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The Divine Marshmallow Experiment

Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment is one of the most well-known studies in delayed gratification. Mischel and his team famously challenged preschool children to delay eating a treat for 15 minutes. If they held out, they would earn an additional treat. Kids sat on their hands, played with toys or sang to distract themselves. Some could not hold out and gobbled up the marshmallow within minutes.

Centuries before Mischel’s Marshmallows, G-d presented us with the fruit tree challenge — a more grueling test of delayed gratification. The experiment, code-named Orla, is still running.

Orla challenges adults, not preschoolers, and the stakes are significantly higher. In the Orla trial, you plant a fruit tree but may not eat from it for three years. In the original version, you had to schlep your produce to Jerusalem if you wanted to eat it in Year Four. Year five would be the first time you could enjoy the fruits of your labour.

As the Stanford experimenters did, G-d promised extra rewards if you restrained yourself for four years. Your tree would yield a bumper season in the fifth year. It sounds like Psych 101: Practice self-control, and you will do well.

When you read the verses carefully, you discover that the Torah says more than “G-d rewards those who take risks on His behalf”. It tells us that it is okay to commit to a mitzvah for personal benefit. We would have expected the Torah to describe the mitzvah and then detail its reward. Instead, it inserts the promise of the fifth-year windfall in the middle of the instruction. That would be like telling your child, “Make sure to brush your teeth so that you can have chocolate tomorrow.” Would you want your kids to grow up believing that we brush our teeth to get sweets? Healthy education teaches them that healthy teeth are essential and chocolate is a bonus. You expect the Torah to instruct us to obey G-d because it is the right thing to do. Personal benefits are nice-to-haves. The message here sounds like the reason to keep Orla is to access Divine blessings.

Rabbi Akivah, the famed Talmudic scholar, explains that the Torah wants to address our “Yetzer Hora”, our inbuilt spiritual adversary. Without the Divine assurance of prosperity in the fifth year, we could never sit out four years without partaking in the return on our agricultural investment.

Judaism expects a great deal of delayed, sometimes denied gratification. We wait six hours after steak before we can enjoy ice cream. We may only check the news after Havdalah on Saturday night. Nothing screams self-control louder than having to bite our tongues when we want to share a piece of juicy lashon hara.

Yet, the Torah makes no promise that if we keep shtum instead of gossiping, G-d will send us riveting, innocent stories to share. We do not get two scoops if we wait the mandated time after eating meat. What about Orla prompted the Torah to reassure us, “Fear not! Stay the course for three years and G-d will bless you.”?

Orla is a big ask. Nobody enjoys investing time and energy in something they cannot enjoy. G-d dangles a carrot to ensure our buy-in. The question remains- Why give us such a tough mitzvah in the first place?

Judaism teaches that anything that comes easy cannot be transformative, and satisfying our souls without elevating our bodies is meaningless. The kid who eats the marshmallow before the 15-minute deadline soothes his sweet tooth but learns nothing. Until we postpone relishing the fruits of our labours, they can only provide fleeting pleasure, not lifelong growth.

The purists will argue that you should follow Judaism out of commitment to G-d, not to get a whopper ROI. Maimonides says we should do what is True because it is True. The perks will follow, but they are a sideshow. Rewards should not be our motivation. Pirkei Avot warns us not to be like slaves who serve their masters only to receive reward.

Rabbi Akiva agrees but adds a caveat. The rabbi who taught that our love for our fellow Jews is the foundation of Judaism also taught that G-d loves us even more than He expects us to love each other. He loves us so much that he offers an incentive to motivate those not ready to commit to the Torah for its sake. Remember, Rabbi Akiva began his career as an unlettered shepherd. What motivated him to study from scratch at age forty was the promise of G-d’s blessings.

Judaism wants us to bring our human side along for the Divine ride. Our mortal self may be discouraged by the need for delayed gratification. So, we reassure it with a promise that good things come to those who wait. Orla allows our reptilian brain to engage with G-d. We will not always feel pure dedication to G-d and may need the promise of a payoff to motivate us to do a mitzvah. G-d guarantees us blessings to make our spiritual aspirations appealing to our pragmatic selves. It worked to transform Rabbi Akiva from a boorish herdsman to a Talmudic superstar. To do a mitzvah because it will be good for us is an act of faith. It may also be the catalyst to launch a profound spiritual journey.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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