Is it Possible to Make Positive, Lasting Changes?
“The truth of the matter is that the power of change is the greatest innovation, after the wonder of the creation of Heaven and Earth,” wrote Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, who, like many other Jewish thinkers, considered change an act of self-creation (Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Kippur 1:8).
If teshuvah is an act of self-creation, what makes it so hard and difficult to sustain? So much of life is out of our control; shouldn’t our sense of self be more responsive to our direction and aspirations?
Indeed, in Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston, 2009), authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey cite a study showing just how resistant people are to change: “When doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. Desire and motivation aren’t enough; even when it’s literally a matter of life or death, the ability to change remains maddeningly elusive.”
Rabbi TzadokHaKohen of Lublin knew the turmoil of change. Early in his life, he decided to become a chassid. His first published words of Chassidic thought, following his life transformation, relate to change itself:
“Initially, a person’s entrance into the service of God needs to be with haste . . . and afterwards it can return to being slow, with deliberation and moderation.”
Change occurs in many ways. Sometimes it is fast, sometimes it can be slow. Sometimes it is our present that holds us back. Sometimes it is our future. If we are ever to apprehend the changes we want, the first thing we may need to change is our collective conceptions of change itself.
By Dina Schoonmaker, as told to Leah Lightman
Dina Schoonmaker is a teacher, popular lecturer and relationship counselor. A staff member of Michlalah Jerusalem College for over thirty years, she lives in Jerusalem with her family. Her shiurim can be accessed on womensvaad.com.
Every person can change—but only if he or she wants to.
But it is not enough to want to change. One must translate this desire into consistent action and be willing to create new lifelong habits.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for consistency is “ikviyut” and for habit, it’s “hergel.” These words share the same root as “akev” (heel) and “regel” (foot). This teaches an important parallel: In the physical world, one must use his foot and heel in order to move from one point to the next. It is not enough for one to think about or to desire to move —he must actually pick up his foot and do so. Similarly, in the spiritual world, it is not enough to think about or desire change. Rather one must be consistent and develop good habits in order to really move and change.
Dramatic, bold steps generally do not work. The Gemara states, “Tafasta maruba lo tafasta, if you grab too much, you will end up with nothing at all.” Without consistent baby-steps sustained over time, there are often no meaningful long-term results.
During the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, menahel ruchani of Yeshivat Be’er Yaakov and the author of Alei Shur, traveled to Israel’s border with Egypt to encourage the Israeli soldiers. Air force pilots described to Rabbi Wolbe that the best way for a pilot to avoid enemy fire was to fly low, which helped the plane remain undetected by enemy radar. Rabbi Wolbe saw this as a lesson for life in general. By “flying low,” taking small steps, one can avoid the “enemy radar”—the yetzer hara, which thrives on derailing an individual from changing and growing.
Indeed, one of the yetzer hara’s tactics is to cause us to aim too high when trying to change. This often leads to failure, and cynicism results. Instead, one should take mindful, deliberate steps that can be easily integrated into one’s life.
One powerful method of making changes is taking on a kabbalah, a permanent resolution. A kabbalah may be known to others, but ideally, it remains private. The magnitude of the kabbalah matters less than consistency in observing it. I like to say that a personal kabbalah should be like an earring hole—the hole itself is tiny but it can be maintained for a lifetime.
What if I want to make a bigger change in my life? Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, author of Michtav MeEliyahu, recommends a “minimum-maximum” kabbalah model: In order to ensure consistency, take on a minimal aspect of the topic. At the same time, strive to do much more—but without a kabbalah. For example, if I want to work on improving my relationship with my father, I will take on a kabbalah to call him at least once a week. But I will strive to call him every day, without a commitment to that goal.
It’s a good idea to take on a kabbalah that will have a ripple effect. For example, working on having more patience could impact other people as well. Some people choose to involve a trusted mentor—such as a rabbi, parent or other role model—in their decision, but Mishlei teaches us that “lev yode’a marat nafsho” (14:10)—a person knows himself best.
Consider carefully before taking on a kabbalah. Think of yourself as a scientist researching cures for an ailment. The ideal medicine has minimal side effects, is not too strong or too weak, and is easy for the patient to ingest. In Elul, we are the scientists in our kabbalah laboratories.
By Eli Feldman, as told to Leah Lightman
Eli Feldman, LMHC, is a counselor and a mental health provider in Miami, Florida.
If I didn’t believe in the possibility of making positive, lasting change, I would be out of business. The question is, how does change happen?
We often see people who experience some kind of trauma go on to make dramatic life changes. Many survivors of 9/11, for example, who were overly ambitious workaholics became focused on family and relationships in the aftermath of the tragedy. Similarly, when one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he or she suddenly recognizes the precious gift of life and begins to cherish each day.
