Things that lie at the very essence of various creations are usually beyond imagination – if not outright impossible – to change in any appreciable manner.
We are the singular exception.
Stories abound of people – men and women not unlike me or you – who not only turned their lives around for the better, but who never believed it was possible to act against their baser instincts, only to later become models of humility, purity and compassion.
How does that happen? How does one make a 360-degree change in areas where he or she feels that nature, their genes, inborn traits or a lifetime of less-than-ideal behavior makes it virtually impossible to change in any real or meaningful manner? Most importantly, can we ever actually become that person whom we’ve admired but always felt we can never be?
As we celebrate Shavuos, let us contemplate for a moment who and what we were a mere fifty days – less than two full months – before receiving the Torah at Har Sinai and becoming G-d’s beloved nation. We’d come out of Egypt, a land steeped in idolatry and immorality. When Hashem told Moshe to demand that the sea split and allow us through, the sea refused to do so, saying, “Hallolu ovdei avodah zarah – These and those (both the Jews and the Egyptians) are idol-worshippers.”
Clearly, it was not a simple matter at that time to even tell us apart from the base society from which we’d just emerged.
How, then, could we have stood, a short seven weeks later, at the foot of Har Sinai,accepting Hashem’s singular, most precious possession, the Torah, which we would embrace and give our lives for from that day onwards, living up to its loftiest and most subliminal ideals? Can a person simply change just like that? Don’t we all wish it could be as easy for us, but we feel that some changes are simply beyond our capabilities?
The answer can be found in a fascinating Maharsha in Maseches Sanhedrin (34a). True, we cannot change so easily. We are who we are, with certain inborn traits given to us by nature, and others absorbed by nurture. Yet, the Maharsha tells us, we can remain exactly who we are, but instead channel ourselves in an entirely different direction.
The tool with which such a feat can be accomplished is the Torah, and this is how it works:
Suppose we have a silver coin, minted by the Bim Dynasty, and we’re living under the Bim jurisdiction. The coin has the face of King Bim embossed on one side and the words “50 Silver Grams” imprinted on the other side. The coin, of course, is worth fifty silver grams.
In a bloodless coup, however, the Bum Dynasty suddenly throws out the Bims, taking the reign of power for themselves. Overnight, all coins minted by the Bims are no longer considered legal currency. No longer can we use our Bim Dynasty silver to pay for any goods or services.
Are all our coins worthless, though? Surely not. Our aforementioned coins are still silver and still contain fifty grams of the precious metal. What we need to do is to re-strike the coin in the new Bum Dynasty image. The silver needs to be heated up until the metal softens and becomes more pliable. A form with the face of King Bum is then firmly pressed onto the silver.
We have the same silver coin, containing the same fifty grams, but it can now be used, whereas it had previously been absolutely useless.
The posuk tells us (Yirmiyahu 23:29), “Halo ko devori ko’aish ne’um Hashem ukepatish yefotzetz selah – Behold, My words are as fire, says G-d, and as a hammer smashes stone.”
Hashem is telling us that His words, His Torah, is like fire and like a hammer striking stone.
Why is He telling us this?
The Gemara in Maseches Kiddushin (30b) teaches, “Tanna devei Rav Yishmoel, beni, im pogah boch menuval zeh…”Rav Yishmoel taught that if the yeitzer hara is making things difficult for us, we should “shlep him to the bais medrash,” meaning that we should use the eternal words of Torah as an antidote to his powerful pull over us. “Im even hu nimuach, ve’im barzel hu mispotzetz.” If the yeitzer hara was for us an unyielding rock, it will melt. If it was iron, it will shatter to bits. The Gemara learns this from the posuk in Yirmiyahu which states, “Halo ko devori ko’aish…ukepatish yefotzetz selah.”
The Maharsha in Maseches Sanhedrin tells us that the word “selah,” a stone, can also mean a coin, which is also made of metal. Thus, the Gemara tells us that the yeitzer hara often seems to us unyielding as stone and as unchanging as iron. What we must realize, though, is that a coin can keep its form for millennia if left as is, but can be changed and recast in a different form. The true value, which is its silver content, is there all along. All one needs to do is to soften the metal in fire and then re-strike the coin in a different form. The silver value, while unchanged, will then be reflected in a totally new and different form.
It’s the same, the Maharsha explains, with us. The way we see ourselves, indeed the way we currently are, is how we are currently cast. The traits, the desires, the needs and the wants, which seem so overpowering, are our silver content. Currently, we may be utilizing or channeling them in a less than productive or proper manner. However, those very same traits and potential, when recast, can be utilized in the service of Hashem and personal growth. What we need is to re-cast ourselves.
We do that with some fire and a firm mold with which to impress an entirely new outer form and direction upon ourselves. That fire, and that firm mold, is the Torah. Without it, of course, we are doomed to keep repeating even those behaviors upon which we ourselves look down. With the Torah, however, we are empowered – like no other nation on earth – to take our inner selves, no matter how we’ve been fashioned or formed, and, with the fire of Torah lit brightly, bring out our inner silver and shine it brightly in the very best way imaginable.