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My Brain Made Me do it! Bamidbar 5776

This essay relies heavily on the information contained in an article from The Atlantic, written by Stephen Cave, and found in the June 2016 issue.

David walked out of Professor Smilansky’s lecture hall, and felt like he had just won a million dollars. The lecture was long and tedious, filled with graphs of brain activity, PET scans, and formulas describing neurological stimuli. David didn’t really understand the science part too well, but one thing he heard clearly over and over again, “You don’t really have free will. Free will is an illusion.”  These were the most freeing words he’d ever heard.

Immediately, David left all feelings of guilt and regret at his desk, never to pick them back up again. Why should he feel bad about making fun of that special ed. kid he tormented throughout high school, it wasn’t like he chose to do it, his brain made him do it. Why should he feel bad that all summer long, he stole money daily from the cash register of Brown’s Hardware and Appliances? Sure, Mr. Brown was really nice for giving him the job despite his lack of experience, but Mr. Brown wasn’t really a nice guy, his brain made him do it. And David wasn’t really a bad guy for stealing the money, his brain made him do that too.

Sure, David felt a bit unlucky. He did wish that he was born into a family that had better genes, maybe his brain wouldn’t make him steal and bully, but at least now he could accept himself. Professor Smilansky explained that his neurons simply fired in different ways than other people. He recited anecdotal evidence of people becoming alcoholics or pedophiles after getting a brain tumor; they didn’t change at all as people, but their neural network had changed, and it caused them to be alcoholics and pedophiles. He had all sorts of diagrams showing the difference between the brain of a kind person, and the brain of a psychopathic killer. They clearly looked different. David found himself feeling bad for the psychopath, evidently, he had even worse luck than David! It wasn’t his fault, he just had a bad brain…

On the way home, David passed by that homeless guy. He was always sitting outside the Chase bank, with his ratty smelly blanket wrapped around him. Normally, David felt a little guilty for never giving him money, but today, he actually started yelling at him to get away and stop smelling up the neighborhood, and even gave him a kick for good measure! There was something intoxicating about knowing that no matter what you did, it wasn’t your fault, you didn’t really choose it, it was just your brain firing! Walking away with a big smile, David thought about what he should do next with his newfound freedom. His next idea was brilliant in its ironic simplicity, he would break into Professor Smilansky’s house and rob him blind! Let he who exonerating David, feel the brunt of a David unhinged from free will!

Today, there is a raging debate in the scientific world over the very nature of free will. Not since Freud’s original work on the subconscious mind, had there been such a push in the scientific community to assert that humans have no free will. But this is a very dangerous proposition, regardless of its scientific merit. In study after study, the results indicate that people who don’t believe in free will, act in a more degraded way.

In one study conducted by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Utah, and Jonathan Schooler at the University of Pittsburg, two groups were given two different passages to read. One advocated the idea that free will was an illusion, and the other was neutral on the topic. After the reading, the people in each group were given a math test, in a way that it was relatively easy to cheat. The people who read the passage claiming that free will was an illusion were far more likely to cheat. In another study, where the participants played a game, in which they could steal money from an envelope of $1 coins, those who read the free will as an illusion passage were more likely to steal.

In another study, Vohs and her colleagues interviewed day laborers, and specifically asked them their opinion regarding free will. Those who believed that they were in control of their own choices, came on time more frequently, worked harder, and were rated by supervisors as more capable.

When Roy Baumeister of Florida State University studied this issue, he and his colleagues found that students with a lesser belief in free will were less likely to volunteer to help a classmate, less likely to give money to a homeless person, and less likely to lend their cellphone to someone in need. On top of all that, people who don’t believe in free will tend to have more stress, unhappiness, lower academic performance, lesser commitment to relationships, and a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Finally, believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less grateful to others (they didn’t really choose to be nice to me!), less creative, and less likely to learn from their mistakes (it’s not really a mistake, my brain made me do it!).

The preponderance of evidence indicates that the belief in humanity’s free will is a very positive force in the life of a human being. But many scientists are lining up to take that away from us. What might be the incentive to take away free will? For starters, one might say that scientists are just looking for the truth, whether it is comfortable or not. However, in today’s charged climate, science has lost the luster of being cold, clinical and unbiased (see here for an article showing that the number of scientific papers that have been retracted due to fraud have seen a tenfold increase in the last few decades!).

On top of that, the evidence is shaky. I don’t doubt that some people have taken on new behaviors after getting a brain tumor, but that doesn’t prove that they had no free will in that matter, it could be that suddenly now they have a desire for something they didn’t previously desire, much in the same way that after getting a tumor they may start liking spicy foods, or being attracted to new scents. That doesn’t mean that by getting a brain tumor they had to become an alcoholic, or a pedophile. Furthermore, the very fact that someone changes his behavior upon losing their belief in free will, is evidence against their theory. Nothing changed in those people’s brain chemistry, they didn’t get a brain tumor or a stroke, they simply now feel like they have an excuse for their actions. It’s not like yesterday their brain didn’t let them cheat and steal, and now it compels them to? If it’s all in the brain, the brain chemistry didn’t change enough to explain that massive change in behavior!

So what might tempt a scientist to want to believe that there is no free will despite the evidence being quite shaky? For starters, it would assuage any guilty feelings the scientist may have. One of the most prominent voices in the anti-G-d, anti-free-will scientific community is a man who was unfaithful to his wife who took care of him despite him being wheelchair bound, and went off and married his secretary. I could imagine that he would want to live in a world where there was no free will, it takes all the blame and guilt off of his shoulders, his brain made him do it! I could see the enticement for anyone to want to live in a world with no free will, it’s a place where you can do no wrong! It may also be a place where you can do no right (which is why people who believe that free will is an illusion don’t maintain as strong commitments to their relationships, and why they give less charity), but people would be willing to trade away the benefit of being right in order to never have to be wrong.

Professor Saul Smilansky, from the University of Haifa, actually proposes an idea called Illusionism, which is that while scientists can know that there is no free will, they should keep this information from people, because it is too dangerous for the average man. All the evidence shows that the worst in people comes out when they believe there is no free will, so Smilansky posits that that information should be kept from the public and only academics should know about it. The rest of the world should be given the illusion that there is free will to keep them in line. So he believes that the truth is too dangerous for mankind, and only the elites of the world, the academics, can know the truth. That sounds like a frightening position for mankind.

The good news is that the Torah has a starkly opposing view. As Jews, we believe free will to be one of the most fundamental tenets of human existence. From the very beginning of the Torah, in the book of Genesis, the Torah tells us that G-d created mankind in His image. Many of the commentators (including the Malbim and the Meshech Chochma) explain that the similarity between mankind and G-d is that they are the only two beings in creation that have free will. At the end of the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy (30:16), G-d tells us to choose that which is life and blessing, something that can only be done if we have the ability to choose.

But perhaps one of the greatest indications of this is something that relates directly to Shavuos, the holiday that starts on Saturday night, the holidays that celebrates the Jewish people receiving the Torah. The Midrash relates that when Moshe went up to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels began agitating, “What is the son of woman doing among us?” G-d told them that he was there to bring the Torah down to mankind. They begged G-d not to give His precious Torah to people, who are weak and fickle, and would frequently treat it with disrespect. Ha-shem asked Moshe defend His choice to give the Torah to mankind.

Moshe asked Ha-shem, “What does it say in Your Torah?” and Ha-shem listed a long list of commandments, like the prohibition against stealing, killing, serving idols, and the commandment to honor your parents. Moshe kept asking the angels if any of these laws are relevant to them, and they kept saying no, and in this way Moshe proved that the Torah was meant for mankind, not angels. The angels agreed, and we got the Torah.

The deep meaning of this story is that the purpose of creation is for G-d to engage with an entity that is struggling to develop their relationship with Him by working on their morality through free will. The only species in the universe that does that is mankind. Animals don’t have moral free will choices; the panda bear never needs to go on a spiritual retreat to discuss ethics while meditating and doing yoga. The angels also don’t have free will choices, they never agonize over whether to gossip or not, whether to steal or not. When something has no free will, you can’t have a deep and dynamic relationship with it, it’s never choosing to be closer to you or further way, it’s never choosing the relationship over anything else, or for that matter anything else over the relationship!

