Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ve'zot Ha'bracha- Be'reshit 74 - Simchat Torah - Torah Learning- Achievement or Process

On Simchat Torah we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of the weekly Torah reading. We end with Ve'zot ha'bracha and start the book of Genesis with Be'reishit.  We do the same with si'yu'mei ma'sechtot = completing  ' tractates of the Talmud and other holy books  by  immediately making a new beginning and starting the  new ma'se'chet= tractate.
 There is very little time spent on celebrating 'achievement.' In fact we express the  urgency in getting along with the 'process of learning' by the way we call up the  'Chatan Be'reishit '- the person who is honored with starting the new Torah reading  cycle. We say ' ma'heir   u'mod, u'mod, u'mod chatan be'rei'shit' -  quickly , get to your feet the chatan Be'reishit!.
We do see the importance of ' achievement ' and completing the study of the various books, but the focus is on the process of learning. Each word and moment of learning is precious and eternal. We learn in order to put into practice what we learn and teach others, but learning  is important because of its  intrinsic value and so  the mitzvah is not just to learn but to enjoy learning.
Focus on the process rather than on achievement is vital if we want to ensure that every person finds their place in learning and discovers their unique share. We ask in our daily prayers – ve'tein chelkei'nu be'toratecha and please give us our share in your Torah. 
If the focus is on ' achievement and competition ', it is only the high achievers and the' mitz'tza'yanim' who  feel  that they have a share in the Torah. They  also lose out on the intrinsic value and reward that one gets from learning itself , and also  don't have  feeling of satisfaction of helping the weaker students that comes with a cooperative learning environment.
 The weaker students feel inferior and alienated from Torah. They come to believe that they have no place in the Beis ha'medrash = study halls. The focus in schools is on achievement instead of trying  to build a  caring community of life- long learners. Kids should be helped to focus on what they are learning and why they are learning. Instead schools and parents drive kids to focus on just 'how well they are doing'.

The Torah speaks of the importance of every child being  provided with a Torah education and everyone feeling that they share the Torah heritage .
In chapter 33:4, 'the Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage =mo'ra'sha  of the congregation of Jacob.' The commentators note that the word ' heritage =mo'ra'sha ' is used as opposed inheritance= ye'ru'sha. An inheritance belongs to the heirs who have the right to dispose of it as they please. A heritage is the property of generations before and after and it is the responsibility of heirs to preserve the Torah intact and pass in on to future generations. The sages explain that the word mo'ra'sha can be read in the Hebrew as if it were spelled m'ora'sha = married, meaning that Jewish people and the Torah are considered like bride and groom. This refers to the entire nation, for everyone, rich and poor alike, has an equal share in the Torah.
If we want kids and everyone to be able to connect with Torah and discover their share in Torah, we have to focus on the process of learning. The process of learning is not about memorizing  what others have said, and  it is not memorizing facts and laws and then throwing it back to the teacher in the exam. Deborah Meier , the American educationalist said , that' learning is essentially talking and teaching is essentially listening'. Learning is about talking,  it is about asking questions, making mistakes and learning from them. It is trying to find meaning in the learning, trying to dig deep into one's mind to understand a text rather than being satisfied with what someone else before has said.  It is not sitting quietly and listening to what the teacher has to say and then giving back the answers the teacher wants to hear. 
We start the book of Be'reishit /Genesis and we soon discover that we have to wait for the book of Exodus/Shemot to be exposed to God's commandments. The truth is that all the stories of the book of Be'reishit are part of Torah and the personalities – the forefathers and others used their God given intelligence, their da'at to come to the conclusions of the Torah in their personal behavior. Rav Nissim Ga'on in his commentary on introduction to the tractate of Be'rachot says  - all people from the time of Adam's creation have an obligation to commit themselves to  any commandment or call for action/non action etc which based on logic and the sound intuition of the heart. In order to connect and understand Torah, we have to delve into our souls and minds. For the Torah is close by, in our mouths and in our hearts. The process of learning is not to get the Torah into our hearts and the hearts of our children , but to help them and us delve into our hearts and find Torah.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Succoth , She'mimi A'tzeret 74 - Futuristic Happiness

We come out of the Rosh Hashanah – Yom Kippur Te'shuvah = repentance and atonement experience, with a joy in our new perspectives about life and closeness with God. These feelings of joy and closeness to God can be given expression through the  'mitzvah' of the ' sukkah' and the other commandments of the holiday Sukkoth. We leave our permanent homes and dwell in God's shadow – the sukkah. We no longer need the protection of a permanent   dwelling.  Being closer to nature, without the barrier of physical structures, we feel God's closeness and protection in a temporary booth. Our new trust and closeness with God makes us feel less threatened by others and more accepting of other people. Sukkoth is called the festival of happiness and we are happy with life itself and our relationship with God.

