It’s that time of year again. The one where we ask ourselves: “Where did I go wrong? How could I make all the same mistakes again? Why is it so hard to change?”
What is the secret to really becoming something completely different; to becoming the new, real you?
Let’s take a look at how we view ourselves, our families, our fellow human beings, and God.
Is It Love Or Fear?
I believe it all begins with these two words: love and fear. Do we approach Rosh Hashana/ repentance out of love or out of fear? Do we approach our lives out of love or out of fear? For example, do you do the things that you do because you have to, or because you want to? Do you do them out of fear of the consequences, or because they are meaningful? Are you doing things on remote control/ autopilot or from a place of mindfulness and serenity? If you believe in God, and you practice Judaism, do you serve God out of fear (“I’m going to be zapped by lightning”/“I’ll burn in Hell”); or out of love and gratitude? Do you believe that God loves you and wants you to have only the best, or is He “out to get you” and punish you for all your wrongdoing?
When I look around at society, it seems to me that most of what we do and the way we live our lives is actually fear-based from a very young age: “If I fail the test, I won’t get into the college of my choice”; “If I break that vase, mommy will be furious with me”; “If I don’t go with my friends to the movie, they’ll never talk to me again”; “If I show up late, I’ll get kicked off the team”; “If I don’t make that big deal, I’ll get fired from my job”; “If I don’t buy my child the latest gadget or treat, they will throw a tantrum”; “If I don’t pay my mortgage, I’ll lose my house”; “If I lose my job, we won’t have food to eat”; “If my child dresses or acts differently, they/we will be ostracized”, and the list goes on and on.
How much of what we do in our lives is based on and driven by love? Sure, when you go to work it’s to support your family, because you love them. Of course you push your children hard to perform and succeed, because you love them. Naturally you want what is best for yourself and everyone around you. But is love the driving force in your life or is it fear?
The Price Of Living In Fear
It is really hard, if not impossible, to change and improve if you are living in fear all the time. It is suffocating, all-consuming and crippling to always be worrying and apprehensive. Aside from the element of stagnation that this causes, there is also tremendous self-doubt that comes along with it – the “If only”s, “What if”s and the “Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas” (as Shel Silverstein puts it). All this makes it nearly impossible to move forward. As the famous saying goes: “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.” But that is exactly what self-doubt, anxiety, worry, self-loathing, and self-berating do to a person – it paralyzes them. Unfortunately, this is also often what guides and directs our human relationships and our relationship with God.
The father of all commentaries, Rashi, writes that if a person only serves God out of fear, he will eventually leave Him all together (Shema – Devarim 6:5): “ ‘And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart’: Perform His commandments out of love. The one who acts out of love cannot be compared to the one who acts out of fear. If one serves his master out of fear, when the master sets a great burden upon him, the servant will leave him and run away [whereas if he serves his master out of love, he will stay loyal to him no matter how great the burden] (Sifrei 6:5).” Interestingly, in our morning prayers, the first word before and after the verse “Shema Yisrael” is Ahava/Love! I think that this proves that we must be enveloped in love if we are to succeed in accepting God’s Kingship.
Rashi is giving us a deep insight into human nature, parenting, the workforce and society at large. Fear does not work. It might work temporarily, but we know from child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott, that the long term effects are detrimental and unproductive: “I’ve never known of a child who was spanked into becoming a more loving human being.” He also notes that not only is using fear and threats of punishment ineffective, but it causes hatred, vengeance, self-loathing, and most importantly – it actually reinforces misbehavior: “Misbehavior and punishment are not opposites that cancel each other – on the contrary they breed and reinforce each other.” He concludes that: “In discipline whatever generates hate must be avoided, whatever creates self-esteem is to be fostered.”
The other day I asked my 9-year-old daughter why she listens and obeys her teacher/principal, but does not feel the need to listen to me, her very own mother?! She replied: “Because I am not afraid of you!” I was both overjoyed and dismayed by her answer. On the one hand, I was happy that she’s not scared of me and that she feels safe and comfortable with me – she sees our relationship as a loving one. On the other hand, I have a hard time accepting the idea that only fear can motivate obedience, thoughtfulness and giving. If she loves me and I love her, why doesn’t that translate into a willingness and need to help and obey?
