In struggle to change, start from bottom

Change is difficult!
That much is abundantly clear to all of us. For if there is one thing we humans are, it is creatures of habit, and change is all about disrupting equilibrium. I’ve thought a lot about change over the years, what needed change and how to get there, and pursued personal transformation with sincere and ambitious resolve. And while I have, no doubt, experienced my fair share of personal successes in the game of change, far too many of my attempts suffered from failure to thrive.
As many of you can most likely relate to, my endeavors in personal change seemed to frustratingly follow a similar course and pattern. The outset, marked with a burst of excitement and optimism, propelled a change of course for a good few days, weeks — or, in the best-case scenario, months. Inevitably, though, time and nature exerted their influences and a reversion to the mean pronounced the end to the experiment.
The fact that a return to one’s “normal” is, well … normal, doesn’t make what feels like a colossal individual failure and a confirmation of personal inadequacy any easier to take, and it certainly makes any and all subsequent attempts at change harder to justify. After all, why go through all the exertion and pain that change requires if you’ll end up back at square one anyways?
I knew there had to be a better way to create meaningful, long-lasting change; I just didn’t know what it was.
It was a chance vaad (ethical discourse) with one of the leading ba’alei mussar (ethicists) of our generation, Rabbi Reuven Leuchter Shlit’’a, that first reformed my understanding of the nature of change as well as the nature of change’s counterpart, teshuvah, repentance.
R’ Leuchter shared with us a piece of Aggadata (non-legalistic rabbinic literature) that I must have heard dozens of times before, and yet his interpretation of the composition was fresh, revelatory and indeed life-changing!
The Talmud under discussion was a portion in Tractate Menachos (29b) that discusses the letters God used in creation:
“This world was created with the letter hey and the world to come was created with the letter yud. And why was this world created with the letter hey? Because… anyone who wants to leave this world (in sin, by falling out of the bottom opening of the hey) may do so. And what is the (significance) of the upper opening on the side? To teach us that anyone who desires to return in teshuvah (‘repentance’) can elevate himself and enter through it. And why can’t he simply return through the bottom opening (of which he initially descended)? (Answer:) That will surely not succeed.”
Rabbi Leuchter explained that this Talmudic teaching isn’t merely informing us that human failure and the ever-present possibility of repentance are hardwired into creation, but also what successful and unsuccessful teshuvah looks like. The Sages’ admonition that failure will meet all who attempt to return through the very hole they fell from serves as a strong warning against fighting one’s compulsions head-on and apprises us of the futility of this brand of teshuvah. There is a mighty gravitational pull that our sin of choice exerts upon us that keeps us returning to our old ways and it’s our imagining that we can overcome this compulsion by sheer force of will that has us stuck in this tired cycle of frustration (sin, repent, repeat). The Talmud is encouraging us to reckon with this dynamic force for what it really is, a substantive, compelling and spiritually deadly force that cannot be overcome in head-to-head battle.
So what is the way to topple this intimate, intangible adversary? By rising above it and re-entering the spiritual world through the upper opening in the letter hey. In other words, true, long-lasting teshuvah can only be found through the process of changing and redirecting our higher selves, by changing from the top! In dedicating study time to the areas of the Torah that examine any particular mitzvah or aveira (sin) we slowly find ourselves more closely aligned with that spiritual ideal or repelled by that spiritual pitfall in such a way that an organic mindshift around the matter noticeably develops.
It is particularly through this very process that we create the weaponry strong enough to succeed in spiritual battle, for our concentrated efforts in the study hall have borne a potent anti-gravity that elevates us above our powerful gravitational pull toward vice.
As Rabbi Leuchter writes in his newly published book Teshuva: Restoring Life — “The work of teshuvah is carried out on a much deeper level — it is not about using tactics to change our actions. It is rather about working on ourselves to the point where our drives and desires, and indeed all of our being, are in line with the world of the Torah” (pp. 26-27).
For the first time in my life I felt like I had the winning methodology of teshuvah in my hands, and it did indeed work! I must admit, though, that as my microfocused Torah study slowly came to an end, much of my newly formed mindshift eroded. I had to learn the hard way that for many of us there is a secondary process needed to seal the teshuvah deal — change from the bottom!
Next time we’ll discuss change from a more detailed look at change from the top.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at

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