Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Road to Change

How do we change? Rav Yisrael Salanter said that it is more difficult for us to change a single mida, personality trait than it is to learn through all of shas ( the 63 tractates of the Talmud). Yet change is our mandate. The Sages taught that all the mitzvot were given just so as to shape our character. The work of our life is to achieve greater personal shleimut, wholeness of ourselves as persons. Whats the process? How is change realized?

In this weeks portion, that of Eikev, we find the second paragraph of the Sh'ma. There we are commanded to wear tefilin with the verse " and you shall bind them for a sign on your arms and for a totafot between your eyes". Now at first blush the verse is puzzling. The tefilin of the arm surely symbolize our actions, that which we do with our hands and our arms. The tefilin of the head, reflected in the totafot symbolize our thought and reflections.

If I was to ask someone which of the tefilin should be recorded first most would say the tefilin of the head, the totafot. We would normally assume thought precedes action. After we are commanded to wear the tefilin of the head, symbolic of our thoughts it would make sense to speak of the tefilin of the arm relating to our actions. We think and then we do!
Yet the verse reads the other way. The tefilin of the arm is commanded before the tefilin of the head. And even more we put on the tefilin of the arm prior to the tefilin of the head. Why? Whats the message here?

Each of us might find a meaningful interpretation as to why the Torah seems to first speak of action and then thought. I want to share this perspective with you...and it has much to do with our original question, how we bring about change.

Let me share this Hassidic story. A hasid came to his rebbe and asked for help. He said "Rebbe I have sinned for so long and now I want to do teshuva. Help me! I don't know what to do". The rebbe responded, "And when you sinned did you know what to do? You just did it! So now just do teshuva".

In the world of therapy they talk about paralysis by analysis. That is, people who spend so much time thinking of what they need to change and how they need to change and if they really can change that the reflections consume them and they never get past the reflection to actually bring about change.

While its true that the decision that we need to change is vital to our process, change only actually occurs when we get out of our heads and into our actions. Change requires a dynamic. And dynamics belong to the world of action.

That's what the rebbe told his hasid. When you sinned you did not think and plan. You simply did. The road to return and change requires a similar call to action. That's what the Torah is teaching us in calling for the binding of the tefilin on the arm prior to the call to place the tefilin on the head. Yes we need thought and reflection. But the work of our life is the work of change. We need to grow and become. And for that dynamic their is a primacy of the will, a call for action over thought.

The message here is vital for me and I suspect for you as well. All of us have things we need to change, improvements we need to make, challenges we need to get past. Talking about them is nice but at times unhelpful. Saying how important they are is nice but at times unhelpful. Going over and over the reasons why we are the way we are and the obstacles in our path can do more harm than good. All the above can easily lead to paralysis by analysis. We talk about it instead of doing it.

To change we need to stop thinking and do. When you consider the changes you have made in your life I think you will discover they occurred when you suspended thinking and let the actions lead. Its when you let go of your head and followed your drive that change occurred. Like the hasid in our story, you knew you had to and so you just did it!

If one wants to know how to change s/he is missing the point. To ask for guidance is to assume change is an avoda of the head. It is not. There is no recipe, no prescription,no mapped out course. Change is a product of the will. Its a dynamic. And to make it happen we require an avoda of the arm.

May we have the courage to let go of the mind in order to become and grow through our actions!

Shabbat Shalom

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