Rosh Hashanah

 The spiritual root of change

By: Paula Levin

New Year resolutions are notoriously difficult to stick to. Even we only half believe ourselves when committing to changing something about our lives. Every year, Rosh Hashanah offers us a fresh start and a blank slate, to turn over a new leaf, start a new chapter, and create lasting change – if we harness its power. To help unpack the spiritual science behind the change it offers, we spoke to experts in personal transformation: Ra’anana-based master mindset life coach Andi Saitowitz, and life coach and rebbetzin of HaMaor, Sterna Wineberg. Then, we spoke to someone who has reinvented herself not once – but twice. Warning, this article could change your life!

Rosh Hashanah – discovering our purpose, transforming our mindset

The calendar reads August 2021 in the second year of a global pandemic. It may be nearly spring in sunny South Africa but nothing much feels new and hopeful. The Jewish calendar announces a new year, but will it be same ol’ same ol’, same stress, different day? Will we mark this event with a mindless bite of apple dipped in honey or can we harness Judaism’s secret formula for true change – the visceral experience of Rosh Hashanah and the 10 days of return to our essence and Source, culminating in Yom Kippur?

I had already lived through about 35 Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs when I first heard the question posed: Why are we judged before we have repented? The order of these festivals is utterly perplexing, and yet I had never given it a second’s thought. First comes Rosh Hashanah, also known as the Day of Judgement (Yom Hadin) – where we pray that our names are inscribed in the Book of Life and where G-d assigns our sustenance for the year. Yet, on this day, we don’t even mention our sins or ask for forgiveness! We don’t pray for our personal needs and sustenance. (That’s actually why we eat the ‘simanim’, the traditional foods of Rosh Hashanah, like apples dipped in honey. It’s only at the first festive meal that we sneak in some personal requests like the “yehi razton” we say as we dip the apple in the honey: May it be Your will our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers that You renew for us a good and sweet new year.) So, what on earth are we doing for all those hours at shul while every soul passes before G-d like sheep passing before their shepherd? Ten days later, we spend the day fasting, confessing, and hoping for atonement. Isn’t that a bit late? Has the horse not bolted, has the ship not already set sail? I’ll never forget the answer Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein gave, after articulating this obvious yet overlooked question. He said that doing teshuva on Rosh Hashanah would be like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. This apparent reversal of logical order has some very deep implications for how to achieve personal transformation, how to stick to our resolutions, and how to start a new chapter and a new year that’s truly new.

Andi Saitowitz is an NLP master practitioner and life coach who works with corporates and individuals in facilitating change. She says that 80% of change is driven by our subconscious, and this is where self-limiting beliefs can wreak havoc on even the best plans. “If we don’t truly believe transformation is possible, if we are sabotaging ourselves with negative self-talk, we will struggle to move forward. We have to work on our mindset – and this is ongoing work, it’s a muscle that we consistently build, not a switch that we turn on once.” It’s helpful to work with a qualified life coach to become aware of the things we believe and the things we tell ourselves and to learn how to reframe and replace these unhelpful beliefs. “Awareness is not enough. We are all aware that exercise is good for us, that drinking water is healthy. But awareness is not enough to start a daily practice,” Andi says. “A coach can help you effectively upgrade your thinking. For example, I might want to run three times a week but the first day it’s cold or dark or rainy, I say to myself, ‘This is too hard.’ Upgrading this inner chatter doesn’t mean telling yourself ‘this is easy’. It’s not. To replace this thinking effectively, we might say: ‘Anything that’s worth it, is hard,’ or: ‘I can do hard.’ Coaching helps bring into awareness how you talk to yourself and then gives you the tools to change that self-talk.”

