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Sorry, but You are so Pavlovian!
Parshat Vaetchanan

Do you know anyone who fancies himself a connoisseur? Do they feel they are an aficionado, cognizant of the essential differences between designer garb and inferior clothing? Or perhaps they consider themselves true gourmands, people who know how to appreciate a really good wine or fine pâté? There are many people who view themselves among the cognoscenti, able to appreciate the finer things in life with a discerning eye, palate, or touch. These people often spend exorbitant amounts of money on wines, clothes, cars, paintings, chocolates, and many other products because they consider it a small price to pay for the delicate pleasure that their refined senses receive from the object.

Research is starting to show that they may not be as refined as they think, but simply reacting to Pavlovian instincts. Pavlov was a Russian physician, psychologist, and physiologist (phenomenally phrodigious wouldn’t you say?) who did groundbreaking research in the area of conditioning. He found that most organisms, including humans, respond to stimuli in a predictable manner based on previous experiences, not necessarily on the merit of what is actually happening. His particular line of experimentation most heavily involved salivating dogs, so it might be prudent for us to look at something more relevant to us, conditioning in humans.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business recently released a fascinating and somewhat frightening report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They performed a study involving 20 people who sampled wine while undergoing functional MRIs of their brain activity. The subjects were told they would be tasting five different Cabernet Sauvignons each sold at a different price. In reality, only three wines were offered, two being given twice, each time bottled with in different bottles. A $90 wine was provided, marked with its real price and again bottled in a cheaper bottle marked $10, while another was presented at its real price of $5 and also bottled and marked $45.

The testers’ brains showed more pleasure when they were drinking what appeared to be the higher priced wine than when they drank the lower priced bottle, even when the wine itself was exactly the same. This was demonstrated by greater activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that registers pleasure. (Interestingly, when the tasters were given the wines in anonymous cups, they rated the $5 wine as better than any of the others sampled.) This indicates that humans are conditioned to actually experience more pleasure from wine when they think it is more expensive!

“We have known for a long time that people’s perceptions are affected by marketing, but now we know that the brain itself is modulated by price,” said Baba Shiv, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and one of the authors of the study. “Marketers are now going to think twice about reducing the price.”

This occurrence isn’t limited to wine. Americans spent $16 billion on bottled water last year, even though the tap water in many cities is cleaner and better than bottled water. In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from Yosemite National Park. It’s so good that the EPA doesn’t require San Francisco to filter it. But that doesn’t stop people from buying millions of bottles of inferior water just because it’s perceived as better. However, in blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperatures, presented in identical glasses, ordinary people can rarely distinguish between tap water, spring water, and luxury waters. At the height of Perrier’s popularity, Bruce Nevins, the CEO of Perrier, was asked on a live network radio show to pick Perrier from a lineup of seven carbonated waters served in paper cups. It took him five tries.

I have been to many kiddushim or simchas where I hear people waxing poetic about Grey Goose vodka or some other ultra-premium brand that is the ‘best vodka in the world.” But when the New York Times performed a triple blind test with a panel of vodka experts (is that just a nice way of saying alcoholics?), the hands down winner was the cheapest vodka in the sample – Smirnoff. It seems like a lot of people are wasting a lot of money for bragging rights that aren’t rooted in reality.

Let’s look at the clothing industry for a moment. Many people walk around talking about the superior quality of designer clothing. They can “just feel” the difference. My friend’s father is a shirt manufacturer, and he told me that he often makes the exact same shirt for two labels, one a high-end designer label and one a lower-end label. Furthermore, the international Journal of Consumer Studies (Volume 30 Issue 2 Page 218-223) did a study to determine how consumers evaluate the quality. An analysis of the data indicated that up to 75% of the respondents evaluated clothing based on brand recognition and other informational cues, but not on intrinsic quality of the garment. Although we think we can “just feel” the difference, the data seems to indicate that we “just think” the difference more than feel it.

