Why bother? It is a question that points to a belief in the pointlessness of a suggested task; said task will demonstrate no tangible results, so one should not even bother attempting it. This feeling of pointlessness can even seep into our thoughts as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach. These two holidays bookend the period known as Aseret Yemei Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance), and they are meant to be a time to be especially reflective about how we can do better as individuals. And, yet, even Kol Nidrei, the recitation that introduces the Yom Kippur service, seems to acknowledge the futility of all the work that we do from Rosh Hoshanah to Yom Kippur. During Kol Nidrei, we ask to be forgiven for all of the ways that we will transgress during the upcoming year; we basically admit that we will continue to screw up.
However, it is not quite so simple. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein pointed out in his lecture, “Mediocre Teshuva and the Teshuva of the Mediocre,” that Maimonides uses a “remarkable” word in Laws of Teshuva: “… A person should always strive (yishtadel) to do teshuva…” He continues to point out that Maimonides does not say that people should strive to eat matzah on Passover or eat in the sukkah on Sukkot; these are obligations. But Rabbi Lichtenstein points that teshuvais different: it is not a one-time event that can be completed in one act; rather it is a process that one must continually strive to achieve. He continues later, “’A person should always strive’: Even when that teshuvaitself is mediocre in terms of its objective results, that mediocre teshuva, too, has great potential for being accepted and helping one achieve atonement. It can be meaningful and vital both for him and in the eyes of God Himself.”
As Rosh Hashanah approaches in less than one week, people young, old, and in the middle will be seeking answers for why they should bother with the various aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur other than the tradition to hear the shofar and KolNidrei. As educators, we have the opportunity to help guide them to see that these days are not our annual opportunity to do teshuva but rather that they are our annual reminder that we must always, in spite of the hiccups we might experience along the way, strive to be and do better.
May the new year bring the joy that comes from continued growth.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah!
Rabbi Eric Zaff