by Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov
So many of us want to grow… so badly. We commit to growth, however, it’s all too often that we just don’t. Then there are others who do not feel any compelling reason to grow. Rosh Hashanah is the time for transformation and new beginnings. But what forces can we draw on to power that growth?
Discomfort is potentially the most powerful fuel for growth. No one likes to feel uncomfortable and when we do, we generally try to change the situation that causes it. Sometimes discomfort is caused by external forces over which a person might have little or no control over. We may lose a job or God forbid loved one, we lose money on an investment or we become ill. However, we can also create our own discomforts to power our growth. This happens when, reflecting on our lives, we feel a gap between what we believe we were capable of achieving and what we actually did achieve. We feel upset with ourselves, and let down. We can also create our own discomfort by reflecting on our aspirations and identifying the gap between the person we aspire to be and the person we are in reality. The first gap is past focused, the second is future focused. Both can lead to change if we allow ourselves to feel the discomfort with no attempt to rationalize the gaps that discomforts us. We use both these gaps during these days of reflection and atonement leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
There are forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul (the Jewish month that we are currently in) until Yom Kippur. These are same 40 days that Moses climbed Mount Sinai for the second set of tablets. Its during this time that we can draw both on our past and our future-focused gaps. The atonement process we engage in at this time of the year is divided into two parts: atonement before Rosh Hashanah and after Rosh Hashanah during the ten days of atonement culminating in Yom Kippur.
Pre-Rosh Hashanah atonement is past focused, we measure ourselves against our own expectations of ourselves and where, over the past year we have fallen short. Feeling the discomfort of this gap we use it to correct behaviors, break habits and power change. We apologize to those we have hurt and we undertake something different for the year to come. Now, all of this ends on eve of Rosh Hashanah. As the sun sets on the passing year and the New Year gently slides into place, our atonement process is interrupted. Rosh Hashanah with all its awe and majesty, contains nothing of the self-reflection, regret and remorse that characterize the days that precede it and that follow it. Instead of focusing on self, on Rosh Hashanah our focus is on the universal, global and Divine. We create a vision for the world as it could be under Gods rule. We marvel at the role of the Jewish nation in this vision, and we think about the parts we can play in its realization.
In this post-Rosh Hashanah space we measure ourselves against the vision we have created for our own lives going forward and for the future of our nation and of mankind. Each of us has a part to play in the unfolding of our vision. Each of us owes it to ourselves and to one another to become and to be the quality of person able to fulfill the role for which we are destined and for which we have been created. We improve and change ourselves not because we disappointed ourselves in the past, but in order that we can realize ourselves in the future.
This explains why Yom Kippur follows Rosh Hashanah rather than precedes it: We might have expected the ten days of atonement to follow on the month of Elul, then Yom Kippur, and only then with our atonement complete should we be ready to face our Creator on Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment. Instead Rosh Hashanah precedes the ten days of atonement; although we are judged for what we did and for who we are, we are also judged for our aspirations, the vision we create and the part we plan to play in its realization. Even if we have failed ourselves and God in the past year, a great vision for the future can assure us a positive day of judgment. This will be determined on whether or not our vision is genuine or false? The ten days of atonement determines the answer to that. If we self-reflect, notice our shortcomings and act to correct them, then our vision is real and has a chance of fulfillment. It’s up to us. This is why Jewish law suggests that we maintain higher standard of practice during these ten days than we do the rest of the year because during this time we have higher standards to meet, the standards we set for ourselves on Rosh Hahsanah.
Together this year, we will envision beautiful and majestic visions for ourselves and for our families, visions in which we realize our potential and help others to realize theirs. But most importantly visions that bring us joy, health and prosperity enabling us to grow into the best versions of ourselves.