Personal stories to help us become our best selves

The theory was that the 20-odd minutes that we spent each day studying texts that reminded us of how to behave would influence our thoughts, speech and actions during the rest of our day.

AN ISRAELI Modern Orthodox couple hold hands in central Jerusalem in 2013. The author gives a wide range of advice, including for dating. (photo credit: FLASH90)
AN ISRAELI Modern Orthodox couple hold hands in central Jerusalem in 2013. The author gives a wide range of advice, including for dating.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

While studying in a hesder yeshiva years ago, one of the highlights of my day was the session dedicated to the study of Musar.

The theory was that the 20-odd minutes that we spent each day studying texts that reminded us of how to behave would influence our thoughts, speech and actions during the rest of our day.

At the time, I studied classics of the genre, such as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, or Rabbi  Yona Gerondi’s commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers. Nowadays, as my tastes have expanded to include more contemporary works, I would no doubt include Shayna Goldberg’s insightful book, What do you really want? Trust and fear in decision-making at life’s crossroads and in everyday living.

Goldberg’s title leaves few spoilers, and the author delivers, offering what amounts to a life philosophy for students, parents, spouses, grandparents and professionals.

Goldberg’s musar is psychological: In an engaging and colloquial style, peppered with examples from her professional life as a teacher and mentor, she emphasizes the need to develop trust – in our friends and family, in processes, in God, and in ourselves. Doing so allows us to make decisions, which range from the mundane to the life-altering, in a manner far superior to that of making those same decisions based on anxiety or fear.

 DOES GOD exist, and if so,  how does He interface with the universe?  (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash) DOES GOD exist, and if so, how does He interface with the universe? (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)

While the majority of Goldberg’s anecdotes are clearly drawn from her experience as a yoetzet Halacha and an educator in an American Modern Orthodox high school and in an Israeli women’s seminary, she is able to offer advice to navigate stages of life beyond those of students in their teens and 20s.

Goldberg astutely points out that there is rarely one “right” decision when one reaches a crossroads in life; rather, one must usually choose “between two options which are right and good in different ways, or which appeal to us from different perspectives or for different reasons.”

When there are “multiple legitimate options,” Goldberg reminds us, our challenge is “to figure out what we think is the best next thing to do at that juncture in time.” Such advice – such musar – resonates for anyone making a serious life decision.

While Goldberg is clearly fluent in classical sources (and alludes to them on rare occasions), she prefers to draw on real-life stories. Indeed, Goldberg draws on her own life experience as well, remembering her mother’s advice to “date till you hate” as she sought a potential life partner. (Goldberg is quick to explain that this means that one ought to keep dating a potential spouse until one has enough information to “walk away... without turning back,” not that one should literally hate those one has been dating.) But Goldberg insightfully expands this advice beyond the world of dating, urging her readers to conduct thorough research before making any decision. Doing so will both enable one to make an informed decision and, just as importantly, give one the confidence that the decision is a good one.

Such research, Goldberg notes, has no time limit – although one might do well to give oneself a deadline lest the research turn into perseverating and avoidance (this reviewer speaks now from experience).

Goldberg insightfully describes how parents can also allow themselves to make decisions out of fear, which can be the fear of exposing one’s children to challenges (she introduced this reviewer to the delightful – and horrifying – term “snowplow parents,” parents who will allow absolutely no obstacle to get in their child’s path), or the personal fear of feeling “unsettled” should a parent need to perform a shift of their own perspective if their child has needs different than expected.

She reminds us that the efficacy of raising our children with fear as a motivator will last only as long as the fear does. If we instead raise our children with trust, they are far more likely to be able to make their own decisions when they find themselves out in the world on their own. This, too, is excellent musar for parents, grandparents, and even for children trying to understand their elders.

A friend once commented that musar books often remind us of what we already know to be true – they just tend to do so particularly vividly and well. Goldberg’s work falls easily into this category, as she reminds readers that we must, above all, have trust in ourselves.

She tells the story of a student who flipped a coin repeatedly as she struggled with a particular decision, watching “until it landed on what [she] really wanted.” To trust our instincts, Goldberg writes, “means accepting the complexities of life and even of our own character. It means building and maintaining positive narratives about ourselves and believing in our own genuineness and capacity for honesty with ourselves.”

This is excellent musar, which will remain with the attentive reader long after they have finished this slim, meaningful volume. 

The writer is head of school at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, New York.

What do you really want?By Shayna GoldbergMaggid Books180 pages; $21.95