Beliefnet
Positive Judaism

I have a radical vision for Positive Religion on a Global Scale. Earlier blogs in this series have focused on human flourishing from a Jewish perspective — but the theory and teachings of Positive Judaism are humanistic — all based in universal truths about wellbeing – and do not need to be limited to one faith. All faiths that believe in human potential and individual freedom, who believe in tradition and community, and who dream of a better world for us and our children — are already part of it — a radical vision I have for 21st Century — a new Positive Religion Movement.

 

THE STUDIES SHOW . . .

Pew Research Center recently reported that 36% of Americans attend religious services at least once per week and 33% attend from a few times per month to a few times per year. In the US alone, this amounts to over 200 million people in the pews each year – and that’s just in the United States. If only a small percentage of these people heard messages of well-being and learned practical ways to raise the level of positivity and wellbeing in their lives, there would be a significant increase in wellbeing and happiness. Clearly, quality health care, better education, and safer communities will raise levels of wellbeing — but so do participating in faith communities.

Time and again, it has been shown that religious people are happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious individuals. This is not saying that believers in God are happier than those that do not, rather, it’s saying that people who consider themselves to be religious people, scale higher in life satisfaction and wellbeing than those who do not.

It’s here in the religious realm that people can best express their most human values (optimism, hope, love, kindness, gratitude, etc.) and appreciate and develop their psychological strengths (bravery, courage, authenticity, love of learning, humility, forgiveness, etc). Here’s what the studies conclude:

  1. Religious people are happier and healthier, and recover better after trauma than nonreligious people.
  2. The social support, fellowship, and sense of identity allows people to share in one another’s burdens and achievements and helps people feel less isolated.
  3. The strong emotional experiences of worship and prayer provide comfort and encourage awe and wonder and the search for the Divine.

Why? Because faith education and religious communities provides the context to ask existential questions: Who am I? What is my life for? Where do I fit in? Who is the creator? How do I live a virtuous life and improve the world around me?” And faith communities hold people together and guides them to address these deep questions that have massive implications.

 

POSITIVE RELIGION FOR ALL FAITHS

An emerging positive religion platform should draw upon the teachings and rituals that lead to wellbeing and happiness. Positive religion is not a universal practice that seeks to eliminate the uniqueness of each faith group. That already exists in Universal Unitarianism, the Ethical Culture Society, and the Quaker Society by and large.

Positive Religion is not a movement, it is a platform to draw on the positive messages and teachings that already exist within particular religious faith groups. There will be a Positive Judaism, a Positive Christianity, a Positive Islam, and a Positive Buddhism, etc etc. Each having their own distinct philosophies, practices, and traditions for wellbeing, happiness, and life satisfaction.

Positive Religion will focus the work of religious leaders – Priests, Pastors, Imam’s, Rabbis, and teachers of all faiths — along with their communities — to embrace positivity as the engine and platform that drives their uniqueness and particular message.

I believe there are 3 fundamental ideas that need to live at the heart of how faith traditions will apply positive religion in their own unique ways.

  1. Focus on freedom rather than authoritarianism
  2. Replace pessimism and fear with optimism and hope
  3. Teach human flourishing through religious practices, rituals, and symbols

I want to acknowledge the many religious organizations, ministers, and faith educators all over the world who have a vision for innovative, expansive, and dynamic religious living. They have been successful at motivating their communities and their people to achieve great things. Their people feel loved, supported, and connected to each other and to God.

 

THE PASTOR’S CREED

The Pastor’s Creed of the 21st Century should be to raise the wellbeing and happiness in the lives of the individuals and communities they serve by implementing positive religion in their ministry — and faith organizations should do the same. I believe the result of this enhancement will be one of the most important shifts in modern day religion than anything we have yet to see and to experience in organized religion. The opportunity is so great and I invite you to visit positive-judaism.org where we are creating resources, writing blogs, and hosting podcasts for you to use and to adopt in your own way.

For everyone, faith leaders, wisdom teachers, and religious communities who are eager to help your people thrive and flourish and to raise the universal level of wellbeing on a global level, I thank you, we are just at the beginning — and I wish you much success as you imagine new ways for Positive Religion to change the world.

 

The Jewish sages of 2000 years ago asked, “Who is Rich?” And they had very interesting answers to this question – some which may surprise you – but may also help you imagine a new way to think about your relationship with money and the the positive ways that you can earn, spend, and use your money to create a happier you and more positive world.

Young people often make a tragic mistake when thinking about the kind of work they will do because our culture has become one that mistakenly believes that great wealth equals happiness. A study was recently completed of 200,000 university students and they were asked about their life goals. 77% of them stated that making money was their most important goal. How can you blame them? Store bookshelves are overflowing with titles about how to make money money money? However, the research shows that there is only a slight relationship between money and happiness.

This may surprise you, but studies show that for the average U.S. Household, an income of approx $75,000 per year is what you need for happiness and wellbeing, and adjusting for cost of living depending on where you live, there is only a slight increase in happiness as income rises above $75,000 all the way to infinity. And in fact, there is a point where more income becomes counterproductive to happiness and wellbeing. Seems hard to believe — so many of people think that happiness comes with affluence — but the research suggests otherwise.

In the Torah, there are over 100 mitzvot/commandments concerning the fitness of one’s money. In fact, there are more commandments having to do with the kashrut of money than there are having to with the kashrut of food and dietary laws. Among all the issues related to money in Judaism, for me, one stands out the most and that is the question, “who is rich?”

