‘Marshmallows’ Parashat Re’eh 5778

Parashat Re’eh gives a course in “Torah Economics 101”. It outlines the Jewish way of dealing with poverty and includes the commandments to give charity and tithes. While the Torah recognizes that there are haves and have-nots, we are promised that this situation will one day change [Devarim 15:4]: “Nevertheless, there will [one day] be no needy among you, for Hashem will surely bless you in the land that He is giving you for an inheritance to possess”. The Torah foresees a day in which poverty will be abolished from the earth.

Or then again, maybe it doesn’t. Seven verses later, the Torah seems to perform a complete about-face [Devarim 15:11]: “For there will never cease to be needy within the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, you shall surely open your hand to your brother”. How can we reconcile these two verses? Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, explains that when we keep Hashem’s commandments, He will reward us with a healthy economy. Sin, on the other hand, will be punished by economic depression. Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, writing in the “Kli Yakar”, buttresses Rashi’s explanation by directing our attention to the second half of verse in which Hashem promises to abolish poverty, which explicitly states, “[There will be no poverty], for Hashem will surely bless you”. The default condition is the existence of poverty. Adherence to the Torah will encourage Hashem to spread the wealth[1].

The Ramban has great trouble with Rashi’s explanation. When the Torah states unequivocally “there will never cease to be needy within the land”, it seems to be decreeing that man – at least one person – will always sin. Is the Torah telling us that there will never be a time, an eschatological end of days, when all of humanity keeps the Torah?[2]

We will address these questions using some good old-fashioned behavioural economics. I just finished reading a book called “Dollars and Sense”[3], by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler. Ariely, an erstwhile Israeli, is a professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University[4]. He has written a number of easy-to-read books that encapsulate his research in the science of decision-making. Ariely shows how humans act very predictably, albeit in a most irrational manner. For instance, our headaches persist after taking a one-cent aspirin but disappear when we take a 50-cent aspirin, and we go back for second helpings at the all-you-can-eat buffet even when our stomachs are already painfully full. In “Dollars and Sense”, Ariely explains why we are so poor at spending (and saving) our money.

Ariely spends a full chapter describing “intertemporal discounting”, how humans have an uncanny tendency to discount the future value of pretty much anything. In other words, an identical positive outcome will become increasingly more attractive the closer it is to the time a decision is taken. We exhibit this tendency from a very early age. The “Stanford marshmallow experiment” was a series of studies on delayed gratification performed nearly fifty years ago by psychologist Professor Walter Mischel. In these studies, a young child was offered a marshmallow that he could eat on the spot. The child was told, however, that if he waited “just a little bit”, he would be given a second marshmallow. The tester exited the room and left the child alone for up to fifteen minutes. In follow-on studies, researchers found that children who were able to wait longer – to defer their gratification – for the second marshmallow tended to have better life outcomes, educational attainment and other life measures. But nearly every single child in the study eventually ate the first marshmallow, because one marshmallow now is worth more than two marshmallows in another fifteen minutes. Similarly, $100 dollars today is often worth more to us than $200 next month. We may be willing to settle for less, but we want it now.

Humans use intertemporal discounting to make reckless financial errors. Studies have shown things we already know to be true: Humans would rather spend their earnings than save them for their pensions[5]. We would rather purchase a less expensive air conditioner even though we know that it is less efficient and will result in higher operating costs over its lifetime than a more expensive but more efficient air conditioner. We would rather make our purchases using a credit card than with cash, delaying the “sting” of spending money. Indeed, merchants are fully aware of these tendencies and they have created mechanisms to exploit them, encouraging us to make bad financial decisions. Amazon’s “One-Click Pay” is one familiar example. Just press the button and it’s yours. It’s painless, at least until we get the bill.

Let’s return to Parashat Re’eh. If we are worthy, Hashem can and will bless us with wealth. But the Torah can never promise that people will not do silly things with it. Statistics show that more than seventy percent of all lottery winners lose their entire winnings in less than seven years. Instead of saving their winnings, people spend them on instant gratification and the Powerball jackpot can provide a whole lot of instant gratification. When the Torah predicts the abolishment of poverty, it says “Nevertheless (efes), there will [one day] be no needy among you…” The Hebrew word “efes” also mean “zero” or “worthless”, as if to say, “Yes, I will bless you with great wealth, but you will likely fritter it away…”

The same way that intertemporal discounting can explain why we are so poor with our money, it can also explain why we sin so often. Hashem has blessed man with the gift of free will. We are free to decide how we will act. We are promised that if we keep the Torah and perform Hashem’s mitzvot we will be rewarded, and if we transgress His mitzvot then we will be punished. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [33b] teaches, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven other than the Fear of Heaven”. Hashem, as it were, relinquishes His infinite control and awaits our choice. Why in the world would a person not keep the Torah? If we believe that Hashem does have infinite power, wouldn’t we be better off staying on His good side? The answer is trivial: we humans like our marshmallows. When we perform a mitzvah, we are not immediately rewarded with a marshmallow or a winning lottery ticket. If we were, the performance of mitzvot would become mechanical and we would lose our free will. We must wait for our reward. Sometimes we receive it in this world but more often than not, we must wait for the World to Come. The same is true for punishment. More often than not, we will reap what we sow only in the Next World. Here lies the problem. Our own death feels so distant that we discount the reward and punishment dispensed in the next world so much that its effect on our daily behaviour is all-to-often minimal. Our Sages try to counter this tendency, writing in Pirkei Avot [2:13] “Repent one day before you die”. This is an attempt to move the far-off future punishment and reward squarely in front of our faces. Unfortunately, this strategy is difficult to implement in the long term. The immediate pleasure we receive from sinning far outweighs any future considerations.

Perhaps this strategy will work better: If we discount the future, then we should try to see our rewards in the present. Perhaps holding our newborn granddaughter while drinking a cup of coffee and learning a page of Talmud is our reward for something good we did the day before. If we believe we have been blessed then we will react in a way that further increases our blessings. If we look for marshmallows, we will find ourselves surrounded by them.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Shoshana, and Dov ben Chana.

[1] The Netziv of Volozhn explains verse 4 in a way that renders this entire shiur irrelevant.

[2] The Ramban answers that the Torah should be understood as telling us what to do if we ever happen to come across a poor person and not that there will always be poor people. For the purposes of this shiur, the Ramban’s question is more pertinent than his answer.

[3] “Dollars and Sense” has been translated into Hebrew and is titled “Shekalim v’Shikulim”, literally “Shekels and Considerations”. Kudos to the translator, who managed to keep the play on words intact.

[4] Kreisler is a self-professed “typical Princeton educated lawyer turned author, speaker, pundit, comedian and advocate for behavioral science”. Ariely is the brains behind the book. “Ariely and Kreisler” are sort of like the Freakonomics duo “Levitt and Dubner”.

[5] In Israel, pension plans are mandatory, saving us from ourselves.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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