Predictably Irrational: Mr. Spock and What It Means to Be a Kohen

Mr. Spock is one of television’s most famous characters. You remember Mr. Spock, the starship lieutenant with the pointed ears on the original Star Trek series and in a number of popular movies. What distinguishes Mr. Spock is his rational behavior; he is puzzled by what he considers to be the illogical feelings and emotions of human beings. Mr. Spock is half-human, the product of an interspecies marriage, the son of a human mother and a Vulcan father. But it is his Vulcan side that prevails.


In a novel called Spock’s World by Diane Duane, we learn about the history of Mr. Spock’s home planet. Originally, Vulcan was a paradise planet and its inhabitants were gentle and kind. A solar flare turned the planet into a desert and the Vulcans became incredibly violent and warlike. Something had to give, or the Vulcans would destroy themselves. They gradually developed psychic powers through genetics and technology and developed the philosophy that only logic and rational behavior would solve their problems.

The actor Leonard Nimoy played Mr. Spock, and when he needed a special sign as a greeting between Vulcans, he turned to his Jewish roots. As a boy, Leonard Nimoy saw the Kohanim, the descendants of the ancient Jewish priests, making a sign with their fingers in the synagogue. He learned that the sign was the shape of the letter Shin in the Hebrew alphabet and that was the first letter in Shekhina, the word for G-d’s Presence and also the first letter in the word Shaddai which is a another ancient name of God.  

On Yom Kippur morning, we participate in the Avodah service, the service of the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple. We are still re-enacting the rituals of the priests, of the Kohens today.

Who are the Kohanim? Let’s go back and retrieve some basic history. The first Hebrew, Abraham, had twelve grandsons, and from them came the twelve tribes of Israel. One of the original tribes was the tribe of Levi. The men of the tribe of Levi were men of violence. Levi himself was involved in a bloody massacre for which his own father condemned him. At Mt. Sinai, the Levites were involved in a fierce battle with those who worshipped the Golden Calf, killing 3,000 of the idolaters. The Levites seem to have served as a bodyguard for Moses and the Tabernacle.

But one special clan of Levites, the family of Aaron, brother of Moses, was called the Kohanim, the Kohens, and they had great status and power and eventually controlled the Temple in Jerusalem. These priests learned the lessons of violence and indeed became proponents not of war but of peace. Their documents, called the Priestly source of the Torah, teach peace and reconciliation with all of the other nations. How, they asked, shall we attain a life filled with goodness and values? Through ritual observance and purity; through sacrifice and prayer.

The Levites were violent and became people of peace through thought and ritual.
The fictional Vulcans were violent and became people of peace. And through the medium of a Jewish man named Leonard Nimoy, the Vulcans copied the priestly sign, the sign of those Levite priests who subdued their violent natures and lived moral lives.

There is some real recognition here of what human nature is. Science fiction, after all, is merely a projection of what we know and who we are. The Vulcans are a brilliant if extreme projection of the rationality and logic we humans need to survive. We, like Mr. Spock, have a logical side and an emotional side, but to an extent that we don’t realize, we let our emotions control us.

We are irrational, and to use the wonderful title of a recent bestseller, we are “Predictably Irrational.” Predictably Irrational is a new book by the Israeli war veteran Dr. Daniel Ariely who became an expert in Behavioral Economics and is now an Economics professor at MIT. Dr. Ariely shows how businesses can manipulate us because they understand how we make emotional judgments when we buy products. We have to learn what makes us do what we do/ so that others cannot manipulate us and so that we make fewer mistakes. We have to understand that much of our behavior is not only irrational, but also predictably irrational.

Here’s an example. Most people would say that they believe in the moral code we call the Ten Commandments. They would agree that we should not steal. So Ariely did an experiment in a college dorm. He put cash in a bowl in a common room; he just left money sitting there in the middle of everything. He also put a can of cokes in a refrigerator in that same room with a sign, “Do Not Touch.” What was the result of the experiment?
The cash was not touched. The cokes disappeared.
Why? Because stealing cash feels like stealing. Stealing cokes does not feel like stealing.
So in this country every year, employees of businesses only steal about 525 million dollars in cash. But other forms of stealing constitute a 600 billion dollar loss to businesses.
To say that stealing cokes is okay, but stealing cash is not okay, is irrational. Stealing is stealing but we make irrational decisions and steal without feeling guilty.

Like Mr. Spock, we are half-emotional and half-logical. I don’t mean a good side and a bad side but a rational side that knows what is right and an irrational side that makes us forget what is right and wrong so that we do things we would never ever do.
We have to put our decisions through what I call the Mr. Spock test. We have to say:
This is irrational
It is illogical to say that stealing is not stealing.
Thou shalt not steal cokes any sooner than cash
This is bad for me. This is bad for everyone.

So many of us in this congregation, nice people, good people, are irrational, and very often, we’re irrational in ways that are nothing less than self-destructive.
We all have emotional buttons. And there are people in our lives who know how to push our buttons and make us irrational. In case you think I’m criticizing you, I’ll criticize myself.

