Q. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. One. But the light bulb has to really want to change.
By now, most of us are disappointed, dismayed, and downright disgusted with Anthony Weiner. It’s bad enough that this politician’s fall from grace – twice! – is so sordid (and he’s lied repeatedly about it.) But it doesn't seem that Mr. Weiner is all that sorry.
Will he keep on with his behavior as long as he believes he won’t get caught?
Only he knows. The first step towards change is to want to change. And the key to wanting change is rooted in the history of the Jewish nation.
Forty Days of Opportunity
This Tuesday and Wednesday night the Jewish month of Elul begins, marking the beginning of the 40-day period during which Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occur. On these days we are able to return to our truest selves and renew our connection with our Source. Sure, during the rest of the year change is always a possibility – but now, the opportunity is even greater. Change is the focus of the next 40 days.
The 40-day time frame is itself significant. In Judaism, the number “40” is always a harbinger of a journey to a turning point, a new beginning, a sea change. The Torah tells us that the world-wide flood lasted 40 days, and upon cessation, the earth was rendered pure. A fetus develops rapidly inside its mother for 40 days, at which point a soul descends and enters it. Moses spent 40 years in Pharaoh’s palace before he was ready to lead the Israelites. And, our ancestors spent 40 anxious days waiting for Moses to descend from Mt. Sinai with the tablets. During those 40 days they were working on themselves, aiming to reach the spiritual awareness necessary to receive the Torah.
But the Israelites had a major setback, and change was stymied. They miscalculated and counted 39 days of Moses’ absence, not 40. They became upset that he didn’t appear when their calculations said he should. They were certain they had been abandoned. Fed up, they gave up, and decided to take matters into their own hands and build the golden calf.
When Moses returned and saw the idol, he broke the tablets, a violent echo of his broken heart. But, despite his deep disappointment, he didn’t give up on his people. He climbed up the mountain once more and spent another 40 days pleading with God to forgive the people. Those few million people down below also pleaded with God for the chance to try again. They too, were broken hearted. They didn’t let up until Moses’ return.
Finally, on the first day of Elul, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai for the third time. He remained there until 40 days later. It was Yom Kippur when he descended with new tablets which contained the message of connection the Israelites were finally ready to receive. And we’ve been holding onto that message ever since.
The Elul Fix
If you believe you can damage, believe you can repair. – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
Our ancestors’ actions illustrate how to go about making the most of this 40-day period. Like us, they were imperfect. They made a whopping mistake. Who hasn’t? Yet, instead of giving up, succumbing to despair, they trusted that they could begin again.
No matter how many times we’ve let ourselves and others down, we too can begin again.
After Moses broke the tablets, it seemed impossible that things could ever be okay again. After all, Moses had rushed off, back up the mountain, seemingly abandoning everyone. But our ancestors didn’t give up. They didn’t allow their pain and shame to overwhelm them; they refused to sink into despair. Instead, they reflected on how things had gone awry. They took personal responsibility for their error with the golden calf. They didn’t pretend it was an accident. They admitted they messed up.
They reached out to God, acknowledging their blunder. They asked that they be given the chance to repair the damage they had done. And they promised to make their best effort to not repeat their error.
No, things would never again be exactly what they were. There was a painful history. People got hurt. But they were wiser now, with a more intimate knowledge of who they were and what they were capable of. They were able to forge the inner will to do better. They achieved a stronger sense of purpose and their started again, knowing that mistakes might occur, but if they did, they’d be just that – mistakes.
Tools for Change
During the month of Elul, and the ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, our potential for growth is accelerated. We just have to do our part.
The ability to make meaningful change requires *four simple, but powerful, steps. Anthony Weiner, take note:
Reflect and identify: This means doing some honest thinking about who you are and who you want to be. Sure, we have to find the good in ourselves, but we also need to be honest about the less-than-good that exists within.
Once we identify an area we need to work on we should stop the negative act – then we’re ready for the next step.
Talk it out: God is listening, waiting for you to tell Him all about it. The sages teach that in Elul, the “King is in the field.” Right now, God isn’t sitting on a remote, Heavenly throne, He’s right down here with us, ready to embrace us with all our flaws. All we have to do is talk to Him. This kind of intimate, unscripted rap session helps us think things through and helps us get in touch with our feelings. It’s kind of a meditation session – yoga mat, optional.
If you feel silly just talking, you can start slow, just for a minute or two at a time. Or, try writing a letter: Dear God, I messed up, but I want to do better. Love, Me
Experience remorse: Don’t shy away from feelings that have come up when you talk it out. Allow yourself to experience regret. Explore the consequences of actions.
Return to truth: This means repenting and returning to my highest potential self, resolving to improve, beginning by never again repeating the harmful action. (No more Carlos Danger.)
Imagine what would happen if Anthony Weiner followed Judaism’s advice.
Hopefully our own slip-ups are not as egregious as Anthony Weiner’s. Perhaps we don’t follow through on our promises and commitments. We might have a hair-trigger temper or aren’t always 100 percent truthful. Maybe we simply waste a lot of time. But the scale of our errors doesn’t matter – each of us has the potential to change if we want to. Including Anthony Weiner.
From now until Yom Kippur, our days are ripe with possibilities. Like our ancestors in the wilderness, we are pained by the things we messed up and wish we could fix. And like them, we know we have no reason to despair: God is listening to us, with utter compassion.
This 40-day period is a gift – a crash-course in openness and truthfulness. It’s not easy to be so honest with ourselves, but it’s essential if we want to achieve better relationships with others – and with our selves. This is the time we’ve been given to really think about what kind of person we want to be and ask God to help us get there.
*Rambam, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Teshuva