Sunday, August 25, 2013

Netzavim- Rosh hashanah 73 - Te'shuvah =Repentance Autonomy and Relationship

As Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment approaches, we read in this week's portion Devarim /Nitzavim 30:2 about repentance – Te'shuvah, ' and you will return unto Hashem, your God and listen to his voice'.

The Jerusalem Talmud asks 'what is the punishment to be done to the sinner '? Wisdom replies that sin pursues bad experiences. Prophecy replies that the soul that sins should die. God replies that the sinner should repent and return to him. In this way he atones for his sins.

There is discussion amongst the commentators whether Repentance- Teshuvah is a voluntary / optional commandment or are we obliged to repent and do Teshuvah. The Ma'haral from Prague   quotes the Talmud that God considers the person who does Teshuvah as having offered a ' voluntary ' sacrifice. He explains that since  the sinner no longer sees himself as subject to God's authority and decrees, his decision to repent and to return unto Hashem,  is considered by God as  if he has in an autonomous and voluntary way 'returned'  to God. And for this God is extremely grateful.

Rabbi David Lapin reconciles the two views - the commandment –mitzvah of Teshuvah is an obligation or a voluntary/optional commandment. Objectively speaking we have an obligation to repent and do Te'shuvah; subjectively speaking God considers our actions as autonomous and intrinsically motivated.

The Teshuvah associated with Rosh Hashanah focuses on our intrinsic motivation and relationship with God. We come before God as people who have changed from the inside, with a new vision and motivation. We are not the same people. Our purpose is to willingly redefine our relationship with God. We anoint and make God our king and subject ourselves to his divine commandments and guidance.

When our kids and students don't meet our expectations, we must remember that it is our duty to help and guide them to do 'Te'shuvah. This means participating together with kids in CPS – collaborative problem solving process and allowing kids in an autonomous way to engage in the moral act of restitution and making amends. The litmus test - has my relationship and trust with my kid or student been enhanced. The key words – autonomy and relationship.

Here are 2 examples of how a teacher helps a kid to do Te'shuvah.

A 2nd grader had been running through the halls of the school like wild and recently caused a major accident when shee ran into a staff member wheeling a projector down the hall. While his teacher could’ve used a consequence to teach him a lesson (“it's not OK to run in the halls!”), she attempted   proactive problem solving with her
Teacher: I know you know we’ve been concerned about your running in the halls here at school, right?
Student: Yup. I’m sorry.      
Teacher: Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. I just want to understand why you think you are running in the halls because I know we’ve told you tons of times not to! Why do you think you do it?
Student: I don’t want to be late.
Teacher: You don’t want to be late. Hmmm.  Late for what?
Student: Breakfast.
Teacher: Why not?
Student: They always run out of the hot breakfast, and I like the egg sandwiches.
Teacher: Wow. And I thought you were just running because you thought it was fun! But you don’t want to miss out on the hot breakfast. I guess now that you say it, I have noticed that most of the complaints about you running in the hall are first thing in the morning. I guess the thing I’m worried about is someone getting hurt, like you or another student or a teacher. Does that make sense?
Student nods.
Teacher: So I wonder if there is anything we can do to make sure you don’t miss out on the hot food but still are safe – so you aren’t running through the halls? Do you have any ideas?
Student: They could save me one so I don’t have to run. 
Teacher: That’s an idea. We could ask the breakfast folks if they could save you one. Do you think that would work?
Student: Yup.
Teacher: Well, let’s try it.
Teacher: We still have the problem of the broken projector.
Student: Maybe I could do some odd jobs for the school.
Teacher: Can you think of anything else you could do?
Student: I could write a letter apologizing for damaging the projector and being unsafe in the hallway. I could also do some babysitting or use some of my allowance to pay for the damage.
  Adapted from

The other situation was a onetime incident where a high school boy was fooling around in the dining hall. He threw a tomato which hit a teacher. The teachers immediately demanded that he be punished and taught a lesson – he should be banned for a week from the dining hall and eat alone. His class teacher insisted that he would handle things differently. He approached the kid – described in a neutral factual way what had happened and asked the kid – what can we do about the problem? With a bit of guidance the kid came up with idea of writing an apology and explaining that his actions were not directed against the teacher, but unintentional. He said he would deal with the mess.  The kid took a friend to help him. They not only cleaned up the mess , but they cleaned the whole dining hall , floors , dust etc and arranged the tables and chairs.
If the kid would have been punished – banned from the dining hall and ordered to clean the mess , the relationship with the teacher would have been worsened and the only message the kid would have internalized was that the teacher was unfair and his mistake was to have been caught. Here the kid internalized that his behavior was inappropriate, his self esteem and respect was honored and he responded in an autonomous way and made things right beyond what was expected from him. His relationship with the teacher was enhanced as well.

