Thinking Fast and Slow
Family Edition

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The Parsha in a Nutshell

Parshat Acharei Mot describes the service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. It was a dramatic and highly charged ritual during which he cast lots on two identical goats, one of which was offered as a sacrifice while the other was sent into the wilderness to die, the so-called “scapegoat.” The entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies marked the spiritual high-point of the Jewish year.  The parsha also outlines further prohibitions against eating blood, and the laws of forbidden relationships, both of them aspects of the life of purity God asks of the Jewish people.


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The Core Idea

The central element of the Yom Kippur service, described in this week’s parsha, is quite a mystery. Two goats, identical in appearance, over which the High Priest cast lots, sacrificing one as a sin offering and sending the other, the “scapegoat”, into the wilderness to die. Why must they be identical? And why cast lots (goralot) over them? Presumably, these elements were designed to inspire feelings of awe and repentance in the crowds that packed the Temple on the holiest day of the year, but how and in what way?

Over the centuries, the Sages sought to decode the mystery. Two animals, alike in appearance but different in fate, suggests the idea of twins. This and other hint led the Midrash and some commentators like Nahmanides and Abarbanel to conclude that the two goats symbolised the most famous of the Torah’s twins: Yaakov and Eisav.

The are other clues: The word se’ir, “goat,” is also associated in the Torah with Eisav. He and his descendants lived in the land of Seir. The word se’ir is related to sei’ar, “hairy,” which is how Eisav was born: “His whole body was like a hairy garment” (Bereishit 25:25). According to the Mishnah, a red thread was tied to the scapegoat, and “red” (Edom) was Eisav’s other name. So there was a tradition that the scapegoat symbolised Eisav. In particular, the phrase “two kids of the goats,” shnei se’irei izim, mentioned in the High

Priest’s rites, reminds us of the very similar expression, “two kids of the goats,” shnei gedi’ei izim, mentioned in Bereishit 27, when Rivka shares with Yaakov a plan to deceive Isaac into giving him Eisav’s blessing: “Go out to the flock and bring me two choice kids of the goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father… so that he may give you his blessing before he dies” instructs Rivka. Such verbal parallels are not coincidental in the Torah. They are examples of complex web of interconnected words and themes in which one verse sheds light on another.

Who then were Eisav and Yaakov? What did they represent and how is this relevant to Yom Kippur and atonement? Midrashic tradition tends to show Yaakov as perfect and Eisav as an evildoer. However, the Torah itself is not so black and white, or quick to judge. The Sages say that in one respect – honouring his father – Eisav was a supreme role model. 

Eisav in the Torah is not a prime example of evil. Rather, he is the man of impulse. We see this in the scene in which he sells his birthright to Yaakov. Coming in one day exhausted from hunting, he sees Yaakov making lentil broth and immediately agrees to sell his birthright for the sake of a bowl of soup. This is an impulsive man, always driven by the emotion of the moment, be it hunger, family devotion, a desire for revenge or, at last, generosity of spirit.

Yaakov is the opposite. He does not give way to his feelings. He acts and thinks long-term. That is what he does when he works for seven years for Rachel, and when his son Yosef’s dreams evoke immediate jealousy from the brothers, with Yaakov we are told “His father kept the matter in mind.” He never acts impulsively. He thinks long and hard before acting.

Who am I? That is the question Yom Kippur forces us to ask. To be Yaakov, we have to release and relinquish the Eisav within us, the impulsiveness that can lead us to sell our birthright for a bowl of soup, losing eternity in the pursuit of desire.

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Questions to Ponder

1. Does being impulsive make you a bad person?

2. Why is it better to think something through carefully before doing or saying it? Is it ever a bad idea to think something through first?

3. Would you say you are more like Yaakov or Eisav?


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It Once Happened…

Rivka was experiencing a particularly difficult pregnancy, with the twin babies often struggling within her womb. Whenever she passed a place of Torah learning such as a Bet Midrash, or a holy place such as a synagogue, one of the twins (Yaakov) would struggle and fight to try and get out. But when she walked past a house of idol worship, the other twin (Eisav) would struggle to fight to try to get out.

