Jewish Perspectives

In an often quoted story related by the Talmud, the importance of persistence as well as its rewards are described:

Rabbi Preida had a student to whom he would have to repeat each lesson four hundred times before he understood it. One day [Rabbi Preida] was required to leave and attend to a certain matter involving a mitzvah. Before leaving he taught [the student] the usual four hundred times, but he still did not grasp the lesson. Rabbi Preida asked him, “Why is today different?” [The student] answered him, “From the very moment they told master that there is a mitzvah matter for him to attend to, my attention was diverted because every moment I thought that now the master will get up and leave, now the master will get up and leave.” Rabbi Preida said to him, “Pay attention, and I will teach you.” He taught him again another four hundred times. A heavenly voice emanated and asked [Rabbi Preida]: “Do you prefer that four hundred years be added to your life, or that you and your generation merit the life of the World to Come?” [Rabbi Preida] replied, “That I and my generation merit the life of the World to Come.” The Holy One, blessed is He, said to them. “Give them both this and this.”[1]

Clearly, the magnitude of Rabbi Preida’s reward speaks to the central value that patience and persistence has in Jewish life.

There is another Talmudic insight into persistence that involves a different explanation of Rabbi Preida’s longevity.[2]

Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua was asked by his students: “In virtue of what have you reached such a good old age?”

He replied: “Never in my life have I made a short cut through a synagogue, nor have I stepped upon the heads of the holy people, nor have I lifted my hands [to say the priestly blessing] without reciting a blessing.”

Rabbi Preida was asked by his students: “In virtue of what have you reached such a good old age?”

He replied: “Never in my life have I allowed anyone to be before me at the house of study, nor have I said grace before a kohen, nor have I eaten of an animal from which the priestly dues have not been given.”

The Talmud continues to enumerate the answers given by three other rabbis in explanation of their longevity. In each case, a different set of reasons is offered, ranging from never seeking respect through the degradation of another to never sleeping in the study hall. Rabbi Dovid Refson, the Dean of the Neve Yerushalayim seminaries in Jerusalem, asks: What is the meaning of the widely divergent reasons given by the Talmud for the longevity of these rabbis? Why would these particular positive actions be associated with longevity while others aren’t? Is there a common thread integrating these apparently disconnected actions? Rabbi Refson quotes his Rebbe, Rabbi Elya Lopian, who pointed out that in each of the numerous reasons offered by the Talmud, the reason for longevity is prefaced with the words, “never in my life”—in Hebrew, le’olam , at all times. “The common thread behind the rabbis’ longevity,” answered Rabbi Lopian, “was persistence and consistency in pursuing actions which they viewed as of central importance.” In fact, recent research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology has documented that when one’s life is imbued with the persistent pursuit of important goals, one is rewarded with greater immunity to illness resulting in greater longevity.[3]

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, in his commentary on Job, shares an important insight on a Biblical passage that is relevant to our understanding of the mindset that is necessary to foster persistence:

“For man is born to toil”[4]

The very nature of man, according to one of Rabbi Schwab’s interpretations of this passage, dictates that man can only accomplish something of significance through struggle.[5] This sets man apart from both angels and animals, whose actions come without the need for conscious effort or persistence. It is interesting that in his classic book on the origins of consciousness in man,[6] Julian Jaynes, a psychologist, hypothesizes that persistence is a uniquely human attribute. Animals, he notes, rarely persist at any task for longer than twenty minutes. This is in stark contrast to the nature of human endeavor, which can include projects, goals and causes that can last for a lifetime.

The Malbim’s commentary on this passage captures the pivotal importance of persistence:

Man was created to work hard with his own hands. When wealth is inherited without hard work, ultimately it will be lost by the next generation. At the end of the day, the essence of a man’s success depends on his persistence and hard work.”[7]

There is a passage in Psalms that is repeated as part of the daily prayer service three times a day. This passage is so central to Jewish life that the Code of Jewish Law reminds us that we have to say it with concentration three times a day, or repeat it mindfully.[8] This section of Ashrei says:

You open Your hand, and satisfy the ratzon (desire) of every living thing.”[9]

While this passage refers to God’s generous care for every living creature, on another level, it can be understood as referring to God’s gift to man of ratzon—“will” which is God’s gift of making man satisfied and fulfilled with the freedom to harness his (man’s) will. There is nothing as fulfilling and satiating of man’s spirit than the gift of allowing him to harness his passions and spirit in the service of persistently pursuing a goal that is greater than himself. The Hebrew saying “ein davar omeid bifnei ha’ratzon” —“nothing can stand in the way of will” is thought to be based on the following Zohar:

“If a man loves God, then God stretches out His right hand to him to receive and welcome him with love. Everything in the world depends on the will; spirit rouses spirit, and the spirit in man turned yearningly in love to Him brings down the Divine Spirit.”

