Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Bereishit - Mistakes are our friends

R' Shimon ben Pazzi pointed out a contradiction in a verse. The verse says ' And God made 2 great luminaries - lights … and immediately the verse continues  ...  the greater light and the smaller light. The moon complained to God by saying how can 2 kings wear one crown, how can the sun and the moon rule the skies together. God acknowledges the moon's objection by answering -Go then and diminish yourself. The moon complains – because I made a proper and valid point, must I make myself smaller? God then tries to appease the moon because of its grievance and says that the moon will rule also during the day- we see the moon during the day, the Jewish calendar follows the moon, and great people will compare themselves to the moon. The moon is not appeased and consoled until God says to the children of Israel – on the new moon bring atonement for me for making the moon smaller.  Only here with regard to the new moon sin offering, is it emphasized that the sin offering is a sin offering for God. – Hulin 60:b

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף ס/ב  - רבי שמעון בן פזי רמי כתיב ויעש אלהים את שני המאורות הגדולים וכתיב את המאור הגדול ואת המאור הקטן אמרה ירח לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע אפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד אמר לה לכי ומעטי את עצמך אמרה לפניו רבש"ע הואיל ואמרתי לפניך דבר הגון אמעיט את עצמי אמר לה לכי ומשול ביום ובלילה אמרה ליה ..... זיל לימנו בך ישראל ימים ושנים ........זיל ליקרו צדיקי בשמיך ......חזייה דלא קא מיתבא דעתה אמר הקב"ה הביאו כפרה עלי שמיעטתי את הירח והיינו דאמר ר"ש בן לקיש מה נשתנה שעיר של ראש חדש שנאמר בו לה' אמר הקב"ה שעיר זה יהא כפרה על שמיעטתי את 

The Talmud here is problematic because we cannot associate with God mistakes, admitting mistakes and a need for atonement.  The commentators talk about not taking this piece literally and that we are talking about a parable, where the moon is a metaphor for the people of Israel.  One commentary suggests we bring atonement before God and not for God.  Another commentary suggests that there are important lessons to be learned from this text. God is compromising Himself in order to teach us- דרך ארץ derech e'retz – the way of the world, that when a master needs to punish or discipline a servant, he should try and compensate and appease the servant. This is an important lesson even for parents who try to parent in a collaborative and ' working with ' way and find mutually satisfying solutions to problems. Sometimes we have to insist on kids doing things our way and thwart their autonomy.  We should then try to appease them and compensate for their loss of autonomy in other areas. Before the creation of man, God consulted with the angels about creating man. God did not need to consult the angels. He did so in order to teach the way of the world דרך ארץ, derech e'retz that people with power should consult with their subordinates. Maybe, here God is trying to teach us an important lesson – that making mistakes and admitting to them is part of creation, learning and the growth process. Also we see that Teshuva – the process of repentance whereby we admit mistakes and make amends, was created before the world was created. Mistakes are part of the learning process and arriving at the truth, without them there is no progress. -  אין עומדים על דברי תורה עד שנכשלים בהם   - we don't become proficient in Torah until we make mistakes.  Mistakes indicate that our actions were lacking. They can be lacking because we did something wrong or they can be lacking because they lack a certain quality, energy or engagement etc. In a sense God's actions were lacking when he created a physical universe that could not live up to spiritual ideals and He had to make the moon smaller and that its light would totally disappear at certain times of the month. In an ideal world both the sun and moon could share their crown by focusing on a unity of purpose and serving the ultimate king and ruler God. Then, there would not be a problem of idolatry – sun worship – as the sun alone did not rule the skies. When we have materialism, human fallibility and weakness, jealousy and arrogance, 2 kings cannot share one crown. The Maharal explains that what was lacking in the creation of the moon was not only its lacking in size, but the light from the moon, because of the phases of the moon would eventually disappear towards the beginning of the month. The atonement – kapparah for this lack of light would be the removal of this lack, shortcoming and inadequacy by man bringing the sin offering at the moment when there is no light from the moon. The sin offering does not come as a punishment or a consequence for a mistake in attempt to appease and placate an angry God, but it is a means to focus on our humility and inadequacy like the moon on Rosh Chodesh – the beginning of the month and connect to God. A man who thinks he is a gadol, a great luminary is unable to repent and do teshuva. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is 'korban – קרבן  ' becoming closer to God and in this way he brings more spiritual light to the world. The imperfection and compromise in the moon's capacity now became the catalyst for more light and growth and in this way man would begin to remove the lack until in time the lack is removed and the glory of the moon is restored. We pray for this in the Kiddush levanah – sanctification of the moon prayer – ' may it be the will of God to fill the flaw of the moon that there will be no diminution in it. May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the 7 days of creation, as it was before it was diminished as it is said – the 2 great luminaries. '

The Bible has examples of great people who gained credibility when they admitted mistakes and did teshuva – repented – the brothers of Joseph, Yehuda, and David. In a political climate and an educational system where mistakes are punished we need more than these examples. We need God to teach us the way of the world – derech e'retz that not only does admitting mistakes  and doing teshuva gives people credibility , but mistakes are part of the learning and creative process. In today's world and punitive environment, we would never have had the opportunity to learn from a king David how to repent and do teshuva and see the courage of Yehuda as he was prepared to expose his vulnerability and admit his mistake.  Yehuda was given a leadership role because of this courage. The approach of punishing mistakes rather than encouraging the admitting of  mistakes and doing teshuva promotes immoral behavior, lying, cover-ups and hoping that issues will simply die , impacts on the public system, schools and families.

