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How Many Flavors of Ice Cream Would You Try?
Parshat Termuah 5779

I like ice cream. I like it a lot. There is almost no flavor of ice cream I don’t like. I recently had a scoop of basil infused ice cream and found it delicious. If you put me in a room with 50 tubs of ice cream and a box of little spoons, I would probably try a little taste of 40 of them. I could do the same thing with 50 different herrings or 50 different cholents, as long as you gave me the little spoons. I might bust a button or two on my shirt, but no one gets hurt.

But what if, instead of ice cream flavors, we were dealing with people? What if Bob were single and dating, and he was put in a room with 50 women, and was told that he could date all of them? Would he have a real problem committing to any of them? Would he be tempted to date many of them, and drop any one of them the second any challenges arose, knowing that he has 49 other options?

What if instead of 50 people, Bob was told he could date 500, 5,000 or even 50,000 different women? What if they weren’t all in a room, but they were all on his smartphone sprinkled over a dozen different dating apps? What if Bob would get emails from all of those websites with smiling happy pictures of hundreds of “matches” even after he deactivated his profile because he was dating someone? Would that help him stay committed to the process even after he and the girl he was dating get into a serious argument? Suddenly I’m not so sure that no one gets hurt…

The sad news is that I don’t need to ask all of those questions anymore, because the data is out. In an extensively researched book, Love in the Time of Algorithms, by Dan Slater, the rise of internet dating is chronicled and the myriad effects studied carefully. The consensus of the research, the polling, and the dating experts is that the rise of online dating will mean an overall decrease in commitment. Internet dating makes people more disposable.

The owners of matching apps are thrilled; they don’t make money off of happily married people. Dan Winchester, the owner of a British dating website muses, “I often wonder whether matching singles up with great people is getting so efficient, and the process of dating so enjoyable, that marriage will become obsolete.” Greg Blatt, the CEO of Match.com’s parent company, takes another tack, “Historically, relationships have been billed as ‘hard’ because, historically, commitment has been the goal. You could say online dating is simply changing people’s ideas about whether commitment itself is a life value.”

The stats seem to agree with those opinions. Only 52.7% of adults in the U.S. are married today, down from 72% in 1960, and the median age of first marriage is higher than it has ever been at 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men, up from a respective 20.3 and 22.8. The number of people getting married in the U.S. has dropped each year for the past 5 years, despite a growth in the overall population. (Not surprisingly, the fertility rate in the U.S. is at its lowest since 1920, and now is at 1.8, well below the 2.1 rate which is the replacement rate.)

All the havoc being wrought upon the institution of marriage might be worth it if it meant that the single people who have thousands of dating options at their fingertips were happier for all their freedom and choice. But alas, that is also not the case. For starters, it is the very process of investing in a relationship that gives the relationship meaning. When there are so many alternatives, people don’t invest in their relationships, and thus find much less meaning and satisfaction in their relationships. The garage junkie who worked for six years on restoring a 1965 Corvette Stingray will feel far more pleasure driving it than a person who buys one from a dealership. When people don’t invest in their relationships, the pleasure they get out of those relationships will be far smaller. The result is people having many more relationships, but much less meaningful ones.

You probably could have figured that out on your own, but Dan Slater’s book reveals another factor at play as well, one that is much more novel. People enjoy things less when they are choosing from a very large subset, because there is a much greater sense that they might have made the wrong choice, and the best option is still out there. In a recent study, subjects who selected a chocolate from an array of six options believed it tasted better than those who selected the same chocolate from an array of 30.Not only are people missing out on the meaningful relationships that result from hard work, they are also constantly plagued by the doubt that they are missing out on much better choices.

Lastly, Slater reports that scientist have found that when people are given an enormous subset to choose from, they become “cognitively overwhelmed,” and “deal with the overload by adopting lazy comparison strategies and examining fewer cues. As a result, they are more likely to make careless decisions than they would be if they had fewer options, and this potentially leads to less compatible matches.”