The other pilgrim festivals - Pe'sach and Shavuot have good reasons for experiencing joy and simchah. Pe'sach comes when it is spring - when the barley begins to ripen. It is also the spring of the nation who gained their freedom from the Egyptian   slavery.  The fruits of this freedom are not harvested until Shavuot, when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is called Chag Ha'katzir when the actual crops are harvested. Sukkot is called Chag Ha'asif – the festival of the ingathering of the crops at the close of the year. On a spiritual level we ' gather in'  the  lessons of life which God and his creation have taught us over the past year. We then spend a week being very close to God and happy with our relationship and his creation.

Although we received the Torah on Shavuot, we will not be able to totally appreciate the Torah and the world until the messianic period. Chag Ha'asif hints to this period where the ' ingathering of crops ' on a spiritual level refers to our new understanding of God and his creation.

Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch, a Rosh Yeshivah from Telse, explains that Sukkot is essentially a glimpse into the messianic period. When we hear of bad news, we bless God as the ultimate and true judge. When we hear good news we bless God as being the ultimate of Good and He does  good.  In the messianic period we will have the perspective to see God's goodness behind both good and bad tidings.

On sukkot , this new perspective allows us to find joy in leaving our homes  in order to be in a temporary 'sukkah' a  symbol of being in ' ga'lut'  = exile. In the sukkah we also  have the positive experience of being in the shadow of God , similar to the  clouds of glory that protected the Israelites in the desert.  Ga'lut = exile is now only a positive experience. 

The 4 plant species=' 4 minim'   are pointed and waved during prayers in different directions in order to invoke God's blessing of rain on the world.  They also symbolize the unity of the Jewish people. The ' etrog' = citron which has both taste and a pleasant aroma symbolizes the scholar who possesses scholarship and good deeds, the lulav= the palm tree branch has fruit – the date which has taste= scholarship but has no aroma= good deeds. It symbolizes the scholar who   lacks  good deeds, the myrtle=hadas has aroma but no taste, symbolizes a person who has good deeds but is deficient  in Torah learning. The willow lacks both taste and aroma. On sukkot we are happy with everyone, and bless God who is good and does good even to those people who don't have taste or aroma.

The sacrifices are often accompanied by song = shi'ra and the wine libations – nisuch ha'ya'yin. The principle is  ' ein shi'ra e'la ul  ha'ya'yin. There is ' song' only with wine, because only wine has the ability to elicit joy and song. On sukkot we don't have any special reasons to be happy except life itself. And it is for this reason we are happy even with ' plain water '. We celebrate the gift of water with the ' simchat beit ha'sho'evah ' and accompanying the daily sacrifice with water libations in the hope and prayer for the blessing of rain.

During the year we suffer from the nations of the world who pursue Israel like 70 wolves. But on Sukkot, we wear different lenses and see only the good in the nations, and thus we bring 70 sacrifices for well-being of the seventy nations.

We need to leave our permanent dwellings for the temporary structures of Succoth in order to enjoy the heavenly, spiritual and 'futuristic ' happiness of the messianic period. But our spiritual demands and aspirations are to leave the sukkah and take with us its eternal messages and combine ' heaven and earth '. On she'mini a'tzeret, the 8th day of our celebration, we leave our Succoth and return to our homes. For 7 days we were God's guests in His sukkah. Now, we invite God as a permanent guest back into our homes and try to live 'eternal lives ' and enjoy ' a futuristic happiness ' where we can see God's positive hand in all the creation. May we see only good in our kids and family and see problems as opportunities for growth and becoming closer to God.

