Rabbi Benjamin Yudin
Open for Change
Man resists change! Starting with the first man the Torah teaches (Bereshis 2:15), "Hashem took a man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and guard it." Rashi comments that as in many other places in the Torah, the word "took - vayikach" is not simply to move an individual, but to persuade an individual, as is the case in Bereshis 12:5 and Bamidbar 16:1. Adam was instinctively unwilling to move from where he was created and needed Hashem's persuasion to do so. Similarly, to exit the Garden, the Torah teaches (Bereshis 3:23), "Hashem politely asked man to leave the Garden" again resisting change. Hashem then expels him from the Garden as is seen in the next verse. Many of the mussar teachers, including the late Rav Yaakov Lessin z"tl of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchack Elchanan quote the teaching of Reb Yisroel Salanter z"tl that it is easier to finish studying the entire Talmud, than to change one of our character traits.
Rav Dr. Avraham Twersky (Addictive Thinking, page 23) mentions the following noteworthy experiment: fold your hands across your chest and observe the position of your hands. Some people fold their left hand over their right, while others do the reverse. After noting how you do it, unfold your hands. Now fold them again, but this time in the opposite way, i.e. if you normally put right over left, put left over right. You will probably notice how awkward this feels. The old way is normal and relaxing, the new way may seem strange and you may feel you could never relax in this position. If a simple change in hand positions is uncomfortable, just think how uncomfortable it is to change part of your behavior or lifestyle.
Rav Eliyahu Schlesinger (in Eileh Hadevarim) gives several powerful examples of great individuals who resisted change. Our Rabbis (Eruvin 19b) teach that evildoers even at the brink of gehenom (hell) do not change and repent. Case in point: after the city of Jericho was burnt and destroyed, Yehoshua imposed a curse on whoever would attempt to rebuild that city - (6:16) "with his oldest child he will lay its foundation, and with his youngest he will set up its gates." Though a most frightening curse that one would lose each of his sons during the construction was in effect, five centuries later (during the reign of Achov) Chiel of Beth-El defied the admonition of Yehoshua and suffered that exact outcome: "Chiel the Bethelite built up Jericho, with the death of Abirom, his firstborn, he laid it's foundations, and with the death of Segud, his youngest, he installed its doors, like the word of Hashem that He had spoken through Yehoshua son of Nun" (I Kings 16:34.) Ask yourself how it is possible that after the passing of his oldest, which occurred with the laying of the foundation, and the subsequent passing of his sons, he could continue to defy the word and will of Hashem? The above teaching of (Eruvin 19b) doesn't explain how, but does give us a glimpse of man's resistance to change.
Moreover, the Yalkut Shimoni (I Kings 18) relates that when Eliyahu haNavi challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to bring down the fire from heaven, this same Chiel agreed to risk his life under the altar they had constructed and was to ignite a fire from beneath the altar giving the impression that Baal had indeed responded to their request, only to be bitten and killed by a snake sent from Hashem.
A second example: In the days of Yirmiyahu there was a false prophet named Chananya ben Azor, who tried to influence the Jewish nation against Yirmiyahu and against returning to Hashem. Yirmiyahu prophesized that the false prophet would die that year. Chananya died as taught in (Yirmiyahu 28:17) and Rashi teaches that his last will and testament to his children was to please bury him after Rosh Hashana to show that the word of Yirmiyahu was not actualized. Once again, at the opening of gehenom the wicked do not repent!
Finally, Yeravam ben Novot, while offering incense to idolatry, is confronted by Ido the navi and is told that the very altar Yeravam is serving on will split and its ashes spilled. Yeravam stretched out his arm and proclaimed "seize him". At that point his arm became paralyzed (I Kings 13:4) and he could not withdraw his arm. The altar broke, its ashes spilled, and Yeravam asked the prophet to pray to Hashem that his arm be healed. The prophet prayed and the verse continues, "and the king was able to draw his arm back, vatehi k'varishona - and it was as before." The literal understanding of the last phrase is that is said regarding his arm, but the Medrash Tanchuma (Parshas Ki Sisa) understands it to refer to the king - he was like before, namely he returned to his idolatry.
The three examples cited above show how entrenched one can be in one's ways and how difficult it is to change. Hopefully the issues we each grapple with are not as extreme in terms of fundamentals and belief; but the cited examples still clearly demonstrate how man's addiction can consume his mind and actions.
Given the difficulty to change, I believe the first step is for everyone to pray for siyata diShmaya, Divine assistance, in the process. The first bracha in the second section of the daily Shemoneh Esrei is for binah - intelligence, understanding, and proper perspective. What follows immediately is the bracha for teshuva - repentance. We beseech Hashem to grant us the wisdom and ability to be open to change.
Secondly, an important component regarding the challenge of change is to heed the teaching (Avos 1:16), "get yourself a teacher"- a mentor who, by virtue of one's association, serves as a positive inspiration for growth and personal accountability.
Finally, the Shaloh and the B'nei Yissaschar (in Agra d'Kallah) understand the opening verse of Parshas Shoftim, which speaks of the appointment of judges and officers in all your gates, to refer not only literally to your communities, but also to the seven openings of the head: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. These gates are to be in your control, meaning to be on guard to create for yourself a positive, nurturing environment open for growth.