Growing Each Day: Elul

If you return, O Israel ... you shall return unto Me (Jeremiah 4:1).

Today is the first day of Elul, a period of time which is particularly propitious for teshuvah, for it precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.

The Sages say that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul, form an acrostic for the verse in Song of Songs: I am devoted to my Lover and He is devoted to me (6:3). Song of Songs utilizes the relationship between a bridegroom and his betrothed to depict the relationship between God and Israel. Any separation between the two causes an intense longing for one another, an actual "lovesickness" (ibid. 2:5).

The love between God and Israel is unconditional. Even when Israel behaves in a manner that results in estrangement, that love is not diminished. Israel does not have to restore God's love, because it is eternal, and His longing for Israel to return to Him is so intense that at the first sign that Israel is ready to abandon its errant ways that led to the estrangement, God will promptly embrace it.

Song of Songs depicts the suffering of Israel sustained at the hands of its enemies, and we can conclude that the Divine distress at this suffering of His beloved Israel is great. Teshuvah is a long process, but all that is needed for the restoration of the ultimate relationship is a beginning: a sincere regret for having deviated from His will, and a resolve to return.

Today I shall...

seek to restore my personal relationship with God by dedicating myself to teshuvah.

You will be above suspicion both before God and before Israel (Numbers 32:22).

Although we should not try to impress other people, we should take their opinions into consideration, for we should not do anything that can arouse unwarranted accusations of wrongdoing.

Accusing an innocent person of wrongdoing is wrong itself, and it is wrong for us to cause other people to do wrong, even if we cause it very indirectly. Secondly, if observers who do not know all the circumstances surrounding our behavior see a respectable person doing something which they had believed to be wrong, they may use this incident as an example for themselves that it is indeed right.

The Talmud states that the proper way to live is that which is honorable in one's own mind and will also appear honorable to others (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1). Attitudes are contagious, and how we behave does influence others.

This principle applies especially in the case of children. We all know the saying, "Most kids hear what you say, some kids do what you say, but all kids do what you do."

Although we cannot use what other people think as the sole criterion for our behavior, we must nevertheless consider that while God may know what is in our heart, other people do not, and we should therefore not cause others to come to erroneous conclusions.

Today I shall...

act in keeping with the Divine will, but in a manner that will be manifestly honorable.

A simpleton will believe everything (Proverbs 14:15).

Faith and belief are both defined as accepting as true something which transcends logic and which may not be subject to proof by rational argument. Yet, belief in God is not the "blind faith" of a simpleton.

A simpleton does not think, either because he lacks the capacity or does not wish to make the effort. Therefore, he is gullible and can be easily swayed in any direction. Being credulous is not the same as having faith.

When we reflect on the concept of a Supreme Being, Who is in every way infinite, we are likely to feel bewilderment, because our finite minds cannot grasp the infinite. Since all of our experiences involve finite objects, we lack a point of reference for dealing with the infinite.

When this reflection brings us to realize that the question of the existence of an infinite Supreme Being cannot be logically resolved, we then turn to the unbroken mesorah, the teachings which have been transmitted from generation to generation, from the time when more than two million people witnessed the Revelation at Sinai. When we accept our faith on this basis, we do so as the culmination of a process of profound thought which is no way similar to the credulousness of a simpleton.

This process also helps us with other questions that we have about God. For instance, the fact that we cannot possibly logically understand God does not preclude our coming to a knowledge of His Presence.

Today I shall...

strengthen my faith by reflecting on the unbroken chain of tradition since Sinai.

It is customary... to say prayers for forgiveness and mercy from the beginning of Elul and onward (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 581:1).

In secular society, the new year is frequently ushered in with levity and drinking, whereas in Judaism, the beginning of a new year is a solemn occasion preceded by a month of soul-searching and teshuvah.

The first day of the new year is an undeniable indication that another year of life has receded into the past. If one looks back on the bygone year and sees nothing of real achievement, one is likely to become quite dejected. People who must face the realization that a year of their lives has essentially been wasted cannot celebrate the arrival of a new year unless they drink to the point they become oblivious to this reality. Only then can they exclaim, "Happy New Year!"

In Judaism we prepare for the advent of a new year with reflection and teshuvah. Whereas making a personal inventory should be done all year long, it takes on special significance during the month before Rosh Hashanah. A comprehensive reflection on the events of the past year enables us to see what we have done right, so that we may enhance our efforts in those directions, and to see where we have gone wrong, so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Such an analysis enables us to use the lessons of the bygone year to better ourselves in the coming one.

