It is that time of year again. This is the week before the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), where Jews are supposed to be involved in introspection. We are meant to think about the year past and what we need to do teshuva about (repentance).
Most of us (at least the adults) have a pretty good idea what character traits need improving - unfortunately some of these don't seem to change much from year to year! But getting down to more specifics is different from year to year, and takes a lot of thought.
Unless, of course, you have access to what I call the "repentance experts". It seems that there are people who think they have specialized access to G-d's accounting books and can tell you exactly what you need to do in order to repent.
After a major disaster the more famous of these experts take to the airwaves with their pronouncements. We all remember some of the "gems of wisdom" put out after the tsunami, after Katrina, and after the disengagement/Sharon's stroke. No religion is immune from these guys. Most people take what they say with not only a grain, but sometimes a kilogram of salt.
But I have met less famous "experts" in my time - some recently. I spoke with someone recently about my problems with my teenager, and she told me that the reason why I was having trouble was because of something I did as a teenager to my parents.(She, of course could not be specific about what). At first I thought she was joking, and then when I saw she was serious I was completely taken aback. This person met me when I was 24 years old - she has absolutely no idea how I treated my parents when I was that age. This did not stop her from assuming that she had all of the answers though.
Unfortunately there are people who hunger for these kind of answers. Feeling shame and guilt is extremely uncomfortable. In order to get away from this feeling, some people will grasp at anything - and letting others tell you a quick way of avoiding these feelings is sometimes very tempting. It doesn't matter to some people that perhaps these quick ways have more to do with the religious "experts" own agenda than anything else.
I am a stubborn person. I am willing to "take orders" from only one - G-d. I am willing to let others guide me in understanding what G-d wants from me, but only to a point.
I find that I like to get my guidance on how to improve myself from using my eyes more than my ears. The people who talk the most about what we should do don't affect me. The people who actually do these things are more impressive. The problem is in paying attention. These people don't usually crow about themselves - so you have to spend some effort is seeing them.
When you have a hard time and need a break, the woman who calls and says "Oh, you poor thing. Tell me all about it (including the juicy details)" sounds like the real friend. But the woman who says, "OK, your kids are going to me after school and are staying the night. What cereal do they like for breakfast?" is really a greater friend, because she is quietly doing what you really need. There are many examples of this if you just take the time to see them.
I wish for everyone a good holiday season, and I hope everyone has access to the good people who teach us how to be better.