The House Always Wins: Bechukotai 5744 by Cantor Lipp

Tue, 05/20/2014 - 12:29pm -- AJ Blog

I don't know who said it first but every time you walk into a casino, it's good to remember the rule: The House Always Wins.

In case we needed proof, there’s a recent study that quantifies this rule of thumb. Over 500,000 bets from over 700 people were analyzed for the percentage of wins. They found that the first bet anyone takes has a 48% chance of winning. It may be a small margin, but with odds like that and bets so numerous, no wonder the casino can offer a free buffet. As far as the study goes, the house wins even more because these were online bets and not one had to feed the crowd. 

Furthermore, to add to the rules of thumb, it seems there really are winning and losing streaks. 

When they analyzed winners' 1st through 5th bets, they found the percentage won in each progressive bet to be: 48, 49, 57, 67 and 72. In other words, once you won a bet, you were more likely to win the next and your odds kept improving. 

For losers, the results showed the opposite tendency: 48, 47 and then a string of 45 percent wins thereafter.  

The first line of our Torah portion proclaims that if we walk according to God's laws, we will be blessed and prosper whereas if we refuse to do so, we will be cursed in a seven step process, each set of curses more devastating and horrifying than the last. Although the Torah is talking about the laws written just prior, Arthur Waskow has wisely understood it to mean that if we don't treat the earth appropriately, it will eventually exact its revenge on us in depleted agricultural plenty and various environmental ills.

The analysis of the betting data showed a statistical correlation between the winners' streaks and their progressive decision to make more conservative bets as they won, extending the likelihood of winning again. The losers kept losing specifically because they kept trying to recoup their losses with progressively riskier bets. 

The ethical mandate of the first chapter of our portion follows a similar logic. By obeying the rules, we are blessed and thus, implicitly, given incentives to continue our good behavior. On the other hand, if we choose the other path, by slowly but surely finding more risky ways to avoid ethical behavior, we fall into the opposite trajectory.  As Ben Azai said in Pirkei Avot(4:2): mitzvah goreret mitzvah, avera goreret avera -- following commandments leads to a habit of growing commandment observance. Transgressions lead to more negative behavior.

The difficulty is that we expect there to be a one-to-one correlation between our actions and rewards or punishments, as if there’s a great BF Skinner in the sky. We believe, based on these kinds of texts from the Torah, that mitzvot should lead immediately to blessings and every transgression should be followed by an appropriate punishment. 

But Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi told us in Pirkei Avot 2:1 that we don’t know the specific reward associated with every mitzvah and Ben Azai concluded his commentary with the observation that “The reward of virtue is virtue itself, and the reward of sin is sin." God’s Laws or Chukot, both the ethical ones and the ones that form the basis for the operation of the universe, are not so scrutable. They exist in tension. The laws of probability are woven into their application.

The House does win in the end. Just not every bet along the way.  

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp