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Parshas Vayeilech / Yom Kippur Edition (5773)

The Completes Idiot's Guide to Teshuva and Changing your Life

The ten-day period that started on Rosh Hashanah and will conclude with the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur is traditionally known as the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. This is a very special time of the year, with unique opportunities, as it is a time when we begin to reflect on our actions of the past year, and when we take a good, hard look at ourselves - who we are, where we would like to be, and how we're going to get there. This process of introspection and reflection and resolving to make real sincere, positive changes in our lives is known as “doing teshuvah”, and it is in this light that we are proud to present ...

This easy-to-read, self-explanatory guide includes:
* Quick and easy explanations of the steps involved in the teshuvah process
* Valuable insights into different ways of looking at life and ourselves in it
* Memorable examples and stories that bring all these points home

PART A: THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF TESHUVAH

Okay, so you feel bad about the way you treated your close friend this past year .... the rabbi is giving you dirty looks because you haven't shown up at the synagogue except for softball practice .... your phone bills are sky-high, and it's all from the time you've spent gossiping and "yenting" about anyone and everyone in town. You know it's wrong, you're feeling really crummy about it, and you want to make some sincere changes .... so what do you do?

The Torah teaches us that in order to effect sincere, meaningful and permanent change in our lives, we have to take a few steps .... the three basic steps of the teshuvah process.

1. REGRET - It's easy to pound your chest with your fist and say to yourself, your friend, or even to G-d, "Hey, I'm sorry I acted that way, I was a real jerk". But how much does it really mean?

I remember one time when I was driving up and around one of those parking garages, late as usual to an important meeting. The guy two cars in front of me was driving really slowly, and I was getting quite frustrated. Four floors and a few excruciating minutes later, the front car finally pulled into a spot. As I passed by, I slammed on the horn, and gave the driver my nastiest look. But as I looked into rear view mirror seconds later .... I noticed the driver of that vehicle getting into a wheelchair - he was semi-paralyzed. Boy, did I feel horrible. Sure, I had felt justified at the outset for my feelings of frustration and anger towards the person who was going to make me miss my appointment .... but that was before I realized upon whom I was venting my anger! And then I really regretted my actions!

The point is that to the extent that we realize just whom it is that we treated badly, and what they mean to us, to that extent will our regret be even more sincere and meaningful. So when I get into a fight with my friend, and cause him/her undue anguish and hurt, I have to think about all the blessing and happiness that this person has brought into my life, before I can truly say I'm sorry.

And when I use my mouth to speak against my neighbor or classmate, I have to think about the miracle of creation that is the power of speech, and how G-d made this amazing miracle just for me (not everyone has the ability to speak, you know!) and that all He asked is for me to try not to say Lashon Hara (slander and gossip) with that "miracle mouth". But I ignored Him, and used it for all that G-d didn't want.

This is real regret - I would never have said or done that had I realized who you really are, or what you truly mean to me!

2. CESSATION AND RESOLUTION FOR THE FUTURE - Can you imagine trying to ask forgiveness from someone while you continue to wrong him at the same time? Without stopping the bad action, all the heart-pounding in the world won't help.

I remember, as a little kid, that I would sometimes walk over to my mother and complain to her, "Mom, it hurts whenever I go like this! [bending my elbow backwards]"

To which my mother would always respond, "So don't go like this!"

If what you are doing or how you are acting is hurting you or your loved one .... don't go like this! Stop doing it!

Or sometimes, the problem is the exact opposite - you feel bad that you don’t give enough charity. Or you really want to join a study group that can expand your Jewish knowledge, but you just never get around to it.

The important step here is to just do it!!! Stop pushing it off and just "feeling bad about it" - do something about it! The problem is, though, that we are creatures of habit, and it is sometimes quite difficult to stop doing something when we have become accustomed to doing it all the time.

To this the Torah responds, Ya'azov rasha darko v'ish oven machshevosav – “A wrongdoer should leave his ‘way’, and a man of iniquity, his ‘thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:7).

In other words, it is simply not enough to merely cease and desist from our previous negative behavior. It just won't work. What is required in any meaningful change of behavior, is not just a change of "behavior", but a change in the "way" I lead my life and how I "think" about who I am. So, for example, if I work too many late hours at the office, causing me to come home in a bad mood which in turn causes me to lash out at my wife/roommate, it is simply not enough just to say, "From now on, when I come home from work, I will try to be in a better mood". That is not an approach that is likely to be successful!

What might be a good approach towards teshuvah and lasting change in this case involves thinking and rethinking my priorities in life. Could it be that I should be spending less time at the office, and more time with my friends and family?

The scenarios are many, and the possible solutions are endless .... but the bottom line is that teshuvah requires that we really become different people than we were before we changed. This type of change of lifestyle and way of thinking will yield a real and meaningful resolution not to repeat the negative behavior in the future - and not just the kind of resolution which lasts until just after the ball falls down at Times Square (if you know what I mean!)

3. VERBALIZATION - In admitting our mistake, Jewish law prescribes that it be articulated verbally. Artscroll's Yom Kippur Machzor (prayer book) gives a beautiful explanation of why this is so crucial to the teshuvah process:

As an intelligent, thinking, imaginative human being, man has all sorts of thoughts flashing constantly through his mind. Even sublime thoughts of remorse and self-improvement are not strange to him, but they do not last. For his thoughts to have lasting meaning, he must distill them into words, because the process of thought culminates when ideas are expressed and clarified. That is not as easy as it sounds. It is usually excruciatingly difficult for people to admit explicitly that they have done wrong. We excuse ourselves. We refuse to admit the truth. We shift blame. We deny the obvious. We excel at rationalizing. But the person who wrenches from himself the unpleasant truth, "I have sinned", has performed a great and meaningful act.

