Sermon – Ki Tavo – August 28, 2010
Paying Attention to Our Habits
There was a fire one night at a convent and several nuns who lived on the fourth floor were trapped. They were praying for divine providence to show them a way out of the fire when one of the sisters screamed, “We need to take off our robes, tie them together, and climb down to safety.”
Later as they were recounting the event to reporters, they were asked if they were afraid that the crude rope might not hold up. “Oh, no,” they said, “Old habits are hard to break.”
Then there’s the story of the touchstone. It tells of a fortunate man who was told that, if he should find the “touchstone,” its magical powers could give him anything he wanted. It could be found, he was informed, among the pebbles of a certain beach. All he need do is pick up a stone – if it feels warm to the touch, unlike the other pebbles, he has found the magical touchstone.
The man went immediately to the beach and began picking up stones. When he grasped a pebble that felt cold, he threw it into the sea. He continued This practice hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Each pebble felt cold. Each pebble was immediately tossed into the sea.
Then, late one morning, he happened to take hold of a pebble that felt warm, unlike the other stones. The man, whose consciousness had barely registered the difference, tossed it into the sea. He hadn’t meant to, but he had formed a habit, and…old habits can be hard to break.
Most of my habits are more like routines. I wake up earlier and earlier, the older I get. When I arise, I say my morning prayers. I think about exercising and, unfortunately, lie down again until that thought passes. I check my emails. I give Sweetie (our dog who we treat as a child) a back rub and then make some breakfast. Most days I make my plan for the day – the people I need to call or visit – the reading I must do – the thank you notes I want to write — which usually goes out the window by about 10:30 am. Late at night, (and I’m not proud of this,) I love to watch movies. I’m a big fan of Netflix.
My routines are fairly predictable. But what I call routine is more like a series of habits, some of which work well for me and some I should perhaps look at a bit more closely.
In fact, any behavior that I repeat, I reinforce. If I repeat it often enough, it becomes habit. Soon I don’t even think about it – old habits are hard to break. Even good ones.
A Spanish proverb says: “Habits are first cobwebs, then cables.” The metaphor works well for “bad” habits. They first entice, and then ensnare us like a cobweb. And if we continue in the behavior, the web grows stronger and can be as difficult to break as a steel cable.
Fortunately, some habits can work in our favor. Such as patterns in the way we live our lives. Or positive attitudes and healthy ways of thinking. Our habitual attitudes and behaviors can either help us or hinder us.
The truth is this: we form our habits, then our habits form us. So we ought to pay attention to the habits we’re forming.
As part of our preparation for the High Holidays, we can consider whether or not there is a particular behavior or attitude we would like to make into a habit. Once we identify it, we can reinforce it by repeating it at every opportunity.
If there is something we wish to change, we can substitute a different attitude or behavior and repeat the new one every chance we get.
When it comes to habits, practice may not make perfect. But practice will certainly make permanent. Our habits will form us. So it is helpful to form the habits we want to integrate into our lives and let them mold us into the person we want to be.
This sermon is adapted from a story by Steve Goodier with which I profoundly identified. I gratefully acknowledge Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins’ generosity in sharing this story with his colleagues so that we may, in turn, share its sentiments with you. Many stories and insights that will inspire and touch your heart will appear in Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins Moments of Transcendence Supplement for 2010 — DPE@jewishgrowth.org.