Small Steps and Big Jumps

It’s been ages that I’ve written here, so here’s something for Elul.

The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation has an excellent tape series called “Grasp the Gift of Teshuva.” One of the tapes contains the following true story which is also an amazing mashal for teshuva.

During World War II, the Rov of a certain town managed to smuggle a knife with him into the cattle car when he and his kehila were captured by the Nazis. Using the knife, he broke a hole into the cattle car and urged everyone to jump through it.

“It’s your chance at life!” he told the people. “You know where we’re going.”

But the cattle car was speeding along the tracks, and taking the jump meant risking serious injury and possibly death. The people were too scared, so only the Rov took the jump. And he was the only person from his town to survive the war.

The speaker on the tape applied the Rov’s lesson to abandoning the path of sin. We know where sin leads us, and sometimes, we have to take one big jump to get away from it. Doing it might be scary, but not doing it is certain doom. In the long run, the wiser thing is to take the jump.

Of course, every BT in the world knows what it is to take a big jump. We’ve redefined our whole lives. But every BT has also received the advice to go slow, not to take on too much too fast, because that often leads to backsliding. The same principle applies when we’re already frum. Teshuva lasts when taken on in small increments. Instead of working on kavannah in davening overall, we concentrate on one particular tefilla. Instead of going cold turkey on some pet aveira, we gradually wean ourselves from it.

I want to share with you my Elul of two years ago. I had a part-time secretarial job and was spending much of every work day online. When I started, it was just during the down times, but later, it became an addiction. I knew it was wrong, and I felt guilty about it, but I felt I was incapable of going cold turkey. So I decided that for Elul, I would resist any online activity at the office for 15 minutes a day. Very soon, I worked it up to 2 hours a day. And then, instead of visiting my favorite social sites, I began listening to online shiurim.

I’ve often said that Cheshvan is when we get our post-Yom Tov cheshbon. (Leave it to a BT with rudimentary Hebrew to come up with a vort like that.) That Cheshvan, despite these efforts at self-improvement, I was fired. It came as quite a blow because it felt like Hashem hadn’t accepted my little steps toward teshuva.

But teshuva is never worthless. The next job I got was ad writing for Rabbi Berel Wein’s Destiny Foundation. I actually got to earn my living by listening to shiurim – the very thing I was doing illegally at my previous job!

Of course, I still had further to go. I’d made little steps, but the big leap was still to come. And as many of you know, it came about six months later, during Sefirah, with Rabbi Solomon’s anti-Internet drasha. I needed a gadol to give me the push. I was too weak to do it on my own. But the entire experience has taught me a little about how Hashem runs the world. We make changes in Elul, daven for our future in Tishrei, and feel the effects of both the rest of the year. Those little steps toward teshuva in Elul sealed my fate for the big jump I was to make in May. Those little steps build up momentum toward one big, running leap.

May Hashem bless each of us with the strength we need for small steps and big jumps.

15 comments on “Small Steps and Big Jumps

  1. Kressel, great post, I saw your listening to shiurim as a stopgap on the way to reducing your internet time, although I admit I did see the issue of theft of time from the employer. On the ethical side, see the lawyer’s issue of billable hours in the book “Around Sara’s Table” by Reb. Zakutinsky.

    All in all, baby steps are steps forward, not taking them means going backwards. While not saying the end justifies the means, we applaud all movement forward!

  2. To Jaded, (if you’re still around)

    Listening to shiurim was an improvement not only spiritually, but for the simple reason that social networks required me to type in order to interact. With the shiurim, all I had to do was listen, so my hands were free to do the job I was being paid to do.

  3. Is this all some kind of either/or? The goal of the whole process is a very lofty one. In trying to reach one’s life goal, there are times for everything, including great leaps, consolidation of previous gains, and small steps, and even instructive setbacks.

  4. Chaim G,
    Just a quick clarification, I brought in that mediocre quote,with the initial objective of sarcastically touting the benefits of mediocrity specifically trying to emphasize how the “best” in mediocre just functions as a distraction and diligently dilutes the innate desire to achieve the “best” Voltaire was worrying about.
    So while “best” might mess with “very good” , lower levels of “best” distract from higher levels of “best” too.
    And just as a totally unrelated sidepoint, the subtle distraction associated with the mediocrity at its finest is sort of similar to the answers dim witted persons of higher religious authority often dispense to individuals with complex questions.
    They design their answers to contain parts of the truth, but to fully function as a distinct distraction to the rest of the unanswerable questions in question.Thus avoiding higher forms of “best” with lower levels forms the “best” of mediocre answers.Which could be annoying at all times.

  5. Kressel, I dont see any qualitative difference between the sinning associated with wasting work minutes on social network websites or the sinning associated with wasting minutes on judaica curriculum lecture websites.

    Chaim G :
    regarding your call for mediocrity, size medium,

    “Only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best” Max Beerbohm

    Chaya H:
    regarding your resistance to idolizing the ideal and related ideologies……..

    “If you stick with a vision, it might not all work, but some of it will be absolute genius. To me, 15 minutes worth of absolute genius in a film is so much better than two hours of mediocrity. I would rather pay to see something different like that” Kim Cattrall

    And to end with a dyslexic biblical quote, I guess its “al acharon rishon and al rishon acharon” night, I wonder how this affects my comments.

  6. “If we limit ourselves to the ideal, it is an obstacle to teshuva”
    -Chaya H.

    “Better is the enemy of good. +

  7. Thank you, Chaya. You explained my point perfectly.

    Also, Jaded, as you may not be aware, shortly after that, I gave up Internet use at home entirely. At that point, I was working at home, too, so it was a big sacrifice. And the end result of all these baby steps is that I use Internet significantly less even on those days I’m called in to work at an office.

  8. Jaded–I don’t think the point was that listening to shiurim is the way one should spend one’s time at work. If I understand properly, changing the way Kressel spent her time online was a baby step toward weaning herself off using the internet at work, which was the teshuva goal.

    If we limit ourselves to the ideal, it is an obstacle to teshuva

  9. Kressel,
    I’m a having a large bit of trouble understanding why listening lectures during work hours could ever be classified under repentance , the mindlessness of the tasks in question notwithstanding.

    When one is paid to sit in a cubicle or corner office and do tasks, the paid per hour/week/month/idea mind should be entertaining dreams/ thoughts/ ideas/ solutions/ exclusively related to the tasks at hand.

    Background lectures on judaism could technically be classified as a distinct distraction (or in my case an extreme annoyance).
    Getting paid for hours of which many minutes may have been wasted away listening to judaism lectures is right up there with other stuff like not listening to the holy internet ban. In fact it’s probally on a higher” thou shalt not” pedestal.

    So i’m not sure I understand the moral of the story.

  10. I think this post is just beautiful! Thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts with us.

  11. No, I saw them. Thank you very much. You’ve made my week with your kind words!

    Kesiva v’chasima tova to you and all klal Yisrael.

  12. Although since you “cut your connections” you may not get to see my good wishes until Pesach…if at all LOL!

  13. Beutiful. Balnced, nuanced self-aware and courageous. May we all continue to be as wholesomely growth oriented till we draw our last breaths.

    Mrs. Housman.. Kesiva v’Chasima tova to you and yours

  14. I believe he was one of the speakers who came to Monsey and spoke about the dangers of the internet, in part of an effort to get everyone to get rid of their internet.

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