This has been a difficult topic for me to write about. Every year at this time, when Rosh Hashanah approaches, we’re told to think of ways to improve ourselves, and every year, the calls to repent always fall short for me. But I may have finally figured out why. I think the crucial motivating factor is missing—why should I repent? What’s in it for me?
Repentance was probably easier in the olden days. In the Bible, God is very clear about giving the Israelites reasons to listen to Him. Just read the many parshiot in the Torah detailing the glorious prosperity that results from observing Torah and the painful destruction that results from violating it.
But I can’t recall the last time I heard someone use this reason and tell me to repent so I can avoid divine punishment. In fact, history has shown us that very often, reward and punishment befall the Jewish people with no direct correlation to their observance of Torah.
So, then, what’s in it for me to repent?
In the business world, there is a well-developed study of the “WIIFM,” the “What’s In It For Me?” You need to convince potential customers and clients why choosing you is good for them. Why should they buy your product or shop in your store? In the workplace, if you try to convince a fellow colleague to do it YOUR way, there better be something in it for them. And not, “But you’ll be doing what I want! Won’t that give you such satisfaction?”
And of course, anyone who has kids or works with them has a deep appreciation for the WIIFM as well. Yes, the old standby “Because I said so,” is still the Golden Rule, but giving children a selfish reason to listen to you motivates them that much more. (When they “don’t wanna” brush their teeth, reminding them of that trip to the dentist to fill their cavities will be sooo much more effective than “Just do it.”)
For me, one WIIFM of mitzvah observance is the social aspect—it makes me feel like part of the larger society. And who doesn’t want to run with the in-crowd? For example, fasting on Tisha B’Av. As someone who has the eating schedule of a two-year-old, fasting is difficult for me. But I do it. Why? Because I’m part of a group, that group fasts on Tisha B’Av, and I’m going to do it also.
I wonder what would happen if we gave WIIFM a place during this High Holiday season. If our rabbis, educators, spiritual leaders would not be afraid of appealing to our baser instincts—yes, telling us to repent, to come close to God, but telling us what it will do for us, how it will give us something.
This year, I decided I want to get more involved in Torah study. My husband mentioned one night that he wanted to start studying Talmud again. “You should find a chavrutah (study partner),” I said. A moment or two passed….wait for it…then: “Hold on! I could be your chavrutah!” I had never learned Talmud before, certainly not in-depth, and I realized that I was missing out on an entire cultural and intellectual Jewish experience. I wanted in on that action! A topic I’m interested in + a study buddy = personal satisfaction while enriching my connection to God and Torah.
So yes, we should repent, we should improve ourselves. But in doing so, we should find the WIIFM that motivates us.