How to Change a Habit
Sukkah at Israel Museum
I was troubled during the Yom Kippur davening.
Toward the end of the amidah we beseech God, “May it be Your will that I don’t sin any more.”
I was thinking that I’m saying what I really mean, but I know that I will sin again.
I wanted a strategy to overcome sin.
It seemed to me that to ask God that I not sin any more without having a good strategy to avoid sin was pretty useless.
I realize that the purpose of Yom Kippur is confession and atonement. Maybe I was expecting too much from the machzor.
During Simchat Torah I found a solution to my dilemma that I’d like to share with you.
Here’s my thinking now: On Yom Kippur we confess and we receive the atonement that we need to begin the new year. The strategies to maintain the level of tahara that we achieved on Yom Kippur are presented to us during Sukkot.
Let me explain.
Total Immersion versus Step-by-Step
Suppose a person has a habit that they want to break. (Let’s face it, in many instances the sins we commit are in the form of habits.)
For this blog post I will use as an example a habit that doesn’t carry with it the baggage of being labeled a sin.
Suppose you want to stop chewing gum. You’ve decided it takes too much of your time and you don’t like how you look when you’re chewing.
There are many strategies you could follow. Two of the major approaches can be summarized as cold turkey and gradual withdrawal.
Cold turkey means setting a date and time and declaring as of that time you will no longer chew gum. You throw away the open package sitting on your desk and with resolve declare that never again will gum cross your lips.
Gradual withdrawal means that you slowly over time reduce how often you engage in the activity. You set some boundaries and a schedule to reduce how many pieces you chew each day. You may have a goal to completely eliminate the habit over the course of the next month.
I want to suggest that both approaches are hinted at during Sukkot.
Sukkah – Cold Turkey
The mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah is a mitzvah of total immersion.
A person fulfills the mitzvah of sukkah with their whole body. You move your furniture into the sukkah. You eat your meals in the sukkah. To the extent possible, for the week of Sukkot your regular house does not exist.
You don’t gradually move into the sukkah. Nope. On the 14th of Tishrei you’re outside the sukkah. On the 15th of Tishrei you’re in the sukkah.
It’s very much like the cold turkey strategy. It’s all or nothing.
Tefillat Geshem – Step-by-Step
There is another model of change represented by Tefillat Geshem (the prayer for rain).
On Simchat Torah before Musaf we ask God that the winter rains will be plentiful and full of blessing.
Then we make one small change in our Amidah. In the second blessing, we start saying “mashiv haruach u’morid hageshem.”
That’s it. One small change.
At the beginning it’s difficult. Sometimes you forget to say it. Sometimes you’re not sure if you said it.
The halacha reflects that uncertainty. In a nutshell, during the first 30 days, if you’re not sure you said “mashiv haruach u’morid hageshem,” then you must assume you did not say it. Your old habit from before Simchat Torah is still dominant.
After 30 days, the assumption is that you’ve successfully formed the new habit and you did say it.
Two Models of Change
I’m suggesting that Sukkot and Tefillat Geshem can teach us valuable lessons about how to change.
I used the silly example of gum chewing. It seems to me that the lesson can apply to many habits.
Examine yourself. When you told God on Yom Kippur, “I don’t want to sin any more,” what did you have in mind?
For you what is the best way to change that habit? Does it need a “cold turkey / sukkah” approach? Maybe the “Tefillat Geshem / day-by-day” approach is best.
Only you can tell.
It’s also something that you can experiment with. Try one approach. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t give up. Try a different approach.
Notice this about the difference between the Sukkah approach versus Tefillat Geshem:
We only stay in the sukkah for seven days. It’s fun, but it’s too hard to keep it up for the long term.
On the other hand, with Tefillat Geshem, it starts slow and we stumble at first. However, soon, after a mere four weeks, you’ve formed a new habit that you don’t even have to think about any more.
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