Experiencing a traumatic event often breaks down defenses against making changes. The shock of the experience—or perhaps the sudden realization of what really matters in life—allows a person to easily make changes that would have been very difficult, if not nearly impossible, were it not for the trauma. But can we achieve change without undergoing a trauma?
The process of change is, indeed, a process. An individual might want to become a happier, more content person. But he might feel stuck and say, “I’m just not a happy person. I’m not that kind of person.” And in a sense, he could be right. This is because every person comes into this world hardwired a certain way. There are people, for instance, who are naturally predisposed to be happy. When such a person experiences a tragedy, he can bounce back more easily than others. Other people can be hardwired to be more pessimistic. Yet if someone wants to work on becoming more content, it is certainly possible to change. He can engage in mindfulness, yoga or meditation. Such behaviors can influence his moods significantly. One should never get stuck in the defeatist thinking pattern: “I’m just not that kind of person . . . .”
Furthermore, we are all creatures of habit. Our brains conserve energy by having many processes become habituated, so that as many behaviors as possible can be performed without having to think about them. This frees up the brain for higher-level thinking and planning. When we go shopping, for example, and walk up and down the aisles, our brains do not process or “see” every product in every aisle. It would be too overwhelming to take in so much information, and we don’t need to. The brain knows what you’re in the habit of buying, and those are the products you tend to see.
Let’s assume you want to make a dramatic change in your shopping routine and only buy healthy foods. Because the process is no longer habitual, shopping will take much longer and be much more of a chore until you get used to your new routine. You have to locate the organic fruits and vegetables, the protein bars, et cetera. Eventually, the brain will adjust and you will develop new shopping habits that will make the experience less effortful.
We can utilize the same mechanism to develop good habits. All we need to do is to repeat the desired behavior often enough and for a certain period of time. Research shows that habits are formed in as little as thirty days. Often, once the new habit has set in, the changed person has a hard time believing he ever did things any other way. Of course, there is a danger to living our lives on autopilot, and it is also easy to fall into bad habits if one isn’t mindful. But you can use the power of habit to make great improvements in your life—you can get into the habit of complimenting your spouse a few times a day, of hugging your children often, of spontaneously expressing your gratitude to God. Developing good new habits can make a dramatic difference in your life.
By Dena Gorkin, as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Dena Gorkin is the founder and principal of Bnos Chomesh Academy, a high school for girls in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, that caters to teenagers who seek a small, nurturing school environment.
In nearly all cases, when a child begins to exhibit negative behaviors, it is a result of emotional pain. Some children experienced abuse or bullying; other children simply never connected socially and may feel like outsiders. Some children grow up in extremely unhappy homes; others have experienced the effects of loss, strife or divorce.
I have a philosophy about how positive change happens: it’s a process of “Healthy, Happy, Frum.” It is impossible to reverse the order. Parents sometimes tell me, “I’m sending my daughter to your school. Please make sure she starts wearing longer skirts and that she improves her Shabbos observance.” But it doesn’t work that way. You don’t make a girl healthy and happy by making her frum; she becomes frum because she is healthy and happy.
If a child is in pain, she’s not healthy. We first need to work on making her healthy. Once she’s healthy, her mind and heart will be open.
Changing oneself is scary. It means facing the unknown, and some teens don’t feel they have the tools to deal with that. It’s certainly easier and more comfortable to stay where they are, even if they are stuck in negative or harmful patterns.
Peer pressure is also a significant impediment to change. A teenager who is inspired to improve her school attendance or her observance of Yiddishkeit often comes up against strong opposition from friends who are not ready to take that leap. Criticism from friends can cause a teenager to lose her courage, as the implicit threat of being friendless is daunting.
What motivates a teenager to make positive, lasting changes is someone looking into her eyes and saying, with no ulterior motive, “You matter! The things you do that help you grow are important to me, and the things you do that hurt you, hurt me.” We convey that a student’s previous mistakes are not important, because she has the power to change—and we will support her in that process.
I have a philosophy about how positive change happens: it’s a process of “Healthy, Happy, Frum.” It is impossible to reverse the order.
I’ve rarely seen a girl come to our school and not change for the better, simply because we accentuate the positive in each student, building her belief in her own abilities and helping her to understand that she has an important mission in the world.
There is no greater motivator to succeed than the taste of success. We discuss with each student what kind of life she envisions for herself. We show her that there are many steps towards attaining her dreams and that the ones right in front of her are completely attainable. We break down goals and tasks into pieces so small that success is achievable.
