(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...arikhat s'fatayim, rote repetition
(Genesis 14:8) ...vaya'arikhu itam milchama... (The five kings)...prolonged war with [their four opponent kings].
If you were to ask me what movie best illustrated my approach to Jewish life, I would have to say "The Karate Kid." This teen flick from 1984 starred a bunch of former television series regulars, including the wonderful Pat Morita in the role of Mr. Miyagi, the janitor who turns out to be a martial arts expert. He rescues Daniel (played by Ralph Macchio), transplanted from New Jersey to Los Angeles, from a beating by teenage bullies, and agrees to teach the young man how to defend himself.
The lessons begin with instructions to Daniel to wax Mr. Miyagi's collection of antique cars. In his broken English, Mr. Miyagi instructs the young man to use his right hand to apply the wax and his left to remove it: "Wax on! Wax off! Wax on! Wax off!" The older man promptly goes fishing. In subsequent days, Daniel is instructed to sand a large wooden deck, paint a long fence (two coats!) and paint the house. Each requires a long day of repetitive motions.
Daniel eventually loses patience with Mr. Miyagi's chores and confronts him angrily. His teacher shouts at him, "Daniel-san! Show me wax on, wax off!" and begins to throw punches at him. By repeating the motions that have become second nature to him, Daniel is able to fend off every attack.
Rote repetition has fallen into disrepute in our day and age. It is considered stultifying and a waste of time – especially when information is readily available at the turn of a page or a click of the mouse. But there remain some things that require careful and deliberate repetition until they become integrated into the very fiber of one's being.
Jewish observance is very much in that category, whether the observance is as simple and brief as lighting candles on Friday night or as complicated and time-consuming as traditional prayer. The real meaning in these observances, that is, the meaning beyond the meaning, can only be discovered when the practitioner is no longer aware of performing the ritual. The purpose of lighting candles is not lighting candles – it is initiating Shabbat. And the purpose of reciting the Amidah is not the inspiration provided by the words. If you are reading the prayer book for information, you will be disappointed from the second time on. These and other rituals help to develop spiritual reflexes that allow us to encounter our world at the intersection of nature and meaning with a sense of comfort and familiarity.
It is not only Jewish observance that is enhanced by rote repetition. All of those actions that we perform without thinking about them become integrated into who and what we are. The Torah verse hints at the dangers of becoming accustomed to the wrong kinds of behaviors in the description of the tribal wars that Avram (Abraham) encountered in Canaan. Five kings "prolonged war" against four kings, a brief description of an extended process that took at least fourteen years from beginning to end. (The word "prolonged"/"vaya'arikhu," is from the same root as "rote"/"arikha" in the Torah-value.) The Torah hints at shifting allegiances and a standard of conduct that placed war at the very center of self-identity. Avram's nephew Lot becomes a victim of that warfare when he is captured – and Avram must ride to his rescue. We should not overlook that the battles are engaged around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Later, we learn that the noxious behaviors of the residents (except Lot) have become so dependably evil – literally a second nature to them – that they are irredeemable.
The tale is cautionary for us. As Jews, we look with concern on the toll that constant war has taken on Israel, and on Israelis. The regularity of homicidal attacks against Israel and the regularity of military actions against the perpetrators of those attacks by Israel have dulled our ability to appreciate the meaning of each. "Another bomb," we say, "another battle," as we struggle to remember that the people impacted by these events should not lose their identities to the habit of violence.
As Americans, we look with concern at the ongoing battle against terrorists and insurgents. Innocent people die when there is war, but our habituation to those casualties makes us comfortable speaking about numbers, not lives. And even when we remember our own victims, we lump the tragic victims of the other side together with those enemy combatants who have drawn our ire and our fire.
What is true for peoples is true for persons. Indeed, it is the hazard of human existence to develop habits that give us a sense of consistency in the world. But our unconscious behaviors that lead to comfortable predictability are not always so good for us. Patterns of interaction with others, eating habits, the things we buy and the way we buy them can obscure the causes and results of our actions rather than lift us to a deeper appreciation of them. Only mindfulness of the practices we adopt gives ritual positive meaning.
Saying the blessing over bread before eating is not an antidote to mindlessness, but it is a step to remind us of our mandate to be aware. Repeating the words of Torah and the actions inspired by those words makes them part of our essence.
My colleague and friend Rabbi Lyle Fishman repeated a lesson he learned from Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, of blessed memory, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. "Any time you study a text," he said, "memorize it. Once you do so, it is yours forever."
And, I might add, just as the text belongs to you, you belong to the text.
Try this exercise to put these ideas into action: Choose a simple ritual that you do not currently practice – perhaps reciting "hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz" ("God brings forth bread from the earth") before eating bread. Repeat those four words for three minutes, over and over again. (Three minutes is a very long time to repeat something!) The words will likely lose all meaning in short order. See, however, if they come to mind when you sit down to eat later that day, and perhaps all week. And then, to be conscious that God and God's creations were responsible for that bread reaching your table, repeat them again in the formula of blessing ("barukh ata," etc.) before you partake of the bounty.