Honesty and How to Change a Bad Habit

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are reunited with children (including my parents, Bruce and Laurie Herman), grandparents with grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at Bet Shira Congregation. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Bet Shira Congregation.

For those who do not know, we have a sister congregation, Kehillat Netzach Yisrael in Ashkelon. I sent a more detailed update by email but here is a synopsis of what they are doing. They operate five afternoon day care programs with over 140 children including a hot lunch and activities.  They also opened a nursery from three months old to three years old last year.  They added another room to the nursery this year and now have thirty children in that program.

Their rabbi, Gustavo Surazski, has been running mini lectures series in member’s homes. Their Youth Movement started two weeks ago from third grade to the army (ages 9-18).

After the holidays we will begin working on B’nai Mitzvah twinning with our sister congregation. Each Bnei Mitzvah student will be twinned with someone in our sister congregation who is also becoming a Bar Mitzvah, kind of like a pen pal. The students will write to one another-I will translate the Hebrew into English-and they will learn about their Israeli counterpart. There will also be the option of B’nai Mitzvah families giving to Kehillat Netzach Yisrael (as well as anyone else who wants to give) in order to support the good work of our sister congregation.

 

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5734-1973”

Another New Year

Marking passing of time,

A fresh chance to reflect

And to question how I am

Passing my days

In my journey through time-

Do I value each moment

God sends to be mine?

Do I criticize much

Which I do not approve,

Instead of attempting

Myself to improve?

Another New Year

Marking passing of time

Holds the need to reflect

On my whole life design.[1]

I couldn’t get it done. Those words from presidential candidate Pete Buttigeg speak volumes.  Mayor Pete who served in South Bend, Indiana, where I was privileged to have a pulpit internship, was asked why he did not further desegregate the South Bend police force and why race relations have worsened during his tenure as Mayor. ‘I couldn’t get it done’ was his response. No excuses, no further explanation.

Regardless of where we stand politically, I think we can learn from Mayor Pete’s words. So often in life we are afraid of our shortcomings so we build artifice around them. When taken to task for something we did, we develop an excuse or a rationalization. Believe me I understand: I’m a Maimonidean at heart. However, what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about are looking ourselves in the mirror. We are honest, admitting that we are human and that we make mistakes.

After Mayor Pete’s statement, David Suissa of the Fort Lauderdale based Jewish Journal wrote the following: “It was a shocking moment. In the middle of all the bluster at the Democratic primary debate Thursday night, with one candidate after another promising they would fix all of our problems, one candidate, Pete Buttigieg, decided to go in another direction. He decided he would tell us the truth and admit failure. In so doing, he exposed a deeper truth: There’s just so much a politician can do to make our lives better. All too often, they fail. The problem is, they never admit it. They’re afraid that if they do, they will lose our vote. And maybe they’re right. Maybe we’re just suckers for hucksters who promise us the moon. We want to believe that someone, somewhere, can make our lives better. The alternative— that the solution to most of our problems is inside each one of us — is too burdensome.[2]

Rather than do the best we can and admit failure when it occurs, it is far easier to blame someone else or to put on blinders or a mask, pretending we did no wrongdoing. After all, Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage[3]-and some of us are rather good actors. The High Holy Days, however, is the time at which we take off the masks, the blinders, and expose ourselves for who we truly are.

Let us illustrate that with a comparison between our upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur and Purim. The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century Lithuanian rabbi, reminds us that Yom Kippur’s full name is Yom HaKippurim, meaning “the day which is like Purim.”[4] Does that surprise everyone? According to the Talmud, every holiday has a partner, and Yom Kippur’s is Purim.[5] Purim is a foil for Yom Kippur, a day where we relish in the physical; food, drink and merriment. Yom Kippur is the day when we focus on the spiritual; being like angels who do not require and food or drink. Purim is the day when we read the Megillah, where G-d’s name is not even mentioned once. Yom Kippur is the day totally devoted to G-d, a day of atonement or “at one ment” where we become one with G-d.

The greatest opposite, however, is not in what we do but rather in how we are supposed to feel. On Purim we put on masks, hiding our true identities. We do this to mimic G-d, who says “I will surely hide my face from them.” [6]וְאָנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי֙  The name Esther means hidden and she is the perfect example of an assimilated Jew, hiding her identity-from her husband no less! Yom Kippur is the opposite of Purim: we take off the masks, revealing our true inner natures as we stand before the Ark, just us and the Master of the Universe.

Our new year goes one step further than the secular one. Rather than making resolutions, we look ourselves in the mirror, saying not only that we are going to change but more importantly how we are going to change.  We acknowledge where we fell short and how we are going to do better in the coming year.

