January 27, 2020 |

Getting Used To It

One of the quirks of the human personality (and an essential tool of our survival) is the ability to get used to almost anything. If a human being loses their legs, their sight, their hearing, they can adapt and compensate with their other abilities to a degree that would amaze those of us with all their faculties. We can adapt to many locales, environments and challenges. There are, of course, limitations, but humans are a resourceful lot and it is what makes us - and not the lion - the true king of beasts[1].

However, the ability to get used to things also has a down side. Human beings can easily begin to take things for granted. We can get used to all the conveniences we have -- like having enough food to eat or being able to get on a plane and fly across the country -- without retaining the thanks and amazement that these amenities deserve. A favorite example of mine is indoor plumbing[2], which comes to mind this week since our toilet broke down while all the children were getting nasty intestinal viruses.

Another way humans habituate - to the good and to the bad -- is by being able to get used to unbelievable suffering, to begin to think of it as normal. This was one of the things that horrified Primo Levi (about himself!) in the concentration camps, that he could get used to it. Of course, it also might have helped him survive. A wife can get used to being beaten by her husband and subconsciously begin to feel that this is just the way her life is. This might be her way of coping and staying sane, but it also prevents her from leaving him, which is the only real way to deal with an abusive husband (short of killing him.)

We find this downside among the Israelites in this week's Torah portion as well. God tells Moshe that He will "take you out from the burdens (sivlot) of Egypt" (Ex. 6:6) By this, Hashem means that the Jewish people have bent their backs low low to the ground to bear the suffering and servitude of the slavery. Par'o has been merciless to them, trying to crush them and their spirits. Though they have been bowed, they have not been broken. Soon, their burden will be lifted and they will be removed from slavery.

The word "sivlot" (burdens) had the 3-letter Hebrew root s-b-l (samech, bet, lamed). I heard once from Rabbi Abraham Twerski[3] that this same root is also the root of "savlanut", which means patience or forbearance. In other words, the root s-b-l not only means "to suffer" but also "to get used to." The things that we suffer from we begin to tolerate and eventually to become accustomed to and, sometimes (shockingly), even to prefer. God was not only telling the Jewish people that (S)He would take them out of slavery, but also (S)He would wake them up from the mentality of feeling like slaves, of getting used to being slaves, of feeling like they would always be slaves. Breaking out of the mentality of slavery is a key step in getting out of the slavery itself.

Al of us are slaves - have gotten used to something we need to get out of -- of one kind or another. We may have gotten used to working insane hours at our jobs, or having friends who treat us badly and are not really friends. We may have gotten used to spending money on things we don't really need (but can't seem to stop) or to sitting on the couch watching television instead of doing more important things. We might be trapped in a singles existence and - even though we are dating - are not sure how to change our lifestyle to let someone else in. We might be in a marriage where we are like partners who share tasks rather than people who are in love. We might be trapped in a diet-binge cycle that never really seems to end. There a million others. Everyone has their prisons, their habits, their sivlot that they have to break out of and about which they have become complacent, used to them.

Before God promises the Jewish people that He will take them out of their "sivlot" (habituations), He says one other thing: "I have listened to the complaints of the children of Israel" (Ex 6:5).

In other words, before God the psychiatrist broke the children of Israel out of their slave mentality and their slavery, He listened to them, heard what they had to say, understood their most honest needs and desires. Typically, we get used to doing things that violate our own principles, our own views of who we are, out of inertia and habit. The bad habits we have acquired are not who we really are, they are what we have become through laziness and inattention. If we spend time listening to our true "complaints", what we say we want to be and who we say we really are at our most private and unguarded moments, then we will know what habits we have to break.

From there, a little prayer to God and belief in ourselves (which is a topic for another time) can lead us to help ourselves be liberated from the things we have gotten used to that we don't want to get used to anymore. May we be successful in being liberated from our burdens as were our ancestors in Egypt many years ago. Shabbat shalom!

[1] Of course, we each also have a unique human soul, but I would argue that the two may be connected.
[2] Indoor plumbing did not exist in private homes until well into the 1800's in America and was not widely available until well into the 1900's, post World War I.
[3] Rabbi Twerski is the uncle of my Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Twerski shlit"a's, and is both a prolific and well-known author as well as a renowned psychiatrist and substance-abuse counselor, who was one of the founders of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically dependent persons and Significant Others (JACS)


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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