Happiness Lessons of The Ancients: The TorahThe Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
- 2,165 views
- 5 Apr 2021
Sarah Hurwitz grew up thinking there was little the great texts of Judaism could teach her - she even hatched a plot to get out of Hebrew school. But in adulthood she discovered that The Torah contains instructions to act with gratitude, kindness and solidarity that all chime with the latest happiness research.
Sarah is author of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).
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It will come as no surprise to you that I totally welcome the increased attention we're paying to the subject of happiness and mental health these days, but happiness and the desire to be happier aren't just modern preoccupations. And that means that centuries of smart people before us have grappled with this challenge and a lot of the conclusions they reached are worthy of exploring in more detail. If you're a fan of the happiness lab, you know that we've already talked about what the ancient Greeks, Romans and Buddhists can teach us about improving our daily lives.
But there's still so much more to learn from the past. And so in this new mini season of The Happiness Lab, we'll see what age-Old philosophies and religions got right. We'll learn more about the old school tips that are borne out by the science. So welcome once again to Happiness Lessons of the Ages. With me, Dr. Laura Santer's. Now, I'm guessing that at least some of you are pretty familiar with the Torah, those first five books of the Hebrew Bible, some of you may have even read parts of this text as a child, think plagues of frogs burning bushes and six hundred year old men building arks to save the creatures of the earth.
But it's important not to let these extraordinary adventure stories overshadow the human lessons contained within text. To be honest, I didn't even know what I was missing until I picked up a book by Sarah Hurwitz called Here All Along, Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism after finally choosing to look there. Sarah and I have a lot in common. Her family comes from my hometown.
I really have that a lot of time in New Bedford, like a very fond memories. And we attended the same college around the same time, you remember, at Harvard. There was another class I don't even remember who taught it. After college, Sarah's career took her to D.C. and then the White House, where she became chief speechwriter for first lady Michelle Obama. And it was only then that she started to reappraise with the Torah and Judaism more generally had to teach her because as a child, Sarah wasn't really feeling the whole religious thing.
Judaism, for me, was like a two kind of long, incomprehensible services at the major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
And, you know, I went to Hebrew school, but like a lot of kids going to religious school as a kid, I didn't really love it. It was extra school after normal school. I kind of resented that. And one day in sixth grade, after some of my classmates had been mean to me, I was like, that's it.
I'm just done. I don't want to do this anymore. And so I went home that night and I gave my mom this totally made up impassioned speech about how this Hebrew school wasn't honoring my true understanding of Judaism and it wasn't giving me the education I really needed. I mean, just all this I don't even I don't know what possessed me, like only a 11 year old. But thing to do that is my mother, bless her heart, you know, she finds me another Hebrew school, which only meets once a week.
But is this long drive and it's not it's not a very high quality Hebrew school. So I didn't really learn much after that.
And, you know, I had a bat mitzvah, but it was very loosely based on Judaism. And that was kind of it. You know, after that I thought, OK, I'm a cultural Jew, I'm Jewish by heritage. But if I want meaning or spiritual connection, I guess I'll just have to look elsewhere.
This doesn't sound like, you know, the great origin stories of someone who's going to write a book about finding meeting in Judaism, you know, so. So really, what was the transition there?
Yeah. So twenty five years later, at the age of thirty six, I broke up with a guy I was dating. I had a lot of time on my hands and was kind of bored and lonely. I happened to hear about an internal Judaism class and I signed up just thinking, OK, I should learn something about Judaism. You know, I'm Jewish, I should know my, my heritage.
And I have to say I was blown away by what I discovered in that class. It was four thousand years of crowdsourced wisdom from millions and millions of people who are basically pooling their very best wisdom on how to live a meaningful life, how to be a good person, how to cope with life's challenges, how to find joy, how to find spiritual connection. And I just could not get over how relevant all this ancient wisdom was to my modern life.
So let's do the kind of Cliff Notes version of Judaism, which I realize is impossible and like a short podcast. But, you know, just like starting with the history for those that aren't familiar with it, like what is the Torah, for example?
Yes, great question. Into the Torah is basically the first five books of what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Jews call it the Tenaha, or you might hear it called the Hebrew Bible. So it's those first five books and it's basically, you know, it's basically the story of, oh, gosh, it's such a complicated, so complicated.
