The Pleasure Ladder
Bracha Goetz Shares the Secrets to Happiness
“Ma, I’m learning Daf Alef,” my son said as he entered the car one frosty evening after a long day of yeshivah. He smiled. Then he shared the following story with me:
After the Holocaust, the Rebbe of Satmar, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l, started a Gemara shiur for survivors. At the start of the shiur, the Rebbe went from person to person, inquiring about their lives. By the time he was finished, there wasn’t much time left to learn. The next week, the same thing happened. At the start of the shiur, the Rebbe went around the room. “How are you doing?” he asked. “Have you found a job? Is your apartment comfortable?” And once again, by the time he was finished, there wasn’t much time to learn. This went on for a third week, then a fourth. Finally, someone said, “Rebbe, with all due respect, we came here to learn. When can we start learning?” The Rebbe replied, “The Gemara begins on Daf Beis. That was Daf Aleph.”
“Get it, Ma?” my son asked. “Daf Alef is happiness. The survivors were broken and depressed. The Satmar Rebbe’s Daf Alef was to make sure the people at his shiur felt like someone cared about them. Because you can’t learn if you’re depressed. You have to be happy.”
The quest for happiness is all around us. We’re members of a more affluent generation than our ancestors could have fathomed, but I’m not sure that anyone can say that we’re happier than they were. Each of us, in our own way, is working on our own Daf Alef, every single day.
Which leads me to this interview. Bracha Goetz is the author of 40 books, including 41 children’s books and one very personal memoir. In her book, Growing with My Children, fellow author Sarah Shapiro writes, “Bracha is known for her capacity to be happy under any circumstance.” That happiness comes through in the jaunty text in Bracha’s children’s books, and the secret to that happiness is what Bracha shares with me as we converse.
Full of Joy
“Hello!” I can hear Bracha’s smile through the phone.
“You’re in Israel now,” I say. “That’s so nice!”
“Yes, we built a yechida – that’s a small apartment for just one or two people – under my daughter’s family,” Bracha responds. “It’s amazing! We came before Chanukah.
I give presentations all over the world now! I’m Zooming to places like Australia and Africa, spreading how to be joyful. This is what’s needed by everyone. But it’s great. I can sit here at my computer and teach. I don’t have to travel to do it, and that gives me much more energy. You know, we already have the secret to happiness. It’s in the Torah. But teaching people how to be happy also helps with anti-Semitism. It works for everyone.”
Bracha laughs. “Really, what I’m teaching everyone is what my husband and I call the ‘pleasure ladder.’ It’s made up of five levels of pleasure. I learned them from Rabbi Noach Weinberg, z”l, the founder of Aish HaTorah, who explained how to have a joyful life.”
Bracha’s life was not always quite so joyous. She was raised in a nonobservant home with loving parents and an older sister but developed an eating disorder during her years at Harvard, fluctuating between intense dieting and binge eating. It was a “horrible, degrading way to live,” although on the outside she appeared perfectly normal. In her memoir, “Searching for G-d in the Garbage,” Bracha describes the questions that plagued her as a young teen, questions that preceded the onset of the disorder that hounded her as she rose through the ranks of academia.
“I was searching for the purpose of life, and I didn’t understand it,” Bracha explains. “I looked into so many religions, even as I was in Harvard searching for wisdom. In other religions I found pieces of truth, but they weren’t enough for me. I developed food addictions and disordered eating behaviors. These addictions are based on starving souls, souls that are starving for spiritual nourishment. That’s why addictions are widespread.”
“Is this true for all addictions, or just food addictions?” I ask.
“All addictions,” Bracha says. “Food addictions are the perfect metaphor for this. The emptier a person feels inside, the more they search externally. We get attached to outside things, but really, it’s a spiritual hole. If they don’t fill that, they will always be hungry.”
Feeding Her Soul
Bracha’s memoir describes her battle with food addiction in disturbing detail. It was a struggle that came to an end, she realizes now, when she found what she was looking for spiritually.