The answer, is, “me.” I know that may surprise you coming from a rabbi. You might be thinking that the richest person must be a famous business person, or a tech inventor, or an major industrialists. But, you’d be wrong. I am the richest and I tell that to my children regularly when they ask about money and wealth and materials possessions and big houses and fancy cars. At their age, they believe that the richest people have the most things and the most money – but then I have to remind them once again, “You know, I don’t have any of those things but I’m still the richest person you know.”

And that’s because I follow the teaching of the Jewish sage Ben Zoma who when asked the question, “who is rich? He replied, He is who is happy with his lot.” And I, am happy with my lot.

I am happy with my lot because I follow three facts that the science of wellbeing and happiness have shown us about about how to use money to raise one’s level of positivity. #1. Invest not in material things, but in positive experiences. 2.  Spend money on creating time. And 3. Spend any money and invest in others.

This may be a very different approach to thinking about money than you have considered before,  but modern day research has shown us what Judaism has taught for over 2000 years, the purpose of living a Jewish life is not about making money, it is about creating meaning and purpose. So now let’s see each of these principles to happier money in a spiritual context.

 

#1. Invest in experiences.

We all have different interests and personality styles — and the experiences that may bring me incredible happiness, like adventure travel and being in nature and discovering new places with my family — may be different than experiences that bring  you happiness. You may like beaches or seeing famous works of art and museum hopping, there are endless examples really — but whatever the experiences are, they are very personal to you and the general rule of thumb about positive experiences is to

  1. Have the experiences with other people to create real social connection
  2. Have an experience that you’ll enjoy sharing the story with people for many years to come
  3. Link the experience to your sense of purpose or your ideal self

Here’s a personal example. 20 years ago I started my training to be a rabbi in Israel. Over one holiday break, I formed a group of friends to travel to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to spend 8 days walking in the desert. We were interested in seeing first hand where the oldest stories of the bible came from and to imagine how the desert environment may have shaped the mindset of the ancient Israelites.

The final two days were spent at Santa Caterina, a 4th century Monastery at the foot of Jaabul Musa, arabic for the Mountain of Moses. We woke up on the last day of our trip to hike to the top of Jaabul Musa to watch the sunrise and to visit the shrine that was dedicated to the memory of when God gave the 10 Commandments – the tablets to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai.

Even though it was 20 years ago, I still remember the faces of my friends as we ascended the mountain, I remember the feeling of arriving at the top and watching the sun emerge over the Jordan Valley, and I remember feeling inspired and intellectually curious. All of us recall those 8 days as a highlight of our lives and whenever we see each other, we’re bound to end up referring to something that happened on that trip. And I have told others about that trip and shared the photos with countless people, many many times. I cannot remember how much the trip cost in terms of money, but whatever it did cost, the money led to an experience that has added to the richness of my life and I cherish those memories.

 

#2. Spend Money to Create Time

The second fact of happy money is to spend money on creating time. This is a curious way to think about wellbeing and money since time seems fixed. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 525,600 minutes to a year. I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about using your time to create experiences. You know the phrase, Time is Money. So become time affluent. Here’s how. Thinking of ways to spend money on time and experiences –rather than thinking of ways to spend money on new material possessions — increases your sense of happiness and wellbeing because you are engaged in the mental process of thinking about engaging in activities which changes your mindset. Instead of thinking that Time should be spent on making money, you’ll be thinking about how to spend Money on making time.

There is a Talmudic tale of an old man who was planting trees. He was asked by a passerby: “Why do you plant the trees since you will never enjoy the fruit?” The old man replied, “I found trees planted by my ancestors from which I enjoyed the fruit. Surely, it is my duty to plant trees that those who come after me might enjoy their fruit.” This man was busying himself with creating time on an eternal level — creating a legacy for people to enjoy the fruits of his time.

 

#3. Invest in Others

The third use of money to create wellbeing and happiness is to spend it on others and to invest in others. When Ben Zoma was asked the question, who is rich? He answered, “he who is happy with his lot.” But Rabbi Tarfon answered this question differently. When he was asked who is rich, Rabbi Tarfon replied, “he who possesses a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and a hundred workers working in them.”

This new third way, inspired by Rabbi Tarfon, is the path to create double happiness — happiness for yourself and wellbeing for another.

This teaches that using money on one’s own happiness is not enough — one must also spend money on others. It’s ultimately for the 100 workers working on the field that are important to Rabbi Tarfon. He who employs and gives to others creates opportunities for people to have money and pursue their own happiness. This compounds wellbeing and happiness in the world.  

There was a mega study conducted from 2006-2008 by Gallup International in over 130 countries to gauge the level of wellbeing and happiness in the world. More than 200,000 people took the study and one of the questions had to do with giving charity. In 120 of these countries, people who gave charity in the last month reported greater levels of happiness and wellbeing than those who did not.

In Judaism, the Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah. Giving Tzedakah is a hallmark of living a Jewish life and is one of the key tenets of Positive Judaism. To give 10% of your income, as a minimum, to charity. This is how one becomes rich.

Here we have it: by starting with the assumption that income is over $75,000, which by the way, is not always an easy task in the working environment we have today and we should never take for granted the real financial challenges that many face, but we now have a clear idea of how to become happier by using money — by spending your money on experiences, by making time out of money, and by investing in others.