But, you know, if I were really fast forward, it's sort of the story of a family which eventually becomes a nation and becomes enslaved in Egypt. And then it's a story of this God who rescues these these Israelites, these Jewish slaves from Egypt, assembles them at the base of the mountain, Mount Sinai, and basically gives them a mission. And the mission is to build a society that is the exact opposite of Egypt, a society that rejects all of these old power structures that value kings and emperors and pharaohs, but that instead really focuses on the most vulnerable, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor.
And it's this mission to create this the society that's the opposite of Egypt. And that's sort of the and it's really it's a presentation of a covenant to the Israelites. And they have to choose. Right. This is this is a partnership between God and the Israelites. It is not an order that they are forced to accept. It's a covenant that they willingly choose to accept. So in Judaism, you have a sense of empowerment, of having free will and agency, and there's a real focus less on professing a certain faith and much more on acting in a certain way and treating others in a certain way and living life in a certain way.
You know, when you say it like that, it sounds fantastic. But, you know, I've I've kind of gone to the Torah like, you know, through the Old Testament. And you sometimes find things there that seem, at least to our modern ears, a little weird or maybe in some cases even disturbing. I mean, did you have that when you kind of got interested in the Torah more?
Yeah. I mean, you know, you read about these miracles, right? The seas parting and plagues and this and that. The Torah is not meant to be a historical document. Right. This is not like an accurate historical blow-by-blow account of ancient people. It is a document that I personally believe was written by people. There are some people who believe that it was written by God. I don't believe that. I think you'll find that most Jews believe that it is a human generated document and maybe these humans were divinely inspired somehow.
But it's not meant to be read as a scientific document or as a historical document. This is a moral document, but it is articulating a certain moral sensibility that's basically a protest against the values of the ancient Near East, where human life is degraded, where emperors and pharaohs and kings were worshipped and ordinary people were thought to be valueless. This document is saying, no, no, no, no, like this. God is not concerned about emperors, pharaohs and kings, just the opposite.
This God cares about. The most vulnerable, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, articulating a moral sensibility and yeah, there's a lot of stuff there. That's twenty five hundred years old. Right. And I think what a lot of Christians don't really understand is that we didn't stop with the Torah. For the past twenty five hundred years, we have been reinterpreting and reimagining the Torah. You know, you'll notice that Jews don't put each other's eyes out anymore, writes one eye for an eye, because 2000 years ago, ancient rabbis said, oh, no, no, no, no eye for an eye means that if you put out someone's eye, you have to compensate them monetarily.
That's what that means. And there's a lot of that kind of interpretation over twenty five hundred years. So today you have women serving as rabbis. You have gay people serving as rabbis. We marry gay couples and 90 percent of the Judaism that American Jews practice, it's actually a lot like the Constitution. Know, if you look at the original version of the Constitution, it allowed slavery. Women couldn't vote. I mean, but very troubling. But over the last 250 or so years, we've been reinterpreting it.
And it's a very similar process in Judaism.
And it seems like part of the reinterpreting is really going back to the basic concepts. Right. You know, not like the stories of Bush's burning and know being parted and things like that. In your book, you talk about one of those fundamentals being this idea of the three fundamental truths, these three inalienable dignities. What are these dignities?
You know, this is based on this core Jewish idea that we're all created in the image of God. And you don't have to believe in any kind of God or higher power to understand the value of that. There are three inalienable dignities. One is that every human being is of infinite worth. You can't put a price on a human life. The second is that we are all equal. No one is more or less valuable than anyone else. And the third is that we are completely unique.
There is no one else like us. If the truth is you might say like, oh, that sounds so obvious. There are we all believe that. No, we don't. And that's not true. We don't believe that. Right. Like think of how many times you've walked by someone on the street who said, hey, can you spare a dollar? And you said, oh, I'm sorry, not today. Or you've given the person a dollar and then walked on.
If that person had been a celebrity, you know, I guarantee you, you would have stopped. You would have wanted to talk to them, get to know them. We don't value people equally. We value people differently based on their status, their net worth, their beauty, their likes, their fame. And so that idea of being created in the image and those three inalienable dignities is quite radical.
