O ne of the most common laments as we prepare for the Yamim Noraim is: How can I take seriously my undertakings to improve in such-and-such an area when last year, and the year before that, I was also working on the same middah?

So it occurred to me that the story of someone who resolved to change — and did — might provide more inspiration than just knowing that we are not unique in our past failures.

Over the last couple of years, I have probably spent more time talking to my trainer than to anyone other than my chavrusa and immediate family. While he helps rid me of a variety of joint pains, we have plenty of time to chat. He is not one of the trainers who believes that nothing is achieved unless the trainee is in too much agony to speak.

Around this time last year, he came across an article about the late Princess Diana, and the thought crossed his mind: If she was a princess, then how much more so is my wife, who is in every respect a true bas melech? She does so much for me. How could I ever be upset with anything she does or express any displeasure or anger?

And he undertook from then on that he would not express any irritation toward his wife, that an unkind word would never pass his lips.

A ridiculous undertaking, you will say. And indeed it would be for most of us. But he is a person of unique discipline, ever eager for the next ten-day water fast, and is someone who maintains a super-strict diet at all times. When he decides to do something, he does it.

That very discipline, however, could also prove an obstacle. When one gets up before 4 a.m. every day to learn, and works extremely long hours, it becomes easy to think that one’s time is worth more than that of everyone else because so little of it is wasted. That person might then expect others to reach the same conclusion. And I suspect that was true for my trainer as well.

So how did his undertaking work out? As far as he can remember — and he was concentrating on this — nary a discouraging word has passed his lips all year. At the beginning, he admits, he still experienced irritation from time to time and had to restrain himself. But he soon found that nothing his wife did or said ever bothered him, and he had no need to control any impulse to speak sharply.

And once he focused on his wife’s happiness, he went far beyond just being careful about his speech. Every night, he makes sure that there are no dishes left in the sink for his wife — he either does them himself or makes sure that one of the children does — even at the expense of his already minimal sleep. And on Wednesday evening, when his wife works late, he has started preparing dinner and taking it to her at work.

The only action about which he expressed regret in the past year was failing to return home during a two-hour break to change a flat tire. Yedidim’s phone lines were down, and his wife was under pressure because of a family chasunah that night. He did offer to come home, despite the 40-minute drive each way, but had been told not to bother. In retrospect, he told me he should have just done so without waiting to be asked.

My trainer emphasizes that he always felt that he had a very happy marriage. When someone in the gym tells a “marriage” joke — a rare event — his brow furrows in perplexity that anyone could tell such a joke or find it remotely funny.

Yet, he tells me, the atmosphere in the home has been transformed — “it is something completely different and keeps getting better and better” — and that has filtered down to the children as well. They relate better to each other and to their parents.

Even when my trainer, like almost every pension fund holder in Israel, lost a great deal of money invested in Teva Pharmaceuticals, he did not hear a word of criticism from his wife. Happy wives are not critical wives, he explained.

Recently, he and his wife took a four-day vacation to Prague — not something they would have ever done before. For months before, he talked about little besides the trip. And upon his return, he told me that it was by far the best four days of his life.

Again, I don’t imagine that most of us husbands could make quite so radical a change. But all of us can be inspired by the knowledge that change is possible — in this area and others — and that the rewards are great. I know I have.

The Dignity of the Ordinary

Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, is not Jewish. But she might as well be. Every one of her articles on current psychological research serves as a powerful reinforcement to the benefits of a Torah life.

Last week’s New York Times op-ed, “You’ll Never Be Famous — and That’s O.K.,” was no exception. I might have missed it, however, but for the fact that the blurb mentioned George Eliot’s Middlemarch, my favorite English novel when I last read it over 40 years ago. (My current favorite author, Dov Haller, was not even born yet.)

At the novel’s opening, the 17-year-old heroine Dorothea Brooke is filled with a passionate desire to play some great role on the world stage. She marries the much older Casaubon, imagining him a great scholar to whom she can devote her energies, when he is but a dry pedant at best. After his death, she marries again and raises a family. In the end, she proves the “foundress of nothing.” But Eliot does not see that as a tragedy of thwarted ambitions, but rather the discovery of fulfillment in the normal domestic life.

Esfahani characterizes Eliot’s final comment on her heroine as one of the most beautiful in literature: “Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Esfahani concludes: “The most meaningful lives are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.” And as behooves a psychology writer, she brings her support not just from literature but from current research. The feeling of contributing and helping others is crucial to living with a sense of purpose. For instance, one recent study shows that adolescents who are given household chores experience a stronger sense of purpose in life, likely because they feel they are contributing to the larger family unit.

Elsewhere Esfahani Smith has written of the long-term health benefits of eudaimonic wellbeing over hedonic happiness. The key questions to determining the former are: How often do you feel your life has a sense of direction and meaning to it? How often do you feel that you have something to contribute to society? How often do you feel that you belong to a community/social group?

The subject of “ordinary lives lived with dignity” is one close to my heart. I will shortly be putting out a volume of pieces (most culled from these pages) called Ordinary Greatness about all the extraordinary things done by people who will never command newspaper headlines, but who faithfully fulfill the manifold responsibilities and duties of membership in a Torah community. Even raising new links in the chain of the transmission of Torah through the generations is often an act of heroism, especially when the burden of school tuitions is thrown in.

The benefits of living our ordinary lives with dignity goes far beyond the health benefits cited by Esfahani (as she clearly knows). Part of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is based on our impact on the community of which we are part, starting with our spouses and children and from there widening out. The more people whose lives are “not half so ill as they might have been” because of some little kindness that we performed — a smile, a compliment, a word of encouragement — the more crucial are we to Hashem’s ultimate plan for the world.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 677. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com