The Art Of Personal Transformation

A Jewish perspective.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In my work as a Jewish adult educator, I constantly speak with people who are poised to change. Often a significant life event prompts them to return to learning — the bar mitzvah of a son, divorce, the death of a parent, the intermarriage of a child — as an anchor at a time of personal upheaval and as an opportunity to grow. Adults negotiate an alarming number of fears, from job loss to rejection in relationships. We seek higher education at a time of fear and disjuncture as a place to find answers to questions that may not be answerable. We seek inspiration. We need community. We are looking for friends who are not afraid to change. We want a different future.

Most Jews traditionally think about reinvention around Yom Kippur when the air is thick with teshuva, repentance. We gravitate towards personal change and contrition as the leaves change color. But the heaviness of the season is misleading, because very few people time their depression or their desire for change with a particular calendar date. To combat this, some schools of mussar, Jewish ethical instruction, believe that we need to conclude each day with a heshbon ha-nefesh, a daily reckoning of our good and bad deeds, pushing us to wake up energized the next day for a different future. We balance this desire for goodness with St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, make me chaste — but not yet.”

Personal transformation is the foundation of our faith as Jews. Our historic story as a people begins with a singular personal narrative of transformation: the story of Abraham. At 75, Abraham left all that he knew to travel to a country and re-invent himself. It is a daunting tale of social construction and a model for any immigrant who has ever tried to make something of himself in a land wholly unfamiliar. For Abraham, it was not merely place that would change in his future. He would become a leader of many, a military hero, a wealthy homesteader and a father — all beyond any imaginative leap he could have made, even at 74.

Our foundational texts — the Hebrew Bible and Talmud — are sprinkled with stories of personal transformation, from Joseph to Hannah to Esther to Rabbi Akiva, as a way of prompting a reader to hold up a mirror. If they changed and, as a result, made history, what about you? It is not too late to become who you always wanted to be. It is never too late.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, believes that teshuva, which is essentially the reinvention of the self, is something that Jews introduced to the world. Repentance lies in the re-envisioning of the past in the shaping of a future. In “Lights of Repentance,” he wrote that, “Penitence is the healthiest feeling of a person.” Through it, one gains clarity in his greatest desires and understands that his most likable self is his best self. This does not come only by affirming goodness but by visiting the darkest corners of one’s life for inspection and recreation: “When the righteous perform acts of penance, they reveal the holy light that they find in the dark and broken-down alleys in their own lives.” You only find the light by gravitating to the darkness.

Rabbi Kook acknowledges that teshuva presents a paradox precisely because in order to create a different future and experience the happiness of that state, we have to face the anguish of our past. These emotions do not present themselves in a neat package. “When one forgets the essence of one’s soul, when one distracts his mind from attending to the substantive content of his own inner life, everything becomes confused and uncertain.”

The process forces reflection on our priorities and puts the profound question before us constantly: “Who do I really want to be?”

But reinvention has its costs. The Talmud recommends that a person who wants to study should exile himself, and Maimonides advises a name change and even a change of place, all on the supposition that you or others can hold you back from a future of possibility. The notion that we can become something we are not is daunting and seems, at times, impossible. Our friends, our neighborhoods, our jobs, our kids all hold us back. Yet if we cannot recreate ourselves then we do not truly possess free will. Maimonides interrupts his “Laws of Repentance” in mid-book for a treatise on free will in the fifth chapter. There he writes that anyone can be as great as Moses or as evil as Jeroboam (a king who brought idol worship into the Temple); no family pulls or superstitious predictions can hold a person back from crafting a future. All is within one’s reach.

I know this is true because I encounter examples of it almost every day. I watch people who have already made major life decisions, decide again. It’s the young woman who put down her pencil seven minutes into her LSAT, realizing that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer. It’s the man who hasn’t spoken to his children for years who breaks down and seeks forgiveness. It’s the middle-aged woman who decides she wants to live in Israel and packs up her bags and goes. Why save it all up for Yom Kippur? Crafting a different future is an everyday possibility. Is it frightening? Nothing could be more frightening.

Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, warns that we should repent the day before we die so that our whole lives are, in essence, directed to redeeming the future because we have no idea which day will be our very last. This moral and spiritual elasticity is meant to be a daily discipline. Not every change has to be drastic.

This colludes with very recent research on the subject. In 2011 Roy Baumeister and John Tierney came out with a book called “Willpower.” Baumeister did extensive research on the nature of self-control and discovered that a person’s will is like a muscle. It can tire out from overuse. Tests on students who had to exhibit restraint for an activity and then had an opportunity to let go of restraint — resist cookies and then have as many as they wanted — revealed that the willpower used for one task was all used up by the time they got to the second, what Baumeister calls an “ego depletion.” 

The good news is that Baumeister showed that by exercising the willpower muscle, people were able to display greater levels of self-discipline in many areas of their lives. By keeping track of what they did — like eating and exercise — they ate better, were more careful with their language and had cleaner homes, and it seemed to require much less effort.

By trying to overcome the small and easy mistakes and challenges of everyday life — the low-hanging fruit — the discipline of reinvention becomes easier. The willpower muscle gets the exercise it needs; it is stretched to the point where it can tackle some of the larger areas of reinvention on the personal to-do list.

The possibility of reinvention is at the heart of Judaism. The structure of a commanded life reminds us that every day presents another opportunity for goodness, a goodness the book of Deuteronomy associates with life itself: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…” It is the way we actualize that life that matters. Unknown to many, Rabbi Kook also wrote poetry. In his poem, “The Whispers of Existence” he invites us into a future that is only a whisper away:

All existence whispers a secret to me:

I have a life to offer, take it, take it –

Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her forthcoming book is  “Happy Endings: The Fine Art of Dying Well” (Simon and Schuster).

MICHAEL DATIKASH, Music lesson, Queens Gymnasia/Jewish Institute of Queens, 2005.

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