Book Review: Mastering Life: A Unique Guidebook to Jewish Enlightenment
Jews, read it: Mastering Life: A Unique Guidebook to Jewish Enlightenment by Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen (Mosaica Press/Feldheim, 2019) is a GREAT new book, absolutely golden for people who need spiritual inspiration. It made me literally want to get up at sunrise, do push-ups, and learn Torah. It’s a call-to-action in the form of a very funny, endearing narrative.
In Mastering Life, Rabbi Cohen, a teacher at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem’s Old City, discusses his pre-teshuvah explorations of Asia and Eastern religions — how his intrepid youth prepared him for his ultimate adventure: Torah and mitzvoth. It’s a humorous, sometimes self-effacing, energetic, and utterly celebratory look at both the author’s own spiritual journey and the general nature of spiritual exploration. He does not shy away from awkward moments and personal downfalls; Mastering Life gives one permission to be his-or-herself.
An example of the kind of humor I’m trying to describe:
“Why did you give me the knife?”
“Oh, no problem, brother. I’ve just never met that man before, and there are dangerous people in these villages. He could have tried to harm you.”
“Thanks, aya, very thoughtful of you,” I said, resting my hand on his shoulder. At least he has the courtesy to give me a knife when he sent me off into the wilderness on a rickety old motorbike with an unknown, drunk, and possibly dangerous local villager.
Adventure tales like the one above cushion the more serious message of the book, which is: Do something with your life already, and turn to the Torah to show you how! Rabbi Cohen certainly turns to Torah — Mastering Life is absolutely full of references to primary sources, from Chumash, to Gemara, to Kabbalah and Chassidus, and to Mussar. The research that went into this book is impressive, and what is even more impressive is how the author makes each lesson actionable and (usually) fun.
Get up like a lion. The first halacha in the Shulchan Aruch is: Be strong as a lion [to beat your yetzer hara] to get up in the morning (to serve Hashem). Getting up like a mensch is a complete game changer. It means you beat your yetzer hara in the first battle of the day, setting the right tone for the rest of the battles to come. The Kotzker Rebbe said that it’s impossible to get up like a lion if you go to bed like a donkey, so make sure you go to bed envisioning getting up strongly in the morning, not dreading the sound of the alarm.
But what if being pushed toward Judaism, albeit in a funny, compassionate way, isn’t for you? One strength of book is that the author acknowledges — in depth — that the Judaism many of us have grown up with isn’t authentic Judaism, even if it was taught in yeshivas and observant households.
Yet sometimes it seems like people lose the center and purpose of it all: a truly intimate, authentic, personal relationship with themselves and Hashem. Sometimes it feels like we have the body of Jewish practice, we’re just lacking the heart
Beautifully, Rabbi Cohen succeeds in reintroducing the heart of Judaism (and the belly laugh of it) to all of us. Mastering Life has something to offer to those who have left, those who are coming back, and those who were never exposed to Judaism. It’s a non-judgmental spiritual shot of espresso that encourages and guides each of us to live our best lives.