Now that Rosh Hashanah is drawing close, it’s time to open your machzor or vidui booklet. It’s the head of the year; the time that the person who you are, and the person you want to be are both going to be judged. In a human court, the agenda is either to find the defendant guilty and liable for paying a fine, serving time or the unappetizing combination of having to do both. There is no agenda for paying or rewarding someone for being a decent human being, or even for being an exemplary human being. Imagine seeing a court scene in which someone “charges” the defendant with changing their life by introducing them to learning Torah. The judge slams down his hammer and sentences the “accused” to long life and spiritual enlightenment. We humans have punishment down to an art form, but are rather clueless when it comes to reward.
Hashem rewards every step you make towards coming closer to Him. You write your own script. You are the unique package of good and less than good that you have become through your choices. He is with you when you struggle with yourself against closing the book, and dong something else, something less emotionally demanding. Have a coffee. Check your email. He will reward you just for keeping the book open. You see the list, and find that some of the items resonate. Yes. You sinned (so did I, so did everyone), you know that you have made choices that are not worth making, but no amount of resolve has as yet made it possible for you to cross the item off the list. You aren’t alone. Tshuvah is a process. You have to go back to dealing with your emotional motivations, to examining your response to what may be a less than perfect environment, and your lack of self- discipline. This feels both overwhelming and guilt provoking. The result is that you just don’t want to be there. You want to close the book. Big mistake. You are already rewarded for keeping the book open.
Doing tshuvah feels so good! Life’s greatest joy is closeness to Hashem. Whenever you try to do tshuvah, you are drawing closer. Even if the end result is that you are still far from the goal that you set for yourself, the desire to get there is a source of great pleasure to Hashem, and He judges you as a baal tshuvah. Today, the phrase Baal Tshuvah is used to describe someone who came from a less than observant background and chose to change his life and begin to keep the mitzvos. This is quite a distance from the literal meaning of the word. It means, “Master of Return”. Sincere longing to draw closer to Hashem puts you into this category even if you aren’t a former Buddhist monk who discovered Torah while meditating, or a girl who went to a Shabbos and was hooked on what might have been her first spiritual experience. You could be a Baal Tshuvah if you live in Flatbush, or Lakewood or even Har Nof, have an observant family and the benefit of a Torah education since pre-school. You want to do more than what you are doing. You have models to give you aspirations.
When my eldest son was about 6, he came home from school shortly before Lag B’Omer, and announced that he was going to be just like Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. He would learn Torah in a cave for 12 years. He plopped himself down on the daybed in the small “L” of our living room, closed the accordion door that separated the two parts of the room, and began reciting some chumash. He lasted about 10 minutes and then abandoned the “cave” and told me he would just be him, not Rabi Shimon.
His plan, of course was totally (and delightfully) childish. Do you do the same thing? Do you forget who you are? One of the problems that arise when you read books about the gedolim (great people), or see people who are several miles ahead of you in the race, is that you don’t see their struggles, failures and humiliations that they went through to get where they are. That doesn’t mean that your next step is to look in the mirror and give up. They got where they are because they didn’t. In order to receive the help from Hashem that you need to move forward, you have to stay awake, and actually make changes. This happens in 3 ways:
1-Concretize your tshuvah by letting go of established responses. Think new. Think about how all self-discipline generates self-esteem. Most of all think of where you want to head in life, and of the unique reality that Hashem crated for you.
2-Tefillah. Ask Hashem for what you want and need (Hashem, I get so defensive when I hear criticism. Help me have the wisdom to know how to respond.” or “Only You know the truth about my addictions (food, media, etc.). Help me move beyond where I am!). Prayers such as these can be said before the closing brachah of the appropriate request in shmoneh esreh, or in independent self-composed prayers that you say whenever you want to.
3-Give tzedakah. It takes you beyond yourself, and bonds you to the rest of the Jewish people, opening door towards their merit and yours merging.
Don’t stay in Chicago if you want to be in Detroit!
You will notice that the hidden emunah in you suddenly and surprisingly can be rediscovered. When that happens, your “detour” into sin, will have become the springboard for your self-discovery and tshuvah!