“The Right Magnet” Parashat Shoftim 5774

The older I get, the faster time goes by. It’s already Elul again. Elul means contrition. It means meaningful repentance. It means the High Holidays. It seems like only a few days ago that we celebrated Rosh HaShanah. I truly resolved to change, to be a better person. With all my heart. Yet here I am. Not only do I not feel that I’ve changed one iota, I even know the reason why: Change takes time and there simply hasn’t been enough time. Yes, the calendar insists that a year has passed, but it doesn’t feel that way. What scares me is that I’ll blink twice and it will already be next Rosh HaShanah.

How can I even begin to approach Hashem? Who am I trying to fool? Each day in slichot we will cry out to Him: “Listen to our voices, have mercy and hear our prayers! Return us to You and renew our days like before! Don’t shut us out in our old age!” Yet the problem is not Hashem’s – it is mine. And He’s not going to help me. According to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [33b] “Everything is in the hands of heaven except for theFear of Heaven”. Man has been granted freedom of choice. He is rewarded when he chooses to do good and he is punished when he chooses to do evil. How can we ask Hashem to help us repent? He’s not even a player in the game.

To try to address these two problems we’re going to turn to modern science, but before we do, there’s one piece of Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [105a] that we need to look at: “Such is the way of the evil inclination: Today he tells you to do this and tomorrow he tells you to do that, until one day he tells you to commit idolatry and you go ahead and do it.” At first glance, it appears that the Talmud is warning us of a slippery slope. One day we decide not to go to Minyan in the morning. No big deal, right? I’ll daven with more concentration in my own home. Then one day we decide that it’s OK to send text messages on Shabbat. The Rabbis could not possibly have had that in mind when they determined what is and isn’t permitted on Shabbat. Down the slippery slope we go until one day we eat a cheeseburger. Rav Shlomo Amar, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains that it’s far more insidious than this. The evil inclination does not begin by enticing a person to commit a “minor” sin. It begins with enticing a person to perform a mitzvah, to do all the right things but for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps you’ll give charity just to get that “warm glow”. Or perhaps you’ll start going to that weekly shiur so that people will show you a little more respect. That first step is so small that you don’t even realize that the evil inclination has managed to start you down that slippery slope.

Now for the science. The 1980’s saw an explosion of research in Chaotic Systems, or systems with “complex dynamics”. A Chaotic System is a system that is highly sensitive to initial conditions. This means that if two identical Chaotic Systems start at two different starting points, even if they are infinitesimally close, the outcomes will eventually diverge. Chaotic System Theory is not pseudoscience. It has a solid mathematic basis, and is regularly used to explain the behaviour of large systems[1]. Weather is a classic example of a Chaotic System. The weather is determined by a few simple equations. So why is it so difficult to predict next week’s weather? The answer is that because weather is chaotic, to accurately predict the weather it is necessary to know the humidity, the temperature, and the barometric pressure at every single point in the world and with infinite accuracy. This precludes any long-term weather forecasting because small inaccuracies are progressively amplified. This is called the “Butterfly Effect”, in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China can eventually cause a monsoon in Brazil.

In order to understand this principle more clearly, we’ll turn to a smaller chaotic system, one so small you can keep on your desk. There’s a fellow at work who has the world’s largest assortment of low-tech toys. It’s impossible to hold a meeting in his room because everyone becomes pre-occupied with the various doo-dads he has lying on his desk. My personal favourite is the magnetic pendulum. It consists of a small metal ball attached to a wire that can swing freely over a metal base. On the base sit three magnets shaped like a triangle. Each of these magnets acts on the pendulum with an attractive force. When the ball is displaced and released, it swings in an erratic, unpredictable pattern. The ball eventually comes to rest over one of the magnets. If we attempt to release the ball twice from the exact same starting position, it often ends up over a different magnet after traversing an entirely different orbit. This happens because we can never release the ball at the exact same point twice. That infinitesimal difference between the two starting points leads to a much greater difference in where the pendulum comes to rest. The magnetic pendulum is a chaotic system.

Let’s look at all of the points in which we can start the ball. At each one of these points we release the ball, we see where it ends up, and we record the result on a graph. If the ball ends up over the first magnet, we put a red dot on that point. We draw a blue dot if it ends up over the second magnet and a yellow dot if it ends up over the third magnet[2]. The result is a very pretty three-coloured map[3]. Certain parts of the map contain large blotches. These are easy to understand: If we start with the ball very close to one magnet, it’s not going to move very far and it will end up over that magnet. But certain parts of the map are intricate. Yellow, blue, and red are swirled together. Zooming in doesn’t help. No matter how much you zoom in, the swirling never goes away. The swirling is called a “fractal”. The physical interpretation is that if we release the pendulum in the fractal parts of the map, it is impossible to know over which magnet the ball is going to eventually come to rest.

What do fractals have to do with repentance? Each day we make a large number of choices. Most of these choices are trivial: which socks to wear, which people to talk to, what to watch on television and so on. Some choices are critical: where to send our children to school or whether or not to come on aliya. These choices are usually made once in a lifetime, and not once in a day. The decisions we make on a daily basis are more like “micro-decisions”. It would be natural to assume that our micro-decisions would not have major effects on the outcome of our lives. This assumption is incorrect, because our lives are Chaotic Systems. It is impossible to predict where the smallest decisions will take us. This is what the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat is teaching us: micro-decisions lead to macro-results. While the difference between two possible choices might be infinitesimally small, the difference in the outcomes might be huge. By listening to the evil inclination even once, we can eventually find ourselves over “the wrong magnet”.

Repentance that requires major changes in our lives is extremely difficult, takes time, and will more often than not fail. But often we don’t have to make major changes in order to better ourselves. If we spend our days locked in a Yeshiva learning Torah with no contact with the outside world, then a small misstep to the left or to the right will have no long-term effect. But most of us are in a different, more uncertain, part of the map, where the smallest change in our initial conditions can completely alter where we wind up. This is where we need Hashem’s help. The distance between circumstances that will take us where we want to go and circumstances that will take us somewhere else is often too small for us to measure. But it is not too small for Hashem to measure. He can see what we can’t, and He can give us a micro-push in the right direction. Make no mistake: We don’t surrender responsibility. We must still continue to make the right decisions. But at least we can always restart at a point where we’re being pulled to the right magnet.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774

 

[1] See our shiur of Korach 5766

[2]The colors are called “Basins of Attraction”.

[3] See http://institutenma.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/magneticpendulum1-large.jpg