Even though I admitted to you up front that I am the richest person, there’s room for you to also be the richest person – rich in terms of your life. So now, let me wish you much wisdom and good fortune as you journey to becoming richer in meaning in your life and using your money to positively raise your own happiness and the wellbeing of others.

 

Jewish prayer can be difficult for many people — because of the Hebrew language barrier and long worship gatherings that seem repetitive and irrelevant to people’s daily lives. I understand this tension and I am going to offer three new steps so that you can, no matter what your starting point, find your voice in Jewish prayer and begin to work your way to 10% happier through prayer.

Step #1: COMMUNITY
It has been shown that religious people are happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious individuals and that people who participate in religious communities are happier and physically healthier than people with no religious affiliation.  Is this because of God? Are believers in God happier than those who do not believe in God? It’s very hard to analyze this question because it is hard to put God into the laboratory.

In my opinion, I do not believe that wellbeing has do with God but rather the positive power of the community and the human connections that are formed by people in a shared faith experience. It is here, in the religious realm, where people can best express their most human values like optimism, hope, love, kindness, gratitude. It’s among a community of like minded travellers where people can appreciate and develop their emotional and psychological strengths like bravery, courage, authenticity, love of learning, humility, and forgiveness.

The wise sage of 2000 years ago, Rabbi Abaye, said, “one should always associate himself with the community when praying” — and should always say, “May it be your will, Eternal One, to direct OUR steps in peace and wellbeing.”

For Jews, prayer is often done in a minyan – a prayer group of ten people or more. Thus when Rabbi Abaye prays, “to guide our steps in peace,” he is teaching that the value of praying in community brings positive relationships and emotions that lead to increased wellbeing and this is exactly what the research shows: people who participate in religious communities are happier that those with no religious affiliation.

This is the first step in positive prayer – to join a faith community and to invest in the unique relationships that come from being part of a sacred community that teaches it’s people to love humanity, find support in times of need, and provide the love that heals.

STEP #2: GRATITUDE

The second step in raising your level of happiness and positivity through prayer is developing your spiritual voice. Many people rightly claim that they don’t understand Jewish prayers because they don’t know Hebrew.

On the other hand, I’ve heard people remark that they are glad that they don’t know the Hebrew because if they did, they would not believe in the prayers and so they are happy to be removed from the words and find meaning in the melody or the rhythm – but not in the words of prayer themselves. Either way, they claim that the Hebrew language is the problem — but I know many Israelis, where Hebrew is their native tongue, and they too have a hard time finding a voice in Jewish prayer.

So whether or not you speak Hebrew, I would like to offer a way into Jewish prayer that everyone can practice, and that is through the practice of  gratitude. The daily Jewish morning prayer is called Modeh Ani, “I offer gratitude before you, living and Eternal One, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me.

To me, expressing gratitude is prayer. Gratitude, in Hebrew, Hakarat HaTov, is having the ability to be thankful and to be aware of the good and to take time to express appreciation.

It’s voiced by the famous Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who said, “gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.”

You may not be able to open a Hebrew prayer book today and know how to find gratitude in the words, but you can open your heart every day to gratitude and find ways to express being thankful for your life and to be aware of the good.

Feeling grateful and expressing gratitude help to raise a person’s level of wellbeing. I often tell my students to “pay it forward with gratitude.” Keep a gratitude journal and write about the things you are grateful for in your life. Tell someone every day how grateful you are for their friendship and their presence in your life. Feel grateful for the gift of your own life — and your positivity and happiness will grow.

My favorite prayer of gratitude is the Shehechiyanu, Blessed are you, Eternal One, who has granted us life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment in time.”

We now know the two most important ways to raise happiness through Jewish prayer. First, join a faith community and second, have a daily gratitude practice. These will immediately boost your level of wellbeing and the effect will not only be a happier you, but your friends and your community will also benefit from a more grateful you.

STEP #3: When Faith Falls Apart

Being grateful and being part of a community have been shown to boost levels of happiness and overall wellbeing. But what happens in the times — where for good reason — when you feel no gratitude and you find your faith falling apart — not uncommon at all.

In my own life and in my experience of witnessing others, crises of faith and deep existential questioning tend to follow major life disappointment and loss — which can feel overwhelming — and where one can ask, “why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this. God, Why are you letting this happen to me?

The death of a parent, a spouse, a child, or a friend can often trigger deep existential questioning about the meaning of life. Other types of loss can also cause a person to question their faith: inability to get pregnant, being single when you so desperately want to be married, getting fired from your dream job, failing to accomplish your mark, getting rejected from university, the end of a close and meaningful love relationship, just to name a few.

While you may be able to access gratitude in these crises moments, it’s not easy. In these moments, I would like to offer another Jewish prayer written by the wise sage Rabbi Hisda in the Talmud, who before a difficult journey prayed: “May it be your will, Eternal One, to conduct me in peace, to direct my steps in peace, to uphold me in peace, and to deliver me from every enemy and ambush on the road. Send a blessing upon the work of my hands, and let me obtain grace, loving-kindness and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who behold me.”

These enemies can be other people, but they can also be the sickness, the disappointment, the loss — these are the spiritual and emotional enemies that cause pain. Now may not be time for prayers of gratitude, but rather for prayers of peace, shalom, and wellbeing. I have prayed Rabbi Hisdai’s words many times for myself and for others — and with others — and I find them to bring sense of hope and optimism — important qualities of prayer life that keep us looking towards the future to a day when the temporary moment of pain has passed and where peace is found.

