Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, September 6, 2018

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Walk Article

PIECE OF CAKE 

Nitzavim-Rosh Hashanah-5779 

Rabbi David Walk 

 

Given a choice, wouldn't you prefer easy? I would. However not Teddy Roosevelt, he once said, 'Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.' That's scary.  I wonder if he had many friends. Would you go on vacation with him? With Rosh Hashanah coming, how many Jewish homemakers (of both genders) take the easy way out of meal preparations? Well, there's me and maybe one or two others. Because, in general I want the easiest way of doing just about everything. However, the one area in which I might have assumed unanimity of assumed difficulty would be personal reform or improvement. And, of course, that brings us to the combination of this week's Torah reading and Rosh Hashanah. 

Both parshat Nitzavim and Rosh Hashanah have a hefty helping of Teshuva. Rosh Hashanah, of course, has many themes, Kingship of God, Creation, the Covenant, but there's a major dose of Teshuva thrown in as Yom Hadin, Day of Judgment. Nitzavim has chapter 30 of Devarim whose nickname is Parshat Teshuva. But here's the rub: Our Sages continually push a Teshuva agenda which sounds very burdensome and difficult, however, chapter 30 makes it sound like a piece of cake. I would assume honey cake, but not that dry, icky variety. Here's the quote: For this commandment which I command you today – it is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you might say, 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Nor is it over the sea… For this matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Devarim 30:11-14). 

Although there is an argument (Isn't there always?), about the 'commandment' referred to in the first verse, most commentaries follow the Ramban who claims that we're talking about Teshuva. The gist of this quote is that Teshuva is easy peasy. Really?! And it gets worse, because verse 2 makes it sound like Teshuva is inevitable. This sort of takes the hard work out of Rosh Hashanah, and that would make Teddy Roosevelt very upset, and I saw A Night at the Museum, so I know he's scary when upset. But here's the real problem: We have statistical evidence that Teshuva is extremely difficult. 

Let me explain. All the studies about major life changes are very pessimistic. Statistics show that amongst those who have kicked horrible habits, relapse is almost inescapable. For heroin, alcohol and weight loss most studies show relapse rates hovering around 90%. The number for drug addictions overall is 85%. The most favorable figure I've seen is for gambling addiction which still runs at 75% relapse rate. Believe it or not, the worst figure I've seen for this relapse phenomenon is New Year's (That's the January First one.) resolutions, which runs a whopping 92% (Forbes, Jan. 1, 2013). Only 8% of these resolutions ever get fulfilled, and that may be the behavior example closest in concept to Teshuva. 

So, who's fooling us, the numbers or (God Forbid) the Torah? I could quote that almost Jewish Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli, who famously said, 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, darn lies and statistics. I think that quote is only famous because Mark Twain re-quoted it. That's the 19th century equivalent of retweeting. Ultimately, we're going to say: Neither! But first we must more closely analyze the verses. 

What do the verses mean when they say that this precept is neither in heaven nor overseas? Robert Alter explains that in ancient myths it was only great heroes who could climb to the sky or cross great oceans. Thus, the phrases mean that it's not too hard even for normal mortals, like us. More traditionally, I think it means that repenting is not too difficult for us either spiritually or physically. That's buttressed by the end of verse 14 which says that it's close to your mouth (physical) and your heart (spiritual). So, what is close by? Apparently, Teshuva. 

I believe strongly that we're looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. Yes, it's profoundly difficult to change our ways. However, it's very easy to receive God's forgiveness. Let's look at the New Year's resolution situation from a different angle. A majority of Americans make new year's resolutions (almost 60%). That's a happy stat. And many psychologists believe that just making a resolution is healthy, because 'making a resolution is one of the best ways to actually make a change (Miami Herald, January 29, 2017).' Resolution makers do better than the rest of the population, and contemplation is the first stage to action. 

This brings us back to Teshuva. Most of us enter Rosh Hashanah with tremendous trepidation of Divine wrath, because of our guilt over moral failures. But at some point, we must realize that Teshuva has many steps the first is recognizing that we've done something wrong. The second is regret for our ethical lapse.  The next steps, leading to actual behavior improvement are called TESHUVA GMURA (complete repentance) by the Rambam. Those can't be fulfilled on Rosh Hashana. They can only be accomplished and assessed over a long period of time. So, what is the promise in the Torah and the expectation of Rosh Hashana? That God will accept our confession and contrition, and forgive us. 

The entirety of Teshuva is a long process, like all organic growth and development. That's not the promise in the verse. When the verse states that it's 'very near to you', it means that God is nearby forbearing your faux pas. It's not promising that you're a new character, just a pardoned person. 

We must come into Rosh Hashanah with confidence in the mercy, compassion and forgiveness of God. We're being told that God is a benevolent parent. That's the promise. But the hard work of improvement is on us. Good Luck and Shana Tova!   


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