Are you ready for Rosh Hashanah?
Sure am. I have apples and honey, and I bought seats for the High Holiday services.
What about change?
There was no change. I paid by check.
I mean changing yourself. Before Rosh Hashanah, you’re supposed to review your actions and make a plan to change your negative behaviors.
What negative behaviors?
Talking to your parents disrespectfully.
C’mon, they’re used to it.
Hurting your wife’s feelings.
Yelling at your kids.
Only when they’re rambunctious.
Cheating in business.
Well, everybody does it.
Holding a grudge against your former business partner.
After what he did to me, he deserves it!
According to the Torah, all those behaviors are a no-no. They damage your relationship with other people, with God, and with me, your own higher self.
So what am I supposed to do about it?
Teshuvah. That means admitting what you did wrong, feeling genuine regret, asking forgiveness when you hurt another person, and making a concrete plan to change.
Look, I can admit and regret and even ask forgiveness – from some people – but I can’t change. I’ve tried changing. It doesn’t work. Like Mark Twain said, “Give up smoking? It’s easy! I’ve done it hundreds of times!”
That’s because Mark Twain, for all his admiration for the Jewish people, didn’t have the benefit of the ancient Jewish system of personal growth and self-development. Do you want to know how it works?
And if I say, “no”?
Then you’re missing out on the possibility of a new, better you that the High Holiday season offers. If I offered you a sale on a new, better iPhone, wouldn’t you jump at it?
Okay. Let’s hear it.
First you decide what you want to change.
That’s easy. I want to be a better person.
Too general. You can only really work on one thing at a time. Pick one failing that you want to work on between now and Yom Kippur.
Too vague. You have to focus on one concrete behavior.
Okay. I want to stop yelling – at my kids, my employees, and those idiots at customer support on the phone who, after I have to listen to 15 minutes of muzak, can’t understand how their company messed me up.
Too broad. If you really want to change, you have to begin with one small area.
Okay. I want to stop yelling at my kids.
Good choice. Now you take an envelope, and write on it, “Stop Yelling at My Kids Campaign.” Next step is to pick a reward for the body.
The body? What does the body have to do with it?
Everything. To put it in simple terms, human beings are a soul-body combo. The soul is perfect and always wants to do what’s right. It’s the body you have to get on board. Your body is the part of you that came from ground and wants to go back to the ground. It seeks comfort; it wants to escape all pain; it’s allergic to challenge. That’s the part that yells at the kids instead of making the much harder choice to keep your anger in check. So to get your body to change, you have to speak its language and offer it a reward.
That’s ridiculous. It sounds like what we do with our 8-year-old. We put a star chart up on the frig, and we tell her that for every day she doesn’t fight with her little brother, she gets a star. When she gets ten stars, she gets a prize.
According to Judaism, the body is a perpetual 8-year-old. No matter what your age or level of maturity, you have to treat the body like an 8-year-old.
I find that patronizing.
That’s why you’ve never succeeded in changing yourself. You think of yourself as one monolithic person, but you are made up of many component parts. Judaism has five names for different levels of the soul. For purposes of teshuvah, we’re dealing with your lowest soul, the animal soul. Just like you train a dog by giving it treats, so you have to train the body by giving it rewards.
Just call me Rover.
So you have to decide on a reward your body wants, but that you wouldn’t normally indulge yourself with.
But everything I can afford, I buy myself anyway. And what I can’t afford, I can’t afford.
If the transmission in your car broke down, and you couldn’t afford the $1000 to fix it, what would you do?
I’d scrounge up the money somewhere. I can’t live without a car. I’d have to fix it.
When you realize that you can’t live without fixing yourself, you’ll scrounge up the money to make this system work. So, what’s a reward your body would love?
A vacation in Hawaii.
Great. How much does it cost?
I saw an ad for a package deal for a thousand bucks.
So you take that sum and divide it by 40. That means that every time your kids are rambunctious and you stop yourself from yelling at them, you put $25 in the envelope. When you’ve stopped yourself forty times, you get the Hawaiian vacation – and you’ve broken your bad habit.
It seems too simple.
It’s simple, but not easy. One important tip: You have to put the $25 in the envelope immediately when you’ve stopped yourself from yelling. The body knows only the present. It has to see the money being put in the envelope right away. In fact, while you’re straining to keep your mouth shut, just take out the envelope and reward yourself. It puts out the fire.
What if I stop myself a couple times, but the next time they act up I lose it and yell at them?
Feel good about the two victories, and don’t beat yourself up for the failure. King Solomon said, “A righteous person falls seven times and rises.” Failure is inevitable. Don’t wallow in guilt. Just pick yourself up, and resolve to do better next time. That’s why God gave us the possibility of teshuvah. Guilt is not Jewish; teshuvah is.
Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. I’m really starting late. I won’t be able to change by Rosh Hashanah, or even by Yom Kippur.
Don’t panic. The steps of teshuvah are: 1) admit, 2) regret, 3) make a plan to change, 4) ask forgiveness if you’ve hurt someone, and 5)make restitution, such as returning stolen property, when applicable. So just having a plan to change – and the sincere intention of following through with it – constitutes teshuvah. You’re covered.
I’m still dubious that I can change. I mean, isn’t everything determined by heredity and environment? I inherited my volatile temper from my father. Can I really change it?
Everything is determined by heredity and environment, except human free choice in the moral realm. The heredity/environment noose leaves out one major player: God. If you sincerely want to do teshuvah, and you do the essential steps, and you pray for success, God will come and cut the noose. The Midrash says that if you make an opening the size of the eye of a needle, God will expand that opening so large that wagons can pass through. You’ve got to start the process, but God will finish it.
You know what? I’m really going to try it. Thanks. And shana tova!
Sara Yoheved Rigler’s new book, God Winked: Tales and Lessons from My Spiritual Adventures, is now available in e-format. Just click here.