I have always been enthused by the concept of “The New Year” in that it symbolizes opportunities for reflection and recharging. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is upon us. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is actually a “new years” of sorts – in fact it was the first Rosh Chodesh the Jews ever observed. Chodesh comes from the root "chadash" meaning new, or more importantly an opportunity to renew. In this article, in addition to the unique opportunities in Nissan for personal growth, we will discuss setting AND achieving meaningful, attainable goals at “any time.”
To that end, let us discuss the events leading up to the salvation from Egypt, Mitzrayim. The Jews were commanded in a series of mitzvos. Some would be for eternity, while others would only be relevant in the moment. Besides Pesach (Exodus 12: 3-8) the two mitzvos that are most applicable to our times were Rosh Chodesh (Exodus 13:1-3) and tefillin (Exodus 13:9,15). I heard from Rabbi Noach Orlowek that at the time of Kriyas Yam Suf, the splitting of the Red Sea, that the Jews were so overcome with “inspiration” that it was impossible to imagine that they would ever come down from the high they experienced. In fact the Medrash describes that “what a maidservant saw by the sea, Yechezkel Ben Buzi (the prophet) did not see in all his days” (Mechilta, Parshas Beshalach Perek 3). Nonetheless, it is a natural phenomenon to quickly lose feelings of inspiration. Feelings of inspiration tend to escape us like a grain of sand through the grasp of our fingers.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book Living Inspired, as well as in his lectures, discusses the interplay between Pesach, Sifirath HaOmer and Shavuot. In particular, he elaborates on a concept he refers to as the “point of inspiration.” Apparently the entire 7 days (8 if you live in Chutz LaAretz, i.e. outside of Israel in the Diaspora) of Pesach are associated with inspiration. He goes on to elaborate that all feelings of inspiration are in actuality a choice, or rather a test. You can let them go passively or you can fight to hold onto them. The word test in Hebrew, or Lashon HaKodesh, is nissayon, which shares the root of the words banner and miracle.
Rabbi Tatz reveals that this indicates that divine tests have the unique ability to reveal latent potential. Tests have the power to raise you up like a banner. This entire process is a miracle, in the sense that it could not be accomplished without divine intervention. (I recently heard from Rabbi Rietti that it is also linked to “running away”, indicating that you have the choice to engage in the test or flee, but if you choose to flee it is not a passive decision.)
This struggle is epitomized by the work characterized by Sifirath HaOmer, which lasts for 49 days. The purpose of Sifirath HaOmer is to earn the right to be bestowed with the Torah, but this cannot be accomplished without Divine intervention. If you pass this test you will be rewarded with the satisfaction that accompanies Shavuot, specifically the humility to know that while it was your choice to accept the challenge, had it not been for Divine providence you would not have had the tools or motivation to succeed. It is worthy to note that the zodiac of the Jewish month of Sivan is symbolized by twins, representing the individual and G-D.
This begs the question, “how exactly do you hold onto the feelings of inspiration?” On the subject of maintaining the momentum generated by a moment of inspiration, Rabbi Orlowek speaks about the importance of taking a “souvenir” with you. What is the purpose of acquiring a physical symbol? It helps to concretize a memory that otherwise would easily fade into the past.
Upon hearing this and reflecting on its meaning further, I always conjure up the image of a snow globe. I can feel its weight in both my hands and I am mesmerized as the “snow” swirls in the glass globe and imagine that I am transported back to the place I first acquired it.
Let us say for a moment that we are not talking about a family vacation and a trinket that you can purchase at a kiosk. How can you reignite that same feeling that you originally felt when you were first inspired? Rabbi Orlowek recommends that you make a really strong memory by focusing all of your senses and then you can play back the vision like a 4-D film at any time.
According to Rabbi Zelig Pliskin another strategy is to proclaim Modeh Ani when you feel grateful and in this way every morning upon waking you will supercharge your tefillah of Modeh Ani (I personally prefer to say Shiur Hamalos from before bentching) with that same authentic and spontaneous burst of inspiration.
I will give you a cogent example from what I once overheard at a parlor meeting for a marathon fundraiser. A gentleman who was in the process of recovering from a painful divorce described how he had hung the silver insulated blanket he was wrapped in at the close of his run as a banner on his living room wall. This banner was a souvenir from the event and when he looked at it he was reminded of what he had accomplished, more specifically, what he had accomplished that he never thought possible…and it gave him strength.
The best strategy of all, however, can be found in the Torah, in the source mentioned above, where the tefillin shel yad and shel rosh are referred to as an “oth” to remember that “Hashem took you out of Mitzrayim with a mighty hand.” We learn from this that the most effective way to hold onto inspiration is to be motivated to take concrete action, specifically by strengthening our relationship with Hashem through the performance of mitzvos.
Perhaps the most potent example of a souvenir this time of year relates to the Seder simanim, or symbols. In fact the expected outcome of active participation in the Seder is to achieve a feeling of liberation as if you yourself were redeemed from Egypt. Examples include the Seder plate, spilling the wine for the 10 plagues and pointing to “Pesach, Matzah (and Marror)”. It is my understanding that Jews of Sephardic descent have additional rituals, such as wearing back packs and walking around the table, beating each other with scallions, or my personal favorite, waving the Seder plate over their heads to simulate the clouds of glory that protected the Jews in the desert (this one is also a segulah for marriage because it represents the chuppah or wedding canopy).
