Every so often one of my kids will say or do something that makes me smile inside with nachas. I felt this way yesterday when my son told me something that at first glance wouldn’t seem to make me proud. He mentioned how he feels bad about the fact that he sometimes feels jealousy towards others. The moment he said that, I felt such pride because I knew he was going in the right direction. I knew that unlike the majority of people on earth who ignore and succumb to their bad character traits (and even worse, those who embrace them) my 15-year-old was already identifying things in his character that need fixing. How many chose the path of least resistance, giving in to our base nature without even trying?
I recall many celebrity interviews where people who did some pretty shameful things would be asked the same question: “Any regrets?” In most cases, the answer was identical: “I have no regrets. My mistakes made me who I am.” This notion of actually being proud of one’s mistakes is in direct opposition to Torah values, whose objective is to improve one’s character. How can you possibly do teshuvah for something if you don’t even regret it? The entire holiday of Yom Kippur, not to mention the entire month of Elul, is predicated on the idea that we are, hopefully, forgiven for our sins. Hakarat ha’chet – acknowledging one’s sin – is the first and most critical step in the three-step process necessary of obtaining G-d’s forgiveness.
The decision to admit and address a problem, and then to work on it is our raison d’etre. Perhaps this is why Hashem creates man incomplete and then gives him the commandment of circumcision – to express the idea that man is born imperfect and is commanded to repair himself, not just physically but in his character as well. Yet many of us aren’t interested in fighting with our yetzer hara, so we accept, and ultimately embrace, our deficiencies. Mantras such as, “That’s just the way I am” or “It’s my nature,” help us continue to do what we want – particularly when it comes to traits that are difficult to change.
The author and pastor Aiden Wilson Tozer pointed out that complacency is the deadly enemy of progress. Perhaps this is why the Torah commands us to pierce a slave’s ear at the doorpost if he refuses to leave after six years of servitude. We literally – and figuratively – beat into his ear the idea that he is free and that he shouldn’t remain content and satisfied with his easy, no-worry status. Rather, he should live a fuller, more productive life and challenge himself to become more than just a slave. But that can’t happen if he’s complacent.
Rav Avraham Twersky, z”l, used to discuss the idea that a lobster’s shell only grows once the lobster itself feels discomfort. Only then when it is uncomfortable will he shed the old shell in place of a larger, stronger one. Yet again, this could only happen with resistance and discomfort. And imagine if the lobster ignored this discomfort and even learned to live with the pain? It would never grow! And this is precisely why I was so proud of my son. Because he chose to accept the fact that something in his character needs fixing, as opposed to simply ignoring it and chalking it up to being “just his nature.”
As long as a person can look at himself in the mirror and say, “I know that I have this bad character trait but it is wrong,” he has the chance to evolve into a Rabbi Akiva, who changed his entire life at 40. And what’s so remarkable about Rebbe Akiva is that the changes he made in his life were one thing. But to imagine that his impact would be felt throughout Klal Yisrael thousands of years later is nothing short of remarkable.
Around 15 years ago, a friend of mine noticed that many people in South Florida did not have food for Shabbos. After a few months, he decided to raise money and donate his time for free and started packaging meals for those less fortunate. At the time, he could have easily justified working at his day job, giving his 10 percent, and moving on with his life. Yet he couldn’t in good conscience accept the current status, and today he’s personally responsible for feeding thousands of people yearly! And so many others have volunteered and donated their time as a result of his efforts.
When I was 18, I graduated from Hebrew Academy, but because I couldn’t wake up for davening, they held back my diploma until I went to minyan during the summer. Even the following year, when I attended yeshiva in Israel, although I never actually missed a day of tefillin, I still missed minyan daily until one day when my conscience got the better of me. You see, back in the day, parents were tougher on their kids, and for me that meant my parents weren’t bringing me up like the rest of my spoiled cohorts. Since my yeshiva closed, and I didn’t want to spend money, I went to a kibbutz. (Unfortunately, I missed the memo mentioning forced labor where we had to work for our food, or the ceremonial 4 a.m. rooster crowing, followed by a choice of chicken coop cleaning, carrot peeling, dishwashing, or sheet cutting.)
So after two hours of feeding foam sheets through a cutter (which managed to shock us with each touch) well, let’s just say I was the first to leave my shift for minyan every day at 6 a.m. Obviously, I had ulterior motives, but the way, I saw it, hey, at least I was praying with a minyan. On my last day of work, I walked out of shul and felt a pang of guilt as I played it out in my head, “Real nice, Avi. You run to shul when it suits you, not because it’s the correct thing to do. Not cool.” At that moment, I decided I would try to at least attend a shacharis minyan every day for the rest of my life. That was over 30 years ago, and I can say with absolute certainty that if I had chosen to accept my laziness as being a part of “just who I am” (as I had done up to that point) I never would have changed. G-d presented me with a choice, one that up to that point, I had failed. Until that moment when I decided to not accept the status quo.
Let us resist the temptation of taking the easy path, shrugging away our deficiencies, and instead, make a decision to change. But that can only happen when we first acknowledge our challenges and make efforts to change them, as opposed to merely accepting them as “part of who we are.”