Change is difficult, but adolescence is a ripe time for it. A teenager’s short attention span can actually be an asset in this realm. Her brain still flits easily from one interest to another, one task to another, one idea to another. As we get older and gain more life experience, our pre-frontal cortex—the logic and impulse-control center of the brain—becomes more developed, and we take fewer risks. This is a positive development, but it also means we are less likely to take on a new challenge or embrace a new opportunity, and that may stand in the way of growth and change. When faced with something new, adults weigh their options: What’s the worst-case scenario if I throw caution to the wind? What can I potentially achieve if I take this risk? Sometimes, acting like a teenager and just “going for it” can produce incredible outcomes.
Sometimes, it can even result in launching a school!
Bayla Sheva Brenner is an award-winning writer and longtime contributor to Jewish Action.
By Tziporah Heller, as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller is a senior faculty member at Neve College for Women and principal of Bnos Avigayil seminary.
Changing is difficult, and making a lasting change is even more difficult. Some people are more easily frightened by the challenges of changing than others, especially those who have experienced failure in the past.
People become discouraged by two elements of change. One is the inevitable ups and downs; the other is that once they reach their goal, they realize they have to continue working to stay there. In order to sustain the good feeling of growth and purposefulness that brought you to want change to begin with, you have to keep moving forward. In order to do that, you need a support system in place. You have to have friends, and you have to have a mentor.
It’s a misconception that change requires changing your identity. In fact, when you think you can become somebody else, you are guaranteeing failure. You have to take your emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual self with you—take your talents and abilities and include them in the process.
I know a man who attended a yeshivah for ba’alei teshuvah who came from a very prestigious background. His father was the dean of a prominent university. Subconsciously, he was in competition with his father; he needed to be the star student, and he in fact became the star student in the yeshivah. But then he realized that being the star of a ba’al teshuvah yeshivah doesn’t place one at the top of the Torah world. He moved on to a mainstream yeshivah, but it was not the highest level yeshivah, so it wasn’t good enough for him. He realized that it would take years for him to ever make it in the best yeshivot, so he left the Torah world. Ultimately, his path led him to convert to Christianity! None of the things that could have made the changes last—a willingness to be in the process, acceptance of mentorship and establishing a circle of support—were in the picture for him.
There are two kinds of changes—changes in actions and changes in middot. Just changing one’s deeds without dealing with the middot that motivated them usually leads to failure. One who is constantly speaking lashon hara, for example, may decide to stop gossiping for half an hour a day. Although that’s certainly better than allowing oneself to gossip all the time, unless one addresses the underlying issue behind the need to gossip, no change will last.
Hashem gives each of us an internal palette of possibilities and the appropriate life circumstances to lead us forward.
I had a friend whose insecurities were the result of her difficult childhood. When she was eight years old, she woke up to find a note from her parents that they had decided to travel the world, leaving her with her nanny—no phone number, no address, no way of contacting them. The incident destroyed her self-esteem.
As an adult, the empty place inside her eventually led her to spirituality and to religious observance, but her social life still suffered. Her emotional demands were impossible to fill. At one point, she came to my house at eight in the morning and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a coffee now?” I was in my housecoat trying to get my kids off to school, so I told her it wasn’t the best time. She called me a Nazi! She expected me to apologize for not inviting her in for coffee. I could not tolerate the relationship anymore, and I had nothing to do with her for a long time.
Years later, during Elul, I realized I hadn’t been empathetic enough. I wrote a letter to her explaining why I couldn’t be her friend, but she had moved and I didn’t know her new address. Hashem arranged it that I saw her on the bus one day. I had the letter with me and I handed it to her. She later called to invite me to her home.
I thought I was in for more of the same, that I had better just keep quiet and try to be compassionate. But she was nice and easy-going. She had no intention of trying to hold me there through emotional force. Toward the end of the visit, she said, “You might have noticed that things have changed for me.” She showed me a file cabinet she had filled with gratitude journals. The more she could see what Hashem did for her on a daily basis, the more beloved she felt. It took years of work, but she was able to fill the empty space inside her. It changed her.
We all want to be happier, more successful and more connected. We all want to have more purposeful lives. What brings a person to want to change is seeing that changing will be personally beneficial. Hashem gives each of us an internal palette of possibilities and the appropriate life circumstances to lead us forward.
By Moshe Yachnes, as told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Moshe Yachnes is the founder and director of Onward Living, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Boca Raton, Florida.
No one is born an addict (unless his or her mother took drugs while pregnant). People turn to drugs to escape pain, to distract themselves from a deep-rooted unhappiness and negative self-perception.
