A bear walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender, amazed that the bear can talk, hands over the drink. Taking the bottle in his paw, the bear asks, “What do I owe you?” The bartender, assuming the bear hasn’t been in many bars, says, “That’ll be 10 dollars.” The bear forks over the money and the bartender says, “You know, we don’t get many bears in this bar.” The bear looks up and says, “Well, at 10 bucks a beer, I’m not surprised.”
Jokes that humanize dangerous animals are common, in part because they help the reality of our vulnerability in nature feel a bit less scary. But the humor derives from the underlying understanding that living among wild animals is perilous. In this week’s parashah, in the midst of promising that HaShem would protect the Jewish people during battles against the Canaanites in Israel, Moshe relates a rather strange promise. “HaShem will uproot these nations from before you little by little. You will not be able to defeat them rapidly, so that the wild animals not overwhelm you” (7:22).
Is that the best Moshe could offer? Wouldn’t it be better to remove all the hostile neighboring nations at one time, and take our chances with the animals? Furthermore, why not just remove the enemies as well as the animals? If miraculous divine assistance is being offered, then why not let us sail smoothly into our national return to the Holy Land?
Some time back, I ran across an article about New Year’s resolutions. It referenced research indicating that it takes approximately 21 days for something to become a habit, and six months to become a part of one’s life. Many resolutions fail because they are unsustainable, and for the first few weeks they take a great deal of effort to implement. Yet after three weeks, they reach a level of integration, and they truly become a part of us after half a year.
Perhaps with this promise of slowly getting settled into the land in stages, HaShem was trying to teach us an important lesson. Lasting change occurs through a slow process, in which the obstacles to settlement are removed slowly and not through sudden, drastic events. Removing all the impediments at once wouldn’t actually be helpful in our creating a lasting bond to the land and sense of local identity; that takes more time. So HaShem would first help us gradually in our battles with the Canaanites, and only then do we begin to tackle taming and protecting ourselves from the wildlife of the land.
This is apparent in U.S. history as well. Revolutions are far more successful when preceded by forethought and followed by a next stage of constructive evolution. The American Revolution was a watershed moment in human history, but it didn’t come in a vacuum. There were centuries of social development that led up to and through the Enlightenment, then the break from Britain, then the months of meetings of the Continental Congress to craft the vision of the new government, and they didn’t even get to the Constitution until 11 years later in 1787!
What applies to the modern U.S. and ancient Israel also applies to personal-spiritual evolution. The High Holy Days are just a month away. Most of us will engage at that time in what seems like an annual ritual: crash-course attempts to try and become the people that we would like to be in a very short time. But then comes the other annual ritual: recognizing on Yom Kippur that our attempts to change haven’t been especially productive, getting through the day and promising ourselves that somehow the year to come will be different.
But what if we took a tip from the Torah, and tried to accomplish meaningful personal change slowly? Instead of treating our own growth as some sort of fad diet to jump at and hope it sticks, what would happen if we started thinking about change and growth now, in the summer? Using the next five weeks to introspect and begin the change process could leave us in a wholly different place come Rosh Hashanah. Three weeks to form a constructive new habit, six months for lasting change. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at Rabbi@BethJacobOakland.org.