Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2010 – The Marshmallow and the Shofar

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 16 September 2010

About forty years ago a Stanford University Professor of Psychology, Walter Mischel, conducted a large scale experiment using hundreds of four year old children and a great sack of marshmallows. {[1]}

What he did was to place a four year old in a room with a marshmallow and a researcher.  The researcher then told the four year old that he or she was welcome to eat the marshmallow then and there but that he, the researcher would have to pop out for ten minutes or so and if the four year old could wait until he came back before eating the marshmallow then the child could have two marshmallows.

Out went the researcher.  How many of the four year olds do you think were able to leave the marshmallow on the table for ten minutes without eating it?   The answer may surprise you – fully one third of the children.  Two thirds had eaten their marshmallow by the time that the researcher returned and so never got a second one!

Fourteen years after the marshmallow experiment Mischel, a Viennese Jewish refugee, followed up as many of the nearly seven hundred children who had taken the test as he could to find out what had happened to them.  He asked them to report back on a number of measures.  He found that the American SAT School Test results of the one third who waited for the researcher to return were on average 210 points higher than the two thirds who gave into to present temptation – a very substantial difference.  The patient third were much less likely to have drug problems than the marshmallow scoffing two thirds.  The impatient two thirds were more likely to struggle in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.   Anybody here want a marshmallow now? Or would you prefer two after the sermon.

What was going on in this experiment?  The children who couldn’t wait were really struggling to think ahead, to vision the future.  What was right in front of them now at present was all that mattered.   The children who could wait had the secret to a better future in many more ways than you might have thought.

There are three ways that we can be in time – If we base our decisions just on what is happening now then we are “present oriented” (hedonist or fatalist),  if our decisions are based on past memories then “past oriented”  (these might be positive or negative memories)  if based on anticipated consequences then we are “future oriented”  (our decisions are based on goals that we are working towards or transcendent ideas that this life is not the one that matters and so we are preparing for the future.)

Dr Philip Zimbardo, current Professor of Psychology at Stanford University is pretty certain what he considers the optimal time orientation for healthy decision making.  It is to be rooted in positive memories from the past, oriented towards the future sufficiently to give you wings, and with enough interest and awareness of the present to give you the energy to do well. {[2]}

He worries that the tendency for many people in our society to be too much oriented towards the future means that we end up sacrificing family, fun, sleep and hobbies for our attempts to achieve and control things constantly and to try indeed to determine our future whilst having a horrible time in the present and cutting ourselves off from the past.

Rosh Hashanah is not called Rosh Hashanah – the head of the Year – in the Bible.  It took until the turn of the Common Era and the teachings of the Rabbis of the Mishnah for this day upon which we embark tonight to become the turning of the year to the future. {[3]}   In the Torah this day is two things: Yom Ha Zikaron – the day for remembering and Yom Teruah  – the day of making loud blasts.  This is in so many ways the day for remembering – friends and family members whose presence we have valued and who perhaps are not with us now, years gone by when we have struggled and years when we have done well, the place that this day has had in the lives of our ancestors, spiritual or genetic for hundreds of years.  This is the day for knowing that the sound of the Shofar itself, these loud blasts, have been heard for thousands of years – as Rabbi Rich Kirshen writes “my favourite proof of the importance of the Shofar is found in the archaeological site by Robinson’s Arch by the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. There you will see among the ruins a giant stone structure and inscribed on that stone (that looks like a window sill) a line in Hebrew which says, ”House of the Shofar Blower,” (so) we know the process of waking people up from their spiritual stupor has been going on for thousands of years.” {[4]}

The Shofar – the Teruah – the loudness whether heard here in our Alyth Ohel Moed, tent of meeting, or at our Bet Tefillah, our Synagogue in Alyth Gardens in the Big Bang or Tiny Tots services – brings us right now into the present.  It demands our attention to the meaning of this day.  The ritual that builds up to the Shofar blows make us all hear its sound with kavannah, the intention to hear it and we will experience the delight of being together as a community, multi generational over our two sites, with people travelling between them to spend special times together.

Then because it is the New Year, the modern meaning so to speak of this day, we move into the future.  Ten more days to make that future good by Teshuvah our earnest resolve to live up to the best in ourselves, to reflect upon our own behaviour, to come with effort to know what we will do to make the year ahead a good and sweet New Year for ourselves, good and sweet for the people we encounter and good and sweet for our relationship with God.

Our breath thousands of which we will take on this day is composed of past, present and future.  We take it in, breathing all of the environment around us and what has happened to it in the past (like they say in every breath there is a molecule of Julius Caesar {[5]} ) .  We hold our breath enabling our bodies to live for the present.  We expel it pushing our output into the future.

Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro, the Koretzer Rebbe said that  among the most special aspects of the simple Shofar is this one:  “The Shofar remains silent and cannot emit a sound unless the breath of a person passes through it”, carrying past, present and future.  “When we become on Rosh Hashanah like a shofar, the breath of the Holy One, the divine Shechinah, passes through us.  That is how we pray:  the breath of God’s indwelling presence vibrates on our lips.  We may think [when we join into our prayers on these days] that we pray to God, but that is not exactly so.”   [Like past present and future is contained in the Hebrew letters of God’s name Hayah, Hoveh and Yihyeh make Yod Heh Vav Heh] “The prayer itself is divine”. {[6]}

Our prayer is past present and future, our Rosh Hashanah, Yom Truah, Yom Ha Zikaron is past present and future, the best way of living is rooted in the past, fully aware of the present and oriented to the future.  True Judaism ensures that we are always moving between them all.  Don’t just eat the marshmallow in front of you.  Keep this one and get ready to have another