Everyone has heard of “Pavlov’s dogs”. Ivan Pavlov was a Nobel Prize winning physiologist who despised psychologists. Ironically, though, Pavlov’s famous dog-experiments laid the groundwork for the fields of behaviorism and behavioral psychology that are so prevalent today.
Here’s what happened: Pavlov noticed that dogs salivate before being fed. He wondered what would happen if he rang a little bell at the same time that he fed his dogs. Would he be able to eventually get the dogs to salivate just by ringing the bell without giving them food? Pavlov proved that he could – his dogs became conditioned to respond to the bell just like they did to the meat. Pavlov was praised by Lenin and became famous for the term “conditioned reflex” which has come to refer to someone who simply reacts to situations without using critical thinking.
As Torah-observant people, how are we to view Pavlov’s dog-experiments and the field of behavioral psychology that they gave rise to? What we see, from Pavlov, is that human beings, and not just dogs, can be motivated to do things for a reward. That’s not so surprising: we work for the reward of a salary; we raise children for the reward of being proud of them and some religious people are motivated to keep the Torah because of their ultimate reward in the world to come. The problem with “Pavlov’s dogs” is not that we human beings are not motivated by reward – we are. The problem with Pavlov is that unlike dogs we are capable of much more. A mother is capable of showing love and kindness to her child for no other reason than it makes her happy to do so – with no ulterior motive she simply enjoys the sheer pleasure of spending time with her child and giving him what he needs – her “reward” is in the present not the future. The joy that she receives from feeding her child in the present is her reward – this is a very high level.
How many of us are capable of this? Rebbe Nachman says that every one of us is. “All of your people are Tzadikkim” means that every single person has an aspect of Tzadik in him and can learn to act in a totally selfless way on his or her own level. This says Rebbe Nachman will also lead to the greatest happiness which can never be achieved through the lure of ambition and seeking reward. As far as I know this phenomenon has never been studied by psychologists.
When we Bless the new month we say “Hashem is an honest worker and His work is honest”. What does this mean? The Bnee Yisoscher gives us an amazing explanation. He says imagine if you called a plumber to come and fix your sink. When he arrives, the plumber knocks on your door and says “I’m here to fix your sink” but you know that he is not being truthful – it’s not his real reason for coming. You know that the plumber’s real reason for coming has nothing to do with your sink – He is just coming just to get paid $100. The proof that he just wants the money is that if you tell most plumbers that you changed your mind about the sink and simply give them the $100 most of them will take it and leave. It’s a rare person who would refuse the money saying “No. I said I came to fix your sink.” When it comes to Hashem, says the Bnee Yisoscher, there is never has an ulterior motive. If Hashem says that we can trust His love for us; that He is not running this world haphazardly; that He always has our best interests in mind; and that He will always protect us and see to all of our needs – do we dare think that He won’t make good on His word?
Hashem built happiness (His own happiness) into all of his commandments to us. When we do mitzvos for the sake of experiencing the closeness and joy that we get from fulfilling G-d’s word we merit what the Rebbe described as the ultimate joy. Can a behaviorist explain the behavior of young Jewish women who continued to have babies during the holocaust? One might ask how could they bring children into the world at such a time - was it responsible? The answer – they simply did the will of their Creator in Heaven. Those women were not naïve. Many of them lost their babies – but they were not thinking about getting paid back with grandchildren – they were simple pious Jews fulfilling the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying that was given to them – that was payment enough. What Hashem decides to do with his children is up to Him not us.
One of the reasons that we are not yet truly happy says Rebbe Nachman, is because we don’t realize the nobility that we are capable of and therefore define ourselves according to the limited and partial “truths” of science. The Talmud says that each of us must believe that: “The entire world was created only for my sake.” There are two ways to think about this: like Pavlov or like the Torah. Pavlov might say: “Wow, the whole world and everything in it are here for my pleasure and convenience – that’s every narcissists dream! “I am hereby entitled to take whatever I can from the world because it all belongs to me.” Science divorced from morality sees nothing wrong with a life of hedonistic self-aggrandizement.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev gives us a different reason for the Talmudic statement “The entire world was created only for my sake.” The Rebbe teaches that each of us is responsible to fix the world by noticing what is lacking in the world and by praying for the world. Wait a minute. I haven’t even fixed myself yet; I can barely remember to pick up my dry cleaning before Shabbos – How does the Rebbe expect me to fix the world? The answer: the Rebbe wants us to know that the reason that we are not exercising 99% of our potential to fix the world is that the evil inclination has convinced us that we are not important enough to make an impact on the world. Ah, but the Torah calls us the King’s children and the Talmud tells us that our every thought and action can positively tilt the world towards perfection. Why not be empowered by Hashem’s belief in us and our ability to emulate him. Why should we not draw immense joy from knowing that it is Hashem Himself who has elevated us to this great responsibility to give to the world without having to worry about payment – what greater honor could we have? We too can aspire to be “truthful workers whose work is true” and in so doing we will reap the greatest joy of forgetting about reward and doing as much good as we can for its own sake.
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Zev Ballen, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist for 32 years. He is licensed in Israel and the State of New York. Zev has the endorsements of prominent Gadolei Yisrael such as the Nikolsburger Rebba, Shlita, Reb Yitzchok Fagelstock, Shlita, The Kasaner Rebbe of Forshay, Shlita, Rav Shalom Arush, Shlita, and Rabbi Lazer Brody, Shlita. He resides with his family in Jerusalem where he learns in Rav Arush’s Kollel and maintains a part-time practice. You can write to Zev Ballen at: email@example.com or call him at: 845-362-8600 (US line) or 054-840-9499 (Israeli line).