Rosh Hashana 5781:
Begin with the End in Mind
by Miri Korbman
During the first few sessions I have with any new patient, I will ask some version of the following question: If therapy were a magic wand that I could wave to change your life overnight, what exactly would change? If this process were to be helpful for you, in what ways would your life be different? I ask this question (in different developmentally appropriate iterations) to help myself and my patients identify an end-goal, a destination in the distance toward which we can set our sights as we delve into the work of therapy together. This question is born both from the wise advice I received from multiple supervisors throughout my training as well the empirical research on motivations for and obstacles to growth and change.
What keeps us stuck in the same routinized patterns of functioning and relating? What prevents us from changing course when our current track seems to continuously derail us and lead us astray from our goals or values? Psychological scientists have found that often, a major barrier that we face when it comes to making lasting changes is lack of planning and accurate forethought. We say we want to do something differently, or seek to feel better in some realm of our lives, or to kick a habit we’ve developed, but we find ourselves continuously drawn back into that same rhythm because we did not develop the proper perspective at the outset. In order to make lasting change, we need first to consider who we want to be, what it is we envision differently in our future, what changes we want to make to those ends, and the necessary steps to get there. As we say every Friday night in Lecha Dodi, “Sof Maaseh B’Machashava Techila,” the end of all matters starts first with thought; beginning with the end in mind is the key to successful transformation.
As we approach Rosh Hashana, we are certainly thinking about growth and change. We reflect on our deeds, relationships, challenges and triumphs over the last year, and we try to make plans to improve going forward. Rosh Hashana is not just a celebration of new beginnings, however. It is also the first of the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, the ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, and the day itself is known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. The Meiri notes that anyone who is not careful with his Teshuva on Rosh Hashana has no portion in the God of Israel. Clearly, Rosh Hashana is not just about New Year’s resolutions. Yet, we do not find reference to Teshuva in the classic sense anywhere in the Rosh Hashana davening, with the exception of the mention of Teshuva in the Tefilah of Unisaneh Tokef. There is no Viduy on Rosh Hashana, and we do not mention our sins, or ask for forgiveness. What then is the Teshuva of the day?
Rabbi Chaim Marcus shlit”a explains according to the Maharsha and others that the main core of the davening on Rosh Hashana is the paragraphs of Malchios, Zichronos, and Shofros, which we only recite on Rosh Hashana. The Maharsha relates that these sections are meant to remind us of three of the Ikarim of Jewish faith: the existence of God and His continued involvement in and Kingship over the world on a daily basis, the principle of reward and punishment and that God remembers (Zichronos) all that we do, and the belief that Torah is divine and was given to us at Har Sinai, amid the sounds of Shofros. The central unifying theme among all of these tenets of faith is that God exists and reigns over the world, and that we can directly connect to him in our lives through our observance of His Torah.
The main Avodah of Rosh Hashana is for us to contemplate God’s sovereignty and to recognize and re-accept His control over the world as a whole and over our lives in particular. How is this a form or part of Teshuva?
My Rebbi, R’ Yossi Cohen shlit”a, related the following idea from R’ Chaim Friedlander (author of the Sifsei Chaim) in a series of shiurim on the Al Cheits. As we repent on Yom Kippur and recite viduy, we first (in each statement) say, “al cheit shechatanu lifanecha,” for the sin that we have sinned before You. The Sifsei Chaim notes that the root of every sin is in our neglecting to remember before Whom we are standing. If we really had in mind that Hashem is always with us, and that we are therefore in front of Him at every moment, we would be far less likely to commit many of the sins for which we are atoning. And yet, one of the sins we atone for on Yom Kippur is “Viduy Peh,” insincere confession, because the prerequisite to sincerely being able to ask for forgiveness for the sins “shechatanu lifanecha” is the recognition that we are, at all times, lifnei Hashem, and the internalization of the magnitude of that reality and its beautiful and challenging consequences.
As we head into Rosh Hashana and consider where we want to improve or change or what growth we want to maintain this year, perhaps we are best off considering the root of our struggles and our triumphs. If we can spend the day remembering and recognizing that Hashem created and sustains this world, that He is actively involved in every aspect of our lives, and that it is from within the uncertainty, worry, and chaos of our present day reality that we can fall in full trust into His arms, then we are ready to begin the process of Teshuva. Once we regain and solidify this perspective, we have reinforced the notion that we are Lifnei Hashem, and as such can begin the rest of the Teshuva process from that place of clarity of purpose, recognizing that our goal is to sustain this concept of Hashem as an ever-present reality throughout the rest of the year. As perspective is the first step in any plan for growth, this Avodah of the day is itself a part of Teshuva, for it is the foundation upon which lasting change can be built.
Another of my Rabbaeim from Michlalah, R’ Beinish Ginsburg shlit”a, cites the following metaphor from Rav Nevenzahl shlit”a, which aptly illustrates these ideas. R’ Nevenzahl explains that there are two ways to tear town a building; one can either smash into the building multiple times, such as with a wrecking ball, or one can detonate the whole structure from within, starting at the foundation. The same is true for any kind of personal or spiritual growth. When we want to address a problem in our lives, the most efficient way of doing so is to approach it at its root, to attack, so to speak, at the foundation.
When it comes to Teshuva, so much of our struggle and laxity in spiritual growth throughout the year is a direct result of a lack of true recognition or acknowledgement of Hashem’s existence and control over our lives. We forget, because Hashem hides Himself in nature, and because Galus creates a cloud of uncertainty and doubt that is putrid and dingy and quite difficult to see through. We forget, because to bear this in mind is to face the reality of the consequences of our actions and the weight of our decisions.
Yet, accepting Hashem’s Kingship over us also means granting ourselves access to the blessing and love and joy of a true, connected relationship with Him. We often deprive ourselves of this opportunity because we get caught in a deceptive thinking trap, believing that acknowledging Hashem’s control means we have to completely give up ours. The joke, though, is on us; we never have control to begin with. Acknowledging this does not change our reality, but rather allows us the opportunity to grow exponentially, with Hashem in our proverbial corner.
This Rosh Hashana, let us all aim to begin with the end in mind. If we can truly tap into the power of the day and acknowledge and accept Hashem as King over the universe and over the minutiae of our daily lives, hopefully we can all also merit feeling and experiencing that Divine intervention and assistance across the realms of spiritual, material, and emotional growth for which we are davening this year. Wishing you all a k’siva v’chasima tova!