In my life as a faithful person and as a rabbi, I have seen that participating in prayer community, expressing prayers of gratitude, and placing words of hope and peace in your heart and mind during your painful moments confirms what modern day research has to say about prayer: That religious people are happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious individuals and that people who participate in religious communities are happier and physically healthier than people with no religious affiliation.

So, as you continue your spiritual journey, I pray that your steps are full of gratitude, peace, mercy and loving-kindness as you travel to a higher levels of happiness, wellbeing, and positivity in your life.

There is a yiddish word that describes a polite, smart, and thoughtful child — this is a mentsch — and I don’t know any parent who does not want their child to be a mentsch, yet not every child is a mentch. It takes more than faith, hope and good luck to have a kind and loving child and so I’m going to offer you some fresh ideas about how to raise a mentch by focusing on your child’s strengths and adopting a new framework called Strengths Based Parenting. This approach will help you raise your child’s level of wellbeing and happiness — and the result will be the mentch you have always dreamed your child would become.

In the last decade, most studies conclude that happy, well adjusted children, that have positive influences in their lives do better in school, have more energy, sleep better, are more relaxed, and have more friends. There are a lot of factors that go into raising this kind of child but you may be surprised to learn that it has less to do with the number of extracurriculars, tutors, travel experiences, and the size of their bedroom and the quality of their neighborhood.

Rather, a child’s wellbeing and happiness has do with the amount of love and attention they get from the primary adults in their lives, their feelings of emotional safety, and most importantly, by knowing and focusing on their strengths, rather than on their weaknesses — which is such a common parenting mistake.

The Jewish sages of over 2000 years ago claimed that a “parent must teach their child to swim.” These wise rabbis from so long ago believed that of all the lessons that a parent must teach their child, they must teach their child to swim. It’s really quite brilliant because swimming is about keeping your head above the water, it’s about being responsible for yourself, and it’s about learning how to survive on your own — the alternative is always needing to hold onto somebody else — letting them do the hard work — but if you cannot swim, you will drown.

Today’s child must learn to swim and every parent must teach their child to swim in the world. But in my opinion, as a parent myself, teaching a child to just survive is not enough. We must teach our children to thrive and to flourish and this happens by helping to developing and identifying their signature strengths and teaching them to swim their way to wellbeing and happiness –this is how you will raise your mentch: by focusing on your child’s signature strengths. Here’s how:

When my children were younger, I spent a lot of time with them at playgrounds and in parks. I loved watching them run, play, negotiate with other children, climb, swing, and get dirty — and I learned a lot about my own parenting style by watching other parents attend to their children. I remember one mother who had constant and immediate praise for her daughter about everything she did. “Becca, your rock pile is amazing! Your slide down was amazing! That jump was amazing! Your hold on the monkey bars was amazing!” I admired her enthusiasm — and praise parenting does have positive value, but Becca’s mother is not teaching her how to swim. She is teaching her child to seek external attention and praise for her accomplishments. This parenting approach in itself has little to do with supporting a child’s independence because it focuses praise and attention on their accomplishments — rather than on their character strengths.

Another common mistake that parents make is focusing too much attention on their child’s weaknesses and trying to correct their “issues.” I see too many parents focused on correcting for weakness rather than on bolstering strength. They say, “he’s not strong in math so we got him a tutor because he needs to be able to perform well in math.”

Certainly children need to learn their math but does every child need to be an A student in math and does this parenting mindset lead to happy and well adjusted mentches — or does it create anxiety and strife in the child who learns from his parents that they are more interested in him being a great math student rather than developing his strengths. Some of these parents say, “but he needs to be competitive in math so he can do well on his SAT exams and get into the best university.”

Or they say, focusing on weakness develops grit. It may be true, but having grit and going to the best university does not reflect the quality of the child’s inner world, their level of positivity and happiness — or their wellbeing. Here, I’ve given the example of math — but the point is not about math it is about a parenting approach that focuses not on correcting for weakness, but rather on developing strength– in order to shape and encourage the best in your emerging mentch.

Parenting expert Dr. Lea Waters, defines strengths as “positive qualities that energize us and that we use often in productive ways to achieve our goals. They are developed over time and are recognized by others as praiseworthy.” Strengths-based parenting focuses on a child’s character strengths : optimism, bravery, creativity, gratitude, appreciation, kindness, resilience, and hope, rather than their accomplishments or their incremental weaknesses. You remember Becca, the girl in the park who’s mother focused only on her accomplishments. A strengths focused approach would look and sound like this:

Rather than, “Your rock pile is amazing!” Her mother would say, “Honey, I can see how much creativity you brought to this. Tell me about what you created,” After all, what appears to be a rock pile to mom, may be something very different for Becca. That’s when Becca says, “its not a rock pile, it’s a house where I’m going to live with Daddy” and Becca is feeling, “Rock pile? My mom does not know anything about me.”

Here’s another example, think about how to respond when your child is faced with an insult or a playground threat. Often, the response kids get has do with facing challenge and developing grit. So when the kid gets hit with a ball or gets put down by a peer, a typical parental reaction is: “you’ve got to stand up for yourself. Be a man. Don’t let that jerk get to you.” But rather, what if a parent focused on the strengths of the behavior,“I can imagine it was hard not throw that insult/ball/rock/back at him which took a lot of restraint and courage.” Restraint and courage are character strengths and that parent just helped his child identify his strengths by focusing upon them, rather than on grit and fear.