If man does his part in turning to God with love, then man’s ratzon, his will, becomes the engine that drives him to success in his endeavors with God at his side. As it says in Avos:[10]

“Make His will into your will. Nullify your will before His will.”

It is only when one’s persistent strivings are in the service of God that one’s persistence will result in a life of meaningful success.[11]

Secular Perspectives:
Grit, Confidence, Goals and Meaning

Secular sources have also long recognized the importance of developing the trait of persistence. President Calvin Coolidge had the following insight into the invaluable nature of persistence:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Among the many lessons of the Jewish sources on persistence is that patience and persistence are core skills that must be systematically addressed in the education of our children.

Recent research in Positive Psychology has further clarified the multiple emotional and health benefits that stem from developing the ability to be persistent, as well as ways that this trait can be developed in ourselves and instilled in our children.


Psychologist Angela Duckworth and her colleagues have researched “grit,”[12] which she defines as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Individuals with this attribute seem to be energized by frustration and failure, refusing to give up even in the face of obstacles that discourage the less hard-working individual. Grit addresses the component of persistence that speaks to the ability to persist in pursuing the same goal over the course of years. Duckworth refers to this trait as akin to having the stamina of a marathon runner. Most people have the experience of knowing very bright and talented people who don’t realize their potential, while others, who seem far less naturally capable, find more success in life. It is not at all uncommon for class valedictorians to end up working for their peers who received far lower grades while in school. In a series of studies, Dr. Duckworth found that her brief questionnaire, designed to assess grit, predicted which cadets at The United States Military Academy at West Point would complete the very demanding summer training program at the beginning of their grueling training. In fact, the results of Duckworth’s grit test were a better predictor of successfully completing what West Point refers to as “the Beast Barracks” than far more comprehensive tests of academic and physical ability.

Duckworth also found that individuals with high grit were more likely to advance in the Scripps National Spelling Bee than their equally talented competition, by spending significantly more hours preparing for the contest.[13] The same research team also found that grit was a better predictor of grades at an elite college than SAT scores.[14]

In a recent review of fifty programs designed to help children and young adults develop grit, the United States Department of Education found that the following practices show promise in helping develop this all-important trait:[15]

  1. Addressing Executive Functions: Executive functions refers to one’s ability to regulate and manage thinking in a wide variety of areas. This set of skills include the ability to mindfully regulate planning, attention, problem solving, switching from one task to another, and resisting temptation.[16] When parents and educators actively help their children develop this set of skills, the foundation for approaching difficult challenges with grit is firmly established. Among the approaches used to improve executive function in young children are:
  • Mindfulness training which helps teach focus on living in the moment without distractions.
  • Aerobic exercise
  • A learning environment marked by engaging each student’s individual interests in an environment where they feel appreciated and part of the wider group.
  • Computer games that target working memory and attention.[17]
  1. Relating Course Materials to Students’ Values and Goals: When students are helped to directly connect what they are learning to their personal interests and aspirations, they are more likely to show grit. In one study, asking secondary school students to write how what they were learning in science related to their own lives improved their grades and overall interest in the subject.[18]
  2. Anticipating Obstacles: Grit can be nurtured by systematically focusing on one’s goals and dreams, while at the same time preparing for the inevitable difficulties and frustrations that one is likely to encounter along the way. Dr. Duckworth and her colleagues describe using this approach to help high school students work more persistently to prepare for a college entrance examination,[19] by having the students mentally visualize their hopes and desires for the future, while contrasting this image with potential roadblocks they might encounter on that path. Before studying for the test, the students were asked to write about their goal of getting high grades on the exam, as well as two obstacles that could impede realizing that goal. Students were then asked to develop a plan for dealing with each of the imagined difficulties that were encountered. Relative to a comparison group that did not complete this exercise, the students who visualized their goals and approaches to dealing with potential difficulties showed higher levels of persistence in studying for the exam.
  3. Parental Role: Providing structures and support that promote grit include parental provision of a quiet place to do homework without distractions, as well as help for the child in the acquisition of study skills that maximize their ability to reach their potential. Establishing an environment that offers appropriate levels of support for the child without taking over and doing their work for them can facilitate developing the stamina and long-term goal setting that teaches grit.

