Monday, November 12, 2012

I can delay gratitification - if I get it now! / Parshat Toldot

Have you heard of the marshmallow experiment? In 1972, Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel constructed an experiment to determine the mental processes that enable us to delay gratification. Six hundred fifty-three 4- and 6-year-olds were offered a marshmallow. They could eat it immediately, but if they waited for a time, they would be rewarded with a second sweet treat. Can young children resist temptation in the short term to gain a reward in the long term? Consider for a moment if Esau were one of Mischel’s test subjects.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” — which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.

Esau cannot defer gratification. We can criticize Jacob for taking advantage of his vulnerable brother. I have no argument with that, but I want to focus on Esau’s choice, without become entangled in Jacob’s arguably unethical behavior.

We might claim that Esau is famished. As hungry as he is — after only one day out hunting, a day that probably began with breakfast — he is hardly on the verge of collapse, or suffering malnutrition. What is more, the stakes are extraordinarily high: the birthright itself, something that has long term consequences.

We are all faced with choices like Esau’s. As teenagers we decide how much time and energy to invest in our social lives and how much to invest in our studies. As adults we decide how much of our resources to spend on the pleasures of life, and how much to invest for retirement. Short term gain versus long term investment. Our decisions — for the short term or for the long term — are often a crucial determining factor in future opportunities, careers, relationships, and retirement.

Does this mean we should always defer gratification and never indulge in the pleasures of life? Certainly not!

R. Chizkiyah said in the name of Rav: You will one day give reckoning for everything your eyes saw that, although permissible, you did not enjoy. (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12)

What R. Chizkiyah means is that God has given us a world filled with pleasures and wonders. God wants us to enjoy them and be happy because life is a divine gift to be savored. In fact, we express our gratitude to God by enjoying the blessings and pleasures of life. Being present in the moment, enjoying the wonder of life, and appreciating our blessings is a Jewish religious value.

If we forgo the pleasures of life -- always setting them aside for the future -- when will there ever be a time that is a “present” in which we need not defer to the future?
The Rabbis frowned on asceticism precisely because asceticism is grounded in a denial of pleasure. My husband’s grandmother always took the gifts her husband received — new shirts, razors, and the rest — and “put them away” for his “old age.” She was still doing this when he turned 90. When do we unwrap our gifts and savor their beauty?

Talmud tells us that when the Rabbis left the school of Ammi, they blessed one another:

May you see your world in your lifetime, and may your latter end be for the future world and your hope for many generations; may your heart meditate understanding, your mouth speak wisdom and your tongue compose song…

What a magnificent blessing! May you see your world in your lifetime  — may we all see our dreams and visions realized in our lifetime. For that to happen, we need to unwrap the gifts today. May your latter end be for the future world — but if we live only for today, without thought to the future, we will not have a “future world.” We need balance in order to maintain an appreciation of the present that nurtures [our] hope for many generations.

Perhaps the best description of the Jewish approach to achieving a healthy balance is encapsulated in the words of an exceptional sprightly and vigorous elderly woman who visited the first year Harvard University medical school class a few years back to speak about her experience with health and medicine. One student asked what her secret was to being so healthy, fit, and active at such an advanced age. She smiled and responded, “My rule is moderation in all things, including moderation.”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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