How much stale popcorn do you eat?

A team of researchers at Cornell University wanted to assess eating patterns, so they gave movie attendees old stale popcorn in buckets of different sizes, weighing the buckets before and after the movie to measure precisely how much pop­corn each person ate. The results were striking: People with the large buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn than people with the medium-size buckets. While each movie attendee was equally hungry, and each had equally bad stale popcorn, those with larger buckets ate the equivalent of 173 more calories and dipped their hands into their buckets approximately 21 more times.

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Sometimes, we don’t make real conscious choices about what we want, what we like, or what we need to be doing, but instead just keep eating up whatever society gives us, even when we don’t like it. Psychologists have long known that we humans almost always prefer immediate gratification to delayed reward, and this can lead to catastrophic consequences. For example, according to 2012 data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 37.5 percent of American adults are obese. In addition to a higher risk of numerous diseases and early death, obese people pay financially for their condition, laying out more than $1,400 additionally every year for medical care than people of normal weight. In spite of this, Americans continue to flock to fast-food and other unhealthy establishments, especially if they can get huge portions of high-fat and high-carbohydrate food. In the financial sector, the past decade saw a flood of risky get-rich-quick schemes on Wall Street, and a real estate bubble that burst with catastrophic results. Once again, the lure of easy and immediate rewards trumped common sense and concern for long-term and societal health.

The Torah comes to tell us that we can and must become more aware as consumers. The Rambam teaches, based upon the Gemara, that one should only eat until he is two-thirds full. This ensures we do not fall into gluttony and that we maintain our health, but also it is a way of maintaining self-control. We do not just consume all that we find before us; rather, we must make choices.

Our sages have long championed the wisdom of considering a delayed but more enduring reward over an immediate but fleeting one. Rav Levi of Berdichev, known as the Kedushas Levi, teaches that there are two months that mark the creation of the world. One is Tishrei, the time of Rosh Hashanah; the other is Nissan, the time of Pesach. How can there be two birthdays of the world? He answers that the first represents the potential in creation and the latter the actualization and the purpose of creation (i.e., freedom). This is also true for humans. We are created and have great potential but we must each day fulfill and actualize the purpose of our creation. If we embrace the false, temporary pleasure of instant gratification, we will stumble and fall on the way to a life of unfulfilled potential.

We cannot just walk through life as zombies eating up all the stale popcorn just because that is what is served to us. Rather, we must process and critically evaluate marketing that comes our way and not just let it control us. We must keep our long-term health and growth in mind, choose the best path to get us there, and stay focused on achieving our goals. On this path, the Kedushah Levi teaches, we can truly be re-born every day.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”