When it comes to personal growth, we all have good intentions. But how do you translate that into actual improvement?
by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits
Elul and the High Holidays is a very special season. It’s a time to take advantage of a special opportunity to work on ourselves: to change, be great and fulfill dreams. It’s a new beginning to finally do those things you’ve always sensed you were capable of, but never followed through.
Every Elul starts off with the same high expectations — that there will be a whole new world and things will never be quite the same again. Unfortunately, the initial enthusiasm all too often gives way to a somber reality; enthusiasm tapers off and you end up not too different from before you started. Of course, you do grow slowly, year after year, but the big breakthrough — becoming the person you know you can and should be — never seems to materialize. It remains an elusive dream.
How do you take all the initial goodwill, enthusiasm and excitement — and parley it into significant and lasting change? In other words, how do you make the High Holiday season really work?
The Sages tell us there is a heavenly voice (Bat Kol) that reverberates during the month of Elul, saying “Plow the fields, don’t plant for the thorns and weeds.” There are of course many layers of Kabbalistic meaning here. But the most straightforward explanation is that if you don’t properly plow a field beforehand, no matter what you plant, your garden will eventually be overrun by weeds.
Therefore, the key to a successful Elul is to properly prepare — i.e. consider what seeds you wish to plant.
How do you “plow” yourself, to ensure that everything you accept upon yourself will develop the way you want it to — so that a few months down the road you won’t regard your resolution as wishful thinking?
Your desire to change is clear — otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this right now. But what causes you to change? The key is to understand yourself (“the ground”) — how you function, how you grow, and what motivates you?
The story is told of a young man in the yeshiva of Rabbi Meir Chadash. He was a lazy student who never learned, did whatever he pleased and seemed ready to drop out completely. Then one day the student did a 180-degree turnabout. He was the first one in the study hall in the morning, and the last one out.
The next day, Rabbi Chadash approached him and said. “You’re so immature, when are you going to grow up already?”
The message was clear — you don’t change overnight from being irresponsible and apathetic, to being the most responsible and consistent person around. And if you try, it’s a fake. You may succeed for a few days, thinking you’ve accomplished it all, but how long can that last? That’s not “growth,” it’s immaturity. True growth is gradual. You have to know what the next step is, understand yourself, and be honest.
Decide what to accept upon yourself that will make a difference — e.g. keeping a kosher home, or dedicating yourself to become more caring and sensitive. These seeds all have tremendous potential… if you prepare the ground first.
Look deep inside, get good advice, and above all, be realistic about what is possible to achieve.
REALISTIC AND APPROPRIATE
What about the actual teshuva process? The first step is recognizing your mistakes — understanding what you’ve done wrong and how you could have done better.
To do this, you have to know your specific capabilities. Otherwise you’ll make the mistake of trying to change things that are beyond you. This is insidious, because when you “confess” you don’t really mean it — since deep down you always knew it was unrealistic.
True teshuva and confession means articulating the fact that at your level you could have done better. It’s important to do this in a way that you’ll hear it and believe it.
Understand what your issues are today; if they’re beyond you, they’re not “your” issues. Deal with what’s realistic and appropriate. If you don’t, you’ll plant your seeds year after year — and be left with nothing but weeds. Of course, don’t pervert this idea as an excuse to continue making mistakes. Rather, realize that drastic change often backfires.
Don’t move into a dream world. The Torah doesn’t want us to be “unnaturally pious.” Assess what aspect of your character is “off” and start to change it — gradually.
CHEERING YOU ON
“Preparing the ground” means discovering what motivates you and recognizing what you have to do now. Ultimately, the final major change may be years away. But don’t be discouraged. The Sages say that once you’ve put yourself in a position that will get you somewhere, as far as God is concerned — you’ve actually arrived. Once you’ve sincerely resolved to do something, there’s an elevation of your soul. In the metaphysical world it is considered as if it was already done. Your “soul” has arrived; it’s just that your “body” still has to go through a lot of steps.
One more thing. To be inspired to teshuva, we have to realize that God loves us — even in light of all the mistakes we’ve made. Realize that God understands you, that He’s “cheering you on” and wants to help. Don’t feel guilty; any mistakes you’ve made are part of a growth process to get where you are today.
God doesn’t want you to suffer. On the contrary, if growth is what God created us for, then even the hardships involved must be the best thing for us. God is not the “big bully in the sky;” He’s on your side. If you don’t realize this, you’ll never do teshuva.
Think big and have long term goals — but be realistic. Take things one step at a time — but to keep up the momentum. True teshuva demands maturity, realism and honesty.
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