?

Action steps: Preferably, your Torah learning should include two key areas. The first is Jewish law, so you know how to act. The second is to learn something which inspires or excites you. Uplifting articles and books, or listening to inspirational teachers, will fire up your passion for Judaism and increase your fervor to come closer to God.

Ask others which authors and teachers inspire them; many find Chassidic thought to be especially uplifting. Choose your preferred medium – audio, visual or print. Preferably, study at least once a week with a partner; you can locate one through your synagogue, kollel, or through http://www.partnersintorah.org.

An easy way to include Torah study in your routine is to sign up for a weekly or daily email. For emails based on the book The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver, click here. For emails based on the wisdom of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, click here. For emails on a variety of other Torah topics, click here.

Every Jew has a unique share in the Torah which resonates deeply with them. Search for yours and give your soul the nourishment it needs.

2. Neglecting our relationship with God.
Developing our relationship with God falls under the second area discussed in Ethics of the Fathers, that of Divine service. Sometimes, people get so busy with daily life they forget about their Creator. God created us to have a relationship with Him. Each day we do not develop this relationship, is a day lost forever.

Diagnostic questions: Do I speak to God informally or at least think about Him on a daily basis? Do I view God as an integral part of my life, guiding and helping me?

Action steps: Every day, connect with God by: Praying to Him, performing a mitzvah mindfully, sensing His presence, thanking Him for one of His gifts to you and thinking about how He guides every aspect of your life for your eternal benefit.

Each day, say at least one prayer with intention and preferably feeling, tapping into the fact that you are talking to God and that He is listening to you. If you have trouble doing this in formal prayer, try reciting Psalms with intent and/or engage in Hitbodedut – talking out loud to God in your native language.

An essential part of having a relationship with God is not disrespecting Him. For example, we must ensure that we show proper reverence in the sanctuary and do not talk during the prayer service.

Another aspect of our relationship with God is following His will, outlined in His Torah. An important part of any close relationship is doing our best to fulfill a person’s requests, especially when those requests come from our Creator for our highest good. This area is further discussed in, “Is Your Commitment to Judaism Strong Enough?

The last of the three areas discussed in the above teaching of Ethics of the Fathers is doing acts of kindness. We are going to break down this area of interpersonal relations into three subsections in which we often stumble: Hating others, wronging them and being callous toward their needs. Wronging people often begins with hating them and being callous often begins with lacking the required brotherly love, as the Torah tells us (Leviticus 19:18), “…You shall love your fellow as yourself…”

3. Hating your fellow Jew. Perhaps you do not hate anybody, but how about intensely dislike?

We do not have to go out of our way to spend time with people we do not like; often, it is best to limit contact with those who push our buttons or are just not nice people. But, we are forbidden to harbor personal animosity toward a fellow Jew, as the Torah cautions us (Leviticus 19:17), “Do not hate your brother in your heart…” (In general, it is not a good idea to hate anyone; but hating a fellow Jew is especially sinful.)

Diagnostic questions: Are there people I cannot stand and feel distaste just looking at them? Are there people who I would be happy to hear that they are having difficulties?

Often, we dislike people because they wronged us in some way; in that case, see, “The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go.” Other times, some people just rub us the wrong way. When we look at them, we think about their real or imagined faults.

Instead, remind yourself that you do not know everything about them and why they act the way they do; give them the benefit of the doubt, just like you would want others to give you.

Look for shared humanity. Deep within your heart is a place of tenderness and vulnerability; it exists within those you dislike as well. You have more in common with those you dislike than differences. You have flaws and weaknesses, so do they. You try hard to provide for yourself and your family, so do they. You have worries and concerns, hopes and dreams, so do they. Sometimes, you struggle just to get by, so do they. As best you can, feel warmth and compassion for them.

Generally speaking, the people we dislike are those we do not know well. The more we get to know people, their good qualities and struggles, the more we realize that in many ways they are just like us.

The Sages teach that the entire Jewish people are all part of one soul – we are one spiritual entity. When you see another Jew, you are seeing a part of yourself. Just as you are accepting of your own flaws, be accepting of the flaws of others as well, as they are an extension of yourself. Perhaps this idea is hinted to in Leviticus (19:18) where God says to us, “…You shall love your fellow as yourself…” How do you come to love your fellow? By realizing that he is “as yourself” – an extension of who you are.