Another tool Andi uses in helping her clients with changing beliefs is finding evidence that contradicts the unhelpful thought. “When I had to go back to work when my children were a few months old I felt like I was a bad mother,” Andi confesses. “I looked at this thought and reminded myself that when I am with my children, I am three million percent present. It’s really important not to believe everything we think. Create an opening for doubt. Challenge your beliefs. Ask yourself (as life-coach and author Martha Beck points out): ‘Are these even my own thoughts?’ Sometimes our thoughts and beliefs are not our own! They are something someone said that we incorporated into our self-talk. So, notice how you talk to yourself – it matters. And if you can, get some help with upgrading your thinking. So many of our thoughts that govern our performance and how we show up every day in our lives aren’t necessarily true. We have the power to change them.”

On a practical level, whatever change we seek to make in our lives has to be connected to our purpose and this is supported by our mindset. “Purpose is the highest motivator for human beings,” says Andi. “This is the reason behind the goal we are trying to achieve. So, for example, if our goal is to exercise five days a week, and we buy some brand new running shoes and awesome athleisure clothing we are excited to wear, this may motivate us for a few days – while they still feel new – but, again, when it’s cold and dark and rainy, that’s not enough to get us out of bed. For that, we need purpose. Purpose keeps our actions aligned with our goals and purpose must always be connected to our core values as human beings. In the running example, we may want to run to be fit and healthy so that we are energised to care for our families and show up fully in our lives. As beings of social interest, we are motivated by a desire to belong, a desire to be of service to others and to transcend ourselves. To make goals stick we must make sure they are connected to a deeper purpose. A life coach can help you articulate your purpose into a mantra that you can repeat daily. Then, get in a habit of asking yourself, “Is this behaviour or thought getting me closer to the person I want to become or the life I want to be living?” Andi assures that checking in like this is a wonderful way to keep your life aligned with your purpose.

But at a time of such loss and global uncertainty, many of us struggle with feelings of anxiety, pulled down by a voice that says we are helpless, that the situation may be hopeless, that there’s too much water under the bridge, that we are victims of circumstance and that what we do doesn’t matter. In society at large, there are those who say that our choices are a result of brain chemistry and biology, that we are products and victims of our individual life circumstances and our past – these are the determinists and the fatalists. These voices within ourselves (what Judaism calls our Yetzer Hara) and negative forces within society at large are hard at work to sabotage change, to hold us back and preserve the status quo. To vanquish them takes constant work on our mindset.

Sterna Wineberg is a life coach and rebbetzin at HaMaor and explains that negative beliefs impact our brains on a neurological level – as do positive ones. “In my work as a coach, I use the SCARF model created by David Rock who points out that every thought creates either a ‘toward’ or ‘away’ response. A thought like ‘I don’t matter’ or ‘what I do doesn’t make any difference’ will actually keep us stuck and inactive. Positive beliefs will physically energise and motivate us with a ‘towards’ response. It’s up to us to challenge our negative beliefs and activate our ‘towards’ response if we truly want to create change in our lives.”

Sterna explains that there are five areas of thinking we can work on to activate this ‘toward feeling’ that energises positive action. “The S of the word SCARF is about our Status as human beings,” Sterna teaches. “The Torah places huge emphasis on the importance of each person with the Talmudic statement “bishvili nivra haolam” – that the world was created for me. The Rambam also teaches that one good deed done by one individual person can tip the scales of the entire world. We have to know how important each of us are to Hashem’s plan for Creation and how much He loves each one of us.” Again, this is not just ‘nice to know’, this knowledge literally has the power to energise and shape our actions as our brains produce this ‘towards’ response. What greater affirmation of our esteem in G-d’s eyes than the fact that He examines our thoughts, speech, and actions? The fact that He has any interest at all in the affairs of man is testament to our potential greatness and Divine purpose as His partners. The fact that we are tasked with 613 commandments (and countless ways to perform them with consciousness and intent) is the ultimate affirmation of our status.