“My memoir is about why, when I finally found spiritual nourishment, there was no more food addiction. This is my only book for adults. I didn’t write it; I compiled it from excerpts of diaries, letters, and journals I’d written over the years. When I put them together, I saw the thread of why I was able to heal from food addictions by nourishing my soul, when I discovered the richness of the Torah. I only came to that realization by putting the book together. Until then, I didn’t have a clear understanding of that.”
After Bracha graduated Harvard, she continued to medical school. During her first year, she travelled to Israel for a six-week break to volunteer at Hadassah hospital.
“Why Israel?” I ask.
“My parents sent me there to meet someone Jewish because I had been dating non-Jews. Before I went, my mom told me I could do whatever I wanted except contact this one guy we knew who became a ‘religious fanatic.’ So that’s what I did first.” We laugh.
“I called him up, and I said, ‘What do I say to my future patients who will want to know why life is worth living?’ He said, ‘Forget your patients. I’ll show you.’ He took me to Neve and to the new Ohr Somayach Women’s Division. I was in ecstasy, even though I didn’t understand all the Hebrew words used. I drew pictures in class of creatures jumping out of the world shouting, ‘YAY!’. The students were idealistic like me, and the teachers were wonderful. Everything I was looking for was in those classes. I felt like I’d been searching for them for years.”
Bracha says that after just one week in Hadassah’s dorms, she relocated to Ohr Somayach’s living quarters and began her journey towards observance. She took a year’s leave of absence from medical school – and ended up staying in Israel for ten years.
I ask how her parents felt about that.
“It was hard on my parents,” Bracha admits, “but I felt like I had to find the truth.”
A few months after she arrived in Israel, Bracha met her husband. The blissful young couple was among a group of pioneers who started a yishuv in the Judean desert. It was outside of her little caravan that Bracha wrote her first published children’s book, The Itchy Shabbos.
Bracha’s husband was a baal teshuvah from Aish HaTorah. Bracha had been a student of Ohr Somayach. She jokes that it was a “mixed marriage.”
“You mentioned Rabbi Noach Weinberg earlier in our conversation,” I point out.
“I did go to Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s classes at Aish HaTorah, and he influenced me so much, even though I was in Ohr Somayach,” Bracha says. “He gave me things to read that had a big effect on me, and what he said that changed my life was that the purpose of life is to experience the greatest pleasure possible. This is based on the teachings of the Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim. That sounds hedonistic, doesn’t it? It’s what I’m teaching now, the pleasure ladder. In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal explains that there are five levels to the human soul. The five levels of pleasure correspond to the five levels of the soul. That’s why we experience the feeling of pleasure, because we’re uplifting ourselves.”
“The first level is physical, corresponding to our nefesh, the first level of our soul. It’s the pleasure we derive from enjoying natural, whole foods, from spending time out in nature, and from moving our bodies.
The next level is love, which corresponds to our ruach. It’s bringing love into your life. Maybe someone did something nice to you, maybe someone cared about you, and when you think about them you are filled with a warm, emotional feeling. You can feel that love when you focus on another person.
The third level is meaning, which corresponds to the neshamah. It’s when we do something good and meaningful. That nourishes our soul.
Above that is creativity, which corresponds to chaya. It’s when you put a unique part of yourself into the world, contributing to it as only you can. That uplifts our sense of self-worth and fills us with pleasure. Giving birth is part of this level. It’s emulating Hashem in a deeper way.
The highest level is transcendence, which corresponds to the level of soul called yechida.” Bracha stops, then gives a surprised laugh. “Wow, I started this conversation by saying that I’m living in a yechida! I guess that’s because it comes from the shoresh of yachid, which means ‘one.’ An apartment like this is sized for one person.’”
I chuckle. “Wait. What does that mean, transcendence?”
“It’s the clarity you feel when you realize that everything is connected to the Source, and the veil of separation is lifted. It’s the awe you experience when you look up and see a starry sky and know you’re part of this Universe. It’s a sense of cosmic oneness. I even read in Psychology Today last week that researchers found that the most positive feeling that reduces inflammation and disease-causing chemicals in the body is the state of awe.”
