Monday, October 29, 2012

In the blink of an eye / Parshat Chayei Sarah

How many times have you heard someone say, “it was love at first sight”? Perhaps you have used this phrase to describe your relationship with your partner. If, as Jane Austen describes in Pride and Prejudice, there can be hate at first sight could there not be love at first sight? Yet can a person truly gather enough information to formulate a solid, rational judgment -- let alone fall genuinely in love -- in the blink of an eye?

Eliezer, Abraham’s loyal and resourceful servant, travels to Haran to secure a wife for Isaac from among the clan of Abraham. When he arrives in Nahor and stops to water the camels, he prays:

O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom say, “Please, lower your jar that I may drink” and who replies, “Drink, and I will also water your camels” -- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master. (Genesis 24:12-14)

What’s this about? Is Eliezer expecting God to send the right woman along at just this time? Is he expecting God to signal him in some way that a certain woman is the right choice? Cue Rebekah, stage right:

He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Micah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. (Genesis 24:15-20)

Eliezer may pray for a sign, but he makes his decision by means of a character test. Rebekah is the hands-down winner. This young woman is gracious, kind, generous, and hospitable -- to both people and animals. She is also hardworking and strong; the spring is not far from the trough, but Rebekah still has to schlep sufficient water for ten camels from well to trough. Who wouldn’t want this woman as a wife or daughter-in-law?

Does Rebekah recognize that Eliezer brings gifts of great value? He does have ten camels, but he isn’t dressed like royalty and she might well presume him to be a merchant, if she gives it any thought. We know that her brother Laban sure notices -- immediately. Torah suggests that Laban focuses on the nose-ring and bracelets Eliezer has given Rebekah before he bothers to look at the visitor from afar.

It is said that “first impressions” are the most important, and that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Presumably our amygdala (the more primitive part of our brain that is responsible for the “fight or flight” response) hijacks the evaluation process, rendering a mental image of the person we have just met before the neo-cortex can conduct a more measured analysis. But Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking tells us that while first impressions are arrived at in no more than two seconds -- the blink of an eye -- they should not be undervalued: “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.” He explains:

“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it...We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

That should reassure us. Our snap judgments result from rapid thinking and analysis. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, tell us that “in the first few milliseconds of our perceiving something we not only unconsciously comprehend what it is, but decide whether we like it or not: the ‘cognitive unconscious.’” But what determines the parameters of our thinking, the criteria by which our “cognitive unconscious” operates?

Eliezer judges Rebekah by behavior; Eliezer is wired to seek signs of character. Laban, in contrast, judges Eliezer by wealth; Laban is wired to search for material possessions. Both are correct: Rebekah is a fine woman and Eliezer comes on behalf of a wealthy man. It is what Eliezer and Laban seek that determines what they see and guides their first impressions.

This advertisement for HSBC Bank makes the point beautifully:

Eliezer and Laban operate by very different values. It is their values and priorities that determine what they seek and, as a consequence, what they first see in people.

Do you know where -- in you -- your first impressions of others come from? Have you stopped to consider how you assess other people in that first instant, in the blink of an eye? What do you look for? What do you see? We would do well to bring our “cognitive unconscious” up for air and examination. Are we making judgments and formulating opinions by values we admire and want to own?

British writer and cultural critic Walter Pater (1839-1894) said: “What we have to do is be forever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions.” Very fine advice. So too should would it be wise to test our first impressions and court new opinions.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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