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Marshmallows and Golden Calfs

03/04/2021 09:13:17 AM


Many of you have heard about, read about or even studied a famous psychological test called “The Marshmallow Test,” performed at Stanford University in the 1970’s by Walter Mischel.  Simply put, “The Marshmallow Test” studies delayed gratification in children.  A child is brought into a room with a table and a marshmallow sitting on a plate.  The child is told that she is going to be left alone for a few minutes, and if when the proctor returns, the marshmallow is still there, the child will be given two marshmallows.  There are tons of videos of this test on line, and they run the gamut from kids who sit there with quiet contemplation to kids whose eyes seem to cross, overwhelmed by their desire to eat the marshmallow until many of them do. 

I was reminded of these studies just in the past few days and you’ll soon see why.  But first, Torah.  This week we read from Parashat Ki Tissa, the Torah portion from the book of Exodus that recounts Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai and the Israelites subsequent descent into idolatry with the building of and bowing to the Golden Calf.  If you have read this Torah portion, you know that this doesn’t go well, really…for anyone – no one looks particularly great – not the Israelites, not Aaron, not Moses, not even God.  Tempers flare, ultimatums are demanded, unfortunate excuses are offered, and victimhood abounds.  Check it out here

It seems to me that the Marshmallow Test is quite pertinent here.  Delayed gratification (rather, the inability to enact it) seems to be at the heart of this moment, for all parties.  The Israelites, from whom this perhaps should never have been expected to be possible, seem to wait a decent amount of time (40 days!) before they lose their minds complaining that “that man Moses” has abandoned them.  Aaron, who doesn’t seem to be willing to put up much of a fight, tries to surreptitiously abide by the law, tip-toeing through his presentation of the Golden Calf, by reminding the Israelites that “tomorrow will be a holiday to Adonai.” God immediately lays the blame on the people and declares this project “null and void,” while Moses successfully placates God into rescinding God’s declaration, but then lays upon the Israelites a punishment that “may be” a bit too far (forcing the Israelites to drink the melted down calf, demanding they kill the Israelites most responsible, you know, “average discipline!”)

At the heart of these incidents seems to me to be an inability to wait it out.  Yes, it may be a lot to ask from a group of individuals who have never known anything else but slavery, but there is still a human element, a divine element, dare I say, that keeps us from descending into the behavior of wild beasts.  Interestingly, many different versions of the “Marshmallow Study” have been engaged for decades, one of which seeks to test the role of interdependence in succeeding.  With two children in the same room, each with a marshmallow in front of her/him, they are told, just as in the first, that if they can wait until the proctor returns, they’ll each get a second marshmallow.  However, in this test, they explain that success requires that both children not eat their marshmallow in order for both to receive a second.  The research found that no matter where they held this experiment, in all different parts of the world representing all different cultures, the interdependence experiment yielded far more successful results.  Meaning, the more interdependence required, the more the children successfully received their second marshmallow. 

Can we honestly say we’re surprised? And yet how cynical it is to witness our political leaders not only undermining this interdependence but pretending that the more independent we are, the better. We are interconnected no matter what we might prefer to believe. If there were ever any better examples than our recent electricity grid failure, not to mention the lifting of  Covid-19 mask mandates, I cannot think of them. You and I rely on each other, competition is not the be-all and end-all of life. Our ability to succeed in the world requires an open embrace of our vulnerability, our connectedness to each other.  It is only through reliance on, trust in and making room for each other that we can discover the godliness within ourselves.  Golden calves abound everywhere. The temptation to dive into immediate gratification, thinking only of ourselves or even just our “kind,” lies in our reptilian brain.  It’s there, sending us impulses all the time. But we evolved beyond it.  It’s time to act like it.

Mon, September 27 2021 21 Tishrei 5782