The rabbi’s medieval recipe to beat stress

By Anthea Gerrie, February 18, 2010
Addressing your fear and anger can help in the fight against stress

Addressing your fear and anger can help in the fight against stress

As a professional stressbuster, Rabbi Marcia Plumb is used to being greeted with the heartfelt cry: “Houston, we have a problem.” After all, the Texas-born guru has made Jewish angst the focus of her life’s work since leaving the USA, being ordained and setting up in London as a spiritual coach.

Now the mother of two is giving a taster of how she translates talmudic texts into clues on how to deal with the pressures of modern life. Her workshop, aimed at all ages, will take place next week at Hampstead’s Spaniards Inn, where stress relief has come in pint glasses for the past few hundred years.

During much of that time, scholars of the Mussar ethical and educational movement were laying down some ideas of how to live more peacefully, says Rabbi Plumb, whose varied commitments make her serenity all the more miraculous. She ministers at Southgate Reform Synagogue and the Akiva School in Finchley and directs a spiritual formation programme at Leo Baeck College, as well as leading Jewish meditation groups and offering one-to-one spiritual guidance.

“There is a whole genre of Jewish literature from the 11th to the 18th century which focuses on ‘duties of the heart’,” she explains.

“Mussar scholars saw how people could shape their hearts and souls to deliver a healthier kind of life — as important as doing mitzvot. That meant addressing the set of emotions we all carry around with us, including fear and anger, acknowledging them and finding a balance.”

As an example, she cites the person who sees a fire engine heading for their neighbourhood and starts praying for the blaze not to be at their home.

“Mussar would say wherever the fire is, it’s already happened, so that prayer is not going to be helpful. You need to be praying for how to cope with whatever has actually happened.”

Plumb believes centuries of persecution and rootlessness have helped forge Jewish angst: “We worry about what everyone else does, but besides, we worry about our children, our parents, our food, antisemitism, food, Israel — and food!

“We have added layers of guilt and anxiety which come from an ancient sense of not having a proper place in the world... not being wanted. It all comes down to a sense that we can’t depend on anyone else — that if we can’t get it right ourselves, we are in trouble.”

But talmudic texts, as well as musings by Mussar scholars, do show we are all, in fact, interdependent, she insists, and these ancient principles form the basis of her top 10 tips for stress-free living today.

Ten tips for an anxiety-free life

● Live in the present, not in the past or future: “Think what is the step to take right now?”
● Wake up and be grateful. “Stop to think of everything you have to be grateful for before going to your to-do list. It sets the tone for finding the good in the day.”
● Know you are loved — at least by God: “Believing that can take a lot of the pressure off.”
● Know that difficult person you will have to deal with today is also loved by God: “However much of a thorn in your side they seem, they deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.”
● Trust we will all be ok eventually. Rabbi Plumb does not elaborate, but this is the basis of all faiths which subscribe to the notion of a higher power.
● Expect the unexpected: “Rather than close down if something bad happens, open up to the unexpected opportunities it throws up.”
● Connect with another human in need. “Talk to the Big Issue seller — or, as I like to put it, be careful how you treat the person sitting next to you on the bus: she may be the Messiah.”
● Remember you are not God: “You can’t do everything, so set boundaries, delegate, get help and look after yourself.”
● Remember the other part of the saying ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ and ask: ‘If I am only for myself, who am I?’ “We have to acknowledge the need to step back and listen to the other side of any given story.”
● At the end of the day, repent for the hurt you have caused, reflect on the moments you should be grateful for “then let the day go”.

‘Work-life balance: the missing ingredient’ takes place on Tuesday, February 23 at the Spaniards Inn. Tickets, £10, can be booked at or call 020 8431 9866.

Last updated: 3:27pm, February 18 2010