Q: As Rosh Hashanah approaches, it can be depressing to think how one year seems similar to another. I haven’t made any monumental movements in my life, and the whole thought of self-improvement just reminds me of how little I’ve actually changed. How can I enter the Yamim Nora’im with the proper mindset?
A: It is a difficult accomplishment for anyone to truly be prepared for Rosh Hashanah. Amidst the many details that comprise our daily lives, making time for introspection may seem close to impossible. However, just as we manage to make time for an emergency dentist appointment, we need to create a similar block of time to revisit the memories and experiences of the past year. This “alone time” can be more readily attained when we are outside the home (e.g., in a library), or when our children are at school. Taking the phone off the hook also assures fewer interruptions.
Once we set aside special time before the Yamim Nora’im, actually writing down a review of the past year is very helpful. Just as a year-end inventory is taken in business, a similar process needs to occur in relation to ourselves at this time. An inventory always includes gains and losses; similarly, in order to honestly reflect upon the past year, a list of assets and shortcomings should be recorded.
Yom Kippur is often embarked on with thoughts of “I did the same mistake mentioned in Al Cheit again; how can I say these words of repentance over and over again, and not really change? I’m such a hypocrite!”
Being honest also means giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. There are often areas in which we improve if we are sincere. Change is a process. If a particular middah or action is difficult for us, it will most likely always be challenging to some degree. As everyone’s particular nature has specific limitations, our limitations all too often come back to visit us. We say Al Cheit, and question if we’ve really done teshuvah, because a particular area is one where we encounter repetitive challenges (not an area where we have necessarily totally failed).
When scrutinizing our actions, we can often find blemishes in our mitzvah performance: “Perhaps I’ve done this only because I wanted to make a good impression on my neighbor or co-worker.” Even if this is true, how is it possible that this mitzvah contains not even a small amount of good? Some good point must be there!
We need to see whatever good has been accomplished in the past year in order to find meaning in our lives and give direction to our future. The good that has been accomplished can be as mundane as getting everyone to brush their teeth at night. As it is a mitzvah to take care of one’s physical body, this accomplishment is truly an asset. Additional assets may include items such as initiating friendships with neighbors, thereby causing ahavas Yisrael. The times when we easily could have spoken lashon hara or rechilus but held ourselves back are times that only we and the Ribbono shel Olam are aware of. Write down specific examples of such praiseworthy actions in this cheshbon hanefesh! Speaking calmly in stress-provoking situations is another example of an exemplary achievement. As these accomplishments are written down and numbered, our days of the year seem to grow richer in content and meaning. The more specific this inventory is, the more we can reflect upon the past year with a sense of purposeful accomplishment and personal success.
After we have reviewed our assets in this “inventory,” it becomes easier to appraise our shortcomings without feeling such a strong sense of despair. It is less painful to confront personal flaws when we are reminded that we also possess so many good points. If our positive actions seem small in comparison to what we may consider great accomplishments, we must ask ourselves: What greater accomplishment is there than tikkun hamiddos? As we see that we have made changes (even incremental ones), we can see that whatever we may lack within ourselves is surely not insurmountable.
This concept reflects a similar idea in the field of mental health, where a minor change within an individual or a family system can result in a snowball effect, eventually causing more positive change.