Action steps: The next time you start thinking about the negative actions of someone, engage in the following two step process:

A. Ask yourself, “Why might they have acted the way they did?” Perhaps they had a difficult upbringing, suffer from mental illness or have other challenges or temptations. You are not excusing their behavior, you are just trying to be more understanding and judge them favorably. Also, remind yourself that you have your own struggles and flaws. Just like you want others to be understanding of your mistakes, be understanding of the mistakes of others.

B. Switch focus to their admirable qualities and the good they have done. Everyone has positive aspects to them. Think about and admire their good points. Preferably, compliment them for the good you see in them. A sincere compliment is a powerful way to break down barriers between people.

The above encompasses individuals. Jews can also be divided into groups, e.g., Israelis and those living in the diaspora, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Chassidim and Mitnagdim, as well as a whole spectrum of religiosity. It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking down and showing disdain for those who are different than us. In addition, we are often quick to label a whole group based on the behavior of isolated individuals.

The next time you catch yourself harboring dislike for a particular group of Jews, ask, “Does everyone in this group act in the manner I find offensive? Am I sure that I would not act the same way or worse if I was in their situation?” In addition, think about their praiseworthy qualities and the good deeds they do, and try to feel some love for your fellow Jews.

4. Wronging others. We may have wronged others emotionally or financially. We frequently excuse our behavior by saying, “I didn’t intend any harm. I was just…” But good intentions do not whitewash sinful acts.

Diagnostic questions: Is there anyone I offended or whose feelings I hurt? Have I caused someone distress? Have I made fun of someone (even good-naturedly)? Am I late in agreed upon payments or am I withholding money which belongs to others? Have I not kept my word or reneged on an agreement? Have I enriched myself at the expense of others?

You may think, “I’ll straighten it out later. I’ll make good in the end.” But repentance is only possible while you are in this world. Nobody knows which day will be their last. Once a person’s body shuts down, so do the gates of repentance. Whatever you can correct, do so while you still can.

Action steps: Can you recall a time you hurt someone, perhaps a family member, friend, neighbor, former classmate, fellow congregant or business associate? Even if you think you have both moved on since then, you still have to make amends and/or apologize. Ask, “Whom do I need to ask for forgiveness? When will I contact them?”

5. Being callous. Sometimes, our issue is not that we hate others or have wronged them; it is that we ignore them. Often, we are so focused on our own lives that we do not pay enough attention to others. We sometimes ignore the difficulties they have, perhaps in finding a job or a spouse, coping with illness or paying bills. Although we cannot help everyone, we still have to do whatever we can. Ethics of the Fathers reminds us (2:21), “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”

Diagnostic questions: How often do I spend time and resources helping others – daily, weekly or less than that?

Sometimes, we are attentive to those with difficulties, but ignore those who do not appear needy. For example, there are individuals in the synagogue who do not know many people and stand off to the side after the prayer service. Do we go over to them and make them feel welcomed, or do we stick with our circle of friends? Do we wish a warm, good Shabbos to every Jew we meet or only to those we know? The truth is we are all needy; we all need to be noticed, cared about and respected for who we are.

Action steps: Devote a portion of your time and resources to helping others. If you cannot provide tangible assistance, do not minimize the importance of including someone in your prayers. At least each week, preferably daily, do an act of kindness. When you meet someone, show an interest in that person and see if you can be of assistance.

To recap, the five areas we sometimes stumble in are: Neglecting Torah study, neglecting our relationship with God, hating others, wronging them or being callous toward their needs. What is the common denominator?

It is getting sidetracked from the purpose of life. The allures of this world – physical pleasure and materialism – often distract us from focusing on why we are here, which is to grow spiritually. When we realize that life is about spiritual growth and coming closer to God, we will be less likely to stumble in these areas. Instead, we will devote time to learning Torah and developing our relationship with God. We will love others, treat them well, and help them as best we can.

Look over these five areas and start by focusing on your biggest issue or the one you are most motivated to address. Many times, after you remove one stumbling block, the other areas will improve as well. If they do not, focus on them afterward. Commit to a specific action step and implement it at the earliest opportunity.