I’ve worked with those struggling with addiction for eighteen years. The majority of addicts seem to have a shame-based identity. They do not view themselves as successful. They perceive themselves as incapable, unlovable and even worthless. Drugs offer an escape from these painful emotions.
I see people making courageous changes every day . . . It’s extremely humbling and empowering to be a part of this process.
Long-term recovery is all about change. It’s about changing one’s core identity. We’ve set up a program to provide those struggling with addiction with opportunities to experience this change. By developing autonomy and connecting in an honest way with others, we help them rewrite their story so they can begin to perceive themselves differently. Through individual and group therapy combined with a comprehensive vocational program, as well as providing them with a taste of success, those struggling with addiction begin to view themselves as independent, successful and capable members of society.
I see people making courageous changes every day. I have witnessed the power of the human spirit—the resilience of these individuals. It’s extremely humbling and empowering to be a part of this process.
The Meiri, a thirteenth-century commentator on Pirkei Avot, explains that the word chet is mistranslated as “sin.” The root word is derived from the phrase, “Lehachti et hamatarah,” which is translated as “missing the target.” Archery is a game of target practice; when one’s arrow misses the target, he simply tries again. The teshuvah process is an understanding that one missed the intended target and simply needs to try again. This is consistent with the work we do in recovery—one may fall and make a mistake, but he can always get back on track. Holding on to hope enables one to change. A person can rewrite his own story and change his very identity. We see this all the time. And this is what teshuvah is all about.
By Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberg, as told to Dovid Bashevkin
Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberg teaches in Yeshiva University’s Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program, where he also serves as mashgiach ruchani. A YU graduate, Rabbi Weinberg received semichah from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Jerusalem.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home; today I have a beard and peyos. Yet I don’t see myself as someone who had a moment of transformation. My life is an evolution, not a revolution. Yes, I dress in traditional [Yeshivish] garb—white shirt and black pants—but I haven’t abandoned all of my interests in music and the arts, et cetera.
Sometimes when one changes, he believes he needs to entirely escape from an older version of himself. But one can’t pretend his past never happened. Changing oneself is not like changing a knee cap—taking out the old, putting in the new. It’s not a surgical procedure. You’re adding a new mindset, a new way of thinking, to be incorporated alongside how you used to live. You shouldn’t be asking “How do I disconnect the old self and plug in the new self?” It just doesn’t work like that.
I’ve grown a lot in my observance, my learning and my appearance as a Jew, but the baseline of who I am hasn’t shifted. One has to have confidence as well as a willingness to incorporate one’s new identity along with his old one.
Change is also not something that happens instantaneously. I was very slow to evolve into the person I am today in terms of my observance level and my learning.
We like things to happen quickly, but change is a gradual process; it takes a long time.
I have pulled aside quite a few students who have taken on stringencies and told them, “This is not appropriate for you based on where you are in your growth.” While you don’t want to crush someone who’s trying to grow, you want him to understand that radical and sudden change is sometimes confusing. If one of my Modern Orthodox students says, for example, “Rebbi, I’m thinking of growing peyos,” I ask, “What are your parents going to say?” They often respond with, “My mother won’t like it.” I tell them, “Okay, so don’t start with that now. You have your whole life ahead of you. When you marry and have your own family, you can make that change as some type of external expression of who you are. But wait until then.” Young people can often be shortsighted. They often think, “I have to do this now.”
We’re an impatient society; we like quick results. One of the major impediments to making change is the fact that we like things to happen quickly, but change is a gradual process; it takes a long time.
Since we can change so many things in our lives superficially, we mistakenly believe we can change our character quickly as well. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once said it’s easier to learn all of Shas than to change one character trait. Similarly, the Chiddushei haRim said it takes thirteen years to work on the middah of simchah.
There are other impediments to change as well. Not knowing how to cope with a setback is a huge obstacle. Often a young man will come into my office and say, with a distraught look in his eyes, “I didn’t go to night seder last night. I promised my rebbe in Eretz Yisrael that I’m never going to miss night seder and I did. Then I missed the minyan I was supposed to go to.”
He’s distressed over the setback. He relabeled himself a “night seder-minyan-going” type of guy, and now all of a sudden he sees himself slipping back to his old ways. I say, “Hold on. Catch yourself there for a second. You had a major exam in biology. You stayed up all night studying. Then you overslept and went to a later minyan. You promised you would never go to that late minyan, and you had to go there in the end. That’s your big crime? You’re still a ‘night seder, minyan-going’ type of guy. One setback is just that—one setback.
