For those of you who neither have a teenager nor are one, let me introduce the iPod shuffle. The iPod shuffle is a small digital device that stores and plays thousands of songs, but you cannot choose which song you want to listen to. The device throws up songs at random, so no matter how much you long to listen to “All You Need Is Love," you’re stuck with “Your Love is My Drug.”
You can turn off the shuffle and choose your thoughts.
The iPod shuffle is an apt metaphor for the unselecting mind, the mind that generates refrains that you, the listener, may find irksome, perhaps destructive, but you are powerless to choose a different song. In contrast, Judaism asserts that you have free will to choose your thoughts, just as you have free will to choose your actions. You can turn off the iPod shuffle and willfully select the song you want. In fact many directives of the Torah require consciously exerting control over the mind.
Lest this sounds too Zen to be Judaism, just take a cursory look at the Ten Commandments:
The first commandment to believe in God includes living with the reality that there is One God who created and sustains the universe, and intervenes in human history. Thus, when the iPod shuffle mind plays the song, “It’s a coincidence!” or the fatalistic aria, “Que Sera Sera, What Will Be Will Be,” a Jew is instructed to choose a different song to listen to, such as “God runs the world,” “God has a plan,” or “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
The second commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” is a mitzvah not to believe in any other power, including economic and political forces. When the iPod shuffle mind plays the song, “If my company downsizes, I’ll lose my job,” or “As long as I diversify my investments, my future is secure,” or “Without strong international sanctions, Iran will nuke Israel,” a Jew is enjoined to listen instead to the lyrics from the Torah, “Know and rehearse in your mind: God is the only force; there is nothing besides Him.”
The tenth commandment, “Don’t covet,” is entirely fulfilled in the mind. It means not desiring what someone else has. You can want a house like your neighbor’s house, but if your iPod shuffle mind croons to you that you absolutely have to have your neighbor’s house or spouse or that beautiful piece of art they acquired in Tahiti, you’d better ditch your shuffle and choose a different tune.
Surprisingly, over 10% of the271 mitzvot that are applicable in our times require consciously choosing our thoughts and feelings. For example, the mitzvah not to harbor hatred in one’s heart toward another person [Lev. 19:18] means that even if you were treated shabbily by your erstwhile friend, you are not supposed to nurse any grievance in your heart. But how is the aggrieved party able to accomplish this feat when his iPod shuffle mind is blaring the “She Hurt Me Blues”? He can drown out that destructive tune with the oldie-but-goodies “She’s Doing the Best She Can With What She Has,” “I Can Rise Above This” and “I Forgave Her, God, So Please Forgive Me.”
The 'songs' we listen to affect not only our thoughts and feelings, but even our actions.
The 'songs' we listen to affect not only our thoughts and feelings, but even our actions. We know that the rise in teen suicides in this generation is at least partly attributable to songs glorifying suicide. So if you want to keep the Torah prohibition against hurting other people with words by not yelling at your spouse who has kept you waiting for half an hour, you have to turn off the song whose chorus croons, “So inconsiderate! Doesn’t care about me at all!” and instead choose to play in your mind “The Ballad of My Spouse’s Best Deeds.”
THE JEWISH HIT-PARADE
A Jew must assemble a repertoire of songs to play whenever he or she is in the grip of negative thoughts and emotions. Sadness, worry, criticism, and anger are all ploys of the yetzer hara, the lower self that veers one off track. One of the yetzer hara’s main theme songs is: “You Don’t Have What You Need.” Whenever you hear that nefarious song playing in your mind, push “eject,” and play instead one of these upbeat tunes:
- “Everything I Need I Have, Everything I Have I Need.” This means that if you don’t have X, you don’t really need X. And if you do have something painful or challenging in your life, you need that experience for your spiritual growth.
- “God Runs the World.” Play this song whenever your plans fall through or your will is frustrated or you are clueless as to why something happened.
- “I Choose Connection.” This theme song should play in the background during all your interactions with your spouse, parents, children, and siblings.
- “Zoom Out to See the Whole Picture” is a calming lullaby.
- “What Can I Learn from This?” will drown out the yetzer hara song, “Why Did God Do This to Me?” It will turn every negative experience into a positive gain.
Every Jew can assemble a playlist of such life-enhancing chants. (My book, Battle Plans: How to Fight the Yetzer Hara, is replete with dozens of songs to add to your playlist to replace the destructive rap of the lower self.) Then next time you are passed up for a promotion, or snubbed by a friend, or suffer a financial loss, or get caught in a traffic jam, you can choose to play the song that will keep you calm, content, and courageous.
PLAYING A DIFFERENT SONG
Eight years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. My mind immediately started to fill with the dark, murky venom of depression and fear as my iPod shuffle mind played, “This is a Catastrophe! How Could This Happen to Me?” I knew that negative mind states can deleteriously affect the prognosis for cancer patients. Therefore, I called my Rabbi and said, “I have cancer. I need to work on being happy. My life may depend on it.”
My Rabbi helped me formulate the motto, based on one of blessings I was reciting every morning, “Everything I Need I Have, Everything I Have I Need.” For me this meant that if I needed good health right now, I would have it, because God, Who loves me, runs the world. So obviously, I didn’t need good health right now. The second part, “Everything I have I need,” meant to me that if I have a cancerous tumor right now, I need that tumor for what it can teach me spiritually about the tikkun (fixing) I have to do.
Once I had the lyrics, I downloaded the song into my mind. Then it was up to me to play it as I made the endless round of clinics for test after test, as I sat in the waiting room of the Oncology Outpatient Ward, and as I was rolled into the operating room for surgery. I was aware at every moment that I had a choice: I could listen to the voice of my yetzer hara that was trying to fill me with depression and fear, or I could listen to “Everything I Need I Have, Everything I Have I Need,” which filled me with faith, trust in God’s goodness, and joy.
Advertising moguls know that it’s worth spending millions of dollars to play a jingle on the radio hundreds of times because the more often you hear it, the more likely you’ll be to pick the product up off the shelf. I decided that the yetzer hara’s fear-and-worry rap were like smutty lyrics I would not stoop to listen to, and instead I put “Everything I Need I Have, Everything I Have I Need” on the repeat function of my mind. Then even when lying in my hospital bed hooked up to an IV, in my heart I was dancing to the joyous music.
Now, whenever I find myself fretful, anxious, or dejected, I try to remember to push the eject button – I'm in control! -- and choose a different song. I do not allow the disc jockey yetzer hara to pick my songs for me. I’ve replaced my iPod shuffle with a state-of-the-art device: The Choosing Jewish Mind.
Sara Yoheved Rigler will be giving Shabbatons and Women’s Workshops during her November U.S. tour. To invite her to your community, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.