OF MARSHMALLOWS & COVENANTS
Rabbi David Walk
In the late 1960's, Professor Walter Mischel of
Mischel discovered that there existed an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later. The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that "preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent". A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores. A 2011 study of the same participants indicates that the characteristic remains with the person for life. Additionally, brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (an area linked to addictions). A variation on the test was conducted at the
Besides the fact that I find this stuff really cool, what can we learn from these tests and their results? I think that there are many Torah examples of the marshmallow experiment. Perhaps the most famous is the Tree of Knowledge (maybe it wasn't apples but marshmallows or, better yet, Rolo's). The strength to resist the Tree is the ability to control one's urges and desires, a valuable lesson. We say that the true hero is the one who can control their own inclinations (Pirkei Avot 3:1). Maybe the Knowledge of the Tree was the understanding of oneself. This may also be the rationale behind the tenth commandment. When we're instructed not to covet, we're really being told to control our appetites. Everyone is fascinated by and attracted to forbidden fruit, but the measure of a human may be based upon one's strength to enjoy only those delights which are permitted by morality, reason and societal norms.
But this week's Torah reading presents us with the ultimate example of delayed gratification. In chapter fifteen we have history's second instance of a covenant (brit). Last week a covenant was granted to Noach for all of mankind, promising no more floods and sealed with the rainbow. This week we encounter the covenant between God and Avraham, which becomes the basic agreement for our special relationship with God. God informs Avraham of the upcoming bondage and exodus from
The Rav (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) looked at the spirit of the covenant in a different light. He suggested that at the core of a covenant is an eternal commitment. Covenant and eternity are identical. According to the Rav, what makes this week's covenant the prototype for all others, is that Avraham's commitment is based upon a fulfillment he will never see. The promise of the
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think that's true, but the Jewish way of expressing that thought is: The uncommitted life is not worth living. When we reread the Biblical covenants executed by our ancestors, we must re-enlist in this eternal struggle, commitment and test. I want my grandchildren to get two marshmallows.
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