Monday, September 17, 2018

Davening, Fast and Slow (Derashah for Yom Kippur 5779)

Here is my current draft; feedback (especially before Yom Kippur!) wanted...

I’d like to dedicate my derashah this morning in memory of Ari Fuld, HY”D. I was in school with Ari, and his older brother Donny. As most of you know, Ari was murdered this week by a terrorist in the Gush. That’s how he died; at the end of the derashah, I’ll have more to say about how he lived.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
In a 2011 study, researchers reviewed parole decisions by Israeli judges.[1] They found that judges who had just returned from a food break approved about 65% of parole requests. That percentage dropped in the ensuing hours, to the point that rulings just before the next food break rejected almost all parole requests. Then, after the food break, they went right back to 65%.
Another study, this one out of MIT in 2006.[2] They asked students and executives to participate in an auction. For each item, they asked the participants to first record the last two digits of their social security numbers as though that was their bid. Then they asked them to enter an actual bid. Believe it or not – people with higher social security digits bid up to 346% more than those with lower numbers. For example: On a cordless keyboard, the people with digits between 00 and 19 bid an average of $16; those with digits between 80 and 99 bid an average of $56.
Educated, experienced judges; students and executives at MIT! How could they be so easily influenced by appetite, and irrelevant numbers?
Starting about twenty years ago, Professors Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann[3] sought to explain these and other cognitive slips by pointing to research[4] which shows that our brains consume more energy than most other parts of the body. As Kahnemann wrote, “When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops.” (I don’t know how many calories you burn by listening to this derashah, but I know I burned a lot of them composing it.)
In 2002, Kahnemann won the Nobel Prize for his work, which enshrined in scientific history something we all intuited in high school: Concentration uses energy; therefore, our brains avoid doing it. To the extent possible, we get by with what Kahnemann calls shallow “System 1” thinking, using approximations of the world around us and loose methods of problem-solving, to conserve energy. Only when forced to concentrate, such as due to a sense of danger, do we go to the more thorough, intense and precise “System 2” thinking.
This is why the parole decisions become more negative as the judges’ blood sugar drops; it’s easier to be machmir. And this is why the MIT bidders were influenced by entering random digits before bidding – they didn’t focus carefully, and so they were subliminally influenced by the social security digits they entered.

Davening, Fast and Slow
Kahnemann’s insight regarding thinking is important beyond behavioural economics; here in this room, and all around the BAYT, we can observe a related phenomenon – System 1 Davening and System 2 Davening.
From the vantage point of Torah and halachah, System 2 davening is the goal – an intense religious experience. But more often, we are like the Israeli judges and MIT bidders. Witness the passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi[5] in which one sage admitted, “When I stand in Shemoneh Esreih, I count birds.” Another acknowledged, “I count the bricks in the wall!" And a third confessed, "I'm grateful for my head, because when I arrive at Modim it bows on its own", even if I'm not thinking about the words! As Tosafot[6] said, even our greatest sages have had trouble concentrating for davening.
But what can we do about this? Today is a landmark opportunity to ask Hashem for a clean slate, how can we avoid falling into the automated System 1?

Medical answers
There are some great solutions for the problem of System 1 thinking; Professor Pat Croskerry from Dalhousie has done remarkable work in teaching doctors how to avoid System 1 pitfalls when seeing patients.[7] But these methods are hard to apply in the middle of the day on Yom Kippur. One step, for example, is to be well-fed to avoid the low blood-sugar phenomenon… good luck with that today. So what can we do now, right here?[8]

The Importance of Emotion
One answer may be to turn to an aspect of our personalities which is more powerful than our thoughts: Our emotions.

Psychologists and philosophers have long debated the role of emotions; already in 1890, American philosopher William James wrote that he was tired of the efforts in the field, and would prefer to listen to “verbal descriptions of the shapes of the rocks on a New Hampshire farm” rather than read papers on the role of emotions.[9] But I think a key element suggested by evolutionary biologists is useful here: our emotions are activated when issues of survival are raised.[10] Our intellect solves problems; our emotions help us survive.

Because our intellects aren’t always alert to the stakes and threats at hand, we fall into System 1 thinking, or System 1 davening. But when circumstances trigger fear or love or anger or sympathy, that overpowers the intellect, energizing us, stimulating our nervous system, our endocrine system, our circulatory system, and forcing us to focus.

Further – the more vital an emotion, the more intense the sense that survival is at stake, the greater the power to command our attention. Rabbi Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik[11] made this point; he described a man in pursuit of an aveirah so sweet, so desirable, that he steamrolls his intellect in pursuit of the opportunity. But on the way to his rendezvous, as he races across a frozen lake, his foot slips – and suddenly, the thunderclap of fear for his life overwhelms all that he had been feeling a moment earlier and grabs the reins ; the more vital the emotion, the tighter its grip.

Applying this to our tefillah and teshuvah
This is how we can break out of System 1 davening – by summoning vital emotions which compel our concentration.

  •     Music can summon those emotions; 900 years ago, Rabbi Yehudah haChasid[12] wrote that when we daven we should find tunes which will draw our minds into rhythm with the words we are saying, whether they are psalms of thanksgiving or anguished pleas. I find certain tunes do this for me; I say almost none of the piyutim in the repetition of the amidah, but I try to sing וכל מאמינים and כי אנו עמך, because the memories they evoke for me summon tears of hope and joy which, for me, are life itself.
  •     A memory of an emotional experience can do it. Over a century ago, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rav Kalonymus Kalman Schapira, was approached by young men who wished to refine their personal spirituality. In response, he wrote a book called בני מחשבה טובה, and in that book[13] he counseled that whenever we become excited, whenever we feel extreme joy or love or sorrow or fear, we commit those feelings to memory, and then we call forth those feelings when we are ready to perform mitzvot, and to daven. For me, I can call forth the image of my mother giving me a berachah before Yom Kippur.
  •     Recalling a loved one can do it. Moments ago, people recited Yizkor and remembered relatives who have passed on – the emotions those relatives summon in our hearts are valuable, too. And for those of us with the good fortune to be able to step out for Yizkor – we can still think of people like Ari Fuld הי"ד. Ari’s widow, entering Yom Kippur without him. Ari’s four children. Ari’s parents.

