A couple of weeks ago, shortly before our son Shalom left to return to learn in Yerushalayim, he and I learned an essay from Alei Shur (Vol. 2, p. 415) together.
In that essay, Rav Wolbe discusses the punctilious individual judgment of Rosh HaShanah, when the fate of every being in creation for the coming year is decided.
Rav Wolbe notes that if a person were asked why he does what he does, he may answer that it’s what everyone else was doing or he just did what he was taught without giving it much thought. He observed Shabbos, put on t’filin each morning, and learned Torah each day because that’s what he always did and that’s what everyone around him does.
Rav Wolbe poignantly notes that a person must recognize his individuality, by pondering and recognizing his uniqueness. He needs to realize that Hashem judges him based on who he is, not based on what everyone else is doing.
Rav Wolbe then writes that it is vital for a person to spend time alone with his thoughts in order to “meet himself.” He adds that this is the greatest deficiency of yeshivah students. They may have spent years learning at high levels, yet never had a moment alone with their own thoughts. The result is that they unwittingly forfeit their uniqueness and never realize personal development. “How shameful it is to see precious b’nei Torah who have no individuality, literally people without a history, where others dictate the trajectory of their entire lives. Hashem should protect us from such a path of life.”
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski is renowned for having made invaluable contributions to the Jewish community regarding mental health. Aside from being a popular lecturer, he authored 90 books.
He would note that he didn’t write 90 books; he wrote one overarching message in 90 different ways. That message was about the importance of developing healthy self-esteem.
He relates that he first realized he was deficient in self-esteem when he was 38 years old.
“For three years, I had been director of a huge, 300-bed psychiatric facility with a very busy emergency room. If a nurse could not reach an attending doctor, I was called. Every other night I was on call to the emergency room. On a good night, I was awakened only five times – on a bad night, ten or more times.
“I had a vacation coming and was desirous of getting away from an impossibly hectic situation. I sought a vacation spot that would allow me to do nothing other than vegetate. I wanted no sightseeing or activities. I finally decided on Hot Springs, Arkansas, which promised to allow me total rest.
“Having had low-back pain for years, I thought I would take advantage of the mineral-water baths, which were touted as producing miraculous results. I was taken into a tiny cubicle, and an attendant gave me two glasses of hot mineral water which was naturally heated deep in the earth. Then I was put into a tub of these magic waters, and the whirlpool was turned on.
“I felt I was in Paradise! No one could reach me: no patient, no nurse, no doctor, no family member, no social worker, no probation officer. And in this paradisical situation, I was bathing in nature’s own hot water. Who could ask for more?
“After about five minutes, I got up and said to the attendant, “That was wonderful! Just what I’d been hoping for.”
“The attendant said, “Where are you going, sir?” I said, “Wherever the next part of the treatment is.” The attendant said, “First you must stay in the whirlpool for 25 minutes.”
“I returned to the bath, and after five minutes I said, “Look, I have to get out of here.” The attendant said, “As you wish, but you cannot go on with the rest of the treatment.”
“I did not wish to forego the treatment, so I returned to the tub for 15 minutes of purgatory. The hands on the clock on the wall did not seem to be moving.
“Later that day, I realized that I had a rude awakening. I had taken three years of constant stress without difficulty, but I could not take ten minutes of Paradise! Something was wrong.
“On my return home, I consulted a psychologist. He pointed out that if you asked people how they relaxed, one would say, “I read a good book,” or “I listen to music,” or “I do needlework,” or “I play golf.” Everyone tells you what they do to relax. However, relaxation is an absence of effort. One does not do anything to relax. What most people describe as relaxation is actually diversion. You divert your attention to the book, the needlework, or the golf ball.
“Diversions are perfectly okay, but they are actually escapist techniques. Work and diversion are fairly healthy techniques. Unfortunately, some people escape into alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling.
“In the cubicle at Hot Springs, I had no diversions: nothing to read, nothing to look at, nothing to listen to, no one to talk to, nothing to do. In absence of all diversions, I was left in immediate contact with myself. I could not remain there long because I didn’t like the person I was with!”
My rebbi, Rabbi Berel Wein, quips: “I make sure to talk to myself every day. Often, it’s the only intelligent conversation I have all day.”
We often think t’shuvah requires taking on new resolutions and doing things we’ve never done before. But there’s a vital component of t’shuvah that requires one to search inward and take stock of how he has been conducting his life.
During the early 2000s, during the Second Arab Intifada, there was a spate of suicide bombings in Eretz Yisrael. Many Jewish communities in America, wanting to help in any way possible, began reciting a few chapters of T’hilim after davening each morning.
One American rabbi recounted that his initial facetious thought was that we often daven three times a day without proper concentration. Now they began saying added chapters of T’hilim also without concentration. Perhaps it would be more ideal to work on improving something we already do, such as having more concentration when saying brachos, or working on our interpersonal relationships by making a more concerted effort to not speak lashon ha’ra.
Parshas Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbos before Rosh HaShanah. Most years it is coupled with Parshas VaYeilech. Nitzavim means to stand; VaYeilech means to go. Both are integral components of t’shuvah. Improvement requires moving forward from where we have been. But it also entails “standing still,” pausing from the bustle of life to think about where one stands regarding his own aspirations, morals, and responsibilities.
On Rosh HaShanah, we are judged as individuals. It behooves us to get to know ourselves better so that we can appreciate our individuality and continue growing from within.