Categorized | Jewish Religion

Spiritual self- improving, Jewish style

By Michael R. Mantell, PhD

Dr. Michael Mantell

Dr. Michael Mantell

SAN DIEGO — There is nothing so Jewish as self-improvement.  And all this time, you thought gefilte fish or bagels and lox were the ultimate Jewish experience.  No, you see, when it comes to improving yourself, making yourself into an elevated, more refined, more civil person, nothing in psychology has ever even come close to the Jewish way.

Only the most complacent are not interested in upgrading.  Ecclesiastes 7:20 tells us that everyone needs to improve, “For there is no man so righteous on earth who does only good and never sins.”  We upgrade everything in our lives, the latest model cars, cameras and computers to clothes, kitchens and coiffures (O.K. that was an alliterative stretch, but it worked –sort of).

All you have to do is peruse your local bookstore, or website, to see the vast array of self-help books on the market.  Self-help is here to stay.

I’ve been on the Oprah show a number of times and each time I’ve had a chance to discuss spiritual self-improvement with Oprah.  She, of course, loves self-improvement, especially spiritual self-improvement.  I am convinced spiritual self-improvement isn’t the only way, but it’s the best way.   And what’s the best of the best?  You know my answer.

And what is the message behind all self-help products, not just the spiritually focused methods of self-improvement?  The simple message of how to be happy.

Judaism creates many opportunities for us to learn how to be genuinely happy, and the High Holiday season soon upon us is the most intense time of the year for this self-betterment learning to take place.  Beginning with the final month of the Jewish year, Elul and continuing through to Rosh Hashana on September 14th and 15th, and then on to Kol Nidre on Spetember 22nd and on Yom Kippur on September 23rd, we have many days we can set aside to learn the oldest and most effective methods yet designed to re-create ourselves into better people.  This time of the year is the highpoint for self-help mavens.

So what do we do, specifically and practically, to take advantage of the Jewish approach to human betterment?

During Elul, one self-help master tells us we should analyze all that we have done during the past year: Are we nicer people? Are we properly committed to the service of G-d and that which the Torah requires? Have we improved at all? If we have improved, then we know we are on the right track. During Elul, we should work on ways we can further improve ourselves. If we have not improved, then we have our work cut out for us. Elul is a time to plot our course, our game plan, for the upcoming year. It is a time for repentance and introspection. It is a time that we cannot let slip away.

Rabbi Dov Singal offers this analogy.  There was a person who, when it came to keeping a clean home, was meticulous. He made sure that the house was always as neat and clean as could be. On one occasion, the person had invited some friends to a party at his house. The person was not satisfied with the extent of his normal cleaning regimen. He wanted the house to be as spotless as his guests would expect, and therefore he stepped up his cleaning efforts before the party. On another occasion, he had business associates over at his house for an important meeting. Before they arrived, he engaged in even more extensive cleaning, assuring that every piece of silver and crystal gleamed and sparkled, to meet the standards of his guests. Were the president to enter his home, this person surely would have worked tirelessly to refurnish and redecorate his home to meet the high standards a president would expect.

The president’s entrance into the house is really just an illustration of what Rosh HaShana, the Day of Judgment, should mean to us. It is a day in which Hashem comes into the house (hearts) of each and every one of us. If throughout the year we are constantly aware of the forthcoming “visit,” the preparations immediately preceding the “visit” need not be so extensive, as we will try and keep things in tip-top shape all year round. If that is not the case, and we do not think about the “visit” year round, the task of accepting Hashem properly on Rosh HaShana as the King of Kings is nearly impossible. In either case, that is what the month of Elul is set aside for – preparation. It is a month long preparation in which we engage in refining our spiritual lives to try and meet the standards that Hashem knows we should meet, for both Him and ourselves. This “clean-up job” that we must start (if its not a continuation) is composed essentially of four different aspects which are all required for complete repentance toward Hashem.

Jewish self-help coaches, i.e., rabbis, tell us the first step is “Azivas Ha’Chet” – “Leaving the sin.” Rabbi Prero tells us that a person must know which sins to depart from first. Some sins are relatively easy to refrain from while others take a tremendous amount of time and effort to overcome. Our Sages are helpful in pointing out that ” The easier it is to refrain from doing a sin, and nonetheless it is done anyway – the larger the punishment is that one receives from Hashem for it.” We vividly see that the sins which are easier for the individual to refrain from should be worked on and “left” first.

The second step is “Charata,” regret and remorse for doing the sin. One rabbi in thee Talmud explains that “True repentance is…to feel that sorrow in one’s soul for the sins which he transgressed.” Refraining from transgressions without feeling bad about what one did is very far from repentance.

The third step is “Vidduy,” confessing one’s sins. Included in this step is actually verbalizing those sins which were performed.

The fourth and final step is “Kabala L’habo,” making a firm commitment not to do the sin again. In many cases you can make a contract with yourself: If I succeed in overcoming the temptation (enough times) then I will allow myself something I very much enjoy. This is what many call a “behavior contract.” Thus I have a personal incentive to do the right thing. For example: “If I get through the meeting without getting angry, I will allow myself to buy that picture for the wall/go to that restaurant/etc.”

When you think about it, how can the average person–like you and me–go into the High Holidays and possibly face Almighty G-d and tell Him we’re really sorry and will never do it again. We know we’re not ready yet to do everything perfectly. Frankly, I don’t know too many people who are. So instead one suggestion an expert offered is to try the following: At some point in the service, talk to G-d. Tell Him the truth. Say “G-d, You know me better than I know myself. I mean, after all, You created me. And You know that I fail more often than I succeed. But I can tell You this much, G-d. I’m a better person this year than I was last year. And if You give me the chance, I’ll be a better person next year than I was this year.”

There aren’t too many of us who are still going to Synagogue on the High Holidays, who can’t say that to G-d. And if we do, then we have taken one step closer to becoming the person we really are, and unburdening ourselves of the many mistakes we commit throughout our life.

Although this process of repentance/self-improvement might seem long, tedious, and perhaps even impossible, our Sages tell us that “One who comes to purify himself, (G-d) aids him.” We only have to take that first step towards purifying ourselves alone. Afterwards, Hashem is there to assist, making the process of true, lasting and genuine self-improvement – Jewish self-improvement– faster and easier.

Dr Michael Mantell, based in San Diego, provides coaching to business leaders, athletes, individuals and families to reach breakthrough levels of success and significance in their professional and personal lives. Mantell may be contacted via [email protected]





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