The prophet explained to Rivka, “There are two nations [goyim] inside of you, and two kingdoms shall derive from you. One kingdom will constantly try to overcome the other…”

This story is based on the Midrash found in Bereishit Rabba 63:6

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Questions to Ponder

1. What do you think the message of this Midrash is? How is it connected to the message of this week’s Covenant & Conversation?

2. Do you think our personalities are fixed even before we are born, or do we have free choice to change?


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Thinking More Deeply

Recent years have seen a revolution in our understanding of the human brain, and with it, the human mind. We used to think that we are, first and foremost, rational animals (see Descartes and Kant). But it has recently been shown that we are primarily emotional beings who make decisions on the basis of feelings, desires, and drives of which we may be barely conscious (see Hume). We justify our choices, but brain scans show that we may have made those choices before being aware that we had done so.

We are more driven by emotion and less by reason than Enlightenment thinkers believed. This discovery has led to new fields of study like behavioural economics (examining what people actually do rather than what theory says they do) and interdisciplinary studies linking neuroscience to morality and politics.

We have, in fact, a dual-system or twin-track brain. This is what Daniel Kahneman is referring to in the title of his famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow. One track is rapid, instinctive, emotional, and subconscious. The other is slower, conscious, deliberative, and careful. The former allows us to react quickly to situations of immediate potential danger. Without it, we and our ancestors would not have survived. Many of our instinctive reactions are benign. It is natural to have empathy, and with it the tendency to feel other people’s pain and come to their aid. We develop a strong sense of attachment that leads us to defend members of our family or community. But not all instincts are benign. Anger, envy, jealousy, fear, hate, and the desire for revenge may once have been functional, but they are often deeply destructive in social situations. That is why the ability to “think slow,” to pause and reflect, matters so much. All animals have desires. Only human beings are capable of passing judgement on desires – of asking, should I or should I not satisfy this desire?

We cannot live, choose, or love without emotion. But one of the fundamental themes that we learnt in Genesis is that not all emotion is benign. Instinctive, impulsive behaviour can lead to violence. What is needed to be a carrier of God’s covenant is the ability to “think slow” and act deliberatively. That is the contrast between Isaac and Ishmael (of whom it was said, “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him,” Genesis 16:12). Even more so, it is the contrast between Yaakov and Eisav.

Which brings us to Genesis 27 and the moment when Yaakov dressed up in Eisav’s clothes and said to his father, “I am Eisav your firstborn.” The two goats of the High Priest’s service and the two goats prepared by Rivka symbolise the duality within each of us: “The hands are the hands of Eisav but the voice is the voice of Yaakov.” We each have an Eisav and Yaakov within us, the impulsive, emotional brain and the reflective, deliberative one. We can think fast or slow. Our fate, our goral, our life-script, will be determined by which we choose. Will our life be lived “to the Lord” or “to Azazel,” to the random deviations of chance?

This is the moral drama symbolised by the two goats, one dedicated “to the Lord,” the other “to Azazel” and released into the wilderness. The power of ritual is that it does not speak in abstractions – reason versus emotion, instinctual deferral rather than gratification. It is gripping and visceral, all the more so when it evokes, consciously or otherwise, the memory of the twins, Yaakov and Eisav, together at birth yet utterly divergent in their character and fate. This may be why the Yom Kippur Temple service includes this ritual of the two goats. It is encouraging us to consider who will we be this year. Will we have the strength to release our inner Eisav and live instead like Yaakov?


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From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks

We have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between “thinking fast and slow”.

The fast track helps us to survive, but it can also lead us to actions that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behaviour, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are each both sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us to survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community-builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. 

