One day a scorpion asks a Frog for a ride across the river. The Frog responds, “Are you kidding? Of course not! I know you, Scorpion, and you would sting me and I’d die. No way will I carry you on my back!” The Scorpion challenges the Frog, “Why would I do that? If I sting you and you die, we both drown. You have nothing to fear by carrying me across the river.” The Frog decides that what the Scorpion said makes sense, so he agrees to the request.
Midway across the river, the Scorpion stings the Frog. As the Frog gasps his last breath before drowning, he implores the Scorpion, “Why? Why did you sting me, knowing we will both drown?” The Scorpion replies, “It’s my nature.”
This well-known story is a proof text for a commonly held belief. We are who we are, wired from birth with our flaws and talents, likes and dislikes, and attitudes and character traits that are immutable. This deterministic perspective essentially seals us off from any true chance to alter the trajectory of our lives.
The notion that the die is cast from birth is so depressing. Jerry Maguire says to his recently wedded wife who sees their marriage tanking because he can’t open up his soul to her, “What if I’m not built that way”? In other words, what if his fear of intimacy is in his DNA? What if whatever he’s doing is all he can do?
Are our lives predetermined by our biochemistry? Are we doomed just to keep kicking the same old dented can down the road? Is there nothing we can do about our rough spots? Is it all about repetition compulsion, just repeating the same mistakes over and over again?
While this debate continues in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience circles, in our tradition there is no argument or ambiguity. Judaism teaches that we are a work in progress. We are not held captive by inborn twisted character flaws. “What if I’m not built that way,” doesn’t work in the Jewish tradition.
Judaism doesn’t work if we don’t have the freedom to choose right from wrong. God does not predetermine ANYTHING about what we do in the world. The Holy One provides an ethical foundation, and then it’s up to every individual to decide how to interface with that foundation.
It is, of course, no accident that I chose this topic for today’s Before Shabbat. With High Holy Days coming up, with all of our liturgical references to repentance and forgiveness, it’s worth reiterating that we truly do believe in this process. We can become better human beings. We don’t have to keep shlepping the angst and pain. There are no rewards for stubbornly sticking to one’s story, even when we know we’re maybe a little wrong. For the Jewish people, biochemistry aside, if you decide you want to change, then you can change.
This process of self-improvement, of repenting one’s sins and forgiving people who have hurt us, is not easy. In fact, it’s extremely difficult. We adopt so many bad habits. We pursue foolish goals that divert us from the task of living life to its fullest. We get caught up in the cycles of avarice and greed. We don’t take a stand.
And yet, all of this aside, we do have the ability to change, to reach for something more. We can be more than what we are. It “just” takes time and effort and dedication. This is a lifetime struggle, not just a quick reflection before the new year.
You can think and think about change, but ultimately you’ll have to start. Yes, change is hard. Yes, it involves taking responsibility for your life. Yes, it requires you to give up the familiar, which no matter how unpleasant can still feel comforting. And yes, change will put you face-to-face with loss. But what’s beautiful about this loss is that while you might have to give up the hope for a better past or a less painful present, the future is squarely in your court.
There is no finish line on this. There is no completion, no perfection. There is only free will and our courage and resilience to look in the mirror and acknowledge that we have lots to do to make the world – and ourselves – better, more viable.
The theme of Teshuvah – repentance – is not some hypothetical suggestion. It’s a real challenge to each of us. So come to temple. Come be inspired to stand tall. Come rededicate yourself to living a life of openheartedness and meaning. Come remember how to be a mensch.
Don’t forget that Saturday night is Selichot. At 8 pm there will be lots of contemplative space for prayer and meditation. Join us; it will absolutely put you in the right frame of mind and soul.