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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Disincentivize your bad habits!

Daf Yomi Nazir 11


Chaim had issues with anger management.  He was constantly raising his voice at his poor wife and children over the silliest little things.  Finally, Leah convinced him to have a chat with me.
‘Have you tried promising yourself that you won’t become angry?’ I asked.
‘Of course, Rabbi,’ he replied, ‘I’m not happy that I get angry!  I always promise myself that I have to stop, but then life happens and I let myself go.’
‘But do you have a stopgap to support your promise?’ I inquired.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘Well, in order for your promise to have teeth,’ I explained, ‘you should give it some form of safety clause.   For example, how about if you told yourself that any time you got angry, you would have to voluntarily fast for a day, do you think you might get angry less often?’

If they were pouring him a drink and he said, ‘I am hereby a nazir from it,’ he becomes a nazir.  There was once a woman who had had a little too much to drink.  As they began to pour her another drink, she said, ‘I am hereby a nazir from it.’   The Sages ruled: She really only intended to avoid imbibing any more. 

It’s much more effective to stop yourself going down the wrong path if you strengthen your resolve with a disincentivization clause.  This clever lady essentially declared that if she would have one more drink, she would vow to abstain from drinking for the next month as a nazir.  Then it became a simple matter of weighing up the drink sitting in front of her.  Was it really worth it to have one more drink today if it meant that she would have to stay off the alcohol for a whole month?

Everyone has bad habits that they aren’t proud of.  We’re not talking addictions – real addicts often won’t even admit they have a problem.  But everyday people have everyday habits which they’d prefer that they could kick.  But no matter how much they tell themselves that they shouldn’t be doing it, they succumb.  The trick is to strengthen it with a disincentivizing safety clause.

Just like this woman who resisted the temptation to have another drink by threatening herself with an oath of nazirism, you need to find a way to create a counterbalance to your temptation.  Maybe, like Chaim, you are dealing with anger management issues.  If you knew that you’d have to fast if you were to get angry, I’d bet you would maintain your cool much longer. 

Maybe it is lashon hara (gossip) or shemiras ainayim (guarding your eyes) you’re struggling with.  If you told yourself that listening to the yetzer hara (evil inclination) would incur ten pages of Talmud study, or visiting with ten random patients in hospital, would it be worth it?   The only way to be successful with this approach is to honestly take an oath and swear to Heaven that you will fulfil the oath if you trigger it by your poor choices.  If you are really sincere, chances are you won’t act out of line ever again.


Do you have bad habits in your life that you want to kick?  Try taking an oath.  Our Sages teach that one should avoid oath-taking; but that is only when you take oaths frivolously and haphazardly.  Sincere oaths that lead to better mitzvah performance or character-building are not only permissible, they are laudable.   May you merit the strength to always stay on top of your desires and may you develop the tricks to disincentivize your bad habits!