This is actually gets to something we talk a lot about on the podcast, which is this idea of being more other oriented. It seems like these dignity's really are about treating other people in a really important way. Right. Like focusing on people who need your help, who can't help themselves. And this seems to be real kwartin of the Jewish faith, too.
You are right on. You've just gotten to the exact beating heart of Judaism. You I think modern secular law and ethics are very much you. Do you as long as you don't hurt other people too much. It's about rights and freedoms and what people and things that you are not obligated to do. Jewish law is the opposite. It's very much about what you are obligated to do. And you're exactly right that a lot of those obligations are around how we treat others.
And I hear sometimes this old lie that Christianity is a religion of love and Judaism is a religion of law. But if you actually look at Jewish laws, what they're doing is they're actually mandating a very high bar for how you treat other people. It's not just like, oh, give money to the poor. It's like, OK, how exactly are you going to do that? There's a lot of law around supporting people in a way that doesn't humiliate them, that empowers them.
There's even a law that says that if you've loaned money to someone in need and you see them on the street, you should avoid running into them if you know they can't repay you. Because to do that would be to embarrass them. Right? It was to stress them out. That's so specific. Like, why are you getting that specific? But it's actually saying to you, hey, you need to be constantly thinking about the needs and sensitivities of others and really making sure you act in a way that respects their dignity and their feelings.
They're also seem to be two concepts that come from the Torah that are related to this. Right, this idea of Sadakat and Hassid. So so walk me through these concepts. Yes.
So the idea of Sadakat, it's often mistranslated as charity, but it actually means justice, and that's our obligation to give financial assistance to those in need. So when you label it as justice, it has a mandatory aspect to it. It's like fair procedures in a courtroom. That's justice. You don't just do that when you're feeling particularly kind or out of the goodness of your heart. It's mandatory. We have to support those who are struggling financially. I said that means loving kindness.
And it's not just about being nice to people, which you should be. It's a little bit deeper than that. It basically it kind of requires your presence to help one who is vulnerable or in need. So a lot of the laws around Hassad have to do with people who are ill or people who are in mourning. You know, when someone is sick in Judaism, you don't just send them flowers and say, oh, I hope you feel better.
You're actually supposed to go and visit them and kind of support them. If someone has just lost someone they love and they're in mourning, you don't just send a text saying, I'm sorry, you actually show up for the funeral for the CHIVA, which is kind of the mourning period after the funeral. However it is that you can really show up for someone and show your loving presence and a. Very deep and serious way, and I think this idea of kind of showing up gets to a different misconception I think a lot of people have about Judaism in the Jewish faith, which is it's just a set of beliefs, right.
Or it's a set of laws. But this was really a very action based faith. Explain this Jewish concept of tikkun olam.
Yes. So this basically means it's like to repair a broken world. The idea is that there is a lot of brokenness in the world and that it's our obligation as Jews to repair brokenness that we see. So you are absolutely right. Like this is a very action oriented faith when another Jew is trying to suss out how religious I am or how observant I am, they don't really ask me what how strongly do you believe in God? They want to know what I do.
Do I help other people? I do. I give Sadakat am I part of a community that I support? They're really going to be concerned about the actions they perform and less about. Do I have a particular belief in my head? People will say, well, Judaism isn't just about creed, it's about deed. And it's a little bit of an oversimplification, but it's that action orientation is very important.
And another part of this is this idea that, you know, through these actions we can actually get better, which is something else we know from the science. Right. By doing these actions, we can actually like, you know, improve our happiness, but also like become a person of stronger character. This is what the faith is all about.
Obviously, you know, your sense of wanting to be kind will lead you to do kind. Akst But Judaism says that, you know what, even if you don't feel like being kind behind, you got to go do it. Even if you feel like, gosh, I don't feel like visiting this person who is sick, I don't feel like showing up for that funeral. Judaism says that's OK. You don't have to feel like it, but you got to do it.
And the funny thing is, once you do it, it actually can create the feelings, right? Once you actually go there, you show up for the funeral and you're supporting someone. You actually do begin to feel in your heart like, oh, this was the right thing to do. I'm so glad you did this. So it's not just that the feeling leads. The action oftentimes is that the action leads to the feeling.
