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, an ox has a mind of its own, which couldWhat can we learn from the law of the goring ox? potentially cause problems for its owner. An ox would occasionally damage property, and the owner of the ox was held liable for the damage.

One category of the laws of torts, explained in this week’s Parshah, is those pertaining to 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 unusual for an ox to gore. The ox is considered a tam, “innocent,” and therefore the owner is only partially liable because he did not anticipate that his “innocent” ox would gore. If, however, the ox gores a third time, then the owner is responsible to cover the full costs of the damage, since this animal has now shown it has a habit of goring. The animal is a muad, “warned,” and the owner is expected to be aware and 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?

The kabbalists explain that within each person there are two souls, the G‑dly soul and the animal soul. The animal soul is the selfish aspect of the personality, but it’s not necessarily destructive. In fact, if the animal soul causes harm to someone else, we assume that the aggression is the exception, not the rule. We assume that the animal soul 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 is to recognize the power of destructive habits and to prevent ourselves from falling into negative behavior patterns.

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 destructive behavior 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 an “innocent ox.” For example, if a “warned ox” is sold to a new owner, the status of the ox changes and it becomes an “innocent ox.” We assume that the sale of the ox will change its nature, transforming it from an ox that is prone to goring into one that is gentle and domesticated.

Why would the sale effect such deep change?

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, since various elements of the environment trigger the behavior. The moment the animal is placed in a different environment, the triggers are no longer present, and the animal can develop new patterns of positive behavior.

The same is true for each of us. Keeping resolutionsIt's important to pay attention to one's environment 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.

Research from Duke University confirms this. Professor Wendy Wood found that students who habitually watched television were able to break the habit when they transferred to a new university—if the TV was in a different location. Students who found the TV in the same location were less successful at breaking the TV habit. So in order to stop bad habits or develop new ones, it’s important to pay attention to the environment and not rely on willpower alone, 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 holistic 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