W ith the New Year season upon us, authors are crowding the morning talk shows to hawk their new self-help books. Take those talking heads as you may, some of the best self-help comes from our own Jewish wisdom. To offer practical Jewish advice, we asked the always profound and prolific Rabbi Joseph Telushkin to offer us a perspective and insight for the year ahead.
Who is Wise?
“Who is wise?,” the Talmud asks. The answer is halomeid mikol adam, one who learns from everyone. So a wise person is not necessarily the one who is always teaching people, but the one who is always open to learning. Because if you’re always just trying to teach, at a certain point you’re just going to be recycling your own material. You’re not acquiring new material, broader understanding. A person who is open to learning from every encounter, that’s the one who is really going to become a person of great wisdom.
Who is a hero?
Ezehu gibor? Who is a strong person? Who is a hero? One who can overcome his inclinations. Here the rabbis seem to be referring to evil inclinations, the struggle with our self. The rabbis understood that the hardest struggle that every one of us faces is our internal struggle. You have to know what are your weaknesses — it could be hurtful things you say when angry, liquor, greed, unfair judging of others, issues of honesty — and know what it is that you have to struggle with everyday. It’s easy to be judgmental of other people’s weaknesses, much harder to face up to our own. Day after day. But if you don’t, you can go through life hurting people.
Who is Rich?
Who is rich? Hasameach bechelko, one who is happy with what he or she has. It is very hard for most of us to practice this teaching because most of us have a tendency to think, “If I only had this, I’d be happy.” We don’t have to be satisfied with what we have —how many people do you know who are? But since we will never have all that we want, if we can’t learn to be happy with what we do have, we are condemning ourselves to a life of misery, conscious always of what we are lacking.
Most of us associate worth with money. The answer to the question, “What is so-and-so worth” is always a monetary one. If you hear someone say, “I’m worth $10 million,” what happens to that person when his investments collapse and he is then worth $2 million? And then if he loses everything, what is he worth? Nothing? Our value ultimately derives from the fact that we were created in God’s image. We are holy people. All of us are holy and our worth to others is based on how we act. We’ve had no shortage of children come from very wealthy parents who end up writing memoirs and speaking about their parents in the angriest manner. There is no shortage of people who grew up with poor parents, who have been given by them the most precious gift parents can give to children. Guess what? It’s not money. Its love!
Love Your Neighbor As Yourself
➜ Make acting with love something you think about at least once a day.
➜ The explicit command in “Love your neighbor as yourself” is to love your neighbor; the implicit command is to love yourself. Self-love is important, and it’s important not just for ourselves. I wonder if there has been an abusive parent in history who had a decent self-image.
➜ If you make personal prayers to God, then first pray for others before you pray for yourself.
➜ The Torah commands, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart.” Tell the other person directly how he or she has hurt you. It might lead to an apology and peace between you.
➜ The reason the Torah commands us to love our neighbor, and not “Love humanity,” is because it’s easier to love humanity than to love the person who lives next door.
The renowned lecturer, Joseph Telushkin, named by Talk Magazine as one of the 50 best speakers in the United States, is the author of 16 books, including “Jewish Literacy,” “The Book of Jewish Values” and most recently “Hillel: If Not Now, When?”