Rosh Hashanah: The Fault in Our Stars

 
Ruins from the Beit Alpha is located in the Beit She'an Valley, depicting Zodiac signs.    See below for details.

Ruins from the Beit Alpha is located in the Beit She'an Valley, depicting Zodiac signs. See below for details.

 

I saw a tweet the other day that read: “I hate when people use their zodiac to justify bad behavior like, "Sorry I can't help it I'm a Scorpio.” No Karen; you're just mean.

Which got me thinking. And thus, late in the deep night hours of scrolling through mindless nonsense on the internet, occasionally I will come across my Horoscope. In the past, I have often found them amusing – and even to my disbelief – spot on accurate – an apt rendition of my personality (I’m an Aries by the way in case you were wondering). But I only became interested after meeting a true valley girl in Los Angeles – An ex–girlfriend who swore by Astrological signs. And soon after I too was hooked. Except for one evening, after visiting her spiritual guidance teacher – A Mrs. Cleo, terō card, magic ball sorcerer, I was graciously informed that our signs didn’t quite match up. And thus, our star–crossed love was not meant to be – and as it turned out, the fortune teller was right after all. And no, it wasn’t because Mercury was in retrograde. But yes, my friends did come to the same conclusion without the aid of clairvoyance or telepathy.

But even so. The other night as I scrolled through zodiac-signs-astrology.com, I checked the boxes according to my Aries nature. Once again, completely dumbfounded of how well complete strangers know my true colors.

  • Aries likes: Comfortable clothes, taking on leadership roles, physical challenges – Check

  • Aries dislikes: delays, work that does not use one's talents – Check.

  • As the first sign in the zodiac, the presence of Aries always marks the beginning of something energetic and turbulent – Sounds about right. Double Check

  • Due to the fact it belongs to the element of Fire, it is in Aries nature to take action, sometimes before they think about it well – Triple Check.

  • Aries is a fire sign with the need to take initiative when it comes to romance (alright...) When they fall in love, they will express their feelings to the person they are in love with, without even giving it a considerable thought – a little too much information, but yes – right again.

And finally my working environment...

  • Aries working environment is the perfect place for their ambition and creativity to show, with them fighting to be as good as possible. A natural born leader, Aries will prefer to issue orders rather than receive them – Okay. You get the point.

But here’s the thing – technically – this horoscope isn’t exclusive for just me. Or even an Aries for that matter. Because in reality I was being beguiled – bamboozled – swindled by a stargazed fortune cookie. Let me give you another example for my horoscope on August 30th:

“Your warrior nature may tempt you to respond in an overly defensive manner today. Unfortunately, slipping into attack mode will not produce the results you want. Learning to listen without trying to justify your point of view helps to rein in temptation. Give others space to share by taking a few steps back and keeping your mind wide open. More patience, less reaction; less drama, more peace.”

Now let me ask you – Who else could this possibly apply to? Let’s see here... Literally. Anybody. Ever. Fortunately,  I’m not the only person who needs reminding not to be overly defensive. To listen without trying to justify my point of view. Or give others space by keeping an open mind. Have more patience. Create less drama. And to be fair – I don’t think it’s only people born in March and April who enjoy comfortable clothing, dislike delays and don’t think before they speak. While accurate – this sham of a   personality test isn’t speaking to just me. It could also be for the other 7.4 billion people living on earth.

But there is, in fact, a real word for this type of stuff. It’s called the Barnum Effect. Kathleen Vohs, a University Professor in Marketing at the University of Minnesota explains thus:

“Barnum Effect, also called Forer Effect, in psychology, [is] the phenomenon that occurs when individuals believe that personality descriptions apply specifically to them, despite the fact that the description is actually filled with information that applies to everyone. The Barnum Effect came from the phrase often attributed (perhaps falsely) to showman P. T. Barnum that ‘a sucker is born every minute.’

The Barnum Effect has been studied or used in psychology in two ways. One way has been to create feedback for participants in psychological experiments, who read it and believe it was created personally for them. When participants complete an intelligence or personality scale, sometimes the experimenter scores it and gives the participant his or her real score.

Other times, however, the experimenter gives participants false and generic feedback to create a false sense (e.g., to give the impression they are an exceptionally good person). The reason that the feedback ‘works’ and is seen as a unique descriptor of an individual person is that the information is, in fact, generic and could apply to anyone.”

For example:

  • “You have an intense desire to get people to accept and like you.”

  • “You are an independent thinker who takes pride in doing things differently than others.”

