Wake up! Don’t just stand there. The crying sounds of the Shofar shake our complacency. It’s a call to action during the ten-day period, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur, known as the Days of Awe or the Ten Days of Repentance.
Rosh Hashanah is the time when the world is judged for the ensuing New Year. It is also a time for introspection, reckoning, heartfelt prayers and tears. Even the most pious can’t help feeling some trepidation. After all, no one is perfect. Rosh Hashanah is also a joyful holiday that we celebrate with family and friends, even as we pray for our lives and a good year. We eat special foods to raise our consciousness about what is at stake. This includes dipping an apple in honey to symbolize our yearning for a sweet New Year.
This ten-day period is a particularly propitious time for engaging in repentance. How then to repent? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Change is not as simple as making a resolution to do so. We are born with certain character traits and we are also nurtured to be creatures of habit. Habitual behavior is exceedingly difficult to change. Neuroscientists have written[i]about how a goal directed decision might come into conflict with the habitual behavior circuitry imprinted in the brain. It helps explain why trying to change our behavior can be a very frustrating process. By exercising our freewill to improve ourselves, we are, in effect, fighting our own accumulated experience of both nature and nurture.
The Talmud[ii] reflects on the problem and provides some comfort that the struggle can be successful. It notes that the letter ‘Heh’ in G-d’s name provides a clue. The letter is both open at the bottom and on the upper left side. It resembles a portico where anyone who wishes can leave. Humankind is endowed with freewill and anyone who wishes can either do right or wrong. We are not under compulsion one-way or the other. The Talmud goes on to say that G-d does actively help those who seek to do good and return. However, the entrance on the way back is not the same as the exit on the way out and, hence, the opening at the upper left.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels[iii], a 16th century Talmudist, explains the Talmud’s metaphor in real terms. There are no real barriers that prevent someone from dropping out of the protective envelop of G-d and the performance of the commandments. Life happens and, absent the discipline of the commandments, new habits develop as the person evolves. Re-engaging and conforming to the Torah’s normative system might require sublimating inborn character traits, as well as, overcoming habitual behavior. Each person has their own subjective challenges to overcome, to re-orient themselves. There is, therefore, no coming back the same way as a person left. Re-access can only be obtained through a more circuitous route that figuratively leads to the opening at the upper left. R’ Eidels refers to Maimonides, who analyzed the subject[iv], for a further explanation of the process of rectification.
Maimonides generally counsels that perfection is about achieving moderation in all things. However, once a person inculcates bad habits, it is extremely difficult to shake them. Maimonides explains virtues or vices are acquired by the frequent repetition of acts that are associated with these qualities, over a long period of time. The person thereby becomes accustomed to them. If the acts performed are good ones, then the person gains a virtue. However, if they are bad ones, then the person acquires a vice. Once inclined towards an extreme, the soul becomes diseased.
Maimonides’ diagnosis of the human condition and habitual behavior is every bit as fresh today as it was more than eight hundred years ago. We now take for granted the link between a physical malady like substance abuse and the mind. The only difference between this and Maimonides’ holistic approach is that he would likely view the condition as not only as a disease of the body and mind, but also of the soul.
Maimonides’ cure for an illness of the soul is analogous to his treatment of a person suffering from a physical ailment. When the equilibrium of physical health is disturbed, the treatment involves temporarily forcing it to go in exactly the opposite direction until it returns to its proper balanced condition. Once the necessary adjustment is achieved, the more aggressive treatment is ceased, with careful monitoring to assure there’s no relapse.
Resetting moral equilibrium requires a similar process. Maimonides provides the illustrative example of a person, who has developed a disposition of great avarice. Merely requiring the person to practice ordinary deeds of generosity is not curative. Maimonides prescribes that the person be induced to give exceedingly generously and to repeat this often and continuously until the propensity, which was the cause of his avarice, totally disappears. Then, when the person reaches the point where he or she is about to become a spendthrift, the person must be taught to moderate his or her propensity to spend. Thereafter, the person must continue with appropriate deeds of generosity and be vigilant so that there is no relapse into either extreme of avaricious or miserly behavior. Maintenance requires proper training and the repetition of good deeds, which conform to the standard of moderation[v].
