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Rabbi David Wolpe

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3 Short Books To Live By (And They're Not On Any Bestseller List)

Posted: 11/03/09 03:45 PM ET

Yes, highly successful people have habits -- seven apparently -- and the bookshelves offer you advice based on the words of everyone from Napoleon to Moses. But there are some books that really can change your life. They are not written to the demands of the bestseller list. They are short, borne out of deep experience, and filled with wisdom. Each is a companion for a lifetime.

There is no single wisdom to life. These books sometimes contradict each other. When they do, they are still right. When dealing with the human soul things can be contradictory and still true.


Man's Search for Meaning: Viktor Frankl

Frankl lived through Auschwitz and did not return from hell with empty hands. He brought us this great gift. Frankl concludes that the secret to the possibility of survival is meaning -- a life that is organized around some purpose. Yet to unravel or construct a meaning to life requires insight not just into life, but into how we create meaning.

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life -- daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.
Frankl teaches that there are three ways we make meaning: by creating work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Each requires explanation and we follow Frankl as he helps us understand the meaning of suffering, and the meaning of love. Frankl vividly, in swift strokes, recounts his experience of the camp. He divides the world into two classes of human beings -- the decent and the indecent. And reminds us, powerfully and repeatedly, that life asks something of us, and the one who can hear the question, who can as Rilke says (see below) "live in the questions" will be filled up by life. A book that is the distillation of truths by a wise man who suffered.



The Sabbath: Abraham Joshua Heschel

You need have no religious faith to find yourself enchanted and enriched by this short, poetic book. Heschel explains the paradox of technology: it is a conquest of space, but we mistakenly believe it conquers time. Just because we can traverse the world in an instant we think we are using time wisely. "We are more harassed than supported by the Frankensteins of spatial things." The world is instantly available; you can call from anywhere, see pictures and twitters and posts from the reaches of the globe. Yet as Heschel wrote in this book published in 1951, what we need is not the conquest of space, but the sanctification of time.

The Sabbath is a day to reclaim time. "In regard to external gifts, to outward possessions, there is only one proper attitude -- to have them and to be able to do without them." If you are tied to your cellphone, if you cannot stop checking your blackberry, you need Heschel.

Although couched in Jewish religious language, the majesty of Heschel's message comes through in the majesty of his prose: "All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day...Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one's own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty."

Frankl offers purpose. Heschel offers freedom.



Letters to a Young Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke wrote these letters to a young correspondent who published them in later years. Rilke speaks to the artist inside us -- the solitary, soaring spirit that we feel in habits us in our best moments.

Rilke's voice is that of a poet and intensely personal. He expresses "always the wish that you may find patience in yourself to endure, and simplicity enough to believe."

Rilke understands the subtle currents of the human heart. Again and again he pinpoints what we knew at some deep level about ourselves but could never express: "all emotions are pure which gather you and lift you up; that emotion is impure which seizes only one side of your being and so distorts you."

Rilke exhorts his friend to be an individual, but the very act of writing is also an act of generous giving. It is right action, right conduct; it is sanctifying time by giving it to what matters; it is tossing a bridge of truth and poetry across to another soul.

For Rilke expresses again and again the reality that we are alone, but desperately in need of each other. "So you must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen."



Out of sadness, solitude and wonder, the great spirits of humanity speak to us. Yes, you can turn to the bestseller list and get the thing gruel of nourishment it provides. Or you can link arms with some of the great, soul-stirring spirits of humanity. Which do you suppose will change your life?