The Four Jewish Agreements
A practical guide to personal and interpersonal Judaism, and to a thriving Jewish world.
Please note: This essay is for our premium subscribers. The first half is available for free; the second half, along with other exclusive essays and videos, is accessible to those who have a premium subscription.
What people and organizations do in the Jewish world is often based on “agreements” they make or have made with themselves, with others, with their versions of Judaism, with God or spiritual beings/doings, with the greater world, and with life itself.
In these agreements, we tell ourselves who we are, how to behave, why things are the way they are, what is possible, and what is not. Some of these agreements may not be trouble-makers, but there are a significant number of problematic agreements which originate from fear, selfishness or self-absorption, egoism incompetencies, jealousy, close-mindedness, insecurity, territorialism, bureaucracy, lack of leadership, and socio-politics — all of which have the power to deplete the Jewish People’s individual and collective progress, success, and impact.
And yet, we hold onto these agreements! Partly because we aren’t aware of how arbitrary and limiting they are. Partly because we haven’t taken the time or energy to identify alternatives. Mostly because they make us feel safe. And safety, even if it brings a lack of desired actions or results, feels better than throwing ourselves into the perceived unknown.
The good news is, these agreements are commonly self-created or self-prescribed or or self-induced, which means we have the ability to transform them — and thus, elevate ourselves, our organizations, our communities, our people, and the relationships we have with our non-Jewish family, friends, and communities. Otherwise, I’m afraid these agreements will continue contributing to much of the mounting problems in the Jewish world, such as dropping institutional affiliations, flailing Israel-Diaspora relations, and overall Jewish disconnection or unengagement.
But it is possible — even probable — to reengineer a reality that I believe the vast majority of us want to see in the Jewish world, such as:
Genuine, deep-seated personal, interpersonal, and communal pride among Jews about what it means to be and do Jewish
Respect and admiration for the Jewish People’s rich history, in the hearts and minds of both Jews and non-Jews alike
Extra-ordinary support of organizations which serve our communities and the Jewish People
A strong, independent Israel and impeccable relationships between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, between the State of Israel and other nations
Increasingly productive relations with our non-Jewish family, friends, and communities who will come to view Judaism and the Jewish People as one of the world’s bright spots
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, in his work Alei Shor, cites a midrash (rabbinic interpretation in the Talmud) in which each person at Mount Sinai experienced revelation according to their ability.1 He connects this to an idea from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto that “there are 600,000 explanations of the Torah, and each person received an interpretation according to the root of his/her soul.”2
This is where the delicate balance between Jewish individualism and collectivism comes into play. Each of us is one of these 600,000 explanations, no explanation greater or lesser than the others, just different. As such, this requires an imperative humility to acknowledge that each of us contains only a partial truth, and that predominately running in circles with others who share our like-minded partial truths only makes our partial truths more partial.
To be a thriving Jewish People, and to more effectively connect ourselves and our Judaism with our non-Jewish family, friends and communities, we need all 600,000 explanations to hold the Torah in its entirety (proverbially speaking of course).
Rabbeinu Yona, an 11th-century Talmudist and ethicist, explained that to love peace is to subscribe to the concept of peace, aspiring to it as an ideal. To pursue peace, though, is to practically and persistently do something about it. We pursue peace — we actively create and cement the conditions for it — through concerted, measured actions. The idea is that peace is essentially a verb, as opposed to a noun.3
The same can be said about The Four Jewish Agreements you are about to encounter. Agreeing to them, paying lip service to them, is akin to loving peace. But Judaism, the Jewish People, and our great Jewish homeland and state developed and endured thanks to people who treated these blessings as verbs, as acts of collaborating, of sacrificing, of rejoicing.
To do so, we must master three keystone skills: awareness, forgiveness, and action.
Skill # 1: Awareness
Judaism knows a thing or two about awareness. For one thing, Shabbat prompts us to make way for health, awareness, and inner peace.
“Rest has an expansive definition in Judaism, focusing one’s attention on nature and what humanity has not created,” Daniel Ben-Tzi wrote in Thrive Global.4
And according Dr. Einat Ramon, a senior lecturer in Jewish thought and Jewish women’s studies at The Schechter Institutes, Yom Kippur is the “awareness of our human vulnerability.”5
Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz calls the Torah “a tool of awareness” which “keeps us awake to the world around us and demands that we respond with holy consciousness.”6
According to Rabbi Akiva, a leading contributor to the Mishnah and to Midrash halakha (Jewish law), extraordinary love lies in the granting of awareness.
“So, too, with our morning prayers,” Schwartz wrote. “It’s extremely amazing (a sign of extraordinary love) that we are aware of the universe, it’s commanding Otherness, and our ability to learn and dialogue about it.”
But awareness is tricky, because it fades. Fast. Rather than truly mastering this skill, we are prone to sinking back into the distractions of everyday life. Perhaps as soon as you finish reading this essay. Therefore, improving our abilities to maintain a heightened state of awareness is the true gateway to transcendental enlightenment — knowledge and wisdom that will transform yourself, your life, your relationships, and so forth.
