Where does change come from?
We are in the season of self-examination preceding the High Holidays. During this time, we try look back at what we have made of this past year, and we look forward to what the New Year may hold for us. We think about what changes we might like to see in our actions and in our lives in the year that is coming. But, we might ask, how does this process of change work? Where does change come from?
The first line of the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for this week, from the prophet Isaiah, suggests one answer. “Arise, shine!” cries the prophet, “for your light has dawned; the Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!” (Isaiah 60:1).
The message seems clear: Change comes from the outside. God shines the divine light on us, and we are transformed. God can exchange our hearts of stone for hearts of flesh, and we can be transformed by bathing in the light of the Holy One.
This is a powerful approach to change. Just as we turn to God for help in so many aspects of our lives, acknowledging our lack of complete control, so, too, can we turn to the Divine to help us with the difficult task of changing our behavior and altering —even by a few degrees — the trajectory of our lives. We need a force larger than our own will to assist us in this task, and in the prayers of the High Holidays we plead with God to transform us. We have the will; we ask God to provide the way.
This line from Isaiah is so powerful that the poet who wrote the Friday night liturgical song “L’cha Dodi” quoted it to dramatize the transformation that Shabbat can bring to us when our spirits are weary.
But in one Friday night prayerbook I was looking at recently, there is a fascinating typographical error. Instead of saying ki va [vet-aleph] orech — “for your light has dawned” — it reads ki vah [vet-hei] orech — “for your light is in you!”
Beyond a mere printer’s error, this re-writing of Isaiah suggests a completely different answer to the question of where change comes from. The potential for change, it seems to say, is deeply implanted within each human being. Our light is always within us, even when we think that we have strayed far from the ideals that should guide our lives.
Change comes from finding that point of light within our own souls and letting its power suffuse us. This idea also finds its expression in the High Holiday prayers, which insist that we have enormous capacity for good within us, if we will only get out of our own way and allow our light a clear path into the world.
This, too, is a powerful approach to change. Often, as we approach the High Holidays, we are overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and self-reproach. But instead of sinking down into a morass of regret, we can try to find the points of light within us. When we look back at the year that has passed, we can discern those high points when that light was able to shine, and we can work in the coming year to express our light more fully.
Which of these paths toward change is the right one? Of course, the answer is both. May we be open both to change from without and to change from within in this New Year.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org .