Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Work of Change

One of the great suprises of life, for most of us anyways, is how little we actually change in the course of years. I mean yes, we grow. We mature and we age. But all that means is that we became who we already were in potential. We simply added years and life experience to the existing base person. Change is something altogether different. In change we become someone we were not prior. We actually alter our base personality. Change is a kind of remaking of the self in new ways. Its revolutionary.

So why do I say most of us change so little. Well, think about it. The same issues, the same weaknesses, the same character flaws most of us had in our youth remain with us. They may have become more subtle or more pernicious, more hidden from others or more pronounced, but they remain our issues. Whether it be anger or lust, stinginess or impatience, laziness or insensitivity, whatever our issues have been, it seems to matter little how much the externals of our life change or how much we age, the issues of our life live on.

Why? What keeps us stuck? Why is change, real change, so hard to realize?

I think we may have a clue from the portion in the Torah of this week, that of Metzora. In this weeks parsha we continue to discuss the laws of the person struck with spiritual leprosy, even as we began last week. Our sages taught that the word 'metzora', used for the leper, is derived from two Hebrew words, 'motzi ra', one who brings out evil. They teach that this 'metzora' is not your typical leper, the one we encounter in the anals of human history. These lepers are different. They are experiencing their maladiction as a punishment for being a 'metzora' 'bringing out evil', that is, for speaking what we refer to as "lashon hara", evil talk about another. It is for talking bad about another, even though what one says is true, that one is struck with this spiritual leprosy and all its consequences.

Question we might ask is why is leprosy the appropriate punishment for 'lashon hara'?
What's the correlation between speaking badly about another, though true, that engenders this particular affliction. There are many possibilities of punishment. Why leprosy?

If we reflect, we might ask why does someone talk badly about another person? Why is speaking 'lashon hara' so commonplace and so difficult to resist? I think the answer is that most of us are pained in the awareness, even if not always conscious, of our own ongoing limitations. We know we are flawed. What's more, we know it is so difficult to change. In that context, when we find and speak evil of another we thereby excuse ourselves, at least to ourselves. We say, as-it-were, I am not soo intolerable, look at him! In speaking evil of another, indeed even in our desire to listen to evil spoken of another, we excuse ourselves for our shortcomings. We give ourselves a pass on our own failure to change. Change is hard, very hard. We find solace with our own mediocrity by revelling in the evil-doing of others.

The Rabbis taught us that the one who speaks evil of another murders three people; the one spoken of, whose reputation is ruined, the one who speaks and the one who listens to the evil talk. We can understand that the one spoken evil of is as if s/he was murdered. But why the speaker and the listener. That they sinned is a given, but why as if they were murdered?

The answer is that when one speaks badly of another or even listens to that kind of talk, one is putting a bandaid over their own issues so as not to feel them. Rather than face their need to change they are making themselves okay with being as they are, with their shortcomings. To live a life and not change is to have missed the point of life itself! It is indeed as if to have murdered ones own soul!

The damage we do in speakng or listening to evil about another, or even in revelling in it when we see it in newspapers or on television is very much to ourselve. We put a salve on our sense of inadequacy rather than change. Resisting 'lashon hara' forces us to face our truths and the hard work of becoming who we are not yet. It challenges us to look at ourslves, not relative to another, but for who we are and who we are charged to become.

The metzora, the lepor, the one who speaks evil of others, is forced through his leprosy to see that the flaw is in him! He cannot blame others or judge himself on a relative scale. In accepting that I am the one with problem and I am the one who needs healing, the lepor shifts his focus, and thereby change, real change, becomes possible. Leprosy is not so much a punsishment for the metzora, but a remedy. It is the way for him to stop excusing his shortcomings by talking evil of others and instead right himself.

Today we don't have the rites of the leper. There is no one to say to us, "Hey, stop focusing on the wrongfulness of others when you should be worrying about yourself".
We need to remind ourselves that life would be tragic if we lived without change.
In the end, it matters not what others have done, whether it be good or bad. We are responsible for ourselves. We need to do the hard work of change!

Shabbat Shalom

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