The Tenacity of Habit

The other night, my chavrusa told me about a question that Rav Yisrael Salanter once asked. It goes something like this (I’m clearly paraphrasing and modernizing): How many people do you know that became Baalei Teshuvah at the age of 80? The answer is likely: few to none. The next question is: How many people do you know who became Baalei Teshuvah in their 20s? The answer: Plenty. Rav Yisrael says that this seems to go against logic and nature.

A 20 something year-old has many strong taivas (desires). It is a time in life when one is often looking to move away from restrictions and experience the “freedom” that young adulthood brings. Often, the issues of reward and punishment and moral or religious restrictions are the last thing from one’s mind. Yet, many, many of those 20 something year-olds overcome those taivas and do teshuvah.

One would think that even more 80 year-olds would do the same. After all, the taivas of an 80 year-old have certainly waned and at least partially dissipated. Additionally, an 80 year-old will be more likely to think about how things will be in the “hereafter” and about “making peace” with his Maker. Yet, we simply don’t see too many 80 year-olds becoming BTs. Why is that?

Rav Yisrael answers that this is because hergel –ingrained habit– is stronger than taivah–desire. A 20 year-old can often overcome the strongest of urges and desires and do tesuvah while an 80 year-old with a severely diminished level of taivah and a chronological impetus to think of the end of his days has a more difficult time doing teshuvah because of the ingrained habits of his lifetime.

This is a powerful point, not about octogenerians but about the power of hergel–habit. Rav Yisrael teaches that recognizing the power of hergel is the first step toward correcting our bad habits. The curious thing about habit is that while it seems so difficult to break a bad habit, the good ones fall so easily. If one were to decide to wake up a half-hour earlier on weekdays in order to be on time for shul or to say a short prayer or learn a small piece, the habit of waking up later will be quite difficult to break. Once it is broken, however, and even after waking up earlier has already become a good habit, one day of sleeping late will make waking up at the earlier time the next day quite difficult. (Wow, that was a long sentence!)

Habit is tenacious. Realizing that is the first step toward beginning to recognize and break our bad habits while establishing and ingraining good ones. Some pointers I’ve come across on building good habits include: taking graduated smaller steps to reach a larger goal, rewarding oneself when reaching a certain goal (for example, an entire week of waking up early) and involving others, such as a friend, co-worker, spouse, or parent in your goal. This can be done two ways. You can have someone attempt to create the good habit with you or you can involve them in assisting and encouraging you to reach your goal.

Keep in mind that l’fum zarah agrah (the reward is in accordance with the effort). The reward for breaking bad habits and ingraining good ones is commensorate with the difficulty in doing so.

13 comments on “The Tenacity of Habit

  1. David, selfishly speaking, and recognizing my plethora of ingrained bad habits, any ideas or opinions on the magnitude of punishment one must suffer. I mean, if it’s true that the older you get, the harder it is to break the bad habits, does it follow that the degree of punishment decreases?

    I know what you’re thinking. Just fix it and then I won’t have to worry about the consequences. Agreed. But I like to be prepared.

  2. “Now I’ve found something else to daven for. I’m not sure what trait (Gvura? Chochma?) one excels in to overcome potentially debilitating hergel but I really want even a portion of what my father has.”

    What an inspiring post! as we get ready for our elul preparations, we think of the words of Dovid Hamelech which we start saying shortly “achas sha-alti…osah avakesh” “One thing I ask from Hashem – I request..” Chazal tell us the second phrase seems superfluous. But the Gerrer Rebbe explained that we don’t always know what we need so we pray that whatever it is that we in fact need, Hashem give to us! So I’m not sure which “mazal” we’ll need to overcome out static ways and get positive impulsion, whether it’s chesed, gevura, a combination, etc, but whatever it is, I hope this Elul and the Yomim Noraim bring it to us in a big way!

  3. David: I love the concept of the elderly man as Patriarch of the family, but it brings to mind the stark contrast of the Torah world with the secular world in it’s regard for the aging.

    Frum Jews are taught to “stand before the grey head” and revere the wisdom of our elders. On the other hand, the secular world worships youth and energy, novelty, etc.. and the aged are often seen as useless.

    So again, coming out of the secular world at age 80, success at becoming BT may indeed hinge on whether he is a Patriarch who will be revered and awed nomatter what turn he takes, or is seen as a non-contributing, needy and tolerated elderly family member. The latter might feel he can’t afford a rift with his family.

    I am actually experiencing something like this with both my mother and mother-in-law–on some level they both seem caught between wanting to learn more from us and at the same time not offend the secular siblings.

  4. Reb Linn,

    Hakaras haTov to you Reb Linn. Through your post I was able to realize and recognize even further the amazing man my father is.

    He started putting on tefilin regularly at age 45. At age 70 he went to minyanim regularly for a year to say kaddish for my grandmother. That was 10+ years and he hasn’t changed his schedule since.

    Actually he has. In his mid-70s he started arrving at shul every morning 45 minutes earlier for a shiur in Hilchos Shabbos. That on top of his recent addition of a parsha shiur Shabbos morning before P’sukei D’Zimra.

    Growing up in a small town in 1930s and 40s, he was obviously remote from whatever learning infrastructure existed in those days of serious nisyonos for American Jewry. Obviously his parents must have instilled something really valuable to mitigate this form of deprivation.

    Now I’ve found something else to daven for. I’m not sure what trait (Gvura? Chochma?) one excels in to overcome potentially debilitating hergel but I really want even a portion of what my father has.

    As I’m closing in on 40 I’m starting to realize how much harder one has to work to avoid this self-destructive trait.

  5. Amishav – how right you are – when I was a young attorney (before the earth cooled my kids assure me) I had an elderly gentleman come in for a divorce – he had been married for over fifty years and realized that not only had he made a mistake but that he wouldnt get a second chance. As he sat crying in my office, I undertook silently to live my life in such a way that I would never look back at his age and say I should have done it differently

  6. Amishav and Chana,

    I think you are both making good points.

    At the same time, I think that all BTs face those issues to a certain extent.

    An 80 year old will often be the patriarch of the family and will have less to worry about on the family front. Also, an 80 year old won’t have as much peer pressure or as many employment issues as a younger individual will.

  7. Assuming the 80 year old has children, grandchildren and maybe great-grandchildren who are his/her familial support network in old age, I can see how becoming BT at that age would be daunting. Would the family admire and accommodate or, distance themselves and alienate the BT? The latter could be devastating for an 80 year old, especially one who is not so independent.

  8. Beyond breking bad habits, it might also have something to do with the reluctance of some older people to critically examine their lives- making teshuva requires repentance and humility. It must be terribly difficult at 80 to admit that one has been making a mistake all those years.

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