The Power of Habit

בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה, וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה. שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה. שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה. וּשְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה, עֲבֵרָה:

Ben Azai says: Run to do an easy commandment as to a difficult one, and flee from sin; since a commandment leads to another commandment, and a sin leads to another sin; since the reward for a commandment is another commandment, and the reward for a sin is another sin.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:2

The power of habit leaves the impact of goals in the dust. If you own a smartphone, there are a number of apps taking advantage of this important insight into human behavior. There are apps that track your activity and movement, how you drink or eat, how much time you spend on various parts of your day, just to name a few examples. What the creators and users of these apps intuit is that it one thing to say you are going to lose weight in the new year, and it is another to hold yourself accountable for actually altering your behavior.

The quote above also understands this fundamental truth. It begins with the idea that one should pursue the completion of even the smallest and easiest commandments (positive or right actions) with the same energy and intent as those that are more complex or challenging. Why? Because of the power of habit. Just like the physical force of friction makes the first moments of moving a heavy object the hardest, behavioral friction makes the initial acts of fulfilling commandments the hardest as well. But if you devote your will and energy to even little positive actions, you’ve begun to move the heavy object in the right direction, and as it accelerates, it takes less effort to continue moving it forward.

The Rabbis understood the power of habit, and their understanding is reflected in many Jewish practices, from blessings before and after eating to shabbat and holiday observance. In some ways, your habits are the most clearly observed windows into your values. It is very simply to say that you give charity, for example, but it speaks much louder if you make a habit of putting money into a meaningful cause in a regular way. The flip side is also discussed in this quote – run from even small sins, because they can become habit through the same exact process.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to think about your own habits, and perhaps any habits you have in your family. What do they say about you? Share this conversation with your children, and ask them what habits they think you do regularly.

Shabbat Shalom,