Thursday, December 26, 2013

Va'eirah 74 - Nelson Mandela and Dignity

The blog article  is in 2 parts

1 Dignity and Respect -  An Insight from the great South African Leader Nelson Mandela

South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein eulogized the late President Nelson Mandela ,  likening him to Joseph for his ability and willingness to forgive. Joseph emerged from jail to become a leader and head of government of a mighty nation. He was reunited with his brothers and had the opportunity to exact vengeance and justice and yet Joseph transcended his personal pain and his need for retribution by forgiving his brothers so that his family won’t be torn apart and destroyed forever,  Mandela’s ability to embrace his brothers and sisters who inflicted so much pain on him and millions of others was crucial for the unification and reconciliation process in South Africa.

I learned the following insight on the verse Bo 6:13 and the Mishnah in Avos  from a conversation between Rabbi Lapin and Nelson  Mandela.  Rabbi Lapin , the author of Lead by Greatness  shared the article  here  .

  . And G-d  spoke to Moses and Aaron and commanded them about the importance of being respectful , patient and understanding to the children of Israel despite they being oppositional, rebellious, provocative  and hard to deal with, cursing and stoning them . And to Pharaoh they had not only to be respectful, but show him the respect a king deserves, despite being the force behind the oppression and murder of the children of Israel in Egypt.

The Mishnah in Peirkei Avot – the ethics of our Fathers asks?  Who is honored -  and answers – the man who honors and respects others .He who is honored does not depend on something external to one – whether people , rich and famous honor and respect him. Being respectful and dignified is a character trait that emanates from the depth of one's soul. Who is honored  is one who gives expression the character trait of dignity and respect.

Living and working in South Africa during its transition from apartheid to democracy under the leadership of two exceptional individuals, President F.W. deKlerk and President Nelson Mandela, was a rare privilege. I worked closely with members of both leaders’ governments and with some of the greatest South African business leaders of that time. One of the most transformational moments for me of that period was a short conversation I had with President Mandela.
We were both speaking at a YPO University held in Cape Town in 2000. During a quiet moment I was able to ask him the question I had been yearning to put to him since his release from prison ten years before. I observed, using Bishop Desmond Tutu’s words and my own childhood recollections, that when he was arrested he was an “aggressive militant.” Even his tribal name, Rolihlahla (pronounced Hollishlasha), meant “troublemaker.” Yet after twenty-seven years in prison he emerged as a deeply compassionate leader with immediate international stature. What, I asked him, did he learn in prison that was responsible for this dramatic transformation of character and personality?
He smiled as he gazed into the distance. Then he turned to me warmly and said: “On my first day in prison I remember feeling devastated at how they had managed to rob me of everything dear to me. I knew I had to find one thing I could hold on to that they could never remove from me. I thought long and hard. Then it struck me. We are each masters of our own dignity. If we choose to retain our dignity no one else can take it away from us. I decided in that moment that I would never lose my dignity.” However, he continued to explain to me, that there were far-reaching implications to his decision. Preserving dignity requires at all times that each one of us treat every other person with dignity, irrespective of how they may treat you. “I realized,” he said, “that if I were to stay true to my promise, I would need to treat everyone in prison with dignity, and that included my jailers. This is what I learnt in prison, and this has stood me in good stead as I have tried to rebuild a broken nation into a proud one. I learnt no other leadership lessons, only how to treat every person with dignity and with love no matter how they may have treated you or your people in the past.”
The lesson of dignity.  The test of dignity.  The embodiment of dignity. That was President Nelson Mandela – a man who showed me how powerful it is to Lead By Greatness.'

The lesson I learned is that we can't  say -  I won't be disrespectful to others but I won't go out of my way to be 'honored'. I am just interested in being an ordinary guy, and not be called honored.
Nelson Mandela teaches if you want to be retain and keep your dignity,   you have to go out of your way and respect and honor all people – even your enemies and oppressors.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shemot 74 Empathy improves learning and thinking skills

