Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Marshmallows, Tu Bishvat, and Delay of Gratification

Some thoughts for Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees.

One of the most famous experiments in child psychology was conducted by Walter Mischel.  He would give preschool-age children a marshmallow, and then a tantalizing dilemma:  the child could eat the marshmallow now -- or, if the child succeeded in waiting for several minutes, the child would receive two marshmallows.

This “marshmallow experiment,” as it came to be known, examines one of the most essential life skills:  delay of gratification.  Mischel and his team found that most of the young children were unable to delay their gratification; some ate the marshmallow immediately, and others made an effort but could not wait for more than a couple of minutes.  However, approximately 30% of the children were able to develop strategies that helped them to delay their gratification for the entire fifteen minutes.  Some children even blocked the marshmallow from their view so they could more easily focus on other things. 
This experiment was first conducted in the 1960’s, and Mischel and his team followed up on the children, discovering that those who had developed the skill of waiting, and delaying gratification, were more likely to have high academic achievement and professional achievement, and less likely to have issues with substance abuse, than students who were unable to wait.
Delaying gratification is a central skill for living a productive and fulfilling life.  But it is remarkable to me that we encourage young children to develop their skills of delay of gratification, while on a societal level, adults are not necessarily as adept at this skill.  There is hardly a single political issue today which is not in some way related to the delay of gratification.  For example, we face the choice whether or not to increase the national debt, knowing that when we do, it’s the next generation that will pay the interest.  Or we face the choice to invest now in renewable energy sources, knowing that if we don’t, our current energy sources may prove to be insufficient.
One of the very first stories in the Torah is interpreted in Jewish mystical literature as a story about delay of gratification.  I’m speaking of the story of Adam and Eve, and that famous tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The 16th century mystic writer Mordechai ha-Kohen of Tzefat wrote that we have been misinterpreting this story for so many centuries.  He wrote that Adam and Eve’s sin was not so much in EATING from the Tree of Knowledge, but in doing so TOO EARLY. 
According to the Torah, Adam and Eve were created on a Friday - the sixth day of creation - immediately before Shabbat.  According to the Midrash, it was at about 3pm on that Friday afternoon that God issued the commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
This is where Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen adds his own theory:  God was saving that fruit to be a special treat for Adam and Eve for Shabbat.  If they had merely waited three more hours, God would have given them the fruit, and told them to enjoy!  But they were unable to wait.  As a result, God enacted a law in the Torah, found in the book of Leviticus (19:3):  “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.  Three years it shall be forbidden to you, not to be eaten."  Three years of mandatory waiting, corresponding to the three hours that Adam and Eve couldn’t wait -- to give us all adequate practice in waiting.
Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen asserts that one of the most important things that the Torah can teach us is the importance of waiting, of thoughtfully delaying gratification so we can enjoy a better world later on.
This month, we celebrate the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees (on Wednesday, February 8).  Certainly, from the mere fact that the Jewish calendar includes a Jewish holiday that’s all about trees, we get a sense of the importance of environmental concern in our tradition.  But when we look closely at the original meaning and purpose of Tu Bishvat, we see that it is connected to the value of delay of gratification.  The Mishnah tells us that the 15th day of the month of Shevat is “Rosh HaShanah La-Ilanot,”  “the new year for trees,” meaning that all trees are considered to be a day older on Tu Bishvat.  In Israel, this holiday approximately marks the time when the sap is beginning to flow through the trees again after the winter, and when first flowers of spring can be seen on some early-blooming trees like the almond tree.  In the same way that all race horses are considered to be a year older on January 1 every year, all trees are considered to be a year older on Tu Bishvat.

But why is it so important to know how old a tree is?  It’s because of that law from the book of Leviticus (19:3), mentioned above, that specifies that for the first three years of a tree’s life, its fruit cannot be eaten.  This law is God’s effort to teach us how to wait, and to remind us that the most important yields of our efforts are not the yields that come immediately, but those that come later. 

Tu Bishvat serves as our reminder that it’s a mistake to make our decisions based only on their short-term impact.  In fact, we ought to have such a long time-horizon that we routinely consider the impact of our actions upon future generations, in addition to our own generation.

The most famous Tu Bishvat story of all is the Talmud’s story of Honi Ha-Me’agel, Honi the Circle-drawer, who was a miracle-worker in the Land of Israel in the 1st-century.  According to the story, once Honi was walking along the road and saw an old man planting a tree.  This would have been surprising enough:  Why is an old man planting a tree, rather than having one of his relatives do it for him?  As Honi got closer, he saw something even more surprising:  this man was planting a carob tree.  And a carob tree, as every ancient Israelite would have known, doesn’t yield edible fruit until at least 70 years after it has been planted.  Could this man truly believe that he would survive to see the fruits of his labors?
Honi called out to him:  “At your age, why are you planting a carob tree?” 
The old man responded:  “When I was born, I found a world that was full of carob trees, which my ancestors had planted for me.  Even though I know I will not survive to see the fruit of this tree, I plant this tree for the sake of my descendants, so that they will be able to know the blessings that I have known in my life.”
When we have decisions to make, which could affect future generations, may we keep the lessons of Tu Bishvat in mind and plant not for our own sake, but for the sake of our descendants.

Monday, February 6, 2012

"A Jewish journey through loss, bereavement, and comfort"

This is the text of a sermon I delivered in 2006, shortly after the sudden loss of my mother, Elissa Scheinberg z"l, in an effort to articulate the wisdom of the Jewish traditions surrounding bereavement and mourning.

