How often it is that we — and people we know — say, “I can’t help it. It’s in my nature to get angry.” Or, perhaps most commonly, “I give up. I’ll never be able to go on a diet and keep the weight off.” At this time of year, perhaps more than at any other time, we wrestle with issues such as these brought to our attention as a result of deep introspection.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the great 19th century scholar, noted, “It is easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change one character trait.” Indeed, can we change? Is a particular trait part and parcel of human nature, built into the our personality, seemingly impossible to overcome?
Judaism, with its emphatic message of freedom of choice, insists on our ability to change. But is it really fair to ask individuals to do what may very well be beyond their ability to achieve? Do we really have the power to overcome our most potent and persistent weaknesses? To what extent can we take into account the human difficulty in overcoming one’s weakness?
Our Torah portion, Nitzavim, emphatically insists on the possibility of change, no matter the circumstances: “I have set before you so that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you. And you shall return to the Lord your God and obey His voice” [ibid., v. 1–2].
And once a person has begun the process of teshuva, God Himself — aware of the almost insuperable difficulty of changing one’s nature and overcoming one’s inherent weakness — steps in and completes the process on behalf of the penitent: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul in order that you may live” [v. 6].
From the perspective of the Holy Zohar, the mystical interpretation of the Bible, this is the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the month of Tishrei, when the moon — a symbol of God’s light and grace — is hidden and barely visible. The individual approaches the synagogue in fearful and trembling anticipation, hopeful but not at all certain that he can pierce through the veil of darkness covering the heaven and masking over the moon.
Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, the moon glows briefly, imbuing the heavens with renewed light and hope. The individual is then ecstatically reborn, cleansed, transformed, and purified by the grace of Divine love and forgiveness.
Indeed, we repeat again and again throughout the penitential prayers of the Day of Atonement the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “And I shall sprinkle upon you the purifying waters and you shall be purified…and I shall give you a new heart, and a new spirit shall I place in your midst” [36:25–26].
We can thus appreciate anew the enormous power of Yom Kippur, the one day during the year when the Almighty grants us not only forgiveness, but also the renewed inner strength to overcome our inborn weaknesses and foibles.
And we also may better understand the terse interpretation of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk on the verse immediately following the command — as well as our ability — to repent after one has transgressed: “For this commandment that I have commanded you today is not…far away from you” [ibid., 30:11]. Says the Kotzker, “It requires only one small turn (Yiddish: nur ein kleine drei).”
What he apparently meant was that the penitent is expected only to make a change in direction, to turn his back on his temptations and begin to embrace God and His Torah.
We return to our original question: can we change? The simple answer is yes. However, it is incumbent upon the would-be penitent making the all-important first step. At that point, the Almighty will give him a hand to help him complete the journey, as the Sages taught, “One who comes to be purified receives Divine assistance” [Talmud, Yoma 38b]. And at the end of Yom Kippur, after a day of pleading with God for forgiveness and atonement, we cry out in the Ne’ila prayer: “Your right hand is extended to accept the penitent!” reminding us that when returning to God, we are never alone.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.