Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength

Each year, more than a third of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Yet, only 8% are successful. Why?

Many goals lack achievability or accountability. If a goal is 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.

Many of us want to become better people, more spiritual, and fulfill the purpose for which God created us. That is a noble but big goal. How do we break that down into small steps – giving it achievability? How do we track our progress – giving our goal accountability?

The Chazak Plan is formulated to address this issue. 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 shows you how.

Each month, choose a specific behavior related to the theme of the month, which you aim to do daily or weekly for at least a month. Add this behavior to your checklist to keep track of how often you do it.

At the beginning of every month, decide whether you will continue the previous month’s goal and add to your checklist the new change you will make for the coming month. Regardless of how the previous month went, begin anew with an invigorated start.

At the beginning of the day, read your 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, you can pick mini rewards to give yourself for meeting your weekly goals. A reward can be a piece of chocolate, downloading a song track, or even just praising yourself for the achievement. 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 check-ins to encourage each other and discuss how you both did the previous week.

If you find that on a regular basis you are not performing your entry, do one or more of the following:

(1) Set an alarm or another reminder to make sure it is not a matter of forgetting.

(2) Try a different reward, one that is more enticing.

(3) Temporarily lower the bar or phrase the goal with a low and high range, so you are at least able to achieve the low range and then work up toward the high one. If that does not help, pick a different goal, one you are more motivated to achieve.

This plan is based on the Hebrew months and you can start the plan at any point. The Hebrew months are used because each one contains innate spiritual power which you will be tapping into. Also utilize the power of prayer, by asking God to help you achieve your goals.

Here is an outline of the topics covered each month, followed by a discussion of the month:

Elul: Repentance

Tishrei: Torah study

Cheshvan: Prayer

Kislev: Gratitude

Tevet: Faith

Shvat: Overcoming addictions

Adar: Enhancing our health and joy

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

Iyar: Enhancing our relationships

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

Tammuz: Forgiveness

Av: Kindness

Elul: Repentance

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah, and is the time of year we take stock of our lives and prepare for the High Holidays. Most of us have at least one area in which we struggle; perhaps it is being ethical in business, being moral, being charitable and kind, learning more Torah, refraining from hurting others, or an area of observance we are ready to strengthen. 

Pick one area on which to focus and choose a manageable change you will make on a daily or at least weekly basis; input this change into your calendar or checklist. If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance. The focus on repentance continues into next month until after Yom Kippur.

During Elul, we ask others for forgiveness for the times we wronged them, as Yom Kippur alone does not atone for those sins.

The main ways people harm others is financially or emotionally. Examples of emotional harm: making hurtful comments, gossiping about them or being hypercritical. Being well intentioned is not an excuse. There is often at least one person in our lives, whether at work, at home or in our family, that we are not treating appropriately. That has to stop. Now.

Examples of financial harm: withholding money that belongs to others or not giving partners their fair share of a partnership - even temporarily - not paying back money you owe when you are able to do so, using underhanded or dishonest methods to enrich yourself, or using your position of power to get your way, for example, to stamp out competition or to coerce people into signing agreements that are not in their best interest. If you have done any of these in the past and you have not apologized and made amends, now is the time to do so. 

The lure of money often clouds people’s judgment leading them to act in ways that are not in keeping with their general conduct. Some examples: A person may treat their family and associates well, but mistreat their workers. A person may be very generous with friends and family, but are stingy when it comes to giving charity. A person may give generously to charity, but when it comes to money matters they act ruthless. Lastly, a person may look the other way when their partner is acting unethically, even when they know it is wrong. Because of this money bias, carefully review how you have conducted your affairs, both with business associates and family members, to make sure that your behavior was above board. When in doubt, consult with a rabbi expert in monetary laws. 

During the High Holidays we pray for our life and the lives of our family members. What we want most is for our prayers to be accepted by God. Yet, the Sages teach (Shemos Rabbah 22:3) “Anyone whose hands are soiled with stolen wealth, when he calls out to the Holy One blessed is He, (God) does not answer him.” Before we spend hours in prayer before God, we need to make sure that our hands are clean from ill-gotten gains, as Job said (Job 16:17), “For there is no robbery in my hands and my prayer is pure.” One’s prayer is pure and accepted by God, only after they have first removed the robbery from their hands. 

This month, compile a list of those you have hurt. One by one, go through the list and apologize and make amends if applicable. If you have trouble with one name, skip it for now and come back to it later. If you can’t think of anyone to apologize to, think about if there’s anyone you are in conflict with, or someone who is upset with you. While they may be partially to blame, likely you share some blame as well. If you take responsibility for your part, they will often take responsibility for theirs.

