What the Ox Taught the Therapist

Friday, 5 February, 2016 - 7:56 am

What the Ox Taught the Therapist

Back in the day, before cars were used to transport people and merchandise, before there were tractors to plow fields, the ox was a central feature of daily life.

Unlike a car, the ox has a mind of its own, which potentially could cause some headache to its owner. An ox would occasionally damage property and the owner of the ox was held liable to pay for the damage.

One category of the laws of torts, explained in this week’s Parsha, are the laws of the goring ox. The Torah teaches that if an ox gores once or twice, the owner of the ox is only responsible to pay for half of the damage. The reason for this is, that it is considered to be unusual for an ox to gore, the ox is considered a “Tam” which means innocent, and therefore the owner is only partially liable, because he was not expected to anticipate that his “innocent” ox would gore. If, however, the ox gores a third time, then the owner is responsible to pay for the full damage, since this animal now has a habit of goring, the animal is a “Muad”, meaning the animal is “warned”, and the owner is responsible to guard the animal more carefully. 

This was an important law for people living in the ancient world. But what about for those of us living in cities and suburbs in the 21st century, what can we learn from the law of the goring ox?

It turns out that this law contains lessons with far reaching implications for our lives. 

The Kabbalists explain, that within each person there are two souls, the G-dly soul and the animal soul.

Each of us has an animal soul, the selfish aspect of the personality. This animal soul is not necessarily destructive. In fact, if the animal causes harm to someone else we assume that the aggression is the exception not the rule. We assume that the animal is still “innocent”. Yet, once the animal soul develops a habit of destructive behavior, it becomes very difficult to rid oneself of the habit. 

The first lesson of the law of the goring ox is to recognize the power of destructive habits and to prevent ourselves from falling into negative patterns of behavior. 

When we study the teachings of the oral law which expound upon the law of the goring ox, we discover a second, more profound, lesson about what we can do to break free of the grasp of the negative habit; how to free oneself from being enslaved to our destructive behavioral patterns. 

The Rabbis in the Talmud offer various scenarios in which the “warned ox”, the ox that gored three times, can revert back to the legal status of the “innocent ox”. One example is if a “warned ox” is sold to a new owner, then the status of the ox changes and it becomes on “innocent ox”. For some reason, we assume that the sale of the ox will change the nature of the ox, from one that is prone to goring to a civilized domesticated ox. 

Why would the sale affect such deep change?

The Talmud is teaching a profound lesson about the nature of habit. The Talmud is teaching that a single negative habit is very difficult to change in isolation. The way to change a bad habit is to change the environment. An animal develops bad habits while living in a specific setting, various elements of the environment trigger the compulsive behavior. The moment the animal is placed in a completely different environment, the triggers are no longer present, and the animal could develop new patterns of positive behavior.

The same is true for each of us. Keeping resolutions to improve a specific behavior is very hard, and it takes a tremendous amount of willpower. The path that is more likely to succeed is not to change a specific behavior but to change the overall environment. If one places oneself in a positive environment, with positive influences, the old patterns are more likely to fall away, creating space for new, positive, patterns and habits 

And lest you think that this is just an optimistic view on human nature, modern research is discovering this truth. The following is an excerpt from research conducted at Duke University:

"Once you form a habit, it takes willpower to inhibit the triggered response. If you don't have the energy to override the response, you tend to repeat what you've done in the past," Wood says.

In another study, Wood found that college students who transferred to a new university were able to break their television-watching habit if the TV was in a different location at their new school. Students who found the TV in the same location were less successful at breaking the TV habit, she says.

The implication for people trying to stop bad habits or develop new ones is that they should pay attention to their environment in order to sustain a new behavior over time, Wood says.[1]  

If the internal animal is getting out of hand you can try to muster the willpower to control and contain the animal; you may or may not be successful. Or, you could take the wholesome approach. Change the environment, surround yourself with positive people and spiritual experiences. The old triggers will fall away, new patterns will emerge, new habits will take hold. 

Place yourself in a holy environment.[2]



[2] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos, Mishpatim, vol. 36, Sicha 1. 

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