Forty Years of Habit-Breaking and Change

July 11, 2024

As a young mom, I often find myself scrolling on the “Mom Facebook groups” where like-minded parents pose questions, ask for doctor recommendations in the area, and share parenting wins. There’s comfort in seeing other people’s struggles (and successes) and knowing how much overlap there is in the human experience. How much we can all relate to one another. One post that stood out to me was a question: The woman posting needed tips and tricks for changing some difficult habits that had formed in her home. “We have fallen into some pretty bad habits around dinner time,” she wrote. She went on to elaborate that she felt like there was too much screen time, not as many healthy options for food and so on. “My kids are young, I know that we can change, but I don’t know how,” she continued. The responses to this post were incredibly insightful – everything from specific advice, like incorporating a timer for the TV, to validating that the mom is doing great for acknowledging that a change was needed. But one comment stood out to me as particularly poignant: “Breaking habits and making change takes time. Do it little by little and you’ll eventually get there. Too many adjustments to your routine will not yield the results you’re hoping for. You’ve got this.”

As an educator, parent, and Bible lover, I was immediately reminded of this week’s portion of the Torah read on Shabbat: Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1.

In Number 19, we find that the Israelites are now forty years past the Exodus from Egypt, They are on the cusp of entering the Promised Land after decades of desert wandering. Finally! But Despite this being a new generation of freed Jews who never experienced slavery firsthand, their actions and words feel eerily familiar. We might wonder: Has their wandering been for nothing? Have these people truly evolved? Was a generation enough time to “set them free” and prepare them for entering the Land of Israel?

Here’s what I would want to tell the Israelites of that time: Change is a gradual process requiring patience, persistence, and faith. And not so surprisingly, recent research has suggested that time alone isn’t enough for lasting change – mindset plays a crucial role too.

A study by University College London psychologist Phillippa Lally and her colleagues challenge the popular notion that it takes 21 or 28 days to form a new habit. Their research found that, on average, it took 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic, with individual results ranging from 18 to 245 days. This massive variability in time shows just how important persistence and mindset effect habit formation.

The portion begins with the laws of the Red Heifer, a ritual that purifies those who have come into contact with death. The Bible states:

The word “chok” refers to a law beyond human comprehension, teaching us that some things remain beyond our understanding. This first concept invites us to embrace uncertainty and approach life with humility and openness to learning. When trying to change we need to be aware that there’s a lot that’s out of our control. But it doesn’t mean we still aren’t capable of changing!

And yet the Israelites still complain about their circumstances – their water, has run out, they’re hungry – even understanding that they won’t understand everything hasn’t, divorced them entirely from their slave mentality. But as Lally’s research shows, when one is on a personal growth journey, they may not always behave perfectly. Yet, it’s crucial to acknowledge progress, no matter how small. Celebrating incremental progress can motivate us to continue our efforts towards positive change. Setbacks are normal and despite the name, they aren’t actually setting you back.

One of the most poignant moments in Chukat is when Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it as

Later in the portion, we encounter another powerful moment that speaks to the theme of change and growth. After years of complaining and rebellion, the Israelites finally begin to show signs of maturity. When confronted with the threat of the Canaanites, they turn to God and make a vow: “If You indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.”

This marks a significant shift from their previous behavior. They are partners with God, no longer despairing at facing their enemies. This shows that change, while slow, is always possible.

The journey of personal growth, much like the Israelites’ trek through the desert, is filled with ups and downs. There will be moments of joy and triumph, as well as times of frustration and doubt. The key is to remember that meaningful change takes time and intentional effort.

Just as it took forty years for the Israelites to be ready to enter the Promised Land, our own personal development is a long-term journey. Even then, the learning process doesn’t end when we reach our goals. There are always new challenges to face and new heights to achieve.

Remember, personal growth is indeed a marathon, not a sprint. With persistence, self-compassion, and faith, we will reach our destination, growing and evolving along the way. The journey itself, with all its trials and triumphs, is where the real transformation occurs – shaping us into the individuals we aspire to become.

Chukat reminds me of something my dad always says: There are three things in life you can count on happening – no matter what: change, death, and taxes. Parashat Chukat, with its laws of purification after death with the red heifer, and its chronicle of the Israelites’ slow but steady transformation, certainly touches on two out of three of those inevitabilities. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that while change is certain, how we approach and navigate that change is up to us.

Our new Prayer Book, Stand By Me allows you to connect to thousands of years of Jewish prayer and tradition, providing you with the words you need to speak to God about what matters most to you. You can purchase your copy, TODAY by visiting the Israel365 store.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

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