This brief lesson sums up Bracha’s classes. She teaches people of all walks of life, even ex-cons. “A person can bring all these levels of joy into his life anywhere, even in prison. And even if he’s battling addiction. Addiction brings estrangement and aloneness. As you climb the ‘pleasure ladder’, each level brings more connection and lasts longer. It’s a stairway to heaven. How do you climb the ladder? With gratitude. The Rambam says that the purpose of being here is to have gratitude. It’s the key to everything, and it’s the essence of being a Jewish person. When we wake up we say ‘Modeh Ani’ and our gratitude exercises continue throughout each day.”
For the Books
Bracha’s life experience has taught her the close connection between body and soul. Her children’s books are one way she expresses that to the public. Her newest book, Let’s Stay Healthy, teaches children about the importance of proper nutrition and hygiene. This is a topic that has always been of interest to Bracha; while still an undergraduate she took classes at the Harvard Graduate School of Public Health. Now she teaches children that a healthy body is necessary for our souls to shine.
“Even before the pandemic, the CDC reported that 73-percent of adults were overweight,” Bracha explains. “There are so many diseases. Type 2 diabetes never used to be as prevalent as it is now among children. I’m trying to explain that we’re poisoning our little children by giving out junk food. It looks colorful and wonderful, but we wouldn’t water our plants with soda, and we shouldn’t be feeding it to our children either. And I’m trying to share this information in the most cheerful way possible.”
Let’s Be Healthy teaches kids about healthy eating, exercising, washing with soap, and flossing teeth. It also explains the importance of going to bed on time. “It’s a mitzvah to guard our health,” says Bracha. “The more we do that, the more we increase our potential to live longer, and the more we increase our potential to do mitzvos during our time here. I’ve convinced people to change their eating habits with this argument. That’s one spiritual aspect to this.
Another spiritual aspect is that when we eat healthy food, we can have more gratitude. When we finish a bag of potato chips, or when we eat too much chocolate cake, we are not filled with gratitude; we don’t feel good at all. Hashem designs natural foods to be delicious and nutritious. Junk food is designed to be delicious and addictive. I’ll tell you something else. In the 1980s, there was a huge public education campaign against smoking. The cigarette executives moved into the junk food industry instead, junk food proliferated, and that’s when diseases related to overeating started going way up.”
In her quest for children to learn to take good care of their bodies, Bracha doesn’t shy away from topics. Let’s Stay Safe was published in 2011.
I ask if it was hard to find a publisher for the book.
“Yes,” Bracha says. “I wrote the first manuscript for that book in 2007. My name isn’t even on it, because someone involved with the book said he was afraid I’d get backlash. That book has saved lives. It changed the community. The world can be changed through books.” The first edition of Talking About Personal Privacy was published in 2014. “It’s standard now, but years ago no one was talking about this subject. We knew about stranger danger, but that’s it, and strangers are very rarely the actual predators of our children.
“All my books are designed to help children shine. I’m not the kind of writer who loves writing as a craft. I write because there’s a need. Writing a book is like rain coming down into your brain, you just have to be the vessel – if you’re open to it.”
Attitude of Gratitude
Bracha’s secret to a joyous home? Teaching children to be grateful.
“I loved to infuse my children with joy when I was raising them, to devote my creativity and intelligence to them. One of my biggest things was teaching them gratitude and not to feel entitled. Whenever I’d hand them something, I wouldn’t let go until they said thank you. They said, ‘Toda,’ in their little voices; they learned to be grateful for everything.
The best way to teach gratitude is by modeling it. If you experience it, they will, too. The mitzvos are all about gratitude. It’s fascinating. That’s our purpose for being here. When you’re being grateful, you’re not being miserable, and the gratitude gets stronger as you exercise it. It becomes easier and easier.”
“How did you teach your kids not to feel entitled?” I want to know.
