If you really want to learn a foreign language, the secret is not CDs in the car or other fancy programs. The best way is total immersion. When I was in high school and college, it was very popular to spend a summer in Aix-en-Provence in France. Students were thrown into a French town and French classes. No English was spoken. Learning French became a necessity, not an option. And basic fluency was rapidly achieved.
The notion of Ulpan in Israel is based on the same premise – complete immersion in the Hebrew language, although frequently there are so many English speakers in the program that the effect is diminished. And when my son joined the Israeli army, he did an unofficial Ulpan, undergoing an immersion unlike any other where understanding and speaking Hebrew were quite literally a matter of life and death. And so he became fluent – at least in the relevant commands.
Every time I experience the High Holidays, I reflect that they are like an immersion course. Staring with spiritual preparations in Elul that intensify the closer we get to Rosh Hashana, along with the physical preparation (menu planning, shopping, cooking) that follows the same trajectory, we have about seven weeks of immersion, three very intense ones. Nothing else exists. You clean up from one meal just in time to prepare for the next. You come home from one service for a brief rest before the next one begins. The outside world fades. It takes on the soft glow of old photographs. It’s not quite real.
All that counts is Yom Tov. And it’s wonderful, a little exhausting perhaps (especially this year’s three-day stints) but wonderful nonetheless. We exist on a different plane throughout this unique time.
And when it ends, even though we may have “had enough,” we are let down, saddened, depressed. If we need a sniff of spices at the end of one Shabbos, we need a whole perfume store after the High Holidays. The transition is too shocking. Especially if you’ve made the most of your holiday experience.
It was easy to be holy at synagogue. But what about at work?
So how do we cope? I think the key is to find a way to infuse the rest of our days (weeks, months) with this holiday spirit and knowledge. We need to take the lessons we learned, the ways we’ve grown, and bring them into our daily lives.
It was easy to be holy at synagogue. It was easy to be focused on deepening your relationship with God on Yom Kippur. But what about the rest of the time? What about at work? What about amidst laundry and exhaustion and homework and dinnertime? How do we hold on to lessons learned? Progress made? Relationships deepened?
The danger with a language immersion course is that once you return to your native country and your regular routine, there is no opportunity to practice. Your newly acquired language skills soon grow very rusty. You have to work harder to hold on. You have to create opportunities and situations. The same holds true for our spiritual lives. If we were lucky enough to experience growth during the holidays this year, we want to ensure we don’t lose it.
We can learn from this language course. Just like new French speakers need to put themselves in situations where they will be compelled to speak French, so we too need to put ourselves in situations that continue to foster growth. We need to surround ourselves with people who want a life of meaning. And we to find or create the right environment in which to practice our new skills.
If we’re working on prayer, maybe we need to go to shul. If we’re working on kindness, maybe we need to get involved in a charitable organization that’s devoted to the needs of others. If we’re working on learning, we need a study partner, we need to enroll in classes and we need a fixed time and place for our individual study. It would be a shame to let all those hours of shopping, cooking, eating, cleaning, praying and learning go to waste.