The Paradigm of the Self - Parashat Bo

This D'var Torah was given to Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue, WA, for Parashat Bo, by Rabbinic Intern Natasha Mann.



The Paradigm of the Self

I used to have a great answer for the question, ‘So why do you want to be a rabbi?’ None of you have ever heard that answer, but I promise you, it was a good one. It was funny, and it was polished; it had a story about my home rabbi, and a story about my college friends, and it was always met with a smile. And somewhere between my beginning to craft that response and making it so good, it stopped being true. Because I changed, and the response didn’t. That’s why, when any of you have asked why I want to be a rabbi, I stumble through a response that I refuse to prepare in advance. It turns out that my slow, frowning response filled with ‘um’s and ‘wait, let me say that a different way’ is much more true to reality. So why did it take me so many years of retelling the same story to realise that it wasn’t true?

The human brain loves narratives. It loves narratives because narratives are patterns, and it knows what to do with patterns. While this is in some ways wonderful, it also turns out that your brain cannot always be trusted to tell you the truth if the truth does not fit into a good pattern. In the 1940s, two psychologists called Bruner and Postman set out to research this, in what is commonly referred to as the ‘The Red Spade Experiment’. This is how the experiment played out: there were a number of human subjects, who were each very quickly shown a single playing card at a time, and asked to identify the card. Not so difficult, right? Except what the subjects didn’t know was that this was no ordinary deck of playing cards. While some of the cards were normal, many of them were made anomalous – like a red three of spades, or a black ace of hearts. The only thing the subject had to do was to identify the card that he or she had seen, and the experiment was over once the subject correctly identified two cards in a row. As the experiment went on, the exposure to each card would be increased – so the subject would have slightly longer to look at the card. So what the psychologists were looking for was this: how long did it take before the subject could identify the anomalous cards as being anomalous, and say ‘ah, that is a red three of spades’.

At first, with the very short exposure to the card, when the subject would see an anomalous card he/she would immediately identify it as a normal card, without any apparent hesitation or difficulty. So for example, they would see the red three of spades, and would either identify it as the three of spades as if were black, or identify it as the three of hearts. Either way, to the subject, it was like there was nothing wrong with the card. They just immediately fit the card into the categories they already knew. However, when the subjects had longer to look at the cards, something interesting happened – they continued to identify the anomalous cards as regular cards, but they started to hesitate and to show some discomfort. Something was wrong, but they didn’t know what it was. For example, they might say ‘that’s the three of spades, but there’s something wrong with it’ – without being able to identify that the problem was that the card was red and not black. The experiment would continue to slow down, and eventually, most subjects would start being able to identify the problem. Interestingly, once they were able to identify that some card was anomalous, they wouldn’t have any more problems identifying the rest of the anomalous cards correctly.  

A few subjects, however, were never able to make the move. Even at forty times the average exposure necessary to correctly identify a regular card, some subjects could not identify anomalous cards. And those subjects often experienced acute emotional distress. One such subject even exclaimed, ‘I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what colour it is now, or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure now what a spade looks like. My God!’

What’s being described in this experiment is the human brain’s ability to manipulate information in order to fit it into the categories prepared by previous experience. The brain has a kind of filing system. And it’s much easier to manipulate the data than to change the filing system entirely. It’s likely that you’ve noticed this before: perhaps you’ve seen someone presented with information that contradicts their opinion, and immediately and seamlessly manipulate the information to fit into their worldview. Hopefully you are aware that you’re not exempt from this. 

Pharaoh is a classic example of the subject who never understood that it wasn’t a normal deck of playing cards. Today, we finished reading the stories of the plagues, culminating in Pharaoh finally giving up on keeping the Israelites in Egypt. Only, he will once again change his mind and chase the Israelites down to the Sea of Reeds. He just hasn’t had the paradigm shift. The big picture to Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s structure of reality, is that Pharaoh is powerful and the Israelites are slaves; Pharaoh is a god, and the god of the Israelites cannot possibly have power over him. Even after all of this data to the contrary, he cannot make the shift. The men of his court even say to him at the beginning of our parashah: “Can’t you see that Egypt is lost?” Everyone else is playing with an anomalous set of playing cards, and Pharaoh’s mind just can’t make the shift.

And before we feel too superior over Pharaoh, let’s not forget the other people who fail to shift paradigms: the Israelites. The Israelites see God bring plagues, and take them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and yet when they’re left alone for five minutes, what do they do? They build an idol. Because that’s what they know about how the world works. Their God wasn’t right there with them at that moment, which meant that they needed to build a new one.

But it’s not all bad role models. Moshe Rebbeinu goes from Egyptian Prince to shepherd to leader of a revolution to leader of a people. And while he does show a very human amount of resistance to accepting his role as leader, he does, for the most part, learn to adapt. Two weeks ago, he told God that he couldn’t possibly speak to Pharaoh, because he was slow of speech. And now here he is, eloquently demanding the freedom of his people. I wonder how far down that road he was before he realised that he wasn’t so ‘slow of speech’ after all. 

That story that I told a hundred thousand times about why I want to be a rabbi stopped being true long before I stopped telling it. It took me years to make the shift, because that was the story that I told myself about who I am. It was a good story, so what did my brain care about a few pieces of data not fitting into the pattern?

So when I ask ‘who are you?’, how sure are you that your sense of yourself now isn’t outdated? How sure are you that it isn’t the story of who you were? Where is the data not adding up? Which spades have actually been red for years?

If it sounds scary, let me assure you: it is. But there is little more honest and real than meeting the ‘you’ as you are right now.

B’hatzlaha. Shabbat shalom.
 

 

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