In this week’s Parsha, Moshe continues his pump-up speech to the Jewish people, who are stationed on the shores of the Jordan River, ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. He tries to impress upon them the importance of keeping the Mitzvos and following God’s will when they enter the land. After delineating some of those very Mitzvos, including the Bikurim that must be brought each year, Moshe begins a sobering speech known as the Tochacha.
In the Tochacha, Moshe warns the Jews of what will happen if they do not follow Hashem’s Mitzvos. Prior to the Tochacha, Moshe calls the nation to attention with the following critical statement: “Haskeis U’shema,” – “imagine/picture and hear/listen.” (Devarim 27:9) Sforno explains that through these words, Moshe is actually providing Klal Yisrael, and, by extension, us, with the exact formula for avoiding the outcomes of the Tochacha and the curses that precede it: imagine yourself fulfilling Ratzon Hashem and picture in your mind the Brachos you will receive, and then you will heed and listen to His words - i.e., that itself will enable you to do His Mitzvos.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe notes that this Sforno is actually referring to the incredible power of visualization. In the context of Parshas Balak and our discussion of how we are influenced by what we see, we spoke about how using one’s imagination can be extremely helpful in achieving spiritual growth. Here, the Torah directly alludes to this tremendous Koach in Avodas Hashem. Moshe is telling the Jewish people, if you envision it, you can achieve it. Picture yourself fulfilling God’s will, and then you will have a far easier time actually doing so.
Guided imagery, imaginal exposure, and visualization are all therapeutic techniques using our Koach HaDimyon, the imagination, to conjure images in our mind’s eye that help us to grow.
One can use guided imagery to increase mindfulness, to relax, to regulate difficult emotions. The Baal Shem Tov is famous for saying that a person literally is where his mind is, and guided imagery helps to transport us to a different place by picturing specific settings and images in our minds.
Imaginal exposure is a technique used to help people overcome anxiety and fear that is interfering with their functioning. For example, if a person has a fear of flying, and therefore avoids not only taking a flight, but even getting on a plane or going to an airport, exposure to his fear can help to decrease the amount of anxiety he has about it, and help him to actually do that which he fears. Often, however, people with significant phobias or anxiety have difficulty facing their fears in real life. Imaginal exposure utilizes the power of the imagination to guide the person by imagining himself facing and overcoming his fear while experiencing the very real anxiety that comes with conjuring up those images and related sensations - and learning to tolerate and decrease that anxiety.
In an equally helpful but lower stakes situation, one can use visualization to mentally prepare oneself for accomplishing an important goal. The most commonly cited example is that of a basketball player visualizing every free-throw going in - swish – and then practicing with renewed confidence, for now that he has actually seen himself succeed, he suddenly finds that he can.
L’havdil, Rav Wolbe notes that it is no different in Judaism and Avodas Hashem. Throughout the Torah, there are direct and indirect references to the power of visualization. As mentioned previously with regard to Pesach, at the Seder we discuss the commandment to “see [ourselves] as if [we] left Egypt,” to actually sit and imagine it happening, in order to increase our connection to the moment. This is true for the past, but it is also true for future deeds. Moshe’s entreaty to Klal Yisrael in this week’s Parsha, “Haskeis U’shema,” - imagine and then listen - is not only a command but a helpful piece of advice. When we are struggling to accomplish a goal, we can break it down into tangible pieces – and then we can imagine ourselves actually doing each part, accomplishing each objective, for that will make achieving the end goal seem infinitely more realistic, and actually increase the chances that we can, in fact, succeed.
By way of example, let us practice the following together. Identify an area in your Avodas Hashem in which you are struggling, perhaps one that you have identified as the ‘it’ Mitzvah or struggle for this Elul, this immense time of growth and change. Consider where you are now in your level of observance of that Mitzvah, your level of awareness or stringency or diligence.
Now, close your eyes (well, finish reading first!). See yourself, in a year from now, having grown in that identified area. Picture your facial features, imagine what you are wearing, where you are, whether you are sitting or standing, who you are with, how they are reacting, and how you are relating to each other – what do the people look like? What are the colors in the room or setting? What does it smell like? What does your body feel like?
When you have fully conjured this image, consider the following: What is the difference between who you are now and who you are in your imaginings of one year from now? Identify what is missing – and within that gap lays your opportunity for growth.
When we can imagine and picture ourselves accomplishing our goals, we can identify what is missing from our present reality and thus work backward to recognize the steps we must take in order to achieve what we visualize for ourselves. Moshe Rabbeinu taps into this secret in this week’s Parsha, and begs us to imagine ourselves accomplishing and succeeding in our Avodas Hashem and reaping the rewards.
This Shabbos, as Rosh Hashana draws nearer and the opportunity for growth is immediately at hand, let us all take a moment to visualize the people we want to be, to think about the areas in which we want to change, grow, or advance, and to picture ourselves actually changed, actually improved, actually triumphant. With God’s help, we will all turn that vision into a reality.