A friend of mine was cleaning out her garage this summer. Her progress was impeded by her perusal of the years of journals stored there. All that time. All that ink. All those identical entries. "I feel fat. Tomorrow I'm going to go on a diet."
How many of us have similar journals? How many of us end each day discouraged by our lack of progress, reasserting the same old commitments? How many of us arrive at Rosh Hashanah stunned to discover that we're making the same resolutions we made the year before – and the year before that – and the year before that? Do we have any motivation left? Do we have any credibility left? I certainly don't believe myself anymore. Perhaps the Almighty is more generous.
How do we break this pattern? How do we treat this New Year as truly new, as a real opportunity for growth and change? What goals do we have a realistic chance of achieving?
Change doesn't happen overnight.
Deep down, we all want to be great. We all aim to scale lofty heights. "I'll never lose my temper again." "I'll be endlessly patient with my children." "I'll be the perfect wife." "I won't worry about money, my weight, earthquakes...fill in the blank...ever again." And we fall down flat. Because change doesn't happen overnight. And when change does happen, it's not usually immediately evident.
Change happens slowly, incrementally over long periods of time. The accomplishment is in the persistence, in the ability to continue to look ahead, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
It's common wisdom that fad diets are ultimately unsuccessful. Even though we may initially lose a lot of weight, if there are no tools for real change of habit, and if we don't plan to live on a steady fare of grapefruits, we will soon revert to old patterns.
This is true of all attempts at change. We need logical, thoughtful planning with rational, accessible steps. There are no quick fixes.
Every year I plan to work on letting go. It's one of my challenges to recognize that the Almighty's running the world (and doing a better job than I would!) And every year I wake up the day after Yom Kippur and I haven't let go. I'm still maintaining my illusion.
I am no longer choosing that goal. Not because I'm giving up, and not because the goal is inappropriate inaccessible. Because it's the wrong model.
Are you like me? Do you have a stack of books piled beside your bed that you really are going to read? If you get one read, do you add two more to the stack? Does the pile ever diminish? Does the goal become to get through the stack rather than the pleasure or learning that comes from the reading? Is there so much knowledge that you want? Are you planning on acquiring it all tonight?
What if instead I picked one book and read a page a day? I wouldn't become a great Torah scholar (on the other hand the old technique wasn't getting me there either). I may not be the star of the book club (although I may actually remember some of the details of the book!) But I would really learn and accomplishing something, and grow from having persisted. From having actually slowed myself down. From having changed old destructive patterns.
And if that took six months, then I could start another one after that. Even if it took a year, or two, or seven -- as long as I stayed in the fight.
This principle could be applied to all areas of life. Perhaps you want to curb your gossiping. Pick 15 minutes per day that you won't gossip. After six months, add 5 more minutes. And so on. Don't focus on the gossip you engage in the rest of the day (this system is not carte blanche to fill the rest of your hours with juicy slander!). Focus on those special 15 minutes. You'll be a different person.
We all read stories of exciting and heroic acts done in a brief moment – saving a child from a burning fire, lifting a car to pull out a trapped loved one, wrestling a bank robber to the ground. These are wonderful stories. But it's not how you build a life of greatness.
I want to be great overnight. But this year I'm accepting that's not going to happen. It's not even the goal.
True growth and change, true closeness to the Almighty comes about in those small, consistent steps. I want to be great overnight. But this year I'm taking a deep breath; I'm accepting that's not going to happen. And even more importantly, I'm accepting that's not the goal.
And hopefully through this slower pace, I will achieve real change and restore my credibility.
There is a wonderful story told about some Chassidim who hid to watch their rebbe pray in the morning. He would approach the ark to grab and Torah and then jump back as if stung. "How can you approach the holy Torah?" he would berate himself. "You're so wrapped up in your ego and material concerns." "That's true", he would argue. "But I'm working on myself to change." And he would step forward. "But you said that yesterday," he would reprimand himself, falling back again. This dialogue was repeated over and over until finally the rebbe mustered up a new degree of determination and resolution. "This time I really mean it," he said and he grabbed the Torah.
Let's mean it this year. Let's take those small steps to grow and change, to unite our people and come closer to our Creator. And in the merit of our baby steps, may the Almighty cause great change for Jews throughout the world and particularly in the land of Israel. Shana Tova.