Rabbi Tanchum said: “If someone, who has recited the Shema every day of his life, misses it just one evening, it is as if he has never said the Shema at all. (Berakhot, 63a). Imagine that! Here is someone, aged perhaps 85, who has faithfully said the Shema every day since before his Bar Mitzvah (and how many of us can say that we have done that?), and he feels under the weather just one evening and skips it, and he’s blown the lot! A lifetime of reciting the Shema wasted!
How can we understand this? The Dubnow Magid explains it with an analogy. In parts of Europe, before the advent of the telephone or telegraph, it was the custom to transmit messages quickly from town to town by having a chain of men on mountain tops stretching from one town to the other, shouting the message down the line. As we know, there was a similar arrangement in Israel at the time of the Second Temple, to spread news of the date of the new month, by lighting fires on successive mountain tops. Anyway, suppose we have a chain of fifty men on mountain tops from one town to the next, and one man in the chain does not shout the message, or light the fire, when it is his turn. We can’t say: Well, it’s only one man out of fifty, the message system is still 98% perfect. The failure of that one man spoils it for everyone else, before and after him, down the line. So it is with that one missed recitation of the Shema.
On Rosh Hashanah we recite Psalm 24, which includes the line: “Who may climb the mountain of G-d, and who may stand in the place of His holiness?” The Baalei Mussar explain this in the following way. There are two stages in attaining new levels of observance. The first [“climbing the mountain of G-d”] involves trying out a new mitzvah, and the second (“standing in the place of His holiness”] involves constancy in its performance. The first stage corresponds to having a spiritual high, which most of us have had at some time or other. Such highs may last a few minutes, or a few months. They are valuable for giving us a taste of new levels of observance. But the important thing in Judaism, in the long run, is not such spiritual highs, but constancy in our observances. How do we reach this second stage? The best way is to make a commitment.
There seems to be an attitude prevalent in the modern world, certainly in America, of not making commitments, of keeping one’s options open, of holding back as long as possible. I know many people who come to minyan for a week or two, and then drop out for a month or so, and then reappear at minyan, and so on. Imagine someone who wanted to boil water to make tea, but instead of boiling it for ten minutes at a stretch, he boiled it for one minute, then let it cool for an hour, then boiled it for another minute, and so on. At the end of ten hours he still wouldn’t have boiling water!
In my classes, I have noticed that one mitzvah which always goes down well is the mitzvah of avoiding making oaths. [“Will you come to mincha tomorrow?” “B’li neder!”] This is an important mitzvah, but I get the feeling that people sometimes use it to avoid making commitments. Perhaps that is why the Kol Nidre prayer is so popular!
According to the Torah once you make a commitment for some greater level of observance, whether it be spending more time learning, or more time visiting the sick, or stricter Shabbos observance, or whatever it is, you immediately get the reward for it, even before you have started performing the mitzvah, provided the commitment was sincere.
Now, in the period of the Ten Days of Penitence leading up to Yom Kippur, is the time to search our souls and see what new commitments we should make. I am not asking for the impossible. Everyone knows what mitzvos they are ready to accept, and what level of observance they are ready for.