(Written before Rosh Hashana but valid through Yom Kippur!)
I didn’t like beer. It had always been a mystery to me how otherwise normal people could rave about the bitter brew. Then, at age 29, my wife and I and our young children moved to Milwaukee (Home of Miller and other large breweries) for our first job in Jewish education, and beer got another chance.
I didn’t immediately enjoy beer. I had no desire to drink beer. But I had a desire to desire to drink beer. This is what University of Chicago Professor of Philosophy Agnes Collard calls “aspiration” (Aspiration:The Agency of Becoming; Oxford University Press, 2018). She contrasts “aspiration” with “ambition” which is a desire for something whose value is already known to the individual.
Concerning a more noble goal, a high school Torah teacher once told uninterested students, “I recognize that you don’t want to learn, but I know that you want to want to learn”.
Aspiration to better oneself in a certain aspect is a notable accomplishment even before the individual develops an appreciation for the desired goal. And, according to Professor Collard it is the process that allows people to create significant qualitative change in their lives. Her book is about how the process happens.
The process of change includes educational and experiential factors. But the genesis of change is the moment of inspiration to aspire to change and that is the goal of Rosh Hashanah!
The post-Talmudic authorities debate whether the Mitzvah of Shofar is “blowing” or “hearing”. Rabbi Yitzchak Gettinger of the Young Israel of the West Side in New York explains that the debate centers on whether the “Change” aspect of Rosh Hashanah is doing or listening. The majority opinion (as reflected in the blessing, “...and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar”) is that the theme of Rosh Hashanah is to attentively listen to the internal and external voices that urge positive change, and make a mental decision to begin the process.
But what about the process of Teshuva (repentance/return) which is a prerequisite for the forgiveness and atonement of Yom Kippur? How much actual change is required? The 19th century founder of the Mussar Movement, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, following the Medieval authority, Rabbenu Yonah, assures us that “being on the path of Teshuva”, starting the educational process of Torah study that will eventually lead to a desired improvement qualifies, even if the trip has detours and delays.
This approach explains the “split personalities” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Judgement Day we feast and dress up. Even on Yom Kippur, the mood is serious yet upbeat. We all need to progress but without self-defeating stress. G-d doesn’t expect us to suddenly refrain from negative speech, or observe every aspect of Shabbat, for example. The goal is to commit ourselves to a path of education (there is so much online) and personally tailored experiences, so that we are on the way.
So… now I like beer! At least when I’m thirsty. It took many years for the original aspiration to enjoy the unique bitterness of beer to change my tastes and behavior. And when I experience my personal symbol along with the usual apple with honey and pomegranate, I will remember to open my spiritual taste buds to aspects of Jewish life which have eluded my interest but have been soul delights for millions of Jews over the millennia.