Rabbi O’s Weekly: Yom Kippur 5782-2021 Why is it So Hard to Change?

Rabbi O’s Weekly: Yom Kippur 5782-2021Why is it So Hard to Change? For Jews, this is the season we talk about repentance. Although that word might entail negative connotations, it is derived from the Latin, and literally means regret. Most people, honest people, look back at their day, week, month, year, or life with some level of regret. It’s not a bad thing and it need not lead to depression; it’s just a fact of life that as one gets older and wiser, from student loans to jobs to relationships, if the clock could be turned back, one or more decisions would have been different. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes that repentance is predicated on two principles: (1) the ability within a person to accuse oneself and (2) the realization that I have great talent and have the ability to cleanse myself. The second trait is just as important as the first because simply accusing oneself of wrongdoing serves no purpose if there’s no hope that you will be able to get yourself out of the situation. Rabbi Abraham Twerski was a psychiatrist who specialized in addictive behavior; the following words are from an article he wrote about the six obstacles to change.  King Solomon said, “For there is no man so fully righteous that he always does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). If even the most righteous person is not free of sin, how can a person who is not too righteous (i.e., isn’t the greatest husband/wife, father/mother, worker, boss, community member, leader…etc.) not feel a need to do teshuva (repent)?
Several psychological defense mechanisms tend to discourage an individual from changing, from doing teshuva. The obstacles to teshuva are denial, rationalization, trivializing, projection, habituation and ego.
(1) DenialThroughout the Bible, the prophets repeatedly exhorted the Jewish people to abandon their errant behavior, but as is evident from the Scriptures, they were not very successful. Isaiah explains why. “Surely you hear, but you fail to comprehend; and surely you see, but you fail to know. This people is fattening its heart, hardening its ears and sealing its eyes, lest it see with its eyes and hear with its ears and understand with its heart, so that it will repent and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10). No psychology text can improve on Isaiah’s description of denial. Because people are intent on doing whatever they wish, they resort to denial, one of the best-known defense mechanisms so that they are unaffected by the reality of what they see and hear.
We are creatures of habit, and we are comfortable when we can do things without the need to exert much effort. Change is uncomfortable, and in order to avoid this discomfort, our minds block out those realizations that would call for change. The natural state of all matter-including human beings-is inertia, but one must force themself to overcome inertia in order to grow and change.
(2) RationalizationDenial enables a person to maintain the status quo. When reality threatens to overcome denial, the mind employs other defense mechanisms to reinforce the denial-such as rationalization. One of the themes in Proverbs is the tendency to rationalize. Ramchal says, “If a person is confronted with one’s laziness, one will doubtless come back with many quotations culled from the sages and the Scriptures and with intellectual arguments, all supporting, according to his misguided mind, his leniency with himself” (Path of the Just, ch. 6).
Denial is not always possible, so the mind is very clever in rationalizing; in other words, justifying one’s actions by giving logical-sounding reasons for them. The Torah stresses the gravity of speaking lashon hara—derogatory speech, for example, which requires both teshuva vis-à-vis G-d and forgiveness from the victim. Oftentimes one who speaks lashon hara may attempt to justify his behavior by claiming “But it’s the truth!” Defamatory speech is lashon hara, even if it is true.
(3) HabituationThe Talmud says that when a person does a forbidden act several times, it loses its shame. Habituation enables one to think that these transgressions are permissible. His conscience is lulled into thinking, it’s really not so terrible. Thus, even though the morning minyan begins promptly at 6:30 am and ends at 7:05, there are some minyannaires who habitually show up at 6:45 and leave before everyone else. They are so accustomed to arriving late and davening at breakneck speed, they see nothing wrong with it.
(4) ProjectionOne who projects onto another will not be able to do genuine teshuva. Sins committed against another person are not forgiven on Yom Kippur unless one has obtained forgiveness from the offended individual. The defense mechanism of projection turns things around: I did not offend him. He offended me. He should really be apologizing to me.
(5) TrivializingThe tendency to trivialize wrongdoings is another impediment in the road to teshuva. I missed something I committed to but I was so busy at the office. Anyway, it’s not a big deal. Or, I chatted with my friend during the Reading of the Torah, but doesn’t everybody? (This is the only sin for which the Shulchan Aruch—Code of Jewish Law—says, “There is no forgiveness.”)
(6) EgoInasmuch as teshuva for an offense against another person requires that one make amends and ask forgiveness, there is ego resistance to humbling oneself, apologizing, and making restitution where required.
One of the axioms of human behavior is that a person will always choose to do that which is most comfortable for him. We find that an addict will not agree to change until he hits “rock-bottom,” i.e., that the pain incident to the addiction is greater than the pleasure it provides. This is equally true of the non-addict. Therefore, oftentimes individuals only agree to change when they have reached rock-bottom.
But what can constitute rock-bottom for the non-addict? A person who contemplates his life goals and sees that his behavior is jeopardizing his reaching those goals may reach rock-bottom. But this requires giving serious thought to defining one’s goals and purpose in life. Confronting death can usually lead to such introspection.The first chapter in Mesillas Yesharim (The Path of the Just) is entitled “A Person’s Obligation in His World.” The theme of this seminal work is the refinement of one’s character. Changing one’s character traits is a major challenge and is usually met with great resistance. Many times, real change won’t happen until one realizes that unless one does so, his life is meaningless. Uncompromised honesty is necessary to see through the psychological defenses that are a barrier to teshuva. Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Penitence and Yom Kippur are days in which one should be inspired to evaluate the meaning of one’s life. Only when we are aware that we need “fixing” will we do teshuva.
(Sources: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Shemos 38:8; Why Is It So Hard to Change? The Six Obstacles to Teshuvah, , by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski in Jewish Action, Fall 2012)