Monday, April 2, 2018

Pesah: Risk-Taking

A Message for Pesah 2018
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Am Yisrael was frozen in its tracks. They had been hastily fleeing the Egyptians but now found themselves at a standstill. The sound of the beating hooves of the Egyptian horsemen intensified from behind, as they peered forward and beheld the vast expanse of the sea. They were trapped. They instinctively began to pray. God reprimanded Moshe: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they journey onward” (Shemot 14:15). The people had become accustomed to God’s miraculous acts of redemption in Egypt, so they expected one again at this juncture. God’s response, however, was surprising. He informed them that this time He wouldn’t affect the miraculous – they would. He shifted the central force of redemption from the divine to the people. Why?

“Pascal’s Wager” is the well-known argument advanced by the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal. It suggests that a rational person should live as though God does exist and seek to believe in His existence because the potential benefits of this “wager” far outweigh its losses. Pascal explained that if God does exist, then the believer will receive the infinite gains of the afterlife, whereas the losses of His possible nonexistence are only the finite pleasures and luxuries of life in this world.

As Am Yisrael set out on their journey toward nationhood and an enduring bond with the Almighty, God carved out the contours of that future relationship. He taught them that it would not be defined by Pascal’s vision of the shallow conveniences of security and stability inherent in a connection to Him. Instead, He demanded that they take risks, put their lives on the line and prove their dedication to a relationship worth having.

Jordan Peterson described how “we prefer to live on the edge.” He noted that we seek to optimize risk by pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones in order to continue self-development. “We’re hard-wired…to enjoy risk,” he wrote, and explained that the risks that we take imbue us with the positive feelings of excitement and invigoration which prepare us for future challenges.[1]

In his Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb described the “experience machine” thought experiment. You sit in an apparatus and a technician plugs a few cables into your brain, after which you undergo an “experience.” Although you feel exactly as if the event took place, it actually all happens in virtual reality. Taleb posited such an experience will never be the same as the real. He explained: “If you do not undertake a risk of real harm, reparable or even potentially irreparable, from and adventure, it is not an adventure.” Although while inside the machine you may believe that you had “skin in the game,” experiencing the pains and consequences of actual life, those realities vanish once outside. Taleb put it simply: “Life is sacrifice and risk taking.”[2]

As you reexperience the epic journey of Am Yisrael from Egypt on this evening, pause for a moment to remember the enduring lesson of God’s command to Moshe, “Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they journey onward.” Consider what matter most to you – the values, relationships and practices that distinguish your life from all others. And understand that truly experiencing life means taking the necessary risks for their realization.

[1] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Canada, 2018), pg. 287.
[2] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 121.