If low blood sugar and exhaustion undermine our concentration, then let us jumpstart our emotions – with a tune, with a memory, with a loved one, with something which will alert us to the intensity of the moment, the magnitude of the opportunity of כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם [14] to start again with a clean slate. Then we will be able to daven a System 2 davening, with a full heart and a dedicated mind.

An article about Ari Fuld appeared on in 2007;[15] it described his deployment in Lebanon as a paratrooper during the Second Lebanon War. Every day, before heading into battle, his unit would say Viduy, as we will at musaf, minchah and neilah. And one day, 28 kilometers deep in Lebanon, they came under direct attack by Hizballah. Two groups of soldiers fell to rocket fire, and Ari was tasked with leading a group of soldiers to retrieve as many bodies as he could. As he described it, “We left most of our protection behind, and all of our gear. All I had on me were my Tefillin, a book of Psalms, and some other holy writings. Oh -- and bullets. A whole lot of bullets.”
They took just ten steps out of the orchard where they had been hiding, and then they heard a whistle – and seconds later, three missiles landed right where they had been, in the orchard. Ari felt blood coming from him; he had been hit by a piece of a mortar. The medic found that the shrapnel had gone through his protective vest, but had miraculously stopped there – he was safe, for the moment.
When they made it back to Israel, Ari was inspired to take a year off from his career, to devote himself to study Torah. And after the year was over, he turned down financial opportunity, choosing instead to join the staff of Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh. He displayed that mortar shrapnel in his home, beside his kiddush cup and menorah, as a sign of the miracle of his survival.
I tell this story for three reasons:
First: Because I think it’s important that we remember Ari not as yet another casualty, but as a remarkable human being and Jew.
Second: Because by following his inspiration to take time off to learn Torah, Ari demonstrated what we have been talking about – using emotion to override life’s automatic gear and focus our energies.
And third: Because when we say viduy today, we can call the viduy of Ari’s unit to mind, and they can inspire us to abandon System 1 davening, and invest in System 2.

Ari said of the shrapnel he kept, “That warped piece of iron that you're looking at... it looks like a piece of garbage - but that's my miracle.” May his story inspire us to our own miracle, to a day of davening which is not about counting birds, or bricks, or the moments left in the fast, but instead about confronting our deepest truths, connecting with Hashem, admitting and apologizing for our wrongdoing and truly committing ourselves to growth, and so earning a clean slate and a גמר חתימה טובה.

[1] Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA,
[3] See, for example, Thinking, Fast and Slow pg 42
[5] Yerushalmi Berachos 2:4. There are variant explanations of אפרחייא
[6] Tosafot Rosh haShanah 16b and Bava Batra 164b [But see Pnei Moshe (they were distracted by Torah), Pri Tzaddik to Vayyeshev,]
[7] See Diagnostic Failure: A Cognitive and Affective Approach and
[8] For my shiur for doctors, see Also, my shiur on cognitive bias and teshuvah is at
[10] For example: Evolutionary Explanations of Emotions, Human Nature 1:3 (1990); The Nature of Emotions, American Scientist 89:4 (2001)
[11] Beit haLevi to Parshat Yitro
[12] Sefer Chasidim 158
[13] אות ח-יא
[14] Vayikra 17: For on this day Gd will accept your atonement, to purify you


  1. Thank you for posting again! I know you wrote that you're not sure if anyone is reading, but I look forward to your posts and miss them. (But your navi shiurim and your Menachos shiurim from the last cycle alleviates your blogging absence.)

    I really like this drasha, partly because I found Michael Lewis's book about Kahnemann and Tversky to be fascinating and partly because I personally find my davening fueled by emotions on Yom Kippur.

    The only feedback I have is that I was waiting for you to talk about the emotion that would come from recognizing what is at stake on Yom Kippur and the amazing opportunity that we have, but you only made brief reference to that emotional catalyst in passing right before the closer. I thought that was where you were going from the beginning, but you never really developed that. (But that might not appeal to everyone either.)

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thank you very much for reading, and for listening on-line! And glad you liked the derashah. I underplayed the natural Yom Kippur opportunity/emotion because I feel like it works for some people, and for those for whom it doesn't resonate naturally, pointing it out isn't going to change anything.

  2. Well done as usual. Ari touched many lives and will continue to do so even though he is no longer with us. G'mar Tov.

  3. great read as usual. haven't been here in a while myself but glad to come back to some fresh posts! I would love to work on my system 2 but i just find that tirdas hazma has got me so entrenched in system 1 that no intellectual awareness of the dicotomy enables me to change despite a latent cry for a different future. So little time to focus on independent intellectual and emotional pursuits. Furthermore, I think system 2 is like a muscle that needs to be strengthended with repetitive use. The odd times that I have more time on my hands, i tend to squander the opportunity as that deep focus muscle and and higher level thinking has atrophied. Though you suggest emotion as a catalyst for initiating system 2, i think tirdas hazman succesfuly quelles emotional (in addition to intellectual) transition to system 2 as simple lack of time and fatigue command our attention uncompromisingly.

  4. I'm appreciate your writing skill. Please keep on working hard. Thanks for sharing.