Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength

(This is the full version of The Chazak Plan. It includes a more detailed discussion of each month, links to suggested readings and incorporates the use of a daily checklist.

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Ever set a goal to improve your life but fail?

If yes, you’re not alone. Each year, more than a third of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Yet, only 8% are successful. Why?

Most goals lack achievability and accountability. If the goals are too big or if you have too many of them, they lack achievability. If a goal is too vague and cannot be measured, it lacks accountability.

Some goals are easier to break down into small steps and track, while others can be trickier. Since you chose to read this article, most likely you want to become a better person, more spiritual, and fulfill the purpose for which God created you. How does one accomplish that?

To address this issue I formulated The Chazak Plan. This plan focuses on one area each month and the topics are general enough so that you will benefit regardless of your background.

The Hebrew word Chazak means, “Be strong.” Each of us was born weak, both physically and spiritually. As we got older, our bodies strengthened, but what about our souls? Are they any more developed than they were when we were kids? The purpose of life is to strengthen our souls. This 12-month plan will help you become spiritually strong.

The plan has two core components. The first is choosing a new behavior related to each month’s topic which you are interested in and commit to do for at least one month. For example, during the Hebrew month of Kislev, when we will focus on gratitude, to each day think about something for which you are grateful. The second component is using a checklist to track how often you perform your behavioral goal. (Some months contain more than one suggested goal; you may want to select just one for your first 12-month cycle.)

You can make your own checklist or download a copy of the Daily Checklist Template. At the beginning of every month, add to your weekly checklist the new targeted change you will be making for that month. Regardless of how the previous month went, begin anew with a fresh and energized start.

At the beginning of the day, read the checklist and aim to fulfill each entry at the earliest opportunity, or at a designated time. As you do each entry, put a check mark by it and give yourself positive reinforcement. At the end of the day, read over the sheet and perform any entries you have not done yet. When you lapse, encourage yourself to begin the next day with a fresh start.

In the beginning, pick mini rewards to give yourself each time you perform the targeted behavior. A reward can be a piece of chocolate, or even just praising yourself for the achievement. You want to pick a reward that gives you something to look forward to. Soon, you will not need external rewards to motivate yourself and the high of keeping your commitment and engaging in meaningful activities will be sufficient.

If possible, do this plan with a partner with whom you schedule weekly meetings to encourage each other and discuss your progress.

If you find that on a regular basis you are not performing your entries, do one of the following three things. First, set an alarm or another reminder to make sure it is not a matter of forgetting. Two, try a different reward, one that is more enticing. Three, temporarily lower the bar or phrase the entries with a low and high range, so you are at least able to achieve the low range and then work toward the high one.

This plan is based on the Hebrew months and you can start it at the beginning of any month. The Hebrew months are used because each one contains inherent spiritual power. By tapping into this power, with God’s help, you will succeed in achieving your goals.

This year, the beginning of January 2014 coincides with the beginning of the Hebrew month of Shvat. As that is when people will be starting this plan, the plan is organized to begin then.

Below, is an outline of the topics covered during each of the Hebrew months, as well as a discussion of each month. At the end of every month is a listing of related readings from my free e-book, Inspired: 30 Days to a More Meaningful and Fulfilling Life. (For ease of use, I have hyperlinked these readings to their blog posts.) Aim to read those chapters at the beginning of the month. Preferably, read through the e-book once before beginning The Chazak Plan, using the 30 day schedule contained in it, to familiarize yourself with the ideas.

Plan Outline:

Shvat: Elevating the physical

Adar: Enhancing our joy

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

Iyar: Helping others and not causing them distress

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

Tammuz: Forgiveness

Av: Enhancing our relationships

Elul: Repentance

Tishrei: Torah study

Cheshvan: Prayer

Kislev: Gratitude

Tevet: Faith

Shvat: Elevating the physical

The 15th of this month is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for trees. An aspect of this holiday is celebrating and elevating the physical. Part of sanctifying the physical is taking care of the body with which God entrusted you. During this month, choose to upgrade either your sleep, exercise or diet habits.

