Reviewed by Benjamin Blech
There are two ways to inspire others. One is to write an inspirational book. The other is to lead an inspirational life. With the publication of his first book — a book the author tells us he had to write because, as Maya Angelou said, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you” — Rabbi Tuvia Teldon has brilliantly accomplished both of these goals.
In his professional life, Rabbi Teldon achieved a measure of fame in the past decades for his work as head of 34 Chabad centers in Long Island with a staff of 54 full-time rabbis and their wives, influencing tens of thousands to greater religious observance. In all that time however the rabbi was obsessed by the life altering event that led him to the conclusions he so desperately needed to share, not just with fellow Jews seeking reasons to better understand their spiritual identity but with people of all faiths in need of finding meaning and purpose to their existence.
To grasp the enormity of the task Rabbi Teldon took on, readers need to know the story. Fifteen months after getting married and blessed with a son, the happy couple learned that the baby was born with a type of cystic fibrosis requiring emergency lifesaving surgery. The boy, the first pediatric double lung recipient in the country, managed to survive past his bar mitzvah. Then the unspeakable happened. Their son was gone. Out of tragedy was born a profound quest for meaning — meaning for the moments of cruelty in our lives that threaten belief in a divine and beneficial ruler of the universe, meaning for the pain and suffering which accompany our struggles, and most of all meaning which would allow us to discern purpose in our presence on earth and the years of life granted to us.
Teldon points out the remarkable paradox. In nature every living thing automatically and naturally fulfills its purpose. All creations are preprogrammed. All but one. We human beings, ostensibly the crown of creation, remain all too often perplexed as to our purpose and whether we have any purpose at all. This is the human paradox of purpose. In Jewish thought it is precisely because human beings, created in the image of G-d, possess the divine attribute of free will that our purpose was concealed from us, so that we might fulfill our mission to find it and to fulfill it.
Teldon charts our journey of discovery in an illuminating series of chapters, outlining eight different paths to achieve the life altering goal he set out before us. Each one of them is filled with brilliant insights synthesizing the best of ancient Torah wisdom with the most recent psychological findings. What is particularly helpful are the numerous quotes scattered throughout that indicate the breadth of the author’s research as well as the astounding depth of his knowledge, both secular as well as Judaic.
As I read the book carefully I kept reminding myself that these are not pious platitudes or sermonic hyperbole. The recipe for finding life’s meaning is the work of someone who was able to overcome horrific tragedy. Surely all of us, in the depths of our souls, feel the overpowering truth of Teldon’s recognition that “I decided if I wanted to be happy in a real way, I would have to develop it from the inside out. I had to differentiate between fun, which I enjoyed, and happiness, which takes real work. What kind of happiness fits that description? Inner happiness is a natural byproduct of a life lived with purpose. This comes from a sense of fulfillment which we potentially feel whenever our life reality and/or attitude are aligned in some way with our life purpose.
Yes, as the rabbi reminds us, Helen Keller taught us this very truth: “True happiness is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” Our mission in life? To discover our purpose and to recognize why G-d placed each one of us on this earth with our reason for being. This book will assuredly bring you nearer to finding the answer to the uniqueness of your mission.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech has been a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University since 1966, and was the rabbi of Young Israel of Oceanside for 37 years. Rabbi Blech has written many books on Judaism and the Jewish people and speaks on Jewish topics to communities around the world.