Self-Improvement in Elul

Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is a time of introspection and teshuvah. How exactly do you do this teshuvah thing?

In the culture in which I grew up, you are considered successful if you get good grades, get a good job, look attractive and therefore attract an attractive partner, and have a home theater system.  The path was clear.  I worked really hard on the grades part.

To this day, I consider one of my greatest achievements that I attended an elite university.  Nevermind that I was miserable there, or that it was probably by a stroke of luck (or okay, Hashem putting me through it so that I would learn what I needed to learn) that I ended up there.  For every student accepted to Northwestern University, there are probably at least 10 others at least as qualified.

In order to get into a “good” school, I stayed up late in order to study, and in my sleep deprivation I was very irritable.  I was very competitive.  Not with myself, but with others.  I needed to do as well as possible on each and every test, or at least better than everyone else, because the difference between being ranked #1 and #20 in a class with lots of other smart, motivated students might be the difference between getting an A- and an A+ on a few tests.  Throughout the entirety of high school.

I didn’t care how much my health suffered, because I wanted to be better than the next guy or girl, not better than my best could be.  I wanted to be ranked #1 in tennis, not improve my stroke.  I volunteered – in order to fulfill the requirements for Honor Society, though giving back to the community was nice and all.

Part of the reason why I think I found college to be so frustrating was because suddenly I was thrown into this vast universe where the possibilities were so endless.  Anything you want to study.  (You mean I could change majors?  I know I’m good at journalism.  How will I know I could succeed at something else?)  Anything you want to eat. (I handled this by not eating much at all).  Anything you want to do.  (In a university of elites, trying something new was difficult, because activity clubs were dominated by professionals who had been doing comedy, ceramics, karate, you name it, since they were 3.)

My point is that despite a prevailing attitude of “be all that you can be,” there didn’t seem to be too much of an emphasis on true self-improvement.  Of being kinder.  Of being more patient.  Understandably, Jewish religious programming played into the whole scheme.  True teshuvah can’t stand up to free movies, free food, and bar nights to show off the outfit that daddy bought.  Rather than a true building of self, college was an atmosphere of true self-absorption.

Teshuvah is cutting out all of the clutter and thinking about what’s really important, and what you do in order to cultivate what is really important to you.  How you spend your time.  How you treat others.  How you treat yourself.  How you treat your relationship to Gd.  It’s the times that we are the most self-absorbed that there is the least amount of space for Gd.

In thinking about the past year, the good, the bad, and the ugly, I find it hard to believe that Gd will accept my weak points — the points at which I’m not ready and willing to change for the better.  How can I expect Gd to accept me as I am if I struggle so much in these things and cannot accept my self.  Yet, working toward self-improvement can easily lead toward self-absorption.  So I turn it all over to Gd, and hope that He gives me the strength and the wisdom to make the correct choices in the upcoming year.

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ilene

Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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