The Seven Most Powerful Teachings in Judaism

Jews have been battered throughout history, but they always seem to bounce back. Here are the seven most powerful ideas in Judaism that have catalyzed Jewish renewal, time and time again.
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Aug. 9 this year marks the saddest day on the Jewish calendar (Tisha b'Av) when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. But however much the Jews have been battered throughout history, they always seemed to bounce back. Here are the seven most powerful ideas in Judaism that have catalyzed Jewish renewal, time and time again. I'll teach you how you can apply them to your life.

1. "Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent" (Hasidic wisdom). Never perceive a failure (descent) as an isolated event. It's part of a learning curve. Broaden your lens a little and you will see this temporary setback as a tiny cog in a huge engine of overall progress.

What paralyzes us the most when it comes to taking action is the fear of failure. If you can program your brain to see everything that happens, no matter how bad it seems, as part of a process, then you can neutralize that fear.

Failure is a judgment that you make. If you frame each "descent" (regression) in your life as a necessary phase of future growth you will bounce out of every problem with relative ease.

2. Hard work is crucial to success. No exceptions (The Talmud). Forget any dreams of your life miraculously improving. Most people that win the lottery lose all their money within three years because they don't know what to do with it. Judaism teaches that you must work hard to succeed. It sounds so simple, but in the back of our minds we are all hoping for some sort of major, unearned break. So just forget about it. Something "free" is always tempting but ultimately it is "bread of shame": it compromises your sense of dignity and adequacy. If someone says, "I have worked hard, and I have not been successful," don't believe him. If someone says, "I have not worked hard and I have been successful," don't believe him. If someone says, "I have worked hard, and I have been successful," believe him!(The Talmud).

3. "A person should always say, 'The world was created for my sake'" (The Talmud). Obviously the world wasn't created for your sake and this is not an invitation to become a bigot. What the Talmud is teaching you to say is: I am totally responsible for my world. It's always very relieving to blame someone for your problems -- your parents, boss or maybe just bad luck. But that would mean that your life is just a tiny, irrelevant footnote to the real action on this planet, and that's not true. You were built to cope with whatever comes your way. In the Bible, when Joseph was reunited with his brothers who had tried to kill him and then sold him to slavery, he didn't even get angry with them. He understood that he was totally responsible for everything that came his way and that it's part of a bigger plan.

4. "Action is the most important thing" (Ethics of the Fathers). Do you know everything about electricity before turning on a light? Do you study aviation before getting on a plane? To be successful in life you need to prioritize action over planing, practice over theory. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that you act irresponsibly; it's just a question of emphasis. Don't allow yourself to pontificate for too long before actually doing something. Always look for the practical relevance of every idea.

5. "Since the Temple was destroyed God can only be found in the four cubits of law" (The Talmud). Personally, I hate following laws. I love to be unhampered, free-spirited and autonomous. But if you just do whatever you want, whenever you want, you will lack an important ingredient for your success: personal integrity. You know how the old joke goes, "I have standards, and if you don't like them then ... I have others." Well, that's a problem. If you know in your heart that you are not a person of integrity it will paralyze you. As humans, we need to be convinced that there is something essentially good and upright about us in order to function properly. So the "four cubits of the law" are crucial for our personal integrity.

6. "Words that come from the heart enter the heart" (The Sages). You can best understand this one by inverting it: "Words that don't come from the heart will not enter someone else's heart." Usually, we think that if we are sincere but fail to get the intended message across then it's the other person's fault. After all, you were genuine and you meant what you said, so it must be the other guy who is being a jerk. Judaism says no. You must judge the sincerity of your words by the results that they evoke. The human heart is wonderfully receptive. If you pull the right strings, it always responds. So when you fail to communicate, blame yourself. You can always enter someone else's heart if you get it right.

7. "All the days of your life are to bring the Messiah" (The Sages). Whether or not you believe in the idea of a Messiah, you can benefit tremendously from this teaching. The point is: You must do whatever it takes to get the job done. Commitment is the most powerful motivational tool that exists. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994), built the largest Jewish organization in the world through teaching his disciples the value of commitment. You stay the course. You do whatever it takes. The possible you do right away, the impossible might take a little longer, but you will get it done. So ask yourself today: Am I just interested in my goals or am I committed to them?

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