I have a confession: for most of my life, I didn’t floss. I brushed religiously, but I was tired at night and rushed in the morning. Plus, as you can tell, I was good at making excuses. So, I flossed only before dental appointments, and I squeaked by on good genes.
Then, I read a book by Robert Maurer entitled One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. Kaizen means “change for the better” in Japanese. It refers to a method of steady, continuous improvement, developed by W. Edwards Deming and applied successfully in post-war Japan. The idea behind kaizen is to bypass the resistance that naturally arises with change. Instead of attempting significant or rapid changes, you make mild, gradual ones, and thus render change non-threatening. Not only do these changes tend to stick, but seemingly trivial adjustments can yield impressive results.
After reading about kaizen, I decided to floss one tooth per night. It sounds completely ridiculous, but only because it was completely ridiculous. It was such a trivial commitment and required so little time or effort, that there was no reason not to do it. When I flossed just one tooth, I felt both victorious and foolish. It was silly to floss one tooth. Why not do at least a few? Within a couple of weeks, I was flossing all my teeth. It’s a habit I have kept up for about 14 years.
We’ll never know if kaizen prevented gum disease, but this I do know: making one small change is powerful. It always has ripple effects. It begins a “virtuous cycle” of motivation. It gives us hope. As the Yiddish saying goes, “If it happened, it’s possible.” Change can lead to more change – and even to transformation.
Bill O’Hanlon, who developed solution-oriented therapy, wrote a book called Do One Thing Different. He suggested that bulimics put on a favorite pair of shoes before bingeing, and that couples argue in the bathroom – with one partner lying fully clothed in the bathtub. This is more about interrupting a pattern than about improving anything – continuously or otherwise. But just making a change, it turns out, often yields improvement.
The Jewish holiday cycle is filled with and sustained by tradition, and it also encourages change. The High Holidays are all about renewal. Repentance transforms sin into merit. Hanukah takes us – literally and metaphorically – from darkness to light. Purim celebrates a time “that turned for [our ancestors] from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into holiday” (Esther 9:22).
Within this cycle, Passover is the ultimate holiday of hitchadshut (renewal). The Mishnah tells us that, in every generation, each of us must regard ourselves as if we, personally, had left Egypt. This is the holiday when God brings us, as well as our ancestors, “from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption” (Pesachim 116b).
The Bible and even the Talmud were canonized, but our prayer books and Haggadot were never meant to arrive at a final version. The Haggadah itself says: “Everyone who expounds more on the story of the Exodus, that is surely to be praised.” We add and, more rarely, we edit. The seder text varies with geography, time, and ideology. Liturgical innovation is traditional.
It makes perfect sense to do something new at your seder each year in order to make the experience of liberation fresh and real. Yet “new” is dicey. Maybe Aunt Becky can’t bear to give up her familiar melody, beloved recipe, or favorite reading. Maybe Uncle Max resists adding a new element because he worries that it will delay the meal. Most of us want, and see the benefit of, change – as long as it doesn’t affect our favorite customs and comforts.
This year, why not try some kaizen, kosher-for-Passover changes? Begin with manageable questions. What is the smallest change you could make in your seder that would create a sense of newness and excitement? If adults always hide the afikoman and kids always seek it, maybe you could switch roles this year. Happy mayhem would likely ensue.
What could you do that is new, which would require virtually no preparation? Here’s one answer: improv. Solicit three volunteers to hold a spontaneous conversation among Moses, Aaron, and Miriam on the eve of the Exodus. Or send three people outside and ask them to knock on the door and then enter with a new identity: Elijah, a poor person who wants to “come and eat,” or anyone else who has a Passover message.
I have been thinking about small changes this Passover, because I helped to produce Seder Starters – a collection of activities and readings about modern slavery to use at your Passover seder (freetheslaves.net/Judaism). The goal is to help Jews connect our Festival of Freedom with the plight – and hope – of millions of people who are enslaved today.
There are dozens of ideas in the free downloads, but make it easy by choosing just one. Add a padlock to your seder plate. Eat an extra “dose” of marror (bitter herbs) because the bitterness of slavery persists. Serve fair trade chocolates for dessert to enjoy sweetness that is untainted by slavery. Brainstorm around the table: what are ten 10 plagues of slavery and what are 10 miracles of freedom? Give half the money you planned to spend on Afikoman presents to Free the Slaves, Breaking the Chain Through Education (btcte.org), or another worthy organization that combats slavery.
These ideas are so simple that I summarized them in one sentence each. You don’t even have to download the Seder Starters to implement them. But if you decide to go to freetheslaves.net/Judaism, you can find beautiful readings that are longer than one sentence, cards to demonstrate your “slavery footprint,” and Seder Coupons to distribute at your seder.
You will also find ideas about how to do “one thing different” after Passover – in the way you spend, invest, and donate money. A small change can help to free another human being. If every American Jew who attends a seder were to donate $18 to Free the Slaves, we could raise enough money to rescue over 50,000 people and keep them free. $18? Easily doable.
If half the Jews attending seders this year were to donate $1,800 each (also doable for many), then Free the Slaves could rescue and provide services to 5,000 slaves, train 1,000 police officers, safeguard 1,500 villages, and educate 60,000 people on how to protect themselves against traffickers.
At age 9, Vivienne Harr learned that there were still slaves in the world, so she set up a lemonade stand to raise money. Sweet. Doable. Then she did it again the next day – and every day for an entire year. She raised enough money to free 500 slaves – and that was before she took her lemonade company public (admittedly, with a bit of help from her parents).
She wrote a book (age 9!) called When Life Gives You Lemons, Change the World. My favorite line (still age 9!) is: “I didn’t think of all the reasons why I couldn’t. I thought of all the reasons why I must.”
You can watch her TED Talk. It’s called “Be One Person.” In Yiddish, we might say “zai a mentsch” – “be a menstch.” (Did I mention that she was 9 when she gave her TED Talk?!)
Take a cue from a self-described “lemon-preneur.” Bypass resistance. Don’t think of all the reasons why you can’t. At the seders, as in life, do one thing different. Fun, meaning, and continuous improvement are sure to follow.