Sunday, January 24, 2016

Marshmallows, Trees, and learning how to wait: Thoughts for Tu Bishvat

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 mis-interpreting 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.  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.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Who kisses the Torah: Kids? Adults? And who studies Torah? -- Parashat Bo, 5776 / 2016

Perhaps you have noticed that ours is a relatively child-friendly Jewish community!   You may have seen evidence of this when, every Shabbat morning, as we put the Torah scrolls away, we invite young children up to the bimah to kiss the Torah scrolls as they are put in the ark. (or rather, to kiss them by proxy, by touching them and then kissing one's hand.)

Every so often, I am reminded that this is something distinctive about our congregation, when visitors comment that their experience here is different from some other synagogue communities where children are not made to feel as comfortable.  A few times, I have had people come up to me and say, "I have never seen that before, where you have all the kids come up and kiss the Torah scrolls."  Sometimes they add, "It was so moving for me to see," and I know that they liked it. Sometimes they say, "It was so…interesting," and I know they were a little less fond of it.

I have been asked, “is that really a traditional Jewish thing to do, to invite children up to the bimah to kiss the Torah?” The answer is that this is actually a time-honored custom, described in the 13th Century Viennese compendium of Jewish law and custom called Or Zarua.  The author writes, “After the Torah is read, the leader goes and sits on the bimah, and all the young children go and kiss the Torah scroll while it is being rolled.  This is a nice custom, to teach and instruct the children about the mitzvot.”  (Or Zarua, Shabbat, 2:48). Apparently, the only innovation in our community is having this ceremony take place when the Torah is safely in the ark, rather than at the precarious moment when the Torah is being rolled.)   So the next time you see our kids coming up to the bimah to kiss the Torahs, you can know that they are taking part in a tradition that is at least 700 years old!

The central role of young children in a Jewish community is also affirmed in the Torah reading that we read this Shabbat, from Parashat Bo, towards the beginning of the Book of Exodus.

We may sometimes forget that, according to the Torah, whenever Moses was approaching Pharaoh, Moses was not simply saying "Let my people go free!"  Rather, Moses was saying, "Thus says the Lord of Israel:  Let my people go free to serve me in the wilderness." Moses was asking for a one-week furlough from their servitude.  He was asking for permission for the Israelites to journey for three days into the desert and make their offerings, and then – ostensibly – to return to Egypt. But Pharaoh says no.  Perhaps he just doesn't want to grant them this vacation. Or perhaps he realizes what is obvious throughout the story: that once the Israelites taste freedom, they're not going to want to return, and that letting them go into the wilderness is tantamount to releasing them.

After the seventh plague, Pharaoh finally relents and gives the Israelites permission to go into the desert, but he says that the Jews are conducting a religious ceremony, so the women and children don’t need to go -- just the men. Moses and Aaron respond, “Bin’areinu u-vizkeineinu nelekh” – "We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord's festival." (Exodus 10:9)

This phrase – bin’areinu u-vizkeineinu nelekh, “we will all go, young and old,” – became a rallying cry for the involvement of all people across the age spectrum in the Jewish community.  A community that does not provide for its young, or its elders, is not fulfilling Jewish values. This quotation is often used to justify prioritizing Jewish involvement of the youngest people in a community, because without the younger generation, a Jewish community has no future.

However: surprisingly enough, the Talmud addresses the question of what a family should do if the family does not have enough resources to enable both the parents and the children to study Torah. The Talmud indicates that the parent should take precedence over the child in the event that there are not enough resources for both to learn.

Rabbi Howard Gorin, who was a high school teacher of mine, is today one of the most important American rabbinic liaisons with the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. Years ago, the Abayudaya community posed this very question to him:  if we have only enough resources to arrange for Jewish education for adults, or for children, which should we prioritize?

Rabbi Gorin’s wise advice is at odds with the conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community.  He writes:  “The Talmud tells us that, while it is an obligation of the parents to educate their children, when there are only enough resources for either the education of the children or the education of the adults, the adults take precedence. I saw the wisdom of this when I visited Russia in the late 1980’s. Most of the resources – funds, books, and teachers – were dedicated to the education of the adults. Children’s education took second place.  The theory was that, if the adults learned about Judaism and practiced what they learned, the children would learn from their example – while if the children learned about Judaism but saw that their parents and other adults were neither learning about Judaism nor practicing it, these children would conclude that Judaism is for children only, that it is a phase that one grows out of, and that once a person becomes an adult, the practice of Judaism can be relegated to a position of secondary importance. Regrettably, this latter is what plays out in Jewish communities throughout my country.  For example, Bar Mitzvah, instead of being the entrance into a rich, adult Jewish life, is often the exit point from Judaism.  Our community suffers because of this.”