“We’re not entitled to anything,” says Bracha. “Whatever we get is a gift. All of society is trying to tell us the opposite. That’s the job of the yetzer hara. It’s doing it’s job; our job is to fight it. As we strengthen our gratitude muscles, we can overcome focusing on what we don’t have. The more people practice gratitude, the less they will be engaged by feelings of entitlement and feelings that they are lacking and don’t have enough. Our lives become filled with pleasure when our moments are full of gratitude. We are spiritual beings that thrive when we nourish ourselves with the abundance of pleasures Hashem created for us to enjoy, and the way we experience these pleasures on every level of the ‘pleasure ladder’ is through savoring them, with genuine gratitude.
“For example, when our spiritual beings are nourished and shining, we don’t feel like we need to go shopping for expensive clothes or eat a whole box of chocolate chip cookies. We are grateful for the infinite abundance of pleasure in our lives already.”
“You haven’t mentioned therapy,” I say. “Isn’t that the first step for someone who struggles with compulsive overeating or shopping?”
Bracha agrees. “Therapeutic interventions can help remove protective coverings that have formed on the soul so that gratitude can more readily be experienced, and pleasure more fully absorbed.”
Climbing the Ladder
“Did you struggle with food addictions after you became observant?” I ask.
“What changed for me,” Bracha says, “was that the depth of my starvation was gone. There was a certain level of satisfaction. I never had to have the desperate binges again. Sometimes, overeating can happen. The thought that comes to me now is – is it my body or soul that’s hungry? What will bring me more joy than overeating this food now? I simply find something on the ladder that will bring me greater pleasure instead. I can get up and open a window, feel the breeze and the sunshine. I can put on music and stretch. You don’t even have to do these things. Just thinking about it will help you change your mind’s focus from a sense of scarcity to a sense of abundance.”
“So, you ask yourself, ‘Why am I continuing to eat?’” I want to make sure I’m getting this right.
“Yes, and the answer to that question is ‘Because I want lasting pleasure.’ So, I figure out what else I can do to get pleasure. There’s a TV show that I think is called My 600-Lb. Life. The people on the show struggling with obesity all apparently say the same thing: Food is the only thing that brings me pleasure. We can all gain from recognizing that there’s an abundance of things that brings pleasure in life, and the “pleasure ladder” helps us clearly see what pleasures we can each bring into our lives at any moment. It’s a totally empowering paradigm shift.
When I go to a chasunah, for instance, and I realize I’ve had enough to eat, I’ll try to look around to see if someone seems lonely and in need of conversation. Or maybe I’ll step outside and breathe in some fresh air. I try bring in other greater pleasures to stop myself from overeating.
The reason we engage in behaviors like overeating is because we’re feeling discomfort, loneliness, or boredom. That comes from a sense of fear that we don’t have enough. When we ask the question of what’s hungry, the soul or the body, it send neurons moving toward the prefrontal cortex of the brain. We can ask that question with loving compassion and answer it with loving awareness. There is an infinite number of empowering ways to bring that pleasure in.
“The natural physical pleasures – the lowest, most fleeting level of pleasure – are designed by Hashem to bring us satisfaction physically and gratitude spiritually. Savoring an amazing, juicy orange, for instance, can do that.
Rav Noach was such a genius. He expressed Torah by clearly demonstrating its relevance to us so we could benefit from it right away. He was an FFB, but he could talk to everyone. He’d ask us, ‘What do you think is the opposite of pain?’”
“Pleasure?” I venture.
“He’d enjoy letting us know that the opposite of pain is actually comfort. That’s what Rav Noach taught us. A giant bag of potato chips takes away the pain temporarily, but it doesn’t bring pleasure. If you climb a mountain or give birth, there’s a struggle involved. Pain can be part of pleasure. Let’s say you sewed a beautiful dress for someone, for example. It takes a lot of work to make the clothes, but there can be physical pleasure, love, meaning and creativity all threaded into the experience Maybe even that timeless sense of awe and wonder, too, if the work is stitched together with gratitude.”