The crazy thing is that this conditioning phenomenon even occurs in the medical field. In one placebo study, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and Princeton University, volunteers put inside MRI machines had either electric shocks or heat applied to their arms. The pain activated all the expected neural pathways.. Then researchers smeared on a cream they said would block the pain. In fact, it was a regular skin lotion. When the volunteers were zapped again, they reported significantly less pain — and pain circuits in the brain fired less frequently. Then researchers spread on cream again, this time telling the volunteers it was a placebo — and they hurt all over again.

The most astonishing incident of human conditioning was found in a 2002, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Baylor College of Medicine study found in the New England Journal of Medicine. They took 180 patients who needed arthroscopic surgery on their knees, and explained to them the terms of the study. Two groups of sixty underwent two different types of arthroscopic surgery, while the remaining sixty were simply anesthetized, cut open, and then sewn back up. During two years of follow-up, patients in all three groups reported moderate improvements in pain and ability to function. However, neither of the intervention groups reported less pain or better function than the placebo group. Indeed, the placebo patients reported better outcomes than the debridement patients at certain points during follow-up! “The fact that the effectiveness of arthroscopic surgery in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee is no greater than that of placebo surgery makes us question whether the dollars spent on these procedures might not be put to better use,” said lead investigator Dr. Nelda P. Wray.

Although the fact that we can be so easily conditioned is at times disheartening, it can also be empowering. We know now that people will respond to certain stimuli in a predictable manner. If we can find the stimuli to condition our children to believe in their individual greatness, they will begin to feel it. Once they feel it, they will act upon it.

The stimuli that can really change our children’s behavior has no large price tag, and does not require great self sacrifice. All it requires is that we give incredible amounts of genuine positive reinforcement whenever our children do something right. Studies show that of every twenty comments parents make to their children, only one is positive! The other 19 comments are conditioning as well, but they are conditioning the child to have a negative self image, something that will haunt both them and us down the road. Try to focus on making one positive comment for every negative one you make, and see what a great difference it will make!

This conditioning need not only apply to our children; we should apply it to our spouses, and even to ourselves. How often do we think negatively about ourselves, “I’m such a dummy,” or “I’m just a failure, I’ll never get…” Talking like that is conditioning, and we will respond by predictably failing. If we can learn to talk to ourselves and our spouses in a more positive, uplifting manner, we can change our entire reality. How we talk and think is the price tag we put on ourselves. Let’s keep it high!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s portion we find the most Jewish of statements; “Shema Yisrael Ha-shem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.” We are supposed to teach our toddlers to say this as their first statement, and it is the last declaration a Jew should make before he returns his soul to its Maker. Jews have used this verse as a code to identify each other in times of oppression, and as a inspiration in times of peace. What exactly does it mean? “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Ha-shem is one!” is the literal translation, but there must be some depth to this seemingly simple testimonial.

One could probably write a book devoted exclusively to discussing this one verse in the Torah, but I just called some publishers and they all said they are too busy, so I will suffice with writing just one of the explanations here in this email, and you will have to search for additional answers on your own time. G-d has many names. He is called Hashem, Elo-him, Sha-dai, Shechina, and Tzvaot among many other names. The reason G-d has different names is because each one represents a different aspect of His Being. The name Hashem represents the attribute of Chesed- Kindness, while the name Elo-him represents the attribute of Din – Justice.

Theodicy is one of the most perplexing issues facing the thinking man. (Theodicy is the attempts of philosophy to reconcile a purely good G-d with evil in the world.) Numerous books have been written, and millions of hours of discussion have been spent, grappling with this issue. Within Judaism alone, we have numerous approaches to explain theodicy with many commentators giving different angles with which to understand the issue. The task of explaining it fell upon me, personally, in the following manner.