Along this topic, my 14 year old, Chedva, was doing an activity with her youth group. I gave her the idea to ask her friends whether they think that most people, including themselves, serve God out of love or out of fear. The overwhelming majority of the teenagers said that they do the mitzvot out of fear; fear of the consequences. Many of them said that if one is not afraid of being disciplined or punished, not afraid of the consequences (they gave the example of studying in school because you don’t want to fail or get thrown out), then they really didn’t think that anyone would do the work in the first place.
How do we breed that kind of self-discipline, striving, giving and love in ourselves, our children, our students, our employees, and our friends? How do we get to that ideal of serving God and others out of love? How can we get to the state where we approach Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with an attitude of love and gratitude, instead of terror and anxiety, disgrace and unworthiness, and fear of punishment?
Are You Worth It?
The answer lies in our own sense of self-worth. Do we really believe we are worth it? Do we really love ourselves? Do we really feel God’s love? Do we understand how important we are to the world, how much we matter? Are we willing and able to forgive ourselves and others? If the answer to those questions is yes, then we can weather any change, discomfort and introspection. Then we will have the attitude of: “The entire world was created just for me” (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5), which Rashi explains to mean “I am as important as an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a). If the answer to the above questions is no, then we will find the whole experience of the “Yamim Noraim” – “Days of Awe” turn into “Awful Days”. These will be days in which we are filled with such self-loathing, shame and hopelessness that we will rarely succeed in picking ourselves up again, never mind fixing anything!
The Izhbitza Rebbe writes the following on the verse: “What is man that You should remember him, and the son of man that You should be mindful of him?” (Tehillim 8:5): “This is really an inner voice hidden within the heart of man. This voice tells him that he is not worthy of being created. This is the voice that brings man to depression and emptiness, and therefore makes him sin. Hashem’s will is to distance this inner voice and send it far away.” This is why we symbolically send the goat (that inner voice) to Azazel on Yom Kippur (see Yoma 67b). Interestingly, the verses in Tehillim there continue with: “Yet You have made him slightly less than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and majesty. You give him dominion over the work of Your hands; You have placed everything beneath his feet.” Thus it is clear that God wants us here and that He approves of us. The real question is: Do we approve of ourselves?
Why Is Self-Improvement So Hard?
Most people approach change with a fair amount of trepidation and skepticism: it’s too difficult and it’s bound to fail anyway. This is precisely why change is so hard – it often comes with a lot of negative emotions. Change is usually fear-based, and the catalyst for change is usually based on a doom-filled incentive (If I don’t change x then y will happen). Change also opens up all of the old wounds of failure; all the things that need fixing; all the mistakes you’ve made along the way. One has to stare into the face of where I could/should/would have been, versus where I am now. You get so bogged down in what needs fixing, in what is wrong, that you fail to see what is right. There is a saying about change that rings especially true with regard to being stuck in the negative: “First we make our habits, and then our habits make us.”
In a Harvard Medical School article about behavior change, they stress that negativity and fear are counterproductive: “Experts agree that long-lasting change is most likely when it’s self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking. For example, in an analysis of 129 studies of behavior change strategies, a British research group found that the least effective approaches were those that encouraged a sense of fear or regret. Studies have also shown that goals are easier to reach if they’re specific (“I’ll walk for 30 minutes every day,” rather than “I’ll get more exercise”). You should also limit the number of goals you’re trying to reach; otherwise, you may overtax your attention and willpower. And it’s not enough just to have a goal; you need to have practical ways of reaching it. For example, if you are trying to quit smoking, have a plan for quelling the urge to smoke (for example, keep a bottle of water nearby, chew sugarless gum, or practice deep breathing). Change is a process, not an event.”
That is precisely why this is the time of year to build ourselves up. Dr. Leo Buscaglia (“Dr. Love”) put it beautifully: “Love yourself, accept yourself, forgive yourself, and be good to yourself, because without you the rest of us are without a source of many wonderful things.” We have to realize how important we are to the world, how much God wants us to be here, how much we are loved by others and by God. Buscaglia was also the one who said: “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” How appropriate a quote for our Corona times. Nothing good ever came from anxiety, fear, worry, guilt, shame, regret, self-doubt and self-loathing. All they ever do is sap today of its joy! A great quote to illustrate this is Seth Godin’s: “Anxiety is nothing but repeatedly re-experiencing failure in advance. What a waste.”