This is why we do not drink or behave raucously on Rosh Hashanah. If the past year has value as a lesson for the future, there is no need to drown it from our consciousness.

Today I shall...

intensify my personal inventory of the past year, so that I may greet the new year with joy and serenity.

If one wishes to add on more restrictions than the law requires, one may do so for oneself, but not [make such demands] of others (Shulchan Aruch).

Some people employ a double standard. One set of rules applies to themselves, and another to everyone else. The Shulchan Aruch, the standard authoritative compilation of Jewish law, accepts this policy - but on one condition: the more restrictive set of rules must apply to oneself, and the more lenient apply to other people.

Guidelines exist for many things, such as the percentage of income that one should give for tzedakah. Many tzaddikim, righteous people, retained only the barest minimum of their income for themselves, just enough to provide for their families, and gave everything else to the poor. However, they would never expect anyone else to follow their example, and some even forbade it.

Our minds are ingenious in concocting self-serving rationalizations. Sometimes we may have excellent reasons not to give more liberally to tzedakah, even if it is within the required amount. We may project into the future, worry about our economic security, and conclude that we should put more money away for a rainy day. Yet we often criticize people who we feel do not give enough to tzedakah.

We should be aware of such rationalizations and remember that the more demanding rules should apply to ourselves. If we are going to rationalize, let us rationalize in a way that gives the benefit of doubt to others.

Today I shall...

remember to be more demanding of myself than I am of others.

Lest there be among you [someone with] a root that will produce bitter herbs (Deuteronomy 29:17).

A person who is diagnosed with, God forbid, a cancer, will submit to that treatment which has the highest degree of certainty of cure. If surgery promises a 50% chance, but the likelihood of cure increases to 70% with the addition of radiation and up to 85% with chemotherapy, a reasonable person will submit to all three treatments, in order to maximize his or her chances of survival. People also know that just removing most of the malignant cells is inadequate, because a single surviving cancerous cell can reproduce itself and be lethal. Furthermore, a malignant growth does not remain localized, but can spread beyond its place of origin to other vital organs.

This approach is also how we must deal with those character traits that endanger our spiritual life. Greed, envy, hatred, selfishness, vanity, and arrogance are all negative traits which must be totally eliminated. Allowing even the smallest remnant of any of these traits to remain is like harboring a single cancerous cell. If we value our spiritual life as much as we do our physical life, we will do everything possible to attain total elimination of negative traits.

Moses speaks of the "root" that will multiply and bear bitter fruit. Any negative trait will not only reproduce itself but, like a malignant cancer cell, may spread and affect other components of one's character.

If we value spiritual life, we will do whatever is necessary to preserve it.

Today I shall...

think about how important spirituality is to me, and what I am ready to do to preserve it.

Throw your burden upon God (Psalms 55:23).

Imagine driving a car along the road and suddenly realizing that the brakes have been detached from the brake pedal and the wheels from the steering wheel. In panic, you stamp on the pedal and turn the steering wheel frantically, all to no avail. With the car out of control, your best chance may be to open the door and jump out. However, if you haven't realized that in fact you have lost control, you still try to maintain it, and your life is in danger.

While such dramatic happenings fortunately do not occur every day, we should realize we actually do not have control over many things in life. Trying to exert control where no control is possible is worse than futile, for just as in the above example, it precludes taking whatever other action may be possible.

Many people perform an action that they consider to be proper and accompany it with a prayer for success; others consider prayer only as a last resort. God listens to everyone's prayer, regardless of the circumstances in which it is said. However, even those who use prayer as a last resort should realize when it is indeed a last resort, i.e. when they can do no more, because the conditions are beyond their control. This realization may help them avoid futile behavior.

We may not like to face reality, but denying it is hazardous.

Today I shall...

realize that many things I think I can control may actually be beyond my control, and I must turn them over to God.

[I thank You] for Your miracles that are with us each day (Siddur).

I once heard it said, "Coincidences are miracles in which God prefers to remain anonymous."

If we were to carefully scrutinize everything that occurs in our daily lives, we would find many such "coincidences." Sometimes we may not be aware of the significance of a particular occurrence until much later, when we may have forgotten how or why we think it occurred, and so we just write it off to chance. Other times, we notice that things seem to "just happen at the right time." And in some instances, the likelihood of the desired occurrence being chance is statistically so remote that it may penetrate the skepticism of even the most confirmed non-believer.

