The Habits We Keep

I have been thinking a lot about habits recently.  That’s probably because I’m reading Charles Duhigg’s fascinating book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  At the end of the summer, we have a chance to revisit, restart and tweak our habits and routines as school begins again for our kids and for us.  What worked?  What did not work at all?  And what habits do we already have that we don’t even realize exist?

As I shared with our staff at this week’s opening teacher orientation and workshops, in this week’s portion of Re’eh, we learn of the obligation to wipe out the ir ha-nidachat, the city that has given itself over entirely to idol worship.  We must completely destroy this city, the Torah tells us, so Hashem won’t be angry, lema’an yashuv Hashem me-charon apo.  As long as idol worship still exists in the world, explains Rashi, Hashem is still angry. The good news, however, is the Torah’s promise that God’s mercy will soon follow: ve-natan lecha rachamim ve-richamcha.  Some of the commentators pick up on the odd phrase ve-natan lecha rachamim.  The Or HaChaim, Rabbi Ḥayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, explains that killing an entire city change someone’s nature: mass destruction could make someone insensitive — or even cruel.  Hashem promises that He will give those who perform this gruesome mitzvah an injection of mercy to prevent the cruelty from becoming part of their nature.

 Charles Duhigg explains that many of the habits and routines that we have consist of the same three elements: a cue, which gets us started (when I get up, we have that morning taste in my mouth); the routine itself (I brush my teeth); and the reward (a minty, tingly feeling).  Much of this is taught to us, often by our parents.  Before the early 1900s, very few people brushed their teeth at all, reports Duhigg.  Advertisers schooled the American public in the need for the reward, which then generated the cue and the routine.

Apparently, routines can be exchanged as long as cues and rewards remain.  So, for example, if I now decide to go for a run each morning instead of having a donut, and get a good feeling at the end of the experience (which comes from endorphins instead of sugar), I can literally change my life without making major alterations.

As we gear up for a new school year, what rewards do we have in place for ourselves and for our children, and what routines do we utilize to attain those rewards?  What cues set us in motion?  Do the rewards we have established make sense?  Does everyone know how and when and where to do their homework?  Do smartphones have a designated time and space when they can and cannot be used?  Should we relax by reading a book with our kids or by giving them with five more minutes of Flappy Bird?

We all know that we are creatures of habit.  As the Or HaChaim puts it, our nature is influenced by our actions.  What habits do we want to keep or improve, and which (if any) do we want to retire?  At school, we can’t wait to start with this year’s routines for our teachers and your children.  With God’s help, we will not only have the right cues and the right rewards, but the right habits as well.

Shabbat Shalom.