New: Tal Chayim, A Practical Guide to Self-Improvement

Rabbi Shmuel Tal's book "Tal Chayim" on self-improvement is in English and a good choice for the Days of Awe and Repentance.

Rochel Sylvetsky,

Judaism Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

The last few decades have seen the growth of the concept of self-help and do-it-yourself books for everything, many of them clear and practical, some of them much less so.

While  it would be inappropriate to call a self-help book on repentance in the period of the Days of Awe "Teshuva (Repentance) for Dummies", I sometimes wish there was a manual by that name. It is hard for me to escape the feeling that, although I think I try,  I simply don't know how to effect personal change for the better – let alone national change – that lasts.

Rabbi Shmuel Tal has tried to help in his book Tal Chayim, called "A Practical guide to Self-Improvement for the Days of Awe and Throughout the Year" (Judaica Press Inc.). Despite its name, the book, complied and edited by Simcha Menachem Friedman in flowing English (although the glossary leaves much to be desired and has several errors), is not a list of things to do, nor is it a moralistic set of instructions or algorithms for every situation, but it can effect change in your life - and certainly deepen your understanding of the holiday prayers.

It is first and foremost a rich, spiritual – and highly readable - guide to the fundamental processes and conceptions involved in different facets of Teshuva and how they feature in the prayers of the Days of Awe. It is also an empathetic and compassionate source for ways of approaching personal change, for working on  improving one's performance as well as one's inner self. And in addition, it richly weaves the Land of Israel and our yearning for Redemption into the fabric of Teshuva on both a personal and collective level, so that one enhances the other.

It also gives practical advice on how to cope with the difficulties of changing one's level of mitzva (commandment) performance for the better.

The author asks, why is Rosh Hashana two days? Halakhically and historically, we know that it was difficult  to accurately declare the onset of a holiday that starts on the first of the month. Today, that would not be a problem, but beyond the Jewish tradition of continuity in observance, inherent in this holiday is the need for enough time to have a fighting chance to change, he says, along with a reminder that we are still distanced from the Land of Israel, as it were – that is, from the way the Land is supposed to be, even though we might be in it physically.

Luckily, he says, we have the month of Elul so we are able to start our introspection early. Teshuva is a confrontation with transgression, but it is also uprooting the foundation of our transgressions. Rabbi Tal skillfully shows the difference between Rosh Hashana, the holiday in which we contemplate the essence of Teshuva and Yom Kippur, the day we confess and show remorse for our own personal sins.

The essence of Teshuva, the theme of Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Tal writes, is realizing that G-d is King, that He is the Creator – everything devolves from understanding the meaning of  that. This is the goal on Rosh Hashana – the meaning of the central "Malchiot" prayer and of the shofar blasts that crown Him. That is why we don't go into detailed confession of personal sins on Rosh Hashana, we are working on fundamental mindsets.

Once we have realized that goal, it is time, on Yom Kippur, to take our actions apart bit by bit, even adding sins to the ones in the vidduy prayer, if they are not listed there. Why do we have to do this if we have realized that G-d is in charge and we are His subjects? Why isn't that enough? It is like a person coming to a ravine, says Rabbi Tal, he makes a decision to cross it, to go through it no matter what, but once he starts, he still has to look out for every stone and bramble or he won't make it.

And anyway, if we think of G-d as King and we have called a meeting with Him, we had better be thoroughly prepared. It is the High Holidays. He will listen.

Two of the many comforting pieces of advice Rabbi Tal gives the person striving to improve his religious performance is to pray for just that – for example, if it is hard to feel strongly for the rebuilding of the Temple, pray not just for its rebuilding but for the ability to feel its absence strongly, for the ability to yearn for it with all one's heart. And if it is hard to have kavana (concentration during prayer) start with a sentence or two that speaks to you and concentrate on saying that with deep feeling, then add others.

One of the most enlightening parts of the book explains that Teshuva is a joyful experience because:

1. There is no greater joy than successfully revealing and expressing one's innermost self.

2. When a Jew connects with God, his soul becomes overjoyed. We must cry Long Live the King, He created us, He loves us.

And we must, he says, try to hold on to that feeling so it lasts through the whole year. The power of our temporary enthusiasm lasts, like a couple's memories of happy times of intimacy. We now know we are capable of it, of connecting to G-d in joy.

And may we all merit doing so. Keeping Tal Chayim on one's desk or near it is a way to help that happen.

Published by Yeshivas Torah HaChayim, can be ordered by phone in Israel 050-2007887 or by writing yehonatan103@gmail. com. Distributed in the USA by The Judaica Press, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, appr. $20, hardcover, 295 pages. Haskamot (approbation by Torah scholars) from such figures as Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, Rav Asher Zelig Weiss, Rabbi Pinchas Sheinberg Shlita.