Teshuva and Positive Habits
What are your primary associations with the words Yom Kippur and repentance?
I ask this question to students in seminary classes. Even though students in different programs have widely varying amounts of Jewish background, the common answers invariably remain the same: saying sorry, fixing something wrong, forgiveness. All of these are true, and are in fact included in Maimonides’ four steps of repentance.
But they also miss the point. The goal of the High Holidays is not to apologize or to be granted forgiveness.
The Hebrew word teshuva is most commonly (mis)translated as repentance but, in fact, its actual translation is return. The goal of the High Holiday season is to return to G-d, to return to our friends, family and colleagues. Apologizing and forgiveness remain important, then, but only as a means to the end of bridging the gap, of achieving a more authentic relationship with G-d and our fellow man.
The corollary of this is that teshuva can be partially achieved not only through fixing what went wrong, but simply by increasing the good. As it turns out, starting a new positive habit can be transformative.
Gretchen Rubin writes:
“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40% of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.”
Whitehead’s observation that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them,” speaks to the need for automation to achieve technological and scientific advances.
The value of automation as applied to personal growth emerges from a concept articulated by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler called “levels of choice.”
Imagine two people walk past a McDonald’s. Person A grew up observant, never had a cheeseburger in his life and barely registers the McDonald’s existence.
Person B grew up eating cheeseburgers every month, but just a week ago decided to refrain from eating meat and milk together and is salivating. Both decide not to buy a cheeseburger.
Did they observe the same commandment? Do they get the same reward? R. Dessler notes that only Person B truly chose not to eat it, and thus receives greater reward. But if ten years later Person B also doesn’t care about cheeseburgers, his reward will diminish. Is that bad? No, because with cheeseburgers having evolved into an automatic “no, ” Person B’s cognitive resources can now be dedicated to different areas of struggle for which they receive reward.
“Wait,” you might ask, “aren’t we supposed to have intention in prayer? And in all our mitzvah observance? Praying on autopilot isn’t good! Observing Shabbat out of habit isn’t the point!”
This is true, at least on an ideal plane. What is also true is that as human beings — not angels — no one is on the ideal plane. Take prayer, for example. While it is sometimes better to say less prayers with more intention, one should not limit oneself only to praying for the few moments when one can muster proper intention.
The Talmud rules that when the first blessing of the Amidah is said on autopilot it is invalid and must be repeated; however, in the 16th century, the leading authority of Ashkenazi Jewish law, Rama, wrote that times have changed. He rules that today one should not repeat the blessing because we assume one will again not have the requisite intention. If this was true before the advent of smartphones, how much more so today!
Note, however, Rama still rules we should pray, even with our presumed lack of intention. Good deeds and prayer done on autopilot remain valuable. The easiest example is charity. If one gives charity robotically, the recipient still benefits. So it is with all our good deeds, and from within that framework of automatic habituation will emerge the precious, if rare, moments of true connection.
Adopting a positive habit in advance of Rosh Hashanah is essentially Rabbi Israel Salanter’s idea of a kabbalah. The habit can be in the realm of man-to-G-d (e.g., blessings before food) or the realm of person-to-person (e.g, visiting the sick or elderly).
Deciding upon a new habit is great, but implementing and sticking to it is a struggle. An immensely difficult struggle. Thus, that humorous but disappointing moment when we realize that our current new year resolutions are the same as last year’s, and the years before that.
Let us review some psychologically helpful strategies to sustain a positive habit, along with sources in
Jewish literature for these strategies:
Ethics of the Fathers 2:10 says, “Return (to G-d) one day before your death.” Well, which day is that? We don’t know, of course, but the message, as the Talmud explains, is that we should engage in introspection on a daily basis.
Psychological research has uncovered extraordinary findings regarding the value of consistency. For example, it might seem obvious that children with regular family dinners exhibited better social and health outcomes than those without.
But what defines “regularly”? Five times a week versus twice a week?
There is no difference between family dinner five times per week vs. six times per week, right? Remarkably, research found there are significantly better outcomes for each extra day of family dinner.
Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, writes that not only does six days of family dinner have better outcomes than, say, twice a week; it has better outcomes than even five days a week! Which has better outcomes than those who eat together four times a week, and so forth down the line.
In Torah study, the Daf Yomi initiative exemplifies the value of consistency. But for those not attuned to Talmud study, numerous other daily Torah study initiatives abound, such as the 929 program, studying one chapter of Bible a day.
2. Start Small
It’s easy to shy away from an initiative whose end goal feels further than the peak of Mr. Everest. The Torah and its commentaries are so vast that even the greatest Torah scholars cannot master all of them, yet the Midrash says:
“‘One who is foolish, what does he say? Who can completely remove these mountains of dirt?’ One who is wise, however, says I will remove two containers each day until I clear it all . . . So too, one who is foolish says, ‘Who can study the entire Torah?’But the wise man says, “I will study two laws or two chapters today, and two tomorrow, until I study it all.’”
So too in the interpersonal realm. Rather than say, I will visit someone sick daily, commit to sending a brief “hello” message daily.
3. Just Do It
Nike’s slogan, despite its ignominious origins, is on to something. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) posits, in a nutshell, that cognitions, behaviors and emotions each affect one another. Numerous Jewish sources implore us to employ a behavioral approach and take action in doing a good deed even if our heart is not passionate about it (yet).
“For the hearts are drawn after the actions,” says Sefer HaHinukh.
“External movement rouses an internal awakening, and certainly the external movement is more in one’s control than the inner element,” advises Mesillat Yesharim.
If you’ve decided upon a positive habit, don’t wait to be filled with emotional passion to start; rather, just do it and the emotional connection will come with time.
Research says that monitoring helps one identify strengths and weaknesses, increase conscientiousness and heighten emotional awareness.
The musar ethical literature is replete with variations on this theme, primarily revolving around the idea of heshbon hanefesh, “an accounting of the soul.” This concept suggests that we take stock of our goals and our actions on a regular basis, perhaps once a day or once a week. This not only helps motivate us to stick to our goals but also helps us modify them if we detect something not working.
Find a trusted friend or family member and ask him or her to check in on your progress periodically. Not in an intimidating way, but in a warm and friendly manner. The simple knowledge of being accountable beyond oneself increases motivation and consistency.
6. Social Influence
Termed social influence in the psychological literature, but more commonly referred to as peer pressure, this truth was put forth by the Midrash thousands of years ago. “Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor.” “Fortunate is the righteous one, and fortunate is his neighbor.”
Surround yourself with peers who are also growth-oriented; avoid those who may be cynical about your efforts.
Thank you to Fran Miller for the premise of the article and for referring me to many of the sources referenced.
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