The rise of internet dating seems to hurt everyone. There are less marriages, despite marriage being the single most reliable happiness indicator. A 2005 survey from the Pew Research Center substantiates these assertions. Forty-three percent of married respondents reported that they were “very happy,” compared to 24 percent of unmarried individuals [source: Pew Research Center]. And those who are dating find less happiness in their relationships due to lazy choices, the feeling that they are missing out on better choices, and the lack of investment in their relationships.

Obviously this is a call for people who are dating to begin investing more in their relationships, and to shut down their online dating profiles for a time to see if they can find better relationships by using the more traditional dating models (This is not easy. Dating websites will continue to send people emails with pictures and info of all their “matches” long after they close out their profiles in the hope that they will lure customers back. This is done despite the fact that the websites are aware that usually an account is closed because the owner is involved in a relationship).

But there is a much deeper message here as well. The Sages tell us (based on a verse in the Torah) that “there is no free man like the one who is involved in the Torah.” This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, because the Torah seems to restrict a person’s choices in almost every area, from the foods they can eat (kosher), to their weekend plans (Shabbos), their potential marriage partners (other Jews), their monetary freedom (charity obligations), and their leisure time (Torah study, prayer, etc.). What can it mean when we say that being involved in Torah makes someone free?

The new research outlined above may hold the secret to understanding this enigmatic statement of the Sages. When it comes to choices, more choices do not a happier person make. More commitment does. The Torah calls upon us to live committed lives, to constantly invest our time, money and passion into building a greater human being. And it is precisely by living a less-choices-more-investment life that we find greater happiness and life satisfaction.

Keeping Shabbos requires a great investment, and an abandoning of many choices, but it does give us the ability to focus on the things that are important in life: family, soul, and stepping away from the chaos. Giving charity automatically means you have less choices in the disposable income arena, but it is an investment in a more giving, selfless, and meaningful life. Being part of a learning community takes away time from myriad other choices of how to spend our time, but it does give us a greater appreciation of who we are and who we can become.

Rabidranath Tagore, the first Indian Nobel Prize Laureate, said it best. “I have a violin string on my table. It is free, but it is not free to produce music. To be free to produce music it must be stretched taut over my violin. Then it won’t be free, but it will be free to produce music.”

Freedom is not determined by the number of choices at our disposal, but in investing in the taut environment where we will be free to produce the most music.

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s parsha begins with the call for donations to build the first ever House of G-d. The Torah enumerates all the different items that were needed, a shopping list of fifteen items ranging from gold to purple wool, from acacia wood to red-dyed goat skins. Rabbi Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar (1696-1743, Morocco-Jerusalem) in his classic commentary, the Ohr HaChaim points out what seems like an anomaly in the order that Torah uses to list items that would be donated. Generally the list is ordered from the most expensive to the least expensive. The list begins with gold and then moves on to silver, copper, and moves all the way down to herbs and spices.

The anomaly is that the most expensive of all the items is listed last! The shoham stones were precious stones worn on the shoulders of the high priest, and they had to be big enough that the names of six tribes were engraved on each one of them. They were literally priceless, and should have been the first item on the list instead of the last! The Ohr Hachayim begins his answer with a statement from the Talmud (Yoma 75A), which says that these priceless stones which were impossible to find, were brought miraculously by the clouds (a whole new meaning to “airmail!”). Since no effort was expended in bringing this item to build the Tabernacle, they were the least important to G-d and were listed last.

When someone made a big sacrifice and donated a chunk of gold to the Tabernacle it was more meaningful that when someone made a smaller sacrifice and gave a chunk of silver. But the shoham stones, despite being priceless, did not come through someone’s self sacrifice and dedication, and were thus listed last. G-d doesn’t need gold, diamonds, or platinum. In a flash He could create mountains of gold. What G-d values is the love, dedication, and sacrifice of His people, and the times that required the most dedication were the one’s G-d counted first. Items that required no dedication were left to the end, regardless of their enormous price tag.

Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1748-1820, Poland- Vilna), in his classic work on Jewish Law, Chayei Adam, talks about general principles regarding the fulfillment of mitzvos. He expands the idea above by saying that if someone can afford it, they should pay for items that will be used for a mitzvah even if they can get it for free. For example, although someone can borrow a lulav and esrog to shake on Succos, they should buy one anyway, because when we invest in a mitzvah, it has more meaning to us (which is why it is more meaningful to G-d).

