An old Jewish story: Mendel meets David. He says, “Tell me, friend, how is life? I haven’t got much time, so tell me in one word.” David says, “In one word? Good.” Mendel says, “Give me a bit more detail. In two words, how is life?” David replies: “In two words? Not good.”That was 2011. It may be true for 2012. As a nation, we’re wealthier and healthier, but the economic outlook is uncertain and much of the world is troubled, if not in turmoil.
What would be some Jewish advice for the coming year? First, thank God. Jews call this Barukh Hashem, “Blessed be the Lord.” In the shtetls, where Jews were poor and persecuted but deeply religious, if you asked: “How is business? the answer would come back: Barukh Hashem. How is the family? Barukh Hashem. Your health? Barukh Hashem.
You might be ill, your children rebellious, your business terrible, but you thanked God. Jews knew how to rejoice in the midst of hardship. They laughed, they celebrated, they had the gift of simchah, the Jewish word for joy. They were not fools. They knew their fate was wretched. But they felt close to God. After all, he prayed in the same synagogue that they did.
Second, love. Love your spouse and you will have a happy marriage. Love your children and you will have a happy family. Love your work and you will have a happy career. Love life and you will be blessed. “If only” is the opposite of love. If only my partner were more attractive, my children more appreciative, my colleagues more friendly, if only I earned more, achieved more. “If only” is toxic to happiness. It focuses on what we don’t have instead of what we do. The consumer culture invites us to an existence of “if only”. It’s the worst investment in life.
True faith is all about love. Love God with all your heart, your soul, your might. Love your neighbour as yourself. Love the stranger because to others you are a stranger. You don’t have to be religious to love, but you have to love to be religious. Love is the space we make for that which is not me. By opening ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, we grow.
Third, pray. Prayer is our dialogue with the infinite Other. It’s also hard, which is why we have prayer books. The finest collection of prayers is the book of Psalms. It embraces the spectrum of feeling from despair to jubilation. Prayer is to the soul what exercise is to the body, and without it we become emotionally flabby.
Some people don’t pray because they try it and it does not work. They forget that prayer is done best in the company of others, in a holy place, in song, the language of the soul as it reaches out toward the unsayable. The most life-transforming prayers are choral not solo.
Iris Murdoch has a lovely analogy for what prayer can achieve. She describes looking out of a window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of her surroundings, brooding on some resentment, feeling sorry for herself. Then, suddenly, she sees a hovering kestrel. “In a moment,” she says, “everything is altered. The brooding self . . . has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.” She calls this “unselfing”, and that is what prayer achieves at its best. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world.
Three suggestions: more next month. But the principle is simple. When business is bad, invest in the spirit. If the economy stops growing, your happiness can still increase.