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One step at a time

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In parashat Nitzavim, we come to Moses’s summation of his message. He speaks about:

• The “brit,” the covenant that is the basis of the relationship between God and Israel,

• The punishment that will result from Israel’s inevitable violation of that covenant, and

• The redemption that will follow Israel’s repentance.

According to tradition, Moses is speaking to the people on the last day of his life. He knows he is about to die and he is aware of the challenges that lie ahead. Therefore, he tries to encourage the people and fill them with confidence, much as a parent might speak words of encouragement to a child leaving for college.

He says:

Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

On this last verse, “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe [or “to do”] it,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a 19th-century chasidic leader, wrote: “You do not fulfill your obligation by that which is in your mouth and in your heart. That which is in your mouth and your heart is for you to do.”

During the coming “Yamim Nora’im” (High Holidays), many people will resolve to make changes, to try new things, to set new goals. They will make promises to themselves and to God, and in their hearts they will truly mean them. But as every one of us knows, making a promise, particularly when filled with inspiration and enthusiasm, is one thing. Often, however, fulfilling our good intentions is something else again.

So is the answer to refrain from making these promises? Hardly. Rather, when you make a promise, resolve to begin with one small, easily accomplished step. Deciding you are going to start keeping kosher can seem overwhelming and hence not doable. But deciding you will stop eating pork and shellfish is manageable. Promising you will join a gym and lose 50 pounds by Pesach may be unrealistic, but finding an “exercise buddy” to take a brisk walk three times a week with is a good start.

You get the idea. By all means, set the lofty goals that are “in your mouth and your heart.” But figure out the small steps needed to get there and then begin with the first one. You may find that your goals really are achievable when you go step by step by step.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teihateimu!

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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