Adonai natan, vadonai lakach.
God has given, God has taken.
Yehi shem adonai mevorach.
May the name of God be blessed.  (Job 1:21)

At dozens and dozens of funerals I have led friends, congregants and
family through the recitation of these words.
But eight weeks ago, as I said them at my mother's funeral,
the experience was unprecedented for me.
I've been in this movie before, I thought,
but I was always playing a different part.
Even at the funerals of my grandparents, and of friends,
my role was always to "take care" of the mourners
who were 'closer in' to the circle of grief than I was.
and here I was, at the innermost circle.

I would like to tell you what it's like to be at that innermost circle -
from a Jewish perspective.
What it was like for me to endure this tragedy through a Jewish lens.
I've actually planned for a long time, for several years, to give a
sermon like this.
I just didn't think it was going to be about me.
Now, I harbor no illusion that the way I responded to my grief
is exactly the way that others might respond to theirs.
Grief is very individual, and the 400 people or so in this synagogue right now
have at least 400 different kinds of relationships to Jewish tradition.
The choices I made may not be entirely the choices you would make.
but I found the rituals of Jewish tradition
to be extraordinarily powerful, helpful and comforting.
And to tell you about my experiences, and the roles that Jewish
teachings and traditions played for me over these last several weeks,
is a way for me to wrest some blessing even from the midst of sorrow.
And unfortunately, almost all of us
will face some kind of grief and mourning in the future.
So the perspective I can provide may be, for some, a practical guide
to issues that YOU may face,
as YOU seek to discern the role that Jewish tradition will play in YOUR life.

Tuesday morning:
I was in my office downstairs when I got the call with the news.
The only way that I know how I reacted
was that about 5 minutes later, Rachelle, our pre-school director,
came knocking at my door
because she was concerned that there must be a crying infant or toddler there.
How thankful I am for a religious and cultural tradition
that completely abandons the figment of the 'stiff upper lip,'
that wishes to affirm emotions rather than trying to control or stifle them.
Very sensibly, the Talmud tells us: 
al tenachamenu be-sha'ah she-meito mutal lefanav. (Avot 4:18)
Don't even bother trying to comfort your friend, when his deceased relative
is still lying unburied.
it won't work, and it will just add insult to injury.
And it goes even further.  For those in the state of Aninut,
that stage of absolutely brutal, painful sorrow amidst the shock of the death,
not only are you not supposed to be comforted.
You're not supposed to do any of the mitzvot.
You're not supposed to take ANY affirmative steps to fulfill ANY
positive precept of Jewish tradition, with the exception of ensuring
prompt burial for your loved one.
Now obviously, this will affect people differently
depending on how many mitzvot they are doing on a daily basis.
For me, prayer normally punctuates my day -
and saying blessings before and after I eat is basically automatic for me.
But after hearing the news of the loss, Jewish tradition asks me not to pray,
not to say blessings before and after meals,
not to give tzedakah -- essentially not to do any religious act
until I have had a chance to get the minimal emotional closure that
burial can provide.
Why?  Some say it's so I can better focus on the task at hand.
And some say - I shouldn't say blessings at this stage
because blessing seems so truly absent from my life.
And like a treasured friend, like a good listener,
Judaism doesn't want to drag me away from my emotional state.
Judaism wants to AFFIRM the emotional state where I currently am.
No blessings; no words of comfort.
I am usually thrive on both;
But at that moment, I had no patience for either.

Hatikvah - the Untold Story

Last Saturday night I taught a session called "Hatikvah - the Untold Story" at the Sweet Tastes of Torah community event in Fair Lawn NJ.  It was an exciting way for me to combine my interests in Israel, Jewish liturgical poetry, and music.

Here are some links to the resources I discussed about the evolution of the words and music of Hatikvah.


my source sheet

http://www.piyut.org.il/textual/359.html - Naftali Hertz Imber's original poem 'Tikvateinu'

http://www.musiccathedra.bravehost.com/hatikva.wmv and http://www.musiccathedra.bravehost.com/ch10.wmv - Hebrew video interviews with Astrith Baltsan about her book about Hatikvah, including discussion of the words and musical examples.


http://youtu.be/lDJUDqtxK6M - early recording of Hatikvah, 1918, by Alma Gluck and Efrem Zimbalist Jr  (using 'the old words')

http://youtu.be/adTjy-TIW_Q - Romanian folk song "Carul Cu Boi" ("A cart with oxen") -- the melody that Romanian immigrant Samuel Cohen (Rishon Letzion) suggested for Hatikvah

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ifJ8JXVJRo - La Montavana - Italian song with similar melody

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMst624lBrA - Fuggi la questa cielo (starting around 2'15") - Italian love song based on La Montavana

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BTvoqVK420 (broken link replaced 5-2019) - Mozart's 12 Variations 'Ah vous dirai-je Maman'  (otherwise known as 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star').  Variation #8 (starting at 4'12") sounds remarkably similar to Hatikvah / Carul Cu Boi / La Montavana  -- in the session we speculated on why that might be.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOxIbhqZsKc -- Smetana's "Moldau"  (Vltava) from "Ma Vlast" -- starting around 1'05" - the most famous statement of the "Hatikvah" theme in Western classical music.  In the session we talked about how Smetana used folk materials in his composition, and that "The Moldau" sounds like Hatikvah not because Hatikvah is based on "The Moldau," but because both are based on similar earlier folk motifs.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syUSmEbGLs4 -- perhaps the most emotional recording of Hatikvah, from 5 days after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

Addition in 2019:  Also listen to the Hatikvah podcast by Israel Story:  https://israelstory.org/episode/36-mixtape-part-hope/