Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 29 August 2015 / 14 Elul 5775

Lasting Teshuva - Part 1

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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During the month of Elul there is extra help from Above to connect to G-d. As a result, many feel a unique burst of inspiration during this time to change for the better. Many people make various resolutions for the following year to bring their desire for change into the realm of action. However, despite one's real desire for change, the resolutions last for only a short time more often than not. It could be a week, a month, or even two month before the person returns to his old ways. Why is this so?

Usually the decision to make resolutions stems from the spiritual uplift one feels on these days. When one experiences this spiritual high he feels as though he is a different person who could never perform the immoral actions he performed prior. He feels as though he was sick and is now cured. However, these feelings are not necessarily true. Once Yom Kippur concludes and the spiritual high wanes, one generally returns to experiencing those very same desires again.

This is perhaps one reason why we read the portion of the Torah that deals with forbidden relationships on Yom Kippur afternoon. At first glance we would think that Yom Kippur, a day entirely filled with prayer and fasting, is the one day that doesn’t need the warning against such base desires. However, based on the above we can suggest that precisely on Yom Kippur when we are so spiritual that we are disgusted at the mere thought of giving in to such desires, is the best time to remind ourselves that once the spiritual high of this day wears off we are faced with those very desires once again. It is therefore the perfect time for a warning to prepare now for the struggle that awaits us later.

The truth is that change can take a long time. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter used to say that to change one character trait is harder than learning the entire Shas. Therefore, a person can’t realistically expect himself to suddenly transform into a new person with new desires by only experiencing the time period between Elul and Yom Kippur. However, by systematically approaching the mitzvah of teshuvah we may perhaps put an end to the ever-so-familiar let-down that follows Yom Kippur. The following is a list of tips that can, with the help of G-d, make our resolutions last.

The Siftei Chaim suggests that one reason why many resolutions don’t last is because no concrete physical action was taken to change one’s ways at that moment of creating the resolution. As a result, when the spiritual high wears off, it is easy to return to doing those very things one so sincerely regretted doing on Yom Kippur. The way to make our resolutions last is to do something that will get us out of our habit. This is analogous to a person who has lived in the same house for many years and then moved to a new place. Often he might end up driving to his previous home out of mere habit. In the beginning he needs a constant reminder to prevent him from going back to his previous home. The same is true regarding a person who is making changes in his lifestyle; he needs a constant reminder to prevent him from going back to his old ways. How can one do this?

When making a resolution it is not enough to say, “I will not do this anymore.” This is too vague and will not directly lead to practical change. Rather, one needs to be very detailed and precise when making an appropriate resolution. For example, if one wants to add time to his learning schedule, he needs to specify exactly how much time, during which time of day, on which days of the week he plans on increasing his learning period, etc.

The second step is having a practical, concrete plan on how he is going to make this change. For example, if a person has trouble waking up on time for the morning prayers he could arrange to learn with someone for a few minutes before prayers start. His commitment to the learning partner may be an extra push to wake him up and serve as prevention from returning to his old ways. This way, even when the spiritual high of Yom Kippur wears off, he has a system in place that will help him stick to his new resolution.

The third step is to keep a spiritual accounting of one’s actions. Just like any businessman keeps accounts of his losses and gains, and searches for ways to make his business more effective, so too every person must set aside time to take an accounting of his spiritual growth. The most effective way of doing this is to have a specific notebook in which he writes his goals, successes, and fallbacks. He should then analyze why he succeeded and why he failed. This way he can attain an even higher level of teshuvah through fixing the underlying causes of his sins.

Keeping this account book has another advantage as well. There are many sources that say an effective method for someone who is constantly struggling in a specific area is for him to go to the opposite extreme. He should stay away from any situation that may lead him near temptation. Just like an alcoholic is advised to distance himself from places that serve any alcohol, a person must distance himself from his previous inappropriate ways as much as possible. As a result of keeping a written account of his failures and successes, one can pinpoint situations in which he is more likely to sin. One may thus minimize his failures by not putting himself in situations that usually cause him to fall. In doing so, one also abides by the Gemara's edict of not testing oneself. It is worth mentioning that the book Cheshbon Hanefesh by Rabbi Mendel M’satanov masterfully guides a person through perfecting the art of keeping a spiritual accounting of one’s actions.

to be continued…

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