It is well neigh impossible to proceed directly to a state of moderation and balance from any extreme of virtue or vice. Few can wake up one day after leading a mostly self-centered and indifferent existence and just proceed to change the way they are or how they relate to family or others. There are too many deeply ingrained habits, other encumbrances like work or cherished activities that get in the way. Thinking about it or expressing the need to change may sound nice, but it’s not a substitute for reforming our behavior. It does take determination; but more important is good practice. Indeed, Maimonides posits that our psyche is affected by what we do. Thus, performing acts of kindness and good deeds is an essential component in the cure, because it is how our brain is rewired. We can also truly benefit from a healthy dose of G-d’s help and that opening in a different direction.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a 16th century Kaballist, considers the same issue from a somewhat different perspective[vi]. His focus is on avoiding the triggers that precipitate habitual behavior. His solution is to avoid situations that would result in triggering a conditioned response. Ordinary boundaries are insufficient to contain the sinful impulses and urges of someone well schooled and experienced in satisfying them. He, therefore, suggests erecting multiple barriers to distance the person from sin. Hence, the Talmudic reference to the small opening on the upper left.
I asked my grandchildren and others at one of the festive meals we attended this Rosh Hashanah to reflect on how they might shake it up. The answers were wonderful. The kids loved how everyone expressed concerns about their less than constructive habits and thought about ways to shake it up in a positive fashion. It was infectious and everyone was inspired by the discussion. The kid’s responses were precious. They included coming home and avoiding the habit of immediately opening the TV, checking the smart-phone or playing a video game, in order to do homework or a good deed. Some of the adults took up this theme and said they would refrain from staring at their smart-phone after they arrived home and give their spouse and family their undivided attention. Being mindful of others and helping those in need was a pervasive theme. The catch phrase of the evening was let’s shake it up.
Whether one of the methods noted above or some combination or other method of repentance is chosen, it’s a very personal and subjective process. One thing for sure, though, thinking about it is insufficient; it’s about doing something different and shaking it up. This ten-day period is a particularly good time to do so and G-d is there to help us complete the cure, once we’ve started the process. We’re down to less than a week and counting down.
Pick a good deed to perform or bad deed to avoid during the next few days until Yom Kippur. Reach out and mend fences with a family member, friend or neighbor you’ve tangled with this year. Hey, just hug it out. Show your spouse and children that you appreciate them and mean it with all your heart. Don’t be afraid to shed a tear of happiness and show them you are proud of them and truly care. It’s a time for forgiveness and overcompensating with graciousness and kindness[vii]. Wish everyone well; it’s thrilling to be able to bring people together and secure the blessings of peace.
It’s time to shake it up. May everyone’s journey of repentance be blessed with success and may we all be inscribed with a happy, healthy and blessed New Year.
[i] See, for example, Endocannabinoid Modulation of Orbitostriatal Circuits Gates Habit Formation, by Christina M. Gremel, Jessica H. Chancey, Brady K. Atwood, Guoxiang Luo, Rachael Neve, Charu Ramakrishnan, Karl Deisseroth, David M. Lovinger and Rui M. Costa, in Neuron, Volume 90, ISSUE 6 ( June 15, 2016).
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, at page 29b.
[iii] In his Maharsha commentary on the foregoing Talmudic text.
[iv] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 4.
[v] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:7.
[vi] In his Tomer Devorah, Chapter 1:8.
[vii] A person, who emulates G-d’s ways of mercy and graciousness in relation to others, benefits from these same qualities being invoked on his or her behalf . See Tomer Devorah, Chapter 1:1.