Personal Well-Being is not Enough

Well-being has become the god of today.

Everything we do is evaluated in terms of whether it promotes or diminishes our personal well-being. Does our daily routine offer us more health, happiness, and prosperity? Will it maximize our sense of personal satisfaction, diminish stress, and enhance our sense of meaning? Does it detract from or nurture our emotional, physical, social, and professional growth?

Often our striving for overall well-being includes a yearning for spiritual well-being as well, a desire to become more mindful of and connected to the unity and beauty of the world.

However important this endeavor may be, it is a spiritual well-being devoid of God.

Judaism expands the scope and concept of well-being by encouraging us to develop a “God-ful” spiritual well-being.  

A Jew is born into two continual revelations: the revelation of personal, inner wisdom and the revelation of national, divine wisdom. In Kabbalistic language: “Ohr hap’nim v’ohr hamakif” (an inner light and an outer light). To find expression, the full, authentic voice of our soul needs to hear both of these revelations and find the harmony between them.

When people hear the voice of Jewish wisdom but not their own inner voice, they become strangers to their own soul, betraying their God-given uniqueness. Ultimately they will neither be able to walk their unique path nor fulfill their specific role or purpose in this world. They may find kedusha (holiness) and connect with the mission of a nation, but will not achieve a sense of personal well-being. According to Rav Kook, someone who does not hear their inner voice will inevitably accumulate “toxic stones around their heart”.

When people listen to the voice of their own soul but don’t hear the voice of Jewish wisdom, they can be swallowed by the whirlpool of their individual existence, without connection to history, future, community, and greater purpose. They may end up having a lonely and narcissistic life. They will have personal well-being without kedusha.

The harmonizing of these two voices is the unending drama, dance, and challenge of a God-ful spiritual well-being. 

Of the many Jewish thinkers to emulate, Rav Kook singularly struggled with both worlds, deeply devoted to the Jewish tradition while exhorting us to listen to our own, inner soulful voice. When one of the early pioneers of Zionism, Yosef Chaim Brenner, referred to Rav Kook as a “nefesh kruyah”, a torn soul, Rav Kook replied: “Well, yes. Of course my soul is torn. I don’t understand how it could be otherwise.”

It is hard to be a “torn soul”. The Hebrew word “treif” describes something torn in two different directions. Often I feel I am living with one leg in each world – the personal and the traditional – and am being torn apart, becoming a treif Jew. These two voices can easily pull us in opposite directions.

The religious voice wants me to be faithful to God and obedient to the tradition. This voice says to me: “Go to shul. Say the words of the prayer book. Perform the prescribed mitzvot.” It tells me to be a link in the chain of eternity.

The inner voice tells me: “Be faithful to yourself, put your personal authenticity first, and travel your unique journey.” It tells me to be fully present in the moment, which might mean staying home from shul and instead, reading poetry, thinking about God in nature, or spending quality moments with my family.

Nurturing a God-ful spiritual well-being is learning to listen to my inner truth while standing upright in the presence of God.

This is a process of holy chutzpah.

Judaism is not just about following God’s will; it is not a religion of submission. To be religious does not only mean to be obedient. We do not prostrate ourselves before God. At the most climactic moment in Jewish prayer, we stand up straight and tall in front of God. 

Holy chutzpah was modeled well by Avraham and Moshe. They both struggled to balance God’s actions with their own inner sense of truth. How could Avraham say to God at Sodom and Gemora: “Will the Judge of the whole world not act justly?!” How could Moshe, upon being chosen by the all-knowing God to redeem the Jewish people from suffering, contend that he is not the right person for the task that God made a mistake?! They both listened to their inner wisdom and audaciously confronted the revealed holy wisdom of God. Later on, Yonah’s running away from God’s prophecy would epitomize this struggle.

Our name, “Yisrael” (struggling with God), reflects the messy relationship of receiving and responding, listening and talking, loving and fighting, and attempting to be faithful to both voices, the voices of God and our soul.

We need to cultivate holy chutzpah in ourselves, in our children, and in our students. We need to attune our listening to both the personal and collective voices — the inner and outer voices — and have the courage to grapple with our unpredictable emergent composition, whether discordant or melodious.

Spiritual well-being means not hiding from God or self. 

About the Author
Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2008. Ayeka educates rabbis, teachers, and professionals in bringing Jewish wisdom from our minds to our hearts to our souls and to our lives. He lives in Efrat with his wife Sandra and their 6 children.