The Moral Animal, published in The New York Times, December. 23, 2012
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Questions to Ponder

1. Which is more important in the life of a human being, fast thinking or slow thinking?

2. What impact can religion have on fast thinking and slow thinking?


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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. What is the connection between the two goats in this week’s parsha and Yaakov and Eisav?
  2. Do you think Eisav was evil?
  3. What is the connection between Yaakov and Eisav, the two types of thinking, and Yom Kippur?

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Educational Companion

The Core Idea

  1. What is the connection between the two goats in this week’s parsha and Yaakov and Eisav?
  2. Do you think Eisav was evil?
  3. What is the connection between Yaakov and Eisav, the two types of thinking, and Yom Kippur?

It Once Happened…

  1. This famous Midrash (quoted by Rashi on Bereishit 25:22) suggests that Yaakov and his descendants are inherently good, and holy, and interested in the Torah, with a deep inclination to connecting to God through study and prayer, whereas Eisav and his descendants have an inclination towards idolatry and, perhaps it even implies, evil doing (which is often central to pagan religions). The message of the Covenant & Conversation this week also suggests that Yaakov and Eisav have inherent inclinations within their personalities, but less about good and evil and more about the way they think and approach the world. 
  2. This is a fascinating discussion with no definitive answer. Science tells us that we are influenced by our genes, and religion and philosophy tells us we have free choice to decide beyond our nature and biology. While we should encourage our children and students to grapple with this debate themselves, a fair conclusion for those who believe in science and religion is that we are impacted both by our genetics and yet at the same time we have free will.

From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks

  1. This famous Midrash (quoted by Rashi on Bereishit 25:22) suggests that Yaakov and his descendants are inherently good, and holy, and interested in the Torah, with a deep inclination to connecting to God through study and prayer, whereas Eisav and his descendants have an inclination towards idolatry and, perhaps it even implies, evil doing (which is often central to pagan religions). The message of the Covenant & Conversation this week also suggests that Yaakov and Eisav have inherent inclinations within their personalities, but less about good and evil and more about the way they think and approach the world. 
  2. This is a fascinating discussion with no definitive answer. Science tells us that we are influenced by our genes, and religion and philosophy tells us we have free choice to decide beyond our nature and biology. While we should encourage our children and students to grapple with this debate themselves, a fair conclusion for those who believe in science and religion is that we are impacted both by our genetics and yet at the same time we have free will.

Around the Shabbat Table

  1. There are many hidden clues suggesting the goats may represent Yaakov and Eisav. These include: Two animals, alike in appearance but different in fate; the word se’ir, “goat,” is associated with Eisav (he and his descendants lived in the land of Seir and the word se’ir is related to sei’ar, “hairy,”); a red thread was tied to the scapegoat, and “red” (Edom) was Eisav’s other name; and finally “two kids of the goats,” shnei se’irei izim, mentioned in the High Priest’s rites, reminds us of the very similar expression, “two kids of the goats,” shnei gedi’ei izim, mentioned in Bereishit 27, the scene of Yaakov’s deception. 
  2. Rabbinic texts often present Eisav as an evil person. Perhaps the socio-historic reason behind this is because we connect Eisav genealogically with Edom and Rome, the arch enemies of the Jews during the rabbinic period (and on through the Middle Ages Christianity). However, on a closer reading of the Torah text itself, Eisav is not necessarily evil, just impulsive. Eisav is known as a model for the mitzvah of parental respect, and the end of the Yaakov and Eisav narrative is in fact reconciliation, not rivalry (see Bereishit 33). We often find ourselves heavily influenced by the rabbinic approach to Eisav but if we take his character at face value from the Torah text alone we see a complex picture that allows room for a more compassionate approach to Eisav as a personality.
  3. This can be summed up in the last paragraph of this week’s Covenant & Conversation: “Who am I? That is the question Yom Kippur forces us to ask. To be Yaakov, we have to release and relinquish the Eisav within us, the impulsiveness that can lead us to sell our birthright for a bowl of soup, losing eternity in the pursuit of desire.”
Covenant and Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.