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YK 5784: From Vision to Change

The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is busy season for Rabbis, and writing the Yom Kippur speech is one of the central tasks during this time. Why not write it before you may ask? For me it’s not just that I work better under pressure, it’s that I cannot really express the energy and message of Yom Kippur until I am in it, or at least in the time leading up to it. The Rosh Hashanah focus is so different, it is setting new goals and trajectories for the coming year. It is the panorama, the Big Picture. The Yom Kippur challenge is how to take that Big Picture and translate it into everyday changes, into the details, the weeds, the implementation.

This trajectory of putting Yom Kippur down on paper and into words was seriously pushed off course for me this year by the case of Corona virus I contracted right after Rosh Hashanah, and the exhaustion which follows. I can’t have this happen to me right now, I thought, and yet it did. Couple that with our newly-married daughter arriving from abroad with our new son-in-law, and preparations for Sukkot, the plan was seriously derailed.

How I had to adapt and respond to my situation has many similarities to the skills needed to convert our Rosh Hashanah vision into a reality in our lives. 1. Accept my limitations. 2. Prioritize. 3. Only try to accomplish something that is realistically achievable. 4. Break larger tasks down into smaller units. 5. See any accomplishment as a success. Let’s take a closer look at how we can use these skills.

1. Accept my limitations. After Rosh Hashanah we want to implement the New Me as a full package. After all, if I know I can do better, isn’t that what the Almighty is now going to expect of me? If we think about it, we know we cannot go from 0 to 100 all at once. Our will power is limited. Researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD has shown that mental muscle, like the physical muscle, has its limitations. Use it to the limit and it gives out. We only have so much band-with at one time to break old habits and to implement new behaviors. Yet we think now that I have all these new goals from Rosh Hashanah, and know what needs to be changed, am I not accountable before Yom Kippur to resolve to do so? G-d does not expect us to be perfect, but He is waiting for us to take the next step. In the words of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, it’s not about which rung of the ladder you are on, but what direction you are going. That is my task at hand.

2. Prioritize. There are lots of things to work on, which should I choose? Choose the one that I really want to change. Some things I know I should change, but I might not be ready to do so. So the one I choose might not be the most important, but it is the one I am motivated to take on. I might need to make a career change, but now might not be the right time, there might be too many things going on. Don’t take it off the list though, maybe I can revisit it next year.

3. Achievable. & 4. Break it down. Be pragmatic. After New Year’s gym memberships spike, and then by March they are back down to regular levels. If I resolve to go to the gym every day, I will get discouraged by all the days I miss, and I will give up. If I resolve to go once a week on Sunday, and succeed in doing so for four weeks, I will feel like I can do this. I might even consider adding on another day. If I resolve to study Torah once a week, and miss a few weeks when I am on vacation, don’t get discouraged, pick up again when I get back. To slip is human. The book of Proverbs written by King Solomon says the righteous person get back up seven times. That means they have slipped six times already!

5. See success. If I define myself as a ‘night owl’, I will never go to be early. If I am not an athlete, I will never get off the couch. Instead, I am a person who is working on getting to sleep earlier, I am someone who is ‘active.’ Envision what I want to be, and then start acting the part, even if it does not feel natural. New discoveries in neuroplasticity of the brain teaches us that new tasks are hard to do because we have to link new synapses. However, the good news is that the behavior reinforces itself by rewiring the brain for that behavior. If we count our blessings and our accomplishments every morning by making a list of three things we have accomplished and things we grateful for, then our brain will continue to gravitate towards that which we have, rather than that which we are lacking or have not accomplished. Doing this regularly will make us into an overall happier person. Creating rituals for ourselves transforms our brains and who we are.

While looking forward towards the future, and believing in change is central to what we are trying to accomplish this year, on Yom Kippur we also do teshuva, making amends for the mistakes of our past. Now that I know where I am going, I can take accountability for what I have done, and have the perspective to see how I might have strayed from who I am and what I want to be. That process is built into the Yom Kippur service. We enumerate a whole list of possible wrong-doings, privately and out loud, (vidui), and we tap on our hearts to show our regret. All with a perspective that we are doing so in order to move on to better things.

In a couple of days we will be standing on Kikar HaBima in the center of Tel Aviv dressed in white, ready to begin Kol Nidrei. A quiet will be descending on the city which is difficult to capture in words, and is unique to my Tel Aviv Yom Kippur experience. Soon there will not be one car in the streets, not one store or cafe open, and we will experience Yom Kippur enveloping the beach city in a curtain of calm and serenity. Some people may be on their bikes, some strolling to synagogue and others taking their kids out to play, but for everyone it is Yom Kippur. It is at such moments that I feel the power of being in Israel, the power of the Jewish people and the hope that we have more that unites us than divides us. Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Hatima Tova, may we all be inscribed for a good life!

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