The Rosh Hashana Paradox and Humble Beginnings
Around this time of year, we are called upon to change our behaviors and commit and resolve not to fall back to them over the coming year (or forever). We are also told that someone who gets all religious on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur but plans to continue sinning afterward, is like a 'tovel v’sheretz beyado'. He has to take steps to ensure that this time things will be different.
And so I find myself during these days trying to imagine all the nisyonos I may have next year and if I am really ready to overcome them – exactly the kind of thing that I feel is an illogical way of dealing with future nisyonos! You see, I would like to deal with them one day at a time, but the kabbalah-al-haba part of teshuvah seems to demand a whole life at a time - and based on my history, the entire thing seems rather depressing.
If you can somehow help me resolve this paradox and get the balance I need, I would appreciate it.
Lost in Paradox
Regarding your very important concern about changing our lives vs living only one day at a time, there are a few things I'd like to share with you.
One is that Hashem cannot possibly be naive. And since He sees us make the same mistakes over and over while actually changing very little, He must 'realize' that we are not likely to succeed at radically changing ourselves or our behavior just because it happens to be Rosh Hashanah. True change is usually catalyzed by life-changing events, not by the calendar - and He surely knows that. I believe the tzaddik was so right, who said, "in the Shema we are asked to put good things on our hearts, not in our hearts, because that'd be unrealistic to expect of us." And then, he said, "when our hearts open up (usually due to events), the good things will fall into our hearts!" I feel that this is why we have times 'scheduled' for Teshuvah, for Simchah, for Cheirus, etc. Practicing these things puts them onto our hearts, so that when events open our hearts up, we have the capacity to experience these great things and grow. But I digressed!
So, I assume that Hashem is far more humble than we are, and so really expects very little of us. If you feel it is incumbent upon you to believe that at the end of every year, after granting us yet another chance to finally 'totally change ourselves' and failing, He finds Himself shocked at our slow-if-any growth, ok. But I like approaching things in a way that feels more realistic and honest. Rav Dessler's teachings influenced that, in me.
Now, how does this square with the dire Teshuvah messages we are getting all through this season? We obviously must change and we obviously need to do the mitzvah of Teshuvah. Yet the fact does remain that G-d cannot possibly be dumb. I need to face that fact first and then deal with the implications of it. Which I'll try to do be"H as we go on in this piece...
The other thing I'd like to bring up is that I do believe that Rosh Hashanah is the "head" of the year quite literally, as the kabbalists tell us. Thoughts and directions flow from the head, and Rosh Hashana influences the rest of our year, whether we like it or not. It's just a reality we live with, they tell us.
So my focus on Rosh Hashanah is to never, ever ask for a good year - or even for a good second day of Rosh Hashanah. I prefer to live one day at a time, or as I like to call it, "living daily". So, instead, I only ask G-d to help me do exactly what He wants me to do today - this day of Rosh Hashono alone - and I put that into actual words. Praying only for that is how I live one-day-at-a-time on Rosh Hashana while saying all the tefillos in the machzor as we all do. I also believe this is consistent with the Nefesh Hachaim (and Ramcha"l in Derech Hashem), that the focus of Rosh Hashonoh is on Malchus Shomayim, not on what we get.
I try to consider all the future year's outcomes completely in His hands, not mine. And I believe as the mekubalim seem to be saying, that my focus on Rosh Hashonoh is on today, not on the year and not in what I get - I simply aim to do what I'm supposed to do on Rosh Hashonoh, and (as is written in Nechemiah) trust completely that He does exactly what He is supposed to do for the rest of the year that He chooses to give me. And that's called 'Trusting G-d': if I can't trust my own G-d to run my next year and have to worry about it myself, then who am I trusting? Is Teshuvah, tefilloh, and tzedokoh about manipulating Him? I hope not. All the davening seems to tell me over and over that the outcomes of my year are His business and that my business is how I behave and live today. Only Today. And it will always only be for today, as the Shema emphasizes a few times, "asher Ani metzav"cho hayom."
Is Rosh Hashono (that is, worrying about the rest of the year) a 'heter' to live out of the present? I don't believe it is. But it's actually much more than that:
What better way for me to set the stage for living better each day of the coming year than by practicing right now exactly what I ought to do every day of the rest of the year to come? There is surely no better way to do that than practicing it - and, actually, there is no other way! By asking Him to help me put myself, my day, and everything I have and want into His hands today, I am making Him the Melech over me (sh'Tamlichuni aleichem'). This is step 3, and this is the core of Rosh Hashono for me as a recovering addict. And by asking Him for His help to do this day (Rosh Hashonoh) right, I am making a humble but (finally) real start at living with G-d instead of just playing (again) with highfalutin 'madreigos' like I have done every year till now.
And isn't it about time?
Isn't He waiting very patiently for me? Yes, I think we can make the shift into daily living with Him and I think there's no better day to begin that than Rosh Hashanah itself! Well, I can think of only one day that's better to start than this coming Rosh Hashono:
And by 'little me' doing this, a true and powerful change can finally start to grow within me.
And if the mekubalim are as right as I believe they are, living truly one-day-at-a-time on Rosh Hashonoh is a huge bargain! For if the 'Rosh' of the year influences the entire year as the head influences the body, then by living this one day right, I can affect a whole year of days! What 'righter' way is there to live today than focused and concerned totally about today and leaving all outcomes to Hashem? And the paradox arrives at full circle: The one day that scripture and chaza"l often call "an (entire) year", the two days that are really one day, can become the easiest way to acquire this way of living. Time itself is a little mixed-up on Rosh Hashanah. Even more reason to live humbly with G-d.
And in this way, a true and powerful change can finally start to grow within me. But will it stick? Will I keep living this new way, tomorrow? The only response that works for me is: that concern cannot possibly be my business, today. This is for real, not a matter of philosophy.
Now about self-improvement. Of course, it's silly for me to be standing at the beginning of a new year, having finished the old one, and take no responsibility at all for my mistakes and irresponsible choices. Nothing in 12 step recovery tells me that I should be an ingrate, irresponsible, or ignorant. Surrender has nothing to do with irresponsibility or throwing our hands up. In fact, Steps 1 through 12 are all about taking responsibility for my actions and asking the Greatest Power in the world for helping me in my efforts to grow up. And He does. If the program is about anything, it is about finally accepting the truth, giving up our failing strategy of trying to do it ourselves and agreeing to start doing the things that we really need to do, even though they are out of our comfort zones. We stop treating life like the game we've made it. We stop blaming G-d, the yetzer hora, anyone or anything else, for how things have been turning out in our lives. Life is work, and it's the greatest adventure we each will ever have. So we learn to work with Hashem, our best Friend for eternity. Until now, we were mostly working with our expectations, disappointments, arrogance, and Big Plans, weren't we? And now - for today - we face G-d silently and know that He did it all for each of us and that He is ready to run our lives as He knows best. And we stand ready to imperfectly and honestly do our part in His plan. We ask His forgiveness for our mistakes and agree to focus on His Love and Guidance. To accept - with both hands - the life He gives us today, and to work together with Him, using it.
I hope this helps and hope that the second part of my response clarifies the loose ends of the first. Please think it over and let me know what you think.
And, as I typically say to people I meet on Rosh Hashanah instead of Shana Tova:
"Have a great Rosh Hashanah!"