What happens when my strivings and my reality don’t match? I would like to be an intellectually honest spiritual seeker, a warm and loving and dynamic wife and mother, a supportive friend; but at the end of the day, I look in the mirror, and see an annoyed and tired dish rag, and all I want to do is have a cup of coffee and a bar of chocolate. Warm dynamic spiritual seeker aside, anyone who stands between me and my mug is in for it.

Psychologists have dubbed this uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time “cognitive dissonance.” We humans find it very disturbing to be stuck between a system of beliefs and a reality that counters itWe humans find it very disturbing to be stuck between a system of beliefs and a reality that counters it.

Psychological experimentation has shown that when people are put in a situation that opposes what they think or believe, they will often change their minds before they change their situation, in order to resolve the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. In 1957, Leon Festinger published a theory of cognitive dissonance; however,the Torah was aware of this phenomenon thousand of years earlier.

In King Solomon’s “Song of Songs,” he writes, “I am asleep, but my heart is awake. The voice of my Beloved is knocking . . . ” The Midrash1 understands that there are often two opposing forces within a person, one spiritually asleep and one awake, and brings the example that within a very brief period of time the Jewish people were involved in both the formation of the golden calf and in the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. I am asleep-I built the calf, but my heart is awake, I created a resting place for the divine within. While we are stuck in our human dichotomy, our divine Beloved, who is aware of our strivings and our challenges, is knocking and asking to be let in to our lives.

Two areas where we often have conflicting desires are money and time. They are limited resources, and we constantly need to decide how to use what we have.

For years Elizabeth, an English teacher, has been telling her daughter’s school that they need to upgrade the library. The computers are old and outdated. The books are few and torn. Even the walls could use a fresh paint job. The school library should be a place of excitement and adventure, opening to its students worlds of curiosity and opportunity.

Finally, the school announces that they will be holding a fundraising dinner in order to fully refurbish the library. They are asking for three hundred dollars for a pair of tickets to the dinner. Elizabeth knows how badly the renovations are needed, but had been eyeing a beautiful outfit that she was hoping to purchase. She had just received her tax refund and was about to go shopping when the invitation came in the mail.

As she debates if her refund should be spent in the mall or for the school library, she contemplates how her daughter is in fifth grade this year. She will have only one more year in the school before going to middle school. By the time they finish raising money and actually making changes, there is little chance that she will enjoy the new library. Two areas where we often have conflicting desires are money and timeElizabeth believes in the improvements the school wants to make, even if her daughter won’t be there to enjoy them—my heart is awake, but it is hard to give up the outfit she had been desiring for months! I am asleep.

If Elizabeth can’t find it in her heart to buy the tickets and make the donation, cognitive dissonance might influence her that anyhow today most of the families have good computers at home, and there is a public library that they could go to if they really want to borrow books. It’s not her responsibility to worry about every child out there, she has enough on her hands, etc.

We could imagine a similar situation where time is the precious commodity. It’s a silly little thing, but you like to go once a week and get a manicure. You shmooze with the beautician, feel pampered and enjoy spacing out a little bit. As you are on the way out the door, Aunt Hilda calls. She went to the hospital for a checkup, and the senior van was supposed to come and get her to take her home. She has been waiting for an hour, and they didn’t show. Her arthritis is flaring up, and she needs to get home and rest. “Honey, would you be a darling and come pick me up? I don’t think I have enough money for a taxi. You’ve always been my favorite niece, you know.”

Knowing Aunt Hilda, she surely does have enough money in her purse, and if not, then in her stash in the vase on the grand piano in the den. Aunt Hilda is a dear, but she talks your ear off. You just went to visit her last weekend, and you can’t just cancel your appointment at the last minute, and you need to take care of yourself too, right? In an hour, the kids will be coming home, and this is your chance. So you tell yourself not to forget to send her a card next week for her birthday and convince Hilda to take a taxi.

In order to enjoy your manicure at this point, you will have to continue to convince yourself (and probably the beautician) that you did the right thing. Otherwise, the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance, and a good dose of Jewish guilt, will ruin your day.

Then there’s the mom who has read every parenting book on the shelf, all of which agree that slapping a kid is not a top-of-the-line parenting technique, but at her wits’ end she gives her child a sound spanking. In her bed that night, she tells herself that it’s important to educate her kids in a way that feels natural to her, and an occasional spanking will only strengthen her child—after all, her parents spanked her, and she turned out OK, right?

In these examples, everyone started out wanting to do the right thing, but when circumstances turned on them, they turned on themselves, letting their minds follow the course of their external reality, and losing a vital element of self in the process.

Cognitive dissonance is not an enemy. It can have benefits, if we learn to harness it to our advantage. The sages of the Talmud knew this when they said that even if one learns Torah “not for the sake of heaven,” he should continue, and eventually, he will learn “for the sake of heaven.” Or, as the Sefer Hachinuch puts it, “The heart is influenced by action.” Cognitive dissonance is not an enemy. It can have benefits, if we learn to harness it to our advantageIn today’s world, someone who does something positive without fully believing in it is called a hypocrite. Jews would call it spiritual growth.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, some unnamed Israelites demonstrated the awesome results that can come about if we don’t allow rationalizations to take over when we are not able to fulfill our spiritual goals right away.

Moses had taught the people the laws of the Korban Pesach, the paschal sacrifice. It was to be brought on the 14th of Nissan to commemorate the Exodus. However, one who was ritually impure could not partake of it.

A couple of Jews realized that their spiritual impurity was going to prevent them from participating in this most important celebration. I am asleep. They came to Moses and said, “We understand that the law you taught is from G‑d, and it is good, but we don’t want to be left out. We want to be a part of the national exaltation! My heart is awake. What should we do?”

Moses was convinced that due to their sincerity, G‑d would give a special directive for them. He told them to wait; a Divine consultation resulted in the mitzvah of Pesach Sheini. Those who were ritually impure on the day of the national Passover offering or too far from Jerusalem to make it there in time could come a month later, on the 14th of Iyar, and bring their sacrifice then.

They could have easily said, “If our sacrifice is not wanted, fine! We won’t give it,” but they insisted on having a part in the mitzvah. Not only did they get what they asked for, but a new mitzvah and a whole chapter of Torah were added because of them.

Cognitive dissonance can help us streamline our beliefs in a positive way, as long as we stay focused and don’t give up because we aren’t 100 percent there yet. It can pull us down, if we are not aware of its power and the rationalizations that are its trusted helpers. Strive for your spiritual goals. When circumstances get in your way, don’t let justifications set in to dull your dreams.

Growth can happen only when we allow ourselves some inconsistency. Don’t be afraid to take a step in a good direction just because you can’t yet see the end of the road. Remember, the voice of my Beloved is knocking.