Parashat Vayelech

Creative Ways to Make Yourself Do the “Right Thing” 

By Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb

We all have some bad midot (character traits) and some bad habits. When we consider doing teshuva for them, we are apt to think as follows: “I am really out of control. Why do I do those terrible things? I should be stronger! How can I increase my self-control so that I can overcome those strains, temptations, etc.?”

That sort of thinking can be useful. But it is not the only helpful approach. Another attack is this: “When do I fail like this? What is there in the environment? What else has happened that day? Under which specific circumstances do I fail? And, …what can I do to change those circumstances?” The technique of changing the circumstances in which we generally fail is what I call “Strategic Teshuva.”

Midot and habits generally have “triggers.” For example, certain people provoke an angry, aggressive response. Other people may not pose a problem. Or the “trigger” might be specific activities, such as driving in heavy traffic (“road rage”), caring for fighting siblings, waiting in lines at the bus terminal, filling out government forms, and so on.

The same is true for other temptations. Laziness comes naturally when one is surrounded by computer games, bad literature, inviting beaches and – most important – other lazy people. (A boy from Los Angeles told me it took him six years to get his bachelor’s degree because certain courses interfered with his beach schedule!) Illicit pleasures attract most strongly when they are readily available and when others in the neighborhood indulge.

Our first responsibility is for our actions. When the “triggers” of the bad habits and midot occur, it is extremely difficult to stop the habits and midot from acting. One solution is to try to avoid the triggers. Change the environment. Move your residence if you can. If you can’t, spend as much time in another environment which will provide respite from the temptation. (The most effective positive environment is doing mitzvot with other people: Learn in a bait midrash(Study hall), visit the hospital with others, plan a chesed project with others, teach Torah in a school, etc.) Certain activities cause tension which triggers anger. If you cannot avoid those activities, alternate with relaxing activities.

A second solution is to add something to the environment which will make it easier to do the right thing. If you have trouble getting up for davening in shul, make a study partner for ten minutes before davening. Then, when the alarm rings and you reach over to push the snooze button, you will think: “But what if my study partner comes and I’m not there?! How embarrassing!” – and you will get up!

In many cases you can make a contract with yourself: If I succeed in overcoming the temptation (enough times) then I will allow myself something I very much enjoy. This is what psychologists call a “behavior contract.” Thus I have a personal incentive to do the right thing. For example: “If I get through the meeting without getting angry, I will allow myself to buy that picture for the wall/go to that restaurant/etc.”

The key is to control the environment by avoiding some things and creatively adding others so that it will be easier to do the right thing.

Now, some people think that this cannot be right. This means that we are only running away from our problems, not solving them! The problem is precisely this: I am not able to overcome those temptations. How do I solve that problem? By avoiding them, or by adding extra incentives?

There are two answers. First, who says that the only problem is to overcome the desire? On the contrary: Our first responsibility is for our actions. Suppose someone cannot control a desire to steal from Macy’s. If he shops only in Bloomingdale’s, or he rewards himself for not stealing from Macy’s, he has not overcome the desire – but at least he is not stealing!

Second, often we can only overcome the desire if we have a break from the wrong actions. As long as the bad habits and midot are active it is very difficult to gain control.

Therefore, avoiding the triggers and adding payoffs may be the only way to gain control. Yes, the ultimate goal is to become immune to the temptations. But this may require two stages: First avoiding the triggers and adding payoffs; and then developing the psychological strength to resist. Trying to do without the first stage may make the second stage impossible.

Think of addictions. You cannot simply tell the addict: “Stop using that stuff!” He can’t stop, and all the therapy in the world will not help while he is still on the drug. But if he enters a sanitarium where the drug is unavailable, then the therapy can help him become immune to the temptation to use drugs.

Strategic teshuva may thus be the necessary first step to complete teshuva. But it is more than that. If that is all that you can manage at the moment, then strategic teshuva is enough to gain kappara (atonement). Hashem does not ask more of us than we can do. If you avoid the triggers, add incentives and start to work on immunity, then in the meantime you have kappara for all the past mistakes even before you achieve immunity. Isn’t that worth it?

facts of life: take this serious

A car wash is a great business. Within thirty seconds of driving out of the car wash your car has already lost 100% of its pristine gleam and within a week it starts to look like any other dirty car. So if people know that their car is going to get dirty, why do they bother spending the time and money to clean it in the first place? Sometimes Yom Kippur feels a lot like a car wash. Is there a person in the world who repented on Yom Kippur for all his sins and never sinned again? And most of us have trouble seeing even the smallest improvement from one Yom Kippur to the next. Isnt it all a bit of a waste of time? I mean, who are we fooling? Certainly not G-d. And if were honest not even ourselves.

