Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Plan For The New Year That Works

I wrote this for my shul's Shabbos/Yom Tov Divrei Torah booklet and figured it was worth sharing with the readers. Please feel free to use it at your table this week during Yom Tov.

We find ourselves at the beginning of the Days of Awe, The Ten Days of Repentance, and the start of a new year, Rosh Hashana. It is a time of reflection, of meditation on events and actions from the last twelve months. We all remember going through the same process last year, and we experienced similar struggles, perhaps even the same ones that have troubled our spirituality in years past. Often, we think of grandiose strategies that become more than we can realistically handle, and as a result we find ourselves disappointed that we have not succeeded in improving our character traits, our actions, and our interactions with others. Here we are again, crowning HaShem as our King and looking toward a new year and new possibilities for change and improvement. We must now think: What can we do to make things better for ourselves and those around us in a fashion that will bring us success and growth instead of stagnation and frustration?
As Jews, we turn to the truest and best resource available to us, the Torah itself. The Torah teaches us a very important lesson in Parshas Nitzavim, which we read last Shabbos, that we can use and incorporate into our own lives to provide us with the means to ascend in spirituality and observance. On the last day of his life, amidst many other significant words of rebuke and encouragement, Moshe tells the Jewish People,

For this mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it.’ For the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Devarim 30:11-14).

The Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 55a) tells us that this passage refers to Torah study itself, informing us that the opportunity to learn Torah is not beyond us, but readily accessible – near and dear – to our hearts. Ramban, in his commentary on these verses, writes that the Torah is actually telling us that teshuva – repentance – is always close at hand, and we can always return from our erroneous ways to better serve HaShem.

I’d like to offer a different interpretation, thereby adding another level of meaning and significance to these famous words imparted by Moshe as explained by the Talmud and Ramban.

The literal reading of the verse refers to an unnamed mitzvah, which Moshe tells us is not too esoteric, distant, or spiritually lofty that we should feel as though we cannot have any sense of achievement in fulfilling it. The reason why Moshe did not specify what mitzvah he was referring to was because he was speaking to each and every Jew individually. We all know that there are certain mitzvos that we think – erroneously – are too hard for us, require too much effort, that seem to be reserved for other people who are more religiously observant or “frum” than we consider ourselves to be. And that, Moshe is informing us, is a mistake.

As imperfect, mortal humans, we have a tendency to self-deprecate far too much. We look at a particular mitzvah and say to ourselves, “Oh, I wish I could do that mitzvah, but I can’t because of X, Y or Z.” We think that if only we were more religious, or we had a better Jewish education growing up, or a myriad of other excuses that our minds can think of to justify our “inability” to fulfill G-d’s commandments. Moshe Rabbeinu is telling us that all these thoughts are entirely misguided. The mitzvos are all within reach, they are not across the ocean in Israel or anywhere else. The mitzvos can be performed by anyone, even people like ourselves with whatever background might be, not just for those we consider to be more religious than ourselves. The Torah is telling us that the reason why we don’t accomplish more in our mitzvah observance is because we put limitations on ourselves – we self-impose limits and barriers that prevent us from becoming more spiritually connected to G-d and His Torah and mitzvos. No one is twisting our arm, no one is telling us we aren’t good enough or smart enough – we do that to ourselves!

Now that Rosh Hashana is upon us once again, it behooves us to look within and figure out one mitzvah – just one mitzvah – that we have continually placed beyond our own reach. Once we find that one mitzvah, we should contemplate what we can do, what little changes need to be made in our lives, that will allow us to add this one extra mitzvah performance to our repertoire. We all know of people who may have said that a certain mitzvah, perhaps going to shul every day, keeping kosher or Shabbos, was beyond them. But, when circumstances changed and the opportunity presented itself, they seized the moment and were able to succeed, perhaps slowly but surely. Why should we view their success from afar, putting ourselves behind facades of excuses? If we put our minds to it, we can also increase our religious observance and improve our spirituality and connection to G-d. It is not beyond the sea or high above in heaven; that mitzvah is right here in front of us, ready and waiting to come into our lives.

However, one may say, “There are so many mitzvos! How can I possibly take them all upon myself right now? It’s far too much for me to handle!” The answer to that is we don’t have to do everything right away. We can take baby steps, learning a little more and a little more, slowing building our knowledge and observance. As Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, the former Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem and senior Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh said,

“A person is not expected to immediately reach the top rung of the ladder… He is, however, required to improve himself slightly. For example, he can have that much more kavannah [concentration] in his davening [prayers]. Even in the way he honors his parents, he is not expected to immediately reach the highest level that the Torah demands, but he should at least talk nicely to his parents for the first ten minutes after he comes home. Perhaps the next day it will not be too difficult for him to increase the number of minutes.” (Tit’haru! P.101)

It is in this fashion, one of slight improvements, one day at a time, one mitzvah at a time, that we can realistically raise ourselves up into higher levels of mitzvah observance and service of HaShem. So let us forget New Year’s resolutions that we know are too much to take on right now, and focus on that one mitzvah that we struggle with, and figure out how we can incorporate it into our lives. Once we’ve mastered that mitzvah, let’s move on to another, and another. Slowly but surely, we can and will ascend in spirituality, and our lives will be that much richer and enjoyable because of our efforts.

May we all take this notion to heart and start off with that one mitzvah to take with us into the New Year, and as a result, may we all merit to be written and sealed in the Book of Life.

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