Dear Jew in the City-
Are there any Torah sources to counter anxiety? To live in the present and not worry about the future? The election outcome is making me nervous.
Thanks for your question. When I was 18, my life was profoundly changed by the book Gateway to Happiness by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. I have recommended this book many times to people over the years and even gifted it a few times. My two-sentence takeaway from this book is this: There are two parts to every situation – the thing itself and our attitudes about it. We can’t always control the thing but we can learn to control our attitudes (or at the very least to mitigate them).
You ask about anxiety and living in the present. Well, Rabbi Pliskin has chapters on worry (which, while clinically different from anxiety, will serve as the functional equivalent for our purposes) and, yes, on living in the present.
Regarding worry, Rabbi Pliskin cites Deut. 28:66, part of the tochacha (rebuke). If we don’t follow God’s directions, He warns us that “Your life will hang in doubt before you; you will fear night and day, and have no assurance of your life.” The Talmud in Menachos (103b) explains the three levels described by this verse: “Your life will hang in doubt before you” refers to one who has sufficient resources for this year but worries about next year; “you will fear night and day” refers to one who has sufficient resources for this week but worries about next week; “and have no assurance of your life” refers to one who has sufficient resources for today but worries about tomorrow. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (d. 1979) observes on this that some people can have only a little and be calm, while others can have many resources and be anxious. It’s not the much or the little that’s the curse, it’s the anxiety.
I just want to add that the Torah itself doubles down on the theme of anxiety. The next verse continues, “In the morning you’ll say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening you’ll say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the fear in your heart that you’ll experience….”
Anyway, Rabbi Pliskin offers a number of strategies for combatting anxiety, though I’m not going to provide an exhaustive, itemized list. (I wouldn’t like it if another author wrote an article giving away an entire chapter of one of my books!) I’ll just share the following, from Talmud Yoma (75a).
The Talmud cites Proverbs 12:25: “If there is worry in a man’s heart, let him crush it (yashchena)” and it offers two suggestions for how to do so, courtesy of Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi. One of them relates the word yashchena to the similar yaschena, i.e., “push it out”; the other relates yashchena to the word yesichena, meaning to tell it over. In other words, one means of dealing with one’s worries is to distract one’s mind from them by getting involved with other things; the other is to unburden oneself by sharing his concerns with a friend.
On the subject of living in the present, Rabbi Pliskin contrasts it with both obsessing about the past and worrying about the future. Because of the nature of your question, we’ll focus on worrying about the future but be aware that he addresses both.
Rabbi Pliskin demonstrates the importance of living in the present by citing the Alter of Novardok (Rav Yosef Yozel Horowitz – d. 1919) that if one spends all his time focused on the future, he misses out on his present. When the future finally arrives, he’ll continue to miss out because then he’ll be obsessing on that future’s future.
An attitude adjustment can be made by internalizing the words of Chachmah u’Musar (a work by Rabbi Dr. Solomon Breuer – d. 1926) that the past is gone and the future does not yet exist. The only reality is the present, and that’s extremely brief. Accordingly, we really only have to concern ourselves with what’s the proper course of action right now, and “right now” only lasts an instant. Similarly, Rabbi Pliskin cites Michtav M’Eliyahu (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler – d. 1953) that the future “is but illusory hopes.” Our only reality is the present.
Turning to a Biblical source, Proverbs 27:1 tells us, “Don’t boast about tomorrow because you don’t know what a day might bring.” The Malbim on this verse explains that since no one knows what even a day might bring, it’s foolish to think we can anticipate future events with any real certainty. Similarly, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch (d. 1929) said in Shiurei Daas that there’s an infinite number of possibilities as to what might happen in the future, with the result that it’s not a good use of one’s energy to invest too much thought into the matter.
Clearly, obsessing about our futures is pointless. The bottom line, Rabbi Pliskin tells us, is to try to use the present to develop ourselves. If I might take things one step further, by investing the effort in our here and now, we have a much better chance of impacting our futures for the better!
There’s more in the book, so check it out. Be advised, however, that while Rabbi Pliskin has a degree in psychology and experience as a counselor, no book could hope to solve every person’s problems with anxiety. Some people are going to need personalized approaches. If worrying is affecting your quality of life, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for actual mental health counseling.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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