Over these twenty-five years, I’ve told you many personal anecdotes as a way of sharing my life with you. The idea is that the more personal, the more universal, and you often respond more to the personal stories I tell than anything else. So in this vein, let me tell you about an aspect of my relationship with my daughter Rachel that I’ve never talked about. Over the years, you’ve heard a lot about Rachel and many of you have shared in some of the great moments of her life, her Bat Mitzvah ceremony and her wedding to Dave the Brave and the birth of her first child, Alexander the Great.
She’s received so much good press from this bima that it’s time to tell you something that’s not so good. Since she’s been a little girl, Rachel has had me wound around her little finger. And if she’s irritated or upset, it becomes my mission in this world to take care of whatever is bothering her. And she knows it.
For instance, when I’m with her on a vacation, and anything goes wrong, I become another person, and a very unlikable one.
So if a bus driver makes an inappropriate and unscheduled stop, and Rachel gets mad, I tell the bus driver that this is unacceptable. I let him have it in a very embarrassing and vocal way. There are five better ways to say the same thing, like, “Excuse me, Mr. Bus Driver, do you think we could make this a quick stop?” But nooooo, with Rachel pushing me, I am rude and obnoxious.

So here we are in one of those horrendous winter airport situations, stuck in a plane for hours with infant Alexander, being told to get off the plane and back on, sitting on the runway for hours at a time. It’s snowing, and the wings of the plane are icy, and the airline is just trying to be safe by de-icing over and over again, and then the runway needs to be plowed again. Infant Alexander is fine; he’s entertaining the whole plane. But Rachel reaches her frustration point. And she pushes me to do something, and I go up to the flight attendant to express the thought that after ten hours a decision should be made one way or another as to whether we’re going to fly, and when the flight attendant tells me to go back to my seat or I’ll be thrown off the plane, I ask her: “Is that a threat or a promise?” And the flight attendant goes ballistic.
Now the truth is that the attendant was not having the best day of her life either, caught as she was in the middle between angry passengers and what she was being told to say, and I could have been better about it. So why did I quite consciously push her?
Normally, I would have been better in these situations. But put me together with Rachel in an emotional situation and you’ve got a lethal weapon with a license to be a pill.
I am, to put it plainly, predictably irrational with Rachel. Down in my core, I am so papa-bear protective of her that I lose my usual rationality.
I’ve done a lot of traveling. During the last ten years, I have dug in the desert sands of Egypt when it was 125 degrees and I didn’t complain.
I have eaten tuna fish three meals a day for two weeks straight and I didn’t care.
On a trip, I can handle the hunger. I can handle the frustration. I can handle the exhaustion.
But I can’t handle the Rachel. To be with Rachel on a trip is TUI: Traveling Under the Influence.

But now I know it. I can predict my irrationality. And so I have good news for bus drivers and flight attendants all over the world: I have decided that on all future trips, I’m not going to sit with Rachel. At the beginning of a trip, I’ll say: “Honey, I’ll see you when we get there.”

 I can predict what will make me irrational. I know what my buttons are and I know what and who can push them. I consider this to be good news. We all have to ask ourselves: If I react irrationally to someone, why? What’s getting to me? If someone’s on my nerves and I react badly, why?

In the Book of Genesis, Esau was hungry and sold his birthright. When we’re hungry, tired, depressed, angry, frustrated or under the influence of someone who pushes our buttons, that’s what we do, we sell our lives away, we forget who we are. We can predict our irrationality. If we can predict our irrational behavior, we can protect ourselves from ourselves.

I have criticized my predictable irrationality and now I want to talk about some irrational behavior that I have seen others display. I call it: “It’s my way or the highway.”
A lot of us remember Ethel Litt, one of our staunch members for decades. The story that I think about all the time, but especially lately, is when I had first come here to Hamden in 1983. There was a vote at a Board Meeting, a vote that Ethel cared about a lot, one that affected her role in the synagogue, and Ethel’s side of the vote lost. Henry Cohen, who was President of the shul at the time, (and, by the way, a Kohen), sensitively suggested that I call Ethel the next morning to console her. When I called and asked her how she was, she didn’t understand the question. So I said, “You know, after the vote last night.” And she said, “Oh that? You win some and you lose some.”
At one point, Ethel ran three different aspects of this synagogue. One by one, she lost those positions. And she was still here every day, she still came to meetings and services and worked in the kitchen and did everything she was asked to do. For all of her mishugass, and there was a lot of it, she, to paraphrase the Beach Boys, stayed true to her shul.

How different most of us are from Ethel. We say, “It’s my way or the highway.” We have people who get so angry when they don’t get their way on one or two matters that they take their marbles and go home. It makes me wonder why they were involved in the first place. Was it just for their egos? Were they just active for their self-gratification? Did they not mean one word that they said in discussions about the shul and Judaism and its present and future? I’ll take Ethel Litt over them any day of the week. To be a member of a group means just that, to be a member, one part of a group. The letter I doesn’t appear in the words shul, synagogue, or Temple Beth Sholom.
Some people think that they should be able to dictate terms to every group they’re involved in.
This is not only self-centered and tyrannical; it’s illogical. It is irrational to think that you can be a member of any group, including and especially your family, and get your way all the time. Even when you’re five years old you know better than that.

