Two songs: Our parsha and our haftarah – Haazinu and Shiras Dovid.
Our haftarah comes from Shmuel Bais, perek 22. This shira also appears in Tehillim 18, with some slight differences.
Rav Dovid Cohen in Sefer Ohel Dovid cites the Vilna Gaon who says that the mizmor in Sefer Shmuel was written before Dovid sinned with Batsheva and the kapitel in Tehillim was written after the sin. We can suggest that both versions are part of Tanach to convey the idea that teshuva works. Hashem forgave Dovid HaMelech and treated him after the sin with the same love and affection as before the sin. This insight is a very good reason why we should be reading this haftarah immediately after Yom Kippur. Teshuva works.
But we have to know how to go about repenting in a way that can have lasting effect.
With this in mind, listen to a story of a day that began merrily, but ended harrowingly.
My friend told me that a few weeks ago he, his wife and their children went to visit their 12-year-old son, Yissachar, in a sleepaway camp. Visiting day traffic was not so bad and the family arrived in the early afternoon. After sharing reuniting hugs and kisses, Yissachar showed them around the campus. There were activities for visiting families to avail themselves of including horseback riding, swimming, and ziplining.
Yissachar’s six-year-old brother, Mordy, wanted to do as many of the camp’s activities as possible and rode one of the horses. He also wanted to go ziplining, but when they checked, the line was too long. My friend told Mordy that they would check again later.
The family went off campus for a little shopping, and returned to camp late in the afternoon, ready to drop Yissachar off and say goodbye. But Mordy reminded his father that he still wanted to go ziplining. They went to check how long the line was and it seemed reasonable so Mordy would indeed get his chance. Yissachar told his father that he wasn’t interested in ziplining, but my friend told him that this might be the only time all summer that the line would be this short and Yissachar hadn’t yet gone on the zipline all summer. Reluctantly, Yissachar agreed to do it.
As it turned out, Mordy and Yissachar were the very last people who wanted to go on the zipline that day. Mordy went first and had a great time until…
This wasn’t the most professionally run zipline. The method was for the zipline-goer to climb up (or get pulled up) to a wooden tower. One young man would lock the rider on to the ropes and cables, push him to zip away and then he would travel fast for about 500 feet. Then another young man would release him from the cables by climbing up a ladder, freeing him from the zipline, climbing down with the rider, and then moving the ladder out of the way so that a new rider could zip across.
Here is where disaster struck, so rapidly, so out of nowhere.
While Mordy was being let down the ladder, suddenly, my friend saw Yissachar being sent on the zipline before Mordy was completely down and, most importantly, before the ladder was moved out of the way!
My friend watched helplessly as Yissachar zoomed across the zipline and crashed with great speed into the ladder. The young man on the tower had mistakenly sent Yissachar too soon! There were now three injured boys. As it turned out, Mordy was pretty much fine since he was still latched on and behind the ladder. The young man helping fell off the ladder and for a while it seemed like he was badly injured though he ended up with just a few cuts and bruises. But Yissachar broke his foot! A beautiful visiting day had abruptly turned into a big hindrance for Yissachar’s summer fun!
My friend felt horrible, as he had played a part in “forcing” him to go on the zipline. But such was Hashem’s will. Baruch Hashem, Yissachar still managed to have lots of fun the rest of his days in camp, albeit with challenges.
This story has important teshuva lessons. As we try to hold on to the growth we experienced on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have to avoid the pitfalls of a zipline teshuva.
All too often, we move way too fast when trying to change our bad habits. We jump off the wooden tower of our lives toward a different way of living way too early and way too fast. We try to hasten our repentance and zipline our way through. By not moving more slowly, we neglect to remove the ladder, the obstacles in our path and may find ourselves crashing.
In Alei Shur (Volume 2, pgs. 189-190) Rav Wolbe relates that just as the world is made up of imperceptible atoms and our bodies are made up of minuscule cells, so too, our spiritual makeup is defined by our small actions. The power of small actions for effecting change is comparable to taking a medication in which the active ingredient makes up merely one or two percent of the entire dosage, and a greater quantity would do more harm than good. Likewise, small actions do not arouse instinctive feelings of opposition. One who takes on too much will feel pressured and eventually rebel.
Rav Wolbe said that after the Yom Kippur War he flew to Egypt to strengthen the soldiers who were still stationed there. When the plane entered Egyptian air space, he noticed that they were flying extremely low, just a few meters above the ground. They were flying beneath the height detectable by radar, lest they be noticed. Rav Wolbe applied this idea to spiritual pledges. Our instinctive feelings of rebellion only detect “high-flying” actions and resolutions, while the small resolutions go unnoticed.
When one focuses on changing a specific character trait, the most practical solution is to work with small steps. One small action done constantly for many days does not overwhelm a person, while it still has the ability to change him for the better. [Based on the writings of Rav Wolbe’s students.]
As Rabbi Berel Wein once wrote, “Elul is not a quick fix month. Rather it demands of us small increments and gradual improvements in behavior and speech. The sudden, wrenching, all-or-nothing approach to self-improvement, like crash diets and desperate almost impulsive decisions and policies, bring only further disappointment and frustration with one’s self. The Talmud records for us a number of instances of people who performed evil acts and suddenly completely regretted and repented from those acts and thereby gained immortality for their souls. However in each of those instances the penitent died on the spot. A 180-degree turn while driving at high speed is almost inevitability a fatal course, no matter how necessary or commendable that turn may be. Elul seeks a change of commitment and direction in one’s thinking and lifestyle but it seeks it in a gradual, healthy and normal fashion.”
We must avoid zipline teshuva pitfalls if we are to make our passionate desire to grow have lasting meaning.