The Right Reason
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Many times we may think we are doing something for one reason when we are really doing it for another. When we want something, our minds can cleverly rationalize, or make up excuses that justify doing what we feel like, even if deep down we know better.
We find in this week's Torah portion that Korach let his rationalizations lead him to incite a terrible and destructive rebellion against Moses. A person has to be careful not only to know what he's doing, but also why he's doing it.
In our story, a girl comes to grips with the power of rationalization.
"TAKING THE CAKE"
"Hmm ... 66 divided by 6..." thought Dianne Haber distractedly, as she tried to plow her way through her math homework. She had been at it for a while now, but hadn't gotten too far. Not that the problems were so hard, just that her mind was somewhere else - firmly fixed on the luscious double-fudge layer cake that sat cooling in the next room. It was her mom's specialty, which she had baked in honor of Aunt Sarah, Uncle Ephraim, and her cousin's upcoming visit that evening.
Though her mom had sternly warned her not to touch the cake before she and her dad had gone out to buy some paper goods, the tempting smell of the freshly-baked cake was wreaking havoc on the girl's concentration. With numbers swimming in front of her eyes, Dianne decided to get up and get herself a drink. Of course that meant going into the kitchen, right next to the cake, but so what? She was thirsty, she told herself.
But as Dianne poured herself a glass of orange juice, she caught sight of the seven-layer beauty out of the corner of her eye. She was suddenly inspired by a thought: "You know, I'm sure that when mom said not to take some cake, she didn't mean not even a tiny sliver..."
No sooner had the thought entered her head, than she found herself carefully slicing a small, hardly noticeable piece off the corner of the chocolaty delight.
Feeling a bit guilty, Dianne went back to her desk, determined to focus on her homework. But after a few more moments of pencil fidgeting, the girl's mind began to wander.
"That's a pretty big cake. I'll bet that when mom made it, she forgot that Aunt Sarah's always on a diet. Not to mention that cousin Jerry is allergic to chocolate ... or is it coconut? Well anyway, the cake is way more than what we need ... even if I took another piece..." she rationalized, making her way once again into the kitchen. This time Dianne helped herself to a piece of cake that could be best described as 'generous.'
"Okay, that's it! Time for homework!" she promised herself. But she had hardly brought pencil to paper when she realized that the cake now, thanks to her masterful carving job, looked uneven.
"Mom would never want to serve a lopsided cake," she thought. "Better it should be a bit smaller, but symmetrical..."
Dianne dashed into the kitchen to even out the cake, happily munching on the piece she had cut off in the name of symmetry.
And so did the afternoon pass. Dianne's list of math problems began to shrink, but not nearly as quickly as did the poor chocolate cake.
"Wow, finally finished!" declared Dianne triumphantly at her finished homework. "I know that mom wouldn't mind that I took just a little piece of cake to celebrate."
Just then, Dianne heard her parents' car pull into the garage. She glanced back at the decimated cake and had a rude awakening. "Oh, no! Mom is going to flip!!"
Sure enough, Mrs. Haber walked into the kitchen and gasped at the sight of the tiny, chopped-up remnant of the once-grand cake, which by now more resembled a cupcake. She flashed Dianne a hurt and disappointed look, and suddenly all the good excuses that had made so much sense to the girl at the time melted away. Dianne painfully realized that she had really just wanted to eat the cake, and had rationalized her way into doing it.
When the smoke cleared, it was decided that Dianne would quickly have to go to the local bakery and buy a new, expensive layer cake from her own allowance money. The girl learned her lesson, and decided then and there that the next time she felt tempted to rationalize, she would try to stop first, and look at things through rational eyes.
Q. How did Dianne feel when taking the pieces of cake?
A. She felt that even though her mom had told her not to, it was really okay since she had good excuses.
Q. How did she feel once her mom came home?
A. She felt bad for eating the cake, and realized that all her excuses were just reasons she had made up to do something she really knew she shouldn't have.
Q. Do you think that Dianne meant to disobey her mom when she ate the cake?
A. As Dianne was taking piece after piece of cake, she actually convinced herself that her mom wouldn't mind and that she was doing nothing wrong. This is the power of rationalization. It can twist around almost anything in our mind, however wrong, and convince us it's right.
Q. Why did it become clear to Dianne what she had done wrong, once her mom came home?
A. Many of our excuses, as reasonable as they sound when we are making them, fall apart once we are confronted by a bit of truth. The return of Dianne's mom, and her reaction, snapped her out of her delusion, and let her see that all her 'good' reasons were really just excuses to eat the cake.
Q. Can you think of a common rationalization you make?
Ages 10 and Up
Q. How can we tell when our reasons for acting a certain way are valid, and when they are rationalizations?
A. It's not always easy. In the heat of the moment, the most contorted reasoning can seem to be valid. If we are aware, however, we can begin to notice whether we have already formed an opinion or desire, which we simply wish to back up (this is rationalization), or whether we are able to step back and coolly think something through to its logical conclusion. Being aware of the excuse-making is the first big step toward stopping it.
Q. Is it better to live with comfortable excuses and rationalizations, or painful truth? Why?
A. Ultimately, we are spiritual beings who have been sent to this world to separate truth from falsehood. The only thing that will give us permanent satisfaction is living a life devoted to truth. For the truth-seeker, the pain of abandoning comfortable lies and excuses will soon be eclipsed by a wonderful sense of living life as it is meant to be lived.
Q. Can you think of a common rationalization you make?