From Unconditional Teaching article – Alfie Kohn

'In an illuminating passage from her recent book Learning to Trust (2003), Marilyn Watson explained that a teacher can make it clear to students that certain actions are unacceptable while still providing “a very deep kind of reassurance – the reassurance that she still care[s] about them and [is] not going to punish or desert them, even [if they do] something very bad.” This posture allows “their best motives to surface,” thus giving “space and support for them to reflect and to autonomously engage in the moral act of restitution” – that is, to figure out how to make things right after doing something wrong. “If we want our students to trust that we care for them,” she concludes, “then we need to display our affection without demanding that they behave or perform in certain ways in return. It’s not that we don’t want and expect certain behaviors; we do. But our concern or affection does not depend on it.”' 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ki Tavo 73 Happiness and Intrinsic Motivation

The portion of Ki Tavo, from the Book of Deuteronomy/Devarim speaks of the blessings and curses that will come to the Israelites, either as a result of observing or not observing the commandments. Blessings create conditions where it is easier to observe the commandments and then get reward in the world to come and curses make it terribly hard to observe the commandments.   

 Verse 28:47 says that the terrible curses come as a result of you not having served the Lord, your God with joy and good spirit – b'simcha u'v'yuv leivav – when everything was abundant.

This statement raises the following difficulties.

The Torah has already said that if you listen to God and do his commandments you will have endless blessings, but if you do not listen to God to do his commandments then endless curses will pursue you and overtake you. Now the Torah seems to be contracting itself by saying, that the curses come not because of the lack of observance of the commandments, but rather how the commandments are performed - without joy and good spirit, not in the proper mood.

The commentaries explain that the ' Tochacha'  = the rebuke and the curses from the book of Leviticus refer to the destruction of the first temple and the subsequent Babylonian exile while the curses in book of Deuteronomy – Devarim  refer  to the destruction of the second temple and the exile to the present day. The Sages tell us that the reason for the  destruction  of the second temple were poisonous relationships between people based on baseless hatred –' sin'at chi'nam. The Torah here is saying the problem is =' not performing the mitzvoth with joy and good spirit' , and not baseless hatred – sin'at chinam as explained by the Sages.

The third question is that parents and teachers justify the use of rewards and competition to promote learning and the observance of mitzvoth- commandments - that in time the sanctity and intrinsic value of the mitzvoth will cause kids to learn and do the mitzvoth with joy and good spirit. We see here that ' mi'toch she'lo lishma , ba lishmah , that starting out for the wrong intentions and reasons did not lead to people learning and observing the mitzvoth for the right reasons and  with joy and in good spirit.

The Torah is explaining the underlying reason= lack of joy - for not learning ,not observing the mitzvoth, and the baseless hatred – sin'at chinam in relationships. If people are not doing mitzvoth out of joy and good spirit, it means they are not intrinsically motivated, so they do the mitzvoth like 'automats ' in a rote way – mitzvat a'na'shim me'lu'ma'da. This  impacts in a negative way on relationships because people don't have purpose and meaningful  fulfillment in their lives and are not truly happy. The only way they feel alive and making progress is to feel superior to others by 'having'   more wealth than them and by   putting them   down if they get in their way or would make demands of their wealth. Ultimately people also stop doing the mitzvoth or do it by feeling compelled to do the mitzvoth as it they were serving the gods of their  enemies.

The question is how can we help kids and our ourselves become  more intrinsically motivated, do things out of joy and good spirit and be appreciative of God's blessings and gifts of life to us.

Eric Fromm talks about 2 kinds of people -  ' to have '  - those people who get status and feel alive because of something extrinsic to them –for eg wealth . So what's important for them is ' achievement ' , measuring how much money they have made, how many paintings or cars do they own , how well they have done in school – grades, awards, honor rolls or how many mitzvoth they have done or pages of Talmud- Gemorrah they have learned. So they are the center of their worlds, preoccupied with the ' self' and the ' I'.

Then, there are the – To be – people. They focus on experience, and relationships. They are self- directed, intrinsically motivated,  absorbed with the process itself rather than being preoccupied with their performance. They are truly happy, do things out of joy and in good spirit and  lose themselves in what they are doing . They are giving and happy people totally unconcerned with the self or the I.

We can help kids be happy and intrinsically motivated if we apply the 4 C's of motivation to their academic and socio-moral and emotional growth.

Choice - kids feel   self –directed or autonomous because we not only give them choices but they can ' generate ' choices   and participate in decision making on matters important to their lives.

Collaboration- be related to others and to be part of a social world can be achieved when there is cooperative learning and activities in the context of a caring and supportive learning community.

Competence – to have a sense of oneself as competent and effective , not because of grades and praise but by making a contribution to the learning community.