And you found the power of this feeling like firsthand in your book. You mentioned that you've never regretted doing this, these kinds of acts. Right? Right.
The times in my life where I didn't show up for someone, I really regret it, but I've never regretted showing up for someone. I look back and there have been moments where I thought, well, do I know this person well enough to show up for the funeral? Do I know them well enough to visit them when they're sick and when I've erred on the side of doing it? Never regretted it. I've always thought, like, oh, so glad I did this so far this year.
And I have talked a lot about the importance of showing up for others. But being other oriented is just one of the happiness lessons Sarah found in her reappraisal of the Torah.
As we'll see after the break, there's much more that Judaism can teach us to happiness. We'll be right back. It's crazy how much we have to pay for outdated, impersonal health care. And even crazier that we all just accept it. It's time to face facts. Health care is backwards. Luckily, there's forward a new approach to primary care that surprisingly personal and refreshingly straightforward forward never makes you feel like just another patient backed by top rated doctors. And the latest tech forward gives you access to personalized care whenever you need it.
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If you're a fan of the happiness lab, you probably know that being grateful for the people and things in your life is an important tool in your wellbeing kit. Counting our blessings and expressing thanks to others improves our resilience, strengthens our social bonds, and makes us more willing to take positive steps to improve our happiness. The science shows it even helps us do things like exercise more and keep. The problem, though, is that gratitude doesn't always come naturally when we're feeling down or super busy or just facing the sorts of challenges that life tends to throw our way.
But Sarah Horowitz has found ancient Judaic wisdom has an answer to this conundrum. It instructs us to start feeling grateful from the second we open our eyes in the morning. Traditionally, the first prayer that a Jew would say it's a prayer. People refer to as Motwani or Motwani depending on your gender, and it's basically a prayer where you are thanking God for restoring your life to you. Sort of a loose translation. And the idea was people a long time ago associated sleep with death.
They actually kind of were worried that they actually would wake up in the morning. So it's this idea that you wake up in the morning and you're alive and it's just this moment of like, thankfulness, like, oh, I'm so grateful I'm alive. And it's pretty amazing that the first word in the morning that you say is, is motha or Modak, which is like thankful. And by the way, the thankful comes before the eye, which is Unny Motwani.
It's like your gratitude comes before self. There's an idea that I am grateful no matter what is happening in my life, I am just grateful to have this life like I did nothing to earn this gift of my life. Even if everything is terrible, even if life is a nightmare, I'm just going to be grateful for this life that I never did anything to earn.
And this is like straight out of the modern happiness playbook. I mean, there's so many studies like telling us that gratitude is super important for our happiness. You're just like paying attention to a few things you're grateful for. Every day can boost your happiness significantly in as little as two weeks. And this is exactly what the Jewish faith suggests you should do as soon as you wake up, like don't waste any time, just like gratitude immediately.
It's so funny because I hear people who are like, oh, I have a gratitude journal and this man and I'm like, that's great. This was not invented in 2009. It's like it's like I'm so happy you discovered this thing that Judaism discovered like thousands of years ago. You know, this is sort of time tested wisdom for what makes for a happy life. And it's not just in the morning that you say this. You're saying prayers of thanks and gratitude throughout the day.
Gratitude is actually a key theme of the Jewish liturgy.
One of the things you did in your book, as you walk through some of these kind of seemingly funny blessings, but that really have this powerful root in a grateful emotion, one of them was a kind of a blessing about going to the bathroom or something like that.
Judaism has this very rich blessings practice where you basically say a prayer, a blessing of thankfulness at so many different points during the day. So you say it. Traditional Jews will say before they eat, they'll say a blessing of gratitude for the food. After you go to the bathroom, you will say a blessing just to express thankfulness that your body is working properly. OK, you can say that's kind of weird and gross, but like, actually it is miraculous when your body is functioning properly.
And this is something that people have learned during this era of covert. Right. We can't take our health and our proper functioning of our bodies for granted. And so Judaism is telling you multiple times throughout the day to stop and just say, how amazing is it that my body works like I'm so thankful for that it's not just the kind of one time gratitude journal in the morning or at night. It's actually a constant gratitude practice throughout the day.
