Wednesday, September 28, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I was with my dear friend and rebbi, Mr. Avi Shulman, last week when someone approached and asked for his business card. R’ Avi is a life coach; as he proffered his card, a few words in large type jumped out at me: “Live life of design not of default.”

These words were familiar hammered them home in a new way.

Those words suddenly seemed to embody the message of Elul and the essence of teshuva. They crystallize the resolution we should all be making as we approach the Yom Hadin.

We all talk about teshuva, we all know that Elul ushers in the yemai ratzon, when teshuva is easiest and most readily accepted by Hashem. On Rosh Hashana and the aseres yemai teshuva, culminating with Yom Kippur, teshuva is not merely an option but an obligation.

How many of us approach teshuva with the realization that it is actually a painstaking, demanding process?

Teshuva requires a serious cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of the way we lead our lives and the way we conduct ourselves. It means putting ourselves in touch with our deepest selves so that we know what needs to be corrected.

One of the prerequisites of teshuva is to learn the sifrei mussar that discuss teshuva. Teshuva requires learning the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva and following his guidelines.

Those guidelines put us in touch with the obstacles blocking teshuva. We learn that the hardest part of teshuva is that our lives are run on auto pilot. We are so conditioned by routine that we are deadened to the awareness of where we have gone wrong. So much of what we do is rote, without thought or foresight. We live lives of default.

We have to live lives of design. We have to plan our actions and reactions. We have to strengthen our midos tovos and our urge to do good. We have to fortify our yeitzer tov so that we will be “k’eitz shasul ahl palgei mayim;” so that we won’t get blown over by the destructive winds of secular society. We won’t fall prey for glib salesmen who appeal to our emotions and not to our good sense.

As we go through the teshuva process, we have to become changed people. It is not enough to klop ahl cheit; we have to actually affect our psyches and adopt different behavior.

How often does it happen that you try to show someone the truth about something and despite the absolute clarity, the person refuses to listen? You can patiently work through a topic and take it apart piece by piece, and reconstruct it to remove all doubt about where the truth lies. All to no avail.

The yeitzer horah is a formidable adversary. It prevents a person from absorbing what is perfectly obvious to everyone else.

That is the most common pitfall as we prepare for Rosh Hashana. Somehow the message doesn’t get through. When it comes to acknowledging our faults we become thickheaded. We hear all the shmoozen, we study the mussar seforim, and it goes in one ear and out the other. It barely scratches the surface.

The road to true change runs through chochmas Hatorah. We have to seek out those from whom we can learn. We have to do less talking about learning and more actual learning.

The posuk in Mishlei states, “emor lechochmah achosi aht.” We have to get more friendly with chochmah and those who are experts in it. If we want to survive and excel in today’s turbulent climate, we have to be more fully absorbed with chochmah.

The pursuit of chochmah is vital for another reason. The Gemorah in Brachos, 17a, states that the ultimate goal of chochmah is teshuva and maasim tovim.

If we would use chochmah to scrutinize how we act and live our lives, then teshuva and maasim tovim would follow. We would realize how misguided we are and that we have to mend our ways.

It is only when we take a step back from the repetitious cycles of our lives that we have the clarity to perceive what our lives are all about.

One of the roadblocks to true change is that we live in such a superficial world where people are judged by their outer appearance and not by their inner selves.

Let’s resolve that in the coming year we will not settle any more for mediocrity and superficiality. Not in our learning, and not in our bein odom lemakom and bein odom lechaveiro.

Rosh Hashana offers us an opportunity to put everything on hold, take inventory and then start again. The root of the word teshuva, in fact, means return. It means to return to our original pure, innocent status.

Teshuva brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us straight on the path we should have been on all along and it gives us the energy we need to do it right this time.

We all go through periods when we wish we could be doing things differently and regret certain things we have done or paths we have taken. Some of those choices feel like fateful, pivotal moves that there is no turning back from.

Many times we feel as if we no longer have a choice regarding a particular situation or course in life. We may feel as if we are stuck in a hole we have dug for ourselves.

To a certain extent that may be true. From actions flow consequences and we often have to live with the consequences of improper or less than noble actions. But Rosh Hashana says that even then, there is hope for renewal and redemption.

Even if we are saddled with years of guilt, now is the time to rid ourselves of that baggage which may be weighing us down and begin life refreshed, with a clear conscience. Rosh Hashana gives us a new lease on life, and if we so choose, it can be a blessed, holy life, a life of innocence.

Chazal teach that Yosef was released from the Egyptian jail on Rosh Hashana. The lesson in that facet of Hashgacha is that we can all be released from our imprisonment to physical wants and desires on Rosh Hashanah and begin life transformed as free people.

We can rise from the pitfalls we have sunk into and mend our fences with all those we may have caused hurt or harm. Teshuva allows us to crawl out of the mess.

Some people go through life never pausing to reflect, never thinking through their actions. Such people may think that they are perfect and that everything they do is beyond reproach. We know differently. We know that every person can use improvement. Ein tzadik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov velo yechtah.

This period in which we now find ourselves is a gift from Hashem. Let’s show that we appreciate it and really resolve to become better people. Let’s think through the way we deal with each other, the way we speak to people, the way we judge people and let’s really improve ourselves.

We are all part of a Divine plan and fit in somewhere in the Divine jigsaw puzzle. We are interconnected with others and to the degree that we touch others’ lives and become indispensable to our fellow Jews, we become more vital to the larger picture.

One who is a part of the larger group is more important to this world than the one who sits off by himself, benefiting no one, doing little more than succumbing to his own selfish desires.

And that is the secret formula: If we wish to be granted life, health and happiness, we need to make ourselves needed.

We need to live for others. We need to become involved with the klal, doing things that we do not necessarily enjoy, even performing acts that we may think are beneath our dignity. The more that people need us, the more sunshine and happiness we bring into the world and spread around, the more reason there is to keep us here.

There are the popular chasodim that everyone competes for, and the unpopular ones that have no “takers.” One way to make oneself needed in this world is to take on an unpopular but worthy cause that no one else in interested in.

There are always excuses not to give, not to get involved. Rosh Hashana is a time to resist the pull of habit and throw oneself into the effort to help others. With a little creative thought, we can make ourselves indispensable—or nearly so.

We stand a much better chance of a positive verdict if we are judged as part of the group and according to our connection with others, as opposed to standing trial alone.

“Tzedaka Tatzil Mimaves,” charity saves from death. The more we give, the more we share with others, the more unselfish and humble we become and the greater our chances of a favorable outcome on Judgment Day.

The more we realize that all we have is but a gift from G-d, to utilize not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of our fellows, the more He will give us.

Thus we recite, “Teshuva, tefilla utzedaka maavirin es ro’ah hagezeirah.” The evil decree can be set aside through repentance, prayer and charity. When we beg for life, we acknowledge that life is a gift from G-d, meant for us to spend it studying Torah, following its commandments and being a source of goodness, kindness and positive accomplishment.

Let’s open the sifrei mussar and let them to speak to us so that we can really effect change in our lives. Let’s appreciate a new unsullied and pure beginning and make the most of it.


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