Rewriting History – Mishpacha Magazine
To prepare for Rosh Hashanah, we must learn to look deeper at our actions and see the story behind them.
Jhe month of Elul is a priceless treasure. Hashem gave us this month to prepare us for a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah. But we have a problem. We don’t know how. Make a list of our aveiros and try to force us to feel contrite? Adopt a commendable practice like accepting Shabbat early, or bowing to a siddur? We don’t quite know what to do.
If we want to know how to prepare for Rosh Hashanah, we must first understand what the judgment of the day is. Ultimately, after a person’s life, they will be judged for everything they have done, said, or thought. We must bear this in mind all our lives.
But this is not the object of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day. What does Hashem “remember” on Rosh Hashanah? He already knows everything we’ve done and doesn’t need reminders. As we say in the Rosh Hashanah davening: “There is no forgetting before the throne of Your glory.
What Hashem remembers on Rosh Hashanah is not the facts: what we have done, said or thought over the past year. It draws the great portrait that emerges from all these details: the story of our lives.
The story of our lives is not just the sum of all our mitzvot and aveiros. This is the picture that emerges from a closer examination of our actions. Every action, positive or negative, contains much more depth than it seems. It reveals aspects of our personality, spiritual kochos and trends. And the story that emerges is the extent to which we use these kochos to increase Hashem’s glory and bring the world to its goal.
This is what it means that Hashem remembers. Remembering does not just mean recalling facts. When we remember a past experience, we don’t just remember a photograph of the event. That’s not how memory works. Our memory evokes any personal or emotional meaning we attach to the experience. We evoke the joy, fear or embarrassment that we attribute to the event. What we remember is not just the event itself, but its deeper meaning.
We call Rosh Hashanah Remembrance Day, because what Hashem remembers on Rosh Hashanah is the center of judgment. We say in the Mussaf prayers: “For the memory of every creature comes before You, a person’s deeds and role, and the story of a person’s footsteps.” The Judgment of Rosh Hashanah is about the story that emerges from our lives over the past year.
On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem doesn’t just judge us based on our actions themselves; rather, it examines the story that emerges: the extent to which we use all aspects of our personality and our spiritual forces to serve him.
This is where the real fear of judgment lies. Sometimes we find it hard to fear the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. Of course, we have our faults, but on the other hand, we do a lot of mitzvos. So, for many of us, the fear of judgment is limited to Unesaneh Tokef, when we contemplate all the terrible things that we hope will not happen to us.
But now that we understand what the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is, we all have reason to be afraid. Baruch Hashem, we have accumulated a lot of mitzvah points, and we may be out of the red. But do we all use our kochos glorify Hashem? We have done a lot of positive actions. But is the story behind our actions consistent with Hashem’s plan for us and for the world?
To prepare for Rosh Hashanah, we must learn to look deeper at our actions and see the story behind them. This story is often different from the picture that forms if we look only at the actions themselves, just as a memory is different from a photograph of an event. An action that we find negative could actually reveal a deep-rooted spirituality koach we can use for lawyers Hashem. And an act that seems commendable might actually reveal the area we need to work on the most.
Most people who have made a positive change in their life view their past as an unpleasant stain that they should remove, or at least ignore. For them teshuvah is a chance to erase the past and start afresh. But this approach throws the baby out with the bathwater. They close their eyes to the significant aspects of their personality and their spirituality. kochos they could use in their Avodah Hashem. Their personality is lobotomized, and their Avodah Hashem is deprived of enormous kochos behind these regrettable actions.
People make this mistake because they only see dry actions, which are negative. But the story behind these actions has a positive side – the constructive kochos they reveal.
A baal teshuva recently consulted me about its lack of connection to learning. In my effort to help him find a connection point, I asked him if he had any hobbies. He said no. I asked if he had any hobbies in the past, and he said yes, but he was embarrassed and reluctant to elaborate. He told me his hobby was trivial and childish. When I pressed him, he told me he loves to read novels over and over again. He sometimes read his favorite book ten times in a row.
He only saw the dry action of reading novels, which he now perceived as a waste of time. But if he had seen the story that emerged from this action, he would have seen tremendous ability to find meaning and excitement to navigate already familiar content. This embarrassing hobby that he had tried to forget actually revealed the koach it could use to connect learning.
The reverse is also true: the actions we are most proud of may actually reveal our weaknesses. A person might think their greatest strength is chesed. He takes incredible steps to help others. He helps the sick selflessly in a way that others find repugnant or demeaning. good faith baal chesed. This is what you see if you look at dry stocks. But if that person examines the story behind their actions, they might discover that their humility is really pride; his chesed is truly driven by a selfish desire to win the praise and approval of others.
Like the Rosh Hashanah judgment, the path to teshuvah does not end in dry actions. To effect profound personal change, it is not enough to carry out positive actions. We have to change our history.
For example, if you want to work on hasmadah, the objective will not be the simple action of learning overtime. It is indeed an act of hasmadah, but that doesn’t necessarily change your story. Why weren’t you a masmid until now? Was it because you were too curious about things that had nothing to do with your life — news, politics, or sports? If so, curiosity is what you need to work on. Maybe you need to work on your concentration or your laziness. The actions of two people can be similar, but tell totally different stories.
This approach to teshuvah is demanding. But teshuvah means personal change, not just doing more mitzvos. Let’s rise to the challenge. This Elul, let’s look deeper and try to find the story behind our actions. So, for the first time, we can finally rewrite it.
Prepared for printing by Rabbi Eran Feintuch
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, issue 926.
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