May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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Cruising down the aisles of Walmart, firmly holding my (almost) fourth grader’s sweet little hand as she excitedly waved her freshly printed school-supply list, I could not distract myself from one particularly gnawing thought, which relentlessly clamored for my attention: why were two pink erasers needed for the year ahead? After all, would one eraser not suffice? Especially given that these days the built-in eraser option comes standard on all new pencils. Maybe it’s just me, but I personally don’t recall ever coming close to wearing down a pink eraser, facing the sudden urgent need for a replacement. On the other hand, I can certainly appreciate why two glue sticks are needed. (We actually got three, just to be safe.) I was also pleasantly surprised that we only needed to purchase one box of Mr. Clean Magic Erasers and was similarly gratified that this year’s list only called for six erasable pens. As some may recall, last year we needed eight.

Unquestionably, there is something special about the return to school. Granted, most of our children prefer the joyful sounds of splashing water and smells of outdoor fun to that of school bells and yellow buses. Adjusting bedtimes, adapting to new schedules and becoming acclimated to more structured settings certainly comes with challenges. But filling up one’s supply box with freshly sharpened pencils and gently opening a package of 300 blank sheets of paper triggers thoughts of optimism and feelings of hope.

Although for many of us our years of formal education have come to an end and we are not necessarily in “back-to-school” mode, we are surely preparing for our imminent return “back to shul.” Hopefully, most do not need to prepare for a literal reentry, following a multi-month hiatus from shul. At the same time, many of us yearn for the unique opportunities of inspiration and special moments of connection that are often more naturally experienced during the month of Tishrei. This is, after all, the season of teshuva, the season of return.

As we prepare to return, I wonder what our supply list should look like and what materials we should be preparing at this momentous time. Here are a few suggestions:

Ruler: In order to plan for a successful year, one must have the tools to properly and accurately measure change. Have I grown since last year? If so, how much? As change typically occurs gradually, it is critical that we identify the proper tools that will enable us to quantify and track those changes and trends.

One Marble Notebook: The process of teshuva requires cheshbon hanefesh, a thorough and comprehensive inventory of the soul. This can only be properly achieved through a system of accounting, calculating and logging. Coming to shul with an actual notebook in hand, while completely appropriate and commendable, will likely be too awkward for most. Yet to rely on extemporaneous thoughts and spontaneous memory alone reflects a profound lack of appreciation of the complexity of the human mind and soul, not to mention the extraordinary challenges and opportunities of teshuva.

Scissors: One of the most challenging, and at times painful, stages of teshuva is the internal dissection that true repentance often requires. Breaking habits and reforming attitudes entail the excision of targeted behaviors and indulgences, coupled with the commitment to let go of all that obstructs my path to personal freedom.

Binder: Often we begin the new year with many goals and aspirations. We earnestly consider countless resolutions, both new and recycled, identifying numerous areas for needed change and improvement. If we truly want to be successful, our resolutions should be very few in number. Perhaps just as important, though, our New Year’s resolutions must be carefully bound together and incorporated into a carefully coordinated plan for implementation and sustainability.

Reinforcements: Lasting change cannot occur in a vacuum. We need to commit ourselves to lifestyles that support our commitments and dreams. Our social connections and moments of leisure must reinforce the ideals and values we seek to maintain. Anyone can make a New Year’s resolution. Without reinforcements, however, they are doomed to fail.

Four Folders With Prongs: I have no idea but could never hurt.

Two Boxes of Tissues: We should prepare to invest ourselves emotionally as we commit to the grueling yet redemptive process of teshuva. Teshuva, like prayer, is an avodah shebalev, a service of the heart. As we stand before God and confess our sins, we repeatedly strike our hearts, reminding ourselves of the need to be genuine and sincere.

Scotch Tape: Teshuva gemura (complete repentance) can indeed enable one to achieve a state of pristine purity and complete and absolute renewal. Thankfully, though, that’s not the only option. Oftentimes we can successfully apply tape to those parts of our soul that are torn and tattered. Emerging from the days of awe with temporary repairs and loose ends is not a reflection of failure. To the contrary, partial repairs enable us to remain mindful and aware of our weaknesses and shortcomings, thereby improving the likelihood that we will successfully protect and reinforce our fresh stitches and patches.

As we each prepare to return to shul in the days ahead, we should make every effort to identify and gather the tools and materials that we will need to achieve success. Unlike school lists, there is no single list that will enable each and every individual to be prepared for the first day. So let us spend these final hours before the start of the new year replacing, replenishing and restocking so that we gather all we need to succeed in the days ahead. But please don’t delay.
Hurry—while supplies last.

By Rabbi Larry Rothwachs

Rabbi Larry Rothwachs is mara d’atra of Teaneck’s Beth Aaron community and director of professional rabbinics at Yeshiva University’s RIETS.

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