Pick one change you will make on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month, and using your own checklist or the Daily Checklist Template, track how often you do it; if you find the change very easy, add another one. Some examples: Go to sleep 15-20 minutes earlier each week until you feel refreshed in the morning; exercise 2-3 times a week or go for a daily brisk walk; cut out sugary drinks and/or foods from your diet. Making water your preferred beverage is a great place to start. If you don’t like the way your water tastes, consider getting a filter.

The book, One Simple Change: Surprisingly Easy Ways to Transform Your Life by Winnie Abramson has 50 suggestions for enhancing your health. You’re likely to find something which resonates with you. You can read many of her ideas for free on her blog. Please note, a number of her suggestions are non-conventional, but interesting nonetheless.

Another point of focus for this month is to consider if there is an area of your life which has become unbalanced and excessive, e.g., overeating, overspending, overworking, overuse of the internet etc. Most of us have at least one area which, at a minimum, wastes our time and takes us away from more fulfilling activities. This month, after reading the suggested reading below, pick one behavior to reign in and one behavior you’d like to do more of instead.

Reading for the month:

Overcoming our Soft Addictions

Adar: Enhancing our joy

Our Sages teach us that with the arrival of Adar we increase our joy, culminating in the festival of Purim. Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people during the Persian exile.

Six tools to enhance our moods are: Gratitude, acceptance, self-compassion, expressing ourselves, addressing festering issues and making lifestyle enhancements (these tools are discussed in the readings below). Many times, even just using one tool will help us feel better and increase our enjoyment of life.

After reading the articles, choose one tool which you will utilize this month. Then, decide on the one change, technique or behavior, related to the tool, which you will do on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month. Add it to your own checklist or the Daily Checklist Template to track how often you do it.

Readings for the month:

The 2 Forms of Divine Providence: Purim and Passover

3-Dimensional Acceptance: A Pathway to Peace and Power

6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

On Passover, we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. It is a time of freedom, when we free ourselves from what brings us down spiritually.

Even today, many of us are still not yet free and are enslaved to our passions, to varying degrees. At the same time, we still maintain some level of moral purity. The goal is to raise a notch the level of moral purity to which we keep, increasing our freedom.

When you prepare for the holiday by removing leaven from your house, also remove spiritual pollution. To whatever extent you’re ready, go through your books, magazines, music and videos, and get rid of those which are filled with profanity, lewdness or vulgarity; they downgrade your spiritually.

An aspect of maintaining your purity is speaking in an elevated manner. Are there any words you choose to remove from your vocabulary, at least for this month, that do not reflect the type of person you are?

Using your checklist, you can check off each day you succeeded in speaking in a refined manner and staying away from spiritual pollution.

Readings for the month:

Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt: 4 Lessons from the Exodus

4 Steps to Safeguarding Your Moral Purity (This article is for those who are already well on their journey to spiritual strength.)

Iyar: Helping others and not causing them distress

The period known as The Omer occurs during this month. During part of The Omer, we commemorate thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died in a plague. The Talmud teaches that the plague occurred because the students did not treat each other with proper respect.

To strengthen ourselves in this key area of treating others well, each day during this month, check off on your checklist if you did an act of kindness that day. If you didn’t yet, ask yourself if there is someone you can call or email, who would appreciate that you reached out to them. At the very least, put some money in a box designated for charity. Don’t let a day go by without doing something for someone else. As the Sages teach, (Pirkei Avot 1:14), “…If I am [only] for myself, what am I?”

In addition, at the end of the day, review your day and consider if you may have caused someone distress, by what you said or did. If yes, commit to apologize to them as soon as possible.

The reading for this month is an action plan containing key points found throughout this book which will help us live a more fulfilling life. Anyone can benefit from this plan, regardless of their affiliation.

