Judaism: Removing the Number One Stumbling Block in Your Life
With the High Holidays here, we begin to take stock of our lives. Often we are frustrated with our lack of spiritual progress. We wonder, “For the New Year, how can I increase my passion for Judaism and enhance my relationship with God?”
The cause of our spiritual stagnancy is frequently a sin which has formed a barrier between us and God. By repairing the sin which most distances us from Him, we can take our relationship with God to new heights.
Here are six fundamental and common sins, as well as action steps to remove them from your life.
Wronging others. We may have wronged others emotionally or financially. We frequently excuse our behavior by saying, “I didn’t intend any harm. I was just…” But good intentions do not whitewash sinful acts.
Ask yourself, “Is there anyone I offended or whose feelings I have hurt? Have I caused someone distress? Have I made fun of someone (even good-naturedly)? Do I owe anyone money? Have I reneged on an agreement? Have I enriched myself at the expense of others?”
You may think, “I’ll straighten it out later. I’ll make good in the end.” But repentance is only possible while you are in this world. Nobody knows which day will be their last. Once a person’s body shuts down, so do the gates of repentance. Whatever you can correct, do so while you still can.
Action steps: Can you recall any time you hurt someone, perhaps a friend, neighbor, family member, fellow congregant or business associate? Even if you think you have both moved on since then, you still need to make amends and/or apologize.
Hating your fellow Jew. Perhaps you do not hate anybody, but how about intensely dislike? Are there people you cannot be with and feel distaste just looking at them?
We do not have to go out of our way to spend time with people we do not like; often, it is good to limit contact with those who push our buttons. But, we are forbidden to harbor personal animosity toward our fellow Jew, as the Torah cautions us (Leviticus 19:17), “Do not hate your brother in your heart…”
Many times, we dislike someone because he or she wronged us, in which case, see, “The Freedom of Forgiveness.” Other times, some people just rub us the wrong way. When we look at them, we think about their real or imagined faults. Instead, remind yourself that you do not know everything about them and judge them favorably. In addition, think about their good points. Everyone has good qualities and has done good deeds. Search for and admire the good in others.
Look for shared humanity. You have more in common with those you dislike than differences. You try hard to provide for yourself and your family, so do they. You have worries and concerns, hopes and dreams, so do they. Sometimes, you struggle just to get by, so do they. As best you can, feel warmth and compassion for them.
Generally speaking, the people we dislike are those we do not know well. The more you get to know people, their good points and their struggles, the more you realize that in many ways, they are just like you.
Action steps: Make a list of those you dislike. Write down their admirable qualities and the good they have done. In addition, list the life struggles they likely face. Next time you see them, bring to mind what you wrote and try to give them a genuine smile and greeting.
Being callous. Sometimes, our issue is not that we have wronged others, or that we hate them, it is that we ignore them. Often, we are so focused on our own lives that we do not pay enough attention to others. We may ignore the difficulties they have, perhaps in finding a job or a spouse, coping with illness or paying bills. Although we cannot help everyone, we still have to do whatever we can. Pirkei Avot reminds us, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, yet you are not free to withdraw from it (2:21).”
When we hear about a difficulty or tragedy, often our reaction is, “What a pity. Thank God I’m not affected.” And we go on with business as usual. But we are affected: Our brothers and sisters are struggling. We have to ask ourselves, “How can I help? What can I do?” If you cannot provide physical, financial or emotional assistance, do not minimize the importance of including them in your prayers.
Sometimes, we are attentive to those with difficulties, but ignore those who do not appear needy, because they are not in our circle of friends. For example, there are individuals in the synagogue who do not know many people and stand off to the side after davening. Do we go over to them and make them feel welcomed, or do we stick with our clique? Do we wish a warm, good Shabbos to every Jew we meet or only to those we know? The truth is we are all needy; we all need to be noticed, cared about and respected for who we are.
Action steps: Devote a portion of your time and resources to helping others. At least each week, preferably daily, do an act of kindness. When you meet someone, show an interest in that individual and see if you can be of assistance.
Neglecting our relationship with God. Sometimes, people get so busy with daily life they forget about their Creator. God created us to have a relationship with Him. Each day we do not develop this relationship, is a day lost forever.
Action steps: Every day, connect with God by: Praying to Him, performing a mitzvah mindfully, sensing His presence, thanking Him for one of His blessings and thinking about how He guides every aspect of your life for your highest good.
Each day, say at least one prayer with feeling, tapping into the fact that you are talking to God and that He is listening to you. If you have trouble doing this in formal prayer, try reciting Psalms with intent and/or engage in Hitbodedut – talking out loud to God in your native language.
An essential part of having a relationship with God is not disrespecting Him. For example, we must ensure that we do not talk during davening or leave the synagogue while the Haftorah is being read.
Neglecting Torah study. Our souls draw strength from Torah study. When we learn Torah regularly, we provide daily nourishment for our souls.
Action steps: Study Jewish law so you know how to observe the Torah. In addition, learn something which inspires you. Uplifting articles and books, or listening to inspirational teachers, will fire up your passion for Judaism and increase your fervor to come closer to God.
Ask others which authors and teachers inspire them; many find Chassidic thought to be especially uplifting. Choose your preferred medium – audio, visual or print. Preferably, study at least once a week with a partner; you can locate one through your synagogue or kollel. Every Jew has a unique share in the Torah that resonates deeply. Search for yours and give your soul the nourishment it needs.
Allowing spiritual pollution into our lives. For a discussion on this topic, see, “4 Steps to Safeguarding Your Moral Purity.”
In chapter 11 of The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, he has an eye-opening discussion on many of the above areas. This work is available in English by either Feldheim or Artscroll (the latter edition is entitled, Mesillas Yesharim: Way of the Upright). Studying this chapter over Elul is a very fitting way to prepare for the High Holidays.
Look over the above six areas and start by focusing on your biggest issue. Many times, after you remove the largest stumbling block, other areas will improve as well. If they do not, focus on them afterward. Commit to specific action steps and implement them at the earliest opportunity.
By repairing the area with which you struggle most, you will deepen your relationship with God. Come Rosh Hashanah, when we coronate God as King of the world, you will not be sitting in the bleachers; you will be up front, a beloved, close family member of the King.
A version of this article appeared on OU.org and the Shabbat Shalom Newsletter, sent to Arutz Sheva by the writer.
And check out Yaakov’s new, free e-book, Living with God: 30 Days to a Fulfilling Life.