June 14, 2024
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Rabbi’s New Book Is a Workout for Your Soul

Reviewing: “The 40 Day Challenge” by Rabbi Mark Wildes. Kodesh Press. 2021.  English. Paperback. 186 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1947857674.

When you go to the grocery store, how often do you see magazines with headlines exhorting you to try a 30-day fitness challenge to help you lose weight? Now imagine if you saw a publication asking you to try a spiritual challenge. This often-overlooked topic is explored in a new book by Rabbi Mark Wildes, the founder and director of Manhattan Jewish Experience, an organization that strives to bring young Jews closer to religious observance. Published by Kodesh Press, the rabbi’s book, “The 40 Day Challenge: Daily Jewish Insights to Prepare for the High Holidays,” is one that should not be missed.

Every year, Jews around the world—even those who do not observe many Jewish holidays throughout the year—attend High Holiday services and often come away from the experience feeling that something is missing. As Rabbi Wildes puts it, they aren’t getting the “high out of the High Holidays.” A major reason people feel that way, Wildes points out, is because they do not prepare for the experience in any way. Rather, they simply “show up.” When someone has an impending interview for a job or wants to propose marriage, he dedicates time for preparation. Wildes suggests we think of the High Holidays in the same way. Not coincidentally, the last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul, is meant for just this purpose, with the 40 days culminating on Yom Kippur.

Throughout COVID-19, Rabbi Wildes, like many of us, had to resort to Zoom or Facebook Live to interact with his students. As part of his class on preparing for the High Holidays, he created a What’sApp group for those who wanted to participate in a 40-day challenge. The challenge was so successful that it was suggested that it be made into a book.

The book’s insights come from classical Jewish sources such as the Talmud and Maimonides, as well as others, like French philosopher Rene Descartes. Wildes also brings color to his lessons through stories about historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and—the one I found most interesting—Alfred Nobel, who read his own obituary, obviously wrongly printed, and it served as a catalyst for him to do more with his life. “The 40 Day Challenge” includes a chapter for each of the 40 days leading up to Yom Kippur. Topics include strategies to overcoming one’s anger, how to judge others favorably and how to develop a deeper sense of gratitude for fellow human beings and for God. Each chapter ends with a question followed by lines to be filled out, to encourage the reader to self-reflect.

It is noteworthy that Wildes mentions how NFL quarterback Tom Brady meticulously prepared for the last Super Bowl, to which Wildes compares this 40-day challenge. Other fascinating stories include how Abraham Lincoln wrote letters in anger but never sent them, in order to let go of his anger. Similarly, Dr. Ben Carson successfully overcame a problem with anger in his youth, later becoming a renowned surgeon and running for high political office.

Wildes succeeds in what is not an easy task: writing a book that encourages introspection and self-reflection without the Jewish guilt. More than merely a self-help book, it is a call to action with clear direction: for people to examine their good, bad and ugly actions and see where their hearts are. This past year has caused a lot of soul-searching for many of us who have suffered through the effects of the pandemic, and this book could not come at a better time.

By Lisa Sopher

 

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