October 20th, 2018


We Have the Power to Change

 Jonathan Rosenblum

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Published Oct. 10, 2016

We Have the Power to Change

Understanding the holiest day of the Jewish calandar

What even many Jews often are unaware of

No day on the Jewish calendar possesses the power of Yom Kippur to dramatically change our lives.

As the Maimonides describes in Hilchos Teshuva, yesterday we were cut off and alienated from the Divine and unworthy in His sight. Yet today, after the spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur, we feel ourselves to be once again beloved in His eyes.

The power of the day is from our perspective nothing short of miraculous --- something beyond human understanding in the context of our four-dimensional world of time and space. The Jewish sages tell us that the power of repentance is such that even our past sins can be transformed retroactively into positives if they are used to propel us towards a closer relationship with the Divine.

Yet before the transformative power of the day can be fully realized, we must believe in our capacity to change and grow. The biggest challenge that many of us experience while reciting our individual vidui is the knowledge that our confessions of past sins and our promises not to repeat them are rarely being uttered for the first time. And that causes us to doubt our ability to change.

Hope or optimisim is a major subject of Angela Lee Duckworth's Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Duckworth brings a great deal of scientific evidence for the proposition that sustained hard work, hasmada, is often as important, or more so, than innate talent to success in any given endeavor. She identifies fours factors that encourage grit -- the willingness to keep working at a task or towards a goal, even when attainment is neither easy nor guaranteed.

The four crucial components of devoting oneself to attaining a goal are: interest in the task at hand; the willingness to practice to develop skills in a disciplined fashion; belief in the purpose of what one is doing; and finally, hope or optimism about one's ability to get better at what one is doing.

In at least one of these chapter-headings, Torah Jews have an immense advantage --- i.e., purpose. It is fundamental to us that the Divine not only created the world with a purpose and to reach a certain goal, but that each and every one of us was also brought into existence for a specific mission. While not everything we do is a fulfillment of that mission, we do not doubt that we have such a mission. Indeed contemplation of what that mission forms a major part of our preparation of for Rosh Hashanah, when we pray for the renewal of our mission for another year.

Hope, defined as confidence in our ability to affect our future by our own efforts, is another component of grit, I will argue, where being a Torah Jew helps. One of the best ways to measure hope or optimism is how one reacts to setbacks and failures along the way. Duckworth begins her chapter on Hope with an old Japanese adage -- Fall seven, rise eight --- a variant of the verse, "Sheva yipol tzaddik, ve'kam --- the truly saintly falls seven times and gets up."

The optimistic person tends to view setbacks as the result of specific and temporary causes; the pessimist as the result of permanent and pervasive causes. When confronted with setbacks, the first question that the optimist asks is: What can I learn from this?

Optimism breeds an activist approach to life; its opposite a certain fatalism. The common theme running through Theodore Dalrymple's descriptions of the British underclass from his vantage point as a prison psychiatrist and J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of the Appalachian culture from which he escaped, is the ubiquitous view among those described of life as something that just happens to one and over which one has no control.

Optimists, not surprisingly, get better grades, do better at work, and express higher levels of marital satisfaction. As Henry Ford put it, "Whether you think you can or think you can't --- you're right." Many years ago, when my rabbinic seminary dean had successfully collected the large sums needed for a new building, I remarked to him that his wife had been very pessimistic about his ability to do so. His reply echoed Ford: "She tends to be pessimistc; I tend to be optimistic. And over the years, I've found the optimistic view is more often correct."

But what can we do to foster optimism and hope in our children? Duckworth identifies beliefs about the malleability of natural traits as one key. Does one think of intelligence or some other trait as pretty much fixed a birth --- a static mindset --- or does one have a growth mindset that one can become more intelligent through hard work. (In fact, IQ scores can often change significantly over a lifetime.)

