– Author: Rav Sam Millunchick

On an ordinary day in 1961, Edward Lorenz, an American mathematician and meteorologist, made a discovery that would change the world and lead to the creation of a new science almost ex nihilo. Whilst simulating weather patterns on his computer, Lorenz attempted to duplicate a particular sequence for further study. However, instead of entering in the entire series of six decimal places – .506127 – he entered in only the first three digits: .506. The second sequence began much like the first; but, after only a few moments, Lorenz had an entirely new weather pattern on his hands.

Lorenz had discovered one of the central tenets of Chaos Theory, known in common parlance as “the butterfly effect”, or more technically, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”. In complex systems such as weather, the markets, or traffic, small changes can produce enormous differences further down the line.

This is the premise of many time-travel movies as well; the idea that with just one different action, one’s life would be different. A missed train; a misspoken word; a love unexplored — one small change propels one in a totally different direction.

Lorenz and Back to the Future highlight two complementary principles. Complex systems take almost no effort to transform from one state to another, and therefore are nearly impossible to predict with any accuracy – there are simply too many data points to take into account, and too much room for fluctuation.

Small changes can have vast consequences.

This is simultaneously a source of hope, as well as great concern. When we examine our own attempts to improve our behaviour, in both individual and social settings, we are often struck by the futility of our efforts. Self-help books abound, for the very reason that no one seems to have figured out what the secret is to shape ourselves into better human beings. Further complicating matters is the fact that no one seems to act the way we want them to – it’s almost as if everyone else has a mind of their own!

Lorenz has given us a ray of hope. Without making vast, sweeping changes to our behaviour, we can, given enough time, become totally different people. People who are more like those whom we’d like to be.

We are, perhaps, the most complicated of complex systems. When we try to change ourselves, we are tinkering with something shaped by forces beyond our wildest imaginings. Dynamics set in motion as early as the creation of the universe and the formation of Earth, through the processes involved in the advent of humanity and human society, our patterns of thought and action are almost literally the product of the entire history of the world. When we try and use blunt force to bully ourselves into being someone, or something, different from what we are, it’s no surprise that we come up empty.

The Rambam understood this critical fact. Over 800 years before Lorenz’s weather pattern mayhem spawned the science of Chaos, the Rambam understood that the unique gift of humanity lies not in the fact that we exist outside this maelstrom of cause and effect; indeed, we are very much a part of it. We can, however, change our general direction, pointing ourselves towards what we would like to become.

In the Rambam’s discussion of free will[1], he writes that everyone is free to choose their ‘path’ in life. There are things that are out of our control; much of our life, in fact, is like this. We do, however, have the ability to affect one key area of our lives, and it is this that makes all the difference. We have the ability to constantly re-evaluate the impact of all previous inputs and course correct. We have the ability to steer ourselves back in the direction we’d like to go. Waze for the soul, if you would.

In the words of Victor Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

When he writes about how a person can effectively return to the Godly way[2], teshuva, the Rambam surprisingly doesn’t list any direct, blunt instrument techniques for altering one’s behaviour. Instead, he focuses on changing a person’s context, small changes which he believes will add up to a larger effect. Change your name. Move away from a negative situation. Keep yourself away from the thing which you’re struggling with, so you don’t run into temptation. Pray – tell God, and yourself, what and who you really want to be. Channelling Lorenz, the Rambam’s recipe for changing behaviour is to make small changes around yourself. Don’t utilise willpower, for that is finite and will ultimately fail. Instead, change where you are, how you live; create circumstances which allow you to be who you would like to be.

This is the old credit card in a block of ice – when you’re thinking clearly, do something small that will help you in the long run. In recognising that we’re not biologically wired to change our behaviours through sheer force of will, we will have a gone a long way towards becoming the person that we’d like to be.

As we approach the season of teshuva, it would do us well to bear in mind the words of Rashi in Parashat Ekev[3]. The verse writes,

וְהָיָ֣ה׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ ה֨’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ :

If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep His covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors.

Rashi, commenting on the word “עקב”, which in this context means “because of” but could also mean “heel”, as in the heel of a shoe, writes that “if you listen to those ”light“ mitzvot which a person treads on with their heel”, then God will keep His Covenant. I think this ties in with what we’ve been saying – religion is meant to shape our lives, to give meaning and purpose to our existence. This meaning and purpose does not only lie in the grand gestures, the visible “religion” of being religious. Instead, it lies in the details as well, the small imperceptible course changes that we must make every day to stay on the road to who God wants us to become.

I wish us all the ability to understand the small changes that we need to make, to course correct with aplomb, but above all, to have the patience to stay the course long enough to see the fruits of our labour, and to become the best versions of ourselves.

Instead of needing Doc and Marty to travel back in time to change the direction of our lives, we can seize the day, and create a butterfly effect of our own.

G’mar chatima tova!

[1] רמב”ם תשובה ה, א – רשות לכל אדם נתונה אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק הרשות בידו, ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהיות רשע הרשות בידו

[2] רמב”ם תשובה ב, ד – מדרכי התשובה להיות השב צועק תמיד לפני השם בבכי ובתחנונים ועושה צדקה כפי כחו ומתרחק הרבה מן הדבר שחטא בו ומשנה שמו כלומר אני אחר ואיני אותו האיש שעשה אותן המעשים ומשנה מעשיו כולן לטובה ולדרך ישרה וגולה ממקומו, שגלות מכפרת עון מפני שגורמת לו להכנע ולהיות עניו ושפל רוח.

This is not to be confused with the actual act of teshuva, where the Rambam writes that one must cease to perform the sin before one can complete the process. Here, the Rambam is discussing ways to arrive at that point where one can successfully adapt long-term behaviour change.

[3] רש”י דברים פרשת עקב פרק ז פסוק יב – ״והיה עקב תשמעון״ – אם המצות הקלות שאדם דש בעקביו תשמעון

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