Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength

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Ever set a goal to improve your life and 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. 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 and committing to make that change for at least one month. For example, during the Hebrew month of Kislev, when we focus on gratitude, to each day think about something for which you are grateful. The second component is using a checklist to track your progress. (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. At the beginning of every month, decide if you will continue the previous month’s goal. In addition, add to your checklist the new targeted change you will make for the coming 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 an invigorated 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 and the positive feelings which come with 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 progress.

If you find that on a regular basis you are not performing your entry, do one or more of the following: 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 entry with a low and high range, so you are at least able to achieve the low range and then work toward the high one. Alternatively, you may need to pick a different behavior, one that you are more motivated to perform.

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.

Below, is an outline of the topics covered each month, followed by a discussion of each month. At the end of every month is a listing of related readings from my e-book, Inspired: 30 Days to a More Meaningful and Fulfilling Life. (For ease of use, I have hyperlinked these readings to their individual blog posts.) Aim to read the chapters at the earliest opportunity. Before beginning The Chazak Plan, consider reading through the e-book once, using the 30 day schedule contained in it, to familiarize yourself with the ideas.

Plan Outline:

Elul: Repentance

Tishrei: Torah study

Cheshvan: Prayer

Kislev: Gratitude

Tevet: Faith

Shvat: Elevating the physical

Adar: Enhancing our joy

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

Iyar: Enhancing our relationships

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

Tammuz: Removing hatred through forgiveness

Av: Restoring love by apologizing and helping others

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 with which we struggle; 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.

As the High Holidays involve reciting many prayers, you might want to take a look at the article, Unlocking the Hidden Power of Prayer. (This article and the topic of prayer is the focus of the month of Cheshvan.)

Readings for the month:

You: As God Intended

Who Are You? A Balaam, a Job or a Jethro?

How to Remove Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block

Unmasking 5 Misconceptions about Repentance

Asking Forgiveness: A Crash Course

Tishrei: Torah study

Until after Yom Kippur, the focus on repentance continues. The first reading for this month (see below) can be helpful in identifying areas of your life to repair and upgrade. Choose one suggestion from the reading and add it to your daily checklist (at least for the 10 Days of Repentance, which start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur).

After Yom Kippur, the focus switches to the festival of Sukkot, the topic of the second reading.

After which are the festivals of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. 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 a great 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 time each week learning the weekly Torah portion – there are many excellent articles, translations and commentaries available. Preferably, each day, study 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 two most important areas of Torah to study are (A) teachings which inspire you and (B) Jewish law – so you know how to act. For suggested readings for both categories, see endnotes (3) and (5) at the end of the first reading for this month.

Readings for the month:

How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan

Taking Refuge in a Sukkah of Faith

Cheshvan: Prayer

On the 7th of Chesvan, in Israel, prayers for rain begin. 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).

(If you don’t yet pray daily, open up a prayer book and see if any of the prayers resonate with you, or better yet, ask your rabbi or spiritual mentor for a suggestion; recite that prayer 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.)

One type of prayer is called Hitbodedut. This is where we talk out loud to God in our native language, unburdening ourselves to Him. Try this practice at least once, although preferably for a week or month. See how it can help you feel closer to God and to fortifying yourself with His comfort and support.

Part of upgrading our prayers is showing reverence for the sanctuary and not talking to others during the prayer service.

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

What Happens to Our Seemingly Unanswered Prayers? 4 Approaches

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. Additional discussion on gratitude is covered in the beginning of the chapter, 6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.

Readings for the month:

Clarity + Purity + Joy = Transcendence

Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You

Tevet: Faith

The month of Tevet encompasses two moods: Celebration and mourning. 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, which led to the destruction of the First Temple.

In one month we commemorate two diametrically opposed events. Faith is the bridge between them. Even while we mourn an event which led to the destruction of the Temple, we have faith that like the miracle of Chanukah, another dedication of the Temple will occur, when the Messiah comes and dedicates the Third Temple.

Each day, to enhance your faith, think of a challenge in your life and say to yourself, “This is from God for my eternal benefit. 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.”

Readings for the month:

Is Faith Logical? One Answer in Ten Questions

How to Build Rock Solid Faith

Who Caused This Crisis?

Dealing with Distressing Memories

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, 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, limiting them to special occasions. Make water your preferred beverage. If you do not like the way your water tastes, consider a filter.

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, 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.

As Purim is a time for laughter and joy, it is important not to cross the line into inappropriate humor. Five types of inappropriate humor are discussed in “How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan,” in section 4c.

While we do not have direct control over our moods, here are six tools which can be helpful in enhancing them: Gratitude, acceptance, self-compassion, expressing ourselves, addressing festering issues and making lifestyle enhancements (these tools are discussed in the readings below). Many times, even using just 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 that tool, which you will do on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month. Add it to your own checklist or use the Daily Checklist 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 it a notch, thereby 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, check off each day you succeeded in speaking in a refined manner and/or staying away from spiritual pollution (or limited your exposure to it as best you can).

Readings for the month:

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

4 Steps to Safeguarding Your Moral Purity

Iyar: Enhancing our relationships

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.

This month we focus on treating others well and enhancing our relationships. Make a list of your key family, work and social 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 focus on how to enhance your relationships with others and with yourself; everyone – yourself included – needs to be treated with respect and care.

Readings for the month:

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

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 already believe in God, do not worship idols, honor their parents, do not commit murder, adultery etc.

Begin at whatever level of observance you are currently on, and pick one area to strengthen at least during this month. At the end of each day/week, mark off on your checklist if you kept that observance. (If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance.) For additional possible areas to strengthen, see the chapter, How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan.

Readings for the month:

The Hidden Side of the Ten Commandments

What Does God Want from Me?

Is Your Commitment to Judaism Strong Enough?

Tammuz: Removing hatred through 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 or reducing the bitterness you feel toward them. In addition, ask yourself, “What is a step I can take to reduce or resolve an interpersonal conflict in my life? How can I keep a disagreement from deteriorating into personal animosity?”

We are a small nation surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction. To defeat the hatred against our people, we need to defeat the hatred within our people. This month, go out of your way to be forgiving and overlook the faults of others.

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. For additional discussion on the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew, see the chapter, How to Remove Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block.

A number of misfortunes have occurred to the Jewish people during The Three Weeks. Because of this, many of the readings for this month focus on how to handle adversity.

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: Restoring love by apologizing and helping others

On the 9th of this month – Tisha B’Av – we fast to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Last month, we focused on removing hatred. This month, we will focus on the flip side: Restoring love by apologizing and helping others.

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. When your apology and amends, when necessary, have been accepted, this will restore feelings of fraternity and love.

In addition, each day of this month, mark off on your checklist if you did an act of kindness. If the day is coming to a close and you still have not yet done an act of kindness, 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?”

The first reading below, discusses longing for the rebuilding of the Temple. The second reading focuses on helping others. The topic of doing acts of kindness is further discussed in, Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You. The topic of not wronging others is further discussed in, How to Remove Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block. The topic of apologizing is further discussed in, Asking Forgiveness: A Crash Course.

Readings for the month:

Seeking the Divine Presence

4 Steps to an Effective Response to Someone Else’s Crisis

Next year’s cycle:

During the coming year, you can go through this cycle again, focusing on a different aspect of the 12 topics. Alternatively, you can customize this plan, spending more than a month on a specific topic or adding your own.

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. To overcome this, we have to focus not only on our own spiritual development, but also on that of others. Encourage your family members, friends, 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.