The Chafetz Chaim tells the story of businessman who was walking down the street towards his office building. Along the way, he encountered a beggar who asked him for a moment of his time. "Sir," the beggar said, "As you can see, I have fallen on hard times. My desire is to one day be successful like you, but unfortunately, the world has not been kind to me. But, the other night I had a dream, and in my dream, I discovered an invention that would change the world! Now, in order to get my idea off the ground, I'll need some capital, and as you can see, I'm in dire need of that. If you would be open to it, I would be honored to come by your office and tell you about my invention." The man thought for a moment and said, "All right, I'll tell you what. Tomorrow at ten in the morning, come by, and I'd be happy to learn more about your idea." Well the next morning came, and the businessman was stuck in a meeting with some very important clients. When he checked his watch, he was shocked. It was five to ten! He picked up his materials, apologized profusely and ran over to his office. He made it to his desk right in the nick of time, but the beggar was nowhere to be found. Ten fifteen, ten thirty, eleven fifteen, eleven thirty. Still, no sign of the beggar. Finally, by noon, the businessman decided he had had enough. As he made his way out onto the street, who should he encounter, but the beggar! The beggar approached and said, "Sir, as you can see, I have fallen on hard times. My desire is to one day be successful like you. But, the other night I had a dream, and in my dream, I discovered an invention that would change the world. Now, in order to get my idea off the ground, I'll need some capital. If you would be open to it, I would be honored to come by your office and tell you about my invention." The businessman was flabbergasted. "Are you serious? Is this some kind of joke? You literally said those exact same words to me yesterday. I told you to meet me at my office at ten this morning, and you never showed! I waited for two hours! I even left a very important meeting early to see you." "Oh," said the beggar, "I'm sorry. But you see, I'm so excited about my idea, that I must have been daydreaming and forgot all about our appointment. Please, give me another chance. I'm telling you, this invention will change the world and will finally make me a success." The businessman was not impressed, but he figured he'd give the man the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really was onto something? "Fine, come by my office tomorrow at ten." Well, the next morning came, and when ten o'clock rolled around, the beggar was a no-show. The businessman waited for another hour and finally gave up. As he made his way onto the street, who should he run into, but the beggar! "Sir," the beggar said, "as you can see, I have fallen on hard times..." "Stop," said the businessman. "I'm not falling for this again." "But sir, I have an idea for an invention that will change the world!" "That's great. But if you were really serious about what you've been talking about, you would have followed through with your words. If you really cared about your idea, about leaving your poverty behind you, about becoming a success, you would do the things you say you would do. You talk and you talk and you talk. I made time to meet with you, but for some reason, you couldn't find the time to meet with me. If you believe so much in your idea, why didn't you even bother to show up? I'm sorry, but I can't take you more seriously than you take yourself."
How many times have we had big ideas? Ideas that would change the world? Ideas that would change ourselves? How many times have we thought about ways we could improve ourselves, our relationships, our careers, and how many times have we followed through with those ideas? How seriously do we take ourselves when we say, "I want to change?" Do we really believe our own words, in the power of our own potential to transform? This is the main message of today, Shabbat Shuva – we need to take our own aspirations seriously enough to follow through with them.
After having gone through a wonderful Rosh HaShanah, after feeling uplifted and inspired, we now find ourselves in this liminal, self-reflective period of time meant for us to think about the resolutions we've made, and more importantly, how we're going to follow through with them. And the most essential lesson we need to take away from today is that everything we seek – change, improvement, refinement, growth, all of it depends on our ability to take our own words, our own thoughts and desires seriously enough to make them happen, and also, to know that everything we seek ultimately depends on us, and us alone.
The Talmud tells the story of Elazar ben Durdayya, a man known for his penchant for visiting women of ill-repute. In fact, the Talmud says, “There was not one harlot in the world he did not engage.” Now, one day, Elazar heard of a certain harlot in a faraway land. It was said that none could rival her beauty, and none could rival the exorbitant price she charged. Elazar knew he had to find her. And the Talmud tells us that he gathered a purse of gold dinars, “And crossed the seven seas to find her.” When he did, he was struck by her beauty. Indeed, the rumors were true! As the harlot counted out his money, she let out a sigh and said, “Just as this passing breath will not return to its place, so too, Elazar ben Durdayya, you will not be accepted in repentance, even if you try.” Now, somehow, someway, the harlot's words shook Elazar to his core. He ran away and sat between two mountains and cried out, “Mountains, pray for mercy on my behalf, so that my repentance will be accepted!” But the mountains told him, "We must pray for mercy on our own behalf, because the time will come when we will be uprooted on the Day of Judgment. We are busy praying for ourselves!" So, Elazar ran out into an open field, he looked up at the heavens and down at the earth and cried, “Heaven and earth, pray for mercy on my behalf.” But they said, "We cannot pray for you, because the time will come when we will vanish on the Day of Judgment. We are busy praying for ourselves!" He then beseeched the sun and the moon, the stars and the constellations, and all of them told him that they were too busy praying for themselves. They could not help him. Finally, Elazar ben Durdayya sat by himself and said, “The matter depends on nothing other than myself.” And so, he placed his head between his knees and cried so loudly, so powerfully, that his soul left him. And the Talmud says that upon his death, a Divine Voice called out, “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdayya is destined for eternal life in the World to Come.” The Talmud concludes that when Rebbe Yehudah HaNasi, the complier of the Mishne, learned this story, he began to cry, and he whispered, “There are those who acquire their share in the World-to-Come only after many years of toil, and there are those who acquire their share in the World-to-Come in one moment.” And Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi said further, “Not only are penitents accepted, but they are even called Rabbi!”
