Weekly Torah Commentary – Ha’azinu October 1, 2011

Another Jewish year is coming to an end and with it, the Torah portion cycle with the reading this Shabbat of Ha’azinu. At the end of this week’s parsha, Hashem tells Moses to climb the mountain where he will die, “B’etzem Hayom Ha’zeh” ― at midday. (Deut. 32:48)

Rashi pointed out in his commentary that this phrase ― “B’etzem Hayom Ha’zeh” ― appears three times in the Torah:

Noah spent 120 years building his ark. The Midrash says that God wanted Noah to use this time to engage people in discussion about how changing their lifestyle could avoid the coming catastrophe.

Alas, for 120 years, nobody listened, and they ignored Noah’s predictions of doom … until the rain began to fall. They had delayed, procrastinated, and refused to heed the warning signs.

And now with the rain falling, it was too late. That’s when people woke up to the reality of what was about to happen. They panicked, and threatened to smash Noah’s Ark to prevent him from entering.

At which point, God steps in and says: “I will bring Noah into the ark. Not by sneaking in under the cover of night. But in broad daylight ― B’etzem Hayom Ha’zeh” (Genesis 7:13).

A similar scene is repeated at the Exodus from Egypt. Despite a year of horrific plagues and endless pleading from Moses, Pharaoh still refuses to let the Jews go … until the final plague, when a distraught and beaten Pharaoh runs through the streets at midnight, begging the Jews to leave immediately (Exodus 12:31).

God’s response? Pharaoh had his chance already. The Jews are instructed to stay indoors all night. They won’t sneak away like thieves. Rather they will leave Egypt in broad daylight ― “B’etzem Hayom Ha’zeh” (Exodus 12:41).

The third instance is in this week’s parsha, where Moses is faced with imminent death. “We will not allow Moses to leave us!” the people cried. “We will stop him from ascending the mountain!” Why do the Jews want to stop Moses’ death? Because they can not bear to part with their beloved leader, who took them out of Egypt, split the sea, brought water from a rock, and most importantly, taught them Torah.

Imagine that! For 40 years in the desert, the Jews did nothing but complain to Moses. Now all of a sudden everyone changes their mind!

But the die was cast. Says God: “Moses will climb the mountain at midday, in broad daylight ― so that all will see there is no stopping God’s will.”

These three events reflect an unfortunate pattern in human nature. We’re reluctant to take action until it’s too late. We don’t begin diet and exercise until after the heart attack. We don’t consider marital counseling until a break-up is imminent. We don’t try talking to our children until they’ve already drifted away and so forth.

We sweep the problem under the rug, hoping it will disappear all by itself. But ignoring it only makes things worse.

So what is the remedy?

Jewish tradition speaks of the need to make a cheshbon ― a spiritual accounting of profit and loss. Just as a business keeps balance sheets, so too you need a regular system to evaluate your spiritual life. By doing so, we are likely to see potential difficulties brewing, and deal with them now before they become a major problem later.

Cheshbon not only safeguards us from mistakes, but also increases our productivity in areas where we already excel.

Here’s four simple steps of cheshbon:

Ask yourself: “What do I want my life to look like 12 months from now?”
Make a commitment to getting it done this year.
Formulate a plan for how to achieve it.
Ask the Almighty to help you do it.

I know…I know…you’re thinking, how many times I’ve started with good intentions but somehow never quite reached the goal.

A major impediment to growth is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. If a goal is too lofty and unattainable, we inevitably fall short and get discouraged.

But the Jewish approach is different. In Jacob’s famous dream, God shows him a vision of a ladder reaching toward heaven. Growth, like climbing a ladder, must be one step at a time ― in small, incremental goals. The key is to develop a series of realistic, short-term goals, that can be monitored regularly.

To make the plan foolproof, make your initial goal something you know you can reach. Tasting success will bolster your confidence and determination, and you can use this energy to strive for higher goals.

Figure out “step one” toward your long-term goal ― and that now becomes your interim short-term goal. After you achieve that, move on to “step two” of the long-term goal ― which becomes the new interim short-term goal.

Remember, the longest journey begins with just one step. And since we can’t predict the future variables, all we can do is keep moving ahead. One step at a time.

The fact that we may never reach the ultimate long-term goal should not be our primary concern. The long-term goal may seem unattainable, but taking small but consistent steps is all Hashem is asking for. After all, He only gives us one day at a time. If we will take each day as a gift, and make some step each day towards the goal, that pleases Him.

Another key element is to implement a system for monitoring progress.

Every night before going to bed, look back at that day’s events, and evaluate your thoughts and behavior. Then make a plan so the next day will be more productive.

Ask yourself:

What have I accomplished today?
Did I accomplish what I intended?
How am I going to improve tomorrow?
What are my strengths and weaknesses?
What’s my profit? What’s my loss?
How far have I advanced toward my long-term goal?
What’s holding me back from growing more?

It takes discipline to ask these questions, day in and day out. The best method is to set aside 10 minutes of “sacred time” where you will not be disturbed by the telephone, email or pagers. Find a room and lock the door. If necessary, put in some earplugs.

For 10 minutes a day, be alone with yourself, to think, ponder, evaluate and plan.

While Rashi cites three examples of “B’etzem Hayom Ha’zeh,” the Torah uses an identical phrase in reference to Yom Kippur (Leviticus 23:29).

What is the connection? On Yom Kippur, the judgment of each Jew is sealed for the coming year. Yet are we prepared, or have we procrastinated? Are we even interested to experience the cleansing power of atonement?

On Yom Kippur, God’s will prevails and we are brought to our senses ― whether we like it or not. On Yom Kippur, God peels back the mask and we see ourselves in the barest form. No food. No water. No creature comforts. Just a soul and its Creator. The stark reality of our lives… hanging in the balance… in broad daylight… “B’etzem Hayom Ha’zeh.”

The ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe because while we have been focused on repentance for the entire month of Elul, these last ten days leading up to the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, commands complete attention, reflection and deep, heart repentance.

This year, the two days of Rosh Hashana lead right into Shabbat so we actually have three days of uninterrupted spiritual focus as we move into the Days of Awe. Along with family gatherings and celebrations of Rosh Hashana, may each of us also make the time to create our own chesbon and soberly approach Yom Kippur and the new Jewish year with firm resolve to eradicate excuses and procrastination as we dedicate ourselves to truly and profoundly deepen our realtionship with Hashem and pursue holiness with passion during 5772.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka and Shabbat Shalom to all of you. May you be sealed for a good year and may health and strength, spiritually and physically, be yours in the year ahead.

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