In academic learning we need to go beyond the right answer to a deeper thinking. Jerome Bruner said – Knowing is a process, not a product.  Confusion, mistakes and the more sophisticated the mistakes lead us to deeper thinking. Ted Sizer said that good schools promote displays of incompetence in order to help students find their way to competence. The focus should be on the student's thinking on how they got the answer and not the answer itself. Good teachers will challenge students with questions and even mistaken ones. In this respect, God himself did something similar. The Gemorrah Bava Metzia 59a relates a halachic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages. Rabbi Eliezer calls upon the carob tree, a stream and the walls of the study hall to perform miracles in order to prove that he was right. He then said, ‘If the law is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven,’ whereupon a heavenly voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the law is as he says!’ But, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It [the law] is not in heaven’ (Devarim 30:12). What is meant by this? Rabbi Yirmiyahu said: ‘It means that the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because You, God, have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “One must incline after the majority” (Shemot 23:2)'” “Rabbi Nathan met Eliyahu [the prophet, who is considered to be immortal] and asked him: ‘What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that moment [when Rabbi Yehoshua declared that he would not obey His heavenly voice]?’ He replied, ‘He smiled [with joy], saying, my sons have defeated me; my sons have defeated me'. Students who are afraid of making mistakes are unlikely to ask for help when they need it, unlikely to feel safe enough to take intellectual risks and are unlikely to be intrinsically motivated. For the sake of deeper learning and understanding God deliberately makes a mistake to challenge man's thinking and in a sense admits his mistake by acknowledging Rabbi Yehoshua's thinking.

We need to change our attitude to mistakes and see that mistakes are our friends that give us opportunities for growth, teshuva and arriving at the truth.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Netzavim 76 - Rosh Hashana and the Power of Community

On the last day of his life, when Moses is about to hand over the leadership to Yehoshuah, the nation appears in its full presence, standing erect – 'nitzavim' committed and accountable to God and the mission of the Torah. Moses, on the one hand sees them all standing together and then emphasizes 10 subgroups and divisions in the nation.
You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers – Dev 29:9
 (ט) אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל: (י) טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ:
The question is - why mention the different social classes, strata, cultural levels, rank and status in the nation? Inequality and social divisions cause friction, poverty and crime and certainly do not promote a caring and unified society. The educational system perpetuates the inequality with the rich getting an engaging and rich education and the poor a ' test prep' education. John Dewey saw the possibility of ' vocational training ' doing the same. John Dewey said -' there is a danger that vocational education will be interpreted in theory and practice as trade education: as a means of securing technical efficiency in specialized future pursuits. Education would then become an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society, instead of operating as a means of its transformation. The desired transformation is not difficult to define in a formal way. It signifies a society in which every person shall be occupied in something which makes the lives of others better worth living, and which accordingly makes the ties which bind persons together more perceptible—which breaks down the barriers of distance between them. 'The barriers between people are broken down when people see others as contributing to the society they live in.
Moses gathered the people together to re-affirm and re-commit to the ' brit – covenant ' made at Sinai. But this covenant went further; it was based on mutual responsibility and accountability. People not only had a responsibility for their fellow men, but were now also accountable for the open and not hidden sins of others. –Dev 29:28 ' the hidden things belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.
הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת
Members of society are bound together by the covenant which is based on mutual responsibility and caring and also being accountable for the failings of others. So Moses' list suggests that people are responsible and accountable according to their influence in society. Leaders whether political, spiritual, business and educational can affect many people, parents and teachers can impact on spouses, colleagues and children. Children and workers can impact on their peers.
In order to prevent a sense of arrogance Moses reminds the people, that they are all standing before God. They are all equal in the eyes of God. The Alshich says that this idea – that people need to be humble, and not be arrogant because of their status or achievements, is expressed in the following Halacha- legal point. If a great and wise sage is forced to kill a thief, the sage has to give up his own life as the Talmud says – The Sage cannot say that his blood is redder than the blood of the thief.
The Midrash commentary says that when the nation stands together erect – ' נצבים היום ככלכם ' they are unbreakable and can withstand and weather the greatest and most difficult challenges. A young child can break a reed, but when reeds are united in a bundle, they can withstand any force and are unbreakable. The Midrash adds that the nation is guaranteed redemption and survival if they are united.
We noted above that when people perceive the contribution of others, they are more able to bond with them. What about identifying and feeling empathic with people who don't make a contribution or even people who impact negatively on society. On Succoth we bind together and wave our Lulav - 4 species in all directions. The Kabbalists say that the four species of the Lulav represent four different types of Jews: The Etrog ( yellow citron) has a good taste and a good fragrance. It represents a person with both wisdom (Torah learning) and good deeds. The Hadas (myrtle) has a good fragrance, but is inedible. It represents a person who has good deeds, but lacks wisdom. The Lulav (date palm) is edible, but has no smell. This represents the person with wisdom, but without good deeds. The Aravah (willow) has neither taste nor smell. It represents a person with neither good deeds nor Torah learning. On Sukkot, we gather these four species, bind them, and wave them all together. The Lulav is only kosher if all four species are taken together. If one of the species is missing, the entire Lulav is invalid.
A similar principle is taught by the composition of the incense brought in the Holy Temple. There were 11 ingredients, of which one, the chelbanah spice, smelled terrible. Yet, the incense was only valid if all the ingredients were included together.
The ' community ' only has power to save and impact positively on people if everyone is included in the community. If the a'ravah- willow = the person with no good deeds or Torah learning, or the chelbonah – the person who makes a negative impact are excluded from the community, we don't have a community. When the a'ravah and chelbonah are included, they justify the existence and mystical powers of a community.
On Rosh Hashanah – New Year and Day of Judgment, our repentance – Teshuva begins when we stand erect, make a commitment and unite in a community to anoint God as the ruler over us. We pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life and that God should have pity on us as frail beings that are inclined to sin and grant us life. These additional prayers would not normally be permitted to be said in the first 3 blessings of the  'A'mida or 18 blessings prayer. They are reserved for the praise of God and not for requests. However, these additions of the repentance period are permitted because they plead for the entire nation.
The power of community depends on structures being in place that promote cooperation and pro-social behavior and certainly not competition. A school is also a community of learners. To create community, children need to be brought into the process; each level or grade in school should be involved in activities that benefit not only peers, but the whole school and beyond the school impacting on the wider community. Questions of discipline should not focus on the consequences for the individual child because of his inappropriate behavior, but help him reflect how his behavior impacts on others and the community. He should be asking and reflecting – what type of community do we want.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ki Tavo 76 The Downside of an Attitude of Gratitude