This is an incredible idea. Not only did Rebbe Elazar ben Durdayya achieve Olam HaBah in one moment because of the sincerity of his teshuva, he achieved Olam HaBah because he also understood, “The matter depends on nothing other than myself." And that realization brought out the fullest expression of his deepest sincerity. But why did Rebbeinu HaKadosh cry when he read this story? Was he jealous that a man like himself, a man who had struggled for a lifetime to merit Olam HaBah now suddenly learned of someone who acquired it in an instant? According to Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, the reason why Rebbe Yehudah HaNasi was crying wasn't because he was jealous. He was crying because he realized that if in just one moment, a person could take himself seriously enough to actually do teshuva, if in one moment a person could put their mind and their heart to follow through with their aspirations, if in just one moment, a person could transform him or herself through realizing and acting on the power of their own potential and not only receive Olam HaBah, but also be called "Rabbi," then how much more so should we, people who work on this every day, realize just how possible teshuva, just how possible change can be.
But the truth is, more often than not, we look to others to give us approval, we look to others to give us help, to tell us if something will work or not. Like Rebbe Elazar who went to the mountains and the stars to make his goal happen, we too sometimes approach ideas about ourselves in the same way. But when it comes to our own lives, when it come to our relationships with God, we have to realize that which Rebbe Elazar ben Durdayya learned, "The matter depends on nothing other than myself." Shabbat Shuva is about taking our words at face value, it's about ensuring that we make our aspirations a priority in our lives, and that we follow through with our own ideals.
This week's special Haftorah, which comes from the Prophet Hosheiya, describes various ways one can approach teshuva. But one of the ways teshuva can accomplished is expressed by the following: “Take your words with you, and return to the Lord.” Meaning, take the words of your mouths seriously, take those words which you utter to heart, believe in yourself enough to mean what you say, and through those words, return to God. “Instead of bull sacrifices, take the offering of our lips.” Instead of superficial gestures, instead of daydreams, ask God to take our words as seriously as we take them, because we know, “Assyria will not save us.” Meaning, no one else, no other power, no other entity in the world, no matter how mighty can protect us, can help us, can make us change for ourselves. Only we can do that for ourselves. If we say we want to change, we should not look to others to help us make that change, because "The matter depends on nothing other than myself." When we believe in what we say, God takes us at our word, and so just as we believe in ourselves, God believes in us. But taking ourselves seriously, acting upon our hopes for the future is just the first step. Unlike the beggar's behavior in the Chafetz Chaim's story, the first step to change is to show up, to show that we mean what we say, to we are prepared to act upon our words. But the second step depends on God. After all, even if the beggar showed up, even if he acted on his convictions and demonstrated his idea sincerely and clearly, there's no guarantee that in the end, the businessman would have given him the money he was seeking. Now, this is true of human relationships. Just because we act on our words doesn't always mean our sincerity will be requited or rewarded. But this is not so when it comes to our relationships with God. And this is why the Prophet Hosheiya tells us, “Return Israel, until the Lord your God,” and then later, “Return directly to God.”
According to the Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian in his sefer Lev Eliyahu, these two words, "Ad," "Until" and "El," "Directly to," represent two different but co-dependent stages of teshuva. The first stage is "Ad," "Until," meaning that our initial thoughts of change, of self-improvement are a good start. But once we verbalize our desires to change, once we have an idea about ourselves that we are excited about, which we know will be life-altering, then “We must take those words which we talk about, and instead of talking and talking about what we hope for, what kind of changes we seek, adapt your heart to take them seriously to the point that they can be felt throughout every fiber of your body and soul.” Once God sees our sincerity, once it is clear that we have done everything we could for ourselves, then the rest depends on God. Once we approach God with our sincerity, then God has no choice but to bring us directly to Him, and accept our teshuva. If we bring God our whole hearts and nothing but our whole hearts because we believe enough in our ability to change, then, “God will accept that change and help us along our way.” Not just because we ask for it. Not just because we dream of it. But because we actively show Him that we mean what we say, and by acting on our sincerity, we ensure that God will do His part to act on His.
The process of teshuva is a long and hard one. Sometimes it can take a lifetime to achieve, and sometimes, only a moment. But either way, so long as we know, in the deepest depths of our being that "the matter depends on nothing other than myself," as long as we take our own words to heart and act on the changes we seek, those hopes and aspirations will not only be received, but be made possible.
So, this Shabbat Shuva, as we think about all the things we want to do, all the things we want to become, let us take this day to take ourselves seriously, to mean what we say. If we think to ourselves, "I'd like to come to minyan at least once a week,", take your own words seriously and know that only you can make that happen. If we think to ourselves, "I'd like learn more Torah, I'd like to learn more about Shabbat, about Kashrut, I'd like to learn more about how to enhance my spiritual and ritual life as a Jew," take your own words seriously and know that only you can make that happen. If you have a broken or hurt relationship in your life and you say to yourself, "I want to fix things, I want to become closer to that person," take your own words seriously and know that only you can make that happen. If we take our words at face value, if we're serious about what we say, then God will respond in kind. And we know He will, as it says, “My child, if you would only give Me your heart, your eyes will learn My ways.”
May we all be blessed with a sweet and a good new year. May we all be blessed with health, happiness and prosperity. May we all find what we are seeking, and may we all take the words of our mouths and the desires of our hearts seriously, looking at them as one looks at an investment. But once we choose which path to take for ourselves, which stock to invest in, once we commit to ourselves, may we all find the strength to follow through with that commitment, knowing that God will be there for us to help see our aspirations succeed and enable the realization of that which we seek. It all depends on us, so, “Take these words to heart.”
Shabbat Shalom, and Gamar Tov!
May you and yours be blessed and sealed for a good, sweet, safe, happy and healthy new year!