by Rabbi Guy Tal
(Edmonton) – The days of Elul, Rosh Hashana, Aseret Yemei Teshuva (the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and Yom Kippur are days of hope. Hope for a change, for an improved situation in all aspects of our lives. We say in the “Avinu Malkenu”: “our Father, our King, inscribe us in the book of good life… book of redemption and salvation… substance and support… merits, forgiveness, and pardon.” One cycle has ended and a new fresh one begins, and we wish ourselves to have a better year.
We know that to make it a better year, we must first work hard internally in order to improve our ways and our behaviour. This process of self-improvement is called “teshuva” – making the decision to change for the better, commencing a new path that will elevate us, and helping us meet our spiritual goals.
That is why the period of Rosh Hashana is full of good decisions, new beginnings, and a sense of optimism. The problem is that many times (or most of the time?) these decisions do not survive too long. After some weeks, some days, or even a couple of hours we go back to the old habits and forget all the solemn decisions we have just made. Why does it happen and what can we do to avoid this phenomenon?
The Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4,2) recites: “Ben Azzai says: Run to perform even a “minor” mitzvah, and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin.”
Why does one mitzvah lead to another and one sin to another one? Do we lose our free will after one good action or one mistake and are now obligated to make another?
The truth is that one mitzvah does not necessarily bring another, but it does create in our souls a new tendency towards the good: a spirit of pureness. In the same way, a sin scars our soul and imprints in it a bad quality. So, at the next opportunity when we must make a decision between good and bad, we are influenced by our former decisions. The more time we have gone in a certain way the harder is to change it because of the internal effect on our spirit. That is why it is so hard to break the cycle and truly change old habits.
The idea of making a real teshuva is to be at a level where for sure “forever he will not turn to repeat that sin” (Rambam, Teshuva, 2, 2). So, we must break this cycle and start creating a new tendency in our souls. To do that we must focus on achievable goals and start from there: a “minor” mitzvah. It can be a small first step, but the change must be solid, sustainable, and very specific. Not a general decision “to be good” or “not to do evil” but some single issue on which each person knows he or she can and should improve.
The first success that will surely come will encourage us to keep going on the path of change and make a bigger decision next time. Also, the spiritual influence of the good deed we have decided upon will bring a new atmosphere to our soul, spirit, and mind, and will lead to another mitzvah, because one mitzvah leads to another one.
I wish you all Shana tova umetuka and that Hashem will inscribe us all in the book of life.
Rabbi Guy Tal is the spiritual leader at Beth Israel Congregation in Edmonton.