Change is Possible

Rabbeinu Yonah discusses various barriers to teshuva in Sha’arei Teshuva. But perhaps the greatest barrier most of us experience is a lack of belief in our capacity to change. In this month of teshuva, as we contemplate all that requires improvement, we are struck that we have been here before. Last year we klapped al cheit on the same aveiros. Last year, we undertook certain kabbolos that seemed a distant memory by Tzom Gedaliah.

We cannot bring ourselves to promise Hashem once again that we will not fail in certain ways, after having done so last year and the year before that. Our promises, we fear, are beginning to resemble the undertakings the Palestinians were allowed to recycle endlessly throughout the Oslo process and as of about as much value.

Perhaps one corrective to these feelings of despair is to spend some time considering all those whom we have seen make changes, even dramatic ones. I think of a chavrusah from nearly thirty years ago. When we learned together, he was not really a very nice person; short-tempered and lacking in any social skills. Today when we meet, I cannot believe it is the same person and how little resemblance he bears to the young bochur I once knew. In many respects, his younger self may have been closer to his “natural” personna, but, if so, he overcame nature.

Not long ago, a young man got married in Jerusalem. The wedding hall was filled with a special electricity, as most of the guests knew where this young man had been but a few years ago. Those who stayed the longest at the chasunah were various mentors who had worked closely with him over the years.

Among the outstanding traits of the chassan is an ability to express his hakaros hatov from the depths of his heart and without inhibition. A number of his mentors are friends of mine, and they shared the letters that they had received from the chassan, along with their invitations, because they thought there might be something that others could learn from his words.

His letter to the mashgiach in an English-speaking yeshiva, in which he began learning five years ago, describes the state in which he arrived – “lost, broken, not believing in himself or that he had any future, lacking any sense of purpose in his life as a consequence of being completely cut off from HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Torah and mitzvos.” Today, he continues, all those things that he was lacking are an integral part of who he is – “a person who is comfortable with himself, a person who has a future, who is full of life, as a result of a special closeness to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Torah and mitzvos.”

To the avreich who runs a mentoring program in that yeshiva and other Jerusalem yeshivos serving alienated young men from American yeshivos, he wrote: “As I approach my wedding day.. . one of the things I’ve been thinking about is the very first time I met you. Who would ever have believed then that exactly five years later I would be at this milestone in my life, about to get married. True, I probably would have gotten married eventually. Most people do. What I mean is, who would have thought then I’d ever be the person I am today – a mature responsible ben Torah? Certainly no one could have believed then that I would be capable of being a loving husband and father and educating my children in Torah and mitzvos. Even more so, how could anyone have imagined that I would marry a girl who would support and encourage my Torah learning.”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that almost every “at-risk” teenager who makes it back does has been the beneficiary of some form of special attention from an adult outside the family. This chassan was no exception. An older friend, whom he had worked with in a chesed organization, and whose home became a place of refuge, flew in from Lakewood just for the chasanah.

Above all, a young avreich living on the same street as the chassan took him under his wing. “I had despaired from the situation. What I still can’t understand is: Why didn’t you despair as well? Why did you invest so much time and energy in me?” the chassan wrote to him. “Every time you see me, how can you help but think to yourself, ‘There is the person I brought back to life, to whom I gave life when he was like a dead person?'”

To each one, the chassan could point to what he had gained and its relevance to his wedding day. From the mashgiach, it was a shmuess shortly after the beginning of the year in yeshiva, in which he stressed that the next two years in yeshiva would largely determine the kind of person the bochurim would grow to be and type of home that they would build. From the mentors in the yeshiva, it was the warmth and fulfillment he saw in their homes – the respect and love between the spouses and parents and children. All of which forced him to think, “Will I ever be able to experience this caliber of relationship?”

And above all, to the “angel” from the street, “the one who saved me,” it was “his interest in me, his concern with me, his invitations to Shalosh Seudos, and, above all, the fact that he was always there for me.”

I offer a glimpse of this particular chassan before Yom Kippur for two reasons. First, as a reminder that deep, profound transformation is possible. Not only is it possible, but if we look around we will see examples all around us.

Second, as a demonstration of the impact that we can have on others. The teshuva of the chassan ultimately had to come from him. . No one can do teshuva for another, any more than they can “make” someone from a non-observant home into a ba’al teshuva.

Yet without these particular mentors it is doubtful that this chassan would have had the resources to take that step when he did. Surely, there can be no greater merit for siyata d’Shmaya in our own teshuva process than serving as Hashem’s emissaries in helping other Jews find their way closer to Him.

Mishpacha, 2 October 2008

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