By repairing an area in which you struggle, you remove that stumbling block from your life. This will enable you to soar to even greater and previously unfathomable spiritual heights.
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Personal Growth: How to Upgrade Your Skillset

In the past, people lived with their extended families, spending time speaking with and observing their elder relatives, and did not need a formal education on life skills. But in today’s society, where we do not spend as much time with our extended family, we often enter adulthood not having learned basic skills, which can lead to underachievement and interpersonal problems.

If you do not have access to elders from whom you can learn life skills, four books on this topic to consider are: What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith, How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey and Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. (There are many other books on life skills, including those written from a Jewish perspective, e.g., Alive! A 10-step guide to a vibrant life by Mordechai Weinberger (click here for a sample chapter). These four though, are more likely to be in your local public library. If you generally do not read secular works, start with books written from a Jewish perspective and see if they are adequate for you.)

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book, he discusses how to overcome 21 harmful habits, which hold people back in their relationships and from progressing in their careers. Underlying many of them is a lack of humility. To enhance your humility, see, “You’re Not Arrogant, But Are You Truly Humble?” After deepening your humility, select the habit which is your biggest issue. To discover which one that is, you can email the list of the habits to your family members, close friends and/or colleagues. Ask them which habit – on the list or not included – do they think you will gain the most by addressing. Then focus on the one which is most commonly mentioned or resonates with you.

Choose someone to give you monthly feedback on how you are doing in addressing the habit you selected; see if they have any suggestions, in this area, how you can improve even more. Do not argue with them, just thank them for their feedback and give their comments serious consideration. Between feedback sessions, ask them (and anyone else who knows what you are focusing on) to give you encouragement and positive reinforcement. Ask them not to mention other areas to work on, unless time sensitive. Once you have sufficiently improved in an area, move on to another one.

After you have addressed your most destructive habits (or if you are among the select few who do not have any of those habits), consider the other three books, which focus on healthy habits and mindsets. A summary of Dale Carnegie’s book is available here. Before reading The 7 Habits, consider taking the free assessment quiz to determine your “Personal Effectiveness Quotient” and which habits to focus on. Before reading Crucial Conversations, consider taking the free assessment to determine which areas to focus on.

Another book to consider, if you feel stuck and unfulfilled in your career and/or personal life, is Marshall Goldsmith’s Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It.

A book that can be helpful in identifying and addressing the areas you need to work on is, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do by Amy Morin. Here are the 13 things: “They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves. They Don’t Give Away Their Power. They Don’t Shy Away from Change. They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks. They Don’t Dwell on the Past. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success. They Don’t Give Up After the First Failure. They Don’t Fear Alone Time. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything. They Don’t Expect Immediate Results.” If you do any of those things on a regular basis, that issue may be a key stumbling block in your life.

Part of personal growth is letting go of bad habits and forming healthy ones. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, discusses how to do this. On his website, he has a number of free resources and guides. Marshall Goldsmith’s latest book is on this topic, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be.

When you read a technique in any of these books which resonates with you, write it down and preferably, try it out before reading the next chapter. With life skills, it is not how many you know, it is how often you use them.

For specific issues, read books/articles targeting that area. One publisher of self-help books is New Harbinger Publications. For emotional issues that are not of a severe nature, one resource is the self-help treatment website available here.

Write down which area of personal growth you have chosen to address. Consider the following practice: Every morning, read your goal or mentally state your intention to improve in that area, and ask God to help you. State your intention in the positive, what you want to do and not what you want to avoid. If there is something practical you can do daily or at least weekly to move you closer to your goal, schedule that into your calendar. With God’s help, upgrading your skillset will assist you in achieving your goals and enhancing your quality of life.
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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Abridged Soft Addictions Article

Dear Friends,

This past week's Shabbat Shalom, put out by the OU, included an abridged version of my article, "Overcoming our Soft Addictions."


Have a Shabbat Shalom,


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Overcoming our Soft Addictions

We all seek pleasure. The question is what type, lower or higher pleasures?

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, in his classic article, “Five Levels of Pleasure,” describes how to shift focus from low level pleasures to higher ones. When we stay stuck in low level pleasures, we can become addicted to them. For example, we can become addicted to: Working, shopping, eating, texting, video games, the internet (including Facebook), gambling, alcohol, smoking, pornography, or drugs.

As you can see from the above list, addictive behavior is quite common and nothing to be ashamed of. Once we acknowledge we have an issue, we can take steps to free ourselves from the clutches of addictive behavior.

