Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur

What, Me Worry?

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
Hiding from G-d's judgement like an Ostrich
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"And it will be that when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless
himself in his heart, saying, 'Peace will be with me...' " (Devarim 29:18)

There once was a convicted murderer standing in the dock who said: "I believe that this court and everyone in it is a figment of my imagination. Everything here is imaginary." To which the judge replied. "Fine. I believe I'm sentencing you to the imaginary electric chair."

One of the more unusual birds that G-d created is the ostrich. As everyone knows, when confronted with a dangerous situation, the ostrich takes immediate action -- and buries its head in the sand.

Sometimes in life, there are situations that we would prefer not to deal with. Maybe it's a problem that we just can't come to terms with, or a habit which we can't seem to kick. It's tough to admit that we're less than perfect, that we need help. So sometimes we just pretend that the problem isn't really there at all. We find a nice big emotional sandpit and submerge our consciousness into it. And before we all nod our heads knowingly in self-satisfaction -- maybe we should take a look at our own lives. Maybe there's something in my life that needs a little truthful examination. Maybe, there's a little (or not-so-little) sandpit in my own backyard? Maybe... No. It's other people that have problems. I'm perfect.

Why is it so difficult for us to admit that we're "other people" too?

The reason is something called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a kind of armor that we build up to ward off information that we don't want to hear. According to cognitive dissonance theory, we seek consistency among our beliefs. When there is dissonance between belief and behavior, we change something to eliminate the dissonance. We could change our behavior to accord with our beliefs, but usually, we change our attitude to accommodate our behavior. It's much less work.

For example: You buy an expensive car and take it for a drive up the coast. Even though the car looked great in the showroom and handled well in town, you discover that on long drives, it's about as comfortable as a wooden bench. Dissonance exists between your beliefs that you have a) bought a good car, and b) that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it doesn't matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car -- but that's a lot harder than changing our beliefs.

During the Hebrew month of Elul which leads up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we involve ourselves in an introspective process to free ourselves of cognitive dissonance. This process is called in Hebrew teshuva. Teshuva means return. Return to reality. Taking our heads out of the sandpit.

In last week's parsha, the Torah spells out the dire results of collective Jewish "ostrich-ism." Ninety-eight curses -- each more chilling than the former. After hearing such a litany, a person could think, "Okay -- but that's for you religious guys. I don't believe -- so I'm going to be okay."

The Chafetz Chaim used to say that people at a funeral think two clubs are represented there: The "live-ers" and the "die-ers." And everyone believes they belong to the "live-ers." The truth is -- no one gets out of here alive. When a person comes before the Heavenly court, he will not be able to plead atheism.

"And it will be that when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart, saying, 'Peace will be with me...'"

One week to Rosh Hashana.... If there's one thing we can do in these crucial seven days, it is to realize that the slogan "peace will be with us" is a self-deluding folly. It is the slogan of the ostrich. And for the ostrich -- there is no peace.

May G-d write us all in the Book of Life for a good year! (Ostriches included.)

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