Moses- Moshe is raised as a prince in Pharaoh's   palace. He matures, grows in stature and becomes the head of Pharaoh's palace. Although raised as an Egyptian prince, he remains a loyal Jew. His leadership qualities which made him fit to be the redeemer of the children of Israel began to show when he toured the slave camps. He wanted to  observe  the burdens of the children of Israel, identify with the suffering of his brothers and grieve with them. 'If only I could be in their place and bear their suffering. 'Pretending that he was assisting the Egyptian task masters he would help his brothers carry their burdens. He then convinced Pharaoh that his slaves would be more productive having a day of rest. Moses then chose  the 7th day as the Sabbath. Moses' concern for the 'klal', the whole community was unique in that he focused also on the needs of individuals.  Divine providence meant that being a prince he did not have a 'slave mentality' and he had the confidence and courage to intervene on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. He intervened on behalf a Jew who was receiving death blows from a taskmaster and killed him. He intervened to stop   two  fellow Jews  quarreling. Finally the Torah says that as a complete stranger in a foreign country, Moses   had no problem rescuing Yitro's = Jethro's daughters from the hands of violent shepherds.

The personality trait  and  virtue  of 'nosei  b'ol  im chaveiro' – sharing a fellow's burden is expressed when a person feels and empathizes with  the emotional , physical and financial stress and pain of his friend. He should try to find out more about his needs and see if he can support him with friendship. Learning with a person and giving him spiritual support is very important as well. He should do everything that he can to alleviate the pain and stress. He should be there for him, not only in the tough times, but also be happy for him and share in his simchos at happier moments and in good   times.

The character trait of 'nosei b'ol im chaveiro' – sharing a fellow's burden displayed by Moses meant that he was not only qualified to become the redeemer of the children of Israel but he would be able to ' receive the Torah' on their behalf and ' pass it on' to them. Sharing a fellow's burden is one of the 48 personality qualities needed for someone to acquire the crown of Torah.  One needs   to be a 'fit and refined ' kli '– receptacle to receive the Torah and arrive at the truth. Learning Torah is not just about ' academic study ' but also involves observing others, learning from people in an informal way, especially from wise sages = shimush Talmidei chachamim, and   watching how they conduct themselves.  We learn from life itself and give expression to  our   learning by putting it into practice.

 Social interactions are the arena where lots of socio-moral learning takes place. In order to share  in   a fellow's burden we need to use the same learning skills as we do in learning Torah or Talmud. People are not open books and we have to notice the ' cues' people give with their body and facial language. There is a lot of missing information and we have to notice the inconsistencies in a person's behavior to recognize that something is going on. We need to learn to ' drill down ' with questions to find out a person's concerns and their   perspectives.  People, especially kids are not so articulate when it comes to expressing their concerns and what is bothering them. When we observe   how a wise man conducts himself, we need to be able to recognize and to be aware of the sensitive way he is acting and understand the reasons behind his behavior.

  The research actually shows that kids who had some social skills training improved their academic performances. Social Skills rest on ' empathy ' and altruism. It means  going   beyond one's self , exploring ideas , trying to understand the other person's ideas or what he needs  first, rather than trying to prove oneself to be right or look after one's own needs . Beit Hillel taught us to try and understand the other person first before we try to explain our position. The CPS – collaborative problem solving approach tells us to first to get a clear understanding of the kid's or other   person's perspective and concern before we put our concerns on the table.

How we view kids' behavior and other peoples ' challenges can impact on our responses or interventions. If we view kids inappropriate behavior as being 'defiant, aggressive, lazy, manipulative, controlling, and testing limits' we tend to be more punitive and  use consequences to get them to ' wanna behave'.  But if we are more compassionate and want to share with the child his burden, we would   ascribe his challenges to lagging skills etc. The CPS – collaborative problem solving approach 'mantra' is that kids do well if they can and not children do well if they want to. I think the same applies to adults. Sharing a fellow's burden really understands   what is getting in his way of the kid and trying to help him.

Edward de Bono ,l the creator of the word ' lateral thinking' and programs to ' teach thinking ', recommends his PMI tool to help people be less critical and try to see the positive in what  others are  saying. We are naturally critical thinkers -   it is either a yes or no – we agree or disagree if the idea fits in what we believe or not. It is much easier to be critical than look for the positives in other people and their ideas. Intelligent people have more of a problem of not being exploratory and creative in their thinking, because they are good at defending their positions. So Edward de Bono suggests we  should explore a person's   idea using his PMI tool, looking first for the Positives and only afterwards the Minuses. And then we can note other Interesting observations.