Addiction is a wakeup call: We are living an unbalanced life and have to take stock of where we are headed. By answering this wakeup call, an addiction can become the catalyst to a more meaningful life.

It is helpful to distinguish between soft and hard addictions. Author Judith Wright coined the term “soft addiction” to describe behaviors which are excessive but do not impair one’s functioning. While difficult to rein in, a person can still exert control over them. With a hard addiction, the behavior has crossed the line; it impacts one’s life and he or she has lost control.

Let’s use the example of a shopping addiction to illustrate the difference between the two types of addiction:

A soft shopping addiction: A person spends excessive time and money buying things. But he has the time and money to spend and his excessive shopping does not intrude on other areas of his life. Although unpleasant and difficult, for short periods of time he is able to minimize his spending.

A hard shopping addiction: A person’s spending is out of control, eating away at his savings or creating debt. During the day, he often thinks about his next purchase. He cannot restrain himself and his addiction has intruded on other areas of his life: His work and relationships have begun to suffer.

Most of us do not have hard addictions, although many of us have soft ones: We may eat too much, spend too much, use the internet too much or have become slaves to our jobs or smartphones. Even though soft addictions are not disabling, they still should be addressed, for two reasons. First, soft addictions often come with hidden costs, e.g., reduced productivity at school or work, strained or neglected relationships at home, or not taking care of one’s health. Second, at a minimum, soft addictions take you away from meaningful and fulfilling activities. Time is one of our Creator’s greatest gifts. If you are preoccupied with addictive behavior, when will you start living the life you were meant to live?

Everyone’s journey out of the pit of addictive behavior is different. Look over the four steps below to create your own action plan.

Four steps to overcome soft addictions:

1. Set firm, but doable guidelines. Choose one behavior you are motivated to address, and make a contract with yourself; commit in writing to fixed limits on the behavior and sign your name at the bottom. Depending on the situation, you may want to specify a time frame for these limits, e.g., 30 days, after which you will reassess.

Review this contract at the beginning of each day, until following these guidelines becomes automatic. For addictive behavior that is not essential for daily living, consider committing to stop it completely (either indefinitely or for a fixed period); depending on the situation, either stop “cold turkey” or use a “scheduled gradual reduction.”

To strengthen your commitment:

Utilize your support network. If possible, discuss your commitment with family members, friends and mentors. Speak to them regularly to get the encouragement you need to stay the course, especially if your resolve wavers.

Stay away from temptation. Figure out which people, behavior, and situations frequently trigger the addictive urge. Stay away from them as much as you can. When possible, set up safeguards to keep you away from temptation. Make this an ongoing habit to help prevent relapse.

For example, to prevent problematic use of the internet, both in terms of time spent and content accessed, use a filter. One option is the free program http://www.k9webprotection.com. For more details, see “4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity.”

Some triggers of addictive behavior are not intrinsically harmful. For example, your trigger could be finishing a long day of work, after which you have a craving to overeat, overspend etc. In which case, be aware of the trigger and find satisfying healthy alternatives.

Keep a journal. Write down how you are doing in keeping your commitment: The successes, difficulties and setbacks. Praise yourself each time you did not give in to an addictive urge and encourage yourself after each lapse. When you lapse, record the date, what the lapse was, if you were able to minimize the extent of it, and if there were any triggers. Then write down what you learned from the lapse and what you will do differently in the future.

If possible, set up a weekly or periodic check-in with someone you respect; celebrate your successes and discuss any lapses. Or, you can commit to immediately email him or her if you lapse. Imagining the shame you will feel when you describe a lapse, will often be enough to strengthen your resolve.

In addition to a journal, or instead of one, use a checklist to track your progress (for an example, see the Daily Checklist). Hold on to at least a months’ worth of weekly checklists, so you see where you are headed.

Reward yourself. In the beginning, pick mini rewards for each day/week you stick to your commitment and a larger reward for each month. Pick a reward that gives you something to look forward to. Possible rewards include sweets, music albums/tracks or books. Soon, you will not need external rewards to motivate yourself, self-praise and the high of keeping your commitment and retaking control of your life will be enough.

Overcoming addictions is challenging. Smokers attempt to quit, on average, eight to ten times before they are successful. For your own addiction, be prepared to fail, and be prepared to recommit and try harder each time.