“There are going to be times in life when you’re going to want to catch a certain minyan and it’s not going to happen for whatever reason. That’s a terrible time to relabel yourself as someone who doesn’t care about minyan, who hasn’t changed in his appreciation of davening. Because you messed up one time that doesn’t mean you don’t care about minyan anymore.”
That’s a very dangerous trap to fall into. It almost becomes an excuse for someone to say, “See, I can’t really change. I’m not a serious beis midrash guy.”
A person can rewrite his own story and change his very identity. We see this all time. And this is what teshuvah is all about.
Another impediment is that people sometimes feel that they can’t be inspired to change once they hit a certain age, whether it’s thirty-five or forty-five or seventy. But change can happen at any age. It just requires humility. One needs to be able to look at oneself and say: “There are things that could be better in my life.” Then he needs to embark on a path of growth, without necessarily having an end goal. He needs to be willing to restart the engine, to start learning again and attend a shiur, even though he might not have done that for quite some time.
Making change also requires a certain amount of courage, especially when one is older and more established. At one point I was involved with a certain family that was growing religiously—the wife began covering her hair, and in general, there was a noticeable change in the family’s commitment to halachah. The family soon became aware that people were talking about them. And this is not unusual—some people are scared to change because they think, “What are people going to say? What is that the norm in my community?”
But people need to get beyond that, to think in terms of hischadshus, of renewal.
Also, it’s important to remember that change does not have to be dramatic. It should start out as “do a little more,” not as “change your entire life.” It’s about being able to daven with more focus, having a greater commitment to learning Torah and becoming a person who wants to do a little more today than he did yesterday.
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin is director of education for NCSY and a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Committee. His most recent book is Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Boston, 2019).
By Rabbi Eli Glaser, as told to Steve Lipman
Rabbi Glaser, a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey, is the founder of Soveya Weight Loss Solution (www.soveya.com).
I started gaining weight in high school. Later, as a kiruv rabbi for Aish HaTorah for twelve years, I weighed as much as 300 pounds. I tried diets and weight-loss plans, lost twenty, thirty, fifty pounds at a time, then gained it back; it was a roller coaster.
One day, I was in a department store dressing room, trying on a new pair of pants; my old pair, waist size forty-two, didn’t fit. I realized I had to change.
A friend who had had a similar problem told me I needed to change my relationship with food, not just try and lose weight. I knew it intellectually, but it was hard to hear. I was a compulsive overeater, using food as an emotional coping mechanism as well as for sheer indulgence.
I was not alone; more than 70 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese.
It was very humbling; it was uncomfortable to change—but it was more uncomfortable to remain 300 pounds. Being morbidly obese interfered with my kiruv work, where I was teaching people about the structure and guidelines of mitzvos but they would ask me, “You have such discipline in your life, keeping kosher and Shabbos—why can’t you get a handle on your hamburgers?”
I started committing to a daily food plan with clear goals and boundaries. In the first year I lost 100 pounds, and got down to 190. Since then I’ve lost another twenty pounds. I’ve kept it off for seventeen years.
I started distance running and completed several marathons. I became a certified nutritionist, and founded Soveya. I provide weight-loss coaching, and one of the unique aspects of our approach is that we incorporate Torah principles for healthy eating and self-growth. It’s very much like the teshuvah process in that we focus on long-term change and re-prioritizing our life choices as opposed to just temporary crash dieting.
One of my titles is CCO—Chief Change Officer. I teach people how to develop and maintain a healthy and consistent relationship with food—a completely different perspective than just trying to simply lose as much weight as quickly as possible.
People make positive changes when they’ve gained clarity as to the consequences of their actions, or they internalize the genuine benefits of real and lasting change, or both. For me, making such a dramatic change came down to two words: honesty and maturity. I had to be willing to be unconditionally honest about my relationship with food, and realize how much my current eating habits were affecting me. And I had to be willing to engage in self-maturation and grow out of what I call the “six-year-old syndrome”—just because I was in the mood to eat something didn’t mean that was the best choice for me to make. I had to learn to process my feelings around food and not feel compelled to act on them.
In my experience, the people who have the most difficulty changing are those who find it too uncomfortable to engage in unconditional honesty, and who lack the humility to acknowledge their mistakes and the willingness to work through the process of self-maturation.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at the Jewish Week in New York and a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.
How Change Happens: A View from the Courthouse
How Change Happens: A View from the World of Outreach
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the educational director of Neve College for Women.
Change requires commitment. I can provide inspiration and meaning for students, but I can’t want these things more for them than they want them for themselves.
I realize you have to choose to be religious every day, never doing it out of habit or taking it for granted. It’s not a given.
I don’t know where I would be now had I left Israel after the three- or four-month stay I had initially planned. My life has totally changed.