“Rethinking Our Habits” by Lauren Shaps
Rethinking Our Habits
Hello to the Chevra,
Between Passover and Shavuot there is a very interesting mitzva of counting the Omer. This is a time when we focus day after day on making small but steady steps toward self-improvement. Almost everyone I know wants to be a better person, but it is difficult to define what better means or what it would look like. It also seems like a lot of work and, despite waking up each morning with the hope that today will be different, it is so easy to slip right back into those bad habits. After a few years of marriage, most couples don't have to actually argue; they can just call out "Fight No. 14," because we squabble over the same issues that somehow never quite get worked out. It might be about money, the kids, the in-laws or out-laws, work, the home or fill in the blank. It doesn't seem like practice makes perfect, unless we are perfecting our ability to create distance where we want closeness.
In the world of family therapy, this is called a dance. People, especially couples, have a routine to their interaction. We fall back into those dance steps without even realizing it and we replay the same moves over and over, day after day, week after week, year after year, often for a lifetime. Hundreds of years before family therapy was even a thought, the masters of mussar (character development), our great and holy sages, explained that the Hebrew word for foot is regel, which is also the root of the word hergel (habit). Our feet take us places without thinking, just like well practiced dance steps. Habits are routines of behaviour repeated regularly, often subconsciously, unless we take time to look closely at ourselves.
This week's double parsha, Tazria-Metzora, gives us a number of choices for habits that we might want to move into our consciousness. One is how we think and speak about others. The parsha discusses a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness, called tzora'at. A lesion or blemish, called a nega, would appear on the skin or on the walls of the home of a person who had spoken badly of others. That person would call a Kohen (a priest) to examine it and make the diagnosis if it was indeed tzora'at. If so, the person would be exiled from the camp to complete a process of repentance and to be spiritually and physically healed.
What leads us to speak negatively to and about others? Our feelings and then our thoughts are the trigger to speech. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), we are taught, Hevei dan et kohl ha'adam l'chaf schut. This could be translated "Judge each person according to the benefit of the doubt." Irving Bunim writes that a better translation would be judge kohl (all of) the person according to the benefit of the doubt. Meaning that before we jump to judgment, we need to look at the entire person. Very few people are totally awful. Most of us are a combination of strengths and weaknesses, failures, and flaws, powerful assets and great potential. Each of us is a product of nature and nurture, history, life experience, learned behaviour and coping mechanisms. When our feelings lead to thoughts that may lead to speech that will be harmful to another, putting that negative thought into the context of the whole person gives us the opportunity to access feelings such as love, compassion and understanding. When our feelings shift, so do our thoughts and, from there, our speech.
A while back I woke up from my delicious Shabbat nap with an icky case of pink eye. When I looked in the mirror, a red puffy, weepy eye stared back at me from between swollen lids. My friends came to visit and I felt terribly self-conscious, but the pink eye didn't change anything about my essence. The real Lauren was still Lauren. The Hebrew word for surface or face is panim. If you change the vowels slightly so that the word reads p'nim, it means the inside or depth of a person. If we look deeply within a person, we see the whole of that person. We see beyond the outer appearances, we can see the true, holy essence of a person created in the image of God. Then we are much less likely to speak to or about them with negativity or judgment.
In the times when the Jewish people lived on a miraculous spiritual level, the outside reflected the inside. Tzora'at was an external manifestation of a lacking within the people who contracted it, and a clear-cut wake up call to change their thought and talk. Today, we have to look beyond the external to understand what is going on within a person. We must look at the person as a whole. When we focus our thoughts on the kohl, the all, of the person, we are much less likely to be upset, annoyed, disappointed. Then we can look at the specific challenge in the relationship and address that from a position of concern and caring.
Between Passover and Shavuot, as we count our way up, day after day, we can use this time as a focused opportunity to rethink our habits and to challenge our routine responses. Each day represents a chance to reinvent our old selves and, perhaps by Shavuot, we really will be dancing with the stars.
Best Wishes for a Shabbat Shalom.