Sharing a fellow's burden means changing one's thinking – less critical thinking and more exploratory and creative thinking so you have  a 'empathic and  compassionate view ' of peoples' struggles , understanding first their  concerns and perspectives and trying to see the positive in them and their  ideas. This makes you a better, creative and explorative   thinker, so you become better at learning what the Torah teaches and have more of a chance to acquire the crown of the Torah.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Vayechi 74 – The power of Vulnerability

Brene Brown  has exposed the world to power of vulnerability and how vulnerability can make our lives better. Her TED talks on 'the power of vulnerability and listening to shame ' have had more than 15 million views.  Embracing vulnerability is also what characterizes great leaders and entrepreneurs, and what earned Judah – Yehuda, Jacob's son the honor of being the king and leader of the Jewish people. Judah admits and confesses that he is the father of the child, his daughter-in-law, Tamar is carrying. This public admission exposed his vulnerability and subjected him to the jibes of the populace. He could have justified not admitting his sin and  rationalize, that  the confession of such a sin might constitute a  חילול ה, a desecration of God's  Name. On the contrary, an awareness of one's shortcommings is a sign of greatness. Admission of guilt is a glorification of God's  Name, for we realize the limitations of man. Yehuda could have  protected his dignity and find another way of saving Tamar's life  by pretending to pardon Tamar .Instead he proclaimed – she is right , the signet ,the wrap and staff are from me , she is more righteous from me .Because Yehuda was able to judge himself and admit his mistakes he was given the role of king who would  be the judge of his people. In order to judge the people with 'truth, justice and peace ' one needs to appreciate the vulnerability of others.   It was the failure to expose vulnerability that caused Saul the king, to lose his crown to David. Instead of accepting the rebuke of the prophet Samuel for keeping alive the sheep, the women and Agag the king, Saul tried to justify his actions and not admit his sin.  King David admitted his wrong doing with Bat Sheva and   embraced his vulnerability. His kingship remained intact despite his sin. Rabbi David Lapin, the author of   Lead by Greatness   lists vulnerability as one of character traits that define great leaders. Vulnerability is the courage to admit and confront their own vulnerability. The owner of the largest advertising agency wholly owned by a woman in the USA, Gay Gaddis said that when you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity. Entrepreneurship is all about vulnerability. The source of Yehuda's embracing his vulnerability was the name his mother gave him. Leah gave thanks to G-d for enabling her to be the mother of one- third of Jacob's 12 sons .She had been granted more than her rightful share. The name Yehuda comes from the root ' o'deh' which means – I give thanks. It also means –I admit or confess. So Rabbi Lapin explains that when we are grateful and give thanks we are actually admitting and confessing we did not deserve it or we were not entitled to the goodness. Not only apologizing exposes our vulnerability, but also being grateful and offering thanks.
What gets in our way from embracing vulnerability?  We wrongly consider it as a sign of weakness. We live in our' culture of scarcity' in that people feel that they ' are not enough' –never perfect enough, never successful enough, never thin enough or never extraordinary enough. Women are supposed to ' Do it all, do it all perfectly and' never ' let them see you struggle'. For men- do not be perceived as weak. We live in a world where 2 questions are asked – what is there to fear and who is to blame. So to avoid or minimize the pain of blame, judgment and shame we strive for perfection. We find exposing our vulnerability excruciating because of the feelings of shame that come with it and then we don't allow ourselves to be seen, really seen. We also try to 'numb vulnerability' and since you can't selectively numb an emotion, you end up numbing emotions such as joy, gratitude and happiness and end up feeling even more vulnerable.

So why is fully embracing vulnerability important? Feeling connected and having a sense of belonging is crucial for giving our lives meaning and purpose. And it is difficult to connect with 'perfect people '. They don't come across as authentic   and most of us don't trust 'perfect'. Vulnerability is the most accurate measurement of courage – to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, and to be honest. It forces us to expose ourselves to situations filled with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. The inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limits the fullness of important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy and creativity. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. It sets one up for failure, failing many times until one succeeds. There is nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability. The verse – Proverbs 24:16 for 7 times will fall the saint and then come. Failure is not in the falling, but not getting up. One only succeeds in Torah unless one experiences failure –'ain adam o'meid ul divrei Torah ud shenichshal te'chila.'

