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Becoming More You

09/25/2019 11:12:57 AM


Rabbi Ranon Teller

Delivered on Shabbat Morning
September 14, 2019

I pray that we all have bad habits that we want to break. I pray that none of us feel that we are perfect human beings. Human beings are not designed to be perfect. Yes, we are all deserving of love, affirmation and respect, just the way we are. But, I pray that we all have the ability and humility to self-reflect and grow. I pray that we all have at least one bad habit that we want to break. Take a moment and locate one issue for you personally that could use some attention and development. I’m not going to ask you to share with the group, but take a moment and find one issue for you to work on.

The reason we have a high holy day process is for us to reflect and grow. The high holy day process is the process of becoming the people we strive to be – the process of becoming a part of God’s cosmic world, God’s people, God’s ethics and commandments and divine qualities of love and empathy and spiritual discipline. But, before we get too far, here’s a first step. The first step is to recognize that we have all have our emotional stuff to work on. We all have amazing qualities and habits and practices and we also have some harmful or subpar qualities and habits and practices. I believe we all have the power to evolve and grow and change to incorporate more holiness, more love and kindness into our lives, more Jewish practice – into our lives. We all have the power to change.

Not everyone agrees that we have the power to change. Detractors say, “we are who we are. Why bother trying? Play with the cards you’re dealt. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” My friends, I have an old dog, and guess what? She recently learned a new trick. Our dog, Jessie Afikoman Teller detests mail carriers. For all of her life, when that mail comes through the slot in the front door, Jessie flips out. She claws at the door and hurls herself against the bay windows. She’s trying to frighten off the enemy intruder away from completing her dastardly deed of thrusting the mail through the mail slot. As a result, our front door was a mess from her daily freak out, clawing at the door.

Now, as our children start heading off to college, it’s time to start downsizing our home. We want to reduce our energy footprint, live more modestly and afford college – so we’ve put our house on the market. In order to show the house to potential buyers, we needed to have a presentable front door – we needed to re-stain, refinish the front door. Problem is, the mail carrier continues to come every day, and Jessie will always despise the mail carrier. I was once driving the car with Jessie in the front seat. And when we passed a uniformed mail carrier, she started to growl. This is a serious beef. So, we refinished the front door, and now we needed a solution. I went to Loew’s and bought some plexiglass to guard the door from Jessie’s claws. An interesting thing happened. We thought that Jessie would claw against the plexiglass, but instead, Jessie stopped clawing at the door altogether. Yes, she still hurled her body against the front windows, and barked like a banshee, but she stopped clawing at the door. We kept the plexiglass guard there for several months as we continued to look for a house in our area. When it came time to photograph the home for the real estate websites, we had to take off the plexiglass. Here’s the point of the story, when we took off the plexiglass, were concerned that Jessie would scratch up the door again. But, she didn’t. After three months, she had developed a new habit. She no longer scratched at the door when she had access. An old dog learned a new trick! After a lifetime habit, it took three months to unlearn a behavior, and create a new habit. An old dog learned a new trick!

Charles Duhigg, in his recent book The Power of Habit, argues that the more we know about how we form our habits, the easier they are to change. He amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote. We may barely think about what we do when we shoot a basket, drive a car or take a shower because we go into automatic pilot. We’ve done things so many times that our bodies engage even if our minds are coasting.

If repetition is the key to habit then recalibrating behaviors and doing them again and again differently becomes one critical way that we break bad habits and willfully choose new ones. When we learn new routines and practice them repeatedly we “teach” ourselves how to adopt best practices. It is awkward at first but still do-able. Research done at Duke University shows that 40% of our behaviors are made through habit rather than intentional decisions. With a little concerted mental effort, we can reshape old habits.

Our chasidim knew this before the Duke University research. Here’s the Chasidic tale that encourages us to develop more intentional habits.

Once upon a time, there was a rebbe who taught his students in Minsk, but lived in Pinsk. So, every week before shabbos, he would hire a wagon driver to take him for Minsk to Pinsk. And every week after Shabbos, he would hire a wagon driver to take him for Pinsk to Minsk. Although he would spend most of his journey with his sacred books, he knew the road completely - every turn and every rut. Trial and error. The road was rough, and wagon drivers would often break the wagon wheels falling into ruts. When he would travel with young, inexperienced wagon drivers, he would guide them safely so that they didn’t break a wheel. One Friday afternoon, he was driving with a veteran wagon driver, who had driven this road many times himself. The rebbe was happy to relax after a long week and delved deeply into his sacred book. But, something was amiss. The driver was headed toward a rut that had destroyed many wagon wheels. “Excuse me, sir. I don’t mean to be rude. But, you’re headed toward a rut that may be problematic.” Nothing. “Sir, I’ve driven this road many times, and Shabbos is coming, so I can’t afford to get stuck in this rut while we replace a wheel.” The wagon driver turns around and say, “I’ve been down this road hundreds of times and the same thing happens every time.” They get closer and closer to the rut and the rabbi is pleading with the wagon driver. “Please, stop the wagon. The wheel is going to break.” Once again, the wagon driver says, “I’ve been down this road hundreds of times and the same thing happens every time.” They fall into the rut, the wagon wheel breaks. The rabbi is in shock. He watches as the driver gets down off the wagon, goes the back, where there’s a stack of dozen wagon wheels 3 feet high. And the wagon driver says, “I’ve been down this road hundreds of times and the same thing happens every time.”

We have habits that have developed unintentionally – from our childhood, from our teenage years, from our adulthood. The High Holy Days are our time to start with a clean slate. Today, let’s remind ourselves of the power to change, to evolve, to grow, to return. We don’t have to be stuck in a rut. We can respond to the stimulus that brings us disappointment, anxiety, frustration. We can use our creativity, our spirit, our imagination. We can use the resources that God has given us to evolve and to grow and reach toward holiness in all ways.

If you want to be more loving, pick up the phone and call your relatives and friends. If you want to be more grateful, write one thank you note a day. If you want to be more creative, take 20 minutes a day to create. Whatever you want to become, now is the time for action. You can break your old habits and live the life you want to live. You can become the you always wanted to be.

Ribono shel Olam, Source of all potential and growth, thank you for the gift of these high holy days that come around each and every year. Your Earth revolves on its axis. Your universe is in constant motion. Remind us that we, too, have the power to pivot, evolve, develop, change and grow. Teach us to intentionally shape our habits as we strive to model Your characteristics of love and kindness, justice and mercy. Help us. Adonai, to approach these High Holy Days as an opportunity to grow as individuals and as a community – as we grow closer to You. And together we say: Amen.

Sun, June 16 2024 10 Sivan 5784