Living On Auto Pilot

//Living On Auto Pilot

“Habit is dangerous. It forces its way into a person quietly, like a thief.” (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

The Hebrew word for habitual behaviour is “hergel”. It is related to the word “regel”, which means foot. Walking is one of those activities that we usually do without giving it much thought. We are usually thinking about other things while we are walking and don’t really focus on our walking itself. “Hergel” describes many of the things we do in life mindlessly and mechanically. Our spiritual teachers regularly warned us about the erosion of our spiritual practices by becoming routine and rote. (See Isaiah 29:13)

Of course there are many useful habits worth developing in life. Brushing and flossing our teeth or exercising regularly. But when it comes to our spiritual activities and personal interactions – they should never devolve into mere habits. It is wonderful to try and greet people with a smile and a hello when we meet them. But it shouldn’t become a mindless habit where we are not fully present or sincere.

We should pray every day – but out of conviction, out of desire, out of commitment, out of love – but not out of habit.

The Torah institution of mourning helps people confront the loss of close relatives in a healthy way. The seven day period of “shiva” beginning after burial circumvents the natural tendency to slip into denial and moves the mourner through an appropriate grieving process. Prior to burial, the mourner has the status of an “onen”. During this period, between the death and the burial, the person who has suffered a loss is not supposed to perform any positive religious obligations such as praying, saying blessings or studying Torah.
On one level, this exemption serves a practical purpose in that the mourner is preoccupied with making arrangements for the burial and not really able to properly focus on these activities. But other reasons have been suggested for this unusual prohibition of engaging in spiritual activities. The mourner confronting their loss is often struck with feelings of guilt and remorse for not spending enough time with their loved one – with feelings that they may have taken them for granted. This is also the case with our spiritual lives. We too often allow our prayers and blessings to become habitual and rote. We take them for granted and often do them without much thought and intention. The period of being an “onen” breaks this pattern and forces us to realize that this too needs to be mourned.
Our challenge is to keep our spiritual practice vibrant and to work hard to ensure that it doesn’t become stale. (See “Keeping it Fresh” from May 22, 2016).