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.

1 comment:

  1. I still don't know why it is important to delay gratification.

    ReplyDelete