Self-Efficacy and Persistence:
The Role of Believing in Yourself

One of the most respected researchers on self-efficacy, and its connection to persistence, is Albert Bandura, a psychologist, who spent his career carefully documenting how “self-efficacy,” or a belief in one’s abilities, is one the most important predictors of perseverance.[20] This belief begins to be developed in infancy, when babies are raised in an environment that is responsive enough to teach them that there is a connection between their actions and desired results. When a toddler’s healthy efforts at exploration are encouraged, the basic foundations of a healthy belief in their ability to be effective is established. When a child is raised in a family that is struggling with chronic stress—such as serious health issues, chronic financial pressures, or high levels of marital conflict—an environment is often created that can foster feelings of helplessness, learned passivity and hopelessness for the child: the opposite of a sense of confidence and self-efficacy.

It should come as no surprise that when a person develops strong feelings of self-efficacy, a number of powerful emotional and physical benefits follow. Research has documented higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression in people who have a strong sense of agency, i.e. a belief that they have the ability to take control of their lives.[21] Similarly, people who are high in self-efficacy have stronger immune systems to fight off illness and are more likely to engage in healthy habits, such as exercise, eating healthy and avoiding smoking or alcohol abuse.[22]

When self-efficacy leads to persistence, the benefits of persistence become evident in a number of areas. Most directly, persistence helps lead to success both in personal and work settings. The difference between those who succeed in their endeavors and those who fail is often marked not by how they accomplish tasks that are easy, but by their willingness to take on difficult tasks—failing, and trying again. This persistence in the face of failure is often the engine that drives growth and success. Another benefit of this process is the finding in research studies that persistent individuals develop a more diverse set of skills and coping strategies as a by-product of the learning experience that overcoming frustration brings to the table.[23]

In a review of the main sources of the types of feelings of confidence and self-efficacy that are at the heart of this component of developing the ability to be persistent, James Maddux, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, summarizes the following operative ingredients:[24]

Attribution of Success to Hard Work and Not Luck — Success in trying to master a task that the individual recognizes is coming, at least in part, from his efforts is an important component of persistence. When a person believes that his failures come from a basic deficit in his ability or character, self-efficacy is undermined. However, when this person is able to proudly recognize the important role that his hard work played in his success, a sense of agency and confidence that foster perseverance is nourished.

Persistence is more likely when one attributes difficulty to external factors as opposed to internal flaws. Other attributional factors that are associated with persistence is viewing setbacks as arising from a temporary as opposed to permanent source, and not allow them to pervasively inform one’s ability to reach one’s goals in other areas of endeavor.

Modeling — Bandura’s research has also documented vicarious experiences as a source of belief in one’s abilities. When we see people who we view as similar to ourselves being successful, our identification with them can serve as a model that communicates confidence that we too can successfully accomplish this task.

Visualization and Rehearsal — Developing the ability to visualize ourselves as successfully completing a task based on either previous success, or having others convince us that we have the ability to undertake a difficult challenge, can also be a powerful ingredient in self-efficacy. In his bestselling book, The Power of Habit,[25] Charles Duhigg describes how Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps mentally visualized swimming successful races so many times that during an Olympic event, when he wasn’t able to see because of a malfunction in his swimming goggles, he still broke the world record. Mr. Phelps attributed his ability to persevere so effectively in the face of this difficult challenge to having mentally rehearsed just such an obstacle in his daily visualization exercises.