Why don't people see the Divine hand in so many things? Could it be that being aware would require them to be thankful to God, because it is unconscionable to be an ingrate (and if one has difficulty with feelings of gratitude, it is simply easier to deny the awareness of the Divine favor)? Could it be that the awareness that God is looking after them would obligate them to live according to the Divine will, and since that might entail some inconveniences and restrictions on their behavior, it is more comfortable to believe that "God does not care"?

Psychologists have great respect for the human capacity to rationalize, to convince oneself of the absolute truth of whatever it is that one wishes to believe or not believe. How much wiser we would be to divest ourselves of such self-deceptions.

Today I shall...

scrutinize my daily happenings with an alertness to how many favorable "coincidences" have occurred in my life.

I shall make you into a great nation ... and you will be a blessing (Genesis 12:2).

This verse is part of the first recorded Divine communication to the Patriarch Abraham, in which God promised him various rewards if he left his homeland and went to Canaan. One of the rewards was "you will be a blessing," meaning that he would be given the power to bestow blessings on others (Rashi).

The same Hebrew phrase can also be read: "you shall be a blessing," in the imperative. In other words, God commanded Abraham to lead the kind of life that would make his very presence a blessing to everyone in his environment.

In Generation to Generation (CIS 1986), I related that my mother told me how excited and elated everyone was when I took my first steps. An itinerant rabbi who collected funds for a yeshivah was also there. He sadly commented, "When I first walked, my parents were delighted too, but now no one is delighted when they see me walk in." My mother related this comment to me many times, and one of my goals in life has been to fulfill my mother's prayer that people should not be displeased when I walk in.

Abraham received many Divine blessings, but along with them came an assignment: he was to make himself into a blessing. If we read on, we can then understand the continuation of the above chapter, Abraham went as God had commanded him (ibid. 12:4); i.e. he conducted his life in such a manner that he was indeed a blessing. The commandment to Abraham was intended for all of his descendants. By living a spiritual life, we can both endear ourselves to everyone and be a blessing to our environment.

Today I shall...

try to behave in such a manner that I will be an asset to my community.

The memory of a righteous person is a blessing (Proverbs 10:7).

At a family therapy session, one family member said something totally uncalled for, provocative, and insulting to another person. The remark was extremely irritating to me, even as an observer, and I anticipated an explosive outburst of outrage from the recipient. To my great surprise, the latter remained quiet and merely gestured to indicate that he was dismissing the comment as being unworthy of a response.

After the session, I complimented the man on his self-restraint. He explained, "A friend of mine once had a very angry outburst. During his rage he suffered a stroke from which he never regained consciousness.

"I am not afraid that if I become angry I would also suffer a stroke. However, what I and everyone else remember of my friend are the last words of his life, which were full of bitterness and hostility. That is not the way I wish to be remembered. Since no person can know exactly when one's time is up, I made up my mind never to act in such a manner, so that if what I was doing was to be my last action on earth, I would not be remembered that way."

The Talmud tells us that when Rabbi Eliezer told his disciples that a person should do teshuvah one day before his death, they asked, "How is a person to know when one will die?" Rabbi Eliezer answered, "Precisely! Therefore one should do teshuvah every day, since tomorrow may be one's last day."

The verse cited above may be explained in the same way. People should behave in a way that they would wish others to remember them, for that can indeed be a blessing.

Today I shall...

behave as though this day is the one by which I shall be remembered.

Each day we hope for Your salvation (Shemoneh Esrei).

The Talmud states that one of the questions that will be posed to each person on his or her day of judgment is, "Did you look forward to salvation?" While the question refers to anticipating the ultimate Redemption, it can also refer to the salvation of the individual.

Positive attitudes beget positive results, and negative attitudes beget negative results. Books have been written about people who have recovered from hopeless illnesses because, contrary to medical opinion, they did not give up hope. On the contrary, they maintained a positive attitude. While this phenomenon may be controversial (for many people are skeptical that cheerful outlooks can cure), people certainly can and have killed themselves by depression. With a negative attitude, a person suffering from an illness may even abandon those practices that can give strength and prolong life, such as the treatment itself.

I have seen a poster that displays birds in flight. Its caption comments, "They fly because they think they can." We could do much if we did not despair of our capacity to do it.

Looking forward to Divine salvation is one such positive attitude. The Talmud states that even when the blade of an enemy's sword is at our throat, we have no right to abandon hope of help.

No one can ever take hope from us, but we can surrender it voluntarily. How foolish to do so.

Today I shall...

try to always maintain a positive attitude and to hope for Divine salvation.