Monday, September 9, 2013

R.H- Yom Kippur 74 - Accountability and Te'shuvah- Repentance

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are primarily concerned about our accountability to our creator for what we have done over the past year. When we talk about accountability in the context of politics and business, we hear about the need to be accountable and pay the price for failure or inappropriate behavior by resigning or serving a criminal sentence.
Accountability for kids is just another reason for dishing out more punishments and consequences. The result of this view of accountability is high rates of recidivism .  About 2/3 of prisoners in the USA who leave prison , commit new crimes and then return to prison. Kids become even more alienated and their problems begin to pile up.

The reason for this is the approach to sin and crime is punitive and not therapeutic. The Te'shuva = repentance process is therapeutic.

Although one should repent everyday of one's life, the month of Elul that proceeds Rosh Hashanah, and  Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur is the most opportune time to repent. Yom Kippur is the time when we deal with the past. We verbalize and admit our sins = vi'dui, express regret and commit ourselves not to repeat them. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment and we anoint God to be our king and subject ourselves to his authority.

Should we not first deal with our sins, admit what we did wrong and ask for forgiveness   - the Yom Kippur process -  and only then approach the heavenly court to be judged by God?
Shouldn't Yom Kippur come before Rosh Hashanah?

The answer is that the Te'shuvah process is therapeutic. In order to change , a person must acquire a new vision of himself. The month of Elul and Rosh Hashanah is used to simply work on this vision by solving problems,   trying to improve and do things better. The word shofar comes from the Hebrew – to improve. We say to God – judge me where I am now, I have changed; I am no longer the same person. In order to create a new vision we must sever ourselves from the past, because if we are still tied to our pasts, our pasts will hold us back and limit the extent of the vision. Solving problems is a neutral process that has no shame or blame, so it will not limit the creation of a new vision, but allow people and kids to come up with a better plan and also fix relationships. We first create a future and then deal with the past. We first have an Elul and Rosh Hashanah and then a Yom Kippur.

Now that we have solutions in place and a new vision of ourselves, we are in a position to deal with the past. If we don't deal with the past , the past will catch up with us.
  We now have a new appreciation of what we did wrong. This results in more regret and remorse that we had before the te'shuvah process. It is pretty easy for a thief to admit what he did and to give lip service – apologize soon after the crime. Once he has changed and has a new vision of himself as someone who does not do such things, he is embarrassed and remorseful when he recounts and admits what he has done and asks for forgiveness. Shame and blame are generally very negative emotions which get in the way of personal growth. But shame and blame can be easy to handle and a positive thing , when a person has a new vision of himself and the blame and shame is not because some else is blaming or shaming him, but he himself has internalized what he has done. Once he has given expression to these feelings on Yom Kippur he can move on in the knowledge that he has been forgiven and is a new person happy with his new appreciation of life and his relationship with God.

In schools and in the home we can use CPS – collaborative problem solving to ' work with ' kids and help them reflect and do Te'shuvah = repentance. Here we don't deal with ' behaviors'   but with unsolved problems. We work together with kids in a collaborative way to find mutually satisfying, realistic, and durable solutions to these unsolved problems and provide kids with a new vision of themselves. They then are in a position to reflect and engage in the moral act of restitution” – that is, to figure out how to make things right after doing something wrong.

The prisons , both adult and juvenile prisons are filled with offenders who believe they have done nothing wrong except to be caught .If they admit doing wrong , they say they don't deserve the 'sentence' meted out to them. Because the system is essentially punitive, offenders are not getting the right treatment which will help them re-enter society and not return to a life of crime and prison.

A step in the right direction is to use CPS to help solve people's problems and apply the principles of restorative justice. In the criminal justice system, crimes are done against the state. The state has replaced God and people. The Rambam explains that repenting and fasting on Yom Kippur does not help with sins we do against our fellow man. Until the offender   has made things right, engaged in restitution and appeased the victim, who would then forgive and pardon him, the offender has not atoned for his sins.

Restorative justice says that the offender has committed a crime against the victim and society rather than the state. So both the victim and representatives of society collaborate with the offender to ensure restitution and reconciliation. This helps the offender to reflect on the impact of what he has done on others without shame or blame. This helps him internalize what he has done, be more remorseful, try to make things right and appease the victim.