Self-concept — People who have a positive self-concept have been found to persist longer in the face of frustration. One of the ingredients connecting self-esteem to persistence is that when we have confidence we can make informed decisions regarding when to continue trying and when to change course and find a more productive alternative path to accomplish one’s goals. It takes broad shoulders to recognize that there is no shame in quitting and trying something new when continued persistence is not likely to lead to success.[26]

Managing Anxiety and Physiologic Arousal — Bandura’s research has also found that, the ability to work effectively is undermined when one is fatigued, or anxiety about completing a task is overwhelming to the extent that the individual is overwhelmed with feelings of excessive physiologic arousal (e.g., a rapid pulse rate, hyperventilation, dizziness, etc.).

Having Others Believe in Us — When people whose opinion we value—be it our parents, teachers, friends, or mentors—believe in us, we are more likely to have confidence in our ability to succeed.

On a recent visit to a yeshiva in a large metropolitan area, a rebbe (Judaic studies teacher) told me (DP) the following story:

The rebbe has been teaching middle school for the last twenty years. He has made it a practice to send birthday cards, every year, to former students whom he felt would benefit from an ongoing relationship. Students struggling with emotional issues, or those who grew up in dysfunctional families, would receive the yearly cards from this 8th grade rebbe, offering words of encouragement and continued interest in their progress.

Several weeks before my visit, the rabbi received a phone call from one such student saying: “Rebbe, you saved a life this week!” The now thirty-year-old man explained that he had come to the end of his rope and after years of depression, and feelings of hopelessness, he had decided to end his life. He went to the bathroom in his apartment, grabbed what he knew would be a lethal dose of medicine, and sat on his bed to swallow the medicine. He continued to explain: “As I was about to put the medicine in my mouth, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the shelf in my room where I had put on display every birthday card that you sent me over the last fifteen years. I said to myself: ‘I matter to somebody! Somebody cares about me!’ and I ran to the bathroom and flushed the pills down the toilet. Thank you for believing in me and making me feel that I matter.”

Goals That Promote Persistence in Children

While we touched on this important topic in the chapter on Patience, we will focus here on what Positive Psychology research tells us about how to foster healthy motivation and persistence in children. A key to helping a child develop this all-important trait is ensuring that the goals that we educate our children to view as important nourish their intrinsic interests and abilities and are appropriately challenging. The following guidelines can prove helpful in developing a mindset toward achievement that promotes persistence:

  1. The Right Mentor: In addition to what was noted earlier—i.e., surrounding our children with adults who believe in them—goals that are supported by an accepting and encouraging teacher or parent who sets firm limits can create an atmosphere that promotes persistence. This is provided that, at the same time, the teacher or parent is not emotionally drawn in to becoming angry or impatient with the child even when challenged.

As the Yalkut Shimoni says:

Rava says, “A person should always learn Torah from somebody who he wants to learn from.”[27]

This “wanting” is fostered by the child being educated in an environment marked by clarity of expectations, calm response to the child’s experiences of frustration and an appreciation of the child’s unique strengths. When the teacher-student and parent-child relationship is marked by an acceptance of the child’s strengths, while at the same time working with them patiently in spite of their weaknesses, the child will be more likely to respond to the inevitable frustrations that come with learning difficult materials by rising to the challenge.

  1. Goals That Resonate with the Child’s Passions and Interests: The same passage in the Yalkut Shimoni further elucidates the keys to motivating a child to persist in his learning:

Rebbe says, “He should always learn what his heart desires.”[28]

When the subject matter speaks to a child’s strengths, passions and interests, he will be far more likely to become motivated to build on the excitement engendered by finding success in mastering those subjects, as well as to be more willing to tackle subject areas that are not as exciting for him. Of course, to succeed in life children must learn to work persistently on tasks that are experienced as boring and less inherently motivating. The ability to marshal what the research literature calls “effortful control,” i.e., to make the effort to maintain focus and complete tasks that fall out of the child’s range of interests and natural abilities, predicts a child’s long-term success, happiness and ability to manage stress.

  1. Tasks That Aren’t Too Easy and Are Not Too Hard: Goals that are optimally challenging—not too easy and not so beyond the child’s grasp that he will become frustrated—will be far more likely to result in greater motivation and persistence.

