“Rabbi, I feel bad I don’t come to the synagogue more often,” someone told me last week.
“Don’t feel bad,” I replied.
He was surprised. Why shouldn’t he feel bad for not coming to synagogue more often?
“Nothing good comes out of feeling bad,” I told him.
We just entered a month that might make some people feel bad.
I know this because it happened to me. More than once.
The month is the Hebrew month of Elul. Often, this month is referred to as “Chodesh Hacheshbon,” “the month of accounting,” a month dedicated to self-reflection.
During this last month of the year, we are supposed to spend time thinking about the past year, evaluating the state of our spiritual development, and committing to becoming better.
Almost always, when I look back, I feel bad.
I feel bad because of things I should not have done.
I feel bad because of things I didn’t do well.
And perhaps the worst of all is the list of “I should have.”
It’s a long, long list of things that I should have, but haven’t, done. And this list doesn’t accomplish anything positive in my life. It just makes me feel bad.
Feeling bad is not a motivator. It rarely motivates anyone to do anything. Instead, it just makes me feel lazy and tired. When I feel bad, I just want to go to sleep.
There is a hidden trap in “I should have” and “I feel bad.” It’s just another trick to make us do even less, and then our feeling bad and list of should haves will keep growing.
The month of Elul has another name: “Chodesh Hateshuva,” “the month of repentance.”
Here again, what emotions come to mind when you hear “repentance”? Sorrow? Regret? Sadness?
Will any of those feelings make us better?
Chasidic teaching provides a beautiful insight into this topic.
It’s called “Teshuva mitoch simcha,” “repenting with joy.”
The idea is that while self-reflection is essential and we need to honestly understand our situation, that should be done joyfully.
When we are happy, we are unstoppable. We are willing to invest more and go much farther.
Like everything in life, it’s all about perspective. If a cup is filled with 50% water, is it half-full or half-empty? If a person’s relationship with God is lacking, is he far from God, or does he have the potential to be much closer?
“Rabbi, I didn’t come to synagogue for a long time! I am so excited to come next week.”
“God, I didn’t pray to you for a while! I am so happy I am going to do it now.”
You get the point. We don’t whitewash anything, but we also don’t dwell too much on past wrongdoings. Instead, we focus on the great opportunity we have right now.
As we navigate through this extraordinary month of Chodesh Hacheshbon (the month of accounting) and Chodesh Hateshuva (the month of repentance), hopefully, we can embark on a journey of self-improvement. May this journey be filled with joy and lead us to be better people, better Jews, and closer to God.
Wishing you all a Shana Tova!
Mendy Kaminker is the rabbi at Chabad of Hackensack. He welcomes your comments and insights at rabbi@ChabadHackensack.com