Understand others. Understand yourself.

What have you learned so far?

Posted on 05/07/2012

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan SacksLife teaches us that not everything is under our control. It never has been. It never will be. In the twenty-first century, when human beings have decoded the genome and photographed the birth of galaxies, there is one thing not even the greatest Nobel prize-winning scientist knows: what tomorrow will bring. We live with uncertainty. That is the human condition and always will be.

But what matters will be under our control. How will we act and react? Will we behave honourably, graciously, generously? Will we help others? Will we make sacrifices for the sake of our ideals? Will we live for something bigger than the self? Will we honour, praise, respect, admire? Will we give hospitality to the lonely, comfort to the bereaved, and support to those in need? Will we give our family time? Will we give our soul the space to breathe? Will we love and thank God? Will we enhance other people’s lives?

These are the questions we should ask ourselves, not just at moments of introspection, but each and every day. For it is not what happens to us on which our happiness depends. It depends on how we respond to what happens to us. So let me share with you ten secrets I’ve learned from Judaism. They will bring you happiness whatever fate has in store for you.

1. Give thanks. Once a day, at the beginning of the morning prayers, thank God for all He has given you. This alone will bring you halfway to happiness. We already have most of the ingredients of a happy life. It’s just that we tend to take these for granted and concentrate instead on our unfulfilled desires. Giving thanks in prayer focuses attention on the good and helps us keep a sense of proportion about the rest. It’s better than shopping – and cheaper too.

2. Praise. Catch someone doing something right and say so. Most people, most of the time, are unappreciated. Being recognised, thanked and congratulated by someone else is one of the most empowering things that can happen to us. So don’t wait for someone to do it for you: do it for someone else. You will make their day, and that will help make yours. Alenu leshabe’ach means, “It’s our duty to praise”.

3. Spend time with your family. Keep Shabbat, so that there is at least one time a week when you sit down to have a meal together with no distractions – no television, no phone, no email, just being together, talking together, celebrating one another’s company. Happy marriages and families need dedicated time.

4. Discover meaning. Take time, once in a while, to ask some of life’s key questions, “Why am I here? What do I hope to achieve? How best can I use my gifts? What would I wish to be said about me when I am no longer here?” Finding meaning is essential to a fulfilled life – and how will you find it if you never look? If you don’t know where you want to be, you will never get there however fast you run.

5. Live your values. Most of us believe in high ideals, but we act on them only sporadically. The best thing to do is to establish habits that get us to enact those ideals daily. That is what mitzvot are: ideals in action, constantly rehearsed.

6. Forgive. This is the emotional equivalent of losing excess weight. Life is too short to bear a grudge or seek revenge. Forgiving someone is good for them but even better for you. The bad has happened. It won’t be made better by your dwelling on it. Let it go. Move on.

7. Keep growing. Don’t stand still, especially in the life of the spirit. The Jewish way to change the world is to start with yourself. Anne Frank once wrote: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”.

8. Learn to listen. Often in conversation we spend half our time thinking of what we want to say next instead of paying attention to what the other person is saying. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone else. It means that we are open to them, that we take them seriously, that we accept graciously their gift of words. The keyword in Judaism is Shema, which simply means “Listen”.

9. Create moments of silence in the soul. Liberate yourself, if only five minutes daily, from the tyranny of technology, the mobile phone, the laptop and all the other electronic intruders. Remember that God is in every breath we breathe. Inhale the heady air of existence, and feel the joy of being.

10. Transform suffering. When bad things happen to you, use them to sensitise you to the pain of others. The people who survived tragedy and became stronger as a result did not ask, “Who did this to me?” They asked, “What does this allow me to do that I could not have done before?” They didn’t curse the darkness; instead they lit a candle. They refused to become victims of circumstance. They became, instead, agents of hope.

Life’s too full of blessings to waste time and attention on artificial substitutes. Live, give, forgive, celebrate and praise: these are still the best ways of making a blessing over life, thereby turning life into a blessing.

Be the best you can, be an ambassador for Judaism and the Jewish people, use each day to do something demanding, and never be afraid to learn and grow.


One of the foremost religious and social thinkers of our day, Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.  He is the author of numerous books including Celebrating Life, From Optimism to Hope, To Heal a Fractured World and Dignity of Difference, for which he won a Grawemeyer Award in Religion.  He can be reached on twitter @chiefrabbi and on facebook. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a monthly blogger for Ask Big Questions. 

The article above was adapted from “Letters to the Next Generation: Reflections for Yom Kippur” written by the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and published in September 2009. This was followed by “Letters to the Next Generation 2: Reflections on Jewish Life” written by the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and published in September 2011. Both are available to download from www.chiefrabbi.org (under the Yom Kippur section).