Here’s what we know. Strengths-based parenting focuses on positive character development — which is very Jewish. The research scientist says this approach to parenting “puts your kids in touch with their unique constellation of talents and character.” The rabbi says, strengths-based parenting approach “teaches a child to swim.” The scientist and the rabbi are both saying the same thing: parents that actively identify and develop their child’s strengths will help them thrive and the proven results will be:

  • Higher levels of academic achievement
  • Better work performance and heightened levels of satisfaction at work
  • Higher levels of physical fitness and healthy lifestyles
  • Better self-esteem
  • Reduced risk of depression and enhanced ability to cope with stress and diversity

This is a mentch.

Guiding a child to know their signature strengths is a gift from parent to child. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, My child, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand.”

In other words, “my child, there is a hidden treasure within you – they are your talents and your strengths – and I as your parent am going to help you identify them by shining a bright light upon your unique strengths. And as a result, you will thrive and flourish in your life as a happy, positive, and well adjusted person — and to be that mentch that you are destined to become.  

And so, dear parents who are holding the future in your hands, may you have much success on your path to raising the mentches in your life.

 

 

Passover is about stories and questions and lends itself naturally to the core teachings of Positive Judaism. The same strengths and values displayed by the Israelites in the ancient day are the very same strengths that we can draw on today to lead positive lives.

Enjoy this 7-Step Seder that draws upon the traditional Haggadah along with specific actions designed to add meaning and fun to your seder for all ages. Enjoy!

  1. Gratitude: Welcome and Candle Lighting (3 minutes)

“We welcome you to this seder and as we kindle these festival lights, we are grateful to be here with each other, sharing our lives together, humbly mindful of the gift of light and life.” Rabbi Nachman of Brestlov taught, “gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.”

Action: Kindle the lights and hold hands in a circle around your table and invite each person express something for which they are grateful.

 

  1. Resilience: Blessing for Wine: Kiddush (2 minute)

“We lift this cup of wine in honor of the Israelites who suffered under the yoke of slavery and for demonstrating resilience in the face of bondage.” Resilience is the ability to remain active, energetic, focused, and flexible no matter what life presents. The inspiration for resilience is found in the words of Zecheriah, “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit alone.”

Action: For fun, lift your neighbors glass to their mouth for them to drink by your hand.

 

  1. Kindness: The Unleavened Matzah (2 minutes)

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate before they were free. Let us show unwavering love and kindness to all who are hungry and enslaved today. We are all called in every generation to remember the Exodus “as if you were still a slave in Egypt.” The Torah teaches, “great is the virtue of love and kindness. (Exodus 34:6).

Action: 1-minute break to text someone you know to express your love to them.

 

  1. Perseverance: The Middle Matzah = The Afikomen (1 minute)

“We set aside a broken piece of matzah that will become the afikomen to teach the value of perseverance, knowing that what seems broken may be repaired.” Break a piece of matzah to honor the perseverance of the Israelites and their ability to complete the task and to persist in the face of obstacles. The Akaedat Yitzchat taught that “personal effort and perseverance contribute the major part to eventual success. In fact, any negligence or laziness is rated as sinful when circumstances seem to have called for exertion of the self.”

Action: Hide the Afikomen now while the others move to #5. After dinner, commence the search.

 

  1. Bravery: The Hillel Sandwich: Motzi/Matzah/Maror/Charoset (3 minute)

“The combination of the matzah, maror, and charoset teach us that life can be dry, sweet, and sometimes bitter. Yet when we rise to the challenge with bravery, we can accomplish great things. Ben Zoma taught: Who is brave? Those who conquer their evil impulse. As it is written: “Those who are slow to anger are better than the mighty, and those who rule over their spirit than those who conquer a city.” (Pirke Avot 4:1). Make a Hillel sandwich and enjoy.

Action: Think of something that needs to be corrected in your life and commit, with bravery, to improving it.

 

  1. Spirituality: Open the Door for Elijah (2 minutes)

“We now open the door”for the Prophet Elijah which symbolizes hope for a better world for all people. With a gesture of spiritual positivity, we honor our faith in a higher purpose and an interest in the unknowable and unseen. Judaism teaches that the Creator has opened three gates to mankind so that they may enter into the domain of spirituality, ethical conduct and the laws divine, that guide us in our works and daily life to health of body and mind and soul. (Duties of the Heart, Bahya Ibn Pakuda)

Action: Open the door for Elijah and pour the prophet a cup of wine.

 

  1. Love: The Passover Seder Meal (2 minute introduction)

“And now it is time to eat. The mealtime is the perfect opportunity to express our feelings of neighborly love for everyone at this table as we share in the festive meal together and engage in positive conversations that enhance your seder. The Torah teaches, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

Action: Clap and cheer in appreciation to your seder leader! Now, eat, drink, and be joyful. It is a mitzvah to laugh, have fun, and be happy on Passover.

Happy Passover!

DOWNLOAD THIS PASSOVER HAGGADAH FOR YOUR TABLE THIS YEAR

There is a comical story about the first Jewish President of the United States who calls his mother and invites her over for Passover. Characteristically, his mother immediately begins complaining.

