Many of us stagnate in lives that are going nowhere. We are either stuck in destructive patterns that undermine our happiness and snuff out our potential, or we run on a treadmill of routine that slowly kills off our dreams. In our hearts we know we are born for something higher, but by the time we hit our thirties and forties we have settled for a life that does not match our original expectations in any way. Then we tell ourselves that those long-ago visions of our future were never realistic in the first place.
Mature people, we reason, adopt a more sober perspective. But the nagging sense that we deserve so much more never quite leaves us.
None of us are born thinking we are ordinary. Feeling special is an essential part of the human birthright. If you don’t think you are special, you won’t seek to contribute your gift to the world. But I meet people every day who seem content to throw away their days chasing money, watching TV, and accumulating as many possessions as possible. It’s as if humans never evolved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage. We live in a culture where discussing the latest HBO series passes for stimulating dinner conversation.
America has become a country of great contrasts: We’re the wealthiest nation on earth and consume three-quarters of its antidepressants.
What happened to the feeling that we are special and the knowledge that special people don’t waste their lives pursuing ordinary things? Somewhere along the way that vital feeling of uniqueness died in us. Video: How ‘America’s rabbi’ met the King of Pop
But it can be recaptured. What is needed is not another self-help book or personal empowerment seminar. We in the modern world do not suffer from a lack of motivation — most of us still get up in the morning and put in a full day’s work. For the most part, we either are in a relationship or want to be in one. It’s not that we’re not trying to create a special life, but rather that we forgot what’s important. We do not need a pep talk.
We need a new vision of what truly matters, a new set of rules for how we should conduct our lives and to guide us in devoting our mental, intellectual, and emotional energies.
As a counselor, I have discovered that the principal cause of malaise is embracing the wrong values. Our culture never taught us what is truly precious, so we chased things that in the long run did not accord with our deepest desires.
Just think about the disparity between how you expend your daily energies versus how you wish to be eulogized one day. Does anyone want their rabbi, minister, priest, or imam to get up in front of the crowd that’s gathered and launch into a discussion of the size of the house you lived in, or the luxury detailing of your BMW? Does anyone imagine they’ll be most fondly remembered for how thin they were, or how much they exercised? Are there any among us so shallow as to want our legacy to be how many partners we bedded? And if not, why does the pursuit of these things drive us to endless distraction? Video: Jon Gosselin talks to Rabbi Shmuley
If your time is spent pursuing what doesn’t accord with your deepest desires, you are living a lie — a sin against G-d, who gave you life so you could consecrate your existence to higher things. It is time to renew, recalibrate, and reorient our lives to focus on what matters.
This is not a self-help book. It is not a book that will teach you how to be an optimist or how to win friends. Even less so is it a book that tells you how to awaken your inner giant. No, this is a book about building a new life by rediscovering life’s most precious values. In it you will discover a revolutionary take on the whole concept of values.
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In this book I will reacquaint you with an eternal understanding of what in life is precious — and what thoughts, attitudes, and judgments we should run far, far away from. I’ll introduce you to ancient values and their contemporary application. For those of you who are already familiar with the Bible’s values, I hope you will find that the material presented here is fresh, even surprising.
I am a rabbi fully devoted to Judaism. But I do not observe my religion merely because it is the faith of my ancestors or because I want my children to embrace our tradition. Important as those things are, they are subordinate to something far more significant, namely, that my faith imparts to me a knowledge of life’s infinite preciousness and potential. I don’t want to throw my life away or dwell on stuff that’s beneath me. From time to time we may all tell a lie, but living one is a different matter entirely.
I plan to turn some of your most cherished values upside down. While we think we know ancient values, we often have only a superficial understanding of the eternal truths embedded in them. For example, many people still believe in astrology and, by extension, fate. They believe their life was scripted before they were born. But nothing could be further from the truth. Fate is a myth designed to have us submit to forces beyond our control rather than bending those same forces to our will. It is profoundly disempowering. But in this book you will discover the Jewish value of destiny that can overpower your subservience to fate and the conventional life.