Our parasha talks about 2 commandments that required people to go to Jerusalem.  A landowner was obligated to bring his first ripened fruits –' Bikkurim' to the temple and present them to God's representative, the Kohen-priest. This ritual included a moving declaration and expression of gratitude to God, for being a protector ……and having brought us to the land of Israel and having given us the land of Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey…….As the farmers made their way to Jerusalem, they were met by delegations from the various towns and cities who greeted them with praises and psalms to God. The procession was accompanied by music and plenty of happiness and joy.  There is the obligation to separate tithes from food and give to the Levite and poor and also separate food –'  ma'aser sheni ' for personal use – to be eaten in Jerusalem or be redeemed  and the money spent on food in Jerusalem. The purpose of the mitzvah was to encourage people to visit Jerusalem and the temple and benefit from the learning, prayer and the spirituality of the city.
The Midrash commentary notes that the Torah begins with the word Be'reishit - in the beginning which can be also read – for the sake of the first. The world was created for the sake of the' firsts' – for the sake of the nation of Israel or the Torah that are called Reishit – first. Likewise the word was created for the sake of the mitzvah of the first crops – bikkurim. Gratitude is a trait that is fundamental to the sustainability of the world, central and vital to interpersonal relationships, our relationship with God (not that God needs our thanks) and our relationship with the physical world.  Our lives and achievements are made possible by the contributions and help of so many people and primarily because of God's assistance and direction. In order to express gratitude we need to have humility. People showed gratitude and solidarity with the farmers by going out to greet them on their journey. In Jerusalem, people would include the Levite, the convert and poor in their celebration of gratitude.    They would rejoice and make others happy. The Torah is making a connection between gratitude and happiness. An attitude of gratitude brings happiness, but true gratitude to God is not just the thank you and expression of gratitude but using the God given gifts to benefit others and inviting the less privileged to join in your celebration. True joy and happiness is a result from giving to the needy and making others happy. True gratitude demands both expression of thanks and action.
                                                                             ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך יהוה אלהיך ולביתך אתה והלוי והגר אשר בקרבך: עשיתי ככל אשר צויתני", שמחתי ושימחתי בו.
Gratitude is very much on the self-improvement, personal development scene because of the research done by Dr Emmons who studies the science of gratitude. Gratitude helps people counter negative thoughts and complaining. It puts an end to self-pity, jealousy, bitterness and regret. It leads to good health, a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, as well as more joy and pleasure. People who kept a gratitude journal for just 3 weeks measured 25% higher on life satisfaction. They exercised more, they drank less alcohol and their families and friends noticed that they are nicer to be around and the effect lasts several months beyond the initial 3 week trial period. The act of writing things down that you are grateful for will instantly change your mood. While expressing gratitude by writing a letter or communicating and interacting with people is a good thing to do in a moral sense, the new gratitude gurus are stressing the benefits for us and that gratitude makes us feel good.  A lot of the advice and gratitude exercises suggested can be undertaken without human contact – thank someone mentally , keep gratitude journal, count your blessings, mediate and for those so  inclined, pray. Consider this advice from a yoga instructor. “Cultivate your sense of gratitude by incorporating giving thanks into a personal morning ritual such as writing in a gratitude journal, repeating an affirmation or practicing a meditation. It could even be as simple as writing what you give thanks for on a sticky note and posting it on your mirror or computer. To help you establish a daily routine, create a ‘thankfulness’ reminder on your phone or computer to pop up every morning and prompt you.”