The lesson of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that ' Accountability ' is not about paying the price of failure or making mistakes. It is about learning from mistakes, creating a new vision for oneself, changing from the inside, engaging in the moral act of restitution and making things right. It is about peace and reconciliation between man and God and man and man.

May we all help each other, our kids, employees, students etc to be more accountable to God, ourselves, fellow citizens and society.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Ha'azinu 73 - Torah makes good people better and Bad people worse

Moses continues his last speech and in this week's portion, he uses poetic language in the song of Ha'azinu . He describes the history of the world, in particular that of  the people of Israel, the exile and the final redemption.

In Chapter 32:2, Moses teachings and utterances - the Torah is compared to water. "May my teachings drop like rain, my utterance flow like dew''.  The sages in the Sifri further explain the analogy.

Let my teaching fall like rain: Just as the rain is one thing, yet it falls on trees, enabling each to produce tasty fruit according to the kind of tree it is – the vine in its way, the olive tree in its way and the date palm in its way, so the Torah is one, yet its words yield Scripture, Mishnah, laws and lore. Like showers on new grass: just as showers falls upon plants and make them grow, some green, some red, some black, some white, so the words of Torah produce teachers, worthy individuals, sages, the righteous and the pious.

The sages of the Talmud   qualify the Sifri and say that if a sage is a worthy, refined , and of good character ,  then the words of the Torah are like dew , pleasant and good for him . If not , his learning of Torah will destroy him. The Torah is likewise compared to a drug or potion. If he studies with the right intentions and motives to sanctify the name of heaven , the Torah is a life giving potion and he will merit life  , but if he if he studies for self aggrandizement , or to belittle and disparage others, then the Torah is a poisonous potion and  he will merit  death.

So like water which makes fine plants grow into bigger and more beautiful plants, and thorns – into bigger and   nastier thorns, the Torah makes good people into better and greater people and bad people into more powerful and wicked people.

This is all very surprising -  that  the learning of Torah does  not have a positive effect on bad people. In fact   it makes bad people into more powerful and wicked people. !! Only if people are aware of their shortcomings and want to change and repent , the learning of Torah can be of a help.

The learning of Torah and especially the Talmud – the oral law makes people more intellectual and powerful. Rabbi Meier describes how he could find 150 reasons and arguments to '  le'taheir  et ha'sheretz '  , to purify a ' creepy crawly'  which is innately impure. This intellectual power and ability coupled with self interest and self righteousness can be easily used to make the ends justify the means.

The sages name great and learned men who did not merit the world to come because they were evil  -   Doeg , the Edomite was the head of the Sanhedrin court in the time of Saul the King, and  Achitophel who was King David's teacher. And there was Korach who led the rebellion against Moses.

In order to ensure that a person benefits and grows from his Torah learning, the Torah and  sages set certain preconditions and guidelines to people engaging in Torah study and encourage them to always have in their minds their goals and reasons for learning Torah.

Here are some of the preconditions, guidelines and goals .

Derech e'retz kadmah la'torah  - One should make sure that he is of good character before he starts learning.

Focus on doing what is straight and good in the eyes of God and man.-  v'asita et ha'yashar ve'hatov ........Serve God and be of service to man 

One's learning should be part of one's serving God – a'vodat Hashem  and one should try to find in one's learning a lesson that one can apply in one's daily life.

Be a student of Abraham – Those who have a good eye -  ayin tova, a positive outlook and are magnanimous both financially and emotionally, are modest and humble - ru'ach ne'mu'cha, and have an undemanding soul - nefesh she'fe'la ,satisfied with one's lot.

The fear of sin  is one's goal and it takes precedence over one's  learning – the beginning of wisdom is the fear of sin.- 

One's learning is for the sake of heaven and there is a lot of joy and intrinsic motivation in one's learning.

Torah gives people power and as Lord Acton said ' Power corrupts'. On Rosh Hashanah we pray to God to give us life. Life is also very empowering. As parents, teachers, business leaders, employers and colleagues we can impact and influence the lives of those around us.

If we use the guidelines which the sages have taught to protect and guide our learning , our Torah in return will  impact positively on our fear of heaven , good character, altruism and our joy of  life.

 We can connect to God and become better people by studying his Torah and in the process always being aware of the preconditions , guidelines and goals involved in studying Torah