(Adapted from a drasha delivered at Boca Raton Synagogue on Rosh Hashana 5776/2015)
It was an ordinary day in Judge Mindy Glazer’s Miami-Dade courtroom when forty-nine-year-old Arthur Booth appeared before her for his bond hearing. He had been arrested the previous day for breaking into a home, stealing a car, and running from police. He caused two accidents before crashing the stolen car and being arrested.
What happened next was incredible. My description cannot even do it justice; I encourage you after Yom Tov to see it for yourself. As she shuffled papers on her desk, Judge Glazer turned to Booth and said, “I have a question for you — did you go to Nautilus (middle school)?” Booth looked up at her, recognized her, then covered his face with both hands and, overwhelmed with emotion, cried “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” seven times.
The judge then said to him, “I’m sorry to see you here. I always wondered what happened to you.“ She turned to the court and continued, “This was the nicest kid in middle school. He was the best kid. I used to play football with him, all the kids, and look what has happened.” Glazer set his bond at $43,000 and closed the hearing by saying, “Good luck to you sir,” she said. “I hope you are able to come out of this okay and just lead a lawful life.”
Booth’s cousin was interviewed by the news right after the hearing and was asked why she thought he was so emotional. She answered, “He probably was thinking, ‘Wow, I had those opportunities and those abilities. That should have been me up there… He was overwhelmed with emotion because he was filled with remorse and the thoughts of what could have been.”
“Ha’yom haras olam, ha’yom ya’amid ba’mishpat kol yetzurei olamim… Today is the birthday of the world. Today all creatures of the world stand in judgment.” This morning, like Booth, we appear before the Judge who recognizes us, who knows us since our childhood and beyond. Like Booth, as we appear before the Judge of Judges, we are overwhelmed with a sense of what could have been. This morning, as we confront the reality of the many mistakes we have made, the poor judgment we have shown, the self-destructive behavior we have engaged in, the opportunities we have wasted and the potential we have not realized, we are filled with a profound sense of remorse, an intense regret, and an acute awareness of who we could be.
Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer, once said, “Everybody wants to change this world; nobody wants to change themselves.” I disagree. I think we do want to change. We want to become the people we were meant to be, the people we are capable of being. Many of just don’t know how.
Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Levi writes in one of his poems: “The world at large is a prison and every man is a prisoner.” We often feel trapped, confined by the self-imposed limitations we set on ourselves or by the habits, practices and behaviors that we think we cannot break out of or change. According to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, as many as 40% of our daily activities are driven by habit.
Will we be late or on time, will we get angry or keep our cool, will we eat healthy or let ourselves go, will we be distracted by technology or disconnect, will we make it to minyan or daven at home or not daven at all, will we say a beracha with kavana before we eat or when we come out of the bathroom, say it in a meaningless way, or not say it at all – all of these and many more have been programmed into our daily lives such that we are practically on autopilot. We feel imprisoned and trapped by the habits we have formed and the momentum that carries our lives forward.
We are familiar with the first part of the pasuk in Tehillim (81) that is part of our prayers and our Kiddush today: “tiku b’chodesh shofar, b’keseh l’yom chageinu, ki chok k’yisroel hu, mishpat lei’lokei Yaakov.” But it continues, eidus bi’hoseif samo, b’tzeiso al eretz mitzrayim, it is a testimony for Yosef when he went out over the land of Egypt.
Our rabbis teach us (Rosh Hashana 10b) that today, Rosh Hashana, is the anniversary of the day Yosef was released from prison in Egypt. According to Chazal, Yosef’s release from prison specifically on this day is not a mere coincidence, but it is a reflection of the power and potential for becoming free on this day. Chazal understood that when we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana it is “a testimony for Yosef,” as it commemorates his leaving prison on that very day.
As we listen to the sound of the shofar this morning, as we celebrate Yosef’s release from prison, it is time to recognize that today, Rosh Hashana, it is time for us to break out of our prisons, today is the day to finally attain freedom from that which restricts and restrains us.
In one of his letters, the Rambam draws an analogy between teshuva, the exodus from our previous selves, and the exodus from Egypt. On Pesach, we tell the story of our national exodus from Egypt. On Rosh Hashana, we write the story of our personal exodus from that which holds us back and enslaves us.
