People Can Change
How to access the transformational power of Yom Kippur.
Can people change?
After breaking so many resolutions, encountering the same bad habits and mistakes each and every year, it is understandable that deep down many people don’t believe they can really change.
Understandable, but wrong. And damaging. That attitude undermines our confidence and sabotages our efforts at teshuva, repentance, even before we start.
Referring to the commandment to perform teshuva, the Torah says, "For this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven for you to say, 'Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it? Nor is it across the sea, for you to say, 'Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us…' Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it" (Deut. 30:11-14). At first glance, the reader may think that the Torah is saying that uprooting one's negative trait is easy to do. But we know that is simply not true. Real change is a daunting task. So what is the Torah telling us?
The commentaries explain that the Torah is pointing out a fundamental truth about repentance: there is nothing external that you need in order to change – it is entirely up to you to make that choice to change. You don't need prophets, different parents, better teachers, greater spiritual leaders, different friends…. You only need to use your free will. Yes, it is difficult – but with a serious commitment and substantial, ongoing effort, it is eminently doable. (Sorry, there is no magic pill.)
In order to gain confidence that you can in fact change, tap into the power of your free will. We use it far less than we think we do. Feel the empowerment that comes through making the difficult choice to decline that piece of chocolate cake, go for that jog, or start writing that book.
The Power of Teshuva
Teshuva, repentance, comes from the Hebrew word “return;” we are returning to our soul, realigning our actions with our inner self, and getting back on track. In the process we also restore our relationship with God. The miracle of teshuva is that not only do we start a new page, we go back in the past and edit the old ones. Teshuva uproots the misdeed from our past; it’s as if it never happened.
How do we tap in to this incredible power of Yom Kippur?
The key is utilizing the following four-step process that comprise the mitzvah of teshuva.
Step 1: Cessation: Immediately stop the harmful action.
The Talmud says that a person who made a mistake and admits it, but does not renounce doing it again, is compared to going into the mikveh holding a dead reptile in his hand, rendering the immersion useless. He has to throw away the reptile to attain purity. (Ta'anit 16a)
Can you imagine trying to ask forgiveness from someone while you continue to wrong him at the same time? Without stopping the bad action, all the heart-pounding just won't help. You have to stop the transgression. The gig is up.
It can take some work to understand the root of what you did wrong. Don’t just look at a list of external actions. Instead examine the list and discern patterns of behavior. Quite often the underlying cause is an issue regarding a character trait (anger, laziness, arrogance) and tackling that root is where to focus your energy.
Feeling sincere regret is the engine of change. Without it, you don't have any compelling reason to stop the negative action. The obvious starting point is recognizing that you indeed did something wrong. We are masters of rationalizing our actions and coming up with excuses for our misdeeds.
Don’t fudge it. Realize the extent of the damage of your transgression and stop blaming others for poor decisions. You are solely responsible for your actions.
Regret is different than guilt. Guilt is the negative emotion saying that "I am bad." Regret is the positive acknowledgement that I have failed to live up to my potential and my essence remains pure. My choice, my action was bad.
Regret is empowering. It’s a positive sign that we're back in touch with our essence. Our conscience will not let us relax until we've corrected the mistake. Guilt is immobilizing, it depresses us. Instead of focusing outward on uprooting the bad and changing the present, it gets us to focus inward on our ego and wallow in the past.
Step 3: Confession (Viduy):
Jewish law prescribes that we admit our mistake by articulating it verbally. It forms the main part of our prayers on Yom Kippur. Why the need to confess?
By using the human being’s power of speech, which is a manifestation of our soul, we concretize our admission of guilt, moving it from the realm of internal thought into the external. Saying it out loud makes it real. We confront the truth to ourselves, and also come face to face with God. On a spiritual level, verbalizing our confession has the power to remove spiritual toxins that gather as a result of our transgressions.
Step 4: Resolution Not to Repeat:
This step is critical. Regret will fade, and the only way to ensure real change is by committing to a down-to-earth strategy that lays out a realistic, long term plan of action. God doesn’t expect us to be angels. We can’t change everything overnight. But we do need to create a concrete plan.
Here are the some essential points that go into making an effective plan that will lead to genuine change over time:
- Be totally realistic and grounded. If you bite off more than you can chew you’ll be right back where you started.
- Pick one small thing you can totally change forever. Our sages say, “Open for Me a hole the size of a needle and I will open it for you the size of a banquet hall.” The Almighty is telling us that if we make one small, permanent change – akin to a pinprick, a tiny hole that goes all the way through – then He will expand our small change and bring us exponential assistance from Above.
- Your plan should be action oriented, not only dependent on thoughts, and don’t just rely on yourself. If you enlist the aid of someone else to help you in a specific area, you are more likely to live up to your commitment.
- Yom Kippur is only one day. Your plan for growth should carry you throughout the entire year. That means you need to monitor your progress, at least once a month, by doing a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting.
- Envision the positive benefits you’re going to receive by making this change. Make the payoff vivid and real (imaging how you’ll look and feel 20 pounds lighter). Use it to motivate you.
Step 5: Ask for Forgiveness
Lastly, if we have wronged others, in addition to the four steps, we need to sincerely apologize and make amends in order to achieve complete teshuva.
I wish all of you Shana Tova and gmar chasima tova.