“Oye, I’ll need to book a flight and it’s going to cost so much – it is just too much of a bother.”
“Mom, I’m the President, I’ll send a private jet for you.
“Oye, I’ll need to catch a taxi and carry my luggage. It’s just too much!”
“Mom, I’m the President, I’ll pick you up in my limo.
“Oye, I’ll need to book a hotel.”
“Mom, I’m the President, you can stay at the White House.”
“Okay, fine,” she finally agrees.

A few minutes later her friend Roberta calls.
“So, Miriam, what’s new?”
“Oye, I’m going to my son for Passover.”
“Who, the doctor?”
“No, the other one.”

Parenting all our future presidents is a lot of fun and a big responsibility. Researchers have found that people who have children generally find more meaning over their lifespan than people who do not have children.  This is codified by the biblical command: “Then God blessed Adam and Eve and said: Be Fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Even if you are unable to give birth, a couple is still expected to create a family,  as the Talmud teaches, “Whoever brings up an orphan in his home is regarded by the Bible as though the child had been born to him.” However, this is only the first step in parenting. Even more important than having a child is raising  and knowing that a child’s experience of their parents shapes their worldview more than any other relationship.

2000 years ago, the Jewish sages claimed that a “parent must teach their child to swim.” Some sages interpret this to mean that a parent must teach a child to survive and to be responsible for themselves. The pathway to “teaching a child to swim” in the 21st Century is raising them according to the Attributes of Positive Judaism. This will enable them to uncover and to develop their signature strengths and to swim their way to wellbeing and happiness in their lives.

 

Develop Your Child’s Signature Strengths

When my children were younger, I spent a lot of time with them at playgrounds and in parks. I loved watching them run, play, negotiate, climb, swing, and get dirty, and I learned a lot about my own parenting style by watching other parents attend to their children. I remember one mother who had constant immediate praise for her daughter about everything she did. “Becca, your rock pile is amazing! Wow, your slide down was amazing! Honey, that jump was amazing! Darling, your hold on the monkey bars was amazing!” I admired her enthusiasm and ‘praise parenting’ does have value, but I’m talking about a different approach to positive parenting: strengths-based parenting.

Every parent I know wants their child to be happy, healthy, and successful in their lives. We want our children to “be a mensch” (a good person) and to have a positive impact in the world. Some children evolve into thriving adults while others become difficult and live unfulfilled lives. Many factors lead to this difference, but one of the most essential tools parents can give to their child is to help them to identify and to develop their signature strengths over the course of their lives.

Jewish tradition teaches that “a parent must teach their child Torah.” On one level, this means to teach a child the stories of tradition that come from the Five Books of Moses. On another level, this means that a parent must teach their child’s “Torah” and guide their child to identify, understand, and develop her strengths.
Parenting expert Dr. Lea Waters, defines strengths as “positive qualities that energize us and that we use often in productive ways to achieve our goals. They are developed over time and are recognized by others as praiseworthy.” Strengths-based parenting focuses on a child’s character strengths (ie, optimism, bravery, creativity, gratitude, appreciation, kindness, resilience, hope, etc.), rather than their accomplishments or their incremental weaknesses. The method works like this:

  • “Honey, I can see how much creativity you brought to this art project,” rather than, “This art project is amazing!”
  • “I can imagine it was hard not throw that insult/ball/rock/back at him which took a lot of restraint and courage,” rather than, “I know he was being a jerk. Kids are jerks sometimes.”
  • “Jennifer, you accomplished so much by getting a 94 on your math exam – well done.” Rather than, “what happened with that one you got wrong? You could have gotten a perfect score if you used that method we practiced last night.”

Rather than focus on weaknesses and external factors, strengths-based parenting focuses on positive character development. A research scientist says this approach to parenting “puts your kids in touch with their unique constellation of talents and character.” A rabbi says, strengths-based parenting “teaches a child to swim and helps them master their own Torah.” The scientist and the rabbi are both saying the same thing: parents that actively identify and develop their child’s strengths will help them thrive and the proven results are:

  • Greater levels of happiness and engagement at school
  • Higher levels of academic achievement
  • Better work performance and heightened  levels of satisfaction at work
  • Higher levels of physical fitness and healthy lifestyles
  • Increased levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem
  • Reduced risk of depression and enhanced ability to cope with stress and diversity

Guiding a child to know their signature strengths is a gift from parent to child. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, My child, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand [your natural strengths and how to use them for your best life possible].”

Our world needs more unity and less division and caring parents and teachers are in a great place to guide the way. It’s our responsibility to develop the instincts for humanity in our young people and to help them develop authentic human connections and friendship in through three elements: Love, Kindness, and Social Intelligence.

#1 Love (Ahavah in Hebrew) is about valuing and caring relationships and the ability to share and to be in genuine relationship with others. Rabbi Akiva taught that “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” was the all-embracing principle in the Bible.

On the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Moses Maimonides taught that this is the basis for many of the rabbinic mitzvot such as visiting the sick, comforting mourners, caring for the dead, providing a dowry for the bride, escorting guests, performing burial rites, rejoicing with bride and groom and helping support them with necessary provisions ( Hilchot Avel 4:1).

