Can We Change?

In the 1978 documentary, Scared Straight!, a group of juvenile delinquents are confronted by real convicts who shout at, berate and generally seek to terrify the youths to “scare them straight” and turn their lives around.

The sessions were raw, horrifying. But they were child’s play compared to the curses God threatens us with if we fail to live up to His ideal.

The tochachot are enough to bring us to our knees. But are they enough to change us

The tochachot appear twice in Torah, in parashat Bechukotai (Sefer Vayikra) and parashat Ki Tavo (Sefer Devarim). They are so frightful no Jew invites the opportunity to have the aliyah listing them. No, let the shamash or gabbai take that “honor”.  Even worse, the Ki Tavo tochacha concludes with absolutely no sign of redemption. “Hashem will return you to Egypt in ships, on the road of which I said to you, ‘You will never again see it!’ And there you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as slaves and maidservants – but there will be no buyer!”

Could anything be crueler than this? After our redemption from Egypt, after forty years in the desert, after all our trials we are threatened with being returned even more ignobly than we left! Ki Tavo leaves us with no hope.

The tochachot in Bechukotai, while equally cruel, conclude with at least some glimmer of hope. In Bechukotai, God ultimately assures us that, “…despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted from them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them...” There are curses but, in the end, God comforts us. Even in exile God holds to us; the covenant remains.

The reason for God’s mercy is explained by the Meshech Chochma, “…the reason I Have rejected and been revolted by them, to such an extent that I have forced them into lands of their enemies, is not because I seek to destroy them or annul my covenant. To the contrary, I am their God. Then why are they exiled? Because sometimes this is the only way to prevent them from becoming so assimilated that they disappear as a nation.”

This ultimate comfort eases not only our collective pain, but also the individual agony of anyone who has cut himself off from God. To remind ourselves, collectively and individually, who we are requires a jolt, an exile. Only then can we re-root ourselves in Jewish life and expression. The harsher the exile, the greater the “rebirth”. We need look no further than the State of Israel to know this is true.

As a people so as individuals. The greater our exile – from marriage, family, job, or community – the greater the redemption. Tochachot are anxiety producing, devastating. However, if we can just hang on with faith and trust we can hear God’s voice comfort us. “… I have not rejected them…”. Hang on! Don’t allow a spiteful husband, an unappreciative boss, an unfriendly neighbor drown out God’s voice and cause you to doubt your worth. Be resilient in the face of exile. As Rabbi Berel Wein says in the newest issue of Jewish Action, “Resilience is the ability to accept defeat and tragedy, to see beyond the present and to persevere with emunah, belief, and a vision for the future....” In other words, hope for a better future.

Yet, in Ki Tavo we hear no such hope; only, “…back to Egypt where even your slave masters will not want you!”

Would God really allow us to endure such endless suffering? Our tradition teaches that one is not to add to the days of Shiva, or Shloshim; mourning must end. Further, we are taught the obligation to comfort those who grieve. But where, unlike in Bechukotai, is the comfort in Ki Tavo? When will the suffering end?

Thank God, the Ki Tavo tochachot don’t actually end without hope for redemption. As Rav Soloveitchik teaches us, our promise of consolation does finally arrive – fifty pesukim later! – in parashat Nitzavim. Fifty long pesukim later. “It will be that when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you; and you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today...” (Devarim 30:1-2).

You will perform teshuva. You will return to God.

But why the interminable wait?

We know every word, every space, every line in the Torah has meaning. Here, we learn that the number of pesukim between parashiot can teach us a lesson. Here, the lesson is that real change doesn’t “just happen”; it is not the flick of a switch. Meaningful change takes time.

Rav Soloveitchik illuminates this truth by examining Ramban’s teaching about a basic difference between the two listings of the tochachot. The two tochachot speak to the churbanot, the destruction of the two Temple. As Ramban taught, the Vayikra tochacha foretells the destruction of the First Temple, while the Devarim tochacha speaks to the Second Temple churban

The destruction of the two Batei Mikdash were both devastating but also very different.

The destruction of the First Temple was followed by an exile of seventy years – a definitive time frame – after which we returned to Zion and rebuilt the Temple. This finite exile was followed by a prompt consolation. The destruction was painful, but we knew that the suffering would end, and we would return. Not so with the Second Temple. There is no predetermined date for the end of this Exile. We are still in Galus even now, two thousand years later. When will it end?

Will it end?

Of course, it will. It must. “…And you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice...with all your heart and soul...”

It will end when we decide we want it to end, truly want it to end. Rambam says, “Israel will only be redeemed through repentance. The prophets have already promised that the Jews will repent at the end of their exile and immediately thereafter they will be redeemed.”

Redemption is on us.

We must change. We must do teshuvah.

In this season, our thoughts are on change, on redemption. We resolve to be better, to improve our marriages, to accomplish more professionally, to be more understanding parents, to learn more…

Alas, we’ve been “changing” for years. And yet we remain in galus, stuck in the mire of our midos. We say we want to repent, that we want to change … but it is so hard. We are the same person this year as last, and as the year before that. Rav Yisrael Salanter has said that it’s easier to learn countless pages of the Talmud than to change one minor aspect of human behavior.

But certainly, we can change, we can do teshuvah. Our prophets tell us we will; that, “... the Jews will repent at the end of their exile and immediately thereafter they will be redeemed.” 

We can change. But how?

Maybe we’ve been going about this change business all wrong. We arrive in shul on Rosh Hashanah and we say, “Throw open the Book of Life, God! I’m here” and expect to be changed in the next ten days. But change, real day to day change, is not so easily accomplished. Often it takes “fifty pesukim” before we are able to leave our exile and find redemption.

Too often, we fail to see that the “big” we need and want requires lots of “little” change. A New Year’s resolution to “lose weight” will be better accomplished by determining to walk twenty minutes every day in January, and then forty minutes every day in February than simply “going on a diet”. That is, by making small adjustments, we find our way to great change.

Change might require changing our environment. We generally don’t notice how we are affected by everything and everyone around us. Sometimes a “change of scenery” can make a big difference. Then again, sometimes we need new “eyes” on things. A new friend or perspective can often be very helpful.

We should remember that change is not easy. Rewarding ourselves for small victories along the way can keep us moving toward our goal. In the same way, making small, achievable goals is more likely to move us forward than thinking only about the final goal. If we want to run the marathon, we may want to begin with much shorter runs to begin! Real change takes time. It’s a process. It almost never happens in the next pasuk. It takes many, many pesukim to get there!

There is no greater promise than the promise of a “fresh start,” of teshuvah. It is true for an individual as for the Jewish people. It is also true that teshuvah, for an individual or a nation, is a three-step process. We must,

1.    Recognize our errors, hakarat ha’chet

2.    We must feel truly regretful about those errors, charatah al e’avar

3.    We must resolve to start anew, we must repent, kabalah al e’atid

Then, and only then can our consolation become a reality.

The Jewish nation has been through a long galus of suffering and persecution. Yet no nation in all human history has contributed more to every positive sphere of human endeavor. For us, galus has not been a crushing blow that ushered in our disappearance from the world stage but rather our galus has always given rise to renewed study, scholarship, spiritual genius and creativity.

Galus has never robbed the Jewish people of our uniqueness and mission. Nor should our personal galus rob us of the same. As we have survived and even thrived as a people, so too can we thrive as individuals. Change. Teshuvah. No matter how many pesukim, consolation awaits.

Endnote: I would like to than Joel Zinger for his contribution to this essay. Many of the ideas reflected herein germinated from a very insightful discussion with him