The author Barbara Ehrenreich sees this as the downside or selfishness of gratitude. Who is interacting here? ' You' and 'you'.' So it’s possible to achieve the recommended levels of gratitude without spending a penny or uttering a word. All you have to do is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow. If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love, and the current hoopla around gratitude is a celebration of onanism.' She notes that the conservative leaning John Templeton Foundation , a foundation that promotes free-market capitalism, has been funding gratitude research of more than 8 million dollars, yet the foundation does not fund projects directly to improve the lives of poor individuals, but it has spent a great deal , through efforts like these , to improve their attitudes. '  


Another problem with gratitude, particularly between people with different power and status – boss and employee, teacher, parent or child, is that gratitude - especially when 'praise' is also expressed -  can be experienced as judgmental and controlling. Judgment even if positive is judgment. The person with power is grateful that his subordinate has jumped through his hoops. A Boss once expressed gratitude and praise to an employee for her work. She replied – please remember your words when you write me my pay- cheque at the end of the month. Instead better to focus on the deed and action and not on the person. Offer neutral feedback and ask questions so the employee speaks and reflects on what she did.


Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that we have a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude, that for e.g. includes all the people that make our meals possible and taking action and expressing ' solidarity' with their demands for better pay and working conditions.


We see clearly from the mitzvoth of Bikkurim- first fruits and eating the Ma'aser Sheni – 2nd tithes in Jerusalem, that gratitude needs to be accompanied by pro-social actions and interactions between people. When gratitude is just an ' attitude' the focus is on the self and an expression of selfishness. It is based on the most primitive form of morality, do good because it feels good, and offer thanks and express gratitude because if you don't reciprocate people won't give you anything or help you. If we are grateful to God and thank Him, but don't act in the world as a partner and be of service to others, our praises and thanks take the form of sacrifices and offerings that God despises. True gratitude is emulating God's ways – והלכת ברכיו מה הוא חנון אף אתה תנון מה הוא רחום אתה רחום ..... -  Just as God's is gracious, be gracious, just as God is compassionate, be compassionate, kind and generous etc., etc.  



Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ki Teitzei 76 - Leaving the Egypt within us behind

Our Parasha contains 2 of the 6 commands to Remember - שש זכירות   . Remember what God...  did to Miriam, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt - is a warning not to engage in ' lashon ha'ra – slander, gossip or any other evil speech. Miriam was punished for her unfair criticism of Moses. It was not the traditional form of la'shon ha'ra, speaking badly about someone, but just as bad, saying that Moses was not as great as he thought he was, and should act in the world like his brother Aaron and herself .It was an attempt to dampen the enthusiasm, awe and respect for Moses as a great leader, teacher and personality. זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמִרְיָם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: 
The 2nd command – is to remember what Amalek did to the you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt that he happened upon you on the way …. After the 10 plagues and the miracle of the Red Sea, the nations of the world were in awe of Israel and their God, and no one dared to attack Israel. The attack on Israel – an ambush from behind, showed contempt for God and dampened – קרך - the awe and fear that the nations had for Israel and God. It also dampened Israel's enthusiasm for their journey to the Promised Land. The attack also dampened their belief and trust in God. Amalek is symbolic of evil, that might is right, and it is power that counts rather than belief in God.  זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ 

The structures of the verses are very similar. We have the command to remember, what happened …, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt. The Israelites had already left Egypt, so 'when you were leaving Egypt and being on the way', must be referring to a spiritual journey. The word in Hebrew for Egypt is   מצרים.    The root of the word is מצר, a strait – indicating the limitations and confines of one's personal weaknesses that hold one back from attaining true spiritual freedom. Attacking people, whether physically – Amalek or verbally – Miriam is symptomatic of a being a slave in Egypt, a slave to passions and self-interest. Moses complained - because there were informers amongst the children of Israel who had told Pharaoh about Moses' crime of killing the Egyptian, the Israelites were not worthy of redemption.  The conflict and lack of unity among the sons of Jacob led to the years of slavery and bondage in Egypt. The lashon ha'ra and evil speech depicted the relationship between Joseph and the brothers. The brothers, not only dampened Joseph's   enthusiasm for his dreams - here comes the dreamer, but actually sent him into exile. We are always struggling with our limitations, our constraints, our personal Egypt. And it is for this reason, that we have a Pesach – Passover once a year, not as a time to celebrate the Exodus, but as an opportunity to overcome our limitations and constraints, our personal Egypt and find true spiritual freedom. In fact, this is a theme of the Seider night, the first night of Passover. We dip our vegetables twice. Once to signify the first ' dipping' in the Torah, when the brothers dipped Joseph's coat in blood, symbolizing hatred, conflict and a lack of unity and dipping a 2nd time, signifying the dipping of the bundle of hyssop in blood, the bundle- agudah  symbolic of unity and brotherly love, hyssop – symbolic of humility, a character trait that helps people connect with each other and not be judgmental. We may have left Egypt, but Egypt has not totally left us and we still struggle with issues of gratuitous hatred – sin'at chinam which is manifested by lashon hara – evil speech  and other attacks on people.