Last summer, my wife was worked as a nurse in a unique camp called Camp Simcha Special. It serviced children with a wide range of chronic illnesses, many of them terminal. One of the most common illnesses found there was familial dysautonomia, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system, which makes life extremely difficult and painful. I was asked to lead the learning session for the teenage campers, and happily obliged. At the end of one of the sessions, I asked if there was any topic the boys wanted me to discuss during the following session. One boy who had FD said, “I want you to tell us why G-d created FD.” That is the epitome of theodicy.

The next class, I discussed a few different approaches to understanding this issue (I knew that different slants would help the diverse crowd understand something that has no single right answer). I prefaced with what is known as the Tapestry Theory, which is really the most valid answer. If one would look at the back of a beautiful tapestry, all they would see is chaos – thousands of pieces of string crossing over each other with no apparent system or order. No one would be able to understand why in the world someone would make something so crazy (then again, today many people wouldn’t blink, they would just think it is modern art). But if they were to simply walk around and see the tapestry from the front, they would suddenly find their breath taken away by the intricate beauty.

The same is true with theodicy. While we are here on this side of the tapestry, we look at all the pain and suffering in the world, we look at all the chaos, and say “how can there be a G-d?” But when we are above the tapestry (i.e. when we pass into the World of Truth), we can suddenly see that everything had a reason, that every single strand and loop was necessary to bring out the gorgeous tapestry of this world. (Another example of the Tapestry Theory is a child’s bewilderment at being punished by a parent. He can’t understand why a parent who loves him would punish them, until he too becomes a parent and realizes that the “cruelty” was fueled by love.)

One of the most fundamental beliefs of a Jew is that G-d is purely good, and even if we can’t see it right now, one day we will. This explains the Shema statement.  “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” can be read as follows “Hear O Israel, Ha-shem (the name relating to apparent Kindness) Elo-heinu (the name relating to apparent justice and discipline) Hashem Echad (there is really only one G-d, the Hashem, the G-d of Kindness)!

One example of this was expressed by the mother of one of the three boys who were murdered last month in Israel. No one could fathom why such a thing would happen. The millions of prayers mouthed by Jews across the world for eighteen days seemed to have had no effect, the boys had already been dead from the first hour! Yet, this shocking senseless murder galvanized the nation, united the people, and led them to respond with great force to the rain of rockets coming from Gaza.

During the course of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF found out about a Hamas plan to carry out a devastating attack on Rosh Hashana of this year. Hundreds of Hamas terrorists, dressed in IDF uniforms were supposed to travel through the extensive Terror Tunnel network, and descend on dozens of Israeli cities and towns in the south of Israel. There, they were supposed to create total carnage, killing thousands of men, women, and children, all the while Hezbollah and Hamas would rain down a barrage of rockets from the north and south, stopping the army from properly mobilizing to respond to the threat. Even when the IDF came to the scene, it would have been extremely difficult to discern friend from foe, as they would be dressed identically.

The death count could have reached the tens of thousands. Now, due to the death of those three pure souls, the death count will be zero. Those three boys gave their lives to save thousands. What looked like the greatest discipline from G-d was actually part of His merciful plan to save so many lives. And the mother of one of those boys, says that she can begin to see the top side of the tapestry.

This week, we wept for the destruction of the Temple, seemingly such a terrible thing. But, on the other hand, that shocking event galvanized us to return to our Father in Heaven, and prevented our nation from being lost, as was the fate of every other ancient nation. G-d took out his anger on the stick and stones, but not on the people. It seems to be such an act of punishment, but the root of it is Hashem Echad- the one kind and loving G-d!

 

Parsha Summary

This week’s portion begins with Moshe begging G-d to allow him into the land Israel. The Talmud asks, “Why did Moshe want to enter the land? Did he need to eat of its fruit or satiate himself with its bounty? Rather, this is what Moshe said to himself, ‘There are many mitzvos that one can only performed in Israel . I will enter the land so that all those mitzvos will be performed through me!’” (Sotah 14a)  Moshe’s yearning was for the intense spirituality locked up in Israel. After many prayers from Moshe (515 to be exact, the numerical equivalence of Ve’eschanan), G-d tells Moshe to stop asking, so that there shouldn’t be a situation in which the student is begging so much and it looks as if the Master is being mean. (This is an important lesson in marriage. If there is an issue that keeps coming up where one spouse is constantly being forced to deny the other’s request, it is a good idea to sit down and talk it out. If they agree that the denier’s actions are valid, it is important for the other spouse to stop asking. It is very unfair to cause one spouse to always be the “bad guy.”)