A fundamental analysis often offered in Brisker lomdus is the distinction between the cheftza and gavra, the object and the person. In an incredible teshuva derasha from 1974 the Rav applied cheftza and gavra to describe two components of the mitzvah of tekias shofar. We don’t have time to review his entire thesis now but I want to share the Rav’s application to the impact shofar is designed to have on us.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that human beings have the potential to be objects or subjects. When our lives are on autopilot, when we become creatures of habit, we have allowed ourselves to essentially become objects. When we are mindful and spiritually conscious, when we are driving our lives instead of being driven by them, we are subjects.
It is not a coincidence that when the Jewish people fail, make mistakes and come up short, such as with the cheit of chava, the cheit ha’egel, Shimshon and others, the Torah describes them with the word “falling.” An object is affected by gravity. It descends and falls. Similarly, when we allow our lives to be objects, we fall. In contrast, when the Torah wants to describe someone who is growing, changing, or doing teshuva, as the Torah uses the language of ascending, going up. When we choose to be subjects rather than objects, when we are disciplined and in control of our lives, we can overcome the force of gravity and lift ourselves up.
The Rambam famously writes, “Although the shofar blowing of Rosh Hashana is a Torah law, there is an allusion in it, as if the shofar were saying ‘Awake, sleepers from your sleep! Arise, slumberers from your slumber! Scrutinize your deeds…Remember your Creator.”
When we are sleeping, we are objects. We are just unconscious bodies. When we wake up, we become subjects again, animated, thoughtful people making choices. Many of us are sleeping even while awake. We are living life as objects. The shofar is the alarm that screams wake up! Be a subject not an object, ascend don’t descend; set yourself free from the prison of your life.
The Rama, Rav Moshe Isserles, in his gloss on Shulchan Aruch quotes the Yerushalmi:“nohagin she’lo lishon b’yom Rosh Hashana u’minhag nachon hu. We have the practice not to nap or sleep on Rosh Hashana day and this is a worthy custom.”
Rosh Hashana is not a time to be an object; it is the day to be subjects, to wake up and finally make the lasting changes to become the people we know and the Judge knows we were meant to be. But how?
Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, hy”d, also known as the Piaseczno Rebbe, was a Chassidic Rebbe in Poland who served as the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and, after surviving the uprising, was later shot dead by the Nazis in the Trawniki labor camp. He had such incredible human insight and advice, you may have thought he was trained as a psychologist or motivational speaker.
In his spiritual diary called Tzav V’Ziruz he has the following entry:
If you want to know if you you’ve progressed on your spiritual path over the years, the way to judge is to look at your resolution – at your inner drive – and not at your wishes. Only the inner drive with which you work to attain your desired goal is called resolution. But if you don’t work but rather just want, this is not called resolution. It is just some wish that you wish for yourself to be blessed with that desired objective. For example, the pauper who works to sustain himself, this is a drive, because he is doing something constructive toward it. But the wish that he’ll find a million dollars is just a wish to be rich and not a resolution. Every Jew would like to be a tzadik, but this is no more than a wish; he’d like to wake up in the morning and suddenly find himself a tzadik. Only the level and state of being that you seriously work toward can truly be called a resolution.
The secret to real change, says the Rebbe, is to be honest with ourselves and to distinguish between our wishes and actually making resolutions. There are countless things we claim to want to change about ourselves. We want to eat more healthy, be more patient, spend more time with our children, find time to volunteer, attend daf yomi, go to minyan more often, learn what the words of the siddur really mean, do chesed, stop speaking lashon ha’rah, and so on.
We claim to want to do them, but the truth is they are just wishes. We wish to wake up one morning, as the Rebbe said, and find ourselves suddenly doing those things or living that way. The real secret to change is to stop wishing and to start making real resolutions. Personal growth is the result of making a plan, spelling it out and holding ourselves accountable to keeping to it.
I was recently talking to Daniel Gibber, Rabbi Gibber’s brother, who lives in Teaneck. He is spiritually on fire and sounds more like a young man who just got back from his second year of studying in Israel than a middle-aged father far removed from yeshiva. Just talking to him and hearing his energy, passion, and excitement for Torah and learning is contagious. He told me about how he is waking up early every morning, going to daf yomi shiur, and staying for minyan. He listens to inspiring classes on the way to and from work and has arranged a weekly shiur in his neighborhood on emunah. Naturally, I asked him how it happened.
