For the week ending 4 February 2023 / 13 Shvat 5783

Parshat Beshalach

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Pharaoh finally sends the Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. With pillars of cloud and fire, G-d leads them toward Eretz Yisrael on a circuitous route, avoiding the Pelishtim (Philistines). Pharaoh regrets the loss of so many slaves, and chases after the Jews with his army. The Jews are very afraid as the Egyptians draw close, but G-d protects them. Moshe raises his staff, and G-d splits the sea, enabling the Jews to cross safely. Pharaoh, his heart hardened by G-d, commands his army to pursue, whereupon the waters crash down upon the Egyptian army. Moshe and Miriam lead the men and women, respectively, in a song of thanks.

After three days' travel, only to find bitter waters at Marah, the people complain. Moshe miraculously produces potable water. In Marah they receive certain mitzvahs. The people complain that they ate better food in Egypt. Hashem sends quail for meat and provides manna, miraculous bread that falls from the sky every day except Shabbat. On Friday, a double portion descends to supply the Shabbat needs. No one is able to obtain more than his daily portion, but manna collected on Friday suffices for two days so the Jews can rest on Shabbat. Some manna is set aside as a memorial for future generations.

When the Jews again complain about a lack of water, Moshe miraculously produces water from a rock. Then Amalek attacks. Joshua leads the Jews in battle, and Moshe prays for their welfare.


Belief in Belief

“They said to Moshe, ‘Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the Wilderness?’” (14:11)

Until recently, psychology proposed that willpower was like a battery. You start the day with a full charge, but each time you have to control your thoughts, your feelings or your behavior, you zap the battery’s energy. Then, without the chance to rest and recharge your resources, they run dangerously low, which makes it far harder to maintain your patience and concentration, and to resist .temptation.

Laboratory tests appeared to provide evidence for this process. If participants were asked to resist eating cookies left temptingly on a table, they subsequently showed less persistence when solving a mathematical problem, because their reserves of willpower had been exhausted. Drawing on the Freudian term for the part of the mind that is responsible for reining in our impulses, this process was known as “ego depletion.” People who had high self-control might have bigger reserves of willpower initially, but even they would be worn down when placed under pressure.

In 2010, however, the psychologist Veronika Job published a study that questioned the foundations of this theory, with some intriguing evidence that ego depletion depended on people’s underlying beliefs. Job, who is a professor of motivation psychology at the University of Vienna, first designed a questionnaire, which asked participants to rate a series of statements on a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 6 (strongly disagree).

They included the following:

1) When situations accumulate that challenge you with temptations, it gets more and more difficult to resist temptations.

2) Strenuous mental activity exhausts your resources, which you need to refuel afterwards.

3) If you have just resisted a strong temptation, you feel strengthened and you can withstand new temptations.

4) Your mental stamina fuels itself. Even after strenuous mental exertion, you can continue doing more of it.

If you agree more with statements one and two, you are considered to have a “limited” view of willpower, and if you agree more with three and four, you are considered to have a “non-limited” view of willpower.

Job next gave the participants some standard laboratory tests examining mental focus, which is considered to depend on our reserves of willpower. She found that people with the limited mindset tended to perform exactly as ego depletion theory would predict. After performing one task that required intense concentration — such as applying fiddly corrections to a boring text — they found it much harder to pay attention to a subsequent activity than if they had been resting beforehand. The people with the non-limited view, however, did not show any signs of ego depletion. They showed no decline in their mental focus after performing a mentally taxing activity.

The participants’ mindsets about willpower, it seemed, were self-fulfilling prophecies. If they believed that their willpower was easily depleted, then their ability to resist temptation and distraction quickly dissolved. But if they believed that “mental stamina fuels itself,” then that is what occurred.

Judaism is the ultimate exercise of deferred gratification. We are asked to reject much of the immediate gratification of this world for the permanent gratification of the World to Come. Your ability to defer that gratification depends on how much you believe that deferred gratification exists.

People tend to think that belief in Hashem is like an on/off switch. You either believe or you don’t believe. In truth, each one of us is on an infinite and constantly sliding scale, whose extremities are total faith at one end and total atheism at the other. “There are no atheists in a fox hole” runs the well-known aphorism, and on the other hand, as Rabbi Elazar says in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, “Know what to answer an atheist.” And this should also include the “atheist” that may lurk in any of us.

Truth be told, belief is a middah — a character trait — and it can either be strengthened or weakened.

But the key to belief in Hashem is the faith that I can strengthen my belief without limit.

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