Bnei Akiva asked me to do a "peula" for them on Friday night. Peula means activity, but it is actually supposed to be an interactive discussion on any topic that I want.
I actually volunteered to be on the list of people they call, after they posted a letter in our shul lamenting how hard it was to get anybody to help them out and it was our responsibility to provide them with quality peulot and they posted a sign up sheet for anybody willing to give one. So I posted my name and a month later they called me.
The age group is high shool (15-18) and I recognized most of the kids by face, if not by name, and most of them knew who I was. I had heard a great Radio Lab a while ago which gave a situation that is perfect for a teenage discussion.
You are standing on a bridge and you see a train coming towards the bridge. You look behind you and see that the tracks are broken and end in a big pit. If the train keeps going it will fall in the ditch and kill or injure hundreds of people. There is no way for you to warn the train. You have 30 seconds before it arrives. Suddenly you notice a fat man sitting on the bridge over the tracks. Not just a regular fat man, huge. You know that if you push the fat man, he will fall on the tracks and stop the train. He will die, but all the other people will be saved.
Would you go over and push the fat man?
On Radio Lab they asked this question and alomost everyone said no. They then changed the question slightly.
You are on the same bridge, and see the same train going towards the same problem. This time there are a parallel set of tracks and the fat man is sitting on the parallel tracks with his back towards the train. Next to you is a lever and if you pull the lever you will switch the tracks that the train is going on and it will kill the fat man and save all the people on the train.
Would you pull the lever?
This time, a signaificant number of people answered yes.
So I put the question to the teenagers. The topic of my discussion was not, would you kill a man to save 500. It was on making decisions and what goes into them. I gave them both cases, they didn't see any real difference between the two cases and if a teenager is going to theoretically kill someone he would prefer to push him.
There were about 70 kids in the room,50 girls and 20 boys, sitting separately (who would have thought that would happen in BA), so it was easy to see the differences between boy responses and girl responses.
In the initial response, only 7 people answered, 5 wanted to kill him and 2 didn't. I explained to everyone that all of the rest decided not to make a decision, which was a decision in of itself.
I changed the role of the fat man a number of times to gauge the responses:
* What if the fat man broke the tracks dug the pit?
Suddenly a lot of the kids wanted to kill him and there were a bunch who decided that we shouldn't kill him, even though they hadn't decided not to kill him before (from the undecideds).
* What if he was your friend?
* What if you know he had 5 kids at home?
* What if your brother was on the train?
* What if he wasn't Jewish, but he was completely innocent, someone from Mexico that had never seen a Jew before?
Here a couple kids said that didn't see any difference if he was Jewish or not, and an argument broke out about whether his descendents would become terrorists.
To finish off, I explained to them that the facts of the situation remained the same during all of the scenarios. What changed was the emotional factor. I told them that we are always aking decisions and emotion plays a big part in it and that it is very important to understand ourselves and understand what pressures we are open to, and what our buttons were that cause us to react when pushed. I told them that if they did not understand what made them tick, then they were open to manipulation as soon as someone else figured out what buttons to push.
Finally I tied it into Pesach, and expalined that when God hardened Pharoah's heart, he removed the emotional equation. From a logical perspective, Pharoah still wanted to keep the Jews enslaved. However, he had reached a breaking point emotionally. God therefore removed the emotional factor from him so that he could finish showing Egypt, and the world, the rest of the plagues, until form a logical perspective they recognized that God ran the world and all of nature and decided that if God decided that the Jews should leave, he could take them.
I got mad reviews, everyone loved it.