She looks like a typical soccer mom, but to me she is the hero next door. After parenting class one afternoon, this young woman asked if I had a few moments for her.
“My daughter was born with a chronic condition. No one really knows about it. The doctors discovered this a few weeks after she was born. I’ve taken her to specialists all over the country these past few years. I did not grow up with any real connection to Judaism. I don’t know how to begin to pray. I want so much to do something for my little girl, something spiritual, beyond the medical. And feel as if I’m sometimes running on empty. So tell me, what can I do?”
This conversation took place a year ago. It was the Hebrew month of Elul, the days when God is knocking on our door. Rosh Hashanah, the time of judgment, is near and we have a natural desire to grow closer to all that is holy.
“This is what I’d like you to do,” I told her. “Just as we open bank accounts and make deposits to try to build our financial security, I would like you to open a spiritual bank account. Every mitzvah you do becomes a deposit on your daughter’s behalf. You are creating merits that will carry her name. Every good deed you do, every step you take closer to God, large or small, adds up. You can create dividends of blessing and make a difference.”
Her dark eyes lit up.
“And this is the best time of year to see the greatest return on your investment.” I added. “God is closer to us, all we need to do is take the first step.”
“I would love to do this,” she replied, “but I am scared. I don’t know too much about mitzvahs and my husband is definitely not on board. I feel so alone and I am just one person. What happens if I make a mistake and fail?”
Many of us have faced these feelings as we grapple with our desire to grow. We lack the knowledge and we fear failure. Sometimes we have the best of intentions but there are spouses, friends or family members who discourage or mock us.
I shared with this young mother three keys to making successful spiritual change in life.
True desire to accomplish makes all the difference. We don’t allow ourselves lame excuses; we don’t permit the negativity of others to stand in our way. We just want ‘it’ so badly, whatever ‘it’ may be.
When my children were growing up I would be amazed to see how easily they would jump out of bed the day we would be going on a family trip. It could be the crack of dawn, pitch black and freezing outside, but there they would be at the front door all ready to go. And yet on other days, it could be so difficult for these same children to make the school bus on time. The difference is genuine desire. Your inner drive makes it happen.
The first step toward making serious change is wanting with all your being for this transformation to occur. Channel the longing into action. If you really want this change to happen, your desire will propel you higher and higher as you climb your spiritual mountain.
How do you find the desire? Here are two paths.
Imagine the times you wished to get into good physical shape. You know that you need to stop eating all that sugar and junk food; you know that you need to work out each week; you know in your heart that if you would only make some changes you would feel so much better. But you don’t. You may talk about a diet, you sign up at the gym or buy a treadmill, but you never really make it happen. What would get you going?
One possibility is that one day you take a look at yourself and realize that you are on a destructive path. You catch a glimpse of yourself; you are disgusted and can’t stand it anymore. “I need to change!” you say to yourself.
The other possibility is that an awful wakeup call forces you to make a change. It can be your doctor telling you that you are on the road to diabetes; it can be sudden chest pains, or the fact that you have been wearing the same two pants because nothing else really fits.
It is the same with our spiritual quests. You can take a few moments of quiet time and honestly look at yourself in a magnified spiritual mirror. What do you see? You realize that too much time has been spent hurting others and you’ve had enough. You are tired of the gossip mongering, the silly rumors, and the malicious words. The desire to be better is burning inside.
Or something happens that makes you feel terrible. You have hit rock bottom and wish you could just go back in time. Your gossip has destroyed a friendship, your words have diminished the ones you love, and you realize that you have become a source of extreme pain in this world. Your heart tells you: Enough!
2. Make a Realistic Plan
After harnessing our desire, we need to set a goal. Ask yourself: what is my target and how will I get there?
We can easily become overwhelmed by the choice of so many mitzvahs, and so many roads to take. Sometimes we choose a goal but set our sights too high.
“I will NEVER speak another word of lashon harah, gossip, again!”
“That’s it, no more screaming and losing my temper. I will ALWAYS use gentle, calm tones.”
‘Never’ and ‘always’ are words that do not allow us to forge a doable path and accomplish our goal. It is important to begin with small steps because it is the small steps that mold and encourage us.
Instead of saying ‘I will never gossip again,’ create a plan. For example, identify the time of the day that you find yourself most immersed in gossip. Perhaps it is 9 to 10 each morning as you enter your office or catch up with friends. So this Elul, the plan is that from 9 to 10 you will limit your conversations, maneuver the talk away from malicious gossip, or put a sticky note out for yourself to keep you on track-any idea that works to better help you achieve your aim.
Even one less conversation a day of rumors and hurtful talk will strengthen us and make a difference. But it must all begin with a doable plan.
3. Don’t Get Discouraged
We are only human. Angels never fall; people do. There will be times that, despite our greatest desire and real life plan, we will stumble. And that’s okay. It’s the only way to really grow.
King Solomon taught us that a righteous person will fall seven times but he gets up. Standing on our feet again is the process through which we become greater. It is not a sign of failure. If there are times that we realize that we have not been loyal to our goals, we must not give up. Instead, we gather our strength and try again.
Discouragement and thinking negatively about ourselves hinders us from our spiritual climb.
This sensitive mother who approached me decided to take upon herself the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles and creating a Friday night Shabbat table for her family. She also decided not to drive or talk on the phone Friday evenings.
You cannot imagine how difficult this climb has been for her. There have been times that she walked a few miles to family gatherings. Her husband has mocked her efforts with hurtful words and sarcastic remarks.
But the hero next door has not given up. She has created a beautiful Shabbat table filled with love for her family. Each week her children eagerly anticipate the lights of Shabbat. A new generation now has been linked back to Sinai.
This courageous mother has forged ahead despite all the obstacles. She has created a rich spiritual account in her daughter’s name. I pray that she be blessed with peace and healing.