The dignity of a human being is extremely important (Berachos 19b).

The Talmud refers many times to the importance of preserving human dignity.

In Generation to Generation (CIS 1986), I related how my father used to discipline me when I was a child. When I did something wrong, he would shake his head and say, "Es passt nisht (This does not become you)." In other words, I was not bad for having done something wrong; I was too good to do something that was beneath my dignity. This method is an excellent way to discipline children without making them feel they are bad.

People share certain biological behaviors with animals, but our mental life is unique to us. Clearly, human dignity does not reside in that part which is animal, but in that part which is distinctly human: the rational mind, the creative mind, the capacity to be spiritual.

Isn't it simply beneath our dignity to indulge in those behaviors which are primarily animal, rather than uniquely human? As I observe the enormous efforts made and expenditures invested in catering to taste buds, I wonder, "Where is our self-respect?" Granted, we must eat to stay alive, and eating tasty foods may indeed enhance digestion. Still, is it not beneath our dignity to indulge in gustatory delights to the extent that we appear to be more concerned about stimulating our tongues and stomachs than our brains? People who honestly value the truly human part of themselves - their rational and volitional minds - have other priorities.

Today I shall...

rethink my priorities and behave with the dignity that I owe to myself as a human being.

Acquire for yourself a friend (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6).

What is so important about "acquiring" a friend? Don't friendships occur spontaneously?

Many people think they have friends, and some people think they have many friends. However, let's reflect: "Is there anyone with whom I am so close and whom I would trust so completely that I would confide in him or her and tell everything and anything that is on my mind?" Many of us would find that such friends are few in number, and some of us may totally lack this type of relationship.

In his work on Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbeinu Yonah states that if a person tries to achieve perfection in all character traits at one time, he or she is likely to achieve nothing, but if the effort is concentrated upon improving one trait, success in that one area will facilitate improving many other traits. Similarly, trying to achieve a great number of friendships at once will likely create superficial friends. However, if a person will cultivate one friendship and so achieve the desired intimacy and trust, he or she may thereafter find it much easier to develop more profound and meaningful relationships with many people.

The teaching of the above Talmudical passage is now evident. Acquire "a" friend, i.e. try to develop a single relationship that grows beyond a superficial skin-deep level. Not only is that friendship important in its own right, but it will also enhance the quality of all the other relationships.

Today I shall...

try to cultivate a single friendship into one of complete trust and intimacy.

They will eat them [the offerings] and will be forgiven (Exodus 29:33).

How can eating serve as an atonement?

My father used to tell of a tzaddik who was staying at an inn. One morning when they served the breakfast cereal, he said, "This is unusually good. Is there any more?" After being served a second portion, he again asked for more, ate it, and continued to request more cereal until he was told that it was all gone.

The tzaddik's disciples were bewildered. Their teacher usually ate barely enough for survival. When they asked him why he had deviated from his usual practice, he explained:

"When I first tasted the cereal, I realized that the cook must have by mistake poured kerosene into the pot instead of oil. I know that she is a poor widow, and that this innkeeper happens to be a very irascible person. If this mistake had been discovered, she would surely have been dismissed. I therefore wished to avoid anyone else tasting the cereal and exposing the problem."

Eating only to satisfy one's appetite obviously cannot constitute forgiveness, but it is possible to eat with other motivations, which can make it an act of Divine service. We may not all be capable of an act such as that of the tzaddik, but if we can bring ourselves to the point where we truly eat for nutrition, in order that we have the strength to function optimally, so that we may do with our lives that which God wants of us, then our eating, too, can be a Divine service.

Today I shall...

try to make eating an act of Divine service, dedicating myself to do the will of God.

"You shall love your God" means that you should make the Divine Name beloved (Yoma 86a).

Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach once bought a donkey and found a gem in the carrying case which came with it. The rabbis congratulated him on the windfall with which he had been blessed. "No," said Rabbi Shimon, "I bought a donkey, but I didn't buy a diamond." He proceeded to return the diamond to the donkey's owner, an Arab, who remarked, "Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shatach."

A non-Jew once approached Rabbi Safra and offered him a sum of money to purchase an item. Since Rabbi Safra was in the midst of prayer at the time, he could not respond to the man, who interpreted the silence as a rejection of his offer and therefore told him that he would increase the price. When Rabbi Safra again did not respond, the man continued to raise his offer. When Rabbi Safra finished, he explained that he had been unable to interrupt his prayer, but had heard the initial amount offered and had silently consented to it in his heart. Therefore, the man could have the item for that first price. Here too, the astounded customer praised the God of Israel.