And this idea of recognizing that your body is amazing, amazing, this part that gets to another happiness practice that we actually haven't talked about that much on the podcast yet, which is this concept of. Ah, right. Like really recognizing the beauty in the amazing things around us. So from the perspective of Judaism, what is this concept of.
Oh, yeah, there is. You know, if you look at a lot of like the Jewish liturgy, it is trying to cultivate this feeling of, ah, you'll see lines about the grandeur of nature, the beauty of the world around us, the sun, the moon, just the coming of the dawn, the coming of dusk. Just a sense that every day in the world these beautiful things happen, sunrises, sunsets, and they just keep on happening.
We do nothing to deserve them. We do nothing to orchestrate them. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was an iconic American rabbi, he talks about this idea of radical amazement where one of the core Jewish sensibilities is to just feel this sense of awe and wonder at the world around us, and not just the big things like the majestic view of the Grand Canyon or whatever, but the small things like looking at the plant in my apartment, which, you know, through these incredibly intricate process is turning sun into food.
And it has millions of cells. And it's so intricate and complicated. And that's just one plant in my apartment. If you actually look at the world this way, you could kind of walk around in a constant state of all the research shows that this is so important because, you know, if we're not paying attention, we can just miss this stuff.
We actually have a practice that I do with my students that I'm doing with the high school students I'm teaching right now during covid where we have them take time to savor something. And during covered, the students said, like, save or something. I'm not leaving my house like, you know, what can I really savor? And it's like we'll pick something to savor in your house, you know? And then again, it's like, you know, just like, oh, my gosh, the plants are.
Oh, my gosh. Like a chair, like, you know, thousands of years of like modifying this piece of wood so I can sit on it and feel comfortable. If you take time, you can really notice that there's just wanders all around you if you take a time to look.
That's exactly right. It's this idea of being present, like actually being present and noticing, which is known as mindfulness, which again, is like the super trendy thing that everyone's like, oh, this was so invented in 2004. Actually, I think if you look at Judaism, it's kind of one big mindfulness practice. We are constantly called. To be present in your life, we constantly called to stop notice some blessing that you have and express thanks for it.
So you're just being constantly called to stop, notice and appreciate throughout the day, as opposed to what many of us, including too often me do, is that we kind of walk through our lives lost in our thoughts, like someone is talking to us and we're kind of half listening because our mind is wandering into the thing we need to do next week or the fight we had yesterday. And we're not there. We're actually missing that time with our friends.
Think about the number of times that you have driven somewhere or walked somewhere and you get there and you can't remember how you got there like you. It was safe. You weren't you were paying attention while you drove, but you were lost in thought. And maybe you missed something really amazing along the way.
I mean, there seems to be this idea of showing up both in terms of showing up for other people, showing up for your own life, showing up to notice the wonders around you. It seems to be part of this ethic of non indifference that you talked about in your book. Right.
This is a phrase by the rabbi named Daniel Hartman, the ethic of not indifference. And this is a really core Jewish ethic at its heart. Judaism is saying you can't be indifferent to others, but you actually have to care about others. You have to notice others. Like I think if you look at the modern American ethic, like I'm not required to help someone, if I see them struggling when I drive by them, it's like, oh, not my problem, not my problem.
I can be indifferent, but perfectly legal. And, you know, that's fine for secular law. But Jewish law says, no, actually, you do need to notice the people around you. You actually do need to help them out. And that's so important because the research shows that when we show up to help other people, it doesn't just help the people who are helping the research shows. It helps us like our happiness gets boosted every time we're taking time to pay attention to other people, even if we don't realize it at the time.
You know, I love in your book, you kind of admit that, like, you don't always feel like going to the funeral. You don't always feel like helping. But in some ways, having a law that forces you to can kind of get you there even if the emotions aren't in sync.
Yes. And, you know, it's funny you what you're saying really makes me think of this story about these ancient rabbis. So, Rabbi, a get sick and rabbi shows up, takes Rabbi A's hand and heels. Rabbi, a then rabbi gets sick and Rabbi C shows up, takes Rabbi B's hand and heals him. And these ancient rabbis are like, wait a second. If Rabbi B could heal Rabbi A, why does Rabbi B need Rabbi C to show up and heal him?