  • “You can be overly harsh on yourself and very critical.”

  • “Although you do have some weaknesses, you try very hard to overcome them and be a better person.”

But this all comes back to one blinding point that I will make over and over again – an idea that is not new, nor will it come as a huge surprise   – So let me break the ice – None of us, not one single person here, has a true, genuine Personality. Which is simply to say: Personality is not a science. Personality is a process. More or less, our personality is falsifiable. Because the way we construe our experiences, and the preferences underlying our interests, needs, values, and motivation will ultimately change over time. And for those of you who are thinking, “What about a Myers Briggs test? Isn’t that accurate to some extent” And I will only say that “Yes” – Knowing who you are and how you function is important, but it’s only a snapshot in time. And that “Kodak moment” doesn’t disprove the dynamic nature of personality – of your “you-ness.” And here’s the even scarier part about all of this. We actually know very little about ourselves despite how much we think we know.

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, and founder of analytical psychology has a book called The Undiscovered Self. Jung explains, “Most people confuse ‘self–knowledge’ with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. Anyone who has ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self–knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself...In this respect, the psyche behaves like the body with its physiological and anatomical structure, of which the average person knows very little to. Although he lives in it and with it, most of it is totally unknown to the layman…

What is commonly called ‘self–knowledge’ is, therefore, a very limited knowledge, most of it dependent on social factors...Hence one is always coming up against the prejudice that such and such a thing does not happen “with us” or “in our family” or among our friends and acquaintances...[pg. 6]

Or, to put a different way, according to American psychologist William James, “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”

Meaning, who we say we are – believe we are – or think we are – is not actually who we are. Because according to Jung, we know as much about ourselves as we do about the inner workings of our own body. Thus, while you may be a cardiovascular prodigy, you would still need the help of a neurologist for treating an organic nerve disorder. The same logic applies to our psyche. While we may understand a small fraction, but we don’t really grasp the entirety of it all.

So then here’s the kicker – Who then are we, really? Who, according to James, is that “person as they really are?  And Yes, I’ll admit I am no psychologist myself, but I do listen to a lot of (NPR) National Public Radio. And lately, there was an episode that featured an actual psychologist with whom I very much agree.

In podcast called Invisibilia, produced by American author Hanna Rosin and science journalist Alix Spiegel (both of them Jewish) they have an episode called, “The Personality Myth.”

Spiegel begins by posing the following statement: “When we tell stories of lives – criminal lives or even successful ones – the legendary businessman, the beloved teacher – usually at the center of the story is a personality, a set of consistent characteristics fundamental to them…[Because] Personality is how people usually explain things. And for a long time, it was how many psychologists explained things too. And then came a man named Walter Mischel, who helped transform the way that psychology thinks about what makes us – us.”

During the show, they interview Dr. Walter Mischel (also Jewish), who currently holds the chair as professor of humane letters in psychology at Columbia University. He is also the founder of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately – or two small rewards if they waited for a short period (approximately 15 minutes) during which the tester left the room and then returned. In follow–up studies, researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards [two marshmallows as opposed to just one] tended to have better life outcomes.

As Spiegel explains, “The marshmallow test has become a kind of poster child for the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future.” But then you get a voice clip from Walter Mischel himself, who says, “That iconic story is upside down wrong – that your future is in a marshmallow – because it isn't.”

“For example,” Mischel explains “A friendly person is someone who should be friendly over time. So if he's friendly at 20, he should be friendly at 25. And if he's friendly, he should be essentially friendly across most situations in which friendliness is a reasonable and accepted way of being. [Yet] All the studies that [he] was reading – when they were looking for the consistency across situations – weren't finding it.”

Spiegel says, “Consider, for example, this enormous study done on honesty in children. The researchers, Hartshorne and May, had put thousands of kids in experimental situations in a wide variety of settings – had actually given the children opportunities to cheat or lie at school, at home….And it came out with results that were shocking at the time, which is that the same child who cheats [in an English class], for example, in the arithmetic class could be a fantastic student – no cheating and so on. [Proving] They were not consistently anything. They were inconsistent in their honesty. And [these results were] essentially buried….A pattern Mischel found in other studies too. Whenever personality research found inconsistency, it was [often] dismissed.”

And just another quick add-on, Alix Spiegel also interviews neuroscientist and Stanford University professor David Eagleman (Yes. Also Jewish as well). Eagleman admittedly says that nothing in the body, neither our red blood cells, hair, skin, colon and stomach cells, neurons, cells in your brain, DNA, or the architecture of your brain – Not even one’s heartbeat stays the same over time.

