Let me introduce you to a new calendar. In the United States, there is National Mentoring Month (January), Black History Month (February), National Nutrition Month March, and Jazz Appreciation Month (April) and - don't feel left out - Jewish American Heritage Month (May). Towards the end of the year in November there is National Bully Prevention Month (November) and in between, every month is "decorated" with ways to create and sustain an interest in history, arts and medicine.
A month is long enough to deepen a commitment and tweak a habit but not so long that it feels impossible. This might explain the unbelievable popularity of National Novel Writing Month (November), where writers and aspiring authors try to write an entire novel in a month and have chat rooms, get-togethers and coffee house challenges to inspire themselves and get support from each other. The idea is to immerse oneself long enough to create discipline and order through the formation of a supportive community.
Does this work? It certainly does for many people because of what we are learning about the nature of habit. A number of books have come out in the past few years on habits and how to change them and have described habit as a muscle that must be activated, challenged and not overworked within a framework of time. "Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped." These are the words of Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.He writes that, "Willpower isn't just a skill. It's a muscle, like the muscles in your arms and legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there's less power left over for other things." If you are careful, you can engineer new habits and rid yourselves of bad habits as long as you recognize that this requires a lot of stamina and determination and you can't change too much at one time or you will weaken the good habit muscle.
In Jewish law, when people make a commitment to do something or take a vow but do not specify a time, the timeframe is assumed to be thirty days. We appreciate that people make commitments to force themselves to be what they want to be but need that extra push. We also acknowledge that when people want to better themselves, they should not be paralyzed or imprisoned by that challenge. We ask them to take it one day at a time and assume that a month may be just long enough to actualize this better self.
Perhaps that explains why each month, when we say the blessing over the new month the Shabbat before the Hebrew month begins, there is almost always a sense of anticipation and newness in any congregation. You can hear a ripple of enthusiasm and hopefulness. The prayer itself was composed by Rav, the head of the yeshiva of Sura, close to two thousand years ago. It is mentioned in the Talmud [BT Brakhot 16b]. Rav actually said it every day, perhaps believing, - like our modern writers on habit - that daily affirmations of what you really want to accomplish spiritually are the best way to get you there.
In the prayer we ask God for long life, peace, goodness, blessing, sustenance, bodily strength, a fear of heaven and sin, a life without shame or disgrace, one of prosperity and honor, one graced by a love of Torah and where our most heartfelt wishes are fulfilled. The entire congregation sings loudly of its desires for "life and peace, happiness and rejoicing, deliverance and consolation." And then we say a rousing "Amen" and hope that the month ahead delivers on these great expectations.
This past week, we celebrated the new month of Elul, the time leading up to our Days of Awe and personal transformation. Let's make it easier to improve ourselves by committing to a 30-day habit change in this sacred month: the Elul Challenge. Make it small. Make it do-able. Make it stick. As Duhigg says of his research, "Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything." Showing yourself you can change in one area gave people the motivation and inspiration to change other bad habits into good habits.
And if it helps you to articulate what it is you want to change, drop me a line and let me know how you'll be challenging yourself and we'll support each other through the month. Take the Elul Challenge. There's no better time on the Jewish calendar than now. May the Force be with you.