How Breaking Our Routine Can Upgrade Our Lives

With Rosh Hashana a few days away, Selichos (at least for Ashkenzim) are beginning this Motzei Shabbos. Since Rosh Chodesh Elul, we have been steadily ramping up our intensity, and the coming weeks will be punctuated by the highest heights of the year.

But we cannot escape the reality that the Yamim Noraim are a disruption to our lives. Teachers often feel the burden of the constant interruptions: “We're just getting into the rhythm of the year, and now?! Another change in the schedule?” Parents are scrambling to find another babysitter, explaining to a boss or co-worker why they're unavailable for another day this week. Even in Yeshivos there's a tension between wanting to learn more, and making sure to get enough sleep to be able to focus on Slichos as well. There simply isn't enough time to keep up with life and Yom Tov.

By the middle of Sukkos every year, someone invariably asks me why the Torah couldn't have spaced out these holidays a little more. Surely we could spread the wealth throughout the year? And of course, if this is how the Torah has planned our calendar, and how Chazal have instituted our minhagim, then there are profound truths to cramming the next six weeks with Yamim Tovim.

Taking a Step Back

In the past few years, I have had the privilege of speaking to elderly people who are reflecting on their lives. They tell of the years they spent “in the grind”, and often, of their regrets. They tell me of the days and weeks and months and years when they seemed to be on autopilot. Decades that can be summed up by “I was busy with... whatever.”

Everyone knows that feeling a little. It's the uncanny experience of the hours moving slowly, but years racing by.

Of course, the challenge is that real growth requires consistency, habituation and routine. Real growth is achieved by small daily changes.

This leaves us with a seemingly intractable problem: We need consistency to achieve anything, but programmed disruptions in order to measure, feel and appreciate that growth. Elul, Slichos, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkos serve as our annual disruption.

It's important to note, however, that the notion of a “break from routine” that the Torah prescribes is not a vacation; indeed, it's quite the opposite. Our goal is clearly not to simply return to our regular schedule “relaxed and refreshed”. If anything, the demands of Torah, Tefillah and Mitzvos are far more intense in these weeks.

What then is the goal of the Yamim Noraim?

Perhaps they are not simply to disruption the routine, but instead, to train us into feeling a sense of meaning and purpose even during the weeks, months and years of “the grind.”

In recent year, people have begun to call this “mindfulness.” But Shlomo HaMelech (משלי ג׳ ו׳) had another name for it:

בְּכל־דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ – Know Him in All Your Ways

Rav Kook explains (מוסר אביך פרק ב פסקה ב):

וכן בכל הדברים שעושה, הרי באמת אין דבר בעולם שאינו לכבודו ית', על-כן כל מה שעושה יהיה הכל דברי מצותו ורצונו, ויבקש בהם את שמו ית', כשישתדל בכל שכלו וכחותיו לעשות את מה שהוא עושה בתכלית השלמות בכל צדדי השלמות, ונמצא שהוא יודע את השם יתברך בכל הדרכים.

In every single thing that a person does, they should know that there is nothing in this world that is not (already) for Hashem. Every little thing that we do is a fulfillment of what Hashem wants in the world. And when we exert our intellect and strength to do everything with a sense of wholeness, then we recognize that Hashem in all that we do.

Rabbi Chaim Cohen, the Chelban explained further:

A person should be deeply immersed in everything that they do. To know that Hashem is found there with them in this act, and not to be distracted with anything else. A person right now is helping their parents, listening to their spouse, they should be fully immersed in it, without distraction or the impatience of one who is trying to leave, as if their heart is not in it.

When my friends and I left Kerem B'Yavneh to start at YU, one of the guys remarked to Rav Moshe Stav that he had arranged to take a few light courses that he'd be able to take easily, and still get a “A”. That way, he'd be able to learn more Torah during those classes. Rav Stav got upset and told him that he had never met a person that became a Talmid Chacham by learning Mishna Berura under the table in a college class.

His point was simple. If we habituate ourselves to be absent from moments in our lives, we will eventually be absent from the things we really want to be present for.

How do we train ourselves to start living in the present? We need to begin somewhere, and this Shabbos, the Torah gives us an answer: The Mitzvah of Bikkurim, where a Jewish farmer brings his first fruit to the Beis HaMikdash.

The Fruit of Our Decision

It's a magnificent ceremony, where the Kohen accepts the Bikurim, and the farmer declares how all of Jewish history had lead to this moment. We read this declaration every year at the Pesach Seder:

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with ... The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us... We cried to the Hashem... He freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power... He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Hashem have given me.

The conclusion of his speech, however, is radical:

לֹא־עָבַרְתִּי מִמִּצְותֶיךָ וְלֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי – I have not transgressed any of your commandments, neither have I forgotten them.

That's a heavy statement. Who can possibly, honestly say that they have not violated any Halacha, or even forgotten to do a mitzvah?!

Rashi, enigmatically explains:

ולא שכחתי – מלברך – I didn't forget to make a bracha.

The Chidushei HaRim asks: How can it be that the Torah is telling us that this farmer is making a Bracha!? The entire institution of Brachos are מדרבנן – They are Rabbinic!

He answers simply: A Bracha is the declaration of intent before the activity. It's the big decision that defines what comes next. The farmer is exclaiming:

“I have headlined my life with the knowledge of God and my purpose in the world. And this little pomegranate, fig or date is the result of a life in the context of Hashem. I might not think of Hashem every day in my field, with every pull of the plough, shovel in the soil. But I certainly did when I planted the vine, when I bought this field, when I planned out my life. And this is the result of life lived with the right headlines. It works out from there.”

If we include Hashem in the major decisions of our lives, then slowly we become accustomed to including Hashem in smaller ones too. Eventually, we get to declare that “I haven't violated or forgotten anything; my whole life is meaningful.”

Who to marry, what career to pursue, where and how to educate our children, what vacations to take, and where to allocate our funds? These are amongst the myriad of big decisions that seriously and significantly impact every smaller choice. In a real and profound way, we choose the battles that we will face down this road, or another. Practically, we choose the choices that “future us” will be debating.

But this is true for the “smaller big decisions” as well: What food did we buy to stock the fridge? Food that will temp us to do something we're not proud of or food that makes us feel good about ourselves?

We make decisions to start watching a show late at night. But it's a different kind of decision to choose to turn it off and get enough sleep when our will power is steadily depleting.

Did we intentionally schedule time for the people that mean so much to us? For the events and activities that make a difference in our lives and families? Or are we waiting for the last minute to see if we have moment spare?

Bikkurim of the Year

The goal, then, of the next few weeks is to dedicate our own “firsts”. As we conclude 5782, and begin welcoming 5783, we are deliberately changing the pace of our lives. We're disrupting the patterns of our days and weeks with the intention of restarting with a heightened sense of mission, purpose and presence.

Hashem should help us include Him in everything that we can; starting with the biggest ticket items. Slowly, carefully, year after year, until בְּכל־דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ – We get to know Him and merit to find Him in every moment of our lives.