The plan starts off with a simple test to help you determine if you are on track to living a meaningful and fulfilling life. The plan will help you prepare for next month, when we celebrate receiving on Mount Sinai the Torah, God’s instruction manual for life. Choose one suggestion from the action plan and add it to your checklist.

Reading for the month:

How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

The festival of Shavuot occurs during this month. We celebrate receiving on Mount Sinai the Torah, God’s instruction manual for life. Even those who are unaffiliated, without realizing it, observe part of the Torah. For example, take the 10 Commandments: Many believe in God, do not worship idols, honor their parents and do not commit murder or adultery.

Begin at whatever level of observance you are currently on, and during this month, pick one area to strengthen. At the end of each day/week, check off on your check list if you kept that observance. (If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance.)

The majority of the 10 Commandments focus on what not to do. In the article below, we take a look at the hidden side of the commandments – the positive actions we can do to enhance our lives.

Readings for the month:

The Hidden Side of the Ten Commandments

Is Your Commitment to Judaism Strong Enough? (This article is for those who are already well on their journey to spiritual strength.)

Tammuz: Forgiveness

On the 17th of this month we fast to commemorate the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple. This is the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks which ends next month on Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The Sages teach that a key reason the Messiah has not yet come to rebuild the Temple is because of the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew.

During this month focus on forgiving at least one person (that person might be yourself).

Related to the topic of forgiveness, one of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in others and in ourselves (Likutey Moharan I, 282). A complementary practice is to realize that we all have difficulties and to feel compassion for our own challenges and for those of others. Each day, look for the good in yourself and others, and feel compassion for the struggles we all have.

When we view others and ourselves with a broad lens, not ignoring faults but also acknowledging our good points and struggles, we will be more forgiving and loving toward others and ourselves.

The readings for this month discuss forgiveness as well as adversity, how to cope during difficult times.

Readings for the month:

The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go

Discover Your Inner Peace

“Why?” 5 Reasons for Suffering

How to Overcome Your Challenges: 10 Ways

Faith amidst Adversity: Part I

Faith amidst Adversity: Part II

Adversity, Humility, and then Acceptance

Av: Enhancing our relationships

On the ninth of this month – Tisha B’Av – we fast to commemorate the destruction of both temples. We remember a time when God “hid His face” from the Jewish people and we felt distant from Him. This month reestablish and deepen your relationship with God through the practice of Hitbodedut – talking informally to Him in your native language. Each day, speak to God for at least five to fifteen minutes, unburdening yourself to Him.

After last month’s focus on forgiveness and letting go of bitterness from the past, now is the time to take a fresh look at your relationships: Decide which ones to strengthen or repair, which ones need better boundaries or for you to distance yourself from, and ways to foster new healthy relationships. At least once a week, schedule one-on-one time with someone in your life to nourish that relationship; shut off your cell and give them your undivided attention.

The readings discuss Hitbodedut in greater detail, as well as how to enhance our relationship with others and with ourselves.

Readings for the month:

Seeking the Divine Presence

6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit

How to Give Constructive Feedback without Sounding Critical

6 Ways to Deal with Critical Family Members

How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself

Elul: Repentance

Elul is the time of year to take stock of our lives and prepare for the High Holidays. Most of us have at least one area which we struggle with; perhaps it is being ethical in business, living a moral life, being charitable and kind, or refraining from hurting others. Correcting our key flaw(s) is a main component of our life’s mission and why God put us in this world.

Pick one area on which to focus and break it down into manageable behavioral changes you will make on a daily or weekly basis. If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance. The focus on repentance continues into next month until after Yom Kippur.

Readings for the month:

You: As God Intended

Asking Forgiveness: A Crash Course

Unmasking 5 Misconceptions about Repentance

How to Remove Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block

Tishrei: Torah study

The festival of Simchat Torah, among other holidays, occurs during this month. On Simchat Torah we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of the Five Books of Moses and begin a new cycle with the book of Genesis. Now is the perfect time to join this annual study of the Bible. There is tremendous spiritual power in learning the same portion studied by millions of Jews around the world. Next Simchat Torah, when you finish the Bible, your celebration of the holiday will be even more meaningful.

