Lesson 2: Nitzavim: “It is not in the heavens”: Can a person really change?

Course: Deuteronomy – Part 3
Lesson #2 of 4

Series: The Bible at Work: Career Coaching in the Torah

Teacher: Dr. Benny Benjamin

5Views | Published: September 11, 2023

Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

— George Bernard Shaw

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“Surely, this commandment which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Deuteronomy 30:11–12.
“No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” Deuteronomy 30:14.


This cosmic description concerns a commandment that is close and accessible and not in the heavens. But which commandment are we dealing with here? Some see this commandment as referring to the entire compendium of 613 commandments documented in the Torah. Still others see it as an allusion to the unique commandment of repentance, as elucidated in the verses preceding these. For those having strayed from observing God’s injunctions in their daily lives, the opportunity exists to “return” to the right path, the essence of repentance. While the focus of repentance in the Jewish calendar occurs during the High Holidays of the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, repentance remains a strategy for year-round engagement. 


When Moses invokes the image of “It is not in the heavens” and “Nor is it beyond the sea,” but it is “close to you,” he appears to be saying that you might view this commandment as most worthy and admirable but impossible to perform: It’s beyond reach.” However, be assured that it is not beyond reach, leaving you no pretext to dismiss it, the message being that you can return to God and His ways (i.e., adopt desirable values and behaviors), and the onus is on you. 


These verses introduce a radical principle of behavior change. While it doesn’t specify techniques to replace undesirable habits or adopt new behaviors, it stresses that if individuals go astray, they have the wherewithal to make their way back to the desired path and determine the behavior they wish to embrace.




Can a person really change?

Behavior change is an elusive phenomenon that, for all time, has engaged parents, governments, managers, and, yes, individuals. The workplace is a prime venue for seeking behavior change (in others). Your boss may have expectations of you that go beyond your current level of performance, whether it’s producing more sales, writing more code, or having more satisfied clients. Modifying behavior in the workplace is likely to be more straightforward than in other life domains due to the structural forces at work. These can include carrots (recognition, bonuses, promotion, awards, prestige, keeping a job you like, perks) and sticks (being skipped over for promotion, no raise, losing a desirable assignment, or losing your parking spot).


However, these expectations comprise a myriad of alternative behaviors, so don’t look for a one-size-fits-all strategy. For instance, “having more satisfied clients” for one worker could be accomplished by smiling and engaging in small talk; others may have to make numerous calls before and after a sale to generate satisfied customers. Employees sensitive to their clients’ preferences would do well to cultivate a well-stocked tool chest of behaviors. 


The challenge of behavior change has spawned many formulas over the decades, none guaranteeing success. The familiar light bulb joke comes to mind, stressing the importance of motivation: “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the bulb has to really want to change.” 


An interesting model for behavior change calls on individuals to be attuned to what factors most impact their personal and social behavior. Among the critical elements of change at the personal level are how important it is for you to change or adopt a new behavior (Do you want to change?) and if you have the skills to do so (Can you change?). If you’re honest with yourself, you can gage your real motivation (Are you sincere, or are you doing it only to appear as if you care?); and if you lack some skills, outside help (consulting with colleagues or enlisting a coach) would be the way to go. At the social level, we are likely influenced by those around us at work, such as sensing peer pressure (How critical is it to you to meet or exceed the performance of colleagues?). However, an even more important social tool would be to recruit friends or colleagues (behavior change buddies?) to support your campaign to embrace new behaviors (With whom can I share my successes and failures in my efforts to take on new work behaviors?).


Career tips:


  • A common impediment to modifying behavior is when an individual adopts the convenient motto: “I’m sorry. That’s just how I am!” This means that “you shouldn’t expect me to change to accommodate your expectations of me; if you respect me, you’ll accept me as I am.” It also says, “I have no control over my life; I’m too set in my ways, and making an effort to change would be a waste of time.” Listening to individuals using this tack, I have found that this statement may indicate, “I don’t really want to change. This is your problem, not mine.” If you subscribe to this mantra, I invite you to rethink your approach and consider the alternative: “I’m willing to work on it.” Authentic change, especially modifying habits, is a slow process with inevitable ups and downs. Perhaps engaging a mentor is the path that will work best for you. An excellent place to begin to change things around for you is to practice micro-behaviors that address micro-objectives. For example, if you want to expand your collaboration options at work, you may expand your circle of contactds by simply offer a smile and a “good morning” to persons you don’t regularly acknowledge at the start of every day. 


  • The remote/hybrid workplace has emerged as the new normal, requiring adapting to new conditions and cultivating new behaviors. Working from home or your neighborhood communal work center offers conveniences as well as the challenge of engineering a productive time and space. The skills and conditions that we always viewed as important now take on a new urgency, such as time management (How do I schedule my day?), appropriate physical surroundings (Do I have the necessary tools for my assignments? Can I control distractions—food, phone, and family?). 


  • Try this: Hybrid functioning requires modifying long-established habits. A critical element of hybrid work is planning how meetings and collaboration will be scheduled. For instance, use your remote days for tasks that can benefit from alone time, and workplace days should exploit opportunities for interaction. You may need more frequent but shorter meetings, with some participants tuning in virtually. Efforts must be made to ensure that all colleagues feel they are on the same page, wherever they are. 


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