Eighteen years ago this fall I arrived in Jerusalem for my first yeshiva experience. Filled with excitement and thirsty for spiritual growth, I sat down on the morning of Rosh Chodesh Elul after morning prayers, and I took out a small piece of paper and a pen.
I wrote down a list of a few character traits that I wanted to work on, and I tucked that piece of paper into my prayerbook. Each day during that month and through Rosh Hashanah I looked at the paper, and prayed with as much sincerity as I could muster for help to fix those traits. After Yom Kippur, I placed the paper in the back of my holiday prayerbook and forgot about it.
Years later, just before Yom Kippur, I pulled that Yom Kippur prayerbook off the shelf to look it over before the holiday.
As I pulled it off the shelf, a small piece of paper fell out. I picked it up off the floor and unfolded it. I immediately recognized it; it was that small piece of paper from my first year in yeshiva.
My initial intrigue of finding this hidden treasure suddenly turned to shock, and then sadness, and then hopelessness. As I read through the list, the traits that I had listed so many years ago were the same exact traits that I had written on my piece of paper from this year. The same exact traits.
I felt like a fake. Why did I invest all of that time and energy during slichot and Rosh Hashanah and the 10 Days of Repentance and the fasting of Yom Kippur if I’m back in the same place years later? Was my preparation for the High Holidays some kind of religious ritual void of authenticity?
The question of authenticity during this time of year is a theme that I return to each Elul. Can I truly be different this year, or will I go through the motions and fall into the same pitfalls again in the coming year?
In speaking with others about this question, I know that I’m not alone. Not only that, but there are many great sages, especially amongst the Chasidic masters, who deal with this issue.
This year I found a few brief words from Rebbi Nachman of Brastlov that touch on this question of authenticity.
Rebbe Nachman explains that teshuva, or repentance, corresponds to the name Eheyeh אהיה, which in this context means that “I am ready to be” (Likutei Moharan 6:2).
He explains that once one is committed to teshuva, i.e., to this statement of “I am ready to be,” then one again merits life.
In other words, there is tremendous power in the statement, “I am ready to be,” no matter how I choose to complete that sentence.
This coming year, I’m ready to be a more patient father; I’m ready to be a more supportive husband; I’m ready to be a more reliable friend.
When I complete that sentence, and when I strive to reach that stated goal, I am again connected to aliveness. Not physical aliveness, but the deepest sense of experiencing myself as an alive and growthful human being.
As long as I’m engaged in the process of answering that question, and I strive to actualize that answer, I am being totally authentic. There is nothing fake about my most sincere desires to be more tomorrow than I am today, even if I haven’t actualized it yet.
The coming year is filled with new opportunities, new openings, and new possibilities for all of us. I believe that Rebbi Nachman offers us a key to unlock them by sincerely articulating and genuinely working to actualize the phrase, “This year I’m ready to be.”