We have so many opportunities to demonstrate the beauty of the Torah's ethics. We accomplish three mitzvos by doing so: (1) practicing honesty, (2) kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the Divine Name), and (3) making the Divine Name beloved, according to the above Talmudic interpretation of the Scripture.

Today I shall...

try to act in a manner that will make the Divine Name beloved and respected.

The eye sees, and the heart desires (Rashi, Numbers 15:39).

People cannot help when an improper impulse comes to mind, but they certainly can stop themselves from harboring the thought and allowing it to dominate their thinking. Yet, sometimes one may be responsible even for the impulse itself.

While some impulses are completely spontaneous, others arise out of stimulation. If a person reads, hears, or sees things which can provoke improper thoughts and feelings, he or she is then responsible for the impulses that are the consequences of that reading, listening, or observing.

This concept is especially important in our era, when not even a semblance of a code of decency exists as to what may or may not be publicly displayed. All varieties of media exploit our basest biological drives.

Given the interpretation of the right of free speech under which such provocative displays occur, the government has no way to restrain them. However, each person has not only a right, but also an obligation to be his or her own censor. No one has to look at everything that is displayed nor hear everything that is broadcast. Those who fail to exert their own personal censorship are tacitly stimulating immoral impulses, and for that alone they are liable.

Today I shall...

try to avoid looking, hearing, and reading things which can have a degenerating effect.

A pot belonging to two partners is neither hot nor cold (Eruvin 3a).

If two people who partly own a pot of food disagree - one prefers it hot, and the other prefers it cold - the compromise of "lukewarm" displeases both.

One of the most frequent maladjustments in life comes as a result of trying to please everyone. Invariably, other people have conflicting opinions, so that if one satisfies A, one displeases B, and vice versa. Yet some people consistently try to accomplish this feat, and the result is nothing but frustration, since the compromise not only comes at great personal cost, but satisfies no one.

The desire to please everyone often stems from a lack of confidence in one's own convictions. If I know what I want and believe it to be right, I will pursue my path. While I know full well that some people may disagree with me, I must accept it as inevitable; if others are displeased because I do not defer to their wishes, that is their problem, not mine.

It is true that responsible people have the obligation to consider conflicting opinions and avail themselves of competent guidance, and that flexibility and compromise do have their place (it is appropriate to rethink one's position on controversial issues and not be obstinate in maintaining one's position, no matter what). Still, people cannot satisfy everyone while maintaining their own integrity.

Today I shall...

try to think through what it is that I really want and not try to satisfy everyone.

Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own (Ethics of the Fathers 2:15).

Pride, honor, and acclaim have an attraction all their own, but our Sages warn us that these may be destructive (ibid. 4:28). The frustration people may experience when they feel they did not receive due recognition may be extremely distressing.

People who crave honor may sometimes attempt to achieve it by deflating others, thinking that their own image is enhanced when others are disparaged. The truth, however, is just the reverse: when one deflates another, one's own image is diminished.

Rabbi Nechunya's students asked him, "By what merits did you achieve long life?" He answered, "I never accepted any honor that was at another person's expense." As an example the Talmud tells that when Rav Chana Bar Chanilai visited Rabbi Huna, he wanted to relieve the latter of carrying a shovel on his shoulder. Rabbi Huna objected, saying, "Since it is not your custom to be seen carrying a shovel, you should not do so now" (Megillah 28a). Rav Chana was willing to forgo his own honor for Rabbi Huna's sake, but Rabbi Huna would not hear of it.

Why does such an attitude merit long life? A person who is not preoccupied with his image, and is not obsessed with receiving honor and public recognition, is free of the emotional stress and frustration that plague those whose cravings for acclaim are bottomless pits. These stresses can be psychologically and physically devastating, and dispensing with them can indeed prolong life.

Aptly did Rabbi Elazar HaKappar say that honor drives a man out of this world (Ethics of the Fathers 4:28). One who pursues honors in this world mortally harms his chance for happiness.

Today I shall...

concentrate on being respectful to others, and avoid pursuing recognition from others.

When our love was intense, we could live on the edge of a sword. Now that our love has faded, even a spacious home is not enough for us (Sanhedrin 7a).

In my book, Like Yourselves and Others Will Too (Prentice-Hall 1978), I described a phenomenon called "New House Disease." When a couple, whose children have all married and moved out, acquire a beautiful new home or condominium and move into it, the marriage is in danger of falling apart.

