10 Kislev 5781 / Thursday, November 26, 2020 | Torah Reading: Vayeitzei
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40 Days to a New Life    

40 Days to a New Life

But where do we begin? Even if we are sincere in our desire to improve, how do we know that our inner spiritual compass is accurate and...


With the month of Elul, we begin a forty-day period of introspection and inner work that will reach its culmination on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur the verdict about the coming year is sealed, so to speak, and as our liturgy for the High Holy Days tells us, the stakes are high: our livelihoods, our health and peace of mind, and even life itself is decided on this day.
So that we will not waste this 40-day opportunity to examine our deeds and make the necessary changes to get our lives back on track, we are given a not so gentle reminder every morning of Elul when the shofar – the ram’s horn – is blown at the end of the Shacharit prayer service.
The word “shofar” shares a similar root with the Hebrew word shipar, which means to improve, and so this spiritual wake-up call serves to remind us that the time has come to begin to improve our middot (character traits), our relationships with others and our relationship with God.
But where do we begin? Even if we are sincere in our desire to improve, how do we know that our inner spiritual compass is accurate and pointing us in the right direction?
An answer can be found in the Book of Yonah (Jonah), which is read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur – at nearly the end of the process. By taking a look at a few key points of this book now – at the beginning of our journey – we can perhaps be more confident that the steps we are now taking will get us to the place we wish to be at on Yom Kippur.
A Sailor’s Story
Yonah was a prophet who had been chosen by God to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh: repent in 40 days or you will be destroyed.
The Vilna Gaon points out the name Nineveh is similar to the word naveh, which is a word used to describe a dwelling place for God on this earth.
The message hidden in the text, therefore, is that the people of Nineveh must make a choice. They can either continue with their old ways and act in defiance of the Divine will, or they can use their intelligence and creative talents to create an environment whose values and actions are a reflection of the Divine will. And they have 40 days – similar to our 40-day period between the beginning of Elul and the closing moments of Yom Kippur – to make that choice.
But this call to repent was not a one-time warning for one people that lived very long ago. The eternal message of Jonah – the message that should awaken our own spirits today – begins much earlier in the book, when Jonah is running away from his task and is still on board the ill-fated ship.
With the storm threatening to dash their ship to pieces and send them all to a watery grave, the non-Jewish sailors confront Jonah and ask him two questions: What are your origins, what is your occupation? (Yonah 1:8).
In other words, Yonah is being asked to define his very essence.
What are your origins? This is not a question about geography or social position. It is a question that should lead us back to a fundamental truth: our soul comes from God. We have a Creator Who has given us direction by revealing in His Torah the values and commandments that will lead us to a truly satisfying life.
What is your occupation? What are you doing here on this earth? Are you occupied only with chasing after your own dreams and gratifying your own desires? Or are you aware that you are a servant of God and, therefore, occupied with performing the Divine will?
These two questions – who am I and what should I be doing with my life during my time on this earth – form the basis for any spiritual work we should be doing at this time. By admitting that we have a Creator and that it is He Who has given us our purpose in life and set the goals that we should try to achieve, we can be more confident that our spiritual work will be productive and that we are heading in the right direction.
A Litmus Test from the Sages
Yet because the mind is so subtle and we are so easily blinded by our own desires and clever rationalizations, even these two questions may not be enough to keep us on a steady course as we take a close look at ourselves during the coming weeks.
Financial worries, wounded pride, unresolved hurts, laziness and a whole host of other issues can not only stop us from getting an accurate picture about where we are holding spiritually, but can even be used to convince us that our inaction or negative action is actually a mitzva!
A piece of advice found in the book Porat Yosef, written by a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, can help us see through the veil of personal motive so that we can act more in accordance with the Divine will.
The Baal Shem Tov commented on the verse “Any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it” (Devarim 1:17) by bringing down the following teaching of the Ramban (12th century commentator):
The Ramban instructed his son that if he is ever in doubt about the proper way to act – if he is in doubt about whether or not something is a mitzva – he should try to remove any personal motives he might have about the matter before making a decision. Once financial considerations, or considerations about personal honor or other desires, are out of the equation it is much easier to see what is the correct thing to do.
This can be seen by reading the verse quoted above a bit differently:
“Any matter that is difficult” – any situation that is causing you difficulties –
“for you” – stems from the fact that you are putting your “you,” your ego, into the picture.
Therefore, a person must get rid of those egotistical elements and “bring it to me” – bring it to your inner essence that is attached to the Divine and is above the often petty considerations of this world.
By attaching yourself to the Divine will, and visualizing that you are talking about your problem to God, Who says, “I will hear it,” you can create a conflict-free inner space where you will be able to hear the true answer and successfully resolve the problem.
A Call to Return
The next few weeks are a precious time for us. They are a time when the shofar calls to us to return to who we really are – servants of God who have the most important task in the world: performing the Divine will so that this world will be a suitable dwelling place for the Divine Presence.
By connecting to the Divine will, we have it in our power to resolve inner conflicts and conflicts with those around us. And we are assured that this task is not too difficult for us. As we read on Yom Kippur, the people of Nineveh did heed Jonah’s call. They repented and changed their behavior – and therefore they were saved.
If they could change, we can, too.
Libi Astaire is the author of Choose Light! Chassidic Tales for Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkos, Passover & ShavuosBreakfast with Rav Zusha and Other Stories to Wake Up Your Soul; and the award-winning Jewish Regency Mystery Series. Visit her website for more information about these and other books.

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