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Friday, 7 October, 2016 - 1:00 pm


Yankel, a poor shtetl Jew who had fallen on hard times, heard that the local church was offering 50 rubles to any convert to Christianity. Sensing a business opportunity, he asked the priest about the terms and conditions.

“Well," said the priest, “once you accept the holy water, you will become a Christian. After that, there isn’t much. You go to church now and then and give some donations."

“That’s it?” Yankel asked. “Well, that, and Lent has just started. You may not eat meat on Friday's, but fish is fine.”

Yankel considered what he heard for a moment, and agreed. The priest sprinkled him from his vial of holy water and solemnly intoned, “You were born a Jew, you were born a Jew. Now, you are a Christian!” He handed Yankel his 50 rubles and Yankel went home.

The next Friday, the priest paid a surprise visit to his newest convert. As he entered Yankel’s home, he caught a whiff of cooked meat. To his shock, Yankel was sitting at his table enjoying a bowl of Erev Shabbat cholent!

“How dare you!” cried the furious priest. “You couldn’t last a week without meat?”

“Meat?” said Yankel in surprise. “This isn’t meat—it’s fish.” The priest narrowed his eyes indignantly. “Do you take me for a fool? I know what meat and fish smells like!”

“Ah, yes, itwasmeat,” Yankel tried to explain. “But then I took some water, and told it, ‘You were born a cow, you were born a cow, but now you are a fish!' ”

The old metaphor from the prophet Jeremiah still defines us in many ways. Can someone simply wake up one morning, asks the prophet, and decide to change the color of his or her skin? Can a leopard change its spots?So will you be able to improve, you who have become accustomed to do evil.

We remain skeptical of acts of reinvention. Old dogs can't learn new tricks, they say, and old habits die hard. Reinvention. Change. Transformation. These things don’t happen easily.

Yet, every New Year, this is what we are asked to do. We try to make amends for the past, turn over a new leaf, and start over. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is dedicated to the concept of Teshuvah—renewal and metamorphosis. But is it even possible?

Maimonides defines Teshuvah, repentance, as including two aspects: remorse for the past and resolve for the future. If I think I did not make a mistake, or if I am not ready to change that aspect in the future, then I am not repenting. How can one achieve such a conclusive change with such finality? How can one effect such a complete self-transformation that he or she knows he or she will never make the same mistakes again?

As motivated as I might be to finally stick to my diet this year, or to set time aside to be with my kids every day, I know that I'm human and prone to error, bias, and temptation. I'm sincere about wanting to change and will give it a serious shot, and I will feel terrible if I don't make it; but do I know that I will? Without that, is it Teshuvah?

It seems that, on a practical level at least, Maimonides's definition of Teshuvah is impossible to attain.

A wealthy man requested an old scholar to wean his son away from his bad habits. The scholar took the youth for a stroll through a garden. Stopping suddenly, he asked the boy to pull out a tiny plant growing there.

The youth held the plant between his thumb and forefinger and pulled it out. The old man then asked him to pull out a slightly bigger plant. The youth pulled hard and the plant came out, roots and all. “Now pull out that one,” said the old man pointing to a bush. The boy had to use all his strength to pull it out.

“Now take this one out,” said the old man, indicating a guava tree. The youth grasped the trunk and tried to pull it out, but it would not budge. “It’s impossible,” said the boy, panting with the effort.

“So it is with bad habits,” said the sage. “When they are young it is easy to pull them out but when they take hold they cannot be uprooted.”

The session with the old man changed the boy’s life.

But some of us do have bad habits, and we can’t just make a change that will last forever!

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that, in a way, every sin can be considered a form of theft. G-d created the world, and it is His. He created the human person, and our souls and bodies belong to the Divine. When a person behaves in a fashion contrary to G-d's will, it is nothing short of an act of misappropriation. He is abusing the divine spark that was imbued within him, and "stealing," as it were, from G-d. He is “stealing” property from G-d, using it in a way that its Master does not allow. If I eat what should not be eaten, if I take money which should not be taken, I am misusing these items which belong to G-d. In this case, he must return the "theft"; he must return himself by returning to G-d—doing Teshuvah. He must change.

But what is change?

In the ideal Torah perspective, change is irreversible and permanent. I can never go back to the way I was. What was once, is no more. I am a changed person.

After the Buddhist monk received his sandwich at a store in Boro Park, he gave the vendor a $20 bill. The monk silently waited for 30 minutes as the vendor worked.

Finally, the Jewish store owner asked why he was waiting.

"Where is my change?" asked the Buddhist.

The vendor replied: "Oh, change comes from within."

The famed Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once remarked:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.

When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town, so as an older man, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is I. I can’t change anybody but myself!

Suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have impacted my family. Together we could have impacted our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world!

May I add to Reb Yisroel’s words:

Now that I realize that it is only myself I can change, I make the mistake of deciding that I need to change everything forever, and if not, it is worthless. As a result, nothing changes.

So friends, this Yom Kippur make one change—for a day, a week, a month. Show yourself you can change one detail, for one day. You can make one move, in one direction. I guarantee you, you will build an appetite, and the tiny move will grow and grow.

May you and your family be sealed for a Happy and prosperous sweet year.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

Comments on: CAN I EVER CHANGE?

Yitzchak wrote...

Great article.
Where is the source of the Chidushei Harim on sin are a form of theft?