What does an ancient Hebrew prayer have to do with positive psychology?
Rabbi Evan Moffic found a surprising correlation in concepts such as kindness, meaning and the importance of community when he took a fresh look at the Eilu Devarim. This ancient prayer from the Talmud, meant to be recited every morning, consists of 10 mitzvot or good deeds. When Evan rediscovered the prayer, which has been “hiding in plain sight,” he realized it was more than a dated piece of liturgy. And, he found that it could be the roadmap to a happier, more fulfilling life.
A young rabbi in his early 30s, Evan was busy leading his large Chicago congregation in prayer services, writing sermons, tending to the various needs of synagogue members and making a home with his wife and small children. But, he also puzzled over how both he and his congregants could find greater joy, meaning and purpose in their lives.
Looking for Something More
That “something more” is the subject of his new book, The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today. It takes readers through the Eilu Devarim’s good deeds and illustrates real-world behaviors and activities that can bring more joy and compassion to your life. By studying the prayer with his congregation and intentionally incorporating the mitzvot into his own daily life, over time Evan experienced a radical shift in his well-being and that of the people around him. His congregation began referring to him as “The Smiling Rabbi.”
Here is Evan’s own paraphrase of the Eilu Devarim:
How will you find happiness in the world and peace in the world to come? By learning these wisdom practices from your ancestors:
- Honor those who gave you life
- Be kind
- Keep learning
- Invite others into your life
- Be there when others need you
- Celebrate good times
- Support yourself and others during times of loss
- Pray with intention
- Look inside and commit
The son of a psychiatrist, Evan was familiar with the tenets of positive psychology and PERMA (positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement). And from his vantage point as a religious leader, faith is not missing from the acronym. Rather, it complements it.
“I think faith kind of crosses all the aspects of PERMA,” says Evan. “It can help us have a positive effect. Faith and religious life force you to be a part of a community and have relationships. It engages us with the world.”
In the Eilu Devarim, kindness stands out in its stark simplicity. “The quickest happiness jolt you can get is by doing an act of kindness,” says Evan. There is also a great emphasis on community—it comes up in at least four of the deeds. In fact, Evan says, like many organized religions, Judaism tends to put a premium on family and community ahead of the individual.
For Everything, a Season
But the list also seems a little daunting. In the book, Evan describes how we must comfort friends who are sick instead of avoiding them, which may be our instinct. The same is true for people we know who have lost a loved one. Then there is the continued learning, spending time with aging parents…how can we work all these mitzvot into our busy lives?
“We don’t have to do all of it all of the time,” says Evan. “There are moments in life when we are older and our parents are older, we will have to devote more time to honoring mother and father. When we are in college, we devote more time to learning…we can’t do all of these things all at once.”
Now that Eilu Devarim has become integrated into his life, Evan has made the prayer a part of his morning ritual. “I wake up and do a little journaling…I have a chart with all 10 of the deeds, and I look at it and pick three that I am going to focus on each day. I am also really focused on gratitude, and I incorporate that into my life as I review each day.”
“This is a powerful prayer,” says Evan. “I hope people who read the book will come away with a richer understanding of faith—of their own faith.” And also, find some answers to the ancient question: How can I live a happier, more meaningful life.
To learn more, see Rabbi Evan's video blog.
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Emily Wise Miller is the Web Editor for Live Happy.