#2 Kindness (chesed in Hebrew) is the ability to be compassionate, nurturing, caring, and generous with others. Great is the virtue of gemilut chasadim (love and kindness) because it is one of the thirteen attributes ascribed to God. As it is written: “Adonai, Adonai. . . long suffering and abundant in kindness (rav chesed).” -Exodus 34:6

#3 Social Intelligence (chochma chevrati in Hebrew) is the capability to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments and to have common sense. “The One Who had provided man with intelligence certainly expects that we use our (social) intelligence to legislate such basic laws without which life on earth would become intolerable, anarchic. We must view our common sense as a messenger from God, an instrument that acts as a protection against man experiencing all kinds of harm and problems in his life on earth. When man commits violence against his fellow man this reflects an absence of common sense. -Radak on Genesis 20:6:2

I believe each person was born with the characteristics for loving humanity but over time, our life experiences can teach us to be defensive and guarded. It’s never too late to open a heart and to teach the elements of love, kindness, and social intelligence one step at a time. As the Talmud says, “one good deed leads to another.“

If you are reading this letter, it’s because you are like me and most people I know. You are living with major and minor personal challenge and looking for practical ways to live well. As Reinhold Niebuhr teaches: ”God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Reinhold teaches us that the power of courage can lead to important personal growth. We all know people who are living positive lives and simultaneously enduring incredible challenges. Often, people who pass through their valley of the shadows can emerge saying, ““it changed my life for the better.” I hope this is true for you.

Here are five important qualities to medidate upon to overcome major personal challenge in a positive way: bravery, courage, perseverance, honesty, and resilience. And I wish you well on your journey to recovery and positivity.


  1. Bravery (gevurah) is the ability to face physical and non-physical threat, difficulty, or pain.

“Eternal One, hear my prayer: Let my cry come before you. Do not hide Your face from me. In my time of trouble; Turn your ear to m; When I cry, answer me quickly. -Psalm 10:2-3”


  1.  Courage is the willpower to achieve goals in the face of internal or external opposition.

“As the Psalmist teaches, Though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no harm, for You are with me. – Psalm 23″


  1. Perseverance (malacha) is the ability to complete the task and to persist in the face of obstacles.

“Personal effort and perseverance contribute the major part to eventual success. In fact, any negligence or laziness is rated as sinful when circumstances seem to have called for exertion of the self.  -Akedat Yitzchak 25:16”


  1. Honesty (emet) is about speaking truth and having real integrity and being able to take responsibility for one’s actions, feelings, and affect on others.

“Moses our teacher commanded on the matter of integrity. As it is written: “You must be wholehearted before your God (Deuteronomy 18:13) -Sefer Ma’alot Hamidot”


  1. Resilience (koach) is that despite the situation, able to remain active, energetic, focused, and flexible. Able to bounce back.\

“Praised are You, Eternal One, Creator of the universe, who has made the human form in wisdom and created in it a system of openings, arteries, glands, and organs that is marvelous in structure and intricate in design. Should only one of them fail to function by being blocked or open, it would be difficult to stand before you. Wonderous fashioner and sustainer of life, source of our health and our strength, we give You thanks and praise.  – Asher Yatzar prayer”

For 20 years, the field of Positive Psychology has conducted longitudinal studies on human behavior, achievement, and character strengths. Today, the tenets of Positive Psychology are the heartbeat of professional coaching, leadership, behavior modification, and self-help. The popularity in human development on resilience, optimism, well-being and happiness, all stem from the field of Positive Psychology.

There is much that Jewish professionals should know about the field of Positive Psychology as it deals primarily with research and findings related to well-being, happiness, and the proven factors that lead people to living lives of meaning. Since clergy and educators have the well-being of the individuals and communities we serve at the center of our work, a knowledge of this field is critical.

My belief is that Judaism and Positive Psychology make the perfect pairing. Both are focused on living a life of meaning and achieving higher levels of well-being. I use a set framework called the VIA Classification of Strengths as the basis for the core traits and values of Positive Judaism. I have paired each virtue and strength in the VIA Classification with their corresponding Jewish values, biblical teachings, and Jewish practices to present the VIA Classification of Strengths  from a Jewish context.

My theory is that when clergy and educators let these values guide their work with individuals and communities, the impact on people will be increased positive emotion, improved relationships and accelerated personal achievement. People will not only be more confident, optimistic, open to diversity, and able to learn lessons from hardship, but they will also experience their work as a calling, act and think with purpose, contribute and help, appreciate family and friends, and act generously. As as result, our communities will become more vibrant and engaging – full of thriving people seeking to grow themselves, their families, and our communities from the place of Jewish values.

This is not the first time a code of virtues (10/613 Commandments, Shulchan Aruch, Mishneh Torah, Mapah, etc.) has attempted to enhance Jewish living, but it is the first time that psychometric research and the science of human flourishing has been brought together b’dibur echad, in one breath.

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Here are ten suggestions of how to implement the traits and strengths of Positive Judaism:

1.Sermons
Focus on a trait of strength in a personal story, biblical story or character, or contemporary issue to show how the strength was employed to overcome a challenge, improve the situation, or to achieve the goal. “Once he was able to change his perspective, he used his creativity and his perseverance to accomplish his dream.”

2.Pastoral Visits
When visiting the sick or comforting the bereaved, draw upon the traits of courage to help a patient or family pass through a liminal moment. “It seems to me that you have been very courageous. I imagine it has been scary time. What is the source of your bravery? How do you find the resilience to keep going?”

3.Shabbat Gatherings
During prayer gatherings, seek moments for authentic social interaction, meditation, and use teachings to guide people to express their most human values like optimism, hope, love and kindness and to appreciate their love of learning, authentic selves, humility and forgiveness.

