Even though many animals recognize their masters, my mouse doesn’t view me as his master. In the haftorah for Parshas Devarim, the prophet Yeshaya decries the moral conduct of his generation. He declares in the name of Hashem, “The ox knows his master and the donkey [knows] his owner’s feeding tray, but My nation doesn’t know and doesn’t even consider Me.” Whereas many animals know from where their sustenance comes, we often function on auto-pilot and forget where our sustenance, our very lives, come from. It is only when our health or financial needs are great and out of our immediate capability to solve, that we realize all these important life fundamentals are always out of our control. At the very least it should be during this time of year that we learn from the animal kingdom that our lives and well-being come from our Father in Heaven, and we must appreciate what we have – so we will have the chutzpah to ask for more.
How can the mouse be so smart in his choices, while I may inappropriately allocate my resources of attention, trepidation, and reverence? The answer is found in a famous story about my friend, the mouse. In a debate with the Rambam, a group of men argued that it was possible to alter the nature of an animal by teaching it to act in a civilized manner. After a period of training, they presented a cat that acted like a waiter. As the observer’s marveled at the cat’s ability to serve beverages, the Rambam reached into his pocket and tossed a small mouse in its path. Immediately, the cat dropped his fine goblets and reverted to his true animal self as he chased the mouse.
If we are not careful, we can be like the animal – habitual and predictable. Human beings have the capacity to change. I am indebted to my friend the mouse for reminding me not to be like him as the month of Elul begins. Yet, as the quantity of traps increase, my mouse becomes smarter at avoiding them. The year is full of tests and traps for us, and we ask Hashem not to place us in a nisayon we can’t pass and to help us from becoming entrapped in lazy ways that will not help us fulfill our goals.
Chazal tell us that consistent behavior over the course of 30 days can effect change, and the new behavior will become a part of us. If we could choose one trait or mitzvah and focus on it for 30 days, then we can face our creator on the Day of Judgment as a new person. Let us use the month of Elul, the month of preparation, to avoid the traps of habit and to find our way to freedom from the yetzer hara, and may we be bestowed on Rosh Hashana with life, health, sustenance, and freedom from all our persecutors.