I had a great history professor. He was one of those guys who was brilliant, energetic, and wished he was still a student. He would always try to explain things in terms of what he would do if he were taking his own course. The one thing he stressed was homework. He said that preparation is everything. Even if his class was only twice a week, we needed to review the material thirty minutes a day. Once final exams rolled around, instead of having to study all night, we would only have to glance at the material once. At midnight we would be enjoying a restful slumber instead of drinking that third cup of coffee.
The same can be said about Yom Kippur.
Didn’t we already celebrate Yom Kippur? Why are we talking about it again already?
It’s easy to talk about repentance in Elul or Tishrei. The “post-summer” clothing returns most standards of dress to something easier to see, and teshuvah is in the air. It is a lot easier to make big changes in our lives at this time. The momentum is all around us.
What about now?
The weather is cold. It’s a lot harder to get up in the morning. Our insides are operating in slow motion. It is challenging just to maintain our daily grind – let alone expand it. How pressing is it to think about Judgment Day when it is so far off? This is the time we hibernate. The next festival isn’t for a while so we have the liberty to keep our lives on cruise control. Perhaps we have been slipping a little since the last Shofar Blast but not by that much.
This is where we have to refocus.
These can be the times where it’s best to take an accounting of our moments. When Yom Kippur comes next year, do we really want to ”cram” for a clean verdict with added trepidation or tribulation or can the ecstasy of standing before the True Judge with a healthier rap sheet render the coming Yom HaKippurim (Day of Atonement) a Yom HaKippurim (A day that is joyous like Purim)?
Today is an ideal time to remember what we promised Hashem we would work on this year and decide if we need to redouble our efforts to keep our pledge.
This is the time we are really tested. A test in life is most often when we are not aware we are under the magnifying glass.
This is where the real work happens. This is where we show Hashem that we don’t just exert ourselves when the weather is nice and He is right in front of us. Our prayers next fall can reflect our diligence when we say we stuck to our guns all year round.
This is where we prove to G-d we can do what we said we would.
It’s what my professor talked about. Who prepares for a final exam in the third week of school? Why start prepping when there is so much time left? He wouldn’t stand for excuses. A little work a day meant things stayed in the mind. We internalized lessons that would remain with us long after his class was dismissed. He loved to give surprise quizzes. He didn’t do it to harass us. He wanted to make sure we kept up with our daily diligence. After failing the first three, I started studying thirty minutes a day. The man was right. From that time on I aced every quiz. All it took was a reasonable, but consistent effort.
Does Hashem do the same for us?
We learn in the Ramchal’s Duties of the Heart that at any time we can be called to task. We don’t know what days we will wake up feeling great, or which times we open our eyes and, G-d forbid, feel sick. At any moment we can be afflicted with something that turns an “ordinary” day into Yom Kippur. We can get hit with trials of personal relationships, family, or parnussa at any instant. We have to atone, or at least pledge to make repentance for our misdeeds in order to merit a resumed well-being. We always have to be prepared: At any time Hashem can give us a pop-quiz.
If we are always prepared, the trial comes and goes with ease. The test itself is a celebration of our progress in life. Just like Yom Kippur!
The key is to work at it every day, with one hour of personal prayer that includes a healthy portion of daily teshuva, thus cleaning our slate every day. Then, we'll pass the test with ease.
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Dovber Halevi is the author of Sex, Religion, and the Middle East, a book about personal holiness and happiness. He lives in Israel with his wife and three children.