4. Shabbat Meals
Infuse each symbol on the shabbat table for people to consider and/or share a personal strength. “As we kindle these shabbat lights, let us take a moment to think about when we brought light to the world this week with an act of love and kindness. As we say this blessing for wine, let us remember a sweet and humorous moment this week that made you laugh. And before we say the motzi, let us each share something we are grateful for in our lives tonight.

5. Jewish Holidays
Throughout the calendar year, the natural themes of the major holidays lend themselves perfectly to developing traits and strengths. The themes of Hanukkah, Passover, and Purim, are perseverance, bravery, teamwork, and hope. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus upon forgiveness, justice and and humility. Sukkot and Tu b’Shevat tends towards gratitude, contentment and appreciation of beauty and humility. Finally, Shavuot, a focus on love of learning, judgement, and curiosity.

6. Life-cycle ceremonies
Life ceremonies are heightened moments to draw upon specific traits and strengths. Baby namings are new beginnings where hope and love for the child is paired with gratitude, awe, and humility for the parents and family members. B’nai Mitzvah teachings can focus on what it means to be a Jewish adult focused upon justice, fairness, prudence, bravery, and resilience in life. Weddings invite a focus upon hope, love, gratitude, awe, and especially forgiveness. Funerals naturally lend themselves to being grateful for life, for the love we shared with the departed, along with forgiveness, hope, and humor which can be cathartic and healing.

7. Classroom Activities
The Jewish classroom is a laboratory for teaching the traits and strengths and working to instill positive character development. Over the course of one academic year, each week could be dedicated to a different strength – “24 weeks of Positive Judaism.” Classroom management and the behavior contract between students and teacher/students can draw upon fairness, forgiveness, resilience, justice, teamwork, leadership, and kindness which all lead to enhanced social awareness in the group setting of a classroom and school.

8. Family and Relationship Counseling
With a focus on well-being and personal transformation, Positive Judaism provides a framework for clergy and communal professionals to support individuals, couples, and families in a counseling setting. Pastors and counselors can reflect upon any of the core strengths and traits and transmit them through Jewish stories, teachings, and wisdom. This unique perspective can offer healing and optimism in difficult moments for example, “my heart goes out to every family in trouble. If it brings you any comfort, yours seems to reflect the truth of the human condition. Even in the Torah, it seems that every person had major trials and tribulations. Sarah was barren until her old age. Joseph was cast away by his brothers. Moses was given up by his mother at childbirth. And the list goes on.”

9. Organizational Management
Staff systems are human systems. Similar to the classroom, the organization is a professional laboratory to develop people and support their achievement through identifying and nourishing the strengths of individuals and groups. Acknowledging the importance of teamwork, perseverance, honesty, fairness, and kindness can support healthy work cultures and ultimately lead people to higher levels of social intelligence and productivity. Leaders say, “our goals are great. If we act as a team, working together, I believe we will reach our goal. As Jewish wisdom teaches, ‘you are not obligated to complete the goal, but you are also not free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:21).’”

10. Communal Leadership
Jewish professionals and leaders have the historic responsibility to advance society and societal achievement for all. Finding regular opportunities for tikkun olam, mitzvah days, and serving the needy allow people to perform just work. Positive Jewish strengths can also be used as a framework for communal planning. “What are our social goals and how to we develop leaders that will guide our community to achieve the best for all? How do we instill hope, optimism, bravery, love, justice, fairness, a love of learning, perspective, etc. into every layer of our community so that we may raise up each person and rise together?

Greetings from Houston.

I just landed with 20 teenagers from New York for three days of Rebuild Houston. I’m so proud of the young women and men that here to make a positive difference in this local community, still facing significant issues 6 months into the hurricane recovery effort.

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Over the next 72 hours, we’re going to rebuild houses, work at the Houston Food Bank, sort clothing for homeless families living in shelters, and connect with the local faith scene. Tonight we’ll be celebrating Shabbat at a Brit Shalom synagogue and after a long day of work tomorrow, we’ll end the day at Lakewood Church with a visit to Joel Osteen.

We’ll be posting pictures over the weekend on our Facebook and Instagram pages. If you’re not already following us online, connect now so we can share in the experience together.

Now a word about the sadness, frustration, and broken hearts we have for the children and families in Parkland, FL. There are so many important voices calling for gun control and the enhanced restrictions on gun sales. We should join the chorus.

The wise sages in the Talmud said, “in a place where nobody is acting human, strive even harder to be a human being.” It’s not true that “nobody is acting human,” despite how it may feel when a tragedy like this occurs. My read is that more and more people are learning to be human and to lead with love and kindness and action – one example being the teenagers powerful call for action. Read this story for some inspiration –

Let’s join these teen-agers in Parkland, and by example the teens that are here with me in Houston, who are all making a positive difference. They could have chosen to retreat in fear and to silently get on with their lives in the classic self-focused teen-ager way, but they are not. Parkland is rallying. And we’ve got 20 teen-agers who chose to spend their President’s Day Vacation helping others in need. That’s inspiring to me. It gives me real hope that we’re growing as human beings who care about humanity. It’s a hint of a silver lining of light that can come from this dark tragedy.

Action is more than words and tikkun olam, the Jewish mandate to repair the world, is real. You may not have woken up this morning thinking that today was going to be your day to do something positive to make our world a better place, but it could be! Make a plan for yourself and those close to you to be kinder, more caring, and more loving to humanity. It’s not going to bring those innocent school children back to life, but it will be one more action to help our world get to positive.

Thank you for doing your part.

Rabbi Darren Levine