During the month of Elul it is customary to study works on ethical development. One classic is The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. You can either study it from the beginning, or start with Chapter 11, which covers key areas of conduct, and then go back and study the rest of this work. Chapter 11 can be found here. Another classic is Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda. You can either study it from the beginning (the first gate is often not studied nowadays), or you can study the third chapter of The Gate of Introspection, where there is a list of 30 fundamental ideas. Aim to study one idea each day of Elul and finish it in time for Rosh Hashanah. You can read the third chapter in English here.

As the High Holidays involve reciting many prayers, for suggestions on how to enhance your prayers, see, “How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer.”

Questions for the month:

“Which area do I struggle with that I’m motivated to address this Elul and what commitment will I make?”

“Who have I wronged but never apologized and made amends? When will I contact them?”

Tishrei: Torah study

Until after Yom Kippur, the focus on repentance continues. If you have not done so already during the month of Elul, there is still time before Yom Kippur to choose an area of your life to upgrade and to apologize to those who you have wronged.

After Yom Kippur, the focus switches to the festivals of Sukkot, 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, e.g., The Stone Edition Chumash and The Gutnick Edition Chumash (sections of The Gutnick Chumash can be read for free here). 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 find a partner, you can contact your local synagogue, kollel, 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 an article, a few pages from a book, or listening to a class during your commute or while exercising. Preferably, have a set inviolate time for Torah study. Input into your checklist what and when you will study.

Two important areas of Torah to study are (A) teachings which inspire you and (B) Jewish law – so you know how to act.

There are many cycles of sections of the Torah that are currently being studied. Such as cycles to finish Nach, Talmud or Mishnah. There are many very engaging teachers who offer free resources to join in the cycle and study together with thousands of others around the globe.

Questions for the month:

“Which translation or commentary on the Bible will I use for the upcoming annual cycle?”

“What area of Torah am I currently most drawn to? Who can I study it with, or from which resources?”

“Is there a particular cycle of Torah study that I want to join, such as Nach Yomi, Talmud (Daf Yomi, Amud Yomi or Daf Hashavua), Mishnah Yomi or Halacha Yomis?” (outorah.org hosts many of these cycles).

Cheshvan: Prayer

On the 7th of Cheshvan, in Israel, prayers for rain begin. For this month, focus on enhancing your prayers. You can pick a section of the prayers to say daily with understanding and input this into your checklist. In addition or instead, you can recite daily one Psalm with understanding (longer Psalms can be read over two to three days).

One type of prayer, popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is called Hitbodedut; this is where we talk out loud to God in our native language, unburdening ourselves to Him. Try this daily practice for at least a week, preferably a month. See if it helps you feel closer to God and to feeling His support and guidance.

Part of upgrading our prayers is showing reverence for the sanctuary, and not talking 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 truly best for us.

Questions for the month:

“Which section of the prayers will I focus on saying this month with understanding? Or, what can I do to enhance my prayers?”

“What issues are weighing on my mind that I can informally speak to God about?”

“Do I want to start saying the Psalms every day, with the goal of saying all of them over a month or a couple of months?”

“How can I enhance the reverence I show for the sanctuary?”

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 for us.

Each day, preferably at the beginning of the day, spend time feeling grateful for the blessings your Creator gave you. (Many find it helpful to write down daily a few things they are grateful for and why.) Thank Him for His many gifts, for the bright side/silver lining of your difficulties, and for signs of His help amidst your challenges. Consider inputting this daily practice of expressing gratitude into your checklist.

In addition, express your appreciation to others. You can do this in person, on the phone, via an email or text, or with a written note.

For a discussion on gratitude, see, “The FAR Plan: Three Steps to Emotional Health” and “Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy.”

Questions for the month:

“What is something I am very grateful to God for? What can I say to Him to express my appreciation?”

“Do I want to spend a few minutes each day keeping a gratitude journal?”

“Who is someone who has helped me? How can I express my appreciation?”

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 of Tevet, 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.

Input into your checklist to do the following daily practice to enhance your faith: Think of a challenge and say to yourself:

“This is from God for my eternal benefit. Part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. This will work out in the end; either in this world or in the next. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.”

Questions for the month:

“What life challenge will I use to help me strengthen my faith?”

“Is there an area of my faith where I have doubts and questions? If yes, who can I speak to for clarity?”

