I recently read in the New York Times about a study of Princeton University Students who actually believed that they had an impact on the Super Bowl merely by thinking about the game. No matter that they were thinking about the game while they watched it on TV in their student center at Princeton University. These elite students thought that their beliefs actually made a difference in whether or not an athlete many miles away performed according to their liking.
How ridiculous it that!
I couldn't believe that this was true. So I looked up the study and it was even worse than I thought. This is what the professors who wrote the study concluded: "Consistent with our experimental findings, the more participants perceived themselves as having thought about the game, the more they felt responsible for the game's outcome." Not only did the students believe that their actions impacted the game, but they admitted that this was what they believed in a survey that they handed in after the game had ended. (They handed in the survey in return for candy.) This means that they had ample time to think about whether they really believed this ridiculous concept and they still kept true to their beliefs!
Reading this study led me to one of two conclusions. First, maybe Princeton University students just aren't that smart.
Now, this can't be true. Everyone I know from Princeton is exceedingly smart. So it must be that people have a will to believe in something, anything, no matter how irrational. It just so happens to be that those Princeton University students are misguided believers in the wrong thing.
In the Jewish religion we also have magic that appears in our rituals and our celebrations.
We just celebrated the Passover Seder. One of the highlights of the Passover Seder is the cup of Elijah the Prophet.
There is a tradition that Elijah will appear at the Passover Seder. This tradition is an offshoot of a practice of placing an extra cup of wine on the table and calling it the "Cup of Elijah."
In many families there is another "tradition"; i.e. that a person at the table will secretly shake the table and thereby try to convince a young child that Elijah is actually drinking wine from the cup of Elijah. One year at our community seder, I went so far as to engage an actual magician and have him make the cup of wine entirely disappear!
At the time I was just trying to enliven the Seder and keep everyone interested.
Unlike those Princeton students, I don't think anyone at our Seder (children included) actually believed that Elijah the prophet was drinking from the cup of Elijah. We knew it was a joke. Still, behind every joke there is some truth.
The more I study about Elijah and this extra cup of wine at the Seder, the more I realize that there really is something magical about him. It is just not the magic that I was expecting.
There is in fact a long tradition that Elijah will visit us on Passover and tell us that we are being redeemed and that the Messiah will soon come. This idea is recorded in the greatest mystical work in the Jewish tradition, the Zohar.
But this creates a little bit of problem and some awkwardness. What do we do if we get everyone excited in anticipation of Elijah's arrival and then he doesn't show up?
If every year we invite Elijah to our Seder and expect him to come and redeem us, and if every year he doesn't bother to show up, then how are we any better than those irrational students who watch the Super Bowl at Princeton?
The difference is that there is something silly and meaningless about what the Princeton University students believe in, but there is something beautiful and glorious about what we believe in.
The author of that article in the New York Times argues that superstitious beliefs are helpful because they make us psychologically healthier. As the author writes: "Belief in destiny helps render your life a coherent narrative, which infuses your goals with a greater sense of purpose."
I agree with him, but only if what you believe in has a greater sense of purpose.
Our challenge is to believe in something of great value and merit.
There is of course a major difference between someone who believes in magical reference points that connect them to God and someone who believes in magical reference points that connect them to winning a football game.
When we anticipate Elijah's arrival, it isn't so that he can help us win a football game, but rather, what we are actually hoping for is to witness something incredibly beautiful.
We pray for Elijah to come -- and we work hard to prepare a clean path for his arrival -- so that he can "turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" (Malachi 3:23). In other words so that he can bring peace to the world and bring to a peaceful close any ongoing family struggles.
There is nothing to be embarrassed about believing in that type of magical dream. Even if our belief is irrational our goal is beautiful and deeply rational. We want to believe that Elijah will come and help us turn our world in the right direction. We not only believe this as a matter of faith, in line with centuries of rabbinic teachings, we also try to bring him earlier by performing acts of kindness and charity.
This dream for a better world is magical. And no matter how irrational it may be, and no matter how long we must wait -- and how hard we must work -- for Elijah to arrive, I am proud to say that I will continue to believe that this magical dream is a possibility.