Friday, May 11, 2018

Parashat BeHukotai: Habit

A Message for Parashat BeHukotai 2018
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The human brain is hardwired to develop habits. Our habits, formed by routine, play a crucial role in maintaining mental efficiency. Unencumbered by thoughts about basic behaviors such as walking and choosing what to eat, we can instead focus our mental energy on more complex insights and tasks. Realizing that so much of our everyday thought and activity is decided by habits, the famous psychologist William James once remarked, “All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”[1] Understanding our habits and learning how to positively manipulate them is a critical component of our success.

The Hakhamim portrayed the potential dangers of habituation in a well-known midrash that related Esav’s angry approach of Yaakov’s sons as they prepared his burial at Me’arat HaMakhpelah. Esav argued that he – and not Yaakov – was the rightful heir to burial at the me’arah and demanded that the brothers bring a bill of sale to prove their father’s ownership. In the midst of this heated debate, Hushim the son of Dan – who was hard of hearing – innocently asked why the burial had delayed. Ashamed that his grandfather’s body lay in degradation, he drew a club and hit Esav on the head.[2] Carefully analyzing the Hakhamim’s telling of this scene, the question arises as to why nobody but Hushim could take a defiant stance at that time.

R. Hayim Shmuelevitz z”l, the famed mashgiah of Yeshivat Mir, suggested that this story portrays the dangers of becoming “stuck” in an unhealthy habit. Ensconced in a heated debate with their uncle, the sons of Yaakov lost track of a rational understanding of the situation. They had become habituated to the petty disagreement with Esav and were overcome by the need to “prove their side.” This blocked them from then realizing that their father’s corpse lay embarrassingly exposed. Only an “outsider” to the situation – the hard of hearing Hushim who was removed from the argument – could instinctively act upon hearing what was actually taking place.[3]

Researchers have recently worked to better understand the development of our habits. They found that habits work on a “loop.” They begin with a cue – a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, continue with the routine – which can be physical, mental or emotional, and end with the reward – which helps your brain decide that this loop is worth remembering in the future. Unless you deliberately fight the habit, by finding a new routine, the pattern will unfold automatically.[4]

The Hakhamim’s commentary at the beginning of Parashat BeHukotai demonstrates their understanding of the vital role of habit to our lives. The parashah begins:
If you shall walk by My statutes and keep my commands and do them, I shall give you rains in their season, and the land will give its yield and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (VaYikra 26:3)
The Rabbis were sensitive to the awkward pairing of the verb “walk” with “statutes.” The expected verb would be “following” the statutes, or “obeying” them. What does it mean to “walk” by the laws? They drew upon a legend regarding King David, who remarked that although he planned to visit various places and homes on a daily basis, he consistently realized that his “feet brought him” instead to the synagogues and batei midrash.[5] The Hakhamim thus interpreted the command to “walk by My statutes” as God’s call for us to develop an appropriate “habit loop.”

Changing our current habits and replacing them with new ones is difficult. It will take a considerable amount of time and effort. The first words of Parashat BeHukotai remind us, however, of the importance to do so. Merely “following the missvot requires a constant battle; “walking by them” will render them second-nature. 

[1] William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (Mineola, NY, 1962), pg. 33.
[2] Sotah 13a.
[3] R. Hayim Shmuelevitz, Sihot Mussar (Jerusalem, IS, 2004), pg. 410-11.
[4] Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 19-20.
[5] VaYikra Rabbah 35:1.