Another example is the belief in the value of education. Ever ask yourself why Americans today are more educated than ever before, and yet seemingly vastly more ignorant? For all of the college degrees we earn, we seem utterly unaware of the most basic facts of history, geography, and philosophy. Wisdom is in scarcer supply. That’s because we should never have valued education in the first place. I know a number of people with PhDs who have completely messed up their lives. Likewise, nearly all the doctors who worked in Auschwitz were highly educated, but that didn’t stop them from becoming some of the biggest monsters in history. We should pursue enlightenment, not education. Here you’ll discover the difference between the two.
The same is true of salvation, one of the world’s favorite values. Salvation is concerned with the state of your individual soul. Are you saved or are you lost? But is that what really matters, where you are going at life’s end? Or is redemption, the contribution you make to the wider world here and now, more important?
We cannot keep fumbling in darkness only to wake up to how misguided our values were when we hit age sixty-four. It is time for us all to become more self-aware. Precious years are passing by, years that cannot be recovered.
Let’s discover now what is truly valuable so we can live anew. This urgent truth applies collectively as much as it does individually.
The United States is suffering from a terminal deprecation of values. Greed has collapsed our economy and suffocated our spirit. Families scatter to the winds and divorce rates remain high. Our youth spend an average of eight hours a day disconnected from face-to-face interaction and real-life emotions. So where is the discussion of values that might reverse this societal decline?
Well, by way of a single example, the serious discussion of values that we so desperately need has been hijacked by the never-ending discussion about abortion and gay marriage.
For two decades I have watched these issues dominate the cultural debate on values. Whatever your views on gay marriage — whether you believe that gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals or you object to gay marriage on biblical grounds — one thing is for sure: The debate has nothing to do with imparting real values to our culture or saving the institution of marriage from certain destruction. We straight people don’t need help from gays in destroying marriage, having done an admirable job of it ourselves, thank you very much. But so-called defenders of the sanctity of marriage and eternal values have chosen a convenient scapegoat.
Not even 10 percent of the American population is gay, but more than 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. This was happening years before gays came out in significant numbers, let alone demanded the right to marry. In fact, the only men who seem to still want to get married in Video: In tapes, Jackson recalls fear of father America are gays. While they are petitioning the Supreme Court to tie the knot, straight guys are breaking into a rash and running to the hills every time their live-in girlfriend of five years pushes for a ring on her finger.
The true cause of marital breakdown in our time is an absence of real and substantive values. We Americans are an ambitious lot. We want to succeed in everything we do. What we fear most in this country is being a failure, a “loser.” But being a winner has come to mean having money, having power, and being famous. Where is the incentive to be a good man? The misguided values in our culture today encourage us all to have a career rather than a calling, to focus on our own ambition rather than cultivate our gifts to benefit other people. The only thing our young people learn about selfless love is that it is subordinate to unconstrained sexual pleasure, a funny, old-fashioned notion out of place in a ruthlessly efficient culture where you are always number one. We’ve redefined success to encompass only the professional sphere. In Hollywood, you can be on your fourth marriage and have all your kids in rehab, but so long as people are still paying $10 to see your movies, you’re considered a success. On Wall Street, you can take the American taxpayer to the cleaners and pursue a life of endless womanizing, all fueled by gargantuan, government-facilitated bonuses, but as long as you drive a Ferrari and still occupy that $25 million Hampton estate, you’ll still be welcome on the cocktail party circuit. These are the rancid values being proffered to a nation that fought for freedom and became the world’s first modern republic. More of the same is not going to help us rediscover our truest selves. We need a new set of values anchored in time-tested tradition.
Religion plays an indispensable part in this renewal — but not more of the same religion. As in the case above, with the extreme focus on gay marriage, we have arrived at a place of eroded values precisely because religion has, to an extent, lost its way.
Christianity in the United States generally comes in two forms. The first consists of the formal, mainline denominations, which tend to be more socially liberal and have either endorsed or tacitly embraced most secular values. The second is composed of the charismatic congregations who condemn the culture’s mores and seem to delight in those judgments.
Islam faces numerous problems as it confronts the modern world, including an aversion to democratic values and a rising number of fanatics who preach violence in G-d’s name.