Trust in God goes a long way in giving us the self-confidence and security to move forward. He knows what He is doing and He doesn’t make mistakes. I like how Byron Katie put it: “Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.” In the end, we can only change if we are hopeful, positive, productive, and willing to accept and let go of past mistakes. One of the top psychologists of this past century, Carl Rogers, said: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Isn’t Fear Of God A Good Thing?
Hang on a minute, you might say, aren’t we also supposed to fear God? Doesn’t God Himself ask us to fear Him in Devarim (10:12-15): “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, ask of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes, which I command you this day, for your good… Only your forefathers the Lord desired, to love them, and He chose their seed after them, you… as it is this very day.”
It is important to note that the word “Yirah” is often mistranslated as “fear”, whereas it should be translated as “awe”, “loyalty”, “devotion”, and “reverence”. Fear is a negative emotion which is associated with terror, anxiety, dismay, despair, dread, horror, panic, worry and well, you get the picture. It is not possible that God asks or demands of us to live this way, nor to have this kind of a relationship with him, especially in light of everything that we have said above! The proof that the verse is not referring to fear, but rather awe and devotion, is the continuation of the verse – which defines just what is being asked of us: “To walk in God’s ways; To love Him with all our hearts (that definitely does not go with fear); and to keep His commandments.” And what is the incentive/ the reason why He wants us to do this? It is “For our good” – so that things will be good, positive, and nice for us. And why does He want things to be good for us? The next verse continues with the answer: “the Lord desired your forefathers, to love them, and you also, to this very day!” God loves us and He wants us to reciprocate, so that we will have a good, happy, pleasant life!
God Wants Us To Be Rooted In Love
So how can we actually be commanded to feel love for our fellow and to love God? The answer is that we already do – it is implanted within us in our Godly soul that connects us both to Him and to the soul of the entire Jewish nation. Hillel Hazaken said that through loving your fellow you also come to love God. This is so because by giving to another, you step outside yourself, and thus you come to see how much God has given you. In our world today, many educators and researchers now realize and agree that today’s youth are looking for a love-based approach; not the harsh, regimented, disciplinary approach of yesteryear.
Singing Away Our Sins
This is why the Chassidic slant of joy and love on the High Holidays is so much more productive in so many ways. There is a story about the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidut), who once visited a small town for the High Holidays. He listened as the chazzan (cantor), and along with him all of the people of the town, sang a happy tune and danced while they beat their chests for the “Al Cheit” (the list of all the sins one has committed over the year). The Ba’al Shem Tov was flabbergasted, and after Yom Tov he asked the chazzan how he could do such a thing? How could they be so brazen as to rejoice over their sins? This was the cantor’s answer: “A king has many servants who keep everything running just right, including a janitor. The janitor knows that he is keeping the palace beautiful by removing all the filth and rubbish, and so he is happy and feels honored in his important service of the king. When a Jew sins, he throws dirt on his beautiful, pure, shiny soul. When he confesses his sins, he is cleaning, brightening and polishing the King’s palace – his soul. Is that not a reason to sing and dance?”
I have to admit that I balked at this story the first time I heard it. I had that same reaction when I heard Rav Adin Steinsaltz z”l speak at my son’s high school, when he said: “We already know that we are going to be forgiven for our sins on Yom Kippur, for that is the whole power of the day.” In both cases, I remember thinking that it just didn’t feel like there was enough fear of consequences, enough introspection, regret and remorse. But now, years later, I understand. I have come to realize that wallowing in past mistakes, sins, failures and negativity will only breed more of them.
This also fits with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s explanation of the verse in Tehillim (34:15): “Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” He asks how the verse could possibly mean that one must leave all bad before one can come to do good? For we already know that the more one fights the bad, the more entrenched one becomes in it. The answer says the Ba’al Shem Tov, is that it really means that one should shun/ leave the bad literally – leave it alone – forget about it. If one ignores the bad and gets involved in doing good, he will naturally become good and then the bad will fall away on its own! This, say modern day researchers, is precisely the way to break bad habits and create new, healthier ones.
The Door Is Always Open
The beauty in Judaism is that there is always a way home. There is always forgiveness, hope and a happy ending. It is true that we call God our Master, King and Judge; but most of all, we call Him our Father. God is our Father who is filled with love, mercy and kindness for each and every one of us. Ironically, I think He loves us much more than we love ourselves! So what is the secret to becoming the real, best you? Love, joy, positivity, gratitude and trust in Hashem. Shana Tova Umetuka!