Can I Really Change?
I have the privilege of serving as the sh’lichat tsibur (prayer leader) for much of the day of Yom Kippur in my synagogue. For me, the final service of Ne’ilah is a spiritual highlight of the year. I’d probably feel hungry if I weren’t standing on the bimah that I love. But in that place, facing the ark, pouring my heart out with the words of the Machzor(High Holiday prayer book), I’m not eager to end the fast. It is a time of high energy and elevated consciousness, with a sense of cleansing and purity. During that last hour of the fast, it feels like I really could become the person I aspire to be.
But then the service ends. I come down off the spiritual high, gather with friends I love for the break-fast, and begin to re-enter ordinary life. Sometimes I utter words of lashon hara (gossip or unsacred speech) before the meal is even over. Within a day or two, I am usually engaging in some of the forgetful patterns that I spent the whole Elul and High Holy Day season repenting for. A little voice inside might even whisper, “Can you really change? You’ve been this way your whole life!”
Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev (1740-1810 Poland and Ukraine) gives us a breath-taking image to remind us of the radical possibility of personal change.
“Each and every Jew is obligated to believe with complete faith that in each and every moment s/he receives the life-force from the Creator. This is like the midrash, “ ‘Let every soul [neshama] praise God,’ (Psalms 150:6) rather, let each and every breath [neshima] praise God.” For, in each and every moment, the life-force tries to leave the body, but the Holy One sends a new life-force. Thus, accordingly, teshuva is really effective for everyone who turns in teshuva. You must believe that you are a completely new creation, and the Holy One, in great mercy, does not hold the former sins against you. . . . If you really believe that you are a new creation, then teshuva is effective. . . . Further, this elucidates the story in the Talmud, “ ‘When will the Master [Messiah] come?’ He replied, ‘Today.’ [That is, today] if you listen to God’s voice.” That is to say, the Messiah will come when you truly experience that every day you are a new creation.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak teaches that with every breath we take, God breathes life into us as on the day of creation. If God did not want to keep sustaining us, we could die on any out-breath. God chooses to give us the gift of life anew each time we breathe in.
We are literally a “new creation” with each new breath. In this new creation, the sins of the previous breath are dead and gone. Thus, with each new breath, teshuva becomes a reality, bringing us the vibrant chance for an entirely new life – more holy, more connected to God and to others, more deeply committed to kindness, goodness, and justice.
This image makes my breath quicken. I feel the sense of renewed vitality in my chest. My body breathes with a sense of renewed energy. I can start anew. Anything is possible!
The Alter of Slobodka expresses a similar sentiment, reflecting on the line from the Shacharit (morning) service, “God renews in God’s goodness, constantly, each day, the whole of creation.” He writes, “This is a recognition that the whole of creation is created anew, as if humanity was born now, as if a moment ago the universe was nothingness, and the human being was a lifeless body, . . . without knowledge or awareness, without wisdom to understand. And in the flash of a sudden moment, God’s radiance is suddenly shone upon us, opening vistas, bringing us into the light of the world, blowing within us the spirit of life . . . placing within us seichel (intellect) to understand and a spirit of wisdom."  When I can remember to treasure the gift of each breath, and the gift of life itself, then I am in touch with the possibility of transformation that is present in any moment. Can I change? Absolutely, in any moment to which I bring my full attention and intention. Consider Now: Do you appreciate that each moment of life is a new gift from God? How might this realization inspire you to change?
 Kedushat Levi on Eicha 5:21  Ohr HaTzafon / The Hidden Light, essay called, “The Reason for Brachot,” translated by Rabbi Avi Fertig
This post was written for and distributed by The Mussar Institute,