“I want a new me. But every year after Yom Kippur it seems the ‘old’ me is still here. After all those heartfelt prayers! The shofar blowing! Fasting! Crying! What happened to all my good intentions?”
This is a terrible problem. It even threatens our confidence in the reality of the Days of Repentance. Can we change? Does teshuvah “work”?
* “The loudest sound in the universe is the sound of a habit being broken.” (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter)
* “A person should constantly agitate his Good Inclination to fight against his Evil Inclination, as it is stated, ‘Tremble and sin not.’ If he vanquishes it, fine. But if not, he should engage in Torah study, as it is stated, ‘reflect in your hearts.’ If he vanquishes it, fine. But if not, he should recite the Shema, as it is stated ‘on your beds .’ If he vanquishes it, fine. But if not, he should remind himself of the day of death, as it is stated, ‘and be utterly silent’ ” (Berachos 5a).
* “In the future, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of the wicked. To the righteous [the evil inclination] will appear like a high mountain and to the wicked it will appear like a strand of hair.
These will weep and these will weep. The righteous will weep and say, ‘How were we able to overcome such a high mountain?’ And the wicked will say, ‘How were we not able to overcome this strand of hair?!’ And so too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will wonder with them, as it says, ‘Thus said Hashem, Lord of Hosts: As it will be wondrous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, so will it be wondrous in My eyes’ ” (Sukkah 52a).
The yetzer hara, the evil inclination, never stops attacking.
Every day I struggle with myself. (At least I think I do.) My faults and inadequacies seem endless, but I’ll mention two that bother me very much. I don’t have to go far in the alphabet to find them: they both begin with the letter “a”: anger and appetite.
I could discuss these subjects for years. I wish I could consider myself a righteous person, as described in the Gemara I just quoted, but let’s just say I would like to be one. The yetzer hara does, however, seem like a mountain to me.
What about anger?
I get angry at those I care about the most. It is easier to look good in the eyes of people I hardly know, since I have relatively little to do with them. How much time do I spend with them, after all?
With those close to me, however, it is much more difficult. Here I have to work hard, because I’m with them all the time.
But actually, I say to myself, since they are all close to me already, even related to me, why do I need to present such a front? Why do I need to impress them? I can be a kvetch. I can be selfish and demanding. I can even be angry, because what are they going to do to me? Are they going to walk out of my life? (Watch out, Neuberger! This is getting dangerous.) What do I have to worry about?
So I am lazy. I know that there are tools to control anger. I know that “A person should constantly agitate his good inclination to fight against his evil inclination,” but it is hard. I can take it for granted that those close to me “will understand.”
Am I a fool? Don’t I understand I’m playing Russian Roulette with my life?
What about appetite?
You know the old joke: “I am on a ‘see-food’ diet.”
* “A wayward and rebellious son is not liable [to punishment] until he steals and eats a [huge amount of] meat and drinks a [huge amount of] wine. [He] is killed because of his end. The Torah [foresaw] the culmination of his way of thinking. The end [will be] that he will exhaust his father’s money and seek [to maintain] his habit, and not find [the money he needs]. He will then stand at a crossroads and rob the people. The Torah says, ‘Let him die as an innocent person, and not die as a guilty person’ ” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:18).
* “The death penalty imposed on this youngster is not because of the gravity of any sins he actually performed, but because his behavior makes it clear that he will degenerate into a monstrous human being” (Commentary to ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash, Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
* “One who drinks his cup in one draft is a guzzler, [in] two [drafts is following] proper manners, [in] three [drafts, is] among the haughty” (Pesachim 86b).
I find that when I eat and drink, I am so involved in the desire for satisfaction that I swallow the brachah as if it were food, usually not even thinking about it. In my obsession for the sensation of taste, I forget all restraint. In my haste, I swallow without chewing, which is not healthy and certainly not “following proper manners.” Then I feel too guilty to say a brachah acharonah with kavanah.
Is that an exaggeration? Not much.
I am reminded of the story of the chassid sitting at the tisch. He thinks, “My Rebbe is certainly greater than I, but, after all, he is just flesh and blood and I am also flesh and blood. He eats and drinks, and so do I.”
The Rebbe looks at the chassid.
“Chaim Yankel, I know what you are thinking. I will tell you the difference between us. It is true that we both eat and drink. It is also true that we both make brachos. But here’s the difference: You make a brachah in order to eat; I eat in order to make a brachah.”
* * * * *
Day after day, year after year: the obsession with food, the slavery to anger.
And every time I succumb, I promise myself it will be different next time. I invent new strategies, and they are as good as the old ones. With each failure, I feel more hopeless. I cannot climb that mountain of self-restraint and Torah dignity. I cannot act like the holy Jews, the great Torah scholars I have seen who are majestic in their self-control and dignity, the sense of peace radiating from their shining faces, as the glory of Hashem radiated from the face of Moshe Rabbeinu.
Multiply this situation by an infinite number of bad habits, and you get a real headache. I’m serious, despite the tone. The sense of depression is dangerous, because one does not know where to turn. One’s entire life seems to be a maze from which one cannot escape. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur threaten to become mere exercises in words. I really don’t believe that I can change, so what after all is the point? My life will drag on and I will continue to be the same inadequate me.
Can I realistically grow into the person I want to be?