Moshe then continues to teach the Jews some very important precepts, including, “You shall not add to the word of G-d, nor shall you detract from it,” (Deut. 4:2) which tells us that we can’t add or detract from the mitzvos, for example by having three tzitzit instead of four, or two days of Shabbos. The idea here is that we should never think “G-d knew what was good, but I can make it even better.” Such a mindset has two fundamental flaws. Firstly, it presumes that G-d doesn’t have it all perfectly set already and, even worse, it shows incredible arrogance in thinking you can do a better job than Him.

Then Moshe reminds the Jews of the respect they gain from the world when the nations see the Jews fulfilling the Torah, as they are amazed at the Torah and its wisdom. This does more for world opinion than our accomplishments in any other sector.

Next, Moshe recounted some of the details of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, such as seeing the mountain engulfed in flames leaping into the heavens, being able to see the words of G-d (a big miracle, as normally humans can’t see sounds unless they are on LSD), and how G-d commanded us to never serve anything but Him.

At this point, Moshe digresses from the story of the revelation to tell the Jews that if they or their progeny do serve other gods, G-d will force them into exile. Moshe uses the heavens and earth as his witnesses, as they are eternal. Interestingly, this is the portion we read on Tisha B’av, because it talks of the Jew’s actions being the cause of their exile, but also talks of our return to G-d. This return will bring about the ingathering of the exiles, an event which, especially on Tisha B’Av, must have paramount importance in our consciousness.

Moshe then points out the love G-d has for the Jews, as He revealed Himself to the entire nation, men, women, and children, an event which has never happened in all of history before or after! Here, Moshe repeats the Decalogue to the Jews.  (We don’t call them the Ten Commandments, because there are actually much more than ten Mitzvot mentioned here. Rather we call the Aseret Hadibrot or the Ten Statements, hence the Greek term Decalogue- deca = ten, logos = words.) The Torah here inserts the most famous of all Jewish statement, Shema Yisrael Ha-shem Elokeinu Ha-shem Echad. After that, the Torah writes the first chapter of the Shema i.e. Ve’ahavta.

The Torah then enjoins us not to forget G-d in times of prosperity. It is all too easy, when things are good, to get lulled into a sense of self-accomplishment and to forget that G-d is the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. History has tragically taught us that when this happens we are given a rude awakening, and suddenly it is clear that there is a G-d running this world.

At the close of the parsha, the Torah makes two demands that may seem unrelated, but are actually strongly connected. The Torah commands us to pass our tradition on to our children, and to ensure that they receive a proper Jewish education so they know who we are as a people, where we came from, and what are our goals. Immediately following is the commandment not to intermarry, as that will not only decimate our numbers, but also cause us to lose our religion.

Although these two ideas don’t necessarily seem related, upon further reflection there is a clear reason for the juxtaposition. The Torah is telling us that if we educate our children properly, and give them a sense of who we are as a people, truly “one nation under G-d,” then we won’t have the problem of intermarriage. This is a message that rings true today more than ever, with the Jewish people facing an over 50% intermarriage rate, and with all the studies showing that a solid Jewish education as the biggest deterrent to intermarriage available. So, head on down to the closest pharmacy and pick up some prescription strength Torah education, give your children two tablets each, and invite me to the nice Yiddishe wedding in the morning. That’s all Folks!!

Quote of the Week: Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. ~ Mark Twain

Random Fact of the Week: A raindrop falls at 600ft. per minute or 7 mph.

Funny Line of the Week: Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was excellent.

 

Have a Soothing Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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