Rav Yisrael Salanter writes (Ohr Yisrael, letter #7) that over the course of Yom Kippur, one should “yavo li’eyzeh kabbalah l’haba – come to a resolution of sorts for the future.”
We are of course familiar with New Year resolutions, but making a kabbalah on Yom Kippur is not simply a good idea; it’s integral to the teshuvah process. According to the Rambam, the final stage of teshuvah is a commitment to change. And to change, a person must take concrete steps to avoid regressing and committing the same sins again.
Obviously, pledging to never commit a particular sin again seems overwhelming, if not impossible. The ba’alei mussar, therefore, recommend tips for making both smart and durable kabbalos. Rav Salanter himself writes that instead of trying to avoid an entire aveirah, a person should aim to eliminate the smallest of its parts – “ketana she’bi’kitanos.” For example, instead of resolving to daven better, a person should choose a very specific part of davening – such as the first beracha of Shemoneh Esrei – and work on concentrating on that part of davening.
Rav Reuven Dessler (the father of Rav Eliyahu Dessler) suggests that every kabbalah have a minimum and a maximum. For example, he says, if a person is working on reducing bitul Torah, he should strive to learn for five consecutive hours but not fewer than two consecutive hours. (In our times, a more relevant scenario may be striving to learn for one hour and not settling for less than 15 minutes.)
Similarly, we might suggest that a person aim to concentrate during a certain beracha multiple times per day, but settle on focusing during that beracha at least once per day.
I often use this suggestion of Rav Reuven Dessler when working with students trying to avoid procrastination and reach goals. We aim for lofty, yet achievable, goals, while ensuring a floor to fall back on for days when the ceiling is not within reach. We may, for example, set four hours of studying as the goal while not allowing for fewer than two hours.
Another point Rav Dessler mentions is the importance of choosing something attainable. A person needs to have genuine self-awareness to know what’s feasible for him to take on, and what would be too much. Rav Dessler notes that Chazal placed restrictions on how much a person can spend on a mitzvah, or hidur mitzvah. Chazal understood – and we must as well – that a person should want to strive higher but feel bound by reality, which requires lowering one’s standards to make feasible kabbalos.
Interestingly, modern-day management teams offer the same advice. They suggest having goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Rav Salanter and Rav Dessler’s tips reflect the specific, measurable, and achievable parts of the SMART strategy. What about the relevant portion? In what areas should a person make kabbalos?
When I was in yeshiva, a member of the kollel proudly shared a personal kabbalah story with a few students. While he was engaged, he said, he went to his rabbi to ask what the rabbi thought about he and his soon-to-be-wife becoming strict about only eating yashan in their new home. The rabbi thought for a second before responding, “It’s a nice idea, but why don’t you first work on not speaking lashon hara?”
The rabbi’s implicit message was that a person must pick and choose his “battles,” and using energy on one “battlefield” will deprive him of strength elsewhere.
Immediately after hearing this story, two of my closest friends became engaged in a tense debate. “It’s a beautiful story from a rabbi who clearly gets it,” argued one.
“No it’s not,” retorted the other. “It doesn’t make any sense. What does not buying a certain cake in the bakery have to do with watching what you say at the Shabbos table?”
Fifteen years later, I thought about this argument and wondered what Torah and psychologists would say. It turns out that there is little disagreement. Rav Dessler writes that when picking stringencies, it’s essential that one choose carefully.
An important rule of character is that a person who expounds on the value of one matter will almost inherently reduce the value of another. And there is great danger in this spiritually since the [evil] inclination can use this trick to satisfy a person keeping stringencies of one commandment at the expense of violating many others.
Therefore, it is proper to give precedent in stringencies to fundamental matters, such as wasting time from learning Torah, speaking lashon hara, etc., in order to avoid the danger that, through tangential stringencies, a person will distract himself from important issues, which we unfortunately struggle with greatly. For he will be like a man who comes before the king in a very beautiful tie, but is otherwise dressed in rags.
Rav Dessler wisely recognized that we have a limit on our “value” resources, and valuing one commandment or prohibition will automatically come at the expense of others. Therefore, warned Rav Dessler, it’s imperative that we choose with great care which stringencies and laws we value.
In other words, like the rabbi had suggested to his student, although it might not be immediately intuitive, valuing yashan flour will indeed come at the expense of valuing lashon hara, and was therefore not worth the trade. Simply put, Rav Dessler would agree that the words of this man’s rabbi were indeed wise.
As it turns out, years after Rav Dessler lived, social psychologists found something similar. Roy Baumeister is the most famous researcher of (and wrote a book titled) “willpower.” In several experiments, Baumeister and his colleagues discovered that willpower is actually a limited resource, a concept they referred to as “ego depletion.”
As an example, people in a randomized control group who were forced to pass on a plate of cookies and instead eat from a different plate of vegetables were found to give up quicker on an unrelated difficult problem-solving task than their peers who were allowed to eat the cookies.
In another experiment, a randomly selected group was asked to watch an emotionally compelling movie, but to try to refrain from demonstrating any emotion, while another group was able to watch normally. Each group was then given anagram puzzles to solve, and the group that had to constrain its emotion took longer in completing the anagrams. Both studies concluded that using willpower to complete one task (pass on cookies or hold in emotion during a movie) affects a person’s willpower in a second, ostensibly unrelated task.
So even if the non-yashan cake in the bakery and the Shabbos table conversation seem completely unrelated, refraining from eating some of the cakes requires a mental energy, depriving a person of his ability to control his speech later that day.
A mysterious Gemara (Sukkah) describes how at the End of Days, G-d will show all people – good and evil – the image of their evil inclination. For the righteous people, the Gemara says, the evil inclination will appear as a large mountain, and they will cry tears of joy over their impressive conquest. The wicked, though, will see their evil inclination as a tiny worm and cry tears of sadness over their inability to have overcome it.
In light of Baumeister’s research, we can better understand this Gemara (based upon an explanation I once heard in the name of Rav Moshe Shapiro). For the righteous person who constantly exerts his willpower, each challenge becomes increasingly more difficult, hence the large mountain. But, the wicked man, who is constantly giving in to his temptation, and keeping his willpower “fully stocked,” should have no issue standing up to the next challenge. Yet, he fails.
As we approach Yom Kippur with the hopes of making lasting changes, let us remember the advice of the ba’alei mussar and, l’havdil, social psychologists: Choose something specific, measurable, and achievable, and important.