Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nasso 74 - Motives and Community or Behaviors and Competition

The end of our Parasha-portion Nasso deals with how the leaders of the 12 tribes celebrated the dedication and inauguration of the tabernacle-mishkan and the altar = חנוכת המזבח which took place on the first day of Nissan. On their own initiative they first brought 6 wagons and 12 oxen – 2 tribes, jointly brought a wagon and 2 oxen – in order to help the Levites transport the tabernacle and its parts during journeys. Then each tribe on his specific day brought his own personal offering out of his own funds in celebration of the momentous event.

   Not only (1) did God agree to the initiative and instructed Moshe to accept the gifts and offerings, but (2) the Bible-Torah goes out of its way to list each individual offering despite the fact they were identical. It would have been much simpler to say that each leader brought the following offering.  And thirdly (3) an exception was made for the leaders' personal offerings - they were treated as communal offerings and thus were allowed to be brought on the Sabbath which is not the case for personal offerings.
The reason that each tribe's offering is mentioned in detail despite being identical is that the thoughts, intentions, motives, symbolism and values underlying each component of their offerings were different. They were expressions of the meaning behind their individual names and the  tribal missions to the joint national goal of inaugurating the Tabernacle.

 The reason that God agreed to the initiatives of the tribes – the gifts of the wagons and oxen and treated the offerings as communal offerings= korban Tzibur and not a korban Yachid = individual offering - is that leaders dedicated themselves, both in a spiritual and material way to the service of the nation. They did it in a way that showed cooperation, partnership and brotherly friendship. It was quite possible that a tribe would try to do better than the tribe that brought his offering on the previous and bring a bigger offering.  Instead of competition, all the offerings were brought exactly like one another in order to maintain the sense of community .This made them worthy for the Divine Presence to rest among them. After the Torah