Cookies or Radishes
Ride the Camel
If I placed a plate of chocolate chip cookies and radishes in front of you, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine that probably 100 percent of you would choose the cookies. It’s obvious. The smell. The softness. The melted chocolate. Delicious, right!? This was the premise of Professor Roy Baumeister’s 1998 experiment with some of this colleagues from Case Western University.
In the first part of the trial, Baumeister kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies. While some did get to indulge their sweet tooth, the subjects in the experimental condition, whose resolves were being tested, were asked to eat radishes instead. And they weren't happy about it.
As the scientists noted in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper two years later , many of the radish-eaters "exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them."
After the food bait-and-switch, Baumeister's team gave the participants a second, supposedly unrelated exercise, a persistence-testing puzzle. The effect of the manipulation was immediate and undeniable. Those who ate radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time solving the puzzle compared to the chocolate-eating participants and a control group that only joined this latter phase of the study.
In other words, those who had to resist the sweets and force themselves to eat pungent vegetables could no longer find the will to fully engage in another torturous task. They were already too tired.
I am tired too. As I am sure you are. This experiment is a great window into what Psychologist Jonathan Haidt analogizes as the elephant and the rider in our brain. To put it simply, the elephant is our emotional side while our rational side is the rider. The rider has control, at least it seems but an elephant is sizeable so when our emotional side gets going, it’s hard for our rider to maintain control.
The elephant, our instinctive side, gets a bad rap. It’s perceived as lazy sometimes or focused too much on immediate gratification. The rider, generally perceived in the positive, is a good long-term thinker and deeply analytical. Yet, that elephant’s bad rap is not all bad. In fact, there is some amazing stuff dwelling in that space: love, compassion, sympathy, and loyalty...and that instinct that I mentioned earlier. It’s that voice inside you that propels you forward into an unknown situation.
The truth is, we need them both most of the time in life. I have set up a false dichotomy. But right now, I want to talk to your elephants because I think they have been sidelined a bit. You see, back with our cookies and radishes story, the riders of those who had to withstand their desire to eat the cookies were left with no ability to fight off the elephant when they got to the puzzle activity. The elephant absolutely trampled them. So they gave up.
What happens in these types of situations is that many of us find ourselves at our breaking points more often than we’d like to admit. So, what do we do?
I am not totally sure there is one clear cut answer. We all have a unique brain chemistry so for me to offer you an unequivocal answer would be unfair. One potential answer comes from a powerful moment in this week’s Parshah.
After Sarah’s death and burial, Avraham sends out his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. As Eliezer explains the mission he has been sent on, Lavan and Betuel, Rivka’s guardians, seem to have a change of heart as to how they feel about Rivkah leaving. At first they seem fine with it:
Take her and go, for God has decreed it.
But then not more than a couple verses later, they say well actually, maybe she should stay with us for a few days. Some commentators read this practically; Rebecca needed time to prepare for the wedding. Others read it more nefariously, that Lavan and Betuel wanted to prevent the marriage from actually taking place.
What I would like to focus on is the next piece which is concise and a little groundbreaking. They say, let’s ask Rebecca what she wants.
We’ve only been in the Torah reading cycle for a few weeks now but the notion that a woman from the Torah is not only asked to participate in a conversation but seemingly given control over her situation would seem to be slightly surprising.
So, they call to her and they ask her, will you go with this man? Now, put yourselves in Rebecca’ shoes. Not too long ago, you’ve never heard of this man. He shows up with his camels, you offer them water. And then he starts celebrating because you’ve passed a test, unbeknownst to you, and then you’re destined to be shipped off to marry someone else, who you’ve really never met. Seemingly, your father and brother are totally cool with it. Isn’t this all moving too quickly?!
Given that, it would not be a shock if Rebecca’s answer would be a resounding no, absolutely not, don’t even think about it. Yet, here is what she says:
אֵלֵֽךְ-I will go
Short, simple, and to the point. Throwing caution to the wind, she doesn’t hem and haw; she without question says I am going. So what do we make of this?
As you might imagine, there are many attempts by the commentators to understand what guides Rebecca’s answer here. Rashi our pre-eminent commentator says that her short answer is intentional, even if you don’t want me to, I am going. I love this one. It’s incredibly strong willed. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, reads Rivka’s “yes” as being willing, even if the quick decision surrendered a more valuable wedding dowry that might have come to her otherwise. I am willing to forego the short term gains for the long-term, a true rider winning out over elephant.
A more modern commentator, Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, head of the Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash in LA reads her Elcha as echoing Avraham’s response to Lech Lecha, Miriam’s “shall I go and call you a wet nurse, and Ruth’s “wherever you will go I will go”. She, like them, when confronted with the unknown of the future, dives in with trust and faith.
The truth is, they all work to some degree in capturing what Rebecca must have been feeling. But I want to bring my favorite teaching this time around because I think it gets us back to the elephant. It comes from the Netziv, Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the great 19th century sage and famed head of the Volozhin Yeshiva.
The Netziv argues that she has to answer so succinctly because actually Rebecca was very afraid of...riding a camel. This we know from the fact that later on she falls off the camel, showing her unease with camel-riding. Nonetheless, she stomached that fear through gritted teeth with a short answer. We all know that feeling. When all you can muster is a simple yes or no because you know the tears might come if you say something longer, fighting through the fear.
I actually think, if I could be a bit bold, that the Netziv isn’t talking about the actual camel. I think he’s talking about the camel that stands in for the newness, the anxiety, and the trepidation of what is to come.
The camel is the singular object that represents the unknown that will carry her off into this world that she has never seen. She knows it’s the right decision but all she can muster is a one-word affirmative.
One can imagine Rivkah’s rider in this moment doing all the analytical calculations before answering and all of those warning signs telling her no, don’t do it! But trampling out of the rider’s control is Rivkah’s gut, instincts, or as we’ve described it her elephant which is convincing her, just do it.
Knowing what we know about her later on, she is clearly strong and unafraid to take action. Lean into this moment. Go forward in this newness and you will become the thousands myriads you were blessed with, and you will produce world creators.
What I take away from this story is one of the methods through which we can propel ourselves forward right now. When our riders are fatigued, we struggle to find emotional equilibrium. In a normal world, I would tell you to do your best to find this balance, giving a little bit to each side.
But right now, I think all of us need to be a little more like Rivkah. Channel her courage in the face of fear. Honor your elephant and let her run wild. Eat that chocolate chip cookie. In the weeks and months to come, as you face your own camels, may you find more and more ways to just simply say, Elech, I will go.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend