Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Walk Article


Lech Licha-5773

Rabbi David Walk


            In the late 1960's, Professor Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted one of the most famous studies in child psychology.  Mischel himself had an interesting childhood.  He fled with his family to the United States at the age of eight from Vienna after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany.  In the experiment kids aged four to six were given a marshmallow, and told that if they waited fifteen minutes they would be given another marshmallow.  Most kids tried to resist the temptation, about one third waited long enough to get the treat.  This was a great test of the benefits of delaying gratification, which has been shown to be an extremely important trait for success in life.  After considering this experiment for a long time, the only improvement I would suggest is to substitute Rolo's.  They're like the greatest candy ever devised by man.  But I digress.  What did this test and its variations teach us?

            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 University of Rochester and just reported last week.  They divided children into two groups: one group was given a broken promise before the marshmallow test was conducted (the unreliable group), and the second group had a fulfilled promise before their marshmallow test (the reliable group). The reliable group waited up to four times longer (12 min) than the unreliable group for the second marshmallow to appear.

            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 Egypt.  No specifics are given about this future event, because it is also the paradigm for all the cycles of Jewish history, persecutions followed by redemptions.  What is the essence of the covenantal relationship?  Well, the covenant itself is made up of a ceremony and mutual commitments which are unbreakable.  According to Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1907-1972), the fundamental nature of the covenant is giving our sacred word of honor.  This pledge given in a moment in time goes on and on for ever.  It is this unshakeable loyalty which makes the covenantal commitment so momentous.  We carry the event with us forever.

            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 land of Israel will be fulfilled by his children inheriting it, not him.  The covenantal personality is a historical personality.  Normally, we think of the delayed gratification of the pious personality is waiting for reward in distant time, perhaps the world to come.  The Rav changes that perception.  The zadik's gratification is only achieved by one's progeny.  This presents a new vision of eternal life, my DNA lives on.  I perform my mitzvoth not so that I will be compensated, but so that my grandchildren will see the redemption.  I anticipate the salvation, but don't expect to experience it.

            Remember the University of Rochester variation on the marshmallow test?  If I have faith in the person making the promise, my ability to pass the test is enhanced.  When I'm disloyal and break the eternal covenant of the Jewish people, it's quite often because I don't have the prerequisite faith in the One administering the test.  Do I really believe that God will deliver on the promises?  I'd like to think that our people's continued existence against all the expectations of history is ample proof of the Administrator's good will. 

            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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