As told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Another year—and another Rosh Hashanah—is upon us. Last year, we all made resolutions to change and, in many cases, we never did. How can we make this year different?
Rabbi Chaim Sampson
Rosh Hashanah is a time to feel God’s caring. The Almighty is looking at our actions and judging us precisely because He cares about us. A parent who does not respond to his children when they do something wrong is a parent who does not care. Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to feel Hashem’s love for us in a way we cannot the rest of the year. The first thing we need to do is to slow down, stop and tap into our relationship with Hashem.
I approach every Rosh Hashanah with the aim of going forward. I make a plan, which I write down, and keep it for the rest of the year. I say, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, I’m really serious about changing for the better. What’s the one aspect I should change this year that will make me a different person? Beginning in the month of Elul, I look back at last year’s plan to see if it was accomplished. Where was I weak? Where was I strong? What do I need to focus on this year? Then there are my goals in Torah learning. How’s it going? Am I achieving? How can it be better?
I pick the most crucial areas in my avodas Hashem. I don’t take on too much because then I will end up doing nothing. I might work on being more complimentary toward my wife, for example. Rabbi Chaim Vital states that when a man evaluates himself with regard to his bein adam l’chaveiro, interpersonal relationships, he should first look at his relationship with his wife.
Rabbi Chaim Sampson is director of Project Inspire of Aish HaTorah. He lives in Passaic, New Jersey.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser
The key to a successful Yamim Noraim is not approaching it feeling like a failure, like you are crawling out of a hole that you will probably end up back in by the time the whole process is over. Every Elul, I pick one area of my life that I want to work on, an area in which I feel I can succeed. This infuses me with confidence that I can change.
Teshuvah m’ahavah is more enduring and has more impact. Throughout the year, even when you slip, you should not feel guilty because you are “bad”; you should feel guilty because you know you could be better. The goal is to summon those extraordinary moments of spirituality and faith even when life is going along smoothly and is not overwhelmingly challenging; we need to integrate those spiritual highs into our normative relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Those moments give us insight into our potential. The Yamim Noraim serve as a benchmark of what we are capable of achieving when we focus on our avodas Hashem.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser is rav of the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton, regional director of New Jersey NCSY and director of education for NCSY.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Tisser
Most of the yamim tovim have specific mitzvos related to the day. We prepare for Sukkos by building a sukkah and purchasing the daled minim; we clean the house for Pesach and prepare for a Seder. Rosh Hashanah does not have concrete mitzvos hayom, commandments that we perform on the yom tov, that demand some kind of preparation. For this reason, I find Rosh Hashanah the most difficult yom tov to prepare for. And yet, it is life altering.
We don’t have tangible mitzvos to perform on Rosh Hashanah because Hashem wants us to stop and think: Where am I going in life? What are my goals? Why did God create me? Figuring out the purpose of life is what Rosh Hashanah is all about.
Everybody wants to change; no one looks at his mistakes and flawed motivations and says, “This is how I want to be twenty years from now.”
Every year, I review with my students the gemara in Rosh Hashanah that discusses the three books Hashem opens up during this time of year. I explain that the completely wicked are immediately judged for death, the completely righteous are judged for life and the judgment of the beinonim remains suspended until Yom Kippur. My students invariably ask, “How is it that sometimes tzaddikim die while reshaim are granted another year of life?” I tell them that “life” in this case, according to Tosafos, refers to eternal life in Olam Haba. My students usually respond, “Why are we judged for getting eternal life, Olam Haba, every year and not just at the end of our lives, after 120 years?” Basing my answer on Rabbi Chaim Friedlander’s works, I explain that on Rosh Hashanah you are really making a decision about what type of life you are planning to live in the coming year. Are your goals Olam Hazeh-oriented goals—for material things—or are they Olam Haba-directed goals—for spiritual accomplishments? If you choose Olam Haba-oriented goals, Hashem will judge you accordingly, writing you down for an “Olam Haba” kind of year filled with opportunities to grow in ruchniyus. If Hashem sees you are sincere in your desire to do teshuvah, He will assist you in attaining your spiritual goals.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Tisser is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ketana of Manhattan.
Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
I love Elul. It’s a time of such simchah. Hashem extends Himself toward us and takes us as we are. The Zohar states that if we knew how great is Hashem’s love for us, we would roar like lions and run after Him. So how do we get rid of all the impediments to getting close to Hashem, to doing teshuvah?
