It’s been almost two years since I’ve been to a barbershop. No, it has nothing to do with the pandemic. No, I haven’t decided to become a nazir. And no, it’s not because I have no hair left. Rather, it’s because we had a fabulous in-house barber who gave me, and our other children haircuts, in the comfort of our own home.
But a couple of weeks ago my barber – my son Shalom – went to Eretz Yisrael for the year. That means I had to head back to a barbershop for a pre-Rosh Hashanah haircut.
A couple of months ago, Shalom misplaced the cape that he used when giving haircuts. Since he gave the haircuts on our porch outside anyway, we decided that he give haircuts without it.
Getting a haircut always leaves a person feeling itchy and uncomfortable. But without a covering cloth, it is that much worse.
On another note, this time of year means new school supplies and new clothes, including shoes. I find that getting new shoes is always a conflicting experience. It’s exciting to get new shoes that look fresh, but having new shoes also means that the leather is still tough and hasn’t yet adapted to my feet. That means that for the first few weeks the shoes will feel somewhat uncomfortable.
On a third note, when our family arrived home from camp after being away for two months, I noticed a few weeds and other unsightly plants growing around our house, particularly from crevices at the edge of our driveway and walkway. Without thinking much of it, I set out ripping them out of the ground. Within a day or two I started to see some red blotches on my arms and felt quite itchy. It took a few days before the irritation went away. Apparently, pulling out those plants with my bare hands wasn’t the best idea.
What is the connection between my clothless haircuts, new shoes, barehanded weed whacking and this time of year?
With the new year upon us, we look to make changes in our lives. We want to grow beyond life as it’s been, to improve ourselves and become better, fulfilling more of the potential we all have. But one must know from the outset that changes and newness, while exciting and refreshing, also generate discomfort. If one wants to successfully effect changes in his routine and to change habits, he must be prepared to bear the inevitable discomfort. He should remind himself that the discomfort is temporary. Haircuts look fresh but as the old hairs fall away, they are prickly and irksome. But just as that discomfort fades, if one stays the course of his growth, soon enough he will have successfully created new habits and routines.
Rav Yisroel Salanter famously remarked that it’s easier to learn through all of Shas than it is to truly change one negative character trait. For a long time, I wondered why Rav Yisroel said that. It’s inconceivable that the master ethicist would try to dishearten us from undertaking the effort to create real change.
I think Rav Yisroel was imparting to us an invaluable and vital message. Anyone who has a desire to study all of Shas understands that it’s not something that can be accomplished overnight, or even in a few weeks. It’s a process that requires forethought, patience, dedication and perseverance.
When it comes to improving and changing our character, however, we sometimes think it should be quick and easy. Then, when we falter and revert to our old habits, we become frustrated and disheartened. Rav Yisroel was teaching us that changing and improving one’s character is a process; in fact, it’s even a more arduous process than learning through Shas. Therefore, one must be realistic in knowing that it will take time and effort and that one will fail numerous times. The old habits will prick him as he tries to rid himself of them and will cause discomfort. But if he doesn’t abandon ship, but recognizes that the struggle is par for the course, he will get there.
It’s been said that on the path towards growth there are no failures, only setbacks and lessons. There is no road that leads to growth that doesn’t have curves and turns.
During these days our task is to begin the process of teshuvah, not to complete it. As Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” But it’s worth remembering that although the first step may make you feel itchy and uncomfortable, the next step will be that much easier.