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A Matter of Habit

Wednesday, 8 January, 2014 - 8:00 pm

Many of us have recently resolved to do better. Nearly as many may already find ourselves sliding with the full force of gravity away from our New Year’s resolutions. (The truth is that the Jewish New Year is on Rosh Hashana, but hey I’m certainly not one to complain about extra opportunities for good pledges.)

Well, if you feel like you’re struggling to keep up with your commitment to flossing daily or calling your mother every Friday afternoon – no need to worry anymore. We’ve got an app for that.  Habit Tracker, Habit Streak, Good Habits, Habit Builder, Habit List and Habit Calendar are just a sampling of the endless apps available for download to your smartphone.  From daily reminders to monthly reports, you can master the art of kicking bad habits and embracing good ones.  Some apps even broadcast your habitual accomplishments to the infinite world of social media.  Now, when your Twitter followers keep up on your diminishing nicotine routine, you’ll be a true hero!

But, is it worth it?  Maybe our gadgets themselves are enslaving us to habit? Can we justify becoming addicted to our iPhones in order to stop biting our nails?


When the Jewish people found themselves between Pharaoh’s advancing army and the Sea of Reeds, they prayed. Simply put, they needed a miracle. So they turned to G-d with a request: Help!

But Rashi, commenting on the verse in this week’s parsha Beshalach, offers a curious justification for their entreaty. Instead of allowing the obvious interpretation to stand, he offers that, “They seized the art of their ancestors.” Why does Rashi suggest that habit and tradition prompted them to pray? Was it not Pharaohs army that forced their hands – or hearts and mouths?

To better understand Rashi, let’s pose another question: At that moment, did the Jews believe in G-d or not?

If they did, then they surely recognized that He performed many miracles to deliver them from Egypt – with the express goal of bringing them to Sinai and then to the Holy Land. How could they doubt His ability to save them from Pharaoh again? So why did they pray for something that G-d had already guaranteed?

And if for some reason they ceased to believe, then why pray?


In 1967 the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) about a letter he received from a Jewish boy in the Soviet Union. As the Rebbe choked with tears, he described how the boy had a simple request: Please guide me so I can better pray to G-d.

“Sending me the letter was already endangering his life,” the Rebbe exclaimed in amazement. “Yet, he did not request advice or blessings to leave the Soviet Union or to better his lot. All that concerned him was his desire to pray properly.”

This, the Rebbe concluded, is testament to the essence of the Jewish soul.  The neshama naturally yearns to reconnect with G-d through prayer. Even when no fires need to be put out; when no mouths need to be fed; when no ailments need to be cured – the soul longs to pray, to commune with its Maker.

Simply put, prayer is a natural impulse of the soul. Not only in times of need, but always.


This, then, is the meaning of Rashi. He is troubled by the Torah’s report that the Jews prayed. Why should they pray if G-d had already promised salvation?

Rashi solves this problem by delving into the deeper significance of prayer. Prayer does not exist solely as a means toward satisfying my needs.  Prayer is an art of the soul. It is a habit that the soul craves, at all times. When the Jewish people were at a loss of what step to take, they resorted to their instinctive tendency… and prayed.


This Shabbat marks 63 years since Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn accepted the mantle of leadership of the Chabad movement.  Until his passing, the Rebbe tirelessly advocated for the Jew. Unlike other leaders who sought to solve Jewry’s problems, the Rebbe sought to kindle each Jew’s soul.

Each neshama is precious, the Rebbe taught. And every soul possesses an innate appetite to connect with its Source.

Now, that’s a habit worth following. You don’t need an app and you don’t need to find a reason for it. Just go pray.

(And if you really want – there are plenty of prayer apps as well).

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