Parashat Vaera/Parashat Bo 5773/2013
The Psychology of Change
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
I recently attended an exhilarating conference and retreat for Conservative rabbis. It was an intense schedule that included text study, professional development and personal reflection. I had almost forgotten about the outside world and didn’t really keep up with the news. However, with all the problems in our country and around the world, one headline caught my eye during that week: the Baseball Writers Association of America failed to elect a single player to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The writers made a strong statement that players suspected of using performance enhancing drugs, such as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, were not deserving of Major League Baseball’s highest honor. For a day or two the press analyzed this rare result. Then Major League Baseball made a stunning announcement: the players, owners and league office reached an agreement to enact the most stringent testing for performance enhancing drugs in professional sports. While this was a result of months, if not years, of negotiations, I can’t imagine that the timing of the announcement was accidental. Major League Baseball was announcing to the world that it was capable of change.
At a conference of rabbis, it should be no surprise that change is a prominent theme as we explored change management in the communities we lead and personal care that often requires us to change our own personal habits to enable me and my colleagues to be more fully engaged with our constituents. One of our excellent faculty members this week was Mona Fishbane, a psycho-therapist from Chicago. She gave a D’var Torah in which she connected this week’s Torah portion to the work of change. I’d like to share with you a portion of her teaching.
In Parashat Vaera, we find three parties all afraid of change: Moses, B’nai Yisrael and Pharaoh. Moses already expressed reluctance in last week’s portion about taking on the mantle of leadership. He lacked the skills and the self-confidence to rise to the task, he pleaded. God did not take no for an answer. At the end of last week’s portion, we are left with Moses nearly walking off the job. His worst fears have been confirmed. Pharaoh said no, he made the people make bricks without straw, and the people, in turn lash out against Moses. Moses felt trapped by his own sense of inadequacy, his habits of low-self-esteem. It takes God reaching out to Moses in the most personal way in today’s portion to nudge him forward. Moses is able to break his habits and change. From this perspective, Moses’s greatness stems from his humility and ability to change.
For Pharaoh, it’s a different story. Pharaoh becomes stuck in the habit of saying no. And Pharaoh deals with his fear of change through the cruel use and abuse of power. God deals with Pharaoh on his own terms, through a contest of power in which God wins– but only after Pharaoh is brought low by his own grief, by losing his firstborn son.
In the end, Pharaoh wasn’t open to learning from loss, even the unspeakable loss of his own son’s death. Even in the vulnerability of his grief, Pharaoh couldn’t give up his old habits as he and his men chased the Israelites into the sea and ultimately succumbed to God’s power, unwillingly, losing the opportunity to be transformed by the experience. Likewise, the Israelites were unable to she’d their old habits of fear and subservience to an earthly ruler. The whole generation had to die out for their old habits to die out. They maintained a victim mentality throughout, grumbling their way to revelation and beyond. This narrative teaches us from multiple angles how frightened of change we can be and how tenacious our habits can be.
Fishbane says that humans are wired for habit. Our habits are reflected in circuits of neurons in our brain that have become associated together. There’s a catchy phrase in psychiatric literature: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” The more we do something, the more we are likely to do so in the future. Everything we do, learn and experience changes the brain. We are what we do. This is sobering. As Fishbane says, there is no free lunch from a neural point of view. People who regularly become impatient, angry or anxious are more likely to do so in the future. People who maintain a slave, victim mentality will remain a slave– to the associated habits.
We cling to the familiar, just as all the characters in our parsha do. The human brain has been called an “anticipation machine,” always looking out for the familiar, for patterns that we recognize.
But we are not only wired for habit. We are wired for change as well. Our brain is known as an “organ of adaptation.” In contrast to the rather rigid Neanderthals, who knew only one way of hunting, and who died out, Homo Sapiens (that’s us) have survived and thrived in many different ecological environments around the world precisely because of our ability to adapt and change.
Fishbane said that the wondrous ability of the brain to change is called neuroplasticity. This can continue throughout life–if we nurture it. Neuroplasticity includes neurons forming new connections with other neurons; the birth of new neurons from neuronal stem cells; and a process allowing for speedier and more efficient communication between neurons. We have the ability to continue this process throughout our lives.
Of course, we have to work to maintain neuroplasticity, or what Fishbane calls the “fountain of brain youth.” Three things are key to this process: physical exercise, paying attention and learning new things. The reality is that as we age, we lose neurons. However, the creation of new neurons and new connections between neurons balance out the loss and keep us in the positive, mentally flexible zone.
Getting back to Major League Baseball: so many of us are drawn to spectator sports because the games are microcosms of life. We are drawn to watching others act under adverse conditions because it reflects our own lives. We are drawn to seeing great triumphs, such as long home runs, because it helps us channel our hopes of triumph in life. However, if someone hits a home run through cheating, then the achievement is tarnished. Switching sports, the same can be said for cycling to seven consecutive wins in the Tour de France, as Lance Armstrong purportedly achieved. His own admission to using performance enhancing drugs not only tarnishes his own reputation but that of his entire sport. In the real world, society does not sanction fraud, so the same should be true for sports. If Major League Baseball can change for the better then cycling and other sports can change. And if professional sports can change, we can do the same. We Jews have a word for it. It’s called teshuvah—return to more wholesome living. No one says teshuvah is easy, but it’s part of our system. We’re wired for it.