Content- We have to make sure that their learning and social interactions have purpose, are meaningful, engaging and relevant.

The blessings and curses depend on our intrinsic motivation and happiness. When we do the mitzvoth with joy and good spirit, we are connected to the divine presence – shecinah that resides within us and we are blessed. But when we are sad – ' u'tzuv' or not fulfilled the divine presence is in exile – galut.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ki Te'tze 73 Finding value in what you do and not what you get

The Bible – Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:6  talks about the mitzvah of Shi'luach ha'ken – if a person happens upon a bird's nest with a mother roosting on young birds or eggs , you can't take the mother with the young , but you must first send the mother away and then you can take the young for yourself , so that you will have a good and long life.
The mitzvah expresses man's right to benefit from the creation. He has a right to eat the kosher birds and the eggs, as this elevates them when they become part of man, but at the same time he must respect the needs of the world and its species. So when the mother is busy performing her duties to creation by attending to her young, one has no right to take her. You must first send her away and then you can express your rights to God's creation by taking the young birds. The mitzvah also recognizes that the mother- the principal - is more important than kids- the income - in that she can reproduce and protect the species.
Honoring the mother bird is similar to honoring parents and both are rewarded with a good and a long life in that one takes steps to lengthen the quality of the lives of parents.
This mitzvah is associated with spiritual demise of the Torah sage – Elisha ben Avuyah, the disciple of Rabbi Akiva and the spiritual mentor to Rabbi Mei'ir . Once a Torah sage , Elisha became an apostate and left the faith. He was now referred to as A'cheir – the ' other ' and no longer by his name.
The following incident was one of the triggers that challenged Elisha's belief in divine providence according to his understanding of the Torah and caused his loss of  faith in Judaism.
He once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Sabbath, take the mother-bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, 'It is written, "Send away the mother bird, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days (Devarim 22, 7)." Where is the well-being of this man, and where is  the  prolonging of his days!'
Elisha's motivation for doing God's commandments and mitzvoth was extrinsic, the promise of reward for fulfilling the mitzvoth - she'lo lishmah. The mitzvoth and the study of the Torah should be done – lishmah – for the sake of the mitzvoth themselves and  for the sake of heaven to fulfill God's wish , to experience being close to God and because of the intrinsic value and intrinsic reward of the mitzvoth. The reward of the mitzvah in this world is the mitzvah itself- se'char mitzvah – mitzvah.

We are encouraged by the Sages in the Ethics of Our fathers to serve God not as a servant who wants to get a reward , but to serve him in order not to get a reward. The commitment to the Torah and mitzvoth we make in the Sh'ma prayer – to  love God with all your hearts, souls = give our lives in certain circumstances -and with all your resources  negates the idea that we can do things for the reward. The promise of reward is only in the world to come so the verse reads - 'That it may be well with you in the World [to Come] which is wholly good,' And that you may prolong your days' in the world which is unending. 
Elisha actually shares his understanding of why he went ' off the path'. Elisha during a discussion with his student Rabbi Mei'ir  says that the verse from Ecclesiates 7 –' good is an end of a thing from its beginning 'is true  only when it is good from its beginning. He then elaborates –' So it happened with my father, Avuyah, who was one of the great men of Jerusalem. On the day of my circumcision, he invited all the eminent men of Jerusalem to sit in one room, and R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua sat separately, in one room. R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua began to study the Bible. A fire came down from heaven and surrounded them. My father asked them – have you come to burn down my house?.  They explained that when the Bible was  given from Sinai , a fire came down on  mount Sinai as it is said, 'The mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven (Devarim 4:11). Because their  words- the learning of the Bible was as  joyful as when the Bible was  given from Sinai , a fire came down as it did on mount Sinai. My father thereupon remarked, "Since the might of the Torah is so great, should this child survive I will dedicate him to the Torah." Because his intention was not for the Name of Heaven, my study of the Torah did not endure with me.
Elisha recounts the reason and circumstances in which his father, a wealthy and influential man, decided to dedicate his newborn son to a life of Torah scholarship: It was for the power. He saw a power in Torah which had previously eluded him. Attracted by this power, he sends his son to study. Elisha=Acher feels that because of these tainted origins, his study was destined to fail.
The obvious question is the following. We are told that a person should never excuse himself from doing mitzvoth if he is doing them for the wrong reasons or intentions  – lo lishmah . He is still doing something positive and in time the impact of the sanctity and intrinsic value of  mitzvah will cause him to do mitzvoth –lishmah –for the sake of heaven and the mitzvah itself. This question is due to misconceptions surrounding – 'she mi'toch lo lishmah , ba lishma ' - from  'within'  the the' lo lishmah' – extrinsic and wrong reasons and intentions  , a person will come to the mitzvoth for the right reasons – for the sake of heaven and for the intrinsic value of the mitzvah. The process is not automatic and depends on there being a ' spark of the right reason and intention ' to start with , and that students see the extrinsic motivators –such as rewards – there to help them with their main goals of engaging in learning and doing mitzvoth with joy and a love for what they are doing .

