|In 2018 a study conducted at Ghent University (Belgium) demonstrated that people act differently when presented with a hypothetical moral decision than when faced with a real-life situation. Participants were presented with the “trolley dilemma,” which involves the following hypothetical scenario. A runaway trolley is about to hit five people on the tracks. They can take no action, in which case all five people will die or they can pull a lever and divert the trolley to another set of tracks, in which case only one person will die. The results showed that participants were twice as likely to choose the passive option in the hypothetical scenario. Two weeks later, the subjects were put in front of a machine containing two cages, one with five mice, the other with one mouse. [Although the victims in this study were mice rather than humans, the researchers argue that the moral considerations are the same in both types of scenarios.] They were told that in twenty seconds, the five mice would get a painful, but not lethal, electric shock unless a button was pressed, in which case the single mouse would receive the shock instead (None of the mice actually received the electric shock). The study showed that the way people acted in the real-life scenario did not match their decisions in the hypothetical situation. It’s also interesting to note that participants who chose to press the button in the real-life scenario often seemed apologetic about it during the subsequent debriefing session, a tendency that could shed light on the discrepancy between real-life behavior and hypothetical decision-making.
This week’s Parsha juxtaposes two ideas, someone suspected of adultery and a person who vows not to drink wine or have any grape products for at least one month. What is the significance of these two subjects being juxtaposed? Rashi answers that when a person sees someone being suspected of adultery, the reaction should be, “that’s a tragedy. A relationship or family is broken as a result. I don’t want this happening to me. What positive action can I take? Let me begin by refraining from a social drink (wine) that might lead me to a place I don’t want to be.” Adulterous hookups don’t just happen; being wined and dined is part of the process. After loosening up and even being a bit tipsy, one’s ability to make a good decision is severely compromised.
But there’s a flaw in this thinking. If this person sees the adultery trial in progress and is affected by it to the point that he is willing to vow not to drink wine, why does he have to go with the actual vow; isn’t it enough that he sees the situation and takes it to heart? Why does he need to take on such a severe commitment? The answer contains a useful life tool. It is not enough to comprehend a message, it requires action to truly internalize it. I might comprehend the gravity of adultery and tell myself that if hypothetically I would be in that situation, I would never do that. However, the messages that we comprehend in the hypothetical don’t necessarily reflect how we will react in real life.
The phrase “easier said than done” rings true for many of life’s challenges. When we don’t carry out something we said we would, it is not necessarily because we are hypocrites but because we weren’t able to see the human reality of what it would take to carry out our commitment. The idea sounded good at the time, but when the rubber met the road, the reality of life and its accompanying factors got in our way. The person who committed to the severe measure of taking on a vow of abstinence from wine, is honest with himself. He knows his real-life challenges and does everything in his power to remove them. If we want to successfully implement our goals, we need to learn how to identify the real-life factors that get in our way and come up with strategies to remove them.
It’s easy to speak about hypothetical situations but a shocking splash of reality is the true litmus test of one’s moral compass. The recent conflict in Israel is a case in point. Some American Jews, including some major institutions, are quick to condemn Israel. For them, it is almost hypothetical because they live thousands of miles away from the on-the-ground reality. If they had rockets coming down on their homes, would they just allow it to happen or would they defend their families? If these people lived there, would they be spewing the toxic rhetoric they do? The reality is that our brothers and sisters in Israel are in pain–and so are we. What can we do? Pray for their well-being and support any initiative that ensures their safety. One of the conclusions Dries H. Bostyn, one of the researchers in the study quoted above, came to has relevance to us all. “It could be that with hypothetical judgments we are free to pick the option that is most socially acceptable as we do not have to live with the consequences of that decision,”
Making good life choices will ultimately determine how much peace of mind we have in life. There’s no way we can get to a good place if we avoid reality in our own lives or the lives of others who count on us. Although confronting reality is sometimes frightening, as long as we are thirsty for it, we will have inner peace because we know that we are doing our best; the Almighty never asks for more than that. Stay thirsty my friends.
Good Shabbos (Sources: Michtav Me’Eliyahu (Vol. III pg. 128) quoting P’ri Ha’aretz Parshat Nasso by R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk)