Neither a Pigeon nor a Raccoon
the sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah 2019
Every year at this time of year, I wonder if I need to give everyone of you your money back for tickets and donations. Why do I say that? Well, last night, I said we are on search of God, and if you didn’t find him/her or it, then I owe you one. As a follow up, if we're here on Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgement, and then, on Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness, well we're hoping to walk away a changed person. And if I can’t change you, don’t I owe you your money back?
What does it take to be changed person? Maybe you or I don’t want to change. Maybe you or I am perfectly happy as things are. Is change even possible?
Some of you may know that when I was in my prime, I was a student of psychology. I majored in psychology and the Department at NYU was heavily influenced by the behaviorist school of BF Skinner.
In fact, all of us, as incoming freshmen, were made to read his book, Walden Pond II, about the perfect society, in which all was well planned and controlled, and , consider that this was the rebellious Hippie/Yippie/SDS baby boomer generation, I was myself shocked at how my cohorts thought it would be a great idea. Then we discovered turn on, tune in, drop out, and you know what happened to us baby boomers.
Going back to those years, I was reminded of my very first clients, not people, but pigeons. Yes pigeons, those were our clients. They were much easier to handle and less temperamental, much nicer than lab rats and at the end of the year, they may have ended up on the dinner plates of some of the faculty.
Our task was to replicate the experiments of Skinner and determine how behavior could be modified by operant conditioning, the simple practice of giving rewards to a pigeon. Place a button in front of the pigeon, and he will eventually peck it just on the spot that releases bird food. The pigeon soon connects the pecking on the button with the release of food and eats happily. Eventually, the pigeon is full and quits the job.
How can we get the pigeon to keep on pecking and not quit on us? We modified the schedule.
If we give the pigeon the food every other time, he learns quickly that he needs to peck the button twice and he still gets what he wants to eat and he is full and happy. We can go on and making push the button 2 * 3 * 4 * 5, even patterns of one out of two or some varied combination. As long as the reward is consistent, the pigeon is happy getting his food and eventually, would be full, and quit the job. In the same way, if the pigeon doesn’t get any food, after several attempts, he would also quit. Either way, the pigeon is in charge.
As far as the pigeon was concerned, he had us well trained to deliver food on his command.
How could we keep the pigeon from quitting?
We changed the setting on the button so that sometimes he would get a nibble and sometimes not, in a random order. The pigeon could never predict which peck on the button would make the food appear. Instead of quitting he starts attacking the button, pecking furiously and frantically, sometimes getting the food. Then he would resume the pecking, sometimes getting, sometimes not, in no discernable pattern. We had ourselves a pigeon addicted to pecking and very, very stressed
That pigeon is just like us.
Are we controlled like our pigeons?
People who have obsessive gambling problems, for example, are the human pigeons. Go to the slot machine, pull the arm on the one-armed bandit and sometimes money comes out, sometimes it doesn't. The exactly probability of getting some kind of payback is tightly controlled by a computer, so that while the order of the pretty pictures on the slot is purely random, the number of images available on each line is perfectly calculated to keep us pecking-or pulling- as the money flows out of our pockets.
That is true with a lot of things in life, where we keep on pushing buttons and there's no guarantee that something comes out. We drive ourselves ragged . The conclusion we all learned from our course is that we're all pigeons.
Then, there is always the other side. This conditioning doesn’t work if biology interferes. Give a racoon a coin, and he can be trained to drop it in a box. Give a racoon two coins, and he will insist on rubbing them together because that’s what racoons do with their food. Always. Now , you’ll see my point.
We have these beautiful commercials for ancestry tests:
“I always thought I was Scottish until I discovered I was German”, and suddenly, the figure in the ad changes from Kilts to Lederhosen.
My identity, my value system, is now determined, not by how I was raised but by who my great-grandmother really had a fling with. I must admit, I myself have submitted to such testing, and, surprise of surprises, I am 98 % Ashkenazic Jewish and a little Central Asian squeezed in. One DNA ancestry website shows me with up to 12,000 matches, but there are only 2 relatives that I could vouch for. Another family tree research ties me in with Pharaoh, Jesus, and Mohammed, but I haven’t asked them to confirm it.
That doesn’t worry me.
But there are the DNA tests for medical problems. That, too. by itself, doesn’t worry me. What does worry me is that we are coming to discover that many medical conditions are also behavioral conditions.
What I do in the next few moments may just as much be a result of my gene pool as of my behavioral conditioning. So not only am I a pigeon, but I may also be a racoon, forced to rub things together, without any say.
This has terrible implications when we ask if we can determine the likelihood of anyone of us to rise or fall based on the lucky draw of our parents’ genes.
Some of you may have seen the documentary about triplets, Three Identical Strangers. Triplets had been adopted into 3 separate families, but the families did not know that these three were triplets, that they had siblings elsewhere, nor did the triplets know that they had any other siblings. It was an unsettling experiment, as it was the project of a Jewish doctor who himself was a Holocaust survivor. Experiments with twins and triplets immediately evoke the image of Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz, although, to be fair, this experiment was many degrees removed from that monstrosity. These 3 triplets eventually discovered each other and their families and discovered that they were, in their behavior, almost identical even though raised by different parents with different parenting styles, and different educational, professional, and financial status. They come out strikingly similar.