Spend some time each week learning the weekly Torah portion – there are many excellent articles, translations and commentaries available. Preferably, each day, study inside 1/7th of the weekly portion (also known as an aliya) or study the whole portion on Shabbat.

If possible, study at least weekly with a partner, either the Bible or a different area of the Torah. To do so, contact your local synagogue, or go to http://www.partnersintorah.org/, who will pair you with a partner free of charge.

Torah study nourishes the soul as food nourishes the body. Study Torah every day of your life – even if only for a few minutes, e.g., reading a few pages from a book, an article, or listening to a lecture during your commute. Preferably, have a set inviolate time for Torah study.

The reading for this month focuses on the festival of Sukkot which also occurs during this month.

Reading for the month:

Taking Refuge in a Sukkah of Faith

Cheshvan: Prayer

On the 7th of Chesvan, in Israel, prayers for rain begin. If you don’t yet pray regularly, open up a prayer book and see if any of the prayers resonate with you; recite them daily. Alternatively, read daily from the book of Psalms. There are many excellent English translations available with varied formats; choose one that works best for you.

If you pray daily, pick at least one section of the prayers to say with understanding. In addition or instead, recite daily one Psalm with understanding (longer Psalms can be read over two to three days).

This month is also the time for us to ensure that we show proper reverence for the sanctuary, not talking to others during the prayer service or leaving the synagogue while the Haftorah is being read.

Even while we pray for help in specific areas of our lives, we surrender to God, acknowledging that only He knows what is best for us.

Readings for the month:

Unlocking the Hidden Power of Prayer

Surrendering to God: 4 steps to transcend your ego

Kislev: Gratitude

During this month we celebrate the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the miracle of the oil, the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple. A key message of the festival is expressing gratitude to God for the miracles He performs on our behalf.

Each day, spend time feeling grateful for the blessings your Creator gave you. Thank Him for His many gifts, for the bright side/silver lining of your difficulties, and for signs of His help amidst your challenges. In addition, when someone does something beneficial for you, make sure to express appreciation for their help.

The readings for this month focus on Chanukah and related themes.

Readings for the month:

Clarity + Purity + Joy = Transcendence

Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You

Tevet: Faith

The month of Tevet encompasses two moods: Celebration and sadness. During the beginning of the month, we celebrate Chanukah, commemorating, among other events, the rededication of the Second Temple. Later in the month, on the 10th, we fast and commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, during the time of the First Temple. Faith bridges these polar opposites: Even while we mourn over a tragic period in Jewish history, we have faith that one day the Messiah will come and rebuild the Temple.

Each day, to enhance your faith, think of a challenge in your life and say to yourself, “This is from God who loves me. Every aspect of it is from Him for my highest good. Right now, this is the best possible situation for me. A key part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.”

Faith in God is the foundation of our relationship with Him. Each day try to sense God’s all-encompassing presence, and feel awe before Him.

Readings for the month:

Is Faith Logical? One Answer in Ten Questions

How to Build Rock Solid Faith

Is God Part of Your Judaism? (This article is for those who are already well on their journey to spiritual strength.)

Next year’s cycle:

During the coming year, you can go through this cycle again, focusing on a different facet of the 12 topics. Alternatively, you can customize this plan, spending more than a month on topics of interest to you or adding your own topics on which to focus.

Each person working to strengthen their spirituality is like a single light, shining ever brighter, in a sea of darkness. The world is currently very dark, filled with immorality and cruelty. To overcome this, we have to focus not only on our own spiritual development, but also on that of others. Encourage your friends, family members, synagogues and day schools to initiate their own plan for spiritual strength. Together, we will light up the world and usher in the time when, “…The earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).”

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

All the best,


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I like how there is a general theme for each month. This gives me the flexibility to choose how I want to apply it. And since there is a new theme each month. I get a fresh start every month.