A Formula for Proper Living
Practical Lessons from Life and Torah
By Abraham J. Twerski
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009, 126 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 11, 2009
There are many self help books on the market filled with catchy titles, arousing anecdotes and beneficial advice. Dr. Twerski is more than qualified to offer his version, and his offer is a delight. He is a tenth generation descendant of the famous founder of Jewish mysticism "The Baal Shem Tov," a man who inspired millions. He is both a psychiatrist and a rabbi and draws his teachings from both secular and Jewish sources, with a reliance and emphasis on the latter.
Twerski talks eloquently about many subjects that concern people, subjects that can help them improve and live a better life. He describes what drives people, the meaning of freedom, the unconscious, self esteem, feelings of inferiority, the death instinct, preparing for the worst, how to overcome problems, and finding the valuable diamond embedded in our personality, to mentions just a few.
Twerski's insights are sharp, incisive and frequently surprising. For instance, a person with feelings of low self-esteem will have difficulty accepting favors from other people because "receiving help from anyone can trigger feelings of inadequacy."
Twerski raises significant questions, significant because they can prompt readers to alter their attitudes and behaviors. For example, can an emotion – such as love of God or of neighbors or not to covet another man's wife – be legislated? Twerski answers "yes." Affection is determined by deeds: "you can generate love for another person by acting in the way you would if you indeed loved that person." Twerski writes that the common notion that "you give to those whom you love" is backward. "You love those to whom you give." His insight reflects the adage: a sad person can become happy by smiling.
Twerski quotes sparkling maxims, such as: "The world is a mirror. Inasmuch as a person is blind to one's own faults, God arranged it to see them in other people. The defects you see in others are your own."
Twerski offers a host of examples of psychological difficulties and how they can be overcome, such as the ubiquitous problem of self denial and the handling of adversity.
One may be bothered by his agreement with the twelfth century Jewish teacher Nachmanides that humans were created with good instincts, but it "was eating from the forbidden fruit that extenuated our natural instinct for doing good." This concept of the impact of "original sin" was invented by the Christian St. Augustine in the fourth century, and is not Jewish.
One might want to reject this or some other ideas, but the source of Twerski's teachings is really irrelevant. In fact disagreement with some of his sources will heighten interest. What are significant are what ideas and treatments Twerski derives from his sources and whether they work. Twerski shows that they do.