Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Behar-Bechukotai: "Habit Power"

Whenever my grandfather would visit us he would ask me to obtain the key for the local synagogue. As regular readers of this column know by now, my paternal grandfather was a man who utilized his every spare moment to study Torah. Rather than study at home, he preferred to study in a community beit midrash, or study hall, and so he would frequent the beit midrash of the local synagogue whenever possible. It was my task to make sure that he was able to enter the local shul when he visited our community.

When I delivered the key to him he would say, “Now I am assured that I will be able to emulate King David.” At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. But then he explained this cryptic statement to me by teaching me a comment of the Midrash on a verse in one of the two Torah portions that we read this week, Behar/Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34).

The opening verses of the second of these twin parshiyot are usually translated thus: “If you follow my decrees and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit”. (Leviticus 26:3-4) We can understand why that first phrase is not translated literally, for if it were it would read: “If you walk in My decrees”! What would that mean? What might be the significance of “walking in God’s decrees”?

Rashi, bothered by the Torah’s choice of the word “walking”, offers one approach to resolving the question. But in the Midrash Rabbah we find an alternative approach. The Midrash connects our phrase to a verse in Psalms, in which King David proclaims: “I have considered my ways, and have turned my feet to Your decrees” (Psalms 119:59). Upon which the Midrash puts these words into King David’s mouth: “Master of the universe, each and every day I would consider attending such and such an event or going to such and such a place. But my feet would eventually lead me to synagogues or to study halls.” This, concludes the Midrash¸ is David’s intent when he proclaims, “I have turned my feet to Your decrees.”

Over the generations, numerous scholars have written extensive commentaries upon the Midrash. One of them, the 19th century Rabbi David Luria, reminds us that Hillel the Elder made a very similar statement when he declared: “To the place I love, that is where my feet lead me” (Talmud Tractate Sukkah 53a), upon which the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan commented, “A person’s feet are his guarantors!”

A contemporary of Rabbi Luria, Chanoch Zundel, elaborates eloquently upon the passage in the Midrash in his fascinating work, Eitz Yoseph. He points out that the private thoughts and personal considerations of even a man like David would not have led him to spiritually exemplary deeds, to Torah study and prayer. Thus David confesses that when he planned his day, he had other intentions regarding his ultimate destinations, “other events and other places”. However, his feet, which Rabbi Chanoch Zundel suggests refer to his physiological habits, his locomotive reflexes, carried him to where he really belonged, to the spiritual destination he unconsciously preferred.

Rabbi Chanoch Zundel helps convince us that his interpretation of this Midrashic passage is correct by pointing out that the Hebrew word for “habit” is hergel¸ which has as its root the Hebrew word for foot, regel.

There is an important universal lesson here about the power of habit. If one consistently behaves in a certain way he establishes a pattern of behavior which becomes “hard-wired” into his nervous system. That “hard-wired” pattern becomes activated even when the person does not intend to activate it. This is why establishing a morally desirable pattern of behavior is so essential. In moments of temptation, or in moments of stress, when our conscious minds might not activate those desirable patterns, our nervous system kicks on, and those important patterns becomes activated without our conscious intention.

The great medieval author of the Sefer HaChinuch said it so succinctly and so well when he wrote: “Acharei ha’peulot nimshachim ha'levavot—after our actions do our hearts follow.” Habits of action lay down the groundwork for our behavior and influence our emotions. He further suggests that habits even overpower our emotions when we would otherwise unwisely yield to those emotions.

One of my favorite American philosophers, who lived and wrote long after the various rabbinic sources which I have quoted heretofore, came to a very similar conclusion about the power of habit and its positive utility for making proper moral decisions. I refer to William James, whose text The Principles of Psychology remains so very relevant and timely despite being written in 1890.

The fourth chapter of James’ book is entitled “Habit”, and is often published as a separate essay in various anthologies of his works. He begins the chapter with this observation: “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits.”

James goes on to give a very impressive array of examples to demonstrate just how forceful habits can be. One such example is that “men grown old in prison have asked to be readmitted after being once set free.” They are so habituated to prison life that freedom is overwhelming for them.

But the greatest contribution of James’ remarkable essay is his insistence that we use the power of habit in our own education, and particularly in our moral education. He recommends that we “make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”

He has some specific suggestions, some of which sound like quotations from a primer on mussar, on religious and ethical behavior: “Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make…”; “No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better…”; “there is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer…who never does a manly concrete deed”.

James even goes so far as to recommend that one “do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it” just to strengthen yourself “to stand like a tower when everything rocks around him”.

The wisdom of William James is consistent with the perspective of our Torah. If one's feet are accustomed to walking in God’s statutes he will do so even when distracted by other challenges. This was the secret of my grandfather’s key. For him it was a concrete symbol of where his feet wanted to go, of his most deeply desired destination—the shul and the beit midrash.

Our sages said it so well: Lo hamidrash hu ha'ikkar ela ha'maaseh. It is not theory which is paramount. It is action!