“Deadline,” “due date,” and “finals” are all terms we associate with “all-nighters,” frantic attempts to pull together all of our work. The approaching Rosh Hashanah has similar symbolism. Rosh Hashanah is the big day. It is the day on which our closing arguments are being made, as well as our moment of opportunity to impress Hashem as He sits in judgment. This may seem like a time for desperation or for attempts to show Hashem how different we are going to be. Actually, a more effective recipe calls for patient steps of gradual self-improvement. When Richard Simmons was asked how he is able to infuse hope and encouragement in people to lose tens or even hundreds of pounds on diet, he responded by saying that he has never convinced anyone to lose hundreds of pounds. Instead, he convinces people to lose a few pounds by concentrating on one meal at a time. If the goals are realistic, the diet will be successful.
One of the first “Baalei Teshuva” in history is Kayin. After killing his brother Hevel and accepting rebuke and punishment from Hashem, Kayin exclaims, “Gadol Avoni MiNeso,” “My iniquity is too great to bear” (Bereishit 4:13). Kayin initially reacts with desperation, unable to shoulder responsibility for his wrongdoing. However, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 22:13) continues this story. After Kayin’s initial despair, he meets his father, Adam, who asks: what was Hashem’s verdict? Kayin responds that he has done Teshuva, “VeNitpasharti.” What does this word “VeNitpasharti” mean? Rav Yissocher Frand suggests that the word comes from the root Pesharah, which means compromise. Kayin is describing his Teshuva as one of compromise. When faced with the daunting task of recovering from a seemingly unbearable judgment, Kayin describes his approach as compromise. Kayin realizes he can not do Teshuva in one desperate prayer, or through an extreme and immediate reversal of his inherent nature. In contrast, he chooses an approach of gradual, realistic change.
The Chafetz Chaim illustrates this idea with a story. A merchant once placed an order with a wholesaler. After the wholesaler completed the order and presented the bill to the merchant, the merchant asked to put the bill on credit. After looking over the merchant’s troubling record, the wholesaler regrettably had to tell the merchant that he couldn’t continue adding to the already large debt he owed the wholesaler. The merchant begged and pleaded, but with a heavy heart, the wholesaler was compelled to say no. Finally, the merchant began bawling and crying hysterically that this was the last time he would ask for his credit to be extended and he would begin paying back very soon. Another customer who over heard this conversation interrupted. Hearing both sides of the story, he offered a very practical solution. The merchant should place a small order with the wholesaler and pay for it in cash. The wholesaler, who normally wouldn’t sell this small amount of merchandise for the wholesale price, would make an exception for this merchant and sell the merchandise at the discounted price. Then, the merchant would sell his goods and return, cash in hand, and begin paying off his debt, while still continuing to buy small amounts of the merchandise with the remaining money. While certainly not a glamorous business plan, this approach proved very successful in paying off the merchant’s debt.
Teshuva is not so different from business practices or diets. Small, gradual steps towards self-improvement works! Harold B. Melchart once said, “Live life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance towards the summit keeps the goal in mind…Climb slowly, steadily enjoying each passing moment; and the view from the summit will serve as a fitting climax for the journey.” We don’t need to come out of Rosh Hashanah with New Year’s propositions which will be overly challenging. Instead we might pick one or two small items we wish to improve and a vision of the ultimate goal. After successfully reaching these goals, we will be confident and determined to continue this process. LeShana Tova Tikatevu VeTeichateimu.