Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Leave it to creative young advertising executives!
Last year a group of them got together and rented an oversized electronic billboard in Times Square. During the 10-day period from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur they flashed a different question every day for passersby to ponder during this period dedicated to introspection and spiritual stock taking.
I was there and took a random poll, asking people if they found inspiration in the billboard message. Surprisingly, every person I spoke to told me how meaningful they found this unexpected invitation to personal contemplation.
I don’t know if they’re going to be doing it again this year so I thought I’d share my 10 questions with you in the hope that it might lead to a more fulfilling High Holy Day experience.
I suggest you concentrate on just one theme a day for every one of the 10 days of repentance.
Question #1: What should I be grateful for as I begin the New Year?
I spend so much of my days saddened by the things I don’t have that I forget to be grateful for all the blessings God has showered upon me.
We take so much for granted about what we’re given and only notice our gifts when we fear they will be taken from us. Why do we only fully appreciate our health when we no longer have it? Why do we only fully appreciate our parents when they are no longer here with us? Why do we only fully appreciate our wealth when we are afraid that we’ll lose it?
Jews make at least 100 blessings every day. God doesn’t need that much praise but we need at least that many reminders of all the wonderful things He continually sends our way. At the start of a new year I need to make a mental list of all the good things I am blessed with.
Am I guilty of not having really noticed that my life’s balance sheet is overflowing with assets?
Question #2: What do I owe God for all the things He’s done for me?
I love the business card a rabbinic colleague once gave me. On the flip side of the basic name/ address/ phone information it read: “What on earth are you doing for heaven’s sake?”
It’s a great question all of us should be asking ourselves as we take stock of the meaning of our lives here on earth. We are all here for a purpose; every one of us has a unique mission. The way to identify it is to be aware of our special talents. To develop our individual gifts and to utilize them on behalf of others is to leave a legacy that validates our lives and proves that we have done something “for heaven’s sake.”
As the New Year approaches I want to make certain that I won’t be a parasite, only taking of the world’s bounties but not reciprocating.
Am I guilty of not doing enough on God’s behalf here to earn my stay?
Question #3: What can I do to insure that God hears my prayers?
The difference between prayer and the study of Torah, Rabbi Kook beautifully explained, is that in prayer man speaks to God, but with Torah God speaks to man.
Throughout the High Holy Day period we’re busy telling God what we want from him. We have so many needs we ask him to take care of – our health, our finances, our families. We ask the Almighty to carefully review the lengthy book of our concerns.
Isn’t it only fair for us to commit ourselves to spending some time studying the book in which He outlines what He wants from us?
The world recognizes the uniqueness of the Jews by calling us “the people of the book.” To study it is to learn the secret of making our lives sacred. And yet even as we become ever more adept at multitasking we seem to find no time for spiritual refreshment. Do we really have no opportunity to study Torah every day when statistics reveal that the average person spends more than four hours a day watching TV and reading magazines and newspapers?
Am I guilty of not caring enough to spend time listening to what God has to tell me – and then have the nerve to be all upset when He seems not to hear what I’m saying to Him?
Question #4: Am I optimistic about the coming year?
Judaism demands that we always be optimistic. A pessimist is nothing but a misfortune-teller, a person who lacks all hope for redemption because he fails to believe in a redeemer.
In a time of economic crisis such as the one we find ourselves in today, it is imperative for us to remember that God identified Himself as the one who “took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” God knows our personal pain. God is aware of our suffering. God hears our prayers. We share a profound relationship with him.
Our hope is the greatest indicator of our belief. Our optimism is the sign of our confidence in divine help. Our trust is the key to God’s willingness to grant us a favorable response.
Am I guilty of giving up too soon for my personal problems so that my lack of faith in God’s assistance is responsible for a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Question #5: What is my dream for the coming year?
The Talmud says, “Whoever does not have a dream at least once every seven days is called wicked.”
The commentators explain that every seven days include a Shabbat, and if a holy day is to have any meaning it must endow us with the capacity to dream. Our waking state is limited by reality. Our dreams reflect our desire to rise above who we are at the moment and to fulfill our greatest potential.
Our forefather Jacob dreamt of a ladder rooted in the ground but with its head in the heavens. So many of us, too, began our lives with idealistic visions. Tragically, all too often our dreams have become forgotten, victims of limitations we come to assume are insurmountable.
Am I guilty of giving up on my dreams to become the kind of person I thought I could be? What goal can I commit to for the coming year that would transform my life if I seriously pursued it?
Question #6: What should I be doing differently this coming year?
It was Albert Einstein who famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So why do I really expect my life to change if I don’t do anything proactively to make it happen?
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are all about change. If I don’t work to improve any of my failings, I just didn’t get the message.
Am I guilty of doing nothing to become a better person and then hoping for a better Divine judgment? And even if I know I can’t be perfect, what area can I work on to begin the job of improving myself?
Question #7: What should I pray for?
What if you could be assured of getting one and only one wish granted, what would you ask for?
The rabbis tell us that our prayers on the High Holy Days are affected by the unspoken sense of priorities we incorporate into them. Is our greatest fervor reserved for our finances and our appeal to God centered mainly around Tevye’s fantasies about what he would do if he “were a rich man”? Are our prayer for material goods or for spiritual gains? What would give us the greatest joy if God would guarantee its fulfillment?
Am I guilty in the past for not having prioritized properly? Have I finally learned the difference between what I want and what I need to be blessed with a good life?
Question #8: Who should I pray for?
With all of my problems, I know that there are many far worse off than I am. To pray for them is to acknowledge my blessings.
And more: there is a remarkable teaching in Judaism that one who prays for others will himself derive the benefit first.
Within the circle of our family, friends and community there are many who could use our prayers. If we become their spokesman we strengthen the bonds of our friendship even as we create a larger stockpile of merit for ourselves.
Have I thought carefully about all those whom I care for that I might add to my list of people for whom I pray?
Question #9: What small step can I take to begin meaningful change?
My favorite teacher once told me, “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”
The best kind of progress comes piecemeal. Whenever I set out to lose 40 pounds my dieting plan predictably failed. But when I decided I’d give up drinking sugared sodas, I succeeded in reducing my weight slowly over a period of many months.
Courage, it’s been said, is an accumulation of small victories. I know this is true for my spiritual life as well. That’s why I’ve made up my mind to choose one mitzvah, be it however small, to perfect throughout the coming year.
Am I guilty in the past for trying to take on too much and ending up with not even a little difference?
Question #10: What can I do for my people and for the land of Israel?
I know that I am but one link in the long chain of Jewish history. And if I am but for myself, who am I?
I have lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and witnessed the miracle of our people’s return to our national homeland. I am part of the generation who know all too well the need to insure that “never again” must define our historic mission.
Elie Wiesel put it beautifully when he said that what he fears more than man’s inhumanity to fellow man is his indifference.
I tremble when I think I may be guilty of the sin of silence in the face of the renewed genocidal threats against Israel. Do I do enough for my people even as I expend my efforts on behalf of my family?
My 10th and last question coincides with Yom Kippur. That is the day when we close all of our prayers with the hope that next year we will be privileged to come together in the rebuilt Jerusalem. May we merit to hasten that day.