Parenting and teaching is an area where depending on our view of children we can either see them as allies or trouble makers. We can see them as allies in our attempts to  ' work with them' and create an engaging and vibrant learning environment and a caring –cooperative classroom. Or we can focus on classroom management to keep control and get kids to learn and follow instructions. If we have a negative view of children we tend to speak badly about them and dampen any enthusiasm for learning and pro-social behavior that is intrinsically motivated. We have a view of children that they are not interested in learning and would rather play and talk to their friends all day. The only ways we can get them to listen and learn to is trying and motivate them by having tests, quizzes, grading work, offering rewards and giving punishments for not doing homework or not staying on task. The important goal is to have complete control of the classroom and manage behavior so that kids sit quietly and listen. This further undermines and kills any interest kids might have in learning and at most kids will learn only if something is on the test and will try and get the best possible grade with the minimum amount of effort. And of course, they forget all they learned after they sit for the test. Instead of focusing on how well they are learning and remembering information, we can focus on helping kids become ' long life learners' whose learning is driven by questions, problems and projects. In this way, we help kids connect to learning and focus on what they are learning. Kids are born with a natural curiosity to understand and make meaning of and find relevance in the world around them. Once kids leave kindergarten where learning is more child-directed and the teacher is there to stimulate the child, there interest in learning is destroyed and enthusiasm for learning is dampened.

When it comes to socio-moral learning we can invite kids to reflect on what kind of classroom they want and what rules and expectations would be needed to achieve that goal. Or we can hand out a list of rules and consequences on the first day which of course will dampen any enthusiasm for learning. We can choose to solve problems and deal with issues and unmet expectations by cooperating and collaborating with children to solve problems or we can ignore their perspectives and concerns and give consequences and punishments to motivate kids to behave.  A curriculum where kids participate in deciding on content and how best to assess the work and cooperate, a curriculum which is engaging and relevant helps create a positive atmosphere with no behavior problems. We think that rewards motivate kids to behave and learn, but they just motivate them to get more rewards, be less compassionate and just think – what's in it for me.

A negative view of kids simply dampens any enthusiasm we may have for them or any belief that they can be our allies in helping them grow and learn. We need to justify this negative view so we look for the bad in them to justify our view point. We also then have the Pygmalion effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy where kids will live up to our expectations of them. - כמים הפנים לפנים, כן לב האדם לאדם Proverbs 27:19 "As in water, face to face, so, too, is the heart of one person to another'

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Shoftim 76 - Learning and action-good deeds , what drives what ?

'When you besiege a city for an extended period, to make war against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees…... for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down,   - for is the tree of the field a man? or, for man is like the tree of the field – (2 ways to read this), that you should besiege it? Only the trees which you know are not trees for food may you destroy and cut down, in order to build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Devarim 20:19-20)
כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור: {כ} רק עץ אשר תדע כי לא עץ מאכל הוא אתו תשחית וכרת ובנית מצור על העיר 
Our verses deal with times of war and it is in this context that we are warned to preserve fruit trees. Man acts in a most destructive way against the planet -his home in times of war. Today, when chemical and atomic warfare is available and has been used, this message is very relevant. IS  the tree of the field a man that he can flee into the besieged city ?  or why make war on trees ? - they are non-combatants. We can read this as a statement, not a question -  for man is like the tree of the field – for man's life is dependent of the fruit of the tree and there is a promise that after the war you will eat from the tree. The exception to the rule  -  trees  that don't bear fruit or give food, may be cut down for a purpose ( building).  The prohibition of meaningless destruction of tress is extended to not unnecessarily destroying or wasting objects called the laws of ' bal tashchit ' - do not destroy. The cutting down of forests – non- fruit bearing trees can have a negative ecological impact on the environment and man's future, so forests need sustainable management that takes into account their  regenerative capacity. Fruit bearing trees can be cut down if there are good reasons justifying this.

The statement – for man is like the tree of the field is seen by Sages as a metaphor – man can be compared to a tree. Psychologists use  the ' tree drawing test ' that  reveals something about  personality. The trunk represents the sense of who you are and how intact your personality is - a small trunk – you feel weak, a large trunk, you have more strength. The branches are like your limbs symbolizing the efforts you make to connect to the world and support your needs to survive. Leaves and fruit are symbols of productivity. Roots show a sense of security and being in touch with reality.

The Mishna from Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our fathers 3:17
כל שחכמתו מרבה ממעשיו, למה הוא דומה, לאילן שענפיו מרובין ושרשיו מעטין, והרוח באה ועוקרתו והופכתו על פניו. אבל כל שמעשיו מרובין מחכמתו, למה הוא דומה, לאילן שענפיו מעטין ושורשיו מרובין, שאפילו כל הרוחות שבעולם באות ונושבות בו אין מזיזין אותו ממקומו. 
Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, what is he comparable to? To a tree with many branches and few roots; comes a storm and uproots it, and turns it on its face. But one who's good deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? - To a tree with many roots and few branches, whom all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place. Here, the roots of the tree are compared to a man's good deeds and actions and the branches – the head of the tree are compared to a man's learning, wisdom and Torah. What feeds, secures and   the source of man's wisdom - are his good deeds and actions.

הגמרא בקידושין מ:. שאלה  תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול? נענה רבי טרפון ואמר - מעשה גדול. נענה רבי עקיבא ואמר- תלמוד גדול. נענו כולם ואמרו- תלמוד גדול, שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה.
The Gemorrah in Kidushin 40b asks – what is greater - Learning or mitzvoth - actions. R' Tarpon answered – actions, R' Akivah answered – Learning is greater. Then all the Rabbis in the study hall answered – learning is greater because it leads to action. A person in essence is his Torah – תורתו, a live, dynamic and walking Torah scroll .He can be described as a tree of dynamic knowledge and when he does mitzvoth and good deeds, he is giving expression to his inner being, he is giving expression to his Torah, a Torah which he has internalized and integrated, a Torah which is part of his personality. The tree is his wisdom - his Torah, and his good deeds, mitzvoth and actions are the fruits of his learning. The tree is greater than the fruit.  From this Gemorah, the source of a man's good deeds is his Learning.