Since God gave you this challenge, it is within your ability to triumph. He gave you this difficulty not because you are too weak to control yourself, but because you are strong enough to overcome and will be better off after doing so.

2. Find healthy alternatives. People engage in addictive behavior because there is a payoff – a reward. For example, it temporarily numbs emotional pain, serves as an outlet for pent up energies or gives a short burst of pleasure. The next time you have a craving for an unhealthy behavior, see if you can find a healthier substitute to satisfy or at least lesson the craving.

Here are some possibilities:

Ways to soothe emotional pain: Talk out loud to God and express your pain to Him, recite Psalms with understanding, read inspirational stories, write in a journal, sing or listen to soothing music, talk to a confidante or practice mindfulness meditation. A popular book on this topic is The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction: A Guide to Coping with the Grief, Stress and Anger that Trigger Addictive Behaviors by Rebecca E. Williams and Julie S. Kraft.

If you use addictions to distract yourself from an issue you need to address, seek guidance on how to deal with the underlying issue. Also see, “How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself,” and “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.”

Outlets for pent up energies or to unwind: Set a goal and work toward completing it, engage in creative activities, declutter, or exercise (aerobic or strength training). To help unwind, go for a walk, read a book, write in a journal, call a friend or listen to some relaxing music.

Higher pleasures: Spend time with family and friends, volunteer or do other acts of kindness, go to lectures, and engage in fervent prayer and Torah study, preferably with a learning partner. You will then discover that higher pleasures are far deeper and longer lasting than lower ones.

The idea of finding healthier alternatives is elaborated on in Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. On his website, he has a number of free resources and guides on how to apply his method.

One of his suggestions is to write out a plan. Include in your plan the following three components: (1) The trigger of the addictive behavior and what will soon be the trigger of a healthier alternative, for example, finishing a long day of work (he calls this the cue). (2) The new alternative behavior you will do instead (he calls this the routine). (3) The reward of the addictive behavior which you will now receive (or something similar) when you do the new healthier routine.

He uses the following template for us to fill in: “When____(cue), I will____(routine) because it provides me with____(reward).” (See a flowchart on this method here.)

To illustrate, let’s say you want to rein in your internet use. You figured out that you waste the most time on it right after work or school, and that you use it then to help you unwind. After brainstorming different options, you fill out the following plan: “When I get home from work/school (cue), I will write in my journal or read a book (routine) because it provides me with the ability to unwind (reward).”

3. Learn the art of abstinence. This practice, which our Sages praise, means refraining from overindulgence in physical pleasure. To begin, distinguish between needs and wants. “Needs,” are things you require for daily functioning. “Wants” are optional. Fulfill the wants which give you lasting benefit, but minimize indulgent wants, saving those for special occasions.

A key principle of abstinence is to enjoy pleasure when it is part of a worthwhile activity, but not to actively seek physical pleasure for its own sake; enjoy the physical as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The type of pleasure that is most likely to become addictive is the type pursued just for the temporary high. To differentiate between the two types of pleasure, ask yourself, “How will this activity benefit me?” If it has a constructive purpose – great. But if the answer is only that it will give you pleasure, better to abstain and find a healthy alternative.

Aim to live a balanced life, not a life of deprivation or overindulgence.

To learn more about abstinence, see relevant sections in the classics, The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Duties of the Heart by Rabbeinu Bachya.

4. Address your feeling of lack. Underlying many addictions is the feeling we lack something. We try to fill this void with addictive behavior. Usually we feel better for a short time and then the feeling of emptiness returns, often even more intensely than before.

Next time you feel this lack, and your ego urges you, “I want___, I need it,” remind yourself that it is pointless to try to fill a hole that does not exist. Tell yourself, “This feeling that I need something I don’t have, is an illusion. Right now, God is giving me whatever I need for this moment. If I don’t have something, by definition, right now, I don’t need it. In this moment, I have enough and I am enough.”

Try repeating a phrase to remind yourself that this feeling of deficiency does not reflect reality; it is a mirage. Possible phrases: I have what I need, I have enough, or, I am enough. After saying your phrase out loud, tune into the feeling which goes with the phrase, to neutralize the feeling of deficiency. Do this by asking yourself one of the following questions: How would it feel to have what I need? How would it feel to have enough? How would it feel to be enough? Pause, while you sense your body’s answer. Then, ask yourself, “Right now, what’s the best use of my time?” And turn your attention to something worthwhile and fulfilling.

