Ki Tetzei(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)
The Power of Habit
"An Ammonite and Moabite shall not enter the congregation of God …. Because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt." (1)
The men of Ammon and Moav displayed a great failing in the character trait of kindness 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 hachnasat 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 trait completely disappeared and his descendants displayed such indifference? He answers that if a person performs kindness 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 kindness comes from habit then it will not be internalized by future generations.
Lot did indeed excel in kindness; however this was only because he was brought up in the home of the paragon of kindness, Abraham. He did not attain an internal recognition of the importance of kindness, 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.(2)
The Alter of Slobodka brings out a very important lesson that we can derive from closer analysis of Lot's kindness. In the story of the rescue of Lot from Sodom, the Torah says that God remembered Abraham and therefore freed Lot.(3) The Medrash explains that Lot was saved because of a particular incident involving Abraham. When Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt and Abraham said that Sarah was his sister, Lot could have easily revealed the truth to the Egyptians 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 Egyptians; but surely his great self-sacrifice to perform hachnasat orchim in Sodom should be the source of his merit.
He answers that because Lot's hachnasat 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 Egyptians that Sarah was Abraham'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 kindness in Sodom.(4)
We learn from here an example of the principle expounded by Rav Eliyahu Dessler known as 'Nekudat habechira' (the free will point). Rav Dessler argues that each person is not judged purely according to his mitzvot and good deeds, 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 mitzvah that is performed however the main reward is for fighting the battle with the yetzer hara (negative inclination) and using one's free will to become a better person. Thus, a person who is brought up in an atmosphere that is conducive to Torah observance and good character traits does not receive his main reward for doing what he was naturally brought up to do.(5) As we approach Elul, this is a frightening concept; we may presume that all the mitzvot that we perform will be put on the scales against our sins, however the power of each mitzvah is judged according to the degree of free will that was exercised in its performance. Consequently, the mitzvot 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 great Torah scholar taught to us the absolute necessity of working on areas of self-growth.(6) These include learning mussar (7) works, studying the meaning of prayer and a general contemplation of one's life direction. 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 Avodat 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 efforts 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.
1. Ki Seitzei, 23:4-5.
2. Maylitz Yosher quoted in Talleley Oros, Devarim, p. 47.
3. Vayeira, 19:29.
4. The Alter of Slobodka quoted and explained by Michtav M'Eliyahu, 3rd Chelek, pp. 131-2.
5. Michtav M'Eliyahu, 1st Chelek, pp. 115-6.
6. Ibid. 3rd Chelek, p. 138.
7. Mussar refers to the study and contemplation of works that encourage self-growth.