Personal growth and change can be very challenging. Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar Movement, is quoted as having said that it is harder to change one character trait than to learn the entire Shas. In his The Power of Less, author Leo Babauta writes of a study which highlights an important characteristic of effective change. Babauta took a group of people who wanted to change their character traits and split them into two groups. In one group, Babauta found an 80% success rate for a person retaining a new habit for at least one year, and in the other group, he found a meager 20% success rate. What was the difference between the two groups? Babauta found that the participants in the more successful group focused on changing one character trait, while the participants in the less successful group attempted to change two or more traits. In trying to change too much, participants ended up not changing anything in a sustained manner. According to Leo Babauta, we should focus on small, gradual steps, not dramatic ones.
The short transition period from the Yamim Nora’im to Sukkot provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the growth from Yom Kippur to Sukkot. Yom Kippur represents a day of reflection and commitment. It is a day in which we step away from the pleasures of the world and think about priorities and what we want our year to look like. Sukkot, on the other hand, is a holiday of action. Throughout Sukkot, we are focused on many Mitzvot, ranging from shaking the Lulav and Etrog to living in the Sukkah. This transitional period provides an opportune time to think about turning our commitments of Yom Kippur into our action of Sukkot.
How can we set up a successful plan for growth this year? Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, Rosh Yeshiva of the Ponevezh Yeshiva at the end of the 20th century, offers a suggestion from Parashat Ha’azinu which echoes Babauta’s notion of “less is more.” In describing the perfection of Hashem, the Torah writes “HaTzur Tamim Pa’olo Ki Chol Derachav Mishpat” (Devarim 32:4). Hashem is described as perfect because “all of his ways are just.” Based on the notion that each of Hashem’s decisions is just, Rav Shach focuses our attention to Hashem’s incredible attention to detail. Rav Shach teaches us that we should emulate Hashem and attempt to make all of our details perfect. If we improve one “detail” of our character at a time, we will ultimately perfect ourselves. Rav Shach tells us that although our natural inclination is to focus on the “big things,” we are best served focusing on one detail at a time and allowing the accumulation of details to create our own personal perfection.
The strategy of focusing on one detail at a time is evident in the seemingly mundane event that inspired Rabi Akiva to devote his life to Torah study. Chazal teach us that Rabi Akiva watched water dripping onto a rock. There was nothing amazing to be seen, but only one drop at a time falling on a rock. What amazed Rabi Akiva was the steady flow of drops of water penetrating the rock. The message which Rabi Akiva learned was that small actions, slowly and consistently performed, can pierce through even the strongest of objects.
As we prepare for Sukkot, we too can consider this message. Our commitment to change should focus on one detail. If we can focus on changing one habit at a time, we can continually add more and more behaviors until we accomplish great growth.