KI SEITZEI - THE POWER OF HABIT
“An Ammonite and Moabite shall not enter the congregation of Hashem …. Because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt. ” The men of Ammon and Moav displayed a great failing in the mida of chesed when they refused to give the Jewish people bread and water. This is one of the reasons that they can never marry into the Jewish people. The Maylitz Yosher notes that their failure to be gracious hosts is all the more difficult to understand when we bear in mind their patriarch - Lot. Lot excelled in hachnasas orchim (hosting people) to the extent that he risked his life to look after the angels who came to Sodom. In light of this, how is it possible that in a few generations this mida completely disappeared and his descendants displayed such indifference? He answers that if a person does chesed because of an internal recognition of its importance and a genuine desire to help others, then it will become ingrained in his descendants for many generations. However, if the chesed comes from habit then it will not be internalized by future generations. Lot did indeed excel in chesed, however this was only because he was brought up in the home of Avraham Avinu. He did not attain an internal recognition of the importance of chesed, it was merely a course of habit for him. Consequently actions such as those of Lot that are not internalized into a person’s soul do not last .
There are two important lessons that can derived from the explanation of the Maylitz Yosher: Firstly, it reveals one of the reasons for the all too common occurrences of youngsters brought up in observant homes leaving the path of Torah. If their parents keep the mitzvos, but their observance comes not out of internalization of what it means to be an Eved Hashem, but out of habit, then the children will surely pick up their parents attitude to mitzvos. At best, they will keep the mitzvos out of rote (which of course is highly undesirable) but at worst, the mitzvos will provide no meaning to their lives and consequently they will turn to other sources to find happiness and meaning.
Secondly, the Maylitz Yosher emphasises that even though Lot performed chesed out of habit he nevertheless did so to the degree that he was willing to give up his life for it! Thus a person may feel that since he is willing to spend much effort, money and time into the performance of mitzvos then this is a proof that he is not doing them out of habit. However, we see from Lot that the force of habit is so powerful that it can even drive a person to risk his life for it!
The Alter of Slobodka brings out another point with regards to Lot’s chesed. In the parsha about the rescue of Lot from Sodom, the Torah says that Hashem remembered Avraham and therefore freed Lot . The Medrash explains that Lot was saved because of a particular chesed that he performed for Avraham. When Avraham and Sarah were in Mitzrayim and Avraham said that Sarah was his sister, Lot could have easily revealed the truth to the Mitzrim and probably earn a great deal of money in return. The Alter asks, Lot was saved from destruction in Sodom for not committing the terrible act of informing on his own uncle to the Mitzrim; but surely his great mesiras nefesh to do hachnasas orchim in Sodom should be the source of his merit. He answers that because Lot’s hachnasas orchim was a result of his upbringing and not something he had internalized himself, it did not reflect in any high level and therefore deserves no reward. In contrast, he had a great natural love for money and this was so great that he felt a great temptation to at least hint to the Mitzrim that Sarah was Avraham’s wife and not his sister. In this area, he did not have the benefit of habit to help him, he had to turn to his own self-control and on this occasion he succeeded through his own efforts to do the right thing. In this instance, his ability to refrain from being an informer is considered greater than his tremendous chesed in Sodom .
We learn from here an example of Rav Dessler zt”l’s principle known as ’Nekudas habechira’ (the free will point). Rav Dessler argues that each person is not judged purely according to his mitzvos and maasim tovim, but to the degree to which he improves himself through his own efforts. Consequently he is judged according to his own standard, which takes into account his upbringing, surrounding influences and natural inclinations. This explains why we can never judge our friend until we stand in his place - we can never understand the nature of the tests that our friend faces because we can never know all the factors in his life.
It is true that there is reward for every mitzvo that is performed, however the main reward is for fighting the battle with the yetser hara and using one’s free will to become a better person. Thus, a person who is brought up in an atmosphere of shemiras hamitzvos and good midos does not receive his main reward for doing what he was naturally brought up to do . As we approach Elul, this is a frightening concept; we presume that all the mitzvos that we perform will be put on the scales against our aveiros, however the power of each mitzvo is judged according to the degree of free will that was exercised in its performance. Consequently, the mitzvos of a person who performs them simply because he was brought up that way, lose a great deal of their potency.
How can we begin to counter the power of habit? Rav Dessler writes that “the Gedolei hamussar and chassidus in the recent generations revealed to us the absolute necessity of limmudim of avodas halev that bring a person to an internalization [of mitzvos]. ” These include learning mussar, studying the meaning of tefilla, and a deepening of avodas Hashem. Of course it is difficult for a person to take on too much at the same time but Elul is an apt time to focus on one area of Avodas Hashem in which habit has taken over and to try to increase the inner meaning in our performance in this area. The rewards for such avoda are great - we can ensure that our external actions will become internalized in ourselves and consequently our descendants will be far more likely to follow in the path of Torah.