One of the most brilliant qualities of the Jewish calendar is its ability to disrupt our lives for the good.
The holidays have this way of causing us to pause and focus on what really matters, regardless of how we may feel or what may be happening in our lives. While we can always count on the Jewish calendar to call on us, it’s how we answer that call that will shape our holiday experience—and shape each of us in the process.
In a wonderful essay, renowned Torah scholar and community leader Dr. Erica Brown unpacks a powerful lesson on Rosh Hashanah drawn from an unlikely source. She cites Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” to distinguish between two modes of approaching one’s tasks. Newport contrasts “shallow work” which is “often performed while distracted” with “deep work”, which consists of “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”*
Dr. Brown connects the dots to the High Holidays: “I began to consider new categories of teshuva (repentance): shallow repentance and deep repentance. Shallow repentance is how so many of us run quickly through prayer, beat our chests at the appropriate moments, and give spiritual lip-service to how different we want to be and then not do much about it. The deep work of change is much more destabilizing, involves difficult self-questioning and makes us think about what it might look like to create ‘new value in the world.’”
This passage spoke to me, and not because I have any expertise when it comes to repentance. To the contrary, I imagine like most people reading this message, I’ve had my High Holiday “shallow” moments and “deep” moments alike.
What I especially appreciated about Dr. Brown’s thinking was the idea that there really are no shortcuts to meaningful and lasting change. Every day, we are conditioning ourselves to live in a world of endless distractions and instant gratification. But what change requires is essentially the opposite: undistracted introspection and the patience to persist.
“Deep repentance involves serious behavior and attitudinal changes so that the temptation to revert to one’s old ways will feel foreign and unattractive,” Dr. Brown concludes. “That takes more than a few holy days on the calendar. That takes focus and commitment. It takes deep work.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the invitation to just such a process. But the way that we accept that invitation determines whether the holidays are simply interrupting our routine or disrupting us, and ultimately changing who we will be in the entire year to come.
May the High Holidays bring each of us joy, meaning, and progress in becoming our best selves. I wish our entire community a sweet and happy New Year.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova U'Metukah!
President & CEO
UJA Federation of Greater Toronto
*Source: “What if they repent?”, Dr. Erica Brown, September 14, 2017.