What is the secret to making lasting resolutions?
In the first line of Avinu Malkeinu that is recited responsively, we ask Hashem to help us do “t’shuvah sh’leimah,” complete repentance. The addition of that descriptor, sh’leimah, makes it sound like there is another type of t’shuvah – one that is “incomplete” – which we do not want. And here I was thinking that one can either repent or not. What would incomplete t’shuvah look like? And, by contrast, what is the t’shuvah sh’leimah that we all are trying to achieve?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l explained this phrase by looking at the very next sentence in Avinu Malkeinu, in which we ask Hashem to deliver a “r’fuah sh’leimah” to those who are ill. Here, too, we are left with the impression that there is also an incomplete form of healing that we do not want. But in this case, the difference between the two types is more intuitive. A partial healing is one that only addresses the symptoms, leaving the underlying malady untreated. Surely, no patient would want “band-aid” medical care, which does not target the root of the disease; that would be an incomplete healing. We don’t ask Hashem to help the sick seem better temporarily; we beg Him to actually cure them – completely.
Similarly, Rav Kook explained, there is a partial form of t’shuvah where only the external symptoms of aveiros are addressed. Perhaps a negative behavior can be suppressed, or an urge stifled – but those would be mere “band-aid” solutions. The problem may appear to subside, but it won’t be long before it resurfaces. This is the incomplete t’shuvah we are hoping to avoid.
Instead, we are striving for t’shuvah sh’leimah, the process that entails searching for the underlying causes of undesired behaviors. Re-examining our social environments, moral values, and past decisions are the only ways to truly deal with the mistakes and bad habits we wish to remedy. It is no easy feat; meaningful change rarely is. This is why we ask Hashem to help us.
With this discrepancy in mind, we can begin to understand why New Year’s resolutions – of both Alef Tishrei and the first of January – are notoriously unsuccessful and unsustainable. We are able to correctly identify certain actions or relationships we would like to improve, but neglect to address the root causes of the problems.
For example, it is not enough to simply commit to speaking less lashon ha’ra. To treat the concern “completely,” one would need to analyze his/her personal triggers and vulnerabilities in this area. Questions to ask at this stage may include: With whom do I tend to gossip? Are there certain people, in particular, that I take pleasure in maligning? Is there a certain social environment or platform that I attend that makes it hard to resist partaking in juicy topics of conversation? Exploring honest answers to these inquiries is the true foundation of meaningful and lasting change.
So, this is the big question we need to ask ourselves as we approach Yom Kippur: Are our resolutions for the coming year just “band-aids,” or do they completely treat the core of each issue?
May Hashem help us achieve t’shuvah sh’leimah and earn a g’mar chasimah tovah!