During the High Holiday season, the ideas of personal growth, self improvement, and introspection are on all of our minds. But how do we change? What does meaningful change look like?
On Rosh Hashanah we have a mitzvah to blow the Shofar. Why? One of the answers taught to us by our sages is that the sound of the shofar is meant to startle us, to arouse us from our spiritual slumber. By nature we get used to mediocrity, and the High Holidays are designed to help shake us up and be a catalyst to question the big and small things in our lives.
But Does It Work?
Yes and no. If we count on Shofar, High Holiday services, or sermons alone to make us change—we will be disappointed. In Ethics Of The Fathers (1:14) Hillel teaches us, “if I do not take responsibility for myself, who will?” Hillel is teaching that internal motivation drives change, and only I can create that internal motivation for myself. While the shofar, services, and sermons will help wake me up, they will not change me in a lasting way. They have the power to make me question, introspect, and rethink things. Indeed they can be a powerful catalyst for change, however lasting change only occurs when I use external things like the shofar as a catalyst to inspire internal motivation.
I Am Motivated, What Is Taking So Long?
Most spiritual bad habits or negative behaviors are present for a good reason. Let’s explore a practical example: Bob loses his temper and yells at his kids—not every day, not even every week—but more often that he would like to admit. He does not say anything nasty, and always regrets losing his cool, but there are times that he simply can not stop himself from raising his voice. He enters the High Holidays knowing that this is an area of self growth that he needs to work on. He is inspired, takes a spiritual accounting, and sets an actual action plan in place to learn to control himself. If his action plan does not include the realization that it is very hard for him keep his cool under certain circumstances, he will likely abandon his plan when it fails the first time. He had a catalyst, he even had internal motivation, and he also had consistency, yet he underestimated how long it would take him to change his behavior. If Bob understands that a great action plan will reduce his frequency of getting upset by 30 percent in year one, he has a far better chance of being successful in the long term. Rav Yisroel Salanter once observed that it is easier to study the entire Talmud than to change one character trait.
So What Should We Do Right Now?
Hear the Shofar. Get Inspired. Get internally motivated. Make an action plan. Understand that a successful action plan takes time to be successful. We will be successful. We will fail. We will be successful again. That entire process will repeat itself a few times, and only then will we be truly successful. Happy Growing and Shana Tova.