The following familiar story is credited to Rabbi Israel Salanter, an unknown 11th century monk, as well as others: “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”
Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur encompass many themes, but the overarching theme is “change:” “to change from what we were before and to become new individuals. The motif behind it all is accountability. We are responsible for our actions. We do not live in a vacuum. What we do or say has an impact and a resonance in the world,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sachs.
In his Laws of Repentance, Moses Maimonides explains that we and the world are judged by the majority of our deeds, “Therefore we should see ourselves throughout the year as if our deeds and those of the world are evenly poised between good and bad, so that our next act may change both the balance of our lives and that of the world.” We can make a difference, and it is potentially immense. That should be our mindset, always.
The dawn of every day brings to us an opportunity to make improvements to our lives. There will never be a day that we are not presented with choices. Judaism provides us with tremendous opportunities for growth and change. At the end of every day we are asked to review our actions; every Shabbat we again are asked to renew our commitment to be better than we were the week before. Consider the Musar movement: “a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives,” writes Alan Morinis, Founder of the Musar Institute of Los Angeles.
By focusing on our own personal character traits, we learn how to fine tune them, keep them in balance and become better human beings, members of our families and community and citizens in our world. Change is inevitable—but we can direct the kind of change we want by considering how we can each become “a better me.”
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.