My Rosh Hashanah was greatly enhanced by the discovery that Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, is much more than just inspiration. The subtitle implies to me the genre so popular today of trite stories intended to invoke religious emotion, to which I usually respond with incredulity at the implied expectation of low intelligence in readers. “Divine providence” stories that are transparently embellished and unimpressive and tired parables do not inspire me, nor does self-help psychobabble.
Dr. Brown’s book is really daily wisdom, profound thoughts and biblical interpretations that she conveys with remarkable ease. Her message of repentance, of religious behavioral change during this time of judgment, is neither “devar Torah” nor parable. Rather, it is why we must change and how to do it. Her pedagogical skill transforms complex ideas into accessible prose and her literary ability adds charm and urgency. It is wisdom which inspires thought, action and religious elevation, so I guess “inspiration” is technically accurate. The book changed my Rosh Hashanah, particularly my prayers.
Today’s chapter, for the fast day of Tzom Gedaliah, is entitled “discipline.” On a day when we refrain from eating, she discusses the dual urgent needs of our generation to control our desires in general and specifically to eat healthily. If these don’t hit close to home, you are unusual in our community.
Lack of restraint is a message Dr. Brown detects in the biblical story of the quail (Num. 11:31-34) and its contrasts to manna, the food of faith. “Unlike the manna that was delivered on divine dew at a set time, the text emphasizes the collapse of time. The people in their greed ate day and night, without restraint… The place name given for this incident literally means ‘graves of desire.’ Desire can become a tombstone, a marker of everything that we fail to do to preserve our best instincts and desires” (pp. 44-45).
Dr. Brown proceeds to quote from scholarly research on willpower. The more you use your willpower, the stronger it gets–but only to a degree. Like a muscle, it gets exhausted when used too much. Therefore, you have to practice and plan to avoid too much temptation. “[P]ick what you need to be disciplined about because it is impossible to have the mental strength to overcome all desire” (p. 45).
However, the more we practice and overcome our desire, the easier it becomes. One researcher “amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote… We can train ourselves to follow new habits to the extent that they become a permanent fixture of the way we operate in any given realm, repeating new behaviors until they have the ease of old habits” (p. 46).
Dr. Brown proceeds to show that these academic insights into overcoming desire can be found in the Mussar literature. Focusing mainly on R. Eliyahu Dessler’s concept of the “nekudas ha-bechirah,” she drives home the importance of pushing the front line of the battlefield of self-training. “The more our capacity to do good becomes instinctive, the more able we are to move the lines on the battlefield so that we possess more moral territory” (p. 48). The key to behavioral change, to practical repentance, is discipline. And the key to discipline is slowly strengthening our willpower and ingraining ourselves into our desired behavior.
The religious life demands discipline and the Ten Days of Repentance, particularly a fast day, is an opportune time to examine our own failures of willpower. This is the time to make changes, both big and small. Today is the day to chart your path forward, to plan your teshuvah.