Do I really want to be the person I should want to be?
If I wanted it enough, I could be that person.
Now we understand why we must crown Hashem as King on Rosh Hashanah. We must elevate Him so that He will rule over us.
He will save us if we let Him.
“Praise Hashem, all nations, praise Him, all the states. For His kindness has overwhelmed us, and the truth of Hashem is eternal .” (Psalm 117).
“This is the shortest chapter in Psalms. Radak explains that its brevity symbolizes the simplicity of the world order which will prevail after the advent of Moshiach” (ArtScroll commentary).
“His kindness has overwhelmed us . Ki gavar alainu chasdo .”
What does “gavar” mean? Strength.
This is our salvation: when Hashem enters our lives and overwhelms us.
“Almighty God, this job is too big for me. I admit it. I can’t do it! I am not a tzaddik! I do not have the strength of my ancestors, who were mighty in their battle with the evil inclination. I feel so weak and incapable of winning the battle. Please help me. I know that is my only hope. Our Father and King, I know You are not only all-powerful but You are also our Father! You love us so much. Don’t abandon us! ‘Al tashlichaini milfanecha.’ Do not cast us away from You. As a father has mercy on his children, so, Hashem, please have mercy on us!”
Every weekday we say, “Riva rivainu – take up our grievance.”
“Please fight for me, Tati! I am weak, but You are completely powerful. If You will fight for me, I know I will be successful.”
* * * * *
I do believe it; I do believe that if I beg and plead, God will listen. And do you know my proof? I look back on my life and I see that He has saved me time and again. I see that my life has been a series of miracles, one after the other.
“Hashem protects the simple. I was brought low, but He saved me” (Psalm 116).
I make mistake after mistake, but I am still here. Time after time, He has rescued me, even though I keep stumbling.
Years ago, our rabbi asked if we could invite a visiting rosh yeshiva from Israel to our home for a Shabbos meal. The rosh yeshiva was sitting at our table in his beautiful Shabbos attire. My wife had prepared a platter of many different types of salad. The rosh yeshiva wasn’t taking any food, so my wife decided to bring the food to him.
She approached him carrying the salads. Apparently, there was a malach hidden there. My wife never spills anything (unlike her husband), but this time the tray tipped over. The salad went flying, covering the rosh yeshiva from the top to the bottom of his beautiful black coat. Not one salad, but many salads. Mayonnaise, beets, tomatoes, pickles, olives, vinegar, humus all went flying through the air and landed on the rosh yeshiva.
We wanted to die a thousand deaths. At that moment I felt the fate of Korach would be appropriate: let the earth open up and swallow us. Could any good come from this? The most embarrassing moment in the history of the world!
Believe it or not, that insane moment turned into a lifetime friendship with the wonderful rosh yeshiva. He became our beautiful friend and opened the door for us to the world of gedolim and the holiness of the Torah communities of Eretz Yisrael. He helped us in countless ways, and still does to this very day.
And now, every time he comes for Shabbos, he jokes, “Spill more salad! Spill more salad!”
Can you imagine? The moment of greatest insanity, the moment of greatest embarrassment, the moment of complete darkness becomes a symphony of light. This has happened time and again. Looking back on our life, I see that Hashem has overwhelmed us with His mercy over and over again.
Yes, we have to make Him our Melech – our King. We have to daven and daven again and then again, without stopping.
* * * * *
“Avinu Malkainu, my Father and King, please take over my life. Rescue me. I can’t do it, but You can do it, because you are the Only One Who is invincible. There are no limits for you! There is no strength that compares with Your strength! I know that if I ask You and never stop, You will listen to the cry that emanates from the depth of my soul.”
And at this time of year, our cries are buttressed by the sounds of the shofar.
What is a shofar? The instrument that allows the volcanic eruptions inside of us, the galactically powerful scream – HELP ME! – to emerge from within us. It travels through a piece of bone. A ram’s horn, the most animalistic piece of dead tissue you can imagine. And from that dead tissue issues forth a cry that is so cosmic it pierces the heavens.
Tati, Help me.
And Hashem hears our cry. He comes to the rescue of his weeping children. He hears.
* “The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Israel: ‘My Son! I have created the evil inclination and I have created Torah as its antidote. If you involve yourselves in Torah, you will not be delivered into its hand” (Kiddushin 30b).
Do we hear this? Hashem created the evil inclination. It didn’t just “happen” to be there. He made it.
Soon we will see that all God brings upon us is good. We will understand that we must cry out to our Father in Heaven to save us. We must grip the Torah with “all [our] heart, with all [our] soul and with all [our] resources” (Shema).
This Rosh Hashanah let us indeed make our Father in Heaven our King.
“Hu Elokainu. Hu Avinu. Hu Malkainu. Hu Moshiainu. He is our God! He is our Father! He is our King! He will save us!”
May the shofar scream out our cry.
May our Father and King rescue His beloved children from all our troubles.
May He renew the world in the primeval purity of its ancient perfection.
May all our tears turn to laughter and our troubles into triumphal glory as we witness the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in our Holy City of Yerushalayim, the capital of the world of peace and justice that will last forever in the days of Mashiach ben David.
Roy Neuberger is a popular speaker and author. His latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim), is available at Jewish bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and online at Amazon.com. Roy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.