Achieving Personal and Public Change

The new year before us presents us with an opportunity for renewal and change. However change is not always simple for us. What stands in our way? Why aren’t we able to change the way we would like, and what are the tools which will help us to prepare for the new year? Let us attempt to answer these questions and others by looking at two Aggadot:

R Mani used to attend the lectures of R Yitzchak ben Elyashiv. R Mani said to him “The rich members of my father in law’s household harass me.” He said: “Let them become poor.” And they became poor.

R Mani said: “Now they press me (to support them)” He said: “Let them become rich again.” And they became rich again.

R Mani said: “The person of my household (i.e. my wife) is not satisfactory to me.” He said to him: “What is her name?” “Channah”. “Let Channah become beautiful.” And she became beautiful.

R Mani returned and said to him: “She has become overbearing to me!” He said to him, “If so, let Channah revert to her plainness,” and Channah reverted to her plainness. (Taanit 23b)

Don’t Turn to Others For Changes in Your Life

R Mani turns to his teacher because he is looking to make a change in his life. He is not satisfied with his social position or with his wife. However, we see that in the end he returns to his starting point, without having made any change. R Mani remains in the same situation because he is looking for change in the wrong place. He attributes his lack of satisfaction in life to external factors. The things which he attempts to change in order to achieve happiness are external to him and do not depend on him.

Instead of looking for change in himself, in his actions and ways, R Mani wants others to change for him, even to the point that he asks R Yitzchak to pray for him. In fact, R Mani does not go through any personal process at all, and in the end he is left with no internal change, as well as no external change in his life. A person should not turn to his rabbi, his teachers, his family or his surroundings in order for them to do the work for him. In order to create renewal and true change in a person’s life, the change must come from an internal process, from an acknowledgement that “it all depends on me.”

In contrast to the story of R Mani which is an example of an unsuccessful attempt to change, it is interesting to learn about R Akiva’s beginnings:

How Rabbi Akiva Made Changes in His Life

What were the beginnings of Rabbi Akiva?

It is said: When he was forty years of age he had not yet studied a thing. One time he stood by the mouth of a well. “Who hollowed out this stone?” he wondered. He was told: “It is the water which falls upon it every day, continually.” It was said to him: “Akiva, haven’t you heard, “The waters wear away the stones?” (Iyov 14:19)

Thereupon Rabbi Akiva drew the inference with regard to himself: If what is soft wears down the hard, all the more shall the words of the Torah, which are as hard as iron, hollow out my heart, which is flesh and blood! Immediately he turned to the study of Torah.

He went together with his son and they appeared before an elementary school teacher. He said to him – Rabbi, teach me Torah. Rabbi Akiva and his son held the blackboard. The teacher wrote down aleph bet for him and he learned it; aleph tav, and he learned it; the Book of Vayikra, and he learned it. He went on studying until he learned the whole Torah.

Then he went and appeared before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. “My masters,” he said to them, “Reveal the sense of Mishna to me.” When they told him one halacha he went off to be by himself. “This aleph,” he wondered, “why was it written? That bet, why was it written? This thing, why was it said?” He came back and asked them questions and corrected them…

R Tarfon said to him: “Akiva, about you it is written, ‘He searches the sources of the rivers and brings hidden things to light.’” (Iyov 28:11) Things which were hidden from people, R Akiva brought out to the light (Avot deRabbi Natan 6).

In this midrash we can see the different types of obstacles which can stand before a man who desires change, and the various tools he can use to deal with them.

Overcoming the Obstacles a Person Places Before Himself

Most important are the obstacles which a person places before himself – his lack of faith in himself and in his ability to change. When a person is experienced and feels that his personality has been formed it is difficult to undergo a serious change. Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd for most of his life, he may have said to himself “I never learned my letters, I am just not able to change now!” By looking at a natural phenomenon Rabbi Akiva reveals that he too is capable of change. Rabbi Akiva understands that just as the water’s flow changes the shape of the stone, so too by learning Torah with devotion for a long period of time the words of Torah can permeate the heart. Rabbi Akiva undergoes a cognitive change which results in a real change in his life. This change does not take place all at once; rather it is a long process, one drop after another permeating his soul.

In Likutei Moharan (46) R Nachman writes about the obstacles which a person must overcome in order to undergo change: “And the greatest obstacle of all obstacles is the obstacle of the mind.” In order to make a change a person must make a conceptual change, to understand that what is holding him back is himself – it is found in his soul. Once he believes in himself, he will open himself up to the opportunity for change.