The Torah tends towards a growth mindset. One of the reasons that all forms of foretelling are forbidden is not that they are never accurate, but rather that they are all based on extrapolating from the present to the future. And a Jew should never assume that he will remain the same tomorrow as he is today. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner (d. 1980) explains the Ramban's comment that there are no perfect proofs in Torah, the latter's introduction to his Milchemes Hashem, as a reflection of the fact that the Torah deals with a world in a perpetual state of change. The very act of Torah learning itself changes the world that is the subject of that learning. In geometry, by contrast, there can be perfect proofs because its subject is a world in stasis. (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukkah 9.)

For nearly forty years psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying how the messages conveyed to children promote either a growth or static mindset. If children are consistently praised for their natural abilities or talents, they will come to think of intelligence as something fixed. And when they don't succeed, their automatic reaction will be that they were not really as bright as advertised. As a consequence, they are reluctant to test their limits or face challenges.

Those, however, who are praised for their effort will not be as easily flustered by setbacks. Having been told that the brain is a muscle that gets stronger with use, they are more likely to keep trying.

Dweck's findings fly in the face of the "self-esteem" movement of the past five decades, which posited that building self-esteem holds the key to success. In one experiment, she divided group of children into two groups. One was praised for doing well at the end of every group of math problems. The other occasionally received less affirming messages, such as "You should have solved more problems," or "You should have tried harder."

Then she gave each group a set of both difficult and easy math problems. The group that received only praise gave up as easily as before on difficult problems. Those in the second group, however, tried harder when encountering difficult problems. From these results, Dweck derived that it was not past failures that took away kids determination and motivation. Rather it was the way they interpreted those failures. Those who concluded that failure derived from just not being smart, despite all the subsequent praise heaped upon them, showed little grit; those who received the message that failure was caused by a lack of effort tried harder.

Of course verbal messages are not enough. Even more crucial are early experiences of control. Over forty years ago, Martin Seligson, generally viewed as the "father" of positive psychology, and Steve Maier did a series of experiments on dogs. One group was administered five-second electric shocks on their back paws at random intervals. By pushing their muzzles against a panel at the front of their cages, however, the dogs could bring the shocks to an end before the five-second mark. The second group of dogs could not stop the shocks.

The next day both groups were put in a cage in which they received shocks, but where there was a barrier that they could climb over to get out of the cage and away from the shocks. Those dogs that had been able to exercise control over the length of their shocks the previous day almost all climbed out of the cage. But two-thirds of those who had not been able to control the electrical charges the previous day did not find the solution. Rather they just whimpered helplessly in response to the shocks.

Over forty years later, Maier ran a similar experiment with five-week old rats, which is very young in the rat lifecycle. Even when retested as mature adults and subjected to shocks they could not control, those that had experienced control at a young age, were apparently inoculated against "learned helplessness" as adults.

Perhaps that is why Outward Bound programs that force teenagers to test themselves alone in isolated outdoors environments have had such a life-changing impact on many teens, including dramatic increases in confidence, independence, assertiveness, and most crucially the belief in their control of their destiny. And that is also why modern helicopter parenting has created such helpless and frightened teens.

The Torah offers one additional message of immense importance for how we interpret negative events or setbacks. That message is: G-d loves us. Everything that happens to us is a message from Him to help us realize our personal mission in Creation. He does not seek to afflict us but rather to extract our full potential and to help us grow into the role for which we were created.

In the context of the Divine's love, we can be sure that our setbacks or failures are not a reflection of our status as lacking the "right stuff." Rather they are occasions to learn from our mistakes and obstacles to be overcome so that we can reach our full potential. We were born with the resources to realize our specific mission if we just make the requisite effort.

When we adopt that growth mindset and the confidence in our ability to change, we are fully prepared for the transformative powers of Yom Kippur.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is founder of Jewish Media Resources and a widely-read columnist for the Jerusalem Post's domestic and international editions and for internation glossy, Mishpacha. He is also a respected commentator on Israeli politics, society, culture and the Israeli legal system, who speaks frequently on these topics in the United States, Europe, and Israel. His articles appear regularly in numerous Jewish periodicals in the United States and Israel. Rosenblum is the author of seven biographies of major modern Jewish figures. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Yale Law School. Rosenblum lives in Jerusalem with his wife and eight children.