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The Power of Habit

Written by Rabbi Andrew Savage

The flood which destroys all but a select handful of the world’s population, most notably Noah, was not the most ‘efficient’ way to destroy a world. Noah and his family spent 120 years building the ark in which they and the animals would survive during the flood. Even once the flood started, there was a significant 40 days of heavy, but not necessarily destructive, rain before the destruction began. The purpose of this drawn out process was a last-ditch attempt to spur people to repair their morally degenerate ways that had necessitated the destruction of the world…

G-d specifically ordered Noah to publicly build a huge 3-storey ark for 120 years and to tell everyone why he was doing it i.e. G-d would be forced to destroy the world unless people changed their ways. And even once the flood started, G-d slowly ‘turned up the temperature’ for 40 days to give people a chance to wake up, realise the error of their ways and go about fixing them. And what sort of turnabout was necessary for an individual to justify his existence and therefore save himself from the approaching disaster? Simply a genuine and sincere resolution to reform himself – to change from the thieving, idolatrous and sexually immoral ways of the generation of the flood into a morally healthy human being. We know from the Talmud that such a process can occur in a mere moment[1] – a real acceptance of the need to change and of the process to affect that change is all that is necessary. Amazingly not a single person got the message and resolved to change. For 120 years an otherwise very sane man has been publicly warning of impending disaster. Then, exactly in line with his prediction, the torrential downpour starts and continues unabated for 40 days. This whole process was to stir people to just a moment of heartfelt introspection. The price of failure was death – a pretty motivating reason to stop and think about where you are heading in life! How could this possibly be? In reality every one of us is affected by the very same inhibiting force which explains the failure of the generation of the flood – the power of habit. We tend to become so entrenched in our habits that we become totally desensitised as to how those habits may be harming us or undermining our greater goals in life[2]. This is true both physically and spiritually. How does anyone end up smoking 40 cigarettes a day? Surely the undisputed medical evidence and accompanying TV images of middle-age chain smokers on their death beds is enough to prevent anyone ever becoming such a prolific smoker? Again the subtle yet powerful influence of habit, which creeps up on us slowly without us even being consciously aware of it is responsible – no-one starts smoking 40 cigarettes a day. Most teen smokers never dream they’ll one day find themselves such slaves to their habit. Yet the slow incremental increase soon becomes an entrenched part of a person’s life until it seems totally normal for them to be in such a situation. This phenomenon – the power of habit – is actually responsible for a whole industry. Every year the worlds’ most successful companies spend millions of pounds on hiring total outsiders to come and analyse the workings of their company. What can a consultant with little or no experience of the workings of a company offer that an experienced insider cannot? The outsider has a major advantage which allows him to identify potential improvements in a way the aging company director probably never will – the outsider isn’t bound by habit – he hasn’t been coming into the same office for the last 30 years and been bound by the same company practices that may or may not be the most effective ones. The notion of being somewhat bound by our behavioural habits may all sound a little negative and inhibiting. Yet the very same force, if utilised correctly, can be a tremendous source of positive growth. In the very same way that we can become so accustomed to certain negative outlooks and actions as to become heavily attached to them, the same thing is true of positive outlooks and actions. By forcibly working on making ourselves accustomed to a certain mode of thought or action today’s uphill battle can easily become tomorrow’s norm. If a stingy person forces himself to put his hand into his pocket to give charity every day for a month, before long the act of giving charity will be so normal to him that it will actually become part of his nature to be a charitable person. The key to utilising this power of habit is firstly to recognise it and, specifically, how it impacts on our life both positively and, crucially, negatively. The failure of the generation of the flood to take a step back and be their own ‘consultants’ i.e. to analyse whether their ‘company practices’ until now were effective ones, provides a crucial lesson for own growth and development. The fact that something has just always been is no reason to assume it should continue to be. In the same way that successful businessmen are open to change when necessary and take the appropriate measures to make that change, so too, we, on an individual level, must be receptive to change as a means to growing into the most effective people we can be. [1] See the story of R’ Eliezer Ben Dordaya recorded in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 17a) [2] The Talmud explains that once one has repeated an act however morally reprehensible it may be, the offender will no longer recognise it as being immoral. (Kiddushin, 20a) All feedback welcome:

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