I have them, you have them, we all have our hot-button issues. Things that set us off way more than what’s appropriate. Our ears pound, we feel hot, our faces turn red, we start talking to ourselves in outrage. Even when our anger and outrage is justified, we totally overreact, go ballistic, and it’s not healthy for ourselves or anyone we care about and it does absolutely nothing to solve whatever the problem might have been.
Any attempt to refine ourselves, to overcome our own behavior, needs to recognize at the outset that these are not isolated occurrences. They’ve become habit which means they’re behavior we’ve learned and reinforced by many repetitions, probably too many to count. It’s like a string that is wrapped around and around a top, but we can’t go back in time and, somehow, undo all the experiences that created this problem.
Nonetheless, we can, slowly, slowly, start to overlay these habits with new, better and healthier ones. We can build new behaviors, new reactions, new ways of dealing with life when it isn’t to our liking.
This is one of the secrets of our cyclical prayers and rituals. Some things, like the Amida (the silent prayer, the Shemona Esrey) which is the center of each prayer service, are repeated three times a day. The Shema, is said at least twice every day. We recite certain psalms every day, others weekly and others monthly or yearly. We experience Shabbat every week, Rosh Chodesh (the new month), monthly, the other holidays yearly.
It’s not difficult to feel discouraged. “I davened three times today, three times yesterday, three times the day before, and nothing has really changed!” is a not-uncommon complaint. “If Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are really so powerful, how come they didn’t fix everything last year?” Why do it all over again if it was, apparently, so ineffective?
Strangely, we never apply that reasoning to, say physical conditioning. No one is going to work out with weights one day, wake up the next morning and be surprised that they don’t look like a professional body-builder. We realize that it takes days and weeks and months of repeating our exercises to even start to get into shape and we also accept that we need to continue if we want to maintain our new strength and vigor. But, somehow, we’re not willing to extend that understanding to our spiritual lives.
We’re not going to correct a personality unbalance with a single attempt. Remember, it built up with many repetitions of unhealthy behavior and it will take many repetitions of our new actions in order to correct and, hopefully replace them with good habits, good responses. The spiritual growth we make each time we daven is rarely sufficient in itself to do much, but when we “add the reps”, day after day after day we do transform both ourselves and the world. One aspect of this transformation is in just developing the sensitivity to “observe” these changes, often occurring in non-empirical but still real modes.
It’s important to give the techniques that have been developing for millennia in our tradition a chance to work. It’s equally important to just give ourselves a chance to really experience them rather than rush through them or reject them as “too difficult” or seemingly “irrelevant” for our “enlightened” times.
As the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe (Awareness), approach, let’s try to just experience our traditions. There is power, אור, Or, Divine Energy in every word of the services we’ll attend. This energy certainly exists within the linguistic level, and understanding the meanings of these words in Hebrew and Aramaic is quite valuable. But even if you don’t yet have the language skills, there is the exact same Or, Divine Energy, in the sounds themselves and in the melodies (This is one of the meanings of HaShem Echad, ה’ אחד, God is One–that the energy from God = One, i.e. that it pervades and is everything). Let the words wash over you, at whatever set of levels you experience them on (since we all experience them in many ways, especially as the days go by). And return next year and the next, each time adding at least something to the subtle re-programming we need in order to grow.