Friday, May 17, 2024

Sage Advice or Common Sense?

Table Talk from the desk of Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld
May 17-18, 2024 • 10 Iyar 5784 • Emor (Lev 21-24).
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Sage Advice or Common Sense?

Almost every day I hear someone express some variation of the desire to change.
"I really want to lose weight but I'm struggling."
"I know I should cut down on X (usually sugar or smoking) but I enjoy it too much." 
The masters of Mussar (Torah-guided self-improvement) observe that real - permanent - change is an enormous struggle. Yet it is possible for anyone.
In the Weight Watchers program, a reported 85-90 percent of participants have regained their weight after five years. That's an enormous failure rate.
But the good news is that ten to fifteen percent succeed.
What's their secret? Are they more determined? Do the 85-90 percent simply lack sufficient will power?
I suspect that determination is not the key factor. I suspect that those who succeed are following a wise path similar to what was articulated by the Chafetz Chaim (Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan) a century ago, addressing a smoker:
Over time, how much a person loses through this - the loss of physical health, the loss of money, the loss of mitzvos! So a person should consider the tremendous damage that it causes and fortify oneself against making it a habit. And if he has already made it a habit, he should cut back a little bit each day until after some time he will completely stop, which will be good for him presently and going forward. 
In other words, be sensible: take slow but steady steps, like the tortoise in Aesop's fable.
You want to reduce your sugar intake? Don't go cold-turkey. If you ordinarily put three spoonfuls in your coffee, try reducing it to 2.9. And a few days later, make it 2.8. And so on. If you ordinarily put a cup of sugar in your challah recipe, try 9/10 cup. And next week, make it 8/10. The same with unhealthy oil - try substituting 1/10 of your oil with healthy olive oil. Then the next week, make it 2/10.
This lesson of incremental change is appropriate at any time, but especially during the Sefirat HaOmer, when we are counting one day at a time toward Shavuot, one step at a time up that mountain.
Know that you can achieve your goals - but only if you take it one small step at a time. Don't try to go cold turkey or bite off more than you can chew or whatever metaphor you like - "Slow and steady wins the race."
(For additional wisdom on this theme, see Chapter 5 of Body & Soul.)

Question for your table: Would you call the Chafetz Chaim's advice "sage advice", or "common sense" (or both)?

Shabbat Shalom

(A version of this message appeared on my Times of Israel blog.)

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