This is not to say that there isn’t amazing good work being done by millions of Muslims and Christians the world over. On the contrary, the vast majority of the faithful are good people who stand up for what’s right. It does mean that religion in our time is becoming divisive and is therefore compromising its own ability to positively influence the values discussion.
All of this points to the need for greater influence on the part of that other great world religion, the one that gave rise to both Christianity and Islam, and that’s Judaism. Jewish values are uniquely suited to modern times.
Jewish values deliver a program for developing human potential that is suited to people of every spiritual persuasion. Forget the tragically mistaken notion that Judaism is only for Jews. Jews do not proselytize, it’s true, believing that we must all, in the words of my friend Marianne Williamson, “honor our incarnation” and that the faith you were born to is the way G-d expects you to worship. But this was never supposed to imply that Jewish values weren’t meant to influence all the earth’s inhabitants, non-Jews included. Plenty of Westerners meditate and do yoga.
That does not mean they intend to embrace an Eastern faith. Jewish values are universal.
After 3,300 years of near-exclusive practice by Jews, why do I say that in these times, the values I put forth in this book are for everyone? Because while Western society has figured out the answers to nearly all the great macrocosmic questions, it has failed utterly at the smaller ones. We know how to build skyscrapers, but a lasting marriage eludes us. We know how to launch satellites into space, but we are flummoxed when it comes to deepening our everyday interests beyond celebrity gossip. We can zap messages across the globe in nanoseconds, but we haven’t yet overcome our addiction to the impulse purchase.
It is into this contradiction that Judaism fits in. Jews and Judaism have always focused on the small yet profound questions of existence. How does a man remain attracted to his wife for the duration of their marriage?
How do families make special moments holy? How can we ensure that we are always honest in our commercial dealings? And how do we raise children who are motivated, respectful, and intellectually curious? It goes without saying that a failure to master these questions virtually guarantees an unhappy life.
Whatever our background, we all seek the same thing: happiness. But happiness is not something that, as Thomas Jefferson surmised in the Declaration of Independence, can be pursued. Rather, joy is the natural by-product of a life in harmony with G-dly values.
Every religion is known for certain characteristics: Christianity for its deep faith, Islam for its strong passion, Hinduism for its penetrating spirituality. Judaism stands alone not for its rejection of the divinity of Jesus or the prophecy of Mohammed, but for its singular concern with values. Most of the values the Jewish people bequeathed the world are no longer accredited to the Jews. Jews gave the world the one true G-d. Today the name is Jesus or Allah. The Hebrew Bible’s idea that all men are created as equals today goes by the name democracy. Consider also the teaching of Leviticus 19:18, that one must love one’s fellow man as oneself, is today called the Golden Rule and attributed to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, though Moses proclaimed it thirteen centuries earlier.
Jewish ideas today come with the name Christianity, Islam, secular humanism, communism, utopianism, democracy, New Ageism, and even atheism and agnosticism. But there is a second tier of values — values that are wholly Jewish and that have not been embraced by the world, but that can bring great healing. They are, in acrostic form, DREAMSS, or destiny, redemption, enlightenment, action, marriage, struggle, and sacred time.
I touched on destiny and redemption above. And there are other Jewish values — as you’ll discover as you read on. Judaism is not just a collection of arcane ideas. It is a program of action to ensure that G-dly values actually take root within our psyches and each successive generation. Jewish values take spiritual abstractions and translate them into a tangible reality inseparable from everyday life. Not every religious tradition appreciates that values are useless unless they are ingrained into the human character.
We forget how easy it is for ideas and ethics to go out of fashion. Just fifty years ago, the Nazis trampled on all cherished values and almost succeeded in building a world based on darkness. All great ideas, as well as civilization itself, corrode with time.
The monumental values discussed here cannot remain like flowers cut off from their roots, for they will slowly wilt and die. I seek to promote the idea that the Jewish religion is a holistic set of inextricably linked values that together compose a state-of-the-art system for maximizing human potential. No other method of living has so celebrated life amid a history of death.
Long ago G-d gave the Jews a mission to spread light through G-dly values. It’s time to hear that message again.
Excerpted from "Renewal" by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Basic Books.
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