Our Mishnah from Pirkei Avot sees good deeds as ' roots' feeding, securing and driving learning whereas our gemorrah in Kidushin sees learning as the source of our actions and the driving force to good deeds, mitzvoth and actions. So how can we reconcile the two statements? We have learning and actions – what drives what?

There is an obvious question on our Mishnah's statement – 'how can good  deeds should exceed one's wisdom'. ? We usually act on our knowledge in our order to pursue any planned action, so wisdom always exceeds one's deed. The opportunities for learning are many, both formal and informal, but opportunities for action are more limited. R' Yonah explains that when the Israelites made a sincere commitment to bring the Pascal sacrifice, the Torah credited them as if they did it immediately. A general commitment to fulfill God's commandments and mitzvoth, even those that one has not yet learned, is credited by God as if one has already done the action. This makes one's actions greater than one's knowledge. So what drives  learning  is a desire to learn to be active in the world  and a commitment to action. It is a desire to answer questions related to actions and good deeds, solve life's problems, act in the world, and be of service to man and to serve God. The Gemorah in Kidushin sees man as the Torah within himself. His ultimate desire, like the pianist who wants to perform before an audience in a great concert hall, is to give expression to his learning and act on his learning.  The Gemorah in Menachot 98 says that ' sometimes the stopping and not learning Torah to do mitzvoth is the very foundation of the Torah ' -  שביטולה של תורה זהו יסודה-קיומה  פעמים.  Action and good deeds drive learning and give it direction while the learning itself builds Torah personalities who want to give expression to their Torah and do mitzvoth in the world.

What drives the educational system is getting good test scores rather than teaching kids relevant material so they can act in the world. Learning should be driven by questions, problems and projects. It is about being in the world and acting in the world. Once they are involved in answering questions, solving problems and doing projects we can really assess true  learning. There is  no need for a test and in the end we  have ' exhibitions of  their mastery' and children who have internalized and integrated their learning,  burning with desire to share their learning and give expression to their learning by doing.     

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Re'eh 76 - Internalizing the reasons of the Mitzvoth - commandments

In our parasha, Moses reviews the dietary – Kashrut laws that deal with forbidden animals, birds and fish etc.  Two of the birds listed are the עורב = the raven and the Chasidah - חסידה which is translated as the stork, but there is uncertainty here. Amongst the forbidden animals we have the pig – and the Sifra commentary notes that 'one should not say that his soul loathes and is disgusted by pig's meat, but say – I would indeed like it, but what I can do, my Father in heaven has imposed these decrees on me.'  
" אי אפשי לאכול בשר חזיר אבל "אפשי ומה אעשה ואבי שבשמים גזר עלי כך
We can respond in this way concerning the חוקים  - statutes which are commandments that have no rationale comprehensible to the human mind, but when we are dealing with laws between man – משפטים  we don't say I have no problem with killing, stealing or hurting but what can I do my Father in Heaven has imposed these decrees on me. Human intelligence הערה השכל  will lead us to conclusions about the underlying values, what is right and wrong with regard human interactions etc. . . . After the receiving of the Torah we are inspired and guided by the Torah –  הערה התורה to discover new reasons and spiritual dimensions to the commandments.  The reason we observe the commandments and accept the authority of a commandment, irrespective of our understanding, is that it is the will of God. R' SRH explains that the Torah laws are like the laws of nature; they exist independent of our investigation or understanding. However, even though we cannot hope to figure out and understand the divine intelligence or God's motives, we have to reflect on the laws, contemplate them and offer reasons wherever possible and this includes the חוקים – laws where the apparent reason is hidden.  The reason for doing the mitzvoth - טעם לצמות is God's will, the reason in the mitzvoth, הטעם במצות is the underlying value and our intention. The sages give us some understanding as how the mitzvoth should impact on us - to refine mankind, לצרף הבריות and promote psychological, social and spiritual improvements etc. The study of the reasons of the mitzvoth – טעמי המצות,  their underlying values and goals, gives us a deeper understanding and helps us make our actions more meaningful and qualitatively better. Our hearts, mind, thoughts and intentions are the soul of the physical action and God primarily wants our hearts -   רחמנא לבא בעי. Our emotional and spiritual growth depends on the internalization of the values underlying the mitzvoth and incorporating the commandments into one's personality. A successful mitzvah depends on understanding the underlying value and goals and injecting the physical action with soul so we connect also emotionally and spiritually to the mitzvoth. In this way, we shape our instinct and inclinations so that we fulfill the words of Proverbs 21 the soul of the evil person desires evil, the soul of the righteous person rejoices in acting justly. 
   נפש רשע אותה רע .....שמחה לצדיק עשות משפט
The Torah teaches us that the pig is not kosher because it has only one of the 2 kosher signs – it has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud. The commentary remarks that the pig is the symbol of the hypocrite. When the pig lies down and crouches, it spreads it feet out to show us that he is a kosher animal. However, he does not chew the cud, so his inside is not like his outside. Although we are not disgusted by pig meat, we are now less inclined to eat pig meat as this would mean internalizing the negative value inherent in the pig, something that goes against our values and who we are.