You understand the very dangerous implications this has. If we can identify potential shooters by the tweets and instagrams they post, can we identify them by a swab of the cheek before they do anything? Can dangerous individuals be identified at birth? Can impulsive, self-destructive personalities be identified at birth? Can groups be linked to certain traits?
We have seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. Early eugenics and social Darwinism made possible the targeting of people like us ,Jews, and other undesirable populations.
So we come to our dilemma.
Am I being shaped because someone is giving me pigeon food, or dollars, or “likes” of “followers”? Am I being shaped because my DNA is mixed that way?
If either, or both in combination, are true, then where am I in all of this. Do I have any say in what I'm doing?
Dear Rabbi Weinberg, please give me back my money, because no matter how much I beat my chest, I will fall flat on my face or just have a charmed life of all wins, no matter what I do.
The ancient Greeks, who shaped modern Christian and Moslem civilization, described this malaise very well for us.
We were determined by three very old women, the Fates, who spun the threads of our destiny. Clotho, the weaver, spun the “thread” of human fate, Lachesis, the allotter, dispensed it, and Atropos, the inflexible one, cut the thread of life itself. Anyone familiar with the Greek myths knows that no one, no one ever escaped the destiny that these three laid out.
Even for us Jews, we too, sometimes feel trapped in whatever thread God has woven for us. Es ist bashert- it is fated to be. We like to think of it as a word for finding one’s soul-mate, but it is, at its root, fate, no choice, no option.
Look at our Mahzor, for the High Holy days, right at the core, one of the prayers that we can’t imagine doing without; it is the Une Taneh Tokef. We are all used to joining in the refrain, “ B’rosh Hashanah Yikatevun”.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
It goes on, as we well know it, to encompass our hopes and fears for the coming year.
And so, just as this prayer has us feeling like the poor, frazzled pigeon in my experiments or the hapless victim of some bad genes, it comes with an important caveat, which the Chazan belts out with force:
U t’shuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah, maavirin et roah hagezerah.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree
Teshuvah, the return to our better nature, our better selves, is possible. Tfilah, asking for help to do what is right. Tzedakah- Doing acts of help and charity towards others so that we thereby prove our worth. Maavirin et roah hagezerah. They move the severity of the decree, they work to alleviate and repair the consequence of our actions.
For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him.
Neither pigeon in a cage, nor racoons, like a Lady Macbeth, obsessively rubbing things out.
No. Each and every one of us is a human being capable of taking charge of his or her own fate.
Therefore, we have a classic rabbinic statement:
Hakol beyedei Shamayim- Everything is determined by the heavens except for the fear of heaven.
As Rashi explains : We may be born tall or short, into poverty or wealth, wise or foolish , or of any color of skin. However, the one element that is most important , the one thing that God in heaven cannot control, is the fear of heaven, that ability to choose righteousness or evil, tzadik v rasha (Berakhot 33b).
The rabbinic debate goes further, “ all is in the hands of heaven except for hot and cold.” Cold and heat are forms of harm that are in the control of the human. ( Ketubot 30a). The commentaries explain, if it’s hot, you can always stay in the cellar, where it is cool! ( Tosafot)
In other words, we can take charge of those things in this world of practical reality, that affect us daily- hot and cold, eat, sleep, work, neighborhood, family and friends. We can also take charge of those things that deal with our world of values, our spiritual self, our core self, which can choose to go on the path of destruction or construction.
Ultimately, while we may differ in our approaches and emphases, I, as a Rabbi, share this concept with the priest and with the Kadi. Each of us believes that in the hearts and minds of the people who listen to us, there is the power of change, change for the good. I don’t mean that it is easy, I don’t mean that it takes a blink of an eye. But it is possible, and for us, as human beings, we need that belief in order to make it to the next day.
I will end with a story, a very unusual one found in the Talmud, of a great Rabbi who had an uncontrollable urge. You can guess what.
(Avoda zara 17)
They said about Rabbi Elazar ben Durdayya that he was so promiscuous that he did not leave one prostitute in the world untouched. Once, he heard that there was one prostitute in one of the cities overseas who would take a purse full of dinars as her payment. He took a purse full of dinars and went and crossed seven rivers to reach her. They started out, and in the midst of an embarrassing moment, the prostitute blurted out :Elazar ben Durdayya will not be accepted in repentance, even if he were to try to repent.
This statement deeply shocked Elazar ben Durdayya, and he went and sat between two mountains and hills and said: Mountains and hills, pray for mercy on my behalf, so that my repentance will be accepted. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf He said: Heaven and earth, pray for mercy on my behalf. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf.He said: Sun and moon, pray for mercy on my behalf. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf. He said: Stars and constellations, pray for mercy on my behalf. They said to him: Before we pray for mercy on your behalf, we must pray for mercy on our own behalf
Elazar ben Durdayya said: Ein hakol Taluiy ela bi. It all depends on nothing but myself.
He placed his head between his knees and cried loudly until his soul left his body. A Divine Voice emerged and said: Rabbi Elazar ben Durdayya is destined for life in the World-to-Come.
In the final moment, it is the recognition that each of us in command of our ultimate choices, it is that recognition that gives us the ability to be in the image of God.
So, I go back to my opening statement. If you aren’t a changed person when you walk out, don’t blame me. Life comes without a moneyback guarantee, so let’s look to make good choices, healthy choices, virtuous choices. Neither pigeons nor racoons, so we can do well for ourselves and others for the coming year. Amen.