Shvat: Overcoming addictions

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. We elevate the physical by using it to enhance our spirituality; when the two work in harmony we live a balanced life.

This month, consider if there is an area of your life where your relationship with the physical has become unbalanced or a full blown addiction. Some of the things we can become addicted to: shopping, eating, video games, the internet, gambling, alcohol, cannabis, smoking, pornography, or drugs.

The first step to addressing an addiction is to realize if you have one. Any behavior that you would like to curtail or stop and are having difficulty doing so is an addiction. Write down the benefits you get from the behavior as well as the costs. Also write down your life goals: spiritual goals, interpersonal, family and career goals, and the type of person, spouse or parent you want to be. Now ask yourself, "Is this behavior negatively affecting my ability to achieve my goals?" If yes, is it worth it? If the benefits of the behavior are not worth jeopardizing your life goals, then make a commitment to either stop the behavior or set firm limits (depending on the type of addiction).

If an addictive behavior has already started causing harm, consider attending a 12-step group and/or seeing a recommended therapist who specializes in addictions. Seeing a psychiatrist may also be beneficial, as mental health issues can worsen an addiction and there are some medications that can help reduce the addictive urge. At a minimum, discuss the issue with someone you respect who has life experience and shares your values.

To prevent or address addictive behavior, put temptations out of sight as best you can. For example, many people struggle with internet use and social media. Install an internet filter to put limits on the time you spend online and block access to inappropriate sites. (Even if right now you do not have an issue with harmful internet use, damaging sites are only a few clicks away, which in a moment of weakness could lead to a full blown addiction; all because one did not take basic precautions to protect themselves and their children).

During addictive behavior, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and we seek additional pleasure/stimulation. This leads us down a slippery slope where increasing levels of the problematic behavior are needed to provide pleasure/stimulation. You want to short-circuit this pattern and instead of going down the rabbit hole of ever increasingly harmful behavior, you want to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system through relaxing activities. The next time you feel an addictive urge, instead of giving in to it right away, delay it and look for a calming behavior to do instead, such as gentle stretches, going for a walk, especially in nature, or meditation. Even just being mindful of the present, and tuning into your senses and relaxing into the moment can help lessen an addictive urge. This month is a great time to begin or to strengthen a meditation practice, learning how to quiet the mind and calm the body.

In addition, commit in writing to concrete limits on the addictive behavior. Make it a doable limit but non negotiable. Gradually, increase the limits or reduce the frequency of the problematic behavior until you reach where you want to be. You can set consequences if you break your commitment, such as having to tell someone you respect that you broke your commitment or to give a specific amount of money to an organization you do not like for each lapse. For further discussion, see “Overcoming our Soft Addictions.” One form of addiction is overspending or running after money, see “The Spirituality of Money.”

Input into your checklist the behavioral change you will make for at least this month. At the end of the month, you will decide what your commitment will be for the next month.

Questions for the month:

“Is there an area of my life that has become unbalanced and excessive, which at the very least wastes my time? How will I rein it in and regain control?”

“Do I feel good about how I’m living my life? If not, what is one change I can make that would help me feel better about myself?”

“Is there an addictive behavior that I’m struggling with? With whom will I discuss the issue?”

Adar: Enhancing our health and joy

Our Sages teach 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.

The three core areas to enhance our physical health, sleep, exercise and diet, also enhance our emotional health and are the focus of this month. (During a Jewish leap year, the two months of Adar are both spent on this topic.) For additional suggestions geared specifically toward emotional health see, “The FAR Plan: Three Steps to Emotional Health.”

Pick one change you will make on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month, and using your checklist, track how often you do it. Some examples: Go to sleep 15-20 minutes earlier each week until you feel refreshed in the morning; exercise at least three 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. Pick at least one concrete action you will take to enhance your health (or ideally one change for each of the three areas of sleep, exercise and diet) and input it into your checklist.

Questions for the month:

“What is negatively affecting my physical or emotional health and how will I address it?”

“What positive change will I make this month to upgrade my physical or emotional health?”

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

During Nissan, we celebrate the holiday of Passover. On Passover, we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. It is a time of freedom, when we free ourselves from that which brings us down spiritually.

Even today, many of us are still not yet completely 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 upgrade our purity, thereby increasing our freedom. Do not let past behaviors or setbacks hold you back. Each day is a new beginning and an opportunity to start fresh.

