The Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah comes at the very end of holiday season that began with Rosh Hashana. Simchat Torah means “joy of the Torah,” and that is what this holiday is about.
On Simchat Torah, we conclude reading the five books of the Torah and we start again from the beginning.
Simchat Torah was also my grandpa’s Hebrew birthday.
My grandpa loved to learn, and he regularly read Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ weekly essay on the Torah portion. Each week he would print out the email and share it with my grandma.
I first discovered Rabbi Sacks’ thought leadership through his commentary to the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer books. I was instantly taken with his approach to the commentary. I appreciated how he incorporated science and psychology as well as philosophy, in explaining the ancient texts and providing context for the prayers. It injected a sense of meaning that I did not receive when I first learned this material in school.
My grandpa and I would often discuss Rabbi Sacks’ writings.
My grandpa died last year just before Rosh Hashana. As a grandchild, I had no prescribed mourning ritual. But I decided to create one as a way to forge my own path of grieving and healing, and as a way to honor his memory.
One of the ways we honor the dead is through undertaking a course of study.
I decided to take on one of my grandpa’s favorite rituals: reading Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay.
A Year of Life-Changing Ideas
Rabbi Sacks’ theme this past year was “life-changing ideas.” Each week, he shared a life-changing idea from that week’s Torah portion.
Growing up in a modern orthodox Jewish family, with 12 years of Jewish day school education, I learned about Judaism from the perspective of the rules we are commanded to follow. Torah study was about learning the stories and laws. There are 613 commandments; that’s a lot of laws.
Rabbi Sacks’ essays were overwhelmingly not about the laws, but about humanity.
They gave me a new perspective; one that fit with my modern take on spirituality, humanity, and what it means to live a life grounded by everlasting principles.
Over the weekend, as I read the final essay, I felt a profound sense of accomplishment that brought me to tears.
In part it was the realization that I persevered in this course of study throughout the year. And it was more than that.
I felt a profound sense of how my life has shifted over this past year.
This year of “life-changing ideas” has changed me on cellular levels I cannot quite comprehend or articulate.
But, of course, I will try. Here are the thoughts that came through me as I tried to put into words what I received from this ritual.
The Original Personal Development Book
People often say that the Bible is the best selling personal development book in history. I can see why that is, in a way I wasn’t able to see before.
What I most appreciate about Rabbi Sacks’ writing and commentary is that he interweaves the Torah’s lessons with psychology, philosophy, science, and the humanities. He offers broader context and incorporates modern thought concepts.
Many of the ideas that resonated most with me were ideas that I already try to embody, and that I endeavor to pass along to others through my actions.
Many of the life-changing ideas are lessons I learned in other contexts too, through my studies of Buddhist philosophy, yoga, psychology, and in personal development seminars.
On many occasions, I would stumble on something and think, “that’s something I learned from Tony Robbins” or another teacher.
After I attended my first Tony Robbins event my grandpa revealed to me that he had taken correspondence courses when he was in the British Army. Like Rabbi Sacks, my Grandpa was well-read in religious and secular texts and could draw from both equally.
The life-changing ideas that Rabbi Sacks presenter in Covenant & Conversation aren’t religious ideas. They are human ideas.
They are about how to live in this world as a human being committed to growth and contribution.
Accomplishment Infused With Meaning
One of the struggles of high achievers is that we often reach a point of accomplishment or achievement only to feel empty inside. We get to the destination only to discover there is not “there” there.
Notably, I do not feel that here.
There is no emptiness with this accomplishment. The feeling of achievement here is also infused with meaning and fulfillment.
For a child mourning a parent, saying the Kaddish is a major ritual that can be disruptive to life — and purposely so.
All rituals are somewhat disruptive to our lives.
This is what gives rituals the capacity to change us. Rituals take us out of the automaticity of habits. They infuse our day with mindfulness, intention, and meaning.
I’ve heard people in their year of mourning reference how much longer they “have to” say the Kaddish.
I’ve never been counting down the days until it’s over. In fact, the “ending” somehow caught me by surprise even though I knew it was coming.
Each week, I eagerly create space for my reading of Covenant & Conversation. It draws me in and I approach it with joy.
Where we invest our energy, we receive energy back in return. Because I infuse this practice with joy, it has given me far more than life-changing ideas to marinate. It has given me a deep well of meaning-making moments.
A Source of Strength
When we complete the cycle of reading the Torah we say
Chasak, Chasak V’Nitchazek
Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
This is perhaps the most tangible outcome from the past year.
The strength this gave me was not physical, but spiritual. It helped me deepen in my faith.
Faith is a belief in something beyond ourselves that we can’t see or touch. But it strengthens us from the inside.
Unlike religious doctrine, faith is not something that can be taught or passed down.
Faith must be cultivated.
What we give our energy to feeds us in return. The more I invested in this practice, the stronger I felt in faith.
Faith is not just in thought. It is reflected in action.
In a year of uncertainty and change where nothing seemed to go as planned, and where almost every week offered me a reason to panic or withdraw in fear, I held firm in my faith that things will work out.
I was consistently surprised by my ability to hold space for whatever arose. That is not to say that I didn’t have my moments; we all do — that’s what it means to be human. As I learned in reading Rabbi Sacks’ essays, the greatest humans in history had their faults.
Somewhere along the way I’ve harvested the resources to remain calm within the chaos.
The inner strength I’ve cultivated has made me a more effective leader. I’m more patient, compassionate, and kinder to myself. I listen better — both to others and to the deep inner voice of wisdom. I have greater capacity to hold space for myself and others.
I look at apparent setbacks through a new lens.
Iin times of chaos and uprooting, spiritual strength is what we need most. The spiritual strength is how we hold our ground, how we lead without wavering.
It’s hard to articulate this because I’m not sure exactly how it happened.
Perhaps it is as simple as Rabbi Sacks write in his introduction to Covenant & Conversation last year:
If we change the way we think, we can change the way we feel, which changes the way we act, which changes the person we become. Ideas change lives, and great ideas help us to courage, to happiness and to lives filled with blessing.
And so it was: a year of life-changing ideas that changed me.