Presidential election not required to effect change

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We’ve been hearing a great deal lately about change. But let’s put politics aside for a moment. The notion of change goes to the heart of one of the greatest concepts in Judaism. We don’t need to wait for the outcome of a presidential election to realize it.

A student once confided to me how he gave up his drug addiction. He said, “There is only one way. You take your syringes and you throw them out. You have to decide here and now to make the irrevocable gesture.”

“Now” is a word I have heard recounted by many people who desire change. They say to break any longstanding habit or dependency there has to be a decisive “now.” Tomorrow is the enemy of repentance.

Of all ideas in Judaism, the idea of repentance, or teshuvah, embodies an essential psychological truth: We can become, at any given moment, what we commit ourselves to be. No historian (whose task is to explain the past), no scientist (whose business is often to predict the future) can deliver this particular truth, which belongs to the radical present. We can liberate ourselves from our past and defy ominous predictions of our future by a single act of turning, as long as we do it now.

In the 16th century, an innocent Jew was thrown in prison by a feudal baron who gave him a life sentence. For some reason, this tyrannical baron decided to show the man a bit of mercy. He told him, “Look Jew, you’re my prisoner for life, there’s nothing that will change that. But this I will do for you: I will grant you one day of freedom a year during which you can return to your family. Do whatever you want. I don’t care which day you choose. But remember, you have only one day a year.”

The man was conflicted. Which day should he choose? Should he choose Rosh Hashanah, to hear the sounding of the shofar? Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year? Passover, to celebrate a seder? His wedding anniversary?

This prisoner, not being able to make up his mind, wrote a letter to one of the rabbinic leaders of that generation, the Radbaz, asking for his advice.

The Radbaz said the prisoner should choose the first available day. Whatever it is, grab it now, don’t wait — be it a holiday, a Shabbat, a Monday, a Wednesday.

This was a marvelous reply. More important, it holds true for us as well. We are psychological prisoners of our bad habits. We feel it is too difficult to summon the will to do things right. “I’m not ready yet. I can’t change who I am.”

Indeed, postmodern secular culture tends to underemphasize our capacity to change. Something or someone else is to blame: parents, educators, the “system,” your environment, the government, fate, the stars. We have come to believe that we are victims of the past. It’s an idea supported by philosophers, such as Baruch Spinoza, who argued that we are merely chess pieces in a material world, and by neo-Darwinists who say human action is genetically determined.

By locating the causes of our conditions in factors seemingly beyond our control, today’s victim culture perpetuates the sense of helplessness. Discouraged, we cease to grow emotionally and spiritually. Instead of helping the prisoner out of prison, we lock him or her inside and throw away the key.

Why do these theories of determinism, both ancient and modern, have such an alluring appeal? Because they provide us with an escape from responsibility. All excuses are ways of seeing ourselves helpless in a mesh of forces that are beyond our control. Though we may bitterly regret what has happened in our lives, responsibility lies elsewhere.

As human beings created in the Divine image, we are summoned to chart a different path, the path of repentance and self-renewal, where no future is inevitable. Who we will become is dependent on the direction we choose now.

This is surely the reconciliation between the two clashing axioms of Judaism: that God has no image, and that people are made in the image of God. The conclusion, as certain as it is powerful, is that people, too, have no image. Unlike all else in creation, we have no fixed essence, no fated and ordained character, no inexorable destiny. We are only what we choose to be, and if we so choose, we can change.

And we don’t have to wait for Nov. 4. We can do it now.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of Chabad House at Stanford University. He can be contacted at [email protected].