In a podcast by the Mussar Institute, Ronit Ziv-Krieger gave six steps for habit change. The first is to have a sense of purpose as to what one wants to change. Second is to have awareness of what one is doing at all times, being focused on the present moment. Third is self-restraint, specifically to define the point at which you struggle. Fourth is to create a trigger or visual stimulus to help you in the process. We often think of triggers as negative yet they can also be turning points for positive change. Fifth is to choose something small to work on. There is a rabbinic maxim תפסת מרובה לא תפסת, if you try to grab too much at once you grab onto nothing.[7] Sixth is to appreciate what you’ve done and to be compassionate for yourself when you fail, evaluating yourself honestly. The rabbinic principle is ברחמים תשוב, that we have compassion for ourselves and try again. We do not put on a mask, making an excuse or blaming others: we accept things as they are for now, admitting failure when appropriate, and then we try again.

Every year we gather together here at Bet Shira Congregation, saying the same prayers, atoning for our sins and then returning to our regular routines . As we engage in this process of repentance תשובה, let each of us ponder the question: How have you changed in the past year? What are you doing differently than when we gathered together last September? How are you becoming a better person, taking more time for your family, putting more effort into your work, eliminating bad habits and strengthening good ones? Our service may not have changed much but you have certainly changed. You’re one year older and wiser with more life experience, the wisdom to guide each of us on our path.

I strongly believe in besheret, that none of us is here by accident. Each of us has a specific path to walk down, a mission to follow, a destiny to embrace. During these holy days, we take our personal heshbon hanefesh, our accounting of what we are doing, how we are progressing on our journey through life. It is too easy to go through the prayers by rote, saying hello to our neighbors and then walking out the door until next year. It’s far more difficult, though crucial, to sit back and ponder who we are and in which direction we are heading. We need to follow Ronit Ziv-Krieger’s six steps, in particular recognizing the turning points for us to make effective change as well as celebrating our successes, yet when we relapse or go down the same rabbit hole, we must have compassion for ourselves and admit to our current reality. At this time of introspection, it’s just us and G-d.

Rosh Hashanah’s significance is that it is the birthday of the world. In the Musaf service, we will say three times היום הרת עולם-this is the day on which the world was created. There is a creative interpretation by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs by “The Velveteen Rabbi.” She writes that היום הרת עולם means “today is pregnant with eternity.”[8] In other words, anything’s possible on any given day. We are not bound by the same old but rather we must open ourselves up to new possibilities. Rosh Hashanah provides a lightning rod for doing so, for reflecting on how we want the coming year to go and what type of person we want to be this year. I think about what type of rabbi, husband, father, son, teacher and leader I want to be in 5780, how I want to get rid of bad habits and refine myself for the better. Thank G-d Rosh Hashanah comes around every year and enables us to be introspective and reflective…as long as it is followed by acting in a constructive and proactive manner.

Think of the moments that have inspired you to change. It could be a wakeup call of some kind, a matter needing urgent attention, or it could be a characteristic you noticed in someone else that you wanted to emulate. We hope for more of the latter as opposed to the former, as too often we wait too long to make the constructive, beneficial changes that would greatly aide us. Now is the time to do so-for Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה) can also be thought of as Rosh HaShinui (ראש השינוי), the time for making changes.
When we return to daven (pray) together next year, I imagine that the prayerbook will still be the same. You might be sitting in the same seats next to the same people. However, you will have changed over the course of the coming year. Perhaps you will take those Krav Maga lessons or learned how to sail (a good skill in Florida). Maybe you will find a way to be better connected with friends and family who live far away or to be more patient, kind and gentle to those who are in your midst. Perchance you will gain the skills necessary for a job promotion. Perhaps you’ll go to Africa to help at an orphanage. Maybe you’ll even win at Fortnite-or maybe the Dolphins will win a game! Whatever this new year brings, think about what you can do to grow as a person so that when we meet again you will be able to say, “I certainly have changed for the better, and it was well worth the effort.” Similarly, when we digress into the habits of yesteryear, let us not put on blinders but rather say “This is where I am at present; I’ll try again to get better.” היום הרת עולם-Today is pregnant with eternity.

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5732-1971”

At the approaching of each New Year

One must really pause and ask oneself

What one has accomplished in the past year,

What one has envisioned of the New Year.

For time is not guaranteed progressive,

And living can advance or be regressive.

Thus, at the approach of every New Year,

One must really pause to reassess

What one has accomplished in the past year

To assist the new year to progress.[9]

 

Shana Tova U’metuka, a happy, sweet and healthy new year to all.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 133.

[2] David Suissa, June 28, 2019, The Most Powerful Line of the Year: ‘I Couldn’t Get it Done’ https://jewishjournal.com/columnist-2/editors-note/300775/the-most-powerful-line-of-the-year-i-couldnt-get-it-done/

[3] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

[4] Vilna Gaon, Yahel Or-Likkutim Yekarim V’Niflaim

[5] Talmud Bavli Pesachim 68b

[6] Deuteronomy 31:18

[7] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 80a

[8] Blog posting in The Velveteen Rabbi, “Being Change” on September 17, 2012.

[9] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 132.

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