Friday, August 31, 2018

Elul: Mindset

Thoughts on Teshuvah 2018
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The whole essence of the precept of repentance is longing, yearning, pining to return again to being “before You.” (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik)[1]

HaRambam began the third chapter of his Hilkhot Teshuvah (3:1) with a tiered classification of people:
A person whose merits exceed his sins is a saddik. A person whose sins exceed his merits is a rasha. If his sins and merits are equal, he is termed a beinoni.
Several lines later (3:3), he explained this system’s relevance to our judgment on Rosh HaShanah:
…The sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found saddik, his verdict is sealed for life. If one is found rasha, his verdict is sealed for death. A beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his verdict is sealed for life. If not, his verdict is sealed for death.
Taken at first glance, this structure appears volatile, as it allows for a status shift from one extreme to the other with a single action in a mere moment. R. Yisshak Hutner z”l found it inconceivable for God’s judicial system to be governed by a stream of constant fluctuation. He therefore suggested that these standings of sadik, rasha and beinoni represent more than the sum of many actions. They define the midah ba-nefesh – “trait of the soul” – of each individual, which can only change by means of genuine repentance.[2]

This fresh perspective regarding our very essence as human beings and the general mission of this time period requires further clarity.

The well-known psychologist Carol Dweck distinguished between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. She explained that a person with a fixed mindset approaches challenges within a static and unalterable framework. They believe that current habits and skills cannot be changed, and that accepting their present reality is the best hope for success. A person with a growth mindset, in contrast, understands that their basic qualities can be cultivated through effort, strategies and help from others. Their success is thus driven by realizing that they can cause change through application and experience.[3]

Reflecting upon these different mindsets reminds me of a meaningful story that was shared with me by a middle-aged man, nearly twenty years ago. He told me about a life-changing event that took place during the difficult period after his mother’s passing, several years earlier. During his first week of mourning, a rabbi came to pay his respects and handed him a book on the “basics of Judaism.” The man began to read from it. The initial chapters listed many of the interpersonal missvot of the Torah. Encouraged by the positive messages regarding sedakah and gemilut hasadim, actions which he already engaged in regularly, the man continued reading. And then he turned to the page which would haunt him for several months thereafter. It described the absolute importance of observing Shabbat. Feeling that he could not commit to this missvah, he swiftly put down the book and hid it on his bookshelf. The very thought of such a drastic change to the life he had long lived was uncomfortable. Using Dweck’s terminology we may say that he was then entrenched in a fixed mindset. But when he found his mind returning to the contents of that page several months later, he hesitatingly pulled the book off the shelf. And as he began to read again from the place where he had left off, the man made the life-changing decision to shift into a growth mindset. He committed himself to a religious growth and expansion that he had previously deemed impossible.

The rasha, sadik and beinoni are separated by an integral character trait that defines their very souls and existence. Whereas the rasha perceives his spiritual world through a fixed mindset, the sadik’s vision is tinted by growth and the beinoni unpredictably wavers between the conflicting perspectives. HaRambam’s description of “sins and merits,” then, refers not to a quantitative sum, but rather to a quality of outlook.

HaRambam wrote that the days leading up to and following Rosh HaShanah are marked by a repentance that is focused on achieving the status of sadik. Beyond the general focus on individual actions, this teshuvah must aim at a realigned mindset. R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l relatedly spoke about a teshuvah which emphasizes “the sin of averting one’s gaze from God and focusing instead upon alternative concerns.” Beyond the sins of confrontation, this repentance focuses on the core beginnings of those actions: a sense of apathy and failure to relate.[4] Turning away from the fixed perspectives of our past, we enter this world of teshuvah by shifting to the mindset of the sadik – the mindset of growth.

[1] On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 28.
[2] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Rosh Hashanah (Brooklyn, NY, 2008), ma’amar 18.
[3] Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York, NY, 2016).
[4] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God (New Milford, CT, 2016), pg. 161.