In 2012 the wonderful book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg was a trailblazer in explaining how habits that we might not even realize we have can dictate our lives. Habits emerge without our permission and are so powerful because they create neurological cravings, which can emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist. One study by Duke University researchers found that more than forty percent of the actions people performed every day weren’t actual decisions, but habits. Even though science has explained how habits work, there is no one formula for changing them because habits, like people, are all different. Giving up cigarettes is different from curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work. But every habit, not matter how complex, is malleable. As such, Duhigg gives us hope and tells us that “change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” The idea that habits are crucial in enabling us to have the lives we desire is not new and is one of the most prominent subjects in classic Medieval and post Renaissance Jewish works on self-realization and character development. This week’s Parsha gives insight into the sublime subject of conscious and unconscious habits.
An Ammonite and Moabite shall not enter the congregation of G-d …. Because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt. (Deut. 23:4-5)
The males of the nations of Ammon and Moab were forbidden from converting and joining the Jewish people. This is because they refused to assist the Jews when they left Egypt. Ammon and Moab are descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. As kin, they should have met the Jews with bread and water; instead, they greeted them with warfare. Moab even hired the pagan astrologer Balaam in an attempt to curse the Jews.
[Since the males of Ammon and Moab showed themselves to be thoroughly corrupt, they may never join the Jewish people but the females had no part in the aggression of their fathers, brothers and husbands and therefore, they are not barred from converting and joining the Jewish people. (Ruth, the progenitor of the of the Davidic (and therefore Messianic) dynasty, was a Moabite convert. Practically speaking, due to foreign conquest and dispersion, we no longer can identify the descendants of Ammon and Moab and therefore there is no longer a concern for this matter.]
The failure of Ammon and Moav to be gracious hosts is difficult to understand in light of the fact that Lot was their patriarch. Lot excelled in being a gracious host (hachnasat orchim) to the extent that he risked his life to look after the total strangers who came to Sodom and needed a place to stay. How is it possible that in a few generations this trait completely disappeared and his descendants displayed such indifference? The 16th century work Maylitz Yosher answers that if a person performs kindness because of an internal recognition of its importance and a genuine desire to help others, then it will become ingrained in his descendants for many generations. However, if the kindness comes from habit then it will not be internalized by future generations.
Lot did indeed excel in kindness but that was only because he was brought up in the home of Abraham and Sara, paragons of kindness. He did not attain an internal recognition of the importance of kindness, it was merely a habit he had acquired and consequently Lot’s actions were not internalized; they did not become an integral part of him.
One of the great instructors of Jewish character development in the early 20th century was Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka. He observes that in the story of the rescue of Lot from Sodom, the Torah says that G-d remembered Abraham and therefore freed Lot. (Genesis 19:29) The Midrash explains that Lot was saved because of a particular incident involving Abraham. When Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt and Abraham said that Sarah was his sister, Lot could have easily revealed the truth to the Egyptians and probably have a capital gain from doing so. Question: Lot was saved from destruction in Sodom for not committing the terrible act of informing on his own uncle to the Egyptians, but surely his risking his life to accommodate total strangers who needed a place for the night in Sodom should have been the reason he was saved.
The Alter of Slabodka answers that Lot’s hospitality (hachnasat orchim) was a result of his upbringing but not something he had worked on to internalize, it was not considered a great accomplishment deserving of reward. In contrast, we know from a number of sources that he had an innate desire for money and this was so great that he felt a great temptation to at least hint to the Egyptians that Sarah was Abraham’s wife and not his sister. In this area, he did not have the benefit of habit to help him, rather he was forced to exercise self-control and succeeded through his own efforts to do the right thing. In that instance, his ability to refrain from being an informer was considered greater than his tremendous kindness in Sodom.
This incident gives us an insight into Jewish theology. Every person has free will and is judged according the moral life choices (s)he makes. We are not judged purely according to how many mitzvot and good deeds we do but to the degree with which we improve ourselves through our own efforts.
Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment is two and a half weeks away. Each person is judged separately by means that takes into account intrinsic nature as well the home in which one was raised, and all other applicable individual considerations. This explains why we can never judge a person until we stand in his or her place. No one other than G-d knows all the factors in a personal’s life or the challenges (s)he has.
We began with The Power of Habit and showed how important habits are in Judaism, but only to the extent that we have developed them ourselves and consciously made them a part of our being. As we complete the final weeks of the Jewish year 5777, let us all take stock of our habits. Am I impulsive? Is detachment or seclusion the way I deal with uncomfortable situations in life? Have I created a daily habit of learning Torah or done something to enhance myself as a Jew? You are whatever your habits are; choose them wisely.
(Sources: Talelei Oros, Devarim, p. 47 quoting Maylitz Yosher; Michtav M’Eliyahu, III pp. 131-2 quoting the Alter of Slabodka; ibid. I, pp. 115-6; The Guiding Light by Rabbi Yehonason Geffen)