“T’shuvah” is a word that’s often associated with this time of year. Yet, when we hear it, we often want to run away. Can I really make such massive changes in my life? How am I supposed to break the negative habits that are so deeply ingrained in me? Yom Kippur is right around the corner and my Torah learning, my t’filah, and my interpersonal relationships are nowhere near what they should be. This seems too daunting a task.
Rav Shlomo Hoffman shares a perspective that can put us at ease, based on the teachings of his great rebbe, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, the Rosh Yeshivah of Chevron. He relates a mashal that dates all the way back to Rav Yisrael Salanter. (I’m going to give you the American version.)
There was a fellow who moved from Israel to the United States and settled in Baltimore. He had a relative in New York City he wanted to visit. Unfamiliar with his new setting, he asked his neighbor how far of a drive it is. “It’s only a little over three hours,” was the reply. “Just head on I-95 for about three-and-a-half hours and you’ll get there.” So, he got in his car and started driving. After about four hours, he didn’t see New York City, but nevertheless continued driving. Roughly five hours into the drive, he noticed a sign that read “Welcome to North Carolina.” Scratching his head, he assumed that North Carolina must be somewhere near New York City, so he continued. Then he saw more signs, reading: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida – yet he continued driving, thinking he would be getting there very shortly. Finally, he got all the way down to Miami. He got out of the car and asked someone, “Am I somewhere near New York City?” The fellow responded, “Huh? New York City? You are 18 hours away from New York City! How did you end up down here?” “Well, I was in Baltimore, and I wanted to get to New York, and I was instructed to drive on I-95 to get there.” The fellow responded, “No, you got on I-95 South. You were headed in the wrong direction! What you have to do is get back onto I-95 North and then you’re headed in the right direction. Eventually you will reach your destination.”
Let’s pause the story here and ask the following question. At what point in the story was this individual better off? Was it when he was leaving Baltimore, or when he stopped in Miami? Initially, we would assume it was when he left Baltimore, because that was when he was closest to New York City. However, while it is true that when he was in Baltimore he was only three hours away from his destination, he was heading in the wrong direction. He was set on a trajectory that would never get him to where he needed to go. However, when he turned around in Miami, he began to head in the right direction. Even though he was 18 hours away from New York City, he is now much better off, because he’s set on a course that will eventually get him where he needs to go.
Rav Yechezkel Sarna used to quote Rabbeinu Yonah, who says: During this time period, all we need to do is to be “misyatzeiv al derech tov – get on the right path.” The same way that that fellow was closest to his destination when he made that turn to get himself onto I-95 North, back to New York City, we as well are closest to our destination when we just get ourselves on the right path. Our avodah now is not to accomplish the Herculean task of completely uprooting our negative habits and traits. Rather, it is to set ourselves onto a trajectory that will eventually lead us to that goal. The Gemara tells us that Yom Kippur atones for those who are doing t’shuvah. Rav Salanter pointed out that it doesn’t say Yom Kippur atones for those who already did t’shuvah; no, it says osin t’shuvah – for those who are in the process of doing t’shuvah. Those who got the ball rolling to set themselves on a path that will eventually, sometime down the line, lead to a full t’shuvah.
If I sense that, this year, I really should be dedicating more time to Torah learning, I need to open up my Google calendar and see where I could carve out just a few more minutes for learning. If I feel that my davening should have more kavanah, then I need to take out a siddur right now and pick that one brachah that I’m going to have increased kavanah for. How about my relationships? Is there one person in my life to whom I could offer a helping hand? Is there a certain individual who can benefit from more of my sensitivity? Taking a small step in any of these areas is what it means to get the ball rolling. That’s what it means to be misyatzeiv al derech tov, to head in the right direction. Just like that fellow who turned the car around to head on I-95 North, I too can make the decision right now that I’m going to get onto the right path, the path that will eventually lead me to real fulfilling changes.
And with that commitment, we should all merit a k’sivah v’chasimah tovah!
By Rabbi Yaakov Moskowitz