Breaking Bad Habits (Bo)
Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are. -John Ruskin
On the eve of the exodus of the Jewish people from the bondage of Egypt, on the night that would forever be known as the beginning of Pesach (Passover), the proto-nation of Israel is commanded by God to take a lamb (what would become the Pascual Lamb), slaughter it, serve it to their families and uniquely enough, smear the blood on their doorposts as a sign. God, recognizing the sign (or more likely the act of identification with the Jewish people and God’s command) would not kill the firstborns in those homes but would go on to kill the Egyptian firstborns in the tenth and final plague that He brought upon Egypt.
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 12:21 connects this account of sacrifice and obedience to God to a much deeper significance as to how to tackle and control both our physical desires as well as our erroneous notions.
He goes on to quote an unusual line from the Talmud that reads as follows:
Rav said: The cry that one says to lead an ox is “hen hen.” The cry to lead a lion is “zeh zeh.” The cry to lead a camel is “da da.” The cry to laborers using ropes to pull a ship along a river is “heleni, hayya, hela, vehilook, hulya.” -Tractate Pesachim 112b
The Meshech Chochma explains that when one wants to lead an animal, or in our case wants to break an animalistic desire, what is needed is one line, one dictum to be repeated over and over. He suggests for example repeatedly saying the dictum from Chapter of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 4:21): “Envy, lust and the desire for honor take a man out of the world.” Regular repetition is the best way to break our physical, animalistic habits and desires.
However, to change ones thoughts, notions and philosophies requires a more subtle approach. It cannot be altered by brute force of repetition. It requires a variety of arguments (as in the variety of words used for the laborers). It needs to be tackled by different angles until the combination of inputs succeeds in turning a person away from failed or mistaken ideas and paths and back to the ways of reason, of wisdom and good sense.
May we find both the direct strategies to break our negative desires and the more nuanced arguments to keep us on a straight intellectual path.
To the important Holocaust memorials.