We are embarking on a quest into the self during the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur – the Asseret Yemei Teshuva. Difficult work lies ahead.
Believing the words of our prayers during this season – namely that repentance, prayer, and charity annul the evil decree – many people have the custom of intensifying their good works and charitable impulses during these ten days. It is customary to increase one’s performance of mitzvot and study during this period. Some people are even more scrupulous in their kashrut observance. While cynics may think this is just hedging one’s bets, we all recognize the importance of building up spiritual muscle with enhanced use during a period of judgment. Good habits breed better habits and have a spillover effect from one day to the next. Whatever we can do to stimulate greater piety, introspection, and goodness will help us in the coming year to be more loving, more pious, more thoughtful, and more kind.
The pages ahead contain food for thought (even when we’re fasting) for each of these ten days. Each day offers an essay on a biblical or rabbinic theme related to self-improvement and presents “Life Homework,” a behavioral charge to help us exercise that muscle practically. Each chapter ends with text questions on three passages for study that span almost a thousand years of Jewish learning. The first comes from The Laws of Repentance written by Maimonides (1135–1204); the ten chapters in The Laws of Repentance inspired many people to study one chapter a day for these ten days. The second passage is from The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto (1707–1746). The third source is The Lights of Repentance, written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (1865–1935). The texts gathered in the study section and throughout embody thousands of years of thinking and dreaming about what it means to become a better person in Jewish tradition.
Many works of self-improvement cited in the pages that follow surfaced during the Musar movement, a nineteenth-century ethical/behavioral crusade that spread throughout Eastern Europe largely in response to the over-intellectualization of Judaism. Teshuva means return. Musar means turn. Both filter into Jewish writings to reflect a profound desire to fix that which is broken, repair relationships, and strengthen intimacy with God.
Teshuva, the belief and the mandate that we really can and must change, is one of the greatest gifts that Judaism gave the world. And it is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, one that demands hard internal work because teshuva requires good decision-making. The poet Robert Browning once bemoaned the difficulty of making decisions: “Life’s business being just the terrible choice.” But choose we must: every word we say, every small gesture, every action is a decision that has a causal impact on the next decision. Every day, three times daily according to tradition, we pray for forgiveness, appealing to God as both parent and judge: “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned. Pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed, for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, Lord, the gracious One who repeatedly forgives.” We repeatedly sin so we ask that God repeatedly forgive. We make a daily habit of asking for God’s pardon. But at this time of the year, we ask that God give us the wisdom and strength to make good decisions so that our repeated pattern of moral weakness and apology will finally be broken.
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pzhysha, once said, “On Rosh HaShana the world begins anew, and before it begins anew, it comes to a close. Just as before dying, all the powers of the body clutch hard at life, so a person at the turn of the year ought to clutch at life with all his strength and might.”1As retold in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), 252.