The Torah was given to mankind and not to angels, because we have free will, and the Torah is an instruction manual for how to make the best choices. The Torah tells us to give charity, to work honestly, to be fully committed to our relationships, to learn from our mistakes, to be grateful to those who help us, precisely because we are the species that will struggle with that.

When G-d created mankind, the greatest gift He gave us was that we were created in His image, with free will, which gives meaning to our lives. When G-d gave us the Torah on Shavuos, He completed that gift by giving us a system to maximize our free will. When we do that by following the Torah, we are not only in the Divine image, we are actually being Divine. May we spend our Shavuos being grateful for this greatest of gifts, and contemplating how we can put it to use in our life, so that we can achieve mankind’s highest calling, not just looking like our Creator, but being like our Creator.

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

“And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, thus did they do.” (Numbers, 1:54)

A quick review of this verse presents an obvious question: Why does the verse twice tell us that the Jewish people did as G-d told Moses?

The Alshich, a 16th century commentator from Safed, explains this verse based on a lesson taught in the Talmud.

“A good thought is regarded as a good deed, for it says “then spoke those who fear G-d, each man to his fellow, and G-d listened and he heard, and a Book of Remembrance was written before Him for those that fear Gd, and those that contemplate his name” (Malachi 3:16) What does “and for those that contemplate his name” mean? Rav Assi said: Even if a person contemplated fulfilling a mitzvah, and was prevented from performing it, G-d credits him as if he had fulfilled it” (Tractate Kiddushin, 40A)

This is something unique to spiritual practice. In the physical world, if one contemplated buying a stock or a piece of real estate, but was prevented from doing so, he wouldn’t miraculously find his bank account filled with profits from the sale that never went through. If one planned on planting flowers in time for the growing season but couldn’t, they won’t bloom from thin air. In the spiritual world however, if one truly intended to do something, but was somehow prevented from bringing his intent to fruition, G-d considers it as if it were done.

The reason for this is that ultimately “Rachmana liba ba’i, the Compassionate One (G-d) wants our heart” (Zohar, Ki Teitzi 181B). G-d is not looking for automatons who perform the mitzvos out of rote. He is looking for passionate souls, people whose only desire is to do the right thing, who thereby intend to elevate the world around them. It is not simply our actions, but the meaning behind them. Often the meaning is more valuable than the action. Someone who has all the right intent and strives to do the right thing is worthy of reward, even if in the end, he is prevented from doing the deed.

Based on this unique system, the Alshich teaches us that we are doubly rewarded every time we do a mitzvah: once for the intent and attitude we had before doing the mitzvah, and again for actually doing it! (An exception to this rule would be when we inadvertently do a good deed, in which case we would get only the single point for the action, and none for the thought.)

This concept helps explain the difficulty with the passage cited above. The verse is essentially teaching us that even though the Jews only did what G-d told Moses to command them once, G-d considered it as if we did it twice. The verse then would read “And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses (in thought), thus did they do (in action).”

A story that is repeated four times in the Talmud demonstrates this idea. Shimon Ha’amsunni (or possibly Nechemia Ha’amsunni) spent his entire professional career researching a legal concept, and had compiled a magnum opus detailing hundreds of applications of this concept. He continued for years applying his theory until he was confronted with a seemingly minor detail that completely derailed his theory. Realizing his error, he picked up and walked away from his entire life’s work. (Imagine a professor today walking away from twenty years of research because one small detail seemed to contradict his theory!)

His students asked him what would become of the hundreds of legal applications he had devised? He answered, “the same way I was rewarded for my expositions, I likewise will be rewarded for walking away from them.” He understood that G-d recognized his passionate search for the truth, and that even if years of his work would end up not bearing fruit, it was just as valuable in G-d’s eyes.

This idea should help us to recognize the value of making a sincere commitment to taking spiritual growth steps, and not to allow the fear of failure to stop us. As long as we make the appropriate commitment, our success will already have begun as soon as we embark on the journey.

Parsha Summary

The first Parsha in the fourth book of the Bible, called “Numbers,” starts off by earning the book its title with a counting of the Jewish people tribe by tribe. Rashi explains that since the Jewish people are so precious to G-d, He constantly counts us, just as one would count his treasures numerous times (remember that nursery rhyme, “the king was in his counting house, counting all his money…”). Nachmanides gives three reasons for the counting, including the idea that this was a way for each and every Jew to get personal attention from Moshe and Aaron, and to be counted as a unique individual amongst the larger Jewish nation.

