Zero-Sum Games

By: Elan Babchuck

This past Sunday morning, in the midst of learning Pirkei Avot – an early go-to guide for Jewish ethical living – with my 7th grade class, we took an unexpected detour into game theory.  A class that began with a discussion about the relationships between factory owners and factory workers (Pirkei Avot 2:15) ended up on a tangent about charity.  We talked about the three types of personal capital that each of us has: Time, Talent, and Treasure.  As I am wont to do, I encouraged everybody – the 7th graders and their parents – to think seriously about what they give, how they give, and to whom they give.

Before giving them time to consider their giving tendencies, I left them with one final point, a paraphrase of Adam Grant from his recent book Give and Take: the Givers (people who are naturally inclined to give generously) end up on top, time and again.  Somehow, the Takers (those whose natural inclination is to take more than they give) aren’t the ones populating the Forbes lists each year.  Neither are the Matchers (those who give and take on a quid pro quo, tit-for-tat basis).  Year in and year out, the Givers are more successful, more fulfilled, and happier than their Taker and Matcher counterparts.  As the students soaked up that point and began writing, I watched in delight as pens furiously met paper and as brows furrowed in deep thought.

I let the writing continue for a few minutes when suddenly the silence was broken.  One of the students couldn’t grasp how people who are always giving don’t end up broke.  To explain his quandary, he described a micro-economy consisting of the five students at his table.

“If each of us has two dollars, then there are 10 dollars in our economy.  When I earn a dollar, one of them loses a dollar.  Right?”

He was absolutely right.  In that kind of micro-economy, there is no gain without a corresponding loss.  An avid football fan, he knows that when the Patriots win, their opponents lose.  As a long-time student in our religious school, he’s also read last week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, which serves as the culminating act in the on-going give-and-take saga between the Israelites and the Egyptians.

From the very beginning, if the Egyptians were prospering, the Israelites were suffering.  And when the Israelites began to taste freedom, the Egyptians paid dearly for it in the form of their bodies, their land, and their first-born children.  Finally, Beshalach brings the story to a close with the ultimate example of a zero-sum game: in order for the Israelites to survive their escape from Egypt, the Egyptians die a watery death as the once-split Red Sea comes crashing down upon them.

In truth, much of the world operates with a zero-sum mentality. You win, I lose. I win, you lose.  But there are pockets of society in which zero-sum theory doesn’t apply, and a prime example is our burgeoning (401)j community.  (401)j was founded on the idea that when you win, we win.  When your cluster has a successful event, when your d’var in the bar sparks powerful conversation, when your Rosh Chodesh kicks off with a lively potluck dinner with close friends…we all win.  The rising tide, as it were, lifts all boats.

In the words of the great President Bill Clinton:

                                        “As our interdependence increases, we do better when other people do better as well. So we have to
                                         find ways that we can all win; we have to accommodate each other.

With thanks to everyone who has volunteered his or her time, talent, and treasure to this beautiful newborn community that we call (401)j, we have found a way that we can all win, and we are doing just that.


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