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Hanukkah and Breaking Free from Mindless Routine

November 28, 2021 | by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Imagine eight nights of quality, uninterrupted family time.

On Feb. 5, 2014, London Underground workers went on a 48-hour strike, forcing the closings of several tube stops. The affected commuters had to find alternate routes. When the strike ended, most people reverted to their old patterns. But roughly one in 20 stuck with the new route, shaving 6.7 minutes from what had been an average 32-minute commute. The closings imposed by the strike forced experimentation with alternate routes, yielding valuable results. And if the strike had been longer, even more improvements would probably have been discovered.

Researchers have long studied why people purchase name-brand items when the equivalent generic is available with a significant cost savings, which could compound to real money. This phenomenon is noteworthy for drugs, when generics and branded options are chemically equivalent. Why continue to buy a name-brand aspirin when the same chemical compound sits next to it on the shelf at a cheaper price? Scientists have already verified that the two forms of aspirin are identical. The only difference is the label and the price. And yet, most buy the name brand. Why? Habit, ritual, and thoughtless routine.

Habits are powerful; they can help promote creativity and efficiency. But habits and routines can also deny us the openness and flexibility to learn, to see new things, to grow, experiment, adjust and make changes that will improve us and improve our lives.

One study estimated that 47 percent of all our behaviors are the result of habits we have formed. That can be leveraged in a positive way. Just think about it – if we form the right habits – being on time, showing patience, extending generosity – we have half our day preprogrammed in a way we can be proud of. The downside, of course, is that nearly half our lives is not the result of thoughtful consideration, mindful choices, but simply having settled into habits and routines mindlessly. That is no way to live.

Penetrating Light

The ideal time for the menorah to be lit each day during Hanukkah is from sunset "until people are no longer walking around in the marketplace" (Shabbos 21a). The purpose of the light of the menorah is to publicize God’s great miracles and so once there are no longer people present to see the lights, the mitzvah is no longer applicable. In the time of the Talmud this time was relatively shortly after nightfall when people couldn’t function outside without natural light. Today, with artificial light, the time is significantly later.

According to Hassidic thought, the measure "until people are no longer walking around in the marketplace" is not describing how long in time the candles must be lit, but how deep the light of the candles must penetrate into our hearts and our habits. The Hebrew word used for walking is "regel," which means footsteps. Regel also means habit, so the phrase can be interpreted to mean: experience the light of the candles until it breaks our habits, jolts us from our routines, and enables us to take a step back and look at our lives.

Experience the light of the candles until it breaks our habits, jolts us from our routines, and enables us to take a step back and look at our lives.

So many of us are caught in the hamster wheel of life. We wake up, go to work, maybe exercise, brainlessly relax, go to sleep, wake up and start again. Or we wake up, make lunches, drive carpool, shop, cook, do homework, serve dinner, collapse, wake up and start again. Or some combination of the two. We are carried by inertia and momentum, moving at such a fast pace that there is no time or space, no margin or room to ever stop, look, assess, evaluate and mindfully determine if we are allocating our time, energy and resources in the most optimal way.

Break free this Hanukkah. Many people go screen-free for 30 minutes after candle lighting, the minimum necessary time for the candles to burn. For too many of us, being chained to our smartphone, tablet, laptop or TV has become routine. We desperately need this considering that the average American touches his or her phone 2,617 times a day.

Chanukah can give us the energy to have the courage and will to break the habits and see the light, literally and figuratively. Imagine eight consecutive nights of half an hour screen-free time together lighting candles, singing Ma’oz Tzur, dancing to great music, sharing gifts, spinning the dreidel, sharing words of wisdom, or however you want to spend it. Eight nights of quality, uninterrupted family time.

Make it your reality this Hanukkah and beyond and break free from the routine.


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