The sum total was 603,550 males of age for army service , which was twenty to sixty years old (not bad for a people that had only 70 people descend into Egypt a mere 210 years earlier!). This did not include the tribe of Levi, whom G-d would later command Moshe to count separately. One of the reasons the Levites were counted separately is because they didn’t serve in the army, as they were serving in the Temple. Additionally, there would later be a decree that the people from the general census would die during the forty years of wandering in the desert because of a major sin they had committed. G-d didn’t want the Levites to be part of this census, because they were the only entire tribe that remained faithful to G-d during the sin of the Golden Calf.

The next part of the Parsha deals with the layout of the camp in which the Jews traveled in the desert. Basically, it was as follows. The Tabernacle was in the innermost camp, surrounded on three sides by the Levites and on the fourth by the Kohanim, or priests. Surrounding them were four sets of three tribes spreading out to the East, South, West, and North (an easy way to remember that is Eat Soggy Wheaties Never). Each set of three had a special banner, and the layout paralleled the layout Jacob commanded his children to use when carrying his bier to Israel from Egypt. It also imitated the manner in which four sets of heavenly angels surround G-d’s throne. (I’ve been trying to get my kids to sit in such an orderly form around our dinner table, but no luck so far!)

The Torah then enumerates the progeny of Aaron, but calls them the offspring of Moshe and Aaron. Being that Moshe was the leader who taught them Torah, he had a spiritual paternal role. It is fascinating to see how the greater a leader becomes in the Torah world, the more obvious it becomes that he feels as if each and every Jew is his own child.

The Torah continues with G-d telling Moses that the tribe of Levi will forever serve in the Temple, instead of the firstborns who were originally supposed to serve. This was due to each group’s respective role in the Golden Calf crisis of 1312 BCE (the Levites abstained and objected: the firstborns were among the participants). Following this announcement, G-d tells Moshe to make a separate census of the tribe of Levi. After the census is a special ceremony in which the Levites redeem the firstborns and the sacred responsibility of service passes from one group to the other.

The last part of the Parsha deals with a topic that will be continued next week, the transport of the Tabernacle. The tribe of Levi was split into four groups. The progeny of Aaron became the Kohanim, the priests, and their role was to perform all the primary services in the Temple, such as bringing the offerings, lighting the Menorah and burning the incense. The other three groups, the families of Gershon, Kehas, and Mirari were the Levites, and they provided the ancillary services, such as opening and closing the gates, transporting the Tabernacle and its vessels, and singing during the offering of the sacrifices. (I am a Levite, and definitely inherited my Levite vocal cords, so you can all feel free to stop by my office to hear a rendition of Hava Nagila in its full chazzanish glory or in the full glory of chazzanut.)

When the Tabernacle had to move from place to place (it moved over 30 times during the 40 years in the desert, and this was before the times of the double-wide trailers) it was the job of the Levites to transports it. Here the Torah tells us the breakdown of the different families’ responsibilities. The family of Kehas merited to move the most holy vessels, such as the Menorah, Holy Table, and the Holy Ark. Since these vessels were so holy, they had to wait for the Kohanim to wrap them in special moving cloths (there was no Tumi® luggage in those days), before they could transport them.

Let’s end with one last lesson from the carrying of the vessels. The Sages tell us that the Holy Ark, which contained the Tablets and the Torah, actually lifted itself into the air and carried the Levites who were assigned to carry it! If that was the case, why does the Torah tell us to appoint Levites to “carry” it: why don’t we just let it fly by itself? This is meant to be a lesson for us. When we support a Torah lifestyle or Torah institutions, we need to remember that although on the outside it appears as though we are carrying the Torah, in truth, we are the ones being elevated, uplifted, and supported by it!

 

Quote of the week: Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present. – Albert Camus

Random Fact of the Week: If you’re an average blinker, your eyes will be blinked closed for about 30 minutes today.

Funny Line of the Week: Why do ants and caterpillars have to be enemies? One eats leaves, and the other eats caterpillars… Oh, I see now.

Have a Remarkable Shabbos and Shavuos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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