Sunday, September 30, 2012

Michael Jackson's Recipe for Change

THERE'S AN OLD SEA STORY about a ship's Captain who upon inspecting his sailors found their stench intolerable. The Captain suggested that perhaps it would help if the sailors would change their underwear occasionally. The first mate responded, "Aye, aye sir, I'll see to it immediately!" The first mate went straight to the sailors berth deck and announced, "The Captain thinks you guys smell bad and wants you to change your underwear." He continued, "Pittman, you change with Jones, McCarthy, you change with Witkowski, and Brown, you change with Schultz."

The Moral of the Story: Someone may come along and promise “change,” but don’t count on things smelling any better.

I didn’t relate this joke to segue way into politics and to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the POTUS as it relates to his domestic and foreign policies vs. the Romney/Ryan Ticket. Nor did I intend to discuss the success or failure of Obama’s 2008 election promise of “change”. Rather, instead of examining the flaws and failures of others and determining the changes they need to make, we need to take a critical view of ourselves and pledge to change.

Not many people know why the 10th of Tishrei was selected as the holiest day of the year, as a day of forgiveness, of change and second chances. In fact, the Torah is also somewhat silent about it simply stating that the 10th of Tishrei marks the holiday of Yom Kippur where we ask for atonement from God. But a closer look at the text shows that Yom Kippur commemorates the single most important event in our history: the receiving of the second set of tablets. The second set carries more significance than the first set because on this day, on Yom Kippur our ancestors were forgiven for the sin of the Golden calf. From then on, this day was established as a day of forgiveness for the Jewish people.

But perhaps the greatest miracle of all regarding the second tablets is that they were an identical copy of the first one. There were no changes, amendments, or modifications. It was re-written and handed down the same way, as God commanded Moshe, “Psal Lecha Shnai Luchos Avanim Ka’Rishonim,” to carve out the second set of tablets just like the first.

If you are wondering why this so significant, it is because this goes against human nature. The tendency of people who sin is to justify their actions by protesting that the original laws violated are unjust and should be changed or amended to meet their sensibilities. After having transgressed the first two of the Ten Commandments, our ancestors could have complained that it was too difficult to worship and perceive a God who had no form or shape and whose ways were hidden from them. They could have shown how much more inspiring and appealing it was to dance around an image that they could see and touch and enjoy. They could have brought all of this to the attention of God and Moshe in the hopes of a brand new set of commandments. But they did not. Instead they looked within themselves, realized their error and began the process of atonement. So when they accepted the tablets for the second time their sincere repentance was felt. This truly was a day of Yom Kippur.

The first step to real Teshuva and change is “Hakarat Hachayte,” the recognition and admission of wrongdoing. The Jewish people recognized that the Torah was not at fault, they themselves were weak and sinful.

The late, Michael Jackson, said it beautifully in his hit song, Man in the Mirror, wrote, “I’m gonna make a change for once in my life, it’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right.” And how is he going to make a difference? “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways, and no message could have been any clearer, if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.”

Unfortunately, we complain about the Torah too frequently: this commandment is too difficult, boring, or archaic; the stories are uninteresting and uninspiring. Instead of being self-critical, we justify and rationalize our actions by blaming other things or people. Let’s remember to follow the example set by our ancestors, who were willing to place the onus of change on themselves.

A story is told of a man who visited a city and was taken to its city hall. He noticed that his watch stopped and wanted to know the correct time. He looked up towards the sky and noticed the clock on city hall. He remarked to his friend, “why is it necessary to have this clock so high up? Would it not be better to have this clock at our reach so that it could be easily seen?” “You don’t understand,” the friend responded. “If the clock were within everyone’s reach, everyone would adjust it according to the time of his watch, and no-one would ever know the correct time.”

The same is true about the Torah. It is an ideal that must be kept high and aloft, so that it will not be changed by mortals. It is the correct time for all of us to see. We must adjust our watches to this great divine clock. And let us resolve to change ourselves, rather than the Torah.

Rabbi Joshua Hess, an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey, is co-founder of the blog. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.