There's More Than One Way to Spell Shalom

April 5, 2018Rabbi Rick Schechter

It’s an essential word in the Jewish vocabulary: shalom. It’s our greeting to one another in synagogue, a recurring theme in prayer and Jewish literature, and the final word in our most cherished blessing from God: “May God grant you shalom” (Num. 6:26).

More than peace, shalom means well-being, health, wholeness, and prosperity.

How can we achieve this most precious blessing in our lives – for our loved ones and ourselves?

Judaism and the science of flourishing come together to offer us a possible answer. According to Professor Martin Seligman, well-being can be spelled P-E-R-M-A, with each letter representing one of five major pathways: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement.

Using a Jewish lens to explore each path may help us realize shalom in our lives.

Positive Emotion: “Serve God with joy,” wrote the psalmist (Ps. 100:2). Positive emotions, including joy, love, gratitude, hope, and awe are vital to Jewish living. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests positive emotions enhance energy and creativity, strengthen the immune system, build better relationships, promote higher productivity, and even contribute to a longer life.

Our Jewish holy days and festivals – Shabbat, Sukkot, Purim, Hanukkah, Passover and more – are meant to be infused with positive emotions. The Chasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “Always remember: Joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.”

Engagement: The Kotzker Rebbe once asked a student of another rabbi who had died, “What was most important to your teacher?” The disciple replied, “Whatever he happened to be doing in the moment.” Such engagement – which we all can achieve – involves bringing one’s curiosity and attention to the task at hand, all the while using one’s skills and strengths to engage fully.

Research shows that certain strengths of character, many highly valued in Judaism, are powerful contributors to engagement and fulfillment – wisdom, courage, love, justice, kindness, forgiveness, humility, gratitude, awe, and transcendence, among others. Using them regularly lastingly increases happiness and well-being.  

Relationships: Perhaps no pathway to human fulfillment is more valued in Judaism and the science of flourishing than relationships. Dr. Christopher Peterson, one of the major figures in the field, once wrote that positive psychology could be summed up in three words: other people matter.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber made relationships the centerpiece of his understanding of Judaism and God. Echoing the opening words of Torah, Buber wrote: “In the beginning is relation.” The Torah itself reveals this fundamental truth about the human condition. Soon after creating Adam, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him” (Gen. 2:18).

Our relationships with family, friends, and others are perennial subjects of Jewish teaching and practice. Six of the Ten Commandments, hundreds more mitzvot, and teachings of the Talmud center on how to treat other people. By cultivating nourishing relationships and strong personal connections, we will be happier and healthier and more resilient, successful, and fulfilled.

Meaning: Surviving the Nazi death camps, Jewish psychotherapist Viktor Frankl shared with the world his hard-won wisdom that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life … Man [and woman’s] main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his [or her] life.”

Positive psychology writer Emily Esfahani Smith focuses on four areas of meaning in our lives: belonging to others, having a sense of purpose, describing our personal identities with redemptive stories about overcoming adversity, and having transcendent experiences that fill us with awe and wonder.

Judaism encourages these transcendent endeavors by cultivating deep connections to the Divine, others, and the world via a variety of meaning-making spiritual practices. Perhaps none in Judaism is more overarching for meaning than the concept of tikkun olam – repair of the world through benevolent actions. Each of us can participate in acts of tikkun and find ways to achieve profound meaning in our lives.

Achievement: “All that you find to do, do it with all of your strength,” advises the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 9:10). Two social psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, posit that we all have a core need to feel competent and that our actions can be effective and successful, particularly regarding things we personally value. Without such a sense of mastery, our lives are greatly diminished.

Using our character strengths, skills, interests, and God-given talents and abilities to make a positive contribution in our corner of the world – big or small – helps us achieve lasting fulfillment.

These five pathways of flourishing, represented by the acronym PERMA, surely are not the only routes to human well-being. However, they offer us a wise and well-researched way to realize God’s promise and blessing of shalom – wholeness and fulfillment in our lives and in the lives of others.

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