Have you ever tried to clean a car that hasn’t seen water in two years? It’s almost impossible. The dirt and the grime have eaten into the paint. It’s impossible to make the car shine.

It’s true that the gleam on our car when we leave the car wash is very short-lived, but there is a more important reason we make our weekly pilgrimage to the car wash. It gives us the possibility of returning to the shine of the original paint-work.

Yom Kippur is the same. The shine with which we leave shul after Yom Kippur may wear off pretty quickly, but if we never experienced a Yom Kippur, soon we would become so spiritually dulled that we would never be able to get back to the luster of our “original paint-work.”

So this Yom Kippur really pour your heart out and do a serious Yeshiva.

Teshuva On The Same Aveirot(Sins) Year, After Year, After Year….

The Rambam says that real teshuva means that Hashem, who knows the secrets of your heart, must testify that you will never return to the aveira again. That is a tall order! Most people would not even be comfortable testifying on themselves. How can we do teshuva if it requires a 100% guarantee on the future?

Reb Yisroel Sanlanter answers with a question on this Rambam. He asks why does he say, Hashem “who knows what is hidden in the heart”. Shouldn’t it say “who knows the future?” Therefore he explains that the requirement of the Rambam is that a person must resolve honestly in the depths of his heart that will never do the aveira(Sin) again. If he makes an honest resolution and really believes that he is so disgusted by the aveira that there is absolutely no possibility for him to slip yet again his teshuva is accepted. Even if he reverts to his old ways it does not negate the teshuva that he has done. That is why the Rambam says you need the testimony of Hashem who knows what thoughts lie in the heart of every man.

One great Rabbi said that, contrary to what we might imagine, it is much harder to do a proper regret about our sin (‘charoto’) than a accepting upon ourselves for future not to do the sin again ( kabolo lehabo).

The latter entails making a serious, sincere undertaking never to repeat the aveiro.

This is far from easy to do properly, but many do succeed.

However, we tend to bluff ourselves with regard to genuine charoto. If we REALLY regret… can we still sleep at night? True remorse should show itself in a similar way to someone who parked his brand-new luxury limousine near a raging river without ensuring that the hand-brake was fully engaged, or the business tycoon who blew all his money on a foolish scam. These people are EATEN UP by their sense of guilt and remorse. This should pale into insignificance when compared to a baal teshuva who realizes what damaged was caused by his misdeeds!

May we all merit achieving a Teshuva Sheleima!

Parsha Summary

First Aliyah: Moshe addressed the people, saying that he is 120 years of age on that day, and he is not permitted to cross the Jordan River together with them. Instead, Joshua will lead them, and G‑d will go before them and destroy their enemies.

Second Aliyah: Moshe continued his talk: G‑d will vanquish the inhabitants ofCanaan as He did the Emorites and Bashanites. Moshe enjoined the Israelites to be strong and not fear their enemies.

Third Aliyah: Moshe summoned Joshua and told him to be strong and courageous, for G‑d will be going before him and will not forsake him. Moshe then wrote the entire Torah and gave it to the Kohnaim (priests) and theIsraelite elders.

Fourth Aliyah: Moshe gives the commandment of Hakhel (assembly), whereby every seven years, during the holiday of Sukkot which follows the Sabbatical year, all men, women, and children assemble and the king publicly reads sections of the Torah.

Fifth Aliyah: G‑d commanded Moshe to enter the Tabernacle together with Joshua. G‑d appeared to them both and informed them that a time will come when the Israelites will abandon G‑d and stray after alien gods. At that time, G‑d will hide His countenance from the nation, and they will be subjected to much evils and troubles. Therefore, G‑d says, “Write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness…” This ‘song’ is narrated in next week’s Torah reading.

Sixth Aliyah: When G‑d’s wrath will find the Israelites as a consequence of their evil actions, they will claim that the misfortunes are befalling them because G‑d has abandoned them. At that time, the song which Moshe and Joshua wrote will bear testimony that these events are in fact punishment for their sinful behavior.

Seventh Aliyah: Moshe took the freshly concluded Torah scroll and gave it to the Levites. He instructed them to place it beside the Ark which contained the Tablets. Moshe then gathered the entire nation to hear the song, wherein he would call upon the heavens and earth to be witnesses that the Israelites were forewarned regarding their fate.

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