There are different ways to do this. I make a cheshbon hanefesh, a life review. Every person could divide his life into distinct periods and ask himself four questions about each era.
1. What are the important events you recall from that period?
2. How did you respond to what was going on in your life at that time?
3. Now it gets tricky. Reflecting back on those decisions, ask yourself which choices brought you closer to where you want to be in life and which pushed you further away.
4. The last and most important question: Why did you make that particular choice? What was in it for you? This last question is going to clarify what motivated you and what your core middot are. You’ll notice that the same character flaws and weaknesses come up again and again. One individual may make poor choices because he has a deep fear of disapproval or a strong desire to belong. Another may be driven by physical pleasure. Year after year, our motivations tend to stay the same, but they appear in different, and perhaps more sophisticated, guises.
As you mature and reflect back on the various periods in your life, your insights and perspectives should change. It may take years and even decades to have a deeper understanding of events that have taken place in your life and how you responded to them.
Once you have identified a core weakness that is constantly tripping you up, you need to develop a concrete plan for change. Everybody wants to change; no one looks at his mistakes and flawed motivations and says, This is how I want to be twenty years from now. My path is hitbodedut—introspection—talking to Hashem at length, asking for His help, letting myself be vulnerable to Him and letting teshuvah come from that place. This intimacy brings out a sense of hope and optimism. You have a sense of Hashem’s believing in you, which is very inspiring. It has affected my life dramatically.
Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller is an internationally acclaimed speaker, author and lecturer. She teaches at Neve Yerushalayim College in Jerusalem.
When you’re a mother with young kids, a lot of time is spent making sure the kids are clean and fed and the crumbs are swept away. It’s hard to be connected to spiritual things while running a busy household, but I haven’t forgotten about connecting with God. I think about God a lot. On most nights before going to bed, I think about how short life is and how I can maximize my time here.
Because of the kiruv work that I do, I’m constantly plugged in. I have an iPhone, and Facebook and Twitter account, and constantly get e-mails from people undergoing different spiritual crises. I say to myself, I’ll answer just one more e-mail. But I need to make sure that I’m doing enough kiruv in my own home. The time I have with the kids is short, and they grow up so quickly.
Sometimes I get frustrated with all the areas that need fixing and improving and I think to myself, Why am I not better yet? Why am I dealing with this problem for the twenty millionth time? I remind myself that it’s okay to keep making the same mistakes as long as I keep picking myself up. When I speak to my children in a frazzled, angry way, for example, I’m aware that they’ll imitate my behavior, so I try to speak calmly and have patience.
Allison Josephs is an NCSY alumna and creator of Jewinthecity, a blog that addresses common misconceptions about religious Jews and Judaism.
Chava Willig Levy
My neshamah connects to music. One of Shlomo Carlebach’s most brilliant songs, the passage of “Kivakoras Roeh Edro, Like a Shepherd Pasturing His Flock,” from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening, expresses the paradox of how I view Rosh Hashanah. There are two parts to the melody. The first part is haunting and awe-filled; it inspires trembling. But when Carlebach gets to the end of that section, he pauses and the melody shifts into a soothing waltz. The sheep must be very frightened of the shepherd; he has a staff and ensures that no sheep escapes. The first melody conveys that fear. Yet the waltz part, with the very same words, seems to convey the message that the shepherd loves each and every one of his sheep and won’t ever abandon them. The same words can either strike terror in your heart or provide you with such equanimity and tranquility.
Chava Willig Levy is a New York-based writer, editor and lecturer who zips around in a motorized wheelchair. She is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at www.chavawilliglevy.com.
Rabbi Arieh Friedner
Our hectic lives don’t give us the opportunity to stop and think, which is this generation’s yetzer hara. We need to sit down for just ten minutes to have a conversation with ourselves and ask, What am I doing properly? What am I doing improperly? What are my goals? We know the solutions, but we don’t give ourselves the respect or the necessary time to figure out how to attain them.
When it comes to being a better spouse or parent, there is always room to grow. Every single day you have to imagine yourself as a new person. Never be tied down to who you were yesterday, to your regrets and mistakes. A new year is the best time to focus on where we have strayed and to start afresh, in a new way. We have Rosh Hashanah to remind us of what our lives are all about.
Rabbi Arieh Friedner is city director of Cleveland NCSY.