In short, there are two steps to dealing with the faulty thoughts of the ego when it urges you, “I want___, I need it,” The first is to recognize them as dysfunctional thoughts to be ignored. The second is to shift gears to healthier thoughts and activities. Overtime, as erroneous thoughts are not acted upon or given credence, they will lesson in their frequency and intensity.

Helpful in dismissing the thoughts of the ego is the technique discussed in, “Surrendering to God: 3 steps to transcend your ego.” First, you identify your ego’s will, which in this case is that you need to engage in the addictive behavior. Then you identify God’s will, which is that you have enough and you are enough. In the final step, you surrender to God’s will, letting go of the ego’s will.

You do not have to follow all of the above points to rein in or stop an addictive behavior. Look over the suggestions and select those which you think will be most helpful to you. Preferably get outside input when designing your action plan. Write out your plan and implement it at the earliest opportunity.

Temporary setbacks are to be expected, but if after a month you have not made significant progress in overcoming your soft addiction, up the ante: Attend a 12-step group and/or see a recommended therapist who specializes in addictions.

In addition to taking material steps to address your addiction, call out to your Creator. Tell Him you realize you cannot do it alone, that you need His help to overcome this issue and that you will not stop asking for it, until His help arrives.
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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Daily Checklist

Dear Friends,

Here is the Daily Checklist mentioned in my articles. You can also make your own if you prefer. 

To download or print a document: First click on the link to open it, then move the cursor to the top of the page, and either click on the print icon or the download icon.

Take care,


Thursday, May 2, 2013

On OU.org: 4 Steps to Safeguarding Your Moral Purity

Dear Friends,

This week's Shabbat Shalom, put out by the OU, will have my article, "4 Steps to Safeguarding Your Moral Purity."


Have a Shabbat Shalom,


Thursday, March 21, 2013

OU Version of Commitment Article

Dear Friends,

This week's Shabbat Shalom, put out by the OU, will feature an abridged version of my blog post, "Is Your Commitment to Judaism Strong Enough?"

Have a Shabbat Shalom,


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Free e-book: Tapping Into the Power of the Jewish Holidays and Observances

Dear Friends,

This e-book is currently free. I ask though, that you please subscribe to this blog before opening the e-book (you can unsubscribe at anytime). To subscribe, type your email address in the box on the right and click on the "Subscribe" tab. You will receive an email with a confirmation link, please click on the link to confirm your subscription.

After confirming your subscription, or if you're already subscribed, you can access the e-book by clicking here.

Thank you for subscribing to my blog and all the best,


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Is Faith Logical? One Answer in Ten Questions

The Jewish people have been called many names; however, as others have pointed out, even our enemies never call us feebleminded. By all accounts we possess a keen intellect. The disproportionately high number of Jewish Noble Prize winners bears this out. Since the Jewish people have believed in God for thousands of years, there is likely no contradiction between having faith and a discerning intellect. In fact, the rational basis for belief in God is one of the reasons the Jewish people – a highly intelligent nation – have held on to their faith, even in the face of relentless persecution.

The mind includes two levels of thought. The first, only accepts that which can be readily observed or was witnessed by others; animals operate exclusively on this level. The second, with which humans are endowed, is the ability to look beyond what we can perceive. We are able to evaluate possibilities and decide what exists beyond a reasonable doubt – even if we are unable to fully perceive this reality. When utilized properly, both levels of thought can bring us to believe in a Creator.

One reason we believe in God is because we have a tradition, passed down in an unbroken chain, going all the way back to those who were there, that with blatant miracles God redeemed us from Egypt. In addition, those very ancestors – numbering in the millions – heard God’s voice on Mount Sinai. Accepting this testimony, a function of the first level of thought, is the foundation of our belief in God and His Torah.

This testimony must be true because it would be impossible to fabricate. It is hard enough to get a small group of people to agree on one thing; you cannot get millions of people to agree to tell their children and grandchildren the same lie, with all the same details, about an event that never occurred. It cannot be done.

Moses pointed out that no other nation claims to have experienced a mass Divine revelation or to have been redeemed through explicit miracles (Deuteronomy 4:32-35). To date, thousands of years later, still, no other nation makes these claims. Why not? Because those events did not happen to any other nation and it would be impossible to concoct such a story and be believed. We claim that God redeemed us from Egypt and gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai, because He really did. We claim that the Torah is God’s eternal instruction manual for life, because it really is.

