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Devarim and the Nine Days: Knowing What We Want

Question: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

This oft-quoted therapy joke usually gets a few dismayed chuckles out of most folks, and certainly the occasional eye-roll-accompanied guffaw from therapists themselves, but perhaps, like most jokes, the jest belies an important truth. Any therapist – or patient – worth his or her salt knows that motivation is the most essential ingredient to effecting change. If one does not truly desire the anticipated outcome, be it overcoming an addiction, shifting an interpersonal dynamic, or creating new ways of thinking and acting, then he or she will be far less likely to engage in the effortful steps that change often requires.

If we have done the work of self-reflection and have an awareness of a problem, habit, or obstacle in our lives, before we set out to do anything about it, we must ask ourselves the difficult questions: Do I really want to change? Am I really willing to be different, or for my life to be different than it is right now? Sometimes, even in situations in which it appears that the answer is obvious, such as when damage has clearly been done to oneself or others, or when someone or many people are suffering or struggling, it is actually not so simple. Sometimes, the hard truth might be that we actually are not yet willing. And if this is the case, we must approach the problem and our attempts to find a solution in an entirely different manner.

In Parshas Devarim, Moshe begins his review of the Jews’ 40-year sojourn through the desert as part of his parting speech to the Jewish people in advance of his impending death and their entry to Eretz Yisrael. In recounting the tragic story of the spies, Moshe highlights a crucial and painful truth. He recalls that when the spies returned and spoke slanderously about the land, “vilo avisem la’alos,” [the Jewish people] did not want to go up [to Eretz Yisrael] because they were worried due to the spies’ report (1:26). Moshe notes that Klal Yisrael responded with despair, complaining, “bi’sinas Hashem osanu hotzianu mei’eretz Mitzrayim… li’hashmideinu,” it is because of God’s hatred for us that He took us out of Mitzrayim, only to be destroyed [by the nations of Canaan] (1:27).

Rabbi Chaim Marcus, in his weekly Parsha shiur, highlighted the following important and sobering idea from R’ Avrohom Shorr, who explains the following according to the Imrei Emes of Ger. In the above pesukim, Moshe chastises the Jewish people, recognizing that their ambivalence and lack of true desire to enter the land in the wake of the spies’ report led them to see things in a distorted manner. Rather than recognizing that the spies’ report must be flawed, given that God had demonstrated so clearly that He loved and would protect Klal Yisrael to no end, the Jews’ underlying lack of desire to enter the land caused them to lose touch with reality, and create a false, distorted reality instead. The Jews’ fear warred with their Ratzon, ultimately dismantling their desire to enter their land, and distorted their thinking, leading them to believe that God hated them.

Moshe was rebuking the nation, “vi’lo avisem la’alos,” you did not want to go up to the land, and it was because you did not want to go that you began to think, “bi’Sinas Hashem osanu,” that God must hate you, and you questioned me (Moshe), asking, “Ana anachnu olim??” how can we go up?! (1:26-28). The Jewish people insisted that the task was impossible because they did not truly want to do it. Because of their hesitation and lack of true willingness to enter Eretz Yisrael, their thoughts created what psychologists might call a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby in the end, that generation did not in fact enter the land. As Rabbi Marcus poignantly put it, “our Ratzon becomes our reality;” Klal Yisrael did not want to go up, and this caused them to entirely misperceive their situation and God’s relationship with them.

Chazal describe the phenomenal power of the human will in many places, putting words of spiritual wisdom to the general concept of “if there’s a will, there’s a way.” R’ Avraham Schorr quotes one such example from the Chidah, who noted that nothing stands in the way of will (ain licha davar ha’omed bifnei haratzon). There are similar iterations of this idea throughout the Talmud (e.g. Makkos 10b:5, bi’Derech she’adam rotzeh leileich, bo molichin oso - in the path that man wants to go, God will lead him), and the Shem MiShmuel (Nasso 5:21) echoes a similar sentiment, noting that one’s will has the power to carry him to wherever he wants to go.

Our Ratzon, our desire, is an incredible force, a tool that can be used for better or for worse, to help us grow, or to keep us stuck and faltering. This is why we call it “willpower;” our will is incredibly powerful in shaping our reality.

Of course, fear is often the most volatile ingredient in blocking or decreasing our will and motivation. The Jewish people were tremendously fearful, and it was their worry that distorted their thinking and caused their motivation and desire to enter the land to cower and falter in response. We are not immune to fear, but we can be mindful of it, we can reflect and consider: if I find myself hesitating to want something that I know is good for me, what is it that is getting in the way? What am I afraid will happen if this change occurs? If we can answer those questions and generate effective solutions, we are on the path to increasing our willpower.

As we enter the nine days, we begin to ask ourselves the incredibly difficult questions inherent in this time of year. Am I really sad that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed? Do I really want this exile to end? Do I really want Mashiach to come? Am I really willing to let go of the life I have and embrace the spiritual reality of Geulah? And, furthermore, when I say that I can’t do, say, go, or accomplish, do I really mean that it is not possible, or do I mean that I do not want to?

Each Shabbos, we say in Licha Dodi, “Sof Maaseh BiMachashava Techila” the completion of any task begins first with a thought, with our desire to do the thing to begin with. Doing the deed in its entirety may not in itself be fully in our control, but what we must and can consider is whether we truly desire the outcome we say we are seeking.

We often rely heavily on the fact that Hashem judges us less by our actions and more by our desire. We implore Hashem to recognize that it is our will to do His will, and there are many practical, logistical things that hold us back (Tractate Berachos, 17a:2). God knows what holds us back; He knows that it is difficult to connect with Him in Galus, He knows that this long and painful exile confuses us and distorts our reality. God knows our daily lives leave us aching with questions, with feelings of anger and sadness and suffering. God knows what stands between us and a closer connection with Him: During this time of year, and particularly on Tisha B’Av, we do not ask ourselves “Why am I not better?” We ask only, “Do I want to be?”

This Shabbos, we ask ourselves, what do I really want? It may be difficult at first to face the truth of our own Retzonos; perhaps we are ambivalent about the impending arrival of Mashiach, perhaps we worry about what it will feel like to leave behind all that we know and enter into a world – and a land – that is so vastly different from what we are used to. Perhaps we fear that we are not worthy, or perhaps we realize that we actually feel quite apathetic and indifferent, and we must come to terms with the fact that right now, our Ratzon is wilted and weak.

Whatever the result, there is hope. Even the most ambivalent individual – or the most stubborn light bulb – is not lost or doomed to failure in in the absence of motivation. Ambivalence, antipathy, indifference, and a lack of will can be explored, and better understood, through patience, perseverance, and validation. So, too, Hashem does not expect us all to be bursting with desire for any of the things that we mourn on Tisha B’Av. He knows it is hard to cry, to generate more than crocodile tears at the thought of the loss of the Beis HaMikdash. He knows that sometimes we cannot even generate the feelings of despair, sadness, and hopelessness rendered by our present reality, the chaos and confusion and suffering of which results directly from the Churban, because it is too overwhelming. He knows that sometimes, we don’t yet have the yearning or desire, but we want to want it, or we want to want to want it.

This Shabbos, we ask ourselves the hard questions. We brace ourselves for the answers and prepare as best as we can for Tisha B’Av, which we pray will finally be celebrated as a Yom Tov. But in order for us to reach the spiritual milestones we seek both individually and as a nation, we must reflect on this idea: it takes only one moment, one action, one deed, one person to change the fate of a nation – but that nation has to want to change.

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