Overwhelmed? Lonely? Dislike altering your schedule? Find it hard to be happy? Just don’t relate to holiday themes? As a life coach whose specialty is using texts and literature to achieve personal breakthroughs, I have had the pleasure of helping people through what sometimes seems a “yontif maze.” The following are steps based in Jewish wisdom for making the most of Tishrei month and exiting it safely
1. PREPARE WELL IN ADVANCE
Text – “But the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, ‘You foolish ones among peoples, he who took trouble to prepare on the eve of the Sabbath can eat on the Sabbath, but he who has not troubled on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath?”– Avoda Zara 3a
Insight – The Talmud is speaking of non-believers who want to convert at the very last moment. They want G-d to give the Torah again so that they can have the opportunity to receive it and observe it. God answers “Too late!” If one has not kept the commandments in this world, one cannot suddenly keep them in the world to come. If one has not prepared food before Shabat it is too late to do it on Shabat. It may seem harsh, but sometimes we miss the moment. The chagim do not just happen. They require preparation
Task – Write down your expectation of the holidays well in advance.
2. BE REALISTIC BUT NOT TOO REALISTIC
Text – In Brachot 20b God excuses God’s special love of the Jewish people with the following explanation? “And shall I not lift up My face for Israel, seeing that I wrote for them in the Torah, And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the L-rd your God (Deuteronomy 8:10), and yet they are particular to say the grace if the quantity is but an olive or an egg.”
Insight – According to the Torah you need only say grace after meals if one is satisfied. Yet am yisrael chooses to say grace even after eating the amount of an olive or an egg. The brilliance of rabbinic Judaism is that it taught us to thank God even when one does not have everything one has. But saying grace if one is not satisfied is a rabbinic commandment. To fulfill this mitzvah according to the Torah one indeed needs to have eaten sufficient for one’s hunger. Rabbinic Judaism taught us to be satisfied with what one has but to also never forget the dream of having everything. (I am indebted to Rabbi David Hartman for the first insight and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin for the second.)
Task – So be realistic but not too realistic. Look at your list in step one and make sure you have a few dreams there. Then divide the list it into aspects that are essential, aspects that are desirable and aspects that are ideal. Write down the practical steps you need to do to achieve what is essential but don’t forget to take some small or not-so-small actions to achieve your desirable and ideal columns as well.
3. FIND A BUDDY
Text – Raba said…Either companionship or death. – Ta’anit 23a
Insight – This is the conclusion of the story of Honi the Circle-maker, the Talmud’s Rip Van Winkle, who slept for 70 years. When he wakes up he goes to the study-hall and hears people saying nice things about him. But when he reveals himself he is not believed or recognized and he prays to die. Being recognized and valued is an essential part of what it means to be human. For many people the chagim are hard because they do not have that special person or people to share it with.
Task – But most of us do have somebody we can, at least, strategize with as to how to handle the holidays. Share the list above with that person and look at their list. Work with each other to achieve your goals and to keep each other honest Have somebody to share feelings and thoughts with when things seem rough.
4. LET GO
Text – R. Hanina further said: Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven – Brachot 33b
Insight – Certain realities just are but we can choose how to react. Annoying relatives, long meals, droning chazanim, lack of work productivity, lots of food are part of the holiday’s landscape. They can annoy us or we can let go, accept our lack of control and make the most of what is.
Task – Practice saying the serenity prayer and following what it says. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This was written by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but see too Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol’s version: “And they said: At the head of all understanding – is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change” (Mivchar Hapninim 17:2)
5. DO SOMETHING ELSE
Text – Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: ‘The day consists of twelve hours. During the first three hours the Holy One, blessed be He, occupies Himself with the Torah. During the second three He sits in judgment on the whole world, and when He sees that the world is so guilty as to deserve destruction, He transfers Himself from the seat of Justice to the seat of Mercy. During the third quarter, He feeds the whole world, from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin. During the fourth quarter He plays with the leviathan. – Avoda Zara 3b
Insight – Even God needs to have some fun. This description of God’s day is a lot like ours at this time of the year: Torah, introspection, eating – yet God finds time at the end of the day to play with the leviathan, a mythical sea creature. We need time-off during this period too. There is a tendency, especially in Israel, for everything to be chag oriented at this time of year and for everything else to be “le-achar hachagim” (after the holidays) but, ironically, it is exactly now that we need to do something else to take our minds off endless commemoration and celebration
Task – Read that good book you’ve been meaning to, take up a new hobby or work on an old one, salsa dance or do something crazy or fun.
The holidays can be a period of profound personal and spiritual transformation but we need to set the stage for this to happen. By following the few guidelines above we can create the space for magic to occur.