Now this doesn't mean that one has to publicly confess his sins like the presidential candidates do; but it does mean that it is very good and quite powerful when we stand before G-d during these solemn days and we say to Him, in a voice that both He and we can hear, "I was wrong for how I treated You (or my family, or whomever) this past year. For all You do for me, You deserved a lot better from me. I am truly sorry."

PART B: FORGIVENESS - WHAT'S IN IT FOR G-D?

For many people, one of the greatest obstacles in the path to teshuvah and the significant changes that we want to make in our lives, is the notion that once we have sinned to G-d or wronged our fellow man, it's just too late. There's no real hope for forgiveness.

We start thinking to ourselves: How can I undo all the damage that I have caused? How can G-d forgive me for all the hurt and pain I inflicted on my friend? Why would G-d forgive me? What's the point of trying to break this bad habit at this point in my life? Does anyone seriously think that G-d would forgive me now after all these years?

And if we can't get past this hurdle .... there can be no real teshuvah, because we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of the effects of that which we are trying to change.

Part of the reason for our thinking this way, is that we tend to think of G-d much the same way we think of a human being. And it is sometimes difficult to see how a human being whom I treated so horribly for so many years, can really, truly forgive me - even if I sincerely regret my actions and resolve never to repeat them - since I can't undo the damage that I've done.

But as the old saying goes: To err is human, to forgive is divine.

And G-d is divine, not a human being. So His capacity to forgive and eradicate our sins is like nothing we can ever imagine. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in his Handbook of Jewish Thought (vol.1):

G-d created the universe for the ultimate good of mankind. Evil and sin exist only in order to allow man to have free will, and therefore are neither part of G-d's primary purpose nor do they have permanence. All things that tend to detract from man's ultimate good are thus eradicable. G-d may have allowed for the existence of evil, but it is like a blot in the fabric of creation, and, as such, it is readily eradicated by repentance. Our sages therefore teach us that repentance was part of G-d's original plan for creation. Since G-d created man as a fallible creature with free choice and free will, it is all but inevitable that man should sin.

So G-d, in His infinite love and mercy, knowing that it was He who gave us this necessary chance to do bad, offers us a chance to repent and to achieve total forgiveness and to wipe our slate totally clean.

This realization should be enough for us to start believing that our teshuvah can and does work, and that G-d does accept it and forgive us totally.

And if we have any residual doubt about the absoluteness of Divine pardon, the comment of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, the great Chassidic master, may help:

"True, I am full of sin," said Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, "but You, G-d, are full of compassion. Assume that I am full of sin and that every bit of me is saturated with sin. But how big is Levi Yitzchok anyway? How much sin can this small body contain even when it is full of sin? But You, G-d, You are full of compassion, and You are infinite! So great! So vast! Yours is an endless, limitless compassion! Surely this enormous compassion can pardon this limited and finite sinful person."

PART C: WINNING THE "PENANCE" RACE

Everyone wants to become a better person - and a better Jew - especially during this time of year when we somehow sense that we are being judged in Heaven for our past deeds, and that our fate is hanging in the balance. (It is my belief that nearly every Jew, even the most avowed secular Jew, senses this, at least at the subconscious level, when Rosh Hashanah comes around. Hence, the large turnouts in the synagogues on the High Holidays.)

But how can we achieve our goals? How can we "up the odds" that we will actually change our past actions for the good, especially considering that we have gone through the High Holiday season so many times before, and it doesn't seem to do the trick?

Right after Neilah at the end of a long Day of Atonement, we hit the "break-fast", and it's seemingly back to square one! We have to wonder - does G-d really believe us anymore? We are sort of like "the Jew who cried Ashamnu (I sinned)"! Every year we go through this "charade" and we ask G-d to forgive and forget, yet we generally go right back to where we started from! How can we "ensure" that G-d will take us more seriously this year, thereby "earning" His forgiveness?

Maybe the reason why teshuvah doesn't seem to work too well is because we tend to spread ourselves too thin, we try to change too much at one time, and we bite off more than we can chew.

Maybe it's the fact the most High Holiday Prayer Books list about 35-40 sins that we must confess to on Yom Kippur - anything from eating without a blessing to not respecting our parents to being dishonest in our business dealings etc. etc. - some of which we never do, all of which give us the impression that we have to perfect every last character defect, that it's all or nothing?

The truth is, though, that there is no such thing as an "under-a-teshuver". Even if we feel like we can only work on one area of our personal growth for the coming year .... Dayeinu ....it is plenty.

So this year, instead of trying to fix up our entire lives, not to mention the lives of our friends and families, why not pick one project to undertake for the coming year. Like, for example, to do the Friday Night Shabbat dinner with all the family and/or friends together at the table - every week, or twice a month, or once a month. Whatever! The main point is that we show ourselves and G-d that we are serious about the teshuvah that we have undertaken. And that with this one project we will carry through and make a lasting change in the coming year. And when G-d sees that we're serious, He will hopefully respond in kind.

G’MAR CHATIMAH TOVAH - MAY YOU BE SEALED IN THE BOOK OF LIFE!

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