The Broader Context in Developing Persistence: The Role of Meaning

An often overlooked component of a general approach to life which fosters persistence is when the individual’s actions are marked by a sense of meaning and purpose. In order to harness the willpower to overcome distraction and external temptation individuals need to develop the ability to keep their eye on the ball. This will enable them to resist boredom, temptation and distraction in the service of achieving the long-term goals that really matter. This is often achieved by mindfully connecting to one’s mission and purpose in life—answering the question: “Why does this matter?” When one’s life is infused with a belief in a larger mission and purpose, to the extent that one’s work is viewed as being part of that quest, any frustrations or failures encountered in pursuit of that task are far more likely to be met with persistent effort. In contrast, easily giving up when faced with challenge typifies approaches to work not viewed as having broader purpose.

In an unpublished study that I (DP) did together with some of my colleagues a number of years ago, we compared a group of adolescent girls who were victims of ongoing molestation to a control group of non-abused girls from similar backgrounds. The girls were asked to imagine themselves in twenty years, in terms of their hopes, dreams and aspirations. The teens in the comparison group shared dreams of becoming adults living lives filled with success and purpose. They described hopes for a future that included a view of themselves as having happy marriages, large families and wonderful careers as well-educated professionals. The answers of the abused adolescents were drastically different. In spite of coming from identical socio-economic backgrounds, the molested girls had no belief in future success. They saw themselves as working in menial jobs and as having little chance of having happy marriages or wider, successful relationships. In fact, in a follow-up study of a different group of abused adolescents, we found that as young adults, the abused adolescents were far more likely than the comparison group to have difficulty in finding success in school, jobs, or family relationships. Without belief in one’s self or one’s future, it is difficult to live a life infused with sustaining beliefs, and meaning. Persistently pursuing one’s goals is not likely when a sense of purpose is missing.

In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl explained his central belief regarding the crucial role played by meaning in coping with the unimaginable horrors he faced during his years in a concentration camp:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

Unfortunately, the frenetic pace of daily living doesn’t foster the average individual making the time to adequately reflect on larger questions, all of which are, of course, addressed by Judaism. The purpose and meaning of life is addressed throughout the Torah and Rabbinic writings which examine Man’s core concerns about existence, including:

  • What is the main purpose of life?
  • What does it mean to die, and can we overcome our mortality?
  • Why do we suffer?[29]

In addition to fostering persistence in any meaningful task that we undertake, recent research in a variety of fields, ranging from Neurology and Immunology to Psychology, has documented that compared to individuals who don’t have meaning in their lives, those with a clear sense of purpose enjoy a wide range of important benefits—including living longer and having a higher level of happiness and satisfaction in their work and family life.[30]

In a fascinating recent study that might help explain the underlying mechanisms behind the longevity of people living meaningful lives, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and a research team at the University of North Carolina found that at a cellular level, the body responds differently to pleasurable experiences tied to hedonistic enjoyment that is empty of a wider purpose (for example, eating an enjoyable meal) than to pleasurable activities that are infused with larger purpose—such as those that involve connection to religious activity or feeling part of one’s family or community. Feelings of well-being that were tied to meaningful activities were associated with a significant decrease in stress-related cellular changes. In contrast, fleeting hedonistic pleasures that were devoid of larger meaning were correlated with physical changes associated with a stress-related process that might heighten one’s risk for illness.[31] Individuals who are leading a meaningful life also benefit from lower levels of depression, anxiety, and workaholism.[32] For example, studies have found[33] that risky behaviors in adolescents—such as alcohol and drug use—are, at least in part, fueled by feelings of alienation and aimlessness that often accompany a lack of a religious belief system and a general lack of purpose in life. The researchers posit that when adolescents feel a general lack of direction or meaning in life, an uncomfortable disequilibrium is created, which can fuel a search for a way to relieve the tension and stress. Drug use and other maladaptive behaviors often then become the vehicle to attain a false sense of balance.