Mr. Spock would say: You’re being illogical. You don’t win every argument. You will never get along with anyone if you start with the assumption that you should win every debate. Ethel was right: You win some and you lose some. If you want peace, you have to be able to lose some.
And the Kohanim, the models for the Vulcans of science fiction, would agree, because they were rational and peace loving. The Kohens had to keep themselves in a state of purity so that they could perform the rituals. To this day, they cannot go to a cemetery because they cannot go near a dead body, unless it is a close family member who has passed away. The Kohens, like our modern doctors, were supposed to stay somewhat removed, professionally detached, so that they could perform their very necessary duties. They needed to stay rational and logical especially when everyone else was in an emotional state because of their grief.
As a rabbi, I try to remember this, and I try to stay unemotional in a crisis, but it’s hard when I lose people that really matter in my life. Still, when a family is fighting at a time of a life-cycle event, I try to be the Kohen, the rational voice in the mix.

So I get a call from a woman, the daughter of a resident at Arden House, where our Mitzvah Committee and I visit. The daughter says that her mother has just been moved to Hospice, and asks if I could come to see her in the next few days. Of course I agree, and I take her number, and tell her I’ll try to rearrange myself to go the next morning, and she’s lovely and appreciative. I get off the phone, get what I call a klong in my stomach, call her back and tell her that I’m coming immediately. She says it’s not necessary, but I say I’m coming. I drive over to Hospice, maybe about twenty minutes, I go up to the room, the daughter and a son are huddled over their mother, I say the Vidui, the final prayer, and as I say “Amen” the woman passes away.
The daughter pulls me aside and says that while her mother would have been very happy if I did the funeral, I might not want to do it because her brother is a Born-Again Christian who constantly berated his very Jewish mother that she was going to go to Hell unless she accepted Jesus. The daughter told me that her brother was going to give me a very hard time, and for my sake, maybe I shouldn’t do the funeral. I said that I would do it, out of respect for her mother, and I would do the best I could. There were all sorts of ins and outs, including the son’s insistence that there should be ham at the shiva house.
Then came the day of the funeral, a graveside service, and when I got to the cemetery, the funeral director came running over to tell me that the son had been screaming at the top of his lungs before I came. I said, “Look, we’ll do the best we can.” I said the prayers and gave a eulogy and everything was fine.
Afterwards, the director said to me, “Thank you for being so calm in this crisis.” I asked what the son had been screaming about before the funeral. The director said, “He kept screaming, ‘I shouldn’t be here! This is not right! I shouldn’t be here!’”  I asked, “You mean, because he’s a born-again Christian in a Jewish cemetery?”
“No,” the director said, “That was the strange part. He kept screaming: ‘I shouldn’t be here! I’m a Kohen! I’m a Kohen!’”

Now, this is a great story and I could interpret it in several ways. I could say, “Look, your Jewish heritage always comes through.” Or I could say, “You can’t be a Kohen and a born-again Christian. You can’t have it both ways.”
But my main take is that the son was wrong:
He was not a Kohen because he had been so terrible to his mother, so irrational, so mean, when he told his nice aged Jewish mother over and over again that she was going to Hell.
He was irrational when he thought that because he had changed his beliefs, she had to change with him.
He didn’t just say, “My way or the highway.”
He said, ‘My way is the highway to Heaven and your way is the highway to Hell.’
How dare anyone, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever, how dare anyone say that only his group has the monopoly on truth, that his group is selling exclusive tickets to the throne of G-d?
How illogical, how irrational, how presumptuous, to say that you and only you can judge everyone else! Maybe it’s predictable, that people who fervently believe in their faith should believe that only their faith offers salvation. It may be predictable, but it’s illogical, if you believe in G-d’s goodness, to think that G-d wants to condemn so many to damnation.

On Mt. Sinai, G-d told Moses that He wanted the Israelites to be a mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests. What did God mean by this? Kohens should be rational and logical and pure. We can’t be Mr. Spock, totally logical.  We’re too human for that. As fully human, we are often irrational. But we are predictably irrational. We can predict when and how we’re going to be irrational, we can protect ourselves from behaving badly.
If it’s my nature to want to get my own way, even in a group, I have to watch what I say and do in groups.
 If I’m doing something sinful, I can predict that I will excuse myself and say that stealing is not stealing.
If I know that a certain person in my life can push my buttons and make me act like a rude and obnoxious person, I can stay away from that person in certain situations.
If I find that I am becoming so wrapped up in my beliefs that I think all other beliefs are wrong, I have to broaden my views.

And so today, on Yom Kippur, we’re all allowed to wear white. Our bima lecterns and our Torah covers are dressed in white because white is the color of the priests. Today, we are here and we are all members of the mamlechet kohanim, the kingdom of priests.
And we stand before the only true Judge.
We’re not Vulcans like Mr. Spock; we’re human.
So we have to strive to balance our emotions with our logic. We can start by predicting when we will be irrational.
And if we can learn how to balance our rational and irrational sides,
then on Yom Kippur, when we’re dressed in white, we will have the right to say:
“I should be here, I’m a Kohen.”