What happened? Differences that had arisen between the couple were never confronted and resolved. Rather, they were glossed over and covered up, much as one might conceal a defect in the wall with wallpaper. Unresolved conflicts may give rise to resentments, which feed upon themselves and increase in intensity. (It is even possible that a particular resentment persists after the incident that caused it has been forgotten, and now the spouse retains the resentment without knowing why.) Since resentment is likely to result in guilt, the psychological defense mechanism now justifies the resentment by projecting it onto something else - the house. They reassure each other: "Nothing is really wrong between the two of us. We are having difficulties because we are living in this inadequate house. If we had a more spacious house with the necessary conveniences, every thing would be okay."

If after moving into the new house, the couple discovers that things are not okay, they now have lost their last excuse to explain away their unhappiness and must come face to face with the unresolved conflict. This shock alone may terminate the relationship.

Today I shall...

try to detect any existing conflicts and resolve them, instead of projecting them on reasonable but untrue causes.

A thief about to break in may pray to God [that he not be caught] (Berachos 63a, Ein Yaakov).

Believing in God alone is not enough. Even praying to God may not be enough. Some people think that prayer means telling God what He is supposed to do for them. This attitude can result in the absurd situation described above.

We should pray for God to make His will known, and to help and guide us in fulfilling that will.

A recovered alcoholic told me that during his years of drinking, he frequently got into trouble and would then pray to God, "Just help me this once, and I will never drink again." Relief from his distress was invariably followed by relapse, and when he finally reached a crisis, he surrendered, praying, "Show me what You want of me."

His first type of prayer, he realized, was not really a prayer at all, just bargaining. Real prayer did not occur until he stopped asking God for what he wanted, and instead asked to be shown what God wanted.

Study of the siddur itself should enable us to reach a concept of genuine prayer without having to reach such a crisis. We declare our belief in the existence of God in the Shema which we promptly follow with a portion of the Torah that instructs us to fulfill His mitzvos. With this background, we proceed to the Amidah, where we pray for God to give us our needs, so that we may be able to fulfill His will.

Today I shall...

think of prayer as being directed to my achievement of what God wants, instead of demanding that God deliver what I want.

I hereby forgive everyone who offended or angered me, or sinned against me (Prayer on Retiring).

Since we pray to God to forgive our mistakes, certainly we should be willing to forgive others who have offended us.

Forgiveness must be more than perfunctory. A man once heard his rabbi state that Yom Kippur would not achieve forgiveness from God unless one has forgiven others. This fellow then went over to someone he disliked and said, "I forgive you today, but I want you to know that as soon as Yom Kippur is over, I will despise you as much as before."

When we pray to God for forgiveness, we cite the verse, I have erased your sins like a thick cloud (Isaiah 44:22), which tells us how we should grant forgiveness to others - by removing all traces of resentment.

What good comes from harboring resentments? We cannot act on them, for the Torah explicitly forbids taking revenge. Since resentments have no practical purpose, and since they are obviously very negative feelings, they can do nothing more than wear down our emotions. When we find a smelly item in the refrigerator, we quickly get rid of it so that it does not contaminate the other foods. We should view negative feelings in the same light, for they can infect all our other emotions with negativity.

Forgiving others and thereby ridding ourselves of resentments is in itself not only a virtuous character trait, for it is considerate of others; more importantly, it works to our own advantage.

Today I shall...

try to completely forgive others and realize that failure to do so will leave me with useless negative emotions.

The mouse [that steals a morsel of food] is not the thief, but rather the hole [through which the mouse escapes] is the thief. (Gittin 45a)

In this picturesque statement, the Talmud explains that the hole in the wall is the culprit, because without a breach in the wall, the mouse would not be able to steal the food.

In the treatment of alcoholism, there is a concept called "enabling." "Enablers" are the people who essentially make it possible for the alcoholic to continue drinking. By analogy, although oxygen does not cause a fire, it is impossible for fire to burn in its absence, so one extinguishes a blaze by dousing it with water or smothering it, to prevent oxygen from reaching it. Similarly, an alcoholic could not continue to drink very long in the absence of enablers. It is sometimes more difficult to convince people to stop their enabling than the alcoholic to stop drinking.

We claim that we are intolerant of crime and injustice, but the fact is that these exist only because we do tolerate them.

For example, many arguments are given for protecting the rights of those who violate the law, but the price we pay for this is that we allow these violations to continue.

In every society, community, or family, there may be enablers. Sometimes those who are most vehement in their condemnation are actually the enablers. We should do careful soul-searching to see whether we may not actually be enabling behavior of which we disapprove.