The people who embrace vulnerability believe that they are worthy of love and belonging and therefore have a strong sense of love and belonging. They are authentic, whole hearted people, living from a deep sense of worthiness, a sense of courage and self - compassion. This enables them to own their mistakes, take risks and not only expose their vulnerability, but embrace vulnerability. They experience guilt when they mess up, but not shame. This all, gives them the ability to connect with people. The people who struggle with vulnerability are always wondering if they are good enough, worthy of connection, belonging and love. Underlying their vulnerability is 'shame ', a fear of disconnection.  Shame focuses on the ' self'. How could I- with a capital I – do that !!!.  I am a mistake, I am bad. The whole-hearted person asks 'How can I do THAT ?, I did something bad. I am sorry, I made a mistake.

It is not easy owning one's mistakes. We become defensive and look to blame someone else. Your husband comes home later than usual from his night soccer game and you wait for him. In the morning you are tired and have a second cup of coffee, one more than usual. You drop the cup and now there is a big mess on the floor. You phone your dh- dear husband and give him hell for coming home later than usual. He is to blame for you dropping your cup of coffee. If he had come home earlier, you would not have had a second cup. Grandparents are baby- sitting their   grandchildren. The granddad is near the car- park with the kids waiting for the grandma who is being delayed, to come. A toddler starts to run off, the granddad runs after her, so the toddler begins to run faster and then falls flat on her face. The granddad blames the grandmother. If she would have hurried up, the kid would not have fallen.

The way we respond to somebody who is giving us some criticism of negative feedback can either add negative energy or calm things done and facilitate a constructive discussion. A couple has had coffee together and then separate, the man back to his business and the women to a doctor's appointment. She gets to the family car and does not find the car keys. Her husband had been using the car. The phones her husband and rebukes him for not giving her the car keys. The husband can embrace his vulnerability and say – I made a mistake, I will bring you the keys as soon as I can or he can be defensiveness and blame the wife – why did you not ask for the car keys! A wife is sitting with his wife and venting- she has just had it, she can't do it all anymore, the husband can be there for her and just listen or he can be defensive and say ' I unloaded the dish washer.'

We can help our spouses; children and students embrace vulnerability by modeling vulnerability, being authentic, showing empathy and not being judgmental.
Brené Brown was inspired to write a book called Daring Greatly, a phrase from Theodore Roosevelt's 1910  speech ' Citizen in the Arena ' sometimes referred to as' The Man in the Arena' I conclude with the passage which made the speech famous.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Va'yigash 74 - Rabbi Wallerstein - what's next ?

The centrality of torah study and learning is expressed by Ya'akov's decision to send Yehudah to establish a Beis Hamedrash – a house of learning in Egypt, ahead of the family. It is no wonder that a talk by Rabbi  Wallerstein on Jewish education in the USA aroused so much interest. He said that competition, tests,grades and  homework and that different parts of Torah learning are considered as ' subjects ' and separate disciplines were responsible for kids not accessing and becoming excited about the beauty of the Torah. However there was one big omission in his talk  – how schools handle discipline problems. Many kids are falling through the cracks and are becoming  Lost at School  because of a punitive approach to discipline. Discipline only got a mention in passing  when he said that his father was a marine and he believed that kids should get consequences ( a euphemism for punishments). The question people are asking – what's next Rabbi Wallerstein ?

I am not going to discuss the negative impact on ALL kids, not only the academically weaker ones of competition,tests, grades and homework. I recommend reading the article by Dr Benzion Sorotzkin The Dangers of Rewards and Competition and listening to a short Radio interview of Alfie Kohn on awards and grades He  also briefly discusses the alternatives.

Here are some guidelines from Alfie Kohn  based on the best practices of progressive schools, education in Finland and the discipline code being implemented in many schools in the USA and especially in Maine, created by Ross Greene - Collaborative problem solving model  Here, unlike kids at traditional schools who find no value in the learning itself and only study to get a good grade, kids enjoy learning, find value in the learning and are intrinsically motivated to learn.

