Home > Judaism, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal > We can’t change who we are, just control it better

We can’t change who we are, just control it better

December 4, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — Judaism believes in teshuva, the human capacity for change. We are not the same human beings we were yesterday and tomorrow we will be different still. Judaism believes that human beings can grow and progress, and that today’s sinner may become tomorrow’s saint.

Yet is absolute change ever possible? Can one ever erase the past? Even in tomorrow’s saint isn’t there a remnant of the sinner past?

During the High Holy Days I spoke about Pastor Henry Covington, one of the two main characters of Mitch Albom’s new book, “Have a Little Faith.” Henry Covington was a criminal in his youth and early adulthood. After a near brush with death at the hands of drug dealers from whom he stole, he turned his life around and now devotes himself to serving the poor, hungry, and homeless in Detroit.

Although Henry had become a new man, deep inside of him some of the “old” Henry remained. He could not escape his past. It always haunted him. His present good deeds did not erase his former sins. Although he had changed, his old inner core remained the same. The difference was that he had learned to control his yetzer hara (evil inclination) instead of allowing it to control him. He knows that he is facing a life long battle.

In Parashat Vayishlach Jacob wrestles with a Divine Being. At dawn the Being demands that Jacob release him. Jacob will do so only in exchange for a blessing: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Gen. 32:29) The change from “Jacob” to “Israel” symbolizes Jacob’s coming of age, giving up his youthful life of deception and trickery, and becoming morally fit to be leader of the Jewish people.

The commentator known as Degel Machane Efraim wrote that the Talmud (Masechet Berachot) observes that when the Divine Being changed Jacob’s name to Israel, he did not erase the name Jacob but only added to it. In fact, when we speak of the patriarch today we usually refer to him as Jacob and not Israel! When the divine being called him “Israel” he did not take the name Jacob away but only made it subordinate to the new one.

In other words, when Jacob became Israel, his old personality was not erased but was rather modified by his new one. “Israel” still had the potential to be the tricky scoundrel “Jacob,” but he had learned to keep his negative impulses at bay. Israel learned how to channel Jacob’s  talents and skills into positive instead of negative endeavors. Israel became a new man, but the old one still lay underneath.

Judaism believes firmly in change, but change does not mean erasure of the past. Change means growth. Growth is a process in which something new develops from what comes before. A beautiful flower does not suddenly appear out of thin air, but evolves from a simple seed planted in the ground, provided, of course, that it receives the proper nourishment and environment it needs to thrive.

So will the human beings we become tomorrow evolve from whom we were yesterday and who we are today, provided, of course, that we receive the proper religious, moral, and spiritual nourishment and environment we need to thrive.

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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