Breaking bad habits
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
October 3, 2003
One curious aspect of the Ten Days of Repentance is the order of the holidays. Shouldn’t Yom Kippur, with its emphasis on teshuva (repentance), precede Rosh Hashana which affirms our desire to reconnect with G-d, Whom we recognize as the source of all being? How can that reconnection take place without repentance?
The teshuva process of Yom Kippur may be likened to throwing our dirty laundry into the washing machine. But first we have to acknowledge that our clothes are dirty and take them off. That is Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashana provides us with a vision of our unsullied selves. The Shofar blasts recall the deep breath with which G-d imbued Adam with a soul. That breath contained within it a spark of godliness, a part of the Creator Himself, through which we remain forever connected to Him.
Teshuva derives from the Hebrew root for return. Repentance requires that we first identify the point to which we seek to return. On Rosh Hashana we clarify the goal by reminding ourselves of the Divine Image in which we were created. Then we are in a position to check ourselves for stains and to consider how we have obscured our godliness through our deeds.
The whole project of becoming better people, people whose actions reflect our connection to the Divine, is foreign to post-modern man. Bookstores are filled with self-help books promising to make us happier, thinner, more attractive, more successful. Few, however, discuss the refinement of our character or how to live more moral lives.
That absence reflects the lack of any generally agreed upon standards of morality. One cannot set out to be a better person without first defining a good person. Yet today morality is klargely viewed as a matter of individual taste. Parents mouth one set of values to their children, and then sit down with them to watch Sex and the City.
EVEN FOR THOSE WHO SPENT ROSH HASHANA, the day of Man’s creation, contemplating our unique role as individuals in bringing the world towards its original goal, teshuva remains frustratingly difficult. We are creatures of habit who naturally revert to old patterns of behavior.
To break those patterns requires intense effort and preparation. The whole month of Elul is preparation for the Ten Days of Repentance, and those Ten Days are preparation for Yom Kippur. We need every minute of that time. Our task is not just to come up with a checklist of our most unforgettable sins of the preceding year. Rather we have to seek out the recurrent patterns through which we have distanced ourselves from G-d’s vision of Man.
Unravelling those patterns and understanding their sources requires concentrated effort. It cannot begin as we open up the Machzor and prepare to recite Al Het for the first time -- ``Hmm. This one seems to have something to do with me. I’m sorry."
Resolutions to change are doomed to failure if not immediately accompanied by concrete changes in behavior. The story is told of one of the outstanding students in the Volozhin Yeshiva who was asked a question about a certain passage in the Talmud to which he did not know the answer. He was so embarrassed that he rushed out of the yeshiva dining hall and did not return for seven years. By then he had mastered the entirety of the Talmud.
One of the other students pointed out to Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin that the scholar in question had not remembered to recite the blessing after a meal before running out. Reb Chaim replied that had he waited to bentsch after the meal, the powerful embarrassment that overtook him would have already waned and nothing would have come of the incident.
The concrete changes in behavior must, however, be achievable. Grandiose resolutions to never again speak lashon hara (improper speech) or lose one’s temper are meaningless. They only provide fodder for next year’s list of ``confessions of the lips" and cause us to despair of our ability to change.
The key is not the size of the undertaking but its inviolability. Every small improvement rigorously adhered to brings new confidence in our capacity to change for the better. Five minutes a day spent thinking positively about others, performing at least one act of chesed for someone else every day, pausing before entering the house to put aside the pressures of the day and greet one’s family with a smile, another ten minutes spent delving into the Jewish bookshelf – these are not insignificant achievements.
We need do no more than open the gates of teshuva a crack – through concrete, inviolable changes in our behavior – and He will open them as wide as the palace doors. May we all invest the energy and effort to be worthy this Yom Kippur of the Divine promise: ``If your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow; if they have become as read as crimson, they will become white as wool."
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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