The biggest impediment to changing is not believing change is possible.
The first stage in Drs. James Prochaska and Carlos DiClemente’s “Stages of Change Theory” is precontemplation. People in this stage are actively resistant to change. Often, this resistance is a result of previous attempts at changing that resulted in disappointment.
“Some precontemplators are so demoralized,” they write, “that they are resigned to remaining in a situation they consider their ‘fate.’” Once they give up, the problem usually spirals and becomes even worse. Not believing in our ability to change leads us to get stuck in our ways.
The curses that Moshe delineated in Parshat Ki Tavo were meant to deter those who would consider abandoning faith in G-d and turning to other gods. In Parshat Nitzavim, Moshe addresses individuals who may react with indifference to the threat of curses: “When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’” (Devarim 29:18).
Rabbi Dr. Normal Lamm identifies two streams of thought within the Aramaic translations of this verse, each pointing to a different possible explanation for why someone would ignore Hashem’s warnings.
The first, which he calls “Immunity Theory,” is based on Targum Onekolos, elucidated by Rashi: A person is so confident and obstinate that he thinks he won’t be harmed by the curses. He can act immorally and just won’t get caught. He is above the law and impervious to consequences.
The second – what Rabbi Lamm deems the more common explanation – is based on Targum Yonatan and is what he calls “Despair Theory.” The person acts, not out of arrogance, but hopelessness. He thinks he has no choice. He has no ability to change. The evil inclination has him bound to repeat his behaviors. This despair, as is taught by the great chassidic masters – and later echoed by Prochaska and DiClemente – will lead to even more sin.
Teshuvah, a recurring motif in Nitzavim, serves as the antidote to this despair. Repentance “is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach… it is not in the heavens… [n]either is it beyond the sea… Rather it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Devarim 30:12-14, according to the Ramban).
While perhaps it isn’t always easy, doing teshuvah is always an option. Nothing, our Sages tell us, can stand before repentance. Even the apostate Elisha ben Avuyah (known as “Acher”) who was told that “everyone can return except for Acher” should have realized that even he could still return. There is always hope.
Rabbi Baruch Simon locates this idea within the first two verses of the parshah as well. Everyone, we are told, stood before G-d. This included: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer (Devarim 29:9-10). The fact that Moshe goes out of his way to describe the different types of individuals present highlights the importance of realizing that everyone is unique and everyone has a role to play. We should never underestimate what our fellow can accomplish.
And included in everyone is ourselves. We should never degrade our own abilities. Even if we have come up short in the past, Rabbi Simon writes, we are forbidden from losing faith in ourselves. We must always believe in our ability to improve.
The goal of Elul is to move us from being precontemplators about our flaws to contemplators. If we have bad habits or behaviors that we have given up on changing, it is imperative that we shake ourselves out of this despair. We must believe that there is always hope. Nothing can stand in the way of repentance.