adapted from chief rabbi Jonathan sacks Yom Kippur message
Can people change or is it true that "a leapard doesn't change it's spots?"
The Greeks believed that we are what we are, and we cannot change what we are. They believed that character is destiny, and the character itself is something we are born with, although it may take great courage to realise our potential. Heroes are born, not made.
Plato believed that some human beings were gold, others silver, and others bronze. Aristotle believed that some are born to rule, and others to be ruled. Before the birth of Oedipus, his fate and that of his father, Laius, have already been foretold by the Delphic Oracle, and nothing they can do will avert it.
This is precisely the opposite of the key sentence we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that “Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah avert the evil decree.”
That is what happened to the inhabitants of Nineveh in the story we read at Mincha on Yom Kippur. There was a decree: “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.” But the people of Nineveh repent, and the decree is cancelled. There is no fate that is final, no diagnosis without a second opinion – half of Jewish jokes are based on this idea.
Judaism is a system to develop a clear sense of human free will. As Isaac Bashevis Singer wittily put it, “We have to be free; we have no choice.”
This is the idea at the heart of teshuvah. It is not just confession, not just saying "Al chet shechatanu."
It is not just remorse: "Ashamnu."
It is the determination to change, the decision that I am going to learn from my mistakes, that I am going to act differently in future, that I determined to become a different kind of person.
To paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik, to be a Jew is to be creative, and our greatest creation is our self. As a result, more than 5000 years ago, we see in Torah and in Tanakh, a process in which people change.
To take an obvious example: Moses , who stuttered .. We see him at the start of his mission as a man who cannot speak easily or fluently. “I am not a man of words.” “I am slow of speech and tongue.” “I have uncircumcised lips.” But by the end he is the most eloquent and visionary of all the prophets. Moses changed.
Judaism, through the concept of teshuvah, tells us that we can change. We are not predestined to continue to be what we are. Even today, this remains a radical idea.
Many biologists and neuroscientists believe that our character and actions are wholly determined by our genes, our DNA. Choice, character change, and free will, are – they say – illusions.
They are wrong. One of the great discoveries of recent years has been the scientific demonstration of the plasticity of the brain. The most dramatic example of this is the case of Jill Bolte Taylor. In 1996, aged 37, she suffered a massive stroke that completely destroyed the functioning of the left hemisphere of her brain. She couldn't walk, talk, read, write, or even recall the details of her life. But she was very unusual in one respect. She was a Harvard neuroscientist. As a result, she was able to realise precisely what had happened to her.
For eight years she worked every day, together with her mother, to exercise her brain. By the end, she had recovered all her faculties, using her right hemisphere to develop the skills normally exercised by the left brain. You can read her story in her book, My Stroke of Insight, or see her deliver a TED lecture on the subject. Taylor is only the most dramatic example of what is becoming clearer each year: that by an effort of will, we can change not just our behaviour, not just our emotions, nor even just our character, but the very structure and architecture of our brain. Rarely was there a more dramatic scientific vindication of the great Jewish insight, that we can change.
That is the challenge of teshuvah.
There are two kinds of problem in life: technical and adaptive. When you face the first, you go to an expert for the solution. You are feeling ill, you go to the doctor, he diagnoses the illness, and prescribes a pill. That is a technical problem. The second kind is where we ourselves are the problem. We go to the doctor, he listens carefully, does various tests, and then says: “I can prescribe a pill, but in the long-term, it is not going to help. You are overweight, underexercised and overstressed. If you don't change your lifestyle, all the pills in the world will not help.” That is an adaptive problem.
Adaptive problems call for teshuvah, and teshuvah itself is premised on the proposition that we can change. All too often we tell ourselves we can't. We are too old, too set in our ways. It’s too much trouble. When we do that, we deprive ourselves of God's greatest gift to us: the ability to change.
This was one of Judaism's greatest gifts to Western civilisation.
It is also God’s call to us on Yom Kippur. This is the time when we ask ourselves where have we gone wrong? Where have we failed? When we tell ourselves the answer, that is when we need the courage to change. If we believe we can't, we won't. If we believe we can, we may.
The great question Yom Kippur poses to us is: Will we grow, develop our emotional maturity, our knowledge, our sensitivity, or will we stay what we were?
Never believe we can't be different, greater, more confident, more generous, more understanding and forgiving than we were.
May this year be the start of a new life for each of us. Let us have the courage to grow.
G'mar Chatimah Tovah
(A good final sealing on the book of life! )