Under the hood: Nitzavim – Vayelech 5774

I just finished reading a book. Somewhere around three-quarters of the way through, it went from “fascinating” to “disturbing”. The book is called “Incognito” by David Eagleman. According to the book, “David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.” Eagleman begins by describing two ways in which people think: consciously and subconsciously. For instance, we don’t think when we’re driving a car in the same way we think when we solve a mathematical problem. Driving a car doesn’t require conscientious thought – we just “do it”. That’s why we can carry on deep conversations about life, the universe, and everything while we’re driving at 60 miles an hour on a crowded highway. On the other hand, doing a Sudoku puzzle requires concentration. The last thing we want is to be interrupted while we are solving our morning Sudoku. Eagleman’s general premise is that when we “look under the hood”, it turns out that there is a lot more subconscious thought going on than we might think.

Eagleman brings numerous examples showing the brain works better when it is working by rote. It works more quickly and efficiently and it requires far less energy than when it is working conscientiously. Consider a person taking his first driving lesson. When he gets into the driver’s seat for the very first time, he has no idea how far he needs to turn the steering wheel to make a right turn. He has no idea when to begin slowing down and how far to press the brake pedal so that he doesn’t crash in to the car in front of him. He drives the car the same way he plays Sudoku. But after spending enough time driving, these actions are learned and are relegated to his subconscious. He still has no idea how many degrees to turn the wheel when he is parallel parking. He just knows how to do it, to the point that he mistakenly believes that he can text and drive at the same time. This is why soldiers and football players practice again and again and again. They want their reactions to be innate. When things get hairy, they don’t want to be wasting time and energy thinking. They want to be doing.

Here is where the book gets disturbing. In most Western Liberal Democracies, in order for a person to be guilty of a crime he must have “mens rea” – “guilty thought”. He must willingly perform the crime as an act of evil. If this component is lacking, then punishment in the form of incarceration in jail becomes problematic. He did not “do evil”; he “made a mistake”. Let’s return to the person driving a car. He is obeying all the laws of traffic. A pedestrian darts into traffic, and he hits the pedestrian. Should the driver be sent to jail? Should he have his license revoked? Has he committed a crime? He did not intend to hit anyone. His conscious self was not even driving the car. He was on autopilot. Then Eagleman takes one more step. Our brains are shaped by both nature and nurture – genes and upbringing. We did not have a say in either. We received our genes at the moment of conception and we were raised by our parents. Whether we grew up in a mansion or in a slum, we did so without being asked. According to Eagleman this essentially leaves no room for freedom of choice. All of our actions are determined by chemical pathways on our brains that have long been paved. To prove this he performed an experiment. People were asked to raise their finger anytime they desired. They were given complete “freedom of choice”. When they decided to raise their finger, they were to shout “Now!” During the experiment their brain activity was monitored. Two results stand out: First, it took about a quarter of a second from the moment they shouted “Now!” until the moment they raised their finger. But far more importantly, significant brain activity was recorded for a full second before they shouted “Now”, meaning that the subconscious mind was at work long before the conscious mind took over.

Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in “Al HaTeshuva”, describes a person who looks up at the stars late at night and is overcome by existential terror. He sees himself as a nano-speck of dust in the universe. His actions are meaningless. He might as well just get high and rob a bank. Rav Soloveichik takes this person to task, not because he robbed the bank but because of the chain of thought that brought him there. A starry night can also cause a person to become overcome with wonder and to become closer to Hashem. It is his improper reaction to the vastness of the universe that puts him on the slippery slope to sin, and he so must work to modify his reaction. But according to Eagleman, the way a person reacts to a certain stimulus lies in the subconscious. It is innate and cannot be changed. Is this person really free to choose how he acts?

As the freedom of choice – bechira chofshit – is one of the thirteen basic tenets of Judaism, Eagleman’s conclusion is heretical. But as he supports his thesis with good science, it is not intellectually honest to hide from his points. Parashat Nitzavim gives us one way to counter his arguments. The Parasha tells of a covenant in which Am Yisrael and Hashem jointly enter [Devarim 29:12]: “So that you will be for [Hashem] a nation and He will be for you a God”. This covenant was entered not only by the three million Jews who stood at the Jordan River ready to enter the Land of Israel three thousand years ago, but by every Jew who would ever live [Devarim 29:13-14]: “I do not enter this covenant only with you… who stand together with us today, but even with he who is not standing here today”. How can a person be held liable for a contract he did not sign? Our Sages explain that “Kol Yisrael arevim ze la’zah” – “All of Israel is accountable for one for another”. Our deeds as individuals have an indelible impact on the lives of entire nation.

A person familiar with Hebrew grammar will notice that the verses in Parashat Nitzavim begin in the plural (“You all”), switch to the singular in Verse 11, and then revert back to the plural in Verse 13, the mutual accountability verse. Let’s try to explain this switch à la Eagleman. Imagine a sweet table at a wedding. I know that the cakes are delicious and that I should try eight or nine of them. But I also know that glucose and fats will adversely affect my health. So I’m torn: To eat or not to eat. The real question is “What does Ari Sacher want?” Similarly, a drunk Mel Gibson goes on a tirade cursing Jews, and two weeks later a contrite, sober, Mel Gibson offers an apology that is accepted by the Anti Defamation League. Is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite or not? Eagleman asserts that the answer to both questions is “both”. A person has multiple subconscious processes operating simultaneously, each pulling in a different direction. Usually only one of them is actually expressed – I either eat the cake or I don’t. What if “those who are here” at the covenant is referring to “the personality that is expressed” and “those who are not here” is referring to “the multitude of subconscious processes”? If so, the Torah is cognizant that a person’s actions are highly influenced by processes that he cannot see or control. And yet he must still enter a covenant with Hashem! Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

This is where “Kol Yisrael arevim” comes into play. A friend of mine just moved to Moreshet from a Haifa suburb. He is in euphoria. Not because Haifa was so bad, but because living in a religious Yishuv is indescribably wonderful. He loves seeing people walking around holding a Talmud. He loves the abundance of shiurim and minyanim. He loves the “sense of community”. This person will be a different person in another year or two. He, too, will walk around with a Talmud in his hand. He and his family will go to shiurim. They might even give shiurim themselves. They will change their behaviour to conform to the others in the community. This change happened to my family years ago, which is why we don’t share his excitement. To us it’s just another day. And that’s the way it should be. We can modify our subconscious by modifying our environment. This is our freedom of choice. By choosing to go to Minyan, by choosing to go to a weekly shiur, by choosing to move to a Torah-observant community, we make changes “under the hood”. And the wonderful result is that we will become better Jews, whether we will it or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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 2001 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.
Related Topics
Related Posts