It was the end of the summer, and I was preparing for our high school’s first day program. Each year, we plan an itinerary that combines a serious and thought-provoking workshop with a lighter, fun trip, and that year had been no exception. My G.O. presidents had come up with a clever way of associating apple-picking with their chosen theme, and it was my job to find a picking farm or orchard that would be willing to open its doors to seventy-some girls on an early September morning.
It took only a few phone calls for me to learn that the trip was not meant to be. Each farm that I reached out to, informed me, most matter-of-factly, that apples that year would not be ready for picking until September 15th or 16th – a full week after school begins. After a few of these exchanges, I was ready to throw in the towel. But then, on my last phone call, when I received the same predictable response from yet another farm owner, I indulged the question: “Is there no way you can squeeze us in just one week earlier? How much difference can a few days make?” I asked.
In retrospect, I realize that my request must have sounded ridiculous to the woman on the other end of the line. But she was pleasant enough as she patiently described to me the ins and outs of fruit picking. The woman told me that although peaches and nectarines were still picking choices at the start of September, apple-picking could not begin until the apples were ready. And the start date of apple-picking season was predetermined and unchangeable.
Several days later, I sat down to begin preparing a lesson about the time period of yemei ratzon. I was eager to share with my students the privilege and responsibility that comes along with the special days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. I wanted to teach them about teshuva, and to get them excited about setting new spiritual goals for themselves. But above all, I wanted to charge them with a feeling of purpose and conviction as they availed themselves of the wonderful opportunities that were eternally woven into the fabric of the calendar. I had prepared a timeline illustrating the events that took place in the year 2448, beginning with the Shviras Haluchos on the seventeenth day of Tammuz, continuing to Rosh Chodesh Elul when Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to chisel a second set of luchos, and culminating in the climax, on Yom Kippur, when Klal Yisrael, as a nation, received the ultimate gift of selicha for the very first time.
I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between the apple-picking story and the message I wished to convey. Just as apple-picking has its season with its distinct start-date and end-date that simply cannot be adjusted (even for a desperate G.O. coordinator), so too is the nature of yemei ratzon. These forty days are essentially preprogrammed into our year, and like all special days in the Jewish calendar, they present us with a unique opportunity. It is the season of teshuva; and what a shame it would be to neglect to take advantage of this ‘ripe’ and potent gift.
“For as long as I can remember, teachers have tried to impress us with exactly that message. But some years, like this year in particular, I find it so daunting. There is so much I need to improve on; so much teshuva that I need to do… I just feel so overwhelmed.”
The tendency to feel overwhelmed by the mandate of teshuva is age-old. In fact, the Torah anticipates this very nisoyon and instructs us to remember: “Lo bashomayim hi… v’lo me’ever la’yam hi… Ki korov eilecha hadovar meod, b’ficha, u’vilvavcha, la’asoso” (Nitzovim: 30) Teshuva is not up in the heavens, nor is it across the oceans; rather, it is so close to you – in your mouth, and in your heart, it can be done.
It is true. There are so many things we each want to work on. So many areas where we want to improve, change and grow. And the yeitzer hora will do a fantastic job at convincing us that there is no point in trying. He knows good and well that although teshuva is always within our grasp, the days preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present a unusually unique opportunity for personal development. We must then learn how to respond to the yeitzer hora’s wielding power so that we can take full advantage of this opportunity.
Here are some helpful sentences to reinforce, or add to your H.F.S., your Hashkofah Filing System. Remember that the more you align yourself with hashkofos that are based on the emes of Torah, the more you will find yourself acting in line with those values. If you recall our H.F.S. funnel diagram, you know that it all starts at the top. Your thoughts, feelings and actions are all rooted in your hashkofos.
Self-awareness is key. You cannot make changes to who you are, if you do not yet know who you are. Recognize that as a neshomah, you have intrinsic value. Uncover and discover both your strengths and your weaknesses. With careful thought and direction, every part of your personality can help you reach your potential for greatness.
Hashem does not expect you to do it all at once. When you have decided how you would like to target your strengths and improve in your weak spots, make sure to take in slow. Kabbolos that incorporate the three “S”s (Serious, Struggle, and Success) are always most effective.
Once you take the first step, Hashem will help. Chazal tell us: “Haba l’taher, mesayen oso”- All you have to do is one small action that reflects your desire to change. He will help you.
Tefillah is a powerful tool to help you gain siyata diShmaya in your growth. Daven and ask Hashem to help you access the special gift of teshuva. There is no more precious tefillah than that of a person who wishes to grow in ruchniyus.
It always struck Rachelli as ironic that the first weeks of Elul often coincided with the last weeks of the summer. It just seemed so incongruous that the days which present such a special opportunity, could so easily slip through her fingers, while she was still in a lighter camp-mode. One year, she took the bull by the horns. As soon as Rachelli was mevarech chodesh Elul, she made a decision. These forty days were too precious to waste, and she would not lose them. On Rosh Chodesh, Rachelli managed to find a few minutes of quiet time to sit and think. She did a cheshbon hanefesh and jotted down how she hoped she could improve. Being careful not to take too much upon herself at once, Rachelli chose a kabbolah that she knew would stick. When Rosh Hashanah arrived, Rachelli was amazed by how fulfilled she felt. Though she knew she still had a long way to go, there was no denying that this was the most meaningful yemei ratzon she had experienced.
The yomim noaraim are quickly approaching. Time is of essence! Let’s use it well.
As a Bais Yaakov high school teacher, Sara Weissman develops and presents curricula and interactive-style workshops to promote self-awareness and self-improvement in teens. Her book, InsideOut, is soon to be published by Feldheim Publishers. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org