It is important to ask children and ourselves - if God would not command us to do mitzvoth like acts of charity or not to hurt people, or keep the Sabbath, what would we do? Hamish children were asked – why they should not steal or kill or keep the Sabbath – they answered: because God said so. They were then asked – if God had not commanded you to act in a certain way, what would you do?  Children who had internalized the values underlying God's commandments had no difficulty in answering the questions. We are inspired by our intellects –  הערה השכל not to hit another person and by the Torah –הערה התורה, not even to raise a hand.  We honor and respect parents but the Torah go further and equate the honor of parents with the honor of God. With all our learning and intellectual abilities we acknowledge that our understanding of the Divine will is limited and ultimately do the mitzvoth because we submit to the Divine will and intelligence.

The Torah lists the Chasidah and the o'reiv – the raven as non-kosher birds. The Chasidah or questionably known as the stork is called the 'chasidah' = the righteous one is because it displays kindness – חסד towards others of its species by sharing food with them. If it is so compassionate why it is stigmatized as a non-kosher bird – the answer is that it directs its kindness exclusively to its own kind and will not help other species. Its generosity and compassionate is driven and motivated by self-interest and expediency rather than by true altruism.  We find that the raven –  עורב also did acts of kindness. Although the raven refused to carry out his mission while in Noah's ark and check if the flood had subsided  so mankind could resettle the land, the ravens were responsible for the Prophet Elijah's survival by bringing him food in the morning and evening. After Ahab had questioned God's credibility - the nation was not punished with famine or drought because of their idol worship, Elijah called on God to punish the nation with a drought. The Maharal explains that the ravens had an ulterior motive. Their actions were not motivated by the desire to do good to Elijah, but they wanted the nation of Israel to suffer. If Elijah lacked food and water, he would have asked for the famine to stop. Although their actions could be defined as acts of kindness, their evil intentions and motivations redefined the action. The way people cheat and deceive others is that they first build trust and confidence by doing acts of kindness and helping others. Once they have that person's trust and confidence, they can empty out their bank accounts.

Instead of promoting intrinsic motivation, doing the mitzvoth and learning because they have intrinsic and inherent value - the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah- good deed itself, a sin or bad deed is punishment in itself - we drive learning and pro-social behavior using rewards, grades, praise, consequences and punishment.  Not only is internalization and commitment impaired, but at best we promote the lowest form of morality – if you do this you will get that, and one also encourages cheating and dishonesty in order to get the reward. We also convert the value of a spiritual act with all its emotion and intention into money. There is a blind belief, that if we get kids to do an action for the wrong reason, they will, in terms of the Talmud, come to do it for the right reasons.  This is only true when the Lo lishma – doing things not for the sake of Heaven is Lishma – for the sake of Heaven. The child wants to do things because they have inherent value and for the sake of Heaven, but he feels he needs some extrinsic motivation to help him reach his goals. It is much easier to get children to comply and do things by ' doing to them ' and promising them rewards. It is far more difficult to engage kids so they can reflect about the reasons of the mitzvoth, how they impact on others, how they represent his values and who he is as a person.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ekev 76 - What you resist, persists - the case for positive education

In our parasha, Moses continues to encourage the nation to trust in God to ensure the successful conquest and settlement of the land. In order to help the nation build trust in God and see God as the source of their success and power, Moses describes God's care and providence. God protected them from the hardships of the desert,' HE fed you the manna, your garment did not wear out upon you and your feet did not swell' – ויאכילך את המן, שמלתך לא בלתה ורגלך לא בצקה  . Moses reminds them that the goodness comes with challenges and hardships in order to prepare them for life in the land of Israel. In order to survive in Israel, one needs a high level of faith and trust in God and life in the desert למען ענתך לנסותך, ויענך וירעבך ויאכילך את המן, כאשר ייסר איש את בנו - living a life dependent on miracles, not being able to store food for the next day and or do anything that will give life some certainty and predictability, prepared them for life in Israel. They should know that this path was for their benefit. Moses then warns about the dangers that prosperity brings – arrogance, self- aggrandizement and self- glorification. This leads to forgetting God and saying ' it is my strength and the might of my hand that made me all this wealth'. Ultimately this leads to idolatry, going after the gods of others.
כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה. וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁכֹחַ תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהָלַכְתָּ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים 