“The C stands for Certainty,” Sterna continues. “When we feel uncertain, we retreat in fear and inaction. The antidote to this is certainty. The Torah offers the Jewish People the certainty of our future redemption in countless prophecies. Instead of feeling like victims of uncertainty, we can invest in a mindset of faith and hope – emunah and bitachon.” Sterna emphasises that shaping our mindset is something we need to be doing constantly – and especially in times of stability and ease. This is because when we are thrown into turmoil or trauma, our positive mindset, our faith, can carry us through. Our relationship with G-d needs constant tending and investment – through talking to Him (formal and informal prayer) and becoming closer to Him by valuing the things He values. A mindset of certainty in the bedrock of our faith can ground us and move us forward through even the greatest challenges and losses.

“A is for Autonomy – our freedom to choose our circumstances. Human beings thrive when they feel they have control. I read about a study at an old age home where residents were given the choice over what they would eat – spaghetti or rice. This ability to choose boosted their cognitive functioning and they actually lived longer. Viktor Frankel taught the world something amazing. He said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” So, while there is much beyond our control, we are always free to choose our thoughts, speech, and actions – this fundamental principle of Judaism is the basis of autonomy,” Sterna explains. We are never victims of the past; we are always free to choose the way forward. Appreciating our autonomy is the very idea behind Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – of starting a new year with the opportunity and innate ability to do things differently. Sterna is deeply inspired by her sister, Devoiry Halberstam, whose beloved son Ari was murdered in 1994 on the Brooklyn Bridge. “Devoiry made the choice to make this world a better place in memory of her son. She was instrumental in co-founding the Jewish Children’s Museum as a response to the anti-Semitism that took Ari’s life. And she became a tireless activist against terrorism and hate crimes because she had experienced the tragedy of hate. What happened to Ari was beyond her control, but every day since then, she chooses her own response.”

“R is for Relatedness which is essential to our growth as human beings. We can challenge our feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially in this pandemic, through connecting to our loved ones and to our communities. As Jewish people, we are never alone. It is a core value that we are in this together, that we are one nation with one heart. We can energise ourselves by reaching out to others and asking for help, or by offering help to those in need. The Shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah is a symbol of crying out for help. The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yochanan reaching out his hand and “lifting” another man out of his illness. Later Rabbi Yochanan himself fell ill. But he could not use his powers to heal himself. Rabbi Yochanan explained, ‘The prisoner cannot free himself from his cell.’ We need each other and we need to be there for each other. As we come together to pray this Rosh Hashanah, we can be mobilised and motivated by giving and receiving support.”

“The F stands for Fairness. You often hear children crying that something is not fair and this is because they have a built-in desire for fairness. We all do. Justice is important to us and when we feel like events are random, we lose hope and courage. The Torah teaches us that nothing is random.” The Rambam teaches that when bad things happen, it is an act of cruelty to say that there is no reason. Just because we don’t understand Hashem’s reason doesn’t mean there is no reason. If we understood G-d, we would be G-d! So, while we might sometimes feel that events are random, meaningless, or accidental – the Torah offers us testimony to the purpose behind everything and G-d’s fine-tuned providence over all that happens. Within the narratives and commentaries of the Torah we can learn the principles behind how Hashem runs the world, with goodness, justice, kindness, and mercy. Even when we don’t know why things happen, we can trust in the fairness of the way He runs the world.

Rosh Hashanah is thus, first and foremost, a mindset shift. It’s all about purpose, direction, and goals for achieving the changes we want to see in our lives. The details and strategies of how to do that – those come later. And this is the open secret behind all change: first, we need the will, the desire, and the mindset – start with the end in mind.

On Rosh Hashanah we crown G-d as King. What this practically means is that we spend the day reminding ourselves Who’s in charge, and willingly giving our lives over to Him – as subjects crown a beloved King – not as helpless citizens of a dictatorship. We remind ourselves that we are not in control of the outcome, only of our choices. We connect to Hashem as both our Father and our King, reminding ourselves that He is good, He has a plan, He guides all of creation. By making our relationship with G-d real, by recognising Him as the Source of everything in our lives, we shape the mindset we need to become our best selves, to better serve Him by living our best lives. Author Simon Sinek titles his book on leadership ‘Start with Why’ – and, indeed, Rosh Hashanah answers our why in the deepest, most profound sense.