“Immediately he turned to the study of Torah.” – At the moment that R Akiva decided, or more accurately believed, that he was able, he immediately acted and went to learn Torah. In connection with this R Tzadok wrote:

A person’s entrance into worshiping God should be with haste…because in the beginning he must disconnect himself from all the desires of this world to which he is tied. He must guard the moment when the desire to do God’s will awakens within him, and rush to go out at that moment…afterwards he can go back and move slowly (Tzidkat haTzaddik 1:1).

Rav Tzadok teaches us how to act when we feel the desire to do God’s will. When a person wants to make a change, in the beginning he should act quickly and seize the moment, so that it won’t pass. Afterwards he can return to moderation in his action, so that the process is like “the waters that wear away the stones.”

This is the way of R Akiva as described in the Midrash. When the understanding struck him, he right away went to learn Torah. But this was not the haste of the moment, but rather a first step in a long process. He learned the aleph-bet from the foundations, with patience and persistence, building level by level, “until he learned the whole Torah.”

Step Out of Your Comfort ZoneAfter a person overcomes the thought that he does not have the power to change, another obstacle stands in his way: he must deal with the reactions of those around him, the embarrassment, the thought of “what will they say?” Rabbi Akiva could have given up, thinking of the embarrassment – how can I begin to learn at the age of forty? Starting anew, after years of shepherding, learning with small children – even his own son?!

Rabbi Akiva overcame the obstacle of embarrassment, and went to learn with the small children, along with his son. This difficulty is common to Ba’alei Teshuva and new immigrants, and we should all learn from their ability to overcome it. They are modern day examples of how to act with courage and bravery because of the deep desire to change and renew.

Next, Rabbi Akiva took another step. After he had learned and internalized the material, he began to ask questions. “My masters,” he said to them, “Reveal the sense of Mishna to me.” “He came back and asked them questions and corrected them.” Specifically R Akiva, who came from the outside, succeeded in asking questions that had never been asked before, and thus revealed messages hidden in the Torah. It allowed him to reveal deep ideas found in the Torah, divulging them to the world with his profound vision. R Tarfon said about him: “Things which were hidden from people, R Akiva brought out to the light.” A person’s ability to ask questions, to clarify questions about his life, the world around him, and the Torah allows new profound vision through which one can reach the desired change.

R Akiva goes to sit before R Eliezer and R Yehoshua. He does not sit and learn the teachings of one Rav, rather learns from both, and thus he has a double foundation to his learning. From R Eliezer, who represents the Beit Midrash of Shammai and about whom R Yochanan ben Zakkai said he is a “is a plastered cistern which does not lose a drop”, he learned conservation and tradition.

On the other hand, from R Yehoshua, who represents the Beit Midrash of Hillel, he learned about innovation and creativity in the Beit Midrash. In fact, R Akiva’s Torah is an integration of tradition and innovation.

Even when his thinking seems new, it is deeply rooted in Sinai, as the Gemara in Minachot 29b shows. The Gemara describes Moshe Rabbeinu sitting in the Beit Midrash of R Akiva and not understanding what is going on. Moshe feels weak when he hears the many innovative ideas, and wonders if there is still a connection to his tradition. However, when R Akiva answers one of the student’s questions by saying “it is a law given to Moshe at Sinai” he is relieved.

R Akiva became the mainstay of the Oral Torah, the greatest of all the Tannaim, because of this integration and because of his ability to include the thoughts of many batei midrash. This combination allowed new discoveries in the Torah in every generation, while remaining deeply connected to the tradition of the Oral Torah. In addition, his personality and his love of all people definitely contributed to the ability to accept others and to see “the word of the living God” in both batei midrash.

R Akiva teaches us how wide-reaching a change in a person can be, until the whole world of the Torah has been changed. He is a paradigm of change, showing that through belief in one’s powers, and belief that one has the ability to change their actions and their life, one can achieve change. One must be brave and even heroic in order to overcome and achieve change. It requires persistence, patience and process and the readiness to ask questions and investigate in-depth so as to uncover new understandings.

Just as this is true in terms of personal change, it is true in terms of public change. To achieve this we must be brave, and believe in our way, without being ashamed of “what people might say”. We must act from a desire to innovate in accordance with the new reality, while retaining a strong tie to tradition. Along with this, we must be patient, understanding that a slow process of change is a strong one. To achieve positive public change, we must be aware of the needs of the community, and listen to the different voices which arise from the different schools of thought.

This D’var Torah originally appeared on Matan Online.

Rabbanit Oshra KorenRabbanit Oshra Koren is the founder and director of Matan HaSharon: the Mindy Greenberg Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, where she teaches Talmud and Tanakh. She is also the Deputy Chairperson of Ra’anana’s Religious Council, having previously served for 13 years on the Ra’anana City Council. Rabbanit Koren is a member of the Beit Hillel Executive Committee.

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