Rabbi Allen Schwartz
“Shanah” in the word “Rosh Hashanah” is related to “shinuiy,” change. Rosh Hashanah is a time for re-evaluation: Am I the best husband I can be, the best son or daughter? You are never going to be able to answer these questions if you are not aware of where you are holding. If you want to get to a certain place, you have to know where you are and where you’re heading.
A person gets an annual physical; he should also have an annual spiritual . . . A life of goals is the goal of life.
Hashem does an amazing chesed by giving us the opportunity to turn things around. A person gets an annual physical; he should also have an annual spiritual. Rosh Hashanah gives us that opportunity. I set daily, weekly, monthly and yearly goals. I don’t go to sleep at night until everything on my list is crossed out. If I don’t finish something on Monday, I’ll cross it out and put it on Tuesday’s card. Did I finish the book I wanted to finish or the mesechtas I wanted to complete? How have my kids grown? How has my congregation grown?
You have to make Torah, avodah and gemilut chasadim part of each day. At the beginning of the year, I determine the amount of learning I want to accomplish. My wife and I choose five or six people and say we really have to get these people married this year. Then the smaller goals—did I give joy to my wife, chilchildren and parents today? I also try to help the ba’alei batim and students set proper goals and meet them. A life of goals is the goal of life.
Rabbi Allen Schwartz is rav of Ohab Zedek in Manhattan and holds the Raymond J. Greenwald Chair in Jewish studies at Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Menachem Nissel
I start becoming Rosh Hashanah-obsessed at the beginning of Elul. This is the time of year I focus on mussar texts and try to shape up on a personal level.
I make a list of the small steps I need to take. I keep it short—no more than five or six things. I divide it into three categories: bein adam l’chaveiro, bein adam l’Makom and bein adam l’atzmo (self-control).
In recent years one of the challenges I’ve grappled with is whether I control my media or my media controls me. Every year I’ve noticed that this particular struggle becomes harder and harder. It’s a never-ending battle.
I make small changes. About five years ago, I resolved to always put my phone on vibrate so that it would never go off in shul. The year before last, I decided that when I wake up in the morning, I wouldn’t check my e-mail before davening. Last year I resolved not to check my e-mail for at least a half-hour after Havdalah. I have thousands of NCSYers with whom I stay in touch on Facebook. But for the past few years, from Elul to Yom Kippur, I leave Facebook. I found that it is incredibly healthy for me to have forty days to detox.
Every erev Yom Kippur, my wife and I speak privately to each of our children and ask him or her for mechilah and how we could improve as parents. We want to make sure we are practicing proactive rather than reactive parenting. Erev Yom Kippur is the climax of our year as parents.
Hashem, with His infinite sense of humor, made Elul the beginning of the school year. It is another way of saying “the summer’s over and let’s get back to reality”; the work is just beginning.
A few years ago my family and I were traveling from St. Louis to Kansas City. I was supposed to give a shiur at a synagogue there. On the way we stopped at a gas station called Stuckey’s where you could buy T-shirts, shot glasses and great coffee. You could easily spend twenty minutes getting lost in the store. My son said, “Abba, we’re stuck at Stuckey’s; we’ve got to get back to the highway so that you won’t miss your shiur.” That story is symbolic of our lives. Throughout the year we find ourselves getting stuck, sucked into all kinds of distractions, and we lose focus. Then Elul arrives and we realize we’re stuck at Stuckey’s and we have to get back on the road to Kansas City, to the shiur. We have to make sure we are making the most out of the short time we have in this world.
Rabbi Menacham Nissel is a Jerusalem-based lecturer, educator and NCSY mashgiach ruchani. He is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah (Jerusalem, 2001).
Hashem doesn’t say, “I’m giving you one Rosh Hashanah, and you’ve got to do it all.” Every year we get a chance to work on ourselves, to strive harder to grow. A person is not on his own; he needs to daven for siyata d’Shamaya and remember that Hashem is rooting for him.
Deborah Ordan is a wife and mother currently living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The forty days from Elul until Yom Kippur is a powerful block of time. I ask myself, Where was I before last Rosh Hashanah? What was I worried about then? What did I want then? What do I wish for this year?
I start with gratitude. I usually write down why I feel a sense of gratitude: my husband and children are healthy and well, thank God. I look at all the opportunities given to me. For example, I look at how every piece of litigation I worked on shifted unexpectedly; how God did for me what I can’t do for myself. I try to see His involvement in everything.
