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The Power of Habit


Ben Azzai said: Be quick in performing a minor commandment as in the case of a major one, and flee from transgression; For one commandment leads to another commandment, and transgression leads to another transgression; For the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression.


Ben Azzai emphasizes the importance of living an active spiritual life. He formulates his advice as both enthusiasm for the positive and swiftness in avoiding the negative. Sin lives in sluggishness and stagnation. “[H]uman life must be directional,” writes Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka, “There must be the element of process, the recognition that things do not evolve on their own, that things are not given to the individual by birthright or fortune.” This element of movement echoes the quick cadence of Ben Azzai’s aphorism, which charges us to increase our spiritual tempo. 


Be quick in performing a minor commandment” because performing minor actions builds momentum. According to Rabbi Israel Lipschitz “minor commandments” include several categories of precepts that are easier to fulfill, including those that (1) are quick, (2) are longer, but already routine (like prayer), (3) would have been performed even if they were not commandments (like honoring one’s parents), (4) are physically enjoyable, or (5) are performed in the presence of others, adding a reputational incentive Ben Azzai, thus, encourages us to leverage human nature to build motivation and a habit of mitzvah performance. As psychologist B.J. Fogg emphasizes in his book Tiny Habits, successful habit formation begins with small, easy steps that are positively reinforced. 


For the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment” can be understood as a natural upward spiral built through the performance of mitzvot. Rabbi Yosef Yavetz adds that the only way to create this positive momentum is if the commandments are performed with love, enthusiasm, and enjoyment. Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “the knowledge that you have done the Will of your Father in heaven will bring you closer to Him; it will enrich your spirit with the happy awareness of having done the right thing and reinforce your moral capacity for doing good.” These descriptions are reminiscent of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build model” of positive emotions, which suggests that positive emotions expand and widen one’s experiences and thought processes, creating more opportunities for success that dynamically reinforce themselves, leading to even more success. 


“The reverse is true of sin,” continues Rabbi Hirsch, “it removes you from the pure and loving presence of your Father in heaven. It will awaken within you the torturing pangs of conscience. It will dull the keen edge of your moral judgement and weaken your resistance to future evil.” Bad habits lead to worse habits. Rabbi Moshe Almosnino writes that there isn’t much concern that someone would violate a major sin outright.  However, it is the “minor” sins that people are generally lax about, when flippantly violated, slowly, yet surely, lead to more serious transgressions.


This process can be understood using the principle of cognitive dissonance, as described by psychologist Leon Festinger: a person tends to justify his or her behaviors, making it easier to rationalize one’s negative actions. If someone generally conceptualizes himself as a good person, he would not outright do something immoral or corrupt. But through small changes, his self-concept subtly adapts to these changes, allowing for more continual shifts down the slippery slope. 


Alternatively, the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression, relates to the Stoic principle that virtue is its own reward, and embedded within vice is its own negative consequences. This is articulated by Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura when he writes that “Since the enjoyment experienced while doing a commandment is itself a fulfillment of a commandment. And [so] he gets reward for the commandment that he did and for the enjoyment and benefit that he experienced in doing it.” 


In all, Ben Azzai is teaching us about what Charles Duhigg calls “the power of habit.” It is essential not to fall into the snares and traps of a negative habit. However, we would do well in seizing the power of positive habits by performing “minor” mitzvot with joy and enthusiasm.  These positive experiences, mitzvot in their own right, build an upward spiral of momentum for more good deeds. 


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