The Locus of Control – Rosh Hashanah 5781, First Day

The Sinai Men’s Club has an annual poker tournament.  I play a few times a year on top of that.  There is an important rule upon which my participation is conditioned.  No praying allowed.

So I go by “Josh” around the table… until there is a particularly big hand.  At that moment, I embrace my clerical role and become… Rabbi Berkenwald.

In 2009, the economist Ingo Fiedler crunched the data of 55,000 poker players, comprising several million hands, from an online gambling site.  He was trying to determine whether, and to what extent, skill plays a role in poker.

One question he asked was: What percentage of the winning hands do you think were the best hands? In poker, the winning hand and the best hand are not necessarily the same thing.  To win, you have to stay in the game.  That is to say, not fold.

90 percent?

75 percent?

50 percent?

12 percent.  In only twelve percent of pots was the hand that wins the best hand at the table.

In a recently published book called The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, Psychologist Maria Konikova set out to teach herself to play poker, No Limit Texas Hold-‘Em, and enter the the world of professional gambling.  She chose poker because, more than any other game, it is most similar to the world as we experience it.

In Texas Hold ‘Em, I get two cards. There is absolutely nothing I can do to change any of the cards on the table.  Furthermore, I have limited information. I know what I am holding, and I can see what is face up on the table. The rest is a mystery.

All I can do is fold, call, or raise.

Whether I am Josh or Rabbi Berkenwald, whether I pray or curse, I have zero ability to change the cards. What do I think, God is going to reaarange the deck for me?

All of those elements that I cannot control and do not know are external to me. One reason that poker is such a difficult game to be good at is because we get these things confused.

In helping to describe her experience, Konikova uses a psychological concept called the “Locus of Control,” first developed in the 1950’s by Julian Rotter. In each of our individual experiences as human beings, where does control over events seem to reside? There are two possibilities: internal or external.

Internal means that I determine what happens.  External means that something other than me controls my fate. Each of us tends to have either an internal or an external locus of control in a majority of cirumstances.

Internals tend to be optimistic about their abilities to determine their future. If I get a good grade, or a promotion at work, it is because of the effort I put in. As a result, those with an internal locus of control are more confident in their abilities to change their situation, and are therefore more willing to act and take risks.

Externals tend to attribute failure or success to outside factors like luck, fate, circumstances, or the prejudice of others. They tend to take a more passive approach to difficult circumstances because they are less confident of their abilities to affect change, and are therefore less likely to act. They also experience more stress and higher rates of depression.

5780 has been a year in which we have been made painfully aware of how out of control we are.

That I am delivering this D’var Torah in front of a camera while you experience it on a screen epitomizes what we have experienced in every dimension of our lives.

We entered this pandemic with so little knowledge of how to protect ourselves and each other.  Two hundred thousand people in this country alone have died, including the loved ones of members of our community.  Many of us have been unable to be present with sick or dying loved ones.

We have been physically isolated from one another, which takes such a high mental toll. Anxiety levels are high, raising risks of psychological illness and suicide.

With a shrinking economy, dedicated workers have lost jobs. Record numbers of people are relying on food banks.

Our country has erupted in civil unrest over the still-unresolved racism in our society. And we have felt helpless in the face of police violence, rioting, and a general feeling of social unrest.

Whatever our personal politics, we have felt exasperated at the seeming lack of understanding compassion, and common sense demonstrated by our opponents.

And for the last month, we have faced fires and dangerously unhealthy smoke that prevented us from even going outside.

So much is out of our control!

…or at least it feels that way. Arguably, we are no more or less in control than ever. We have always been subject to the laws of nature. Biology, physics, chemistry, human nature – none of these has changed. The universe continues to behave exactly as it always has since the beginning of time. Our perspective has caused the locus of control to shift towards the external.

The awesome, terrifying prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, captures this sense of powerlessness. After reading a list of our actions over the past year from the Book of Remembrance, God assembles us like sheep before a shepherd. As we pass by, God counts us and determines our fate for the year to come.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many will pass on, and how many will be born;

who will live and who will die…

who by fire and who by water…

who by hunger and who by thirst;

who by earthquake and who by plague…

who will be impoverished and who will be enriched…

But the book, with its sentence, is closed to us.  We did not know, one year ago, that plague and fire had been written down. Nor could we have. We do not know what is written for next year.

If we read closely, we see that there is no explicit connection between our deeds, the judgment, and the sentence. While there may be a spiritual ledger of our actions, our destiny in the upcoming year is independent. The locus of control in the prayer is entirely external. Our actions do not determine our destiny.

But wait. There is an asterisk. When we finish listing the possible fates that await us, we shout out our response:

Uteshuvah utefilah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah.

“Repentance, Prayer, and Charity turn aside the severity of the decree.” 

I cannot change fate, but I can make a difference in how it impacts myself and others. The deck has been shuffled and the cards dealt, but I can still control how I play them.

While we are living through a time in which we feel that we have very little control, our history should offer some comfort. This is surely not the first time we have faced such challenges.

In countless ways, human beings are better suited to coping than ever before. Researchers around the world are racing to develop vaccines in what will be, if expectations are met, record time.

Just 10 to 15 years ago, we did not have the technological capacity to shift school, work, and even religion online.

Medicine, science, and history have taught us so much about how to keep each other safe. Health care workers on the front lines, along with public health experts, have quickly learned and adapted to better care for those who have become sick.

Human beings are resilient, and the the Jewish people especially so. We have experienced so much external adversity, faced persecution beyond our control. We are still here because we have never given up on our ability to have an impact on our destiny.

Our Jewish tradition has always emphasized free will, that we are not supposed to be the objects of history, but rather its subjects. And, that we have a role to play in the world’s redemption.

Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedakah – Repentance, Prayer, and Charity. None of these will make the virus go away. They will not bring about a cure, nor hasten its development.

But they do offer answers to how we can control our fate.

Teshuvah – Repentance. I can always be better. I can work on my flaws and correct my mistakes. How I behaved yesterday does not have to determine how I will behave tomorrow. This is a lifetime project, but it is one that puts me in control of how I experience that life – whatever unexpected things may befall me.

Tefilah – Worship. This is deeply personal. Reaching out, spiritually, to that which is beyond us. God, the Divine, the universe, however you conceive It. Jewish worship combines elements of gratitude, self-reflection, petition, and penitence. It is how we develop a rich inner life and offers a way to be more centered. 

Tzedakah – It means charity. It means righteousness. And it means justice. Fundamentally, tzedakah is about taking care of each other. I have responsibilities to my fellow human beings – those who are part of my community and beyond. Especially at times of great crisis such as we are experiencing, I have the ability to effect not only my own experience, but that of others.

Right now, there are so many who are far worse off than I am. I would suggest that taking care of others’ needs leaves us feeling more empowered, more in control even, than taking care of ourselves.

While it may feel that we have no control, there is so much that we can do avert the severity of the decree.

God willing, we have all been written for life, health, success, prosperity, and love for the coming year.

But whatever the decree—whether the dealer has dealt us Pocket Aces or a 2 and 7 of mismatched suits—let us dedicate ourselves to affecting change in our own lives, the lives of others, and even the fate of the entire world. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah. May we all be sealed for a good and sweet new year.

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