The Major problem with traditional schools is the learning is driven by extrinsic motivation. The belief  that 'lo lishmah' – extrinsic motivation automatically leads to kids learning 'lishmah -enjoying what they learn, and seeing the value and beauty in it does not help. Discipline is maintained also through ' extrinsic motivation' –' doing to' kids with rewards, punishments and consequences teaching kids to ask ' what will I get ' or 'what will be done to me ' and what's in it for me. Consequences don't help a kid reflect on what type of person I want to be, do my actions reflect my values or how they impact- the consequences  on others.

The more focused we are on kids' 'behaviors', the more we end up missing the kids themselves – along with their needs, their lagging skills, motives , reasons or any problems that underlie their actions. Instead of discipline, solve problems in a collaborative way, ' working with kids'. In this way we teach lagging skills, solve problems in a durable way, and  enhance the trust and relationship between the teacher and kid . We also  give the kid the space to engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution and making amends. We help the kid to do  Teshuvah  and  give him a vision for the future .

Assessment  - What replaces Grades and Tests
The more kids are led to focus on how WELL   they are doing in school , the less engaged they will tend to be with WHAT they are doing in school . So for sure they will miss out on the beauty, enjoyment and the intrinsic value of their learning. If the focus is on achievement and performance, rather than the process of learning , then the learning is not about understanding and discovery. Joe Bower said that assessment is not a rubric but a conversation. The kid needs feedback which will improve his learning and a discussion how to go forward.

Jerome Bruner once said that we should try to create an environment where students can ' experience   success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information. So Rabbi Wallerstein  is going in the right direction when he recommends a conversation with a kid on a test he brought home. The conversation is in learning, not about grades. But he gets it wrong by talking about ' achievement ' – the positive .Kids need to be taught that mistakes are our friends.We don't make progress in Torah and learning unless we fail. 'Lo omdim ul divrei Torah ud she nechshalim bahem.'  There is no positive or negative.

The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing children's learning rather than from test scores or grades. A teacher said that' I assess my students by looking at their work, by talking with them, by making informal observations on the way. I don't need any means of appraisal outside of my observations and the student's work, which is demonstration enough of their thinking, their growth, their knowledge and their attitudes over time.' It also comes from watching to see whether they continue arguing animatedly about an issue raised in class after the class is over, whether they come home chattering about something they discovered in school, whether they read on their own time. Where interest is sparked, skills are usually acquired. Of course, interest is difficult to quantify, but the solution is not to return to more conventional measuring methods; it is to acknowledge the limits of measurement. The best way to see a kid's progress in Gemorah is by the questions he asks and that we can't test or measure.

A kid can demonstrate his learning through projects, designing experiments for a science fair, writing a play and then giving a performance, making a 'movie' on what is being studied. A student can share and reflect on his work by using a 'portfolio'.

 Since the research says there are no academic benefits for homework for kids below 15 and only negative effects on the love for learning, the default should be no homework unless the homework is really deemed beneficial to kids.

Deborah Meir said that teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly talking. So kids should do more of the talking than the teachers, and that depends on the how the teacher has managed to engage the kids' interest in the topic and their excitement about learning in general.  Learning should be organized around problems, projects and questions, especially students' questions – not around text books, lists of facts or skills or separate disciplines. Learning becomes multi-disciplinary with all areas of learning connecting to each other.

The 3 C's of  Intrinsic Motivation
When the needs of kids for autonomy, competence and relatedness are supported and kids find meaning and purpose in what they are doing , they become self- determined and intrinsically motivated 

Collaboration- students are connected to their peers within a safe and supportive community of learners ,see their peers as ' learning resources' , and learning is cooperative ( chavrusha) not competitive

  Choice – student autonomy is supported by inviting kids to participate in decisions about what they are learning and classroom life. Kids learn to be responsible and make good decisions by making decisions and not by following instructions.
Content – the curriculum should be meaningful, engaging and relevant so sparks student interest and curiosity.

Change is best when done slowly and in a cooperative way. Principals, teachers and parents should always have their long term goals for their kids in mind. If we want to raise G-d fearing kids who are caring and responsible, have a love for learning and feel unconditionally accepted and loved by adults in their lives , we have to help kids focus on WHAT they are doing and not HOW WELL they are doing. In this way they will see the beauty of the Torah and take 'ownership' of their learning.