And the answer they give is that the prisoner cannot get himself out of prison. There's a sense that when we are stuck in the prison of our own sadness, anxiety, fear, loneliness, we really need someone to show up, take our hands and pull us out. And we also need to do that for other people. Right? I think we're all rabbi be in some way where we are trying our best to help all the rabbis around us, get them out of prison.
But we need someone to get us out of prison as well.
So how is engaging in these practices, whether it be about kind of non-interference presence, like how is it really changed your life so far? It's very much changed my sensibility in terms of like how I just walk in the world in a daily way. I used to be the kind of person who, like when I had a friend going through a struggle, you know, I would try to support them. I would try to help them out. But I didn't have as much of a sense of urgency and obligation around physical presence.
You know, now, like when something happens to a friend, I really do try to get myself there physically. I think that's important. The idea of showing up, I really try to think more carefully about that. There's also a lot of Jewish thinking around speech and how we use our speech and the impact our speech has on others. So a lot of thinking about gossip, about not shaming other people, which when you think about it, like the whole discourse of social media, is just endless shame, just endless shaming, humiliating others.
And even those of us who aren't nasty on social media. Think about the number of times in your life when you're debating with someone you want to win it. So you kind of kind of embarrass them a little bit. You kind of try to make them look bad. I'm now so much more conscious of how I do that. And let me tell you, I still gossip way too much. I still shame people. I am not perfect and that's not what it's about.
I think more what it's about is a number of times now I'm about to send an email and I'm like, do I really need to share that little piece of gossip? Like, is that something I should be saying? And I'll just stop or I'll be kind of about to make some point to just really take someone down an argument. And I'll think by phrases in a different way, like, can I phrase this with a little more kindness and a little bit less shaming?
It's really like a lens through which I now see the world and I get things wrong one hundred times a day. But I used to do so 200 times a day. So I think it's making me just a little bit better of a person. Do you think it's also making you happier? I do. I think it's making me so much happier because I think that Judaism gives me some sense that I am tied to something very, very ancient that has been passed down from generation to generation to generation for so long to make its way.
To me, it's like this incredible inheritance that I feel really honored to receive. And, you know, I think. Engaging in Judaism, it makes me feel like my life is not just some random accident of faith that has no meaning, I have a sense that each of us has a purpose here, that each of us has incredible worth for. Each of us has a sense of, you know, unique relatedness, whether you think that's by a God or just it's just the science that says that we are all completely unique.
You know, that gives me a sense of of purpose and meaning. And I also just have a greater sense of gratitude in my life. I have a greater sense of awe and wonder where I stop and notice things. I think before I kind of became familiar with Judaism, you know, I just kind of like walks in my days, didn't appreciate a lot of things. It was a bit of a kind of more of a kind of checked out kind of life, sort of a sleepwalking through life kind of feeling.
And, you know, I still feel that way. Sometimes it's not all like, you know, radical amazement and ah, but I think I have many more moments of real connectedness, real presence, real joy.
I'm so thrilled that Sarah was able to give us a whirlwind tour of thousands of years of Jewish thought. We've already touched on scientifically backed concepts like gratitude, mindfulness and even being other oriented. It was a lot to pack in, but we're not finished with Sarah or the Torah just yet because in the next episode we're going to tackle one of my favorite happiness tips from Judaism. And this one is a biggie. In fact, it's even one of the Ten Commandments.
But to my shame, it's the commandment that I personally am most likely to break that simple instruction to take a day off. The Happiness Lab is co-written and produced by Ryan. The show was mastered by Evan Biola and our original music was composed by Zachary Silver.
Special thanks to the entire Pushkin crew, including Neil LaBelle, Carly Migliore, Heather Fain, Sophie Krein McKibbon, Eric Sandler, Jacob Weisberg and my agent Ben Davis. The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and me, Dr. Larry Sanders. Ain't no place like a cowboy place in a town like a couple of town. Ain't no way like the cowboy way. Have a cowboy comedy here.
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