Many paths lead to such states of elevated consciousness, which is “more than a state of mind,” according to the late, great Lubavitcher Rebbe. “It is a way of eating, of sleeping, of loving, of speaking, of doing business — it is apparent in all your ways.”7
Prayer and fasting are common paths in most religions. The Buddha laid a clear path of meditation and mindfulness. Indigenous American shamans (among others) chartered their own path with a plant-based tradition that “accelerates” the journey through altered states of consciousness.8 I am personally a fan of daily journaling to maintain awareness.
“The first step to higher consciousness is to be conscious of a consciousness higher than your own,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe said. “And to be conscious of how that consciousness is conscious of you.”9
“Anyone can come to see a higher world. But it’s not a flash of revelation from above that will take you there,” he added. “Train yourself, consistently, every day, until you become used to seeing each thing the way it is seen from above. Real change only comes from consistent, daily practice.”
Whatever path you choose, the importance of training consciousness in “awakening” (i.e. enlightenment) cannot be overstated. It is a fundamental prerequisite to reengineering the realities we want to see in our Judaism, in our Jewishness, and in the Jewish world.
Skill # 2: Foregiveness
With awareness comes forgiveness. Forgiveness for our past against “agreements” we still hold. Forgiveness for causing ourselves and those around us to suffer based on these agreements. Forgiveness for the suffering others cause as a result of their agreements.
Despite being subjected to horrifying experiences, Eva Mozes Kor is a Holocaust survivor. She lost both of her parents, as well as her two older sisters, at Auschwitz. Kor has given many interviews about the terrible ordeal, often talking about her forgiveness of the Nazis. She describes her forgiveness as a way of helping her deal with such experiences.
“I believe forgiveness is such a powerful thing,” Kor said. “It is free. It works. It has no side effects. And this is what our world needs besides punishment.”10
Turns out, Judaism places great emphasis on forgiveness. The Torah explicitly forbids us to take revenge or to bear grudges.11 There is also mechilah, slichah, and kaparah. The most basic kind of forgiveness is “forgoing the other’s indebtedness” (mechilah). If the offender has done t’shuvah (repentance), and is sincere in doing so, the offended person should offer mechilah; that is, they should relinquish their claim against the offender.
“This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did,” according to Rabbi David Blumenthal. “Mechilah is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.”12
The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechilah if the offender is not sincere in their repentance and has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrongdoing. Maimonides is decisive on this subject:
“The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not offering mechilah, for this is not the way of the seed of Israel. Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims and has] asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner mechilah.”13
In his code, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides taught that t’shuvah (repentance) is a three-stage process:
First we must regret our actions, confront the reality of what we have done, apologize and make recompense.
Then we must reject this flawed conduct.
Finally, we must resolve to live differently in the future, and if confronted with the opportunity to conduct ourselves similarly again, we must behave differently, for that is when we know we have really repented.
The second kind of forgiveness is slichah — “an act of the heart,” according to Blumenthal. “It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the other. Slichah, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace.”
And, finally, the third type of forgiveness is kaparah (“atonement”) or tahorah (“purification”) — “a total wiping away of all sinfulness,” Blumenthal wrote. “It is an existential cleansing. Kaparah is the ultimate form of forgiveness… No human can ‘atone’ the sin of another; no human can ‘purify’ the spiritual pollution of another.”
The delivery of this one idea alone — of forgiveness, through a carefully kindled window of awareness — is perhaps the greatest triumph of The Four Jewish Agreements. Grasping it, even in bits and pieces, will lift a crushing weight from our shoulders. A weight we may have long since forgotten that we carry.
We will fail to live up to our expectations; and so will others. We will make mistakes; as others will too. Being human is complicated. We are all the products of the “agreements” that make up our realities.
But Jewish tradition does not understand human imperfections as being the result of an “original sin” by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.14 Our negative human tendencies or inclinations, known in Hebrew as yetzer harah (“the inclination toward evil”), must be channeled in ways that affirm life by the influence of the yetzer hatov (“the inclination to goodness”) according to Rabbi Yael Ridberg.
Forgiveness unlocks the space, energy, and strength needed to reshape reality by:
Preventing new, unwanted agreements from taking root;
Eliminating old, damaging agreements already in place; and
Programming new agreements that exponentially improve desired results.
Skill # 3: Action
There is a Hasidic story about a cantor who was studying the prayers before the holidays. He came in a rush to the local rabbi and asked to be dismissed from additional duties.
The rabbi asked why he was hurrying, and the cantor replied that he had to look at the machzor — the prayer book designated for the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — to arrange his prayers in order.
“The prayers are the same as last year,” the rabbi said. “It would be better if you look into your own deeds and put yourself in order.”
This brings us to The Four Jewish Agreements:
Be impeccable with your words.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best.
Now, let’s dive into each one: