We went camping this week.
If you have ever seen an Israeli campground, you will understand the level of organization that some people are capable of- and that truly enhances the camping experience. I am not one of those people…or at least not yet. I was excited to get away, but I didn’t really organize our things in the best way. When we got to the campground, we had a thousand little bags filled with everything we could possibly need…but no key as to what was in which bag. As a result, our meal times and activities were a bit of a challenge and consisted of going around and looking in every bag for what was needed. Of course, I beat myself up over this and promised myself that the next time I would organize in a better way. But the question is, will I act on this pledge? Am I, are any of us, able to truly change our way of doing things? Our personalities? Our actions? How much can we change and how much are we destined to stay the same?
This past week, we finished learning Masechet Shabbos. On Daf 156a, the second to last daf in the masechte, Chazal discuss how much the mazalos- the day of the week or the day of the month on which each of us was born- affects our personalities and actions. In one part of the discussion, there are many examples of how much we are indeed affected by the energy of the day on which we were born. For example, the Sages state that a person born on a Monday will be angry because on the first Monday of Creation, Hashem divided the waters below from the waters above. So the person born on a Monday is influenced by this spirit of divisiveness. Does this mean that he can never change? That this spirit of divisiveness will negatively affect him his whole life?
And yet, a bit further on the same daf, many other examples are brought to prove that ein mazal l’Yisrael– that the mazalos do not apply to Bnei Yisrael and that we can change with enough effort. For example, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s mother was told that her son would be a thief. As a safeguard against this character trait, she told him to keep his head covered at all times so that the fear of heaven should be upon him. She also told him to pray that his evil inclination should not overcome him. He did this but never really understood the reason why until one day when the head covering blew off of his head. He was immediately seized by an uncontrollable desire, climbed up a palm tree and bit off the dates with his teeth. From then on he understood how strong his evil inclination was and what he had to do to fight against it. What the gemara is telling us here, I think, is that through his efforts to fight against his natural inclinations, and through Hashem’s help, he was mostly able to overcome them. It would be a fight he would fight his entire life, but his desire to change gave him the strength to keep fighting.
Each one of us was born with innate character tendencies: to panic or to be calm, to be organized or to be messy, to be lighthearted or to feel everything in a heavier way. But part of the work that we do in this world is in training and shaping ourselves to become the people that we want to be. In seeing, like a sculptor, the possibilities, the hidden shapes and abilities, and revealing them through practice and hard work…and through Hashem’s help. Wanting to do better helps guide us along the path of actually doing better.
We are about to enter into the month of Elul, and we are told that this month is the month to do teshuvah. The Frierdiker Rebbe even said that on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Elul he could already “smell the aroma and feel the wind of teshuva” in the air. Of all of the ways of understanding teshuva, my favorite one is the idea that teshuva means returning to the true essence of who you want to be. Hashem gives us this month to take stock, to look at all of the ways that we have changed and all of the ways that we still want to change. He gives us the energy of this month to help strengthen us in this pursuit.
Even though we are given this same opportunity every year, every year is not the same. We have to enable ourselves to see the year not as a circle that keeps repeating itself but rather as a spiral on which we are journeying and growing from level to level.
Famously, Reb Zushe of Anipoli used to do a cheshbon HaNefesh every night before he went to bed. He would go through the day’s happenings and decide how he could do better the next day. He was once overheard talking himself through this procedure. He promised himself that he would do better the next day. “But Zusha said that yesterday!” he rebuked himself. “But this time Zusha REALLY means it!” he responded to himself. The key lies in the ratzon, the desire, to do better.
I bless us to recognize our own desire to grow and to see that as a powerful tool of change. I bless us to believe that change and growth are possible and to know that every time we struggle against the same personality trait, Hashem is giving us the strength to fight the good fight. I bless us to use this time in this year in a deeper way than ever before.