Right Foot, Left Foot

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

Every day, Jews across the globe study the same exact page of Talmud. As there are 2,711 pages, that means that once every 7.5ish years they finish the entirety of the Talmud. On January 1, 2020 over 90,000 Jews filled up Met Life Stadium in New Jersey to celebrate this monumental accomplishment. 

I took this all in a few thousand miles away, from my worn-out stained brown couch in Denver, Colorado, glued to my iPad in which I watched the livestream, moved to tears by the sight of tens of thousands of Jews celebrating our Holy Torah, and inspired to try to embark upon this journey myself. 

Fortunately, 120+ days in, I have stayed on track, and I wanted to share a fascinating insight from the tractate about Shabbos from a few days ago.

On Shabbos 61a, the Talmud teaches us that when getting dressed in the morning one needs to first put on his right shoe, then his left shoe, then tie his left shoe, and then tie the right one.  

To be totally transparent and honest with you, my thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of readers, it was not until very recently that I actually understood this. Why does Jewish law mandate which shoe should be put on first? Does it really matter? What is the point? What is the lesson?

I reckon there are many beautiful, deep, and spiritual answers to this question, but I wanted to look at perhaps a more practical approach I found while reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg describes how PhD candidate at Case Western, Mark Muravan conducted a study in which he tested will-power. He took sixty-seven undergraduates, told them to skip a meal, and sat them in a room in front of two bowls—one of freshly baked cookies, and one of radishes. The magical smell of freshly baked cookies was wafting through the air. The students were told they were being tested on taste perception, but in reality, they were meant to exert their willpower. Thus, half the students were meant to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes, and the other half were told to eat the radishes, and ignore the cookies. They were then given an impossible mental puzzle to work on. Sure enough, the radish eaters, the students who exerted tremendous willpower to avoid eating the cookies, lasted eight minutes working on the mental puzzle before they threw in the metaphorical towel and gave up. The cookie eaters on the other hand, the students who did not have to use up willpower resisting the lure of the cookies, lasted nineteen minutes on average before giving up—a whopping sixty percent longer than the radish eaters.

Said Muravan, “By making people use a little bit of their willpower to ignore the cookies, we had put them into a state where they were pulling to quit much faster….there’s been more than two hundred studies on this idea since then, and they’ve all found the same thing. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things…If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work— you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day…If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails, or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”

After seeing this, I had clarity  on the beauty of the Torah’s wisdom in mandating so many things in our life, including how to put on our shoes. Getting dressed (at least for my wife) can be a complicated endeavor— so much to think about. Does this particular outfit fit me, do the colors match, etc…By the time we get out of our bedroom every morning, if we are not careful, we can seriously have exhausted a fair amount of our will power before we even start our day. How logical it is, then, to automate what we can, by removing the need to make unnecessary decisions? Many productivity books indicate the importance of exactly this idea: Leave the mundane, mindless tasks of life to a computer— no need to use up our finite amount of willpower on the tedious aspects of our day. 

As Hasidic Judge, Rachel Frier said in a recent interview regarding growing up in the Hasidic world,  “there are rules…. Rules are there to guide us, like traffic signals are needed to know when to start and stop—they are not made to make life difficult or overbearing.”

Indeed, our rules, even the mundane ones like how to put our shoes on, are meant to guide us. Just like traffic signals make it easier for us to drive, clearly indicating us whether or not it is safe to cross an intersection without exhausting any of our limited mental energy, our laws in Judaism often can serve the same exact purpose. 

There is obviously so much more depth to why we do what we do, and why we put the shoes on how we do, but at the very least, I have come to appreciate the brilliance of living life in a disciplined manner, as part of a masterful system.

Hopefully every one of us can create healthy routines and habits during these days of quarantine so that we can grow into even stronger people, and leave energy for the things in our life that really matter, and require our full effort and attention.

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