Nikki’s story – a portrait of change

They say you have two birthdays. The day you were born, and the day you discover why. Nikki has three. The first, the day she entered the world. But experimental drinking from age 15 led to full-blown alcoholism. While inebriated, she felt like she was the life and soul of the party, confident and funny. “Alcohol was easily accessible and offered an instant escape,” she shares. When her children started school, her drinking intensified. Soon, she was finishing a bottle of vodka by 7am, then driving her kids to school. “I was a nasty, angry drunk. I did terrible things, like drive my kids and their friends around totally ‘off my face’,” she confesses. Rock bottom wasn’t landing in jail – it was when her ex-husband threatened to take away her three children, Lori, Adam, and Daniel. This was the sobering thought that began her journey to sobriety, but there were still setbacks and relapses. “We’re masters of self-deception. And for a long time, I thought I was in control and could drink when I wanted to.”

“The day you stop drinking is a big deal in AA. It’s your new birthday. I stopped drinking for good on the 6th of November, Adam’s birthday 12 years ago.” Rehab, her parent’s unconditional love, and the support of her children, friends, family, and colleagues have helped Nikki maintain sobriety every day since. But two years ago she faced the biggest challenge of her life – it could have led straight back to addiction, to the ultimate escape from a reality too painful to face.

“I spent Rosh Hashanah two years ago in hospital, by Adam’s bedside.” Adam was brain dead as a result of a car accident, and he passed away soon afterwards. “Having been sober for 10 years, I thought I was a transformed Nikki. But the transformation I have been through since Addy’s death has been on another level. A huge part of recovery is accepting that we are powerless over our addiction and surrendering to a Higher Power. I don’t know who I thought my Higher Power was. I didn’t really understand what that meant. When Adam died, all I wanted was to die with him, but I didn’t have that choice. A lot of people say they would die if they lost a child. I used to say that. But you don’t, you have to find the strength to live. And I found that strength by discovering Hashem, by surrendering to Him. Because there was no way to escape the fact that there was something much bigger in charge of my life – that I was not in control. I never ask why. But I continue to hope that Adam’s death was not a complete end.”

“For me,” Nikki relates, “his death started a journey towards something bigger than myself. Two weeks before he died, Lori got married. And her husband’s family introduced me to some Jewish teachings on loss and mourning. They encouraged me gently and lovingly. I began to find comfort in Jewish practices that I had always been too lazy to embrace – like keeping Shabbos and kosher. And I found an endless supply of depth and significance in learning Torah. I’m not trying to sound like a rebbetzin, this is just what happened when I started looking at life on a far deeper level – because I had to. That was my choice – to either be bitter and reject the spiritual, or to hope there’s more. Adam was a King David boy who loved watching rugby with friends. I couldn’t understand how he gave all that up every week to keep Shabbos. I used to walk him to shul and that was our time together. Now, as I walk to shul without him, I wish he knew that now I get it. Every Friday I set the table for myself and Daniel and I light the Shabbos candles and I look forward to a time that is beautiful and special and transformative.”


Resolutions that stick

If you’ve articulated your purpose and changed your ship’s direction – you’re ready for the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur. Choose one, small, concrete goal you’d like to achieve. Keep in mind that your actions are not who you are, they are where you are, and this can always change. This is why Yom Kippur comes after the mindset shift of Rosh Hashanah. With the knowledge of how important we are to Hashem’s plan to drive us and how much our actions matter, we can start to make what Andi calls ‘tiny tweaks’ to our actions, for resolutions that stick. Make sure your goals are SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Related to your vision
  • Timed – with an end date and daily/weekly practices that are blocked off in your schedule

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