We are fortunate to have created programs for children’s Jewish education here at USH that are welcoming and inviting, but we must ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of creating “pediatric Judaism,” giving the impression that Judaism is fundamentally for kids and is something that adults outgrow.   We are fortunate that excellent adult Jewish educational opportunities are available to us – whether here at USH, or throughout the New York metropolitan area, or through web sites, podcasts, and distance learning (contact Rabbi Scheinberg if you don’t know where to begin!) The Jewish future cannot thrive without the involvement of young children – but it also cannot thrive without adults of all ages demonstrating an adult-level engagement with Jewish learning and tradition.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Who defies authority: the shocking truth (Parashat Shmot 5776/2016)

If you took an introductory psychology class, you probably encountered the research of Professor Stanley Milgram at Yale.  It was one of the most famous psychology experiments of the 1960's.   (And you may have seen the recent movie about Milgram, called "The Experimenter"; here's the trailer. )

This experiment purported to be an experiment in memory, examining the effects of negative reinforcement on memory.  There would be two subjects, one of whom would be designated as the  'learner,' and the other as the 'teacher.'  The ‘learner’ would be attached to a machine that would administer electric shocks, of varying amounts of voltage, while the ‘teacher’ would be in another room, communicating with the learner through a microphone.  The ‘learner’ would then have to memorize pairs of words, and if the ‘learner’ got one wrong, the 'teacher' would press a button that would administer an electric shock.  The shocks would get progressively stronger and stronger.

Except that, as you probably know already (and certainly know if you watched the movie trailer), this experiment wasn't really about memory.  The 'learner' wasn't really a subject -- he was an actor -- and there weren't really any electric shocks.  The real question was the following:  How easy would it be to get the REAL subject, the ‘teacher,’ to administer electric shocks to a total stranger, merely because there was a Yale professor in a white lab coat who was telling him to?

Stanley Milgram came up with the idea for the experiment shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann for genocidal crimes during the Holocaust.  Milgram became interested in the question of how such an apparently normal person could become a mass murderer merely because his superiors told him to.

The results were startling.  About two-thirds of the people would keep on administering the shocks to the highest level, enough to make the learner call out in pain and then eventually become completely unresponsive and presumably unconscious or dead.  (Here is a documentary with some of the actual footage from Milgram's study. Note, though, that some have questioned Milgram's conclusions.) Such is the power of authority.  Many of us have a hesitancy to challenge orders we have been given by someone in position of authority, even when it's someone who has no real power over us.

A few years ago, this experiment was recreated by ABC News (with some minor modifications to comply with current laws about experiments with human subjects), because there had speculation that things would be different today.  The world, and the United States, have changed  a lot in the last 40 years.  Many people who hear about this experiment today respond, “Well, I would have resisted. I wouldn't have given electric shocks to a total stranger.”

And yet, the results of the recent experiment are comparable to those of the original experiment.  About 60% of the subjects are willing to administer electric shocks, up to the highest level.  

In this contemporary recreation of the experiment, who are the 40% who don't administer the shocks?  They don't necessarily fall into any particular group.  They are not, for example, more likely to be religious than the others – and they are not LESS likely to be religious than the others.  They are not more likely to be educated, or less likely to be educated.  However, there IS something special about them:  they are people who describe themselves as "non-conformist” and comfortable with speaking out, bucking trends, and defying authority.  Not surprisingly, sometimes this was a quality that got these people into some trouble – but during this experiment- this trait served to their benefit.   And we might imagine that if these same people were in another circumstance where they were asked to inflict harm on another or otherwise perpetrate an injustice, they would be the ones likely to resist and disobey.

Every year, the Torah portion of Shemot at the beginning of the book of Exodus (read this year on January 2) gives us three outstanding examples of people who would have done well in Milgram’s experiment, as they were people with a  strong enough moral compass to refuse to carry out orders that they felt were unethical.  The first two are Shifra and Puah, the midwives who are instructed by Pharaoh to slaughter all Israelite baby boys.  They refuse, and then when Pharaoh confronts them, they lie -- and in so doing, they keep the Israelites alive.  Similarly heroic is Pharaoh's daughter, who sees a baby boy in a basket in the Nile River, figures out that this must be an Israelite child, saved by his mother from the fate of death that was meted out to every Israelite baby boy, and she adopts him as her own son.  She raises him in the palace, in clear defiance of the ruling of her father, the King of Egypt.  Imagine, for example, if one of Adolf Eichmann's children had hidden Jews and saved them during the Holocaust.  That’s the depth of defiance of authority under discussion here, made all the more severe when the person is also defying a parent.

It is a beautiful confluence every year that we read about Shifra, Puah, and Pharaoh’s daughter in the mid-winter, not far from Martin Luther King Day.  These three women may be regarded as the original practitioners of civil disobedience.  These heroic, authority-challenging women in our holy Torah are an embodiment of King’s famous words:  “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”