Given the central importance of a sense of meaning in promoting persistence, health and happiness, what are some of the approaches to promoting a heightened sense of purpose in ourselves and our children? This is particularly important since students in Jewish schools often find direct discussion of issues of faith and purpose absent in their education. In a series of interviews that I (DP) conducted with a group of high school students attending New York based yeshivas, a surprisingly high percentage complained that there was often no place at home or school where they could have the deep meaningful conversations that might address the basic questions they had pertaining to meaning and faith. The following recommendations might prove helpful in developing an approach that might help address this concern:

  1. Connection to One’s Unique Strengths: Finding meaning is facilitated when there is a good fit between one’s unique strengths and a significant arena where those strengths can be manifested. This, according to thinkers in this area, serves to facilitate an enhanced understanding of what one is trying to accomplish in life—the essence of meaning. When we help our children apply their unique abilities to serving a larger cause—by serving the community or individuals with acts of chesed and tzedakah—their sense of meaning, along with all of the physical and psychological benefits of meaning making, is developed.

In recent years, educators have tried to implement this approach to develop persistence by creating programs[34] that use tests and interviews to help students recognize their unique talents and signature strengths, while encouraging them to use these assets in choosing and completing class assignments. This approach is supplemented by encouraging teachers to design their curricula in a manner that harnesses their pupils’ distinctive strengths.

  1. Best Possible Self-Exercise: In an effort to promote persistence and motivation in the classroom, educators have applied the goal-setting exercise (previously described in this book’s chapter on Happiness) in a classroom setting. Middle-school students were given a series of workshops where they were asked to imagine the best possible future for themselves as adults.[35] They were also asked to visualize potential problems they might encounter on the path to achieving such success, as well as possible approaches that they could utilize in dealing with those difficulties. Compared to their peers, who did not complete this exercise, these students had higher grades and better behavior two years later.
  2. Tragedy: How tragedy is handled is often a pathway to developing a deep sense of connection and purpose in ourselves and our children. In a doctoral dissertation[36] that studied the main sources of spiritual connection and meaning in a group of girls attending a New York area yeshiva high school, exposure to honest discussions about the Torah’s approach to tragedy was listed by the girls as one of the most powerful pathways to a feeling of closeness to God and a sense of purpose. In one case, it was the way their teachers and Rabbis dealt with the sudden death of a young person well-known to the girls. In the other, it was a powerful lecture given by a father who had lost his child, describing how he found increased meaning in life through religion and helping others in response to experiencing the tragedy. The common element of these two experiences was a mindful, honest discussion of the Jewish approach to life’s tragedy in a manner that facilitated the girls’ thinking about the broader issues of what life and death is really about—again, the essence of finding meaning. It is of note, that when a group of adolescents attending a yeshiva high school in New York were asked what they were missing most in their school’s approach to helping them achieve a deeper understanding of Jewish thought, the most frequent answer was a need to have a better understanding regarding the Jewish approach to theodicy—i.e., coming to grips with the age-old question of why good people suffer and evil people seem to thrive.

There is a growing body of research in Psychology that mirrors the ancient wisdom of the Torah, documenting that resilience is the norm when tragedy is dealt with in a manner that is imbued with meaning. When there is a recognition that suffering can be a source of growth, numerous studies find that relative to individuals who view suffering as a random occurrence, a perspective that recognizes how trauma can be an important source of personal growth lessens risk for depression, anxiety and physical illness[37] For example, when an individual believes that the impact of stress is enhancing, rather than debilitating, the body responds with less stress-related reactivity at a physiologic level (as measured by levels of stress hormones) and a more active coping style that includes more persistent and effective work performance. [38]

This approach to understanding the crucial role of meaning in effectively dealing with life’s stresses and tragedies is repeatedly seen in a number of Jewish sources.[39] For example, the difference between a passive approach to dealing with difficulties and the far more effective approach of persistent and active problem solving, is described by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his well-known essay, “Kol Dodi Dofek”:[40]

Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an acting existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated. How shall a person act in a time of trouble? What ought a man to do so that he not perish in his afflictions? The halakhic answer to this question is very simple: Afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify and sanctify his spirit, to cleanse and purge it of a dross of superficiality and vulgarity, to refine his soul and to broaden his horizons. The halakhah teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.

Another example of how Judaism focuses on the importance of a growth inducing mindset in the face of suffering is the insight of Rabbi Shimon Schwab, who points out[41] that the word nichum aveilim, which is typically translated as “the comforting of mourners,” actually refers to a process by which the bereaved gradually come to change their minds. For example, “Hashem reconsidered (va-yinachem) having made man”[42] indicates that in the face of prevalent evil in the generation before the Flood, Hashem “regretted” the act of creation, or changed His mind, so to speak. Similarly after the episode of the Golden Calf, we find “Hashem relented (va’yinachem) regarding the evil that He had declared He would do to His people.” [43]

In other words, the central component of “nechamah” (comforting) is a shifting of perspective, a gradually emerging insight that ultimately good can emerge from even the most tragic events.