He supports this from King David’s acquisition of the Temple Mount, which would later house the First and Second Temples. The owner of the land, Aravnah the Jebusite, offered the whole thing to King David for free, but King David declined. “And the king said to Aravnah, “No; for I will only buy it from you at a price; so that I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt-offerings [which I had received] for nothing. (Samuel II 24:24)” King David didn’t want to give up the opportunity to invest himself personally in the great mitzvah of building the Temple. By derivation, the Chayei Adam says that we too should try to invest ourselves personally in any mitzvah we can.

For the past five years I have had the opportunity to lecture for Heritage Retreats, an organization that brings college students and young professional from all over the country together for a week of “learn hard, play hard.” As part of the program, we learn about many of the basic mitzvos, including tzitzis and tefillin. Often the guys are even given the opportunity to make their own tzitzis. It is not easy, and often takes two hours to complete a single pair of tzitzis. But reliably, when people invest in making their own tzitzis, they end up wearing them much more. The more we invest in a mitzvah, the greater the return we reap. As the mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers proclaims, (Avot 5:26) “26. Ben Heh-Heh used to say: According to the effort is the reward.”

 

Parsha Summary

In this week’s portion G-d asks the Jewish people to build a physical dwelling place for the Divine Presence. The Sages tell us that the real goal is that we each build a Tabernacle inside ourselves, but that the building is the physical expression of that idea, and one we can relate to much more easily. The Jews were asked to donate the many different materials with which the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), its vessels, and the holy vestments for the Kohanim would be made.

The items the Jews were asked to bring were: gold, silver and copper, turquoise, purple, and crimson wool, fine linen, goat’s hair, red-dyed ram’s skins, tachash skins, acacia wood, oil, spices, and precious stones. G-d tells Moshe that He will show him a model of the Tabernacle and that the real one should be built exactly like the prototype.

After that, the Torah begins to detail the design of many of the vessels. The ark was made of three boxes, the outside and inside ones of gold, and the middle one of wood. On top of the box was a special lid that had two childlike forms with wings engraved onto it. There were four rings in which poles to carry the aron were placed and, specifically regarding the ark, the Torah stipulates that the poles were never to be removed.

The Table was a vessel used to hold twelve loaves of showbread that were placed there for a week at a time, from Shabbos to Shabbos. The table was made of gold-plated wood and had a small crown-like ornament rimming it. It had a special system of poles and supports so that the showbreads could be held up properly.

The Menorah had to be carved out of one block of gold. It was about 70 inches tall and had one central mast with three branches leading off to each side. It was heavily adorned with sculpted flowers, knobs, and decorative cups.

The building itself was made of dozens of wood planks covered in gold and held in place by silver sockets. There were also gold plated wooden bars that held them together. There were two heavy tapestries covering these planks. The inner one was made of twisted linen woven with turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool and was held together with golden hooks. The outer one was made of a more simple material, woven goat’s hair, and was held together with copper hooks. The Sages tell us that this teaches us that a person’s home should always be more beautiful on the inside than on the outside. (Please note: There are so many lessons taught from everything in the Tabernacle, but space doesn’t permit me to list all of them. However, please discover these gems for yourselves!)

The altar was a hollow rectangular cuboid (the width and length were the same, the height was not) made of wood and covered with copper. It was filled with dirt. It had protrusions at each of the top corners that were exact cubes, netting surrounding it like a belt, and a protrusion in the middle that was large enough to walk on. Leading up to it was a long ramp, as no steps were allowed on the altar (see the end of Parshas Yisro).

Finally, the courtyard was swathed in a white linen sheet which was held in place by wooden pillars with copper sockets. The pillars had bands of silver going around them, and they held up the material with silver hooks. If it sounds like a beautiful place, that’s because it was one. May we all merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple, and may we once again have a place on earth where G-d’s Presence can reside in all of its Glory!!!

Quote of the Week: Life is 10% what you make it, and 90% how you take it! – Samuel Fremont

Random Fact of the Week: Pumice is the only rock that floats in water.

Funny Line of the Week: I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.

Have a Swell Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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