Without the tradition of our ancestors’ eyewitness testimony, we still can arrive at the belief in a Creator through the use of the second, analytical level of thought. The first Jew, our forefather Abraham, grew up in a home of idol worship. Using his intellect, he came to the conclusion that there must be a Creator. The mind, when used in pursuit of truth, serves as a homing device, bringing us home to our Creator.

Our intellect can serve as a key to open the gate of faith in God, but to enter His palace we must leave our limited intelligence behind. While the general principles of faith are logical, as will be illustrated below, we are unable to use our minds to understand the Divine reason behind a specific occurrence. That would be analogous to a student – who upon learning that atoms exist – tried to view one under his store bought microscope; the atom is there – a Divine reason exists behind everything – but with a limited microscope – our limited intelligence – it cannot be perceived.

What do you believe?

Judaism encapsulates many beliefs, all of which fall under the fundamental belief in a Creator. The following list covers some of these beliefs. For a listing of all key Jewish beliefs, see Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith.

The list below is organized to provide one answer to the question, is faith logical? The questions illustrate how many beliefs logically follow one another. If the line of reasoning discussed here does not resonate with you, there are other rationales to explore.

Read each question slowly. Think about if the logic makes sense to you and if the conclusion drawn is likely true or at least plausible. Note which ones you want to discuss further with your spiritual mentor.

Ten Questions on Faith:

1. Objects do not create themselves; everything comes from something. In addition, the more elaborate and detailed something is, the clearer it is that there is an inventor behind it. Can I accept that this exquisite and intricate world has a Creator (God)?

(Job expressed this idea when he said, “...In my flesh I see God (Job 19:26).” When you look at your hand, don’t you also see God?)

2. Since every invention has an inventor who created it for a reason, can I accept that God created me for a reason?

3. There are two reasons to create something, either to benefit oneself or to benefit others. Since the Creator of all is not lacking anything, can I accept that He created me to bestow goodness to me?

4. Can I accept that the Creator of all transcends any good found in the world He created and is in fact the ultimate good?

5. Since God created me to bestow goodness to me and He is the ultimate good, can I accept that coming close to Him is the goal of creation?

(King David expressed this when he wrote (Psalms 73:28), “But as for me, my good is closeness to God…”)

6. Can I accept that God must have left instructions for me to know how to come close to Him and bask in His goodness?

(It does not make sense to create me for a reason, but not inform me how I am to fulfill my life’s purpose.)

7. Since the Torah is the only document in history claimed to have been revealed by God before millions of people, can I accept that the Torah is the instruction manual God left for us to know how we can fulfill our life’s purpose?

8. Since God created everything, can I accept that He is more powerful than anything?

9. Since God created me to do good for me and is all powerful, can I accept that He only allows things to happen to me that are for my eternal benefit?

(It does not make sense for an all-powerful Creator to create me to benefit me and then allow others to derail that plan.)

10. Since God makes sure I only experience what is for my benefit, can I accept that each moment of my life is exactly the way it is supposed to be?

(At the same time, I need to ask God for help and make reasonable efforts to improve my life.)

Sometimes, even after our minds have been won over to the sound basis of belief in God and the Divine origin of the Torah, we may still resist embracing these beliefs. Perhaps this is because the ego – rooted in our bodies and materialism – rejects the notion that there is anything greater than it to whom it must listen. When we sense the ego’s resistance to a belief, we might mistakenly conclude that our hesitation is because the rationale behind the belief is not compelling. In truth, the ego does not want to be compelled; it wants to be free to do as it pleases and rejects that there is a higher purpose to life. True freedom though, is not the chance to roll in the gutter; it is the opportunity to reach our highest potential and unite with the Infinite.

God has sufficiently demonstrated His power and presence, giving us ample reasons to believe in Him. Consider the following: The stunningly beautiful world He created, the supernatural redemption from Egypt, the unprecedented Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, as well as the miraculous survival of the Jewish people to this day. Yet, stronger than our faith in God will ever be is His faith in us. Even if we have not yet given God any reason to have faith in us, even if we are not yet fulfilling His purpose in creating us, still, He has faith that eventually we will. He trusts that we will seek Him out and come home. 

Do not delay; your Father is waiting.
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