This is a perspective not only borne out by the research cited above but also by clinical experience.

In this regard, a study of 271 adolescent cancer survivors is typical. Of the 76% who viewed themselves as “different” because of the experience of coping with a life-threatening illness, 69% saw those differences as positive. These young men and women saw themselves as more mature, more likely to “know” the purpose of life, and more likely to treat others well.[44]

  1. Developing an Existential Theory of Mind: Theory of mind refers to how children and adults come to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. An existential theory of mind refers to how individuals come to perceive meaning in certain life events.[45] In light of the just described wide-ranging benefits that a purpose driven life has in areas as diverse as spiritual connection, persistent work habits, happiness, and longevity, it is important to understand some basic approaches to enabling ourselves and our children to work towards being more mindful of extracting meaning from the significant events of their lives.
  • Meaning-making can be fostered in our children by periodically asking them questions designed to make them think about the underlying significance of important events in their life. For example, after having a difficult time—be it a major trauma, such as a loss of a relative, or the more mundane challenge of facing the stress of a move to a new community—questions that can help them develop an existential theory of mind, include:[46]
  • If you met somebody who recently went through the difficult situation that you just went through, what would you want to tell them about what you have learned?
  • What practical advice would you want them to know that proved helpful to you, and might, in turn, help them?
  • What do you think about yourself now that you’ve gone through this?

Tuning in to core beliefs and values is thought to be another pathway to discovering one’s personal sense of meaning. Here too, a series of questions designed to facilitate arriving at a deeper sense of meaning can facilitate developing a deeper understanding of the beliefs and values that drive us.[47]

  • The “down arrow technique” is a series of questions that can be asked of an adolescent or adult (who is interested in engaging in this process) to try to uncover the underlying emotional significance of a major life event by asking a series of probing questions regarding their emotional reaction to the event – going increasingly deeper until the underlying belief and significance emerges.
  • A family tree of parents, siblings, and grandparents can be drawn with the core beliefs of each family member written next to their name. Some of the questions that can be asked about each member of the family include:
  • What do other family members believe?
  • How do their most cherished beliefs conflict with your core beliefs?
  • How might this clash between your core values and those of your family or community impact on your wider sense of meaning and purpose in life?
  • How does one become a hero in your family?
  • How do you become a villain?

Individuals are often unaware of the core beliefs that drive themselves, their families and community. By becoming more tuned in to this component of meaning, we can foster a more conscious sense of the nature of our goals and aspirations.

  1. Life Stories and Meaning-Making: Judaism is filled with holidays and rituals that convey a strong sense of intergenerational purpose and continuity. In addition to the value of sharing the narrative of our story as a people, sharing the individual family history in terms of the family’s successes, failures, challenges and inspiration is an important component of conveying purpose and meaning to the next generation.

Life stories serve to make sense of one’s past, present, and anticipated future, and are partly constructed by making meaning of past experience. Recent research has found that surprising benefits come when children grow up in families where there is a clear understanding of the family’s story—such as how did family members overcome adversity? Even mundane facts such as how the child’s parents met, or stories about other significant events in the family’s history serve to imbue children and adolescents with a sense of mission. In one study, psychologists at Emory University found that adolescents who know more stories about their family’s history are more resilient in the face of stress and have more integrated identities.[48] These stories are often told at regular family dinners, on vacations and at holiday celebrations—all activities that cement an adolescent’s sense of being part of a caring and cohesive family, which is providing a scaffold for a meaningful life.


Understanding the underpinnings of ratzon is enhanced by understanding the crucial role that consistency and hard work plays in Jewish thought. The research on grit, self-efficacy and meaning-making all point to strategies that may be used to harness this trait in a manner that can help people adapt strategies that can help them live a life filled with success and purpose.


Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz and Dr. David A. Pelcovitz, Life in the Balance: Torah Perspectives on Positive Psychology, ch. 8. Brooklyn: Shaar Press, 2014


[1] Eruvin 54b, translation by Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud Bavli, New York: Mesorah Publications.

[2] Taanis 27b–28a.

[3] McKnight, P. & Kashdan, T. (2009). “Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory,” Review of General Psychology, 13, 242–251.

[4] Job 5:7.

[5] Rav Schwab on Iyov, (2005), New York: Mesorah Publications, p. 55.

[6] Jaynes, J. (1976) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[7] Malbim, Job 5:7.

[8] Shulchan Aruch, 51:7.

[9] Psalms 145:16.

[10] Zohar Shemos 2:162b, Soncino Translation.

[11] Alpern, Y. (2012). Ratzon, Drive, “The mother of all success,” In D. Weinberger, Step by Step, 528–536. New York: Shaar Press.

[12] Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. & Kelly, D. (2007). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92, 1087–1101.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance: Critical factors for success in the 21st century. (2013). U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Washington, D.C.

[16] Norman D, Shallice T (2000). “Attention to action: Willed and automatic control of behaviour”. In M. Gazzaniga (Editor) Cognitive Neuroscience: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

[17] Beck, S., Hansen, C., Puffenberger, S. (2010). “A controlled trial of working memory training for children with ADHD,” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 39, 825–836., (see for example of research based game that teaches executive function skills to children).

[18] Hulleman, C. & Harackiewicz, J. (2009). “Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes,” Science, 326, 1410–1412.

[19] Duckworth, A., Grant, H., Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P. (2011). “Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions,” Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 31, 17–26.

[20] Bandura, A., (1997). Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman Press.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Press, p. 229–247.

[24] Maddux, J. (2009). “Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can,” In S. Lopez & C. Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, p.335–343.

[25] Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit. New York: Random House.

[26] Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004) Character strengths and virtues. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Press, p. 229–247.

[27] Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms, 247.

[28] Ibid.

[29] McFadden, S. & Kozberg, C. (2008). “Religious and spiritual supports for late-life meaning,” Generations, 32, 6–11.

[30] McKnight, P. & Kashdan, T. (2009). “Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory,” Review of General Psychology, 13, 242–251.

[31] Fredrickson, B., Grewen, K. & Coffy, K. (2013). “A functional and genomic perspective on human well-being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), July, 29, 2013.

[32] Steger, M. (2009). “Meaning In Life,” In: The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, p. 679–687.

[33] Newcomb, M. & Harlow, L (1986). “Life events and substance use among adolescents: Mediating effects of perceived loss of control and meaninglessness in life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 564–577.

[34] Promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance: Critical factors for success in the 21st century, (2013) U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Washington, D.C., p. 60.

[35] Osterman, D. (2006). Possible selves of low-income youths in early adolescence: Content and antecedents. (Unpublished manuscript). University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

[36] Weiss, S. (2007). Letting God In: The spiritual development of modern Orthodox high school girls. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation), Yeshiva University, UMI Dissertations Publishing.

[37] Crum, A., Salovey, P., and Achor, S. (2013). “Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716–733.

[38] Ibid.

[39] This paragraph as well as the following three paragraphs are based on Pelcovitz, D. (2002) Helping children, adolescents, as well as adults, to cope with loss and terror: Jewish and psychological perspectives, New York State Project Liberty.

[40] Soloveitchik, J.D. (1992). “Kol Dodi Dofek: It is the voice of my beloved that knocks,“ In Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust, Editor, B. H. Rosenberg and F. Henman, Hoboken, NJ: Ktav.

[41] Levine, A. (1994). To Comfort the Bereaved, New York: Aronson.

[42] Genesis 6:6.

[43] Exodus 32:14.

[44] Stuber, M (1998). “Is PTSD a viable model for understanding responses to childhood cancer?” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7:169–182.

[45] Bering, J. (2002). “The existential theory of mind,” Review of General Psychology, 6, 3–24.

[46] Cohen, J., Mannarino, A. & Deblinger, E. (2006). Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents, New York, New York: Guilford Press

[47] Wilkes, T., Belsher, G. & Rush, A. (1994). Cognitive therapy for depressed adolescents. Guilford Press, New York, New York.

[48] Duke, M., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). ”Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report,” Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 268–272.