The benefits from repetition
Repetition is good for us. (I may have said this before!) If you exercise, you’re in touch with “reps” or, if you walk your dog, you’ve been down this block with someone sniffing at the end of the leash before. If you’re rolling your eyes in boredom as you stand in a line, way too much of life seems to be about waiting patiently and repetition.
Jewish tradition has lots of “rinse and repeat” kinds of moments in it. If you read the Torah portion regularly, phrases like, “And Moses said,” pop out frequently. If you’re already preparing meals or family gatherings for upcoming holidays, you may reflect on how often you’ve done this before. It would be wrong to ignore the feeling of drudgery that sometimes accompanies all this. There are definitely times, as I try to figure out how to fit in all the prep, when I wonder if it’s so meaningful to do it again. And again.
Two recent experiences reminded me that we get something out of this repetition thing.
The first was one of those ubiquitous parenting articles that mention the value of self-care and meditation. Sometimes it’s easier to dismiss such suggestions. Yes, I’ve thought, but who will watch the kids, make dinner and earn the money while we’re doing all this trendy stuff?
However, I happened to hear a tidbit at services recently about Rosh Chodesh. Bill Weissman was leading a Sunday minyan at the start of the month of Elul. He reminded everyone about the association of women with the beginning of the month, mentioning that, aside from tending small babies, women were supposed to have a day off. In some Jewish communities, women don’t do certain kinds of work on the holiday, perhaps avoiding laundry or other tedious jobs. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches us that we need breaks. Scheduled activities, like a learning group, a meditation circle or even a standing coffee date, enable us to take better care of ourselves, whether it’s scheduled for Rosh Chodesh or every Tuesday.
The second experience that brought this all together occurred on the same weekend but the day before. One of my twins was feeling sick and was on antibiotics, so he stayed home with Daddy. I took the other twin on a Shabbat date. We went to family services together. Usually, while this kid dances and participates, he doesn’t read or engage with every prayer. My other twin sings along to everything, but makes up his own words. That’s fine. I figure they both enjoy themselves and get something out of being there. (For me, attending services is all part of that repetitive self-care thing, but it’s hard to get the most out of it with twins along for the ride.)
To my surprise, this Shabbat, a switch flipped in my kid’s 7-year-old brain. He sang and davened every prayer. He engaged completely. He wanted to be involved and responded to everything at the service – he even heard something interesting during the announcements. During the month of Elul, we blow the shofar during morning minyan.
Later, when I said how proud I was to hear him sing and say all the prayers, I asked what had happened. He explained that he likes to be quiet until he knows something perfectly. He decided he knew things well enough, so now he can say them all. It was as if buzzers were going off in my “educator” brain. Bing! This kid is an introvert. This is how introverts often process and learn new material. It’s about quiet introspection and repetition.
The next morning, I still had one sick twin and one healthy one. The healthy introvert announced that he wanted to attend that morning’s minyan. He cheerfully got through the hour-long service on Rosh Chodesh. He joked with many of the minyan regulars, participated, and he heard the shofar. It was a meaningful experience for him. I am still feeling celebratory about it many days later!
How did we get to this point? It wasn’t a one-time experience. I didn’t create a high-pressure event where I brought my children to one service, asked them to tell me if they enjoyed it and expected them to make a decision about their religious observance as a result. When we learn at school or while doing a sport, there are a lot of drills involved. It can be boring or reflective, but maybe it doesn’t matter.
We need to keep repeating things – Jewish content, CPR training, swimming lessons, whatever – until it sticks. You can’t give yourself a chance to make or eat a good holiday meal or have a meaningful religious experience if you haven’t practised. Recipes, prayers, exercise and meditation, among other things, don’t generally come out right the first time. Is it sometimes boring to do one’s exercise, cooking or other life tasks? Oh, you bet. However, nobody ever said that taking care of yourself, your household, relationships and work would be easy.
Some things aren’t fascinating. Even so, all that repetition can be good for us. Repetition teaches life skills. Learning the discipline needed to stick to something and practise it? That’s well worth taking time to learn. Repetition offers our bodies and minds a lot of healthy habits. Jewish communities and activities offer these skills. Just keep going. (It’s about showing up.)
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.