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. Use an internet filter to block inappropriate websites and be more discerning what websites and videos you expose your soul to. If you wouldn’t show it to a teenager, you probably shouldn’t be watching it either. Go through your wardrobe and donate to charity clothing that is unbecoming for you. If you have been lax in the laws meant to keep us on the elevated path, e.g., forbidden seclusion – yichud – or forbidden touching – negiah – now is the time to strengthen your observance and set redlines you will not cross. Staying away from temptation and impurity will enable you to have a closer relationship with the ultimate source of holiness and purity – God Himself.

An aspect of enhancing your purity is speaking in an elevated manner. Are there any words you choose to remove from your vocabulary, at least for this month?

Using your checklist, you can check off each day you succeeded in speaking in a refined manner and/or staying away from spiritual pollution (or limiting your exposure as best you can).

Questions for the month:

“What is a source of spiritual pollution in my life? How can I shield myself from it or at least limit my exposure?”

“How will I strengthen my observance of the laws of yichud and negiah?”

“What word(s) do I choose to remove from my vocabulary, at least for this month?”

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 relationship with them.

Our relationships play a pivotal role in either enhancing or negatively affecting our emotional, physical and spiritual health; toxic relationships drain us, while healthy relationships nourish us.

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.

Input into your checklist the following practice or a related one: At least once a week, schedule one-on-one time with someone in your life to strengthen that relationship; silence your cell and give him or her your undivided attention.

In addition, this month, work on being less critical of others. Start by focusing on the person of whom you are most critical. Consider using your checklist and check off each day you were able to avoid criticizing them.

Questions for the month:

“Which of my relationships do I need to strengthen? What is the first step to doing that?”

“Which relationships need better boundaries or for me to distance myself from? What is the first step to doing that?”

“Do I want to form new healthy relationships? What are some ways I can do that?”

“Which person in my life am I most critical of? For this month, am I willing to commit to give them at least as much compliments as criticisms?”

Read up on the type of relationship you are currently dealing with. Here are links to Aish.com articles on specific relationships:




Relating to your parents

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

The festival of Shavuot occurs during this month. On Shavuot, 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. Take for example 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 you are motivated to strengthen this month. Preferably ask your Rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance or you can focus on upgrading your observance of Shabbat or keeping kosher (take small, manageable steps you can build upon). At the end of each day or week, mark off on your checklist if you kept that observance.

Question for the month:

“What area of observance will I strengthen this month?”

“Which class, study partner or book will I utilize to learn more about Jewish observance?”

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.

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

One of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in ourselves and others (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 face. Then, you will be more forgiving and loving toward yourself and others.

Make a list of those who have wronged you or you hold a grudge toward. It can even be people you love, but who said or did something for which you have still not forgiven them. Using the techniques discussed in “The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go,” see if you can be more forgiving of them. At times, you may choose not to forgive, but only to reduce the hurt that you feel.

To rid ourselves of hatred toward a fellow Jew, we need to do what we can to resolve our conflicts. Make a list of those with whom you are in conflict; this often includes family members and former business associates. Conflicts are messy and often both sides share some of the blame. Be courageous and take the first step by apologizing for your share in the disagreement and express your interest in making peace. Often, this will trigger the other party to apologize for their share and to accept your offer to put the matter to rest or work towards a resolution. 

Check off on your checklist each day you complimented someone, or at least spent time thinking about a person’s good points (including your own).

For additional discussion on the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew, see, “What is Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block?

Questions for the month:

“Who in my life do I feel hatred toward or greatly dislike?” (Pick one person and depending on the situation, either work on forgiving them or on reducing the hurt you feel.)

“Who pushes my buttons? Can I focus on their good points and be more complimentary and understanding?”

“What is the first step I can take to try to resolve a conflict I have with someone?”

Av: Kindness

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 forgiving others and removing hatred from our hearts. This month, we will focus on the next step, doing kindness and fulfilling the commandment to, “…love your fellow as yourself…(Leviticus 19:18).”

During this month, think about what you are doing for others. Are you giving to charity generously (according to your means)? Are you generous with your time and expertise? Do you give preference to family members in need (emotionally or financially) before helping others?

Each day this month, consider checking off on your checklist if you did an act of kindness; it can be something small. If the day is coming to a close and you 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 charity box. Do not let a day go by without doing something for someone else. As the Sages teach, (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14), “…If I am [only] for myself, what am I?”

Question for the month:

“Who can I help and how?” (Some examples: Giving emotional, financial or physical support, advice, or helping someone find a job, a spouse or a needed resource.)

Next year’s cycle:

During the coming year, go through this cycle again, focusing on a different aspect of the 12 topics.

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 and friends to join us on this journey to 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).”

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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.