Another teacher of mine, Rabbi Menachem Nissel, explains in the name of the Ramchal in his sefer Derech Hashem that the simanim allow us to connect to the flow of energy associated with this time of year, specifically “salvation”. Rashi indicates that the three angels that visited Avraham Avinu, including the one that came to warn him that the city of Sodom where his nephew Lot was residing was going to be destroyed, did so on Pesach (Genesis 18:10). Chazal teach us that the bread he fed them was actually matzo. This position is consistent with Rashi’s position in Genesis 19:3 that Lot served the same angels matzah on Pesach later that week.
Another example to support the idea that the most effective way to maintain inspiration is by taking concrete action can be found in the events described following Kriyas Yam Suf. Shortly after safely crossing the Red Sea, the Jews are “spontaneously” attacked by Amalek who represent happenstance. Bnei Yisroel were particularly vulnerable because they had mistakenly relied on their feelings of inspiration alone. Amalek wanted to inject Klal Yisroel with feelings of doubt. Similar to inspiration, doubt is an ephemeral feeling. We have already established that the antidote to doubt is concrete action.
Who does the Torah indicate took action? Yitro was the first person to be recorded as saying “Baruch Hashem”. What is the significance of the word Baruch (“blessed is”), or Bracha (“blessing”) or Brecha (“spring”)? When we make a blessing, for example on food, we are not blessing G-D, who is the source of ALL blessing (much like a natural spring of water), rather we are invoking his blessing. Imagine turning on a faucet that releases energy every time you make a bracha. When we make a blessing prior to eating we are actually drawing into this world the spiritual energy required to grow more food to replace that which we have consumed. This is why it is considered “stealing” to eat without a blessing; it is as if you are taking without replenishing that which was used.
When Yitro, the non-Jewish priest, heard about Kriyas Yam Suf, unlike Amalek who tried to dismiss the whole episode as chance, took action! He said, “Baruch Hashem” and the meforshim indicate that he converted on the spot. Either way, he packed up Moshe’s wife and two children and sought out the Jews in the desert. The story that immediately follows is that of Matan Torah – the receiving of the Torah - as commemorated by Shavuot. The Jews were now ready to receive the Torah, the ultimate form of action, after this meaningful lesson that they were taught by Yitro.
As a practicing occupational therapist working with adults in the areas of orthopedics and Mental Health, I have a unique perspective on goal writing, (re)evaluation and motivation. A tool that I have found useful in both my professional and personal life is the GAS Scale (Goal Attainment Scale).
+2 - Much better than expected outcome (or your “long term goal”)
+1- Greater than expected outcome
0 - Expected level of performance or outcome
-1- Current Level
-2- Regression from current level
I will now provide a number of relevant examples below:
For the next week:
+2 - I will say Kriyas Shema in its entirety from a siddur and I will not speak after Hamapil.
+1- I will say Kriyas Shema in its entirety from a siddur.
0- I will say Kriyas Shema out loud in its entirety.
-1- I will say Shema and the first paragraph only.
-2- I will go straight to sleep without saying Shema.
For the next week:
+2- I will arrive on time for minyan every day.
+1- I will arrive to shul on Shabbos on time.
0 - I will arrive to shul no more than 5 minutes late 2/5 weekdays (i.e. Monday/Thursday).
-1- I will arrive to shul no more than 5 minutes late every day.
-2- I will daven every day, just not with a minyan.
Please note that I have made these goals for only a week at a time. It is not necessary to be more ambitious than that. On the contrary, I strongly encourage you to make bite sized goals that build a feeling of self-efficacy by accumulating small successes. If you have a long-term goal in mind, consider all the steps required to get there. It is important to consistently reevaluate if your long-term goals are relevant or even achievable. It is equally important to reward yourself for achieving a 1+ or more, and it is also important to acknowledge how hard it was to achieve a “0” (or even maintain the -1).
On the subject of rewards, I have found that it is especially helpful to select a reward that is commensurate with the effort. For example, going to the gym a certain amount of time earned you a new workout outfit or a massage (as opposed to ice cream). Likewise, if these are treats you are likely to indulge in anyway, they are not a suitable reward, because they do not provide adequate motivation. Likewise, the intrinsic pleasure or satisfaction associated with doing the right thing is equally inadequate or else you would be doing it anyway.
Now ask yourself, “what is holding me back?”, “what is preventing me from being totally free and present in the moment?” and “what could I achieve if I were to overcome this test?” That is your long term goal. Now what are the steps to achieve it? How will you reward yourself each step of the way for every small success? While it is always a good time to (re)commit to improve yourself and your relationship with your creator, Nissan has the inherent ability to help jumpstart your personal growth, so take advantage of this special time of the year and remember that you have the tools to renew your feeling of inspiration all year long.
Miller, L. J., Schoen, S. A., James, K., & Schaaf, R. C. (2007). Lessons learned: A pilot study of occupational therapy effectiveness for children with sensory modulation disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 161–169.
Tatz, Akiva. Living Inspired. Southfield, MI: Targum in Conjunction with Mishnas Rishonim, 1993.
Using Occupational Therapy Skills To Change