I look at what my spiritual life is like day-to-day: Am I learning? Am I connecting with the people I value most? Am I connecting with my family? I evaluate all my relationships. What’s my relationship with my husband and children like? What could enrich us?
I want to know where I’m headed already before Elul begins. I try to internalize that Hashem is King of the world, that nothing happens in my life without His involvement, that everything is in His hands. I come to a point where I acknowledge all the good in my life, all the people I’m grateful for, and I resolve to grow in these relationships. If I go through this process, I go into Rosh Hashanah feeling very calm and joyful.
Diane Faber is a wife, mother and an attorney in private practice in Los Angeles.
Every Elul I come up with a slightly altered version of the same plan: I’m going to set aside time each day for reflecting on the past year and the one about to begin. But no matter how hard I’ve tried, every year my plans remain stuck in the realm of good intentions.
Elul always seems to come at an inconvenient time—generally when my life is in a peak state of disorder. It arrives here in Florida at the height of hurricane season— usually accompanied by floods and power outages—and often just when my mother or another family member is in the middle of a medical crisis of some sort while I’m battling a writing deadline.
Instead of drawing closer to Hashem, I find myself caught up in the details of life. Come Tishrei, all I could do is throw myself at His mercy and hope for the best.
I’ve decided to stop complaining and make peace with the fact that Elul has apparently been set aside as a time of upheaval for me. I no longer wait for quiet moments and spiritual possibilities. I talk to Hashem wherever I am, no matter what I’m doing. I ask for His help all day long, with every pile of dirty laundry and stack of papers I face. All that asking can be very humbling—and maybe that’s the whole point.
I hope that someday my Elul experience will be deeper and more focused. For now, I’ll consider the interruptions part of the process. Asking Hashem to help me get over every little bump in the road feels like the most real and honest way to connect with Him—and the perfect beginning on my journey toward Rosh Hashanah.
Pesi Dinnerstein lives in South Florida and is the author of A Cluttered Life: Searching for God, Serenity, and My Missing Keys (New York, 2011).
Rebbetzin Peshi Neuburger
When I was growing up, there was a certain mood in my home during the month of Elul. Everybody else got dresses for Rosh Hashanah, Sukkos and Pesach; we got dresses for Yom Kippur. It was crucial to my mother that we understood that Yom Kippur was a yom tov. I told her, “Yom Kippur doesn’t feel like a yom tov; everyone’s crying.” She said, “We are crying because so much is being decided today, but we’re so happy we have this day because Hashem wants us back.” That’s the balance we had.
We have a certain atmosphere in my own home now. If we are on vacation in August, my husband wants us to return home in time for Elul. You don’t go on vacation in Elul; there is work to be done.
I can’t say that I go through a checklist: Did I daven better today? Did I speak less lashon hara today? But there is an awareness—I will think twice before I do things. There is a feeling that one is facing an impending court case.
I try to make the words in tefillah new. If I could find new meaning in tefillah, that causes me to be excited about it. You take ancient timeless words and figure out how to fit yourself and your personal situation into them; make the words yours.
For young mothers, there are many challenges during the Yamim Noraim. I remember feeling it every single year: Do I get a babysitter and go to shul and have a beautiful davening or do I stay with my children? But then I’d think, My children will be at home feeling like it’s any other day. Often, I’d stay home and read them a story that has to do with the import of the day. One of the stories I used to read can be traced back to Odel, the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov. The story describes how Odel wanted to daven on Rosh Hashanah. She gives her baby breakfast, changes his diaper and puts him down for a nap. She is about to open her machzor when she hears him whimpering. She goes to the crib and sees him standing there with his big sparkling brown eyes. His arms are outstretched and he is pleading with his eyes, “I’m yours; please take me!” She takes him out and plays with him. After a while he gets cranky. So she gives him a bottle, then feeds him lunch. He needs to be changed again. Before you know it, everyone is returning home from shul. A tear slides down her cheek; she looks Heavenward and says, “Ribbono shel Olam, I have time for only one tefillah and I’m going to daven for You. My tefillah for You is that You have as much nachas from Your children this year as you have given me from mine.”
Rebbetzin Peshi Neuburger is a noted lecturer and rebbetzin of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, New Jersey.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.