And the cherry on top? Is that even our emotionally salient memories can quote-unquote “drift around a little bit.” Eagleman says, “Scientifically speaking, there is nothing [we] can point to that actually stays fixed throughout a lifetime.” There is simply the illusion of continuity.

So the question then becomes, why are we insistent that behavior is a reflection of personality – of which remains stable over time? Well, according to Mischel,  “It makes us feel better.” He says, “How can you marry anybody unless you believe that they're essentially going to be like you've got them pictured now. We like to feel that we're living in a stable world. I think the more we learn about the universe, the more we learn about its instability. The more we learn about any science, the more we learn about its endless complexity. When it comes to human beings we really don't have tolerance for realizing that there is an enormous amount of complexity.”

When you really think about it, stability, consistency, and simplicity all give us self-assurance – confidence – resilience  – they allow us to feel safe – comforted by both our own self-worth and that of others. But “the illusion of continuity” often leaves us in perpetual need of validation from horoscopes and personality tests. From which, we don’t want to really hear anything new – just confirm what we already think about ourselves. We tell ourselves, as Jung remarks, that “that such and such a thing does not happen ‘with us’ or ‘in our family’ or among our friends.” Things like this don’t even happen “to me,” as I often tell myself. But these phrases are only mental bandages composed of long-winded excuses - attempt to cover up events and situations that leave us perplexed and mystified.  Or as Jung puts it, “illusory assumptions about the alleged presence of qualities which merely serve to cover up the true facts of the case.”

But there’s another way of looking this that’s not all doom and gloom. Dr. Mischel ends the segment by explaining, “What [his] life has been about is showing the potential for human beings to not be the victims of their biographies – not their biological biographies, not their social biographies – and to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.”

So here’s why this is all so incredibly relevant and powerful. Not only because I believe in the synergy of science and religion, but also because I believe in a growth mindset. I believe that who you are today, even down to this very minute, may not be the same person that walks out of this room.

In an instant our lives can change depending on the situation we find ourselves in. And tonight we find ourselves in a kind of marshmallow experiment. Tonight we read ancient liturgy that basically says what science agrees with – That we are not consistently anything. Neither body nor spirit. Neither mind, muscle, or memory. It all changes.

And only in the fashion of change can we approach God and say Avinu Malkeinu – God, please have compassion on us and our families. God, we have strayed. God, we have sinned. Avinu Malkeinu –  We have taken for granted that we know ourselves. Avinu MalkeinuWe have the potential not to be victims of our biological or social biographies. Avinu MalkeinuOur world is complex. Our lives inconsistent. Help us to navigate through the chaos – And above all: Avinu Malkeinu – Help us to not be short-sighted. To not judge others on who they were and what they’ve done, but see them for who they can become.

And now comes the conclusion. To be fair, this sermon wasn’t about you. Just like my horoscope, this sermon wasn’t talking to anyone in particular. Rather each new year marks an opportunity to embrace transition.  A willingness to believe that we can all actually shape and transform our community. Our Jewish communities don’t have to be who they were last year or 10 years before that. Like an organism or person, while you still may have the same name, there are new members, new programs, new leaders, and new ideas. So no. In a way, our communities are not the same. Nor will they ever be the community that existed 30 years ago or even 30 minutes ago. So I say tonight – Avinu Malkeinu – Let us drop the illusions and justifications – release the false–pretenses of who think we are Avinu Malkeinu Avinu –  Let us do less judging and more loving. Malkeinu – Allow us to mature, evolve, and be renewed for a year of goodness.

**About the artwork: “The Zodiac appears in the central panel. These astrological signs, though condemned by the prophets, were widely used as decorative elements in both churches and synagogues of the Byzantine period. The twelve signs are arranged in a circle and accompanied by their Hebrew names. In the center of the zodiac, the sun god Helios is represented seated in a chariot drawn by four horses. The four seasons appear in the corners of the panel in the form of busts of winged women wearing jewels; they are inscribed with the Hebrew months initiating each season: Nisan (spring), Tamuz (summer), Tishri (autumn) and Tevet (winter)…

The splendid mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue of Beit Alpha is one of the finest uncovered in Israel. It is unique in both motifs and workmanship. The synagogue itself was small and simply built, but its mosaics represent a folk art that is striking, very colorful and rich in motifs. The synagogue was in use during the Byzantine and the Early Islamic periods (7th-8th centuries).”

Aaron Sataloff