Today I shall...

try to stop "enabling" those things that I know to be wrong.

It would have been better for man had he not been created, but now that he has been created, he must carefully examine his actions.(Eruvin 13b).

Some people have made themselves modern disciples of Epicurus. After noting the prevalence of suffering and distress in the world, they conclude that humans are innocent victims of unjustified misery. Therefore, they find no reason to further restrict the few pleasures that people can have, and they say, "Let people do whatever their hearts desire."

These people act as though they were the first to discover the plight of mankind. The above Talmudic passage should teach them that several thousand years ago, some very wise people had already thoroughly analyzed human life. Although they too concluded that it would have been better for humanity not to have been created, we still do not have carte blanche to do whatever we please.

Our emotions profoundly influence our thought processes. People may come to conclusions that are completely false, but they will believe them to be correct because they want to believe them. This fallacy is dangerous; if someone indulges himself and knows that he is doing wrong, there is a possibility of teshuvah, but if he deceives himself and believes that he is just in his behavior, there is no possibility of teshuvah.

Try an experiment. Take an opinion you have about any issue. Now, consult the works of Torah literature. You will find, without exception, that every issue you raise has been thoroughly discussed centuries ago.

Today I shall...

be aware that challenges to Torah teaching are invariably rationalizations and try to control my pleasures instead of letting them control me.

[Man and wife] shall be one body. (Genesis 2:24)

In recent times, we have witnessed an unprecedented tidal wave of divorce. This phenomenon appears to be directly linked to modern attitudes towards marriage. Let’s look at the Torah’s concept of marriage, which has produced much marital happiness for over three thousand years.

An analogy is a good start. Table salt is a chemical compound called sodium chloride; it consists of two elements, sodium and chorine, in combination.

Pure sodium is very volatile. If dropped into water, it will explode into fire. No one would ever want to eat it. Chlorine is a corrosive gas, which can cause severe irritation and a choking sensation. When sodium and chlorine combine, however, each loses its individual properties; the fusion is a totally new compound which bears no resemblance to either component.

When the Torah states that husband and wife should become one, it means that two unique people should fuse into a new being. In forming this new being, each "element" must be ready and willing to divest itself of its own identity, so that this new "compound" may be that which is most desirable and most constructive.

Clearly, the sharing of oneself in a marriage relationship cannot be as dramatic and radical as in the example of sodium and chlorine fusing into table salt. Nevertheless, much of the incompatibility that has resulted in divorce is due to the refusal of partners to yield of themselves.

Today I shall...

try to realize that in marriage, I must be willing to relinquish some of my own individuality to permit the emergence of a family unit.

Moses assembled the Sanctuary (Exodus 40:18) ... The Glory of God filled the Sanctuary. (Exodus 40:34)

The Talmud describes in great detail how each component of the Sanctuary was fashioned, and that the completion of each component was a mitzvah. Nevertheless, the Divine Glory did not descend until the component parts were assembled into the whole.

The 613 mitzvot of the Torah are indeed the essential parts, without which the structure of a Torah life is impossible.However, they must be assembled into the ultimate whole, which is even greater than the sum of its parts.

In the past two centuries, the study of Torah works of mussar and chassidut were promoted by the great luminaries, Rabbi Yisroel of Salant and the Baal Shem Tov. Both met with resistance by many Torah scholars, who argued that the study of the Scriptures and Talmud alone was an adequate guide to living a Torah life.

These two great sages realized that while previous generations could assemble the component parts of the Torah into the desired whole, later generations required additional help in doing so. Formal study of mussar and chassidus is essential if people are to live a life that attests to the Glory of God.

Sometimes we may be disappointed in observing some people who are apparently observant of Torah and yet do not lead exemplary lives. Invariably, these people do not implement the teachings of mussar and chassidus, so that while they possess the building blocks, they fail to assemble the structure of a Jewish life.

Today I shall...

devote myself to the study of the ethics of Jewish living.

If the Shofar is sounded in the city, will the populace not tremble? (Amos 3:6)

The blow of a Shofar is a call to arouse us from the lethargy of routine in which we have been immersed and to stimulate us to teshuvah. But what if someone hears the Shofar and is not moved by it?

A village blacksmith’s assistant once visited a large city and sought out the local smithy. He observed that the workers there used a bellows to fan the flames in the forge. The bellows were much more efficient than the exhausting manual fanning which he did back in his master’s shop. He promptly bought a bellows, returned with great enthusiasm to his master, and informed him that there was no longer any need for them to exhaust themselves fanning the flames. He then set out to demonstrate the magic of the bellows, but alas, regardless of how vigorously he pumped, no flame appeared.

"I can’t understand it," he said. "In the city, I saw with my own eyes the huge flame produced by the bellows."

"Did you first light a small fire?" the master asked.

"No," the assistant replied. "I just pumped the bellows."

"You fool!" the blacksmith said. "The bellows can only increase the size of the flame when you begin it with a spark. When you have no spark or fire, all the pumping of the bellows is of no use."

Like the bellows, the Shofar can only arouse us if we have in us a spark of teshuvah, just a rudiment of desire. If we feel ourselves unmoved by the Shofar, we had better try to light a spark of teshuvah within ourselves.

Today I shall...

try to begin teshuvah, so that the service of the approaching High Holidays will have the desired effect on me.

Do [for Israel] for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ... Do [for Israel] for the sake of nursing infants, who have not sinned. (Siddur, Selichos)

In praying for salvation, we invoke the merits of our ancestors, and we also pray that we be helped for the sake of our future generations. The Talmud tells us that God acts towards us as we act towards other people. If we wish Him to judge us because of the merits of the past and the promise of the future, then we must take the past and the future into account in our own actions.

Today’s generation is very much a "now" generation, considering only the thrills of the moment. Much of today’s society turns its back on the traditions and values of the past, and behaves recklessly in exploiting the world for the pleasures of today, even though it pollutes the environment and depletes natural resources needed for the future.

Is it coincidence that our generation is infatuated with digital watches and clocks? Old-fashioned timepieces told time by a pointer, which had the past behind it and the future in front of it. These timepieces symbolized an awareness of both, but a digital display focuses exclusively on the present moment and gives no recognition to the existence of either the past or the future.

While we should not allow the burdens of the past nor the anxieties of the future to exert a destructive effect on our living, the constructive lessons of the past and a responsible attitude towards the future can guide us to a proper and responsible life.

Today I shall...

try to derive wisdom from the study of the past and act responsibly in consideration of the future.

I wonder if there is anyone in this generation capable of giving reprimand. (Arachin according to the reading of Shitah Mekubetzes 16b)

This statement appears strange. Many people seem ready and willing to offer constructive criticism.

Criticism is a sharp instrument. It can cut us as deeply as a surgeon’s scalpel. A medical student must undergo many years of training before he or she can become a surgeon and make an incision which will lead to the improvement of someone’s health. Even the most carefully calculated and well-performed surgical incision is a painful wound, and if the surgeon cannot apply himself to alleviating the patient’s suffering and restoring his health, he has no right to make a cut.

Before we criticize someone, even if we have the finest intentions for that person’s betterment, we should give serious thought to what we are doing. We must be aware that our remarks will inevitably cause emotional pain, and unless we are ready to assume responsibility for helping the person cope with the pain and assist him or her in making the changes we recommend, we should refrain from criticizing.

Already in the days of the Talmud, the existence of the unique ability to criticize constructively was questioned. We have little reason to believe that we are more competent in this respect today.

Parents who discipline their children are also ready to invest themselves in their children’s betterment. This attitude is required before providing constructive criticism.

Today I shall...

try to realize that offering constructive criticism can be painful and refrain from doing so unless I am ready to help the person cope with the pain.

If my brother Esau encounters you and asks you, "To whom do you belong, and whither are you going, and what are these things before you?" (Genesis 32:18)

In the homiletic writings, Jacob symbolizes the spiritual, and Esau the secular. Esau tries to seduce a person by saying, "Who do you think you are, anyway? Just where do you think spirituality will get you?"

The spiritual person poses these same questions, but in a different tone. "Where do I belong? Am I but part of the animal kingdom, differing from lower forms of life only by virtue of intellect, or do I belong to a higher order of being? Where am I headed with my life? Do I have an ultimate goal? And what are all these things before me? Am I using objects of the physical world as tools that I can use to reach my goal, or are they ends in themselves to me?"

The very arguments that can draw us away from a spiritual life can be turned back and serve as reasons for embracing spirituality. The physical world has abundant glitter, but emptiness lies beneath its superficial shine. True substance to living lies beyond these temporary pleasures.

Today is the last day of the year, a time for reckoning and asking, "What have I done during the past year that still has value for me today? All the transitory enjoyments of which I partook in the past – what value do they have today?"

A reasonable person chooses things that are of lasting value.

Today I shall...

think about the past year and consider what I would prefer the coming year to be.

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