He shared the following: He had been a disaffected, typical day school graduate living life, working hard, paying the bills, and though he was doing his best to be a good husband, father, and person, he was totally disconnected from anything spiritual. His life was the grind of family life, coaching basketball, and professional ambition; he had drifted so far he wasn’t davening at all let alone attending minyan.
On August 1, 2012, everything changed. He attended the 12th Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey along with 90,000 other people. He hadn’t learned daf yomi and was mostly there out of pride for his grandfathers who had learned the daf numerous times. There were many speakers that evening in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.
Deep into the night, Rabbi Yissocher Frand took the podium and delivered an impassioned 22-minute speech that electrified the stadium. He spoke about the Bas Kol, the heavenly voice that asks each one of us why we aren’t doing more to learn and to strengthen our relationships with Hashem. Rabbi Frand was adamant in suggesting that in response to the proverbial Bas Kol, “every one of us must leave here with a plan.” He challenged the attendees to “learn a Daf a day. If you can’t learn a Daf a day then make it an Amud a day, or a Daf of Mishna Berurah a day or a Mishna a day.”
He then yelled out – “But SOMETHING a day!” For some reason, at that moment, those words pierced Daniel Gibber’s soul and touched him in a way nothing else ever had. “Something a day.” Why not do something a day. Surely he is capable of doing something a day.
The next day he started learning daf yomi, but soon after he missed a day here and there. He realized that he needed a plan, it couldn’t just be a good intention, and so he joined a daf yomi shiur every morning at 5:30 a.m. Once he was going to shul that early, he realized he might as well stay for Shacharis. A few months later he realized that it is silly that he goes to shul for Shacharis every day but doesn’t even daven Mincha so he started davening Mincha and Ma’ariv and a few months later, thought to himself, why not go back to shul for Mincha and Ma’ariv each evening.
It all started with a plan. He made it a priority to go to the early daf, which turned into staying for minyan, which turned into a love of Torah learning, which resulted in a deepening of emunah and a life on fire. It all began with a plan, it all began with a resolution to do something each day.
When you make a resolution, when you formulate a plan, you need to know where the pitfalls lie and what is likely to try to knock you off your course. The pasuk says in Tehillim (119:98) mei’oyvai sechakmeini, from my enemies I became wise. Rav Yankele Galinsky explains mei’oyvai means I need to gain wisdom and strategy from studying my yetzer ha’rah. Only when I identify the obstacles and hazards can I plan to avoid them and circumvent them.
An indispensible part of the Rambam’s formulation of teshuva is kaballah al ha’asid. A personal kabbalah is not a wish, it is a resolution, it is a pledge to keep to a plan.
Last summer, Yocheved and I were both very inspired from some of the people we met and conversations we had. When we returned to Boca we decided to each make a list of kabalos, things we were taking upon ourselves to do differently. We each made our list and then met for lunch one day to exchange lists and talk about how we can in a loving way hold one another accountable so that the kabalos last and stick. I am proud to say that they are still going well and I credit it to the fact that on our way back to Boca, we didn’t talk about wishes – I wish I was more like him, or I wish our home were more like that. We made real resolutions, not just a wish list.
A plan, a resolution, has to be articulated to be serious. We can put it down on paper, set it as a reminder in our phone or simply repeat it out loud to ourselves over and over but it isn’t real, it is just a wish, not a resolution unless it is formally verbalized, articulated or recorded in a way that will make us more likely to follow through.
Share your kabbalah, your resolution, and plan with your spouse, a family member, or a trusted friend. Ask them to help you formulate a plan and hold you accountable to your commitment.
Leadership expert Robin Sharma once said, “Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.” Let’s not sit Rosh Hashana after Rosh Hashana and fill our hearts and minds with wishes that will dissipate as quickly as the sound of shofar. Let’s not sit before the Judge who knew us since we are born and knows what we are capable of, crying because of the missed opportunities and what we could have been. Today, right now, like Yosef, let’s walk out of prison and set ourselves free to become the people we know we can be.
This year, when people ask you how was your Rosh Hashana – tell them, I am not sure yet, I will let you know in six months after I implement my plan.
To get started on making real and lasting changes in your life, use the Resolution Worksheet