The first question is that on entry into the land of Israel, the children of Israel are commanded to destroy all manifestations and vestiges of idolatry as it would be unbefitting that idolatry should exist in God's palace, the land of Israel. So why is Moses so concerned about idolatry, if the land has been cleaned out of any temptations and enticement? The 2nd question – prosperity allows people to be independent rather than dependent on God and so people attribute their success to their own efforts and beings, rather than God's support, so why would people then subjugate themselves and submit to idols. ? R' Isaac Sher gives 2 answers. At a time when there existed a passion for idolatry, people had the power to use these negative forces of idolatry to improve their materialistic situations. The second answer - when a man attributes all his success to his own doing, he is denying God's role and he begins to worship himself. A person who is rude and coarse, gets angry – thinks he is a god and people have to listen to him. A person who is arrogant and self-glorifies himself is involved in idolatry = uvoda zara. An atheist or non-believer, even though he does not believe  in anything but himself is also an idolater. When one puts his trust in others and flatters people with power - החונף he is considered worse than an idolater. A person who is an idolater's slave is considered as if he serves idolatry. The verse in Judges 10: 6 gives a list of gods of the surrounding nations that the children of Israel worshipped and served. ויעבדו את הבעלים ואת העשתרות ואת אלהי ארם ואת אלהי  צידון ואת אלהי מואב ואת אלהי בני עמון ואת אלהי פלשתיםThe Midrash connects this idolatry to the children of Israel's laziness and lack of effort in prayer. R' Isaac Sher explains that when people  do not tire from activities that serve their interests but are tired when it comes to prayer, it means that the nation   places more value and trust in political agreements and alliances with the surrounding nations than prayer, and that people have more faith in their efforts than in prayer. When this happens – it is as if the nation serves the gods of these nations and people who cheapen prayer do the same.
Although there is a commandment to clear out and destroy idols and manifestations of idolatry, the thrust of Moses' speech is positive, focusing on building trust and relationship with God. If you have a problem with idolatry, the underlying problem is your relationship with God. The problem is mainly within man and not outside of him, so we focus on building personalities rather than engineering the environment so there is not temptation or enticement.

A similar problem - a man is overcome with lustful thoughts when he is certain environments. The Talmid= student of R' Chaim Volozhin, the Keter Rosh wrote down the teachings of his mentor. He writes about a man, (most likely unmarried) who had a problem with impure thoughts when he sees women. In order to deal with his problem and fight his lustful thoughts he decides to make a vow not to look at women. If he breaks his vow and looks at a woman, his desire will burn inside him like a fire. The situation is much worse, since he fought reality and energized the negative action he was fighting. Instead, he should accept the reality and pray for God's  assistance  and mercy in dealing with the challenges as he ventures into the market place.  He is not told to avoid the market place. R' Moshe Feinstein said– if a person is challenged by public transport he should know he has a problem and work on himself.
כתר ראש ארחות חיים קצה ] הסתכלות עריות ושיחתן אמר  זה הכלל כל מה שינדור א״ע ויפרוש מראיה אח״כ  אם יראה ויביט יבער בו היצר כאש, אלא כשדעתו לילך בשוק יתפלל ויבקש רחמים לבל יכשל ח׳יו בשום נדנוד חטא והרהור עבירה ר׳ל;
כתר ראש - הנהגותיו שנכתבו בידי תלמידו  של ר, חיים מולוזהין רבי אשר הכהן משערשוב.

When we are dealing with children we need to give them structure and make the environment safe and protect them from e.g.  bad diet – sugar and the media. The solution for adults – engineering the environment beyond the demands of Halacha – Jewish Law so that the environment will be free of any temptation or challenges has many downsides. The focus is no longer on positive education and   building righteous people who can overcome challenges, but on creating a sterile environment and fighting the external threats to a person's spirituality. There is another problem – when you fight ' evil', you actually support and strengthen ' evil' as Carl Jung said - 'what you resist persists'. The answer is to accept reality and not to fight reality and then focus on positive steps and education which will help you change reality. ' 'What you resist , persists' -   means that if a person has a character flaw – lustful thoughts , or he has an anger problem or he has food or drink problems, the more the person fights the reality, the bigger the problem becomes. He has ' energized the problem and given it center stage in his life. Instead of going away, it fights back and persists.  If a man has bad thoughts, he can use the principles of Mindfulness – acknowledge his thoughts, put them aside and then focus on his breathing and then something else. If he tries to resist these thoughts, they fight back and persist. He should be building his personality so his mind is occupied with ideas or being mindful of what he is doing so he is not distracted. He should try to see the image of God – צלם אלוקים in each person and relate to their contribution to society instead of focusing on their gender. If  he breaks his diet ,  resists and fights back by being  over-critical of himself, full of shame , he will ultimately  give up , and say ' what the hell and then he will go on the binge – eating and drinking without any restraints. So a person with a drink or diet problem , needs a plan that will focus on what he can eat , replacement foods , a new life style instead of focusing of what he should not eat. When he does fail and breaks his diet, he should have some self- compassion instead of being over- critical and giving energy to breaking his diet and focus on getting back on track. Campaigns against 'talking in shul ' will be more successful if they focus on positive education and not ' energizing' talking in shul. Campaigns about the dangers of internet and cell phones tend to cause people to shift blame from people and their relationships or exploring underlying problems and just blame it all on the internet. People forget that the most potent and dangerous communication tool is our tongues and not the cell phone or the internet. Here too, we need to focus on the positive, what we can talk about and connect with people in a positive way. Even if a person makes a conservative and restricted choice concerning the media, he has to remember the downside of resisting and energizing the dangers - the negative side and focus on positive education. In politics, candidates in election who focus on the negative of their opponents rather than saying something positive about themselves, strengthen their opponents. The campaign to remain in the European Community failed because it focused on negative consequences of leaving rather than the positive reasons for staying in the community. Instead of giving a list of what pupils  cannot do in the holidays, a teacher should focus on what they could do.

There is tendency in education to try and control the environment and people's choices rather focus on positive education and build people. When the focus is on fighting the negative, we need to understand the downside – 'what we resist persists.'