Parents and teachers encourage kids to engage in mitzvoth and learning torah for the wrong reasons , promoting values of ' lo lishma when they use grades,  rewards, awards and competition – being number one -  as the vehicle that  drives student learning and behavior. In the short term – they work but at a cost. They undermine intrinsic motivation and a love for learning and doing mitzvoth. This is far worse than when a person out of choice does things for the extrinsic rewards. In time he may come to find pleasure in the learning itself. There is little chance that kids will come to enjoy learning for its own sake –lishmah  when the goal is to please parents and teachers and not find pleasure in what they themselves are doing and the system is  uses grades and rewards as the motivators to drive  learning and behavior .

 Instead of rewards we can give learning and doing mitzvoth an association of fun and excitement – gesmack – encourage questions and nurture their curiosity. We can assess learning , while kids are actually learning especially by their questions and how engaged they are in learning. Testing is not the only way to assess kids. Excellence can be expressed not as achievement – high grades but how the stronger kids share their learning and mentor other kids. Joe Bower says that assessment is a conversation , kids can learn to engage in self assessment and focus on how they perceive their competence , engagement and love for learning and the mitzvoth.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Shoftim 73 – Fear and Anxiety in War

In Parashat Shoftim  the Torah  - Deuteronomy/Devarim chapter 20 talks about Israel as a nation going to war. The nation is commanded not to fear the enemy as God is with them. A priest ' anointed for battle ' would address the people saying that they are about to engage in a war against their enemies and should not be frightened, because   fear will hamper their  ability to fight, cause soldiers to   panic and flee from the battle field. They should be confident, and inspired with a sense of mission from the fact that 'God is with you and will fight for you and save you.' 
The priest then made a proclamation, which was then repeated by the commanding army officers to their troops. They said that if anybody was unsuited for combat he should leave the war front, lest his fear and lack of enthusiasm erode the morale and confidence of his comrades.  This exemption from the army would include a person who had built a new home and had not yet begun to live in it, or they had planted a vineyard and had not  being able to enjoy its fruit , or he was engaged to a girl and was not yet married. It would be tragic for a man to die in battle and for someone else take possession of his unlived home, enjoy his vineyard or marry his fiancĂ©. These men would not make good soldiers as their minds would be on their houses, vineyards or brides and so lack the will to fight. 
The priest then left the scene and the officers then said that cowardly and fainthearted people should leave the field because their presence would undermine the confidence and morale of the soldiers. Someone who had heard the priest's assurances and still lacked faith in God was not worthy of a miracle and thus had no place in the army. There were those that were fearful and fainthearted because of their sins and knew that they were unworthy of God's help and protection.

In order to protect the sinner's or coward's dignity , the Torah also exempted and freed those who had built a house etc, so onlookers would assume that he was going because of his home, vineyard or bride.

All these procedures applied only to an 'optional war '  - 'milchemet reshut ' but where the war was a 'milchemet mitzvah' – a mandatory war fulfilling the divine command , such as in defending the country against an attacking army , there were no exemptions and everybody had to take his place on the battlefield.

 The obvious question is -  Are we not afraid that the fear and anxiety of cowardly or fainthearted soldiers would undermine the morale of other soldiers , aren't we worried that certain soldiers will have their new homes, vineyards or fiancĂ©s on their minds and not on  the battle. How does changing the war into a mandatory one – God's command change things.?

An 'optional war '  always raises the doubt about the legitimacy of the war, undermines personal commitment and thus allows fear to surface ,despite the fact that the ' anointed priest ' promised divine protection and help in the battle. It is easier to have faith and deal with fear when soldiers go to war at God's command. If soldiers go to battle without fear, they display faith and then they are afforded divine help and protection. When people are exempted because of  fear and other personal reasons, the unity and power of the collective, the 'Tzibur ' is weakened. In a milchemet mitzvah everybody goes, so there is tremendous support, a sense of mission and a shared fate. The individual benefits from being part of a community which has special merits.

There are lessons to be learned as to how we should handle fear and anxiety. If we understand that what we are doing is meaningful , has purpose , not an option and God's will , we are then  able to displace thoughts of fear and anxiety with a sense of mission and a confidence of divine help. If what we do benefits the community and is done in the context of community it is likely that we are not alone but receiving lots of support and cooperation. 
In our homes, schools, and work place we should encourage cooperation and certainly not competition. We  can  talk in the plural ' we' and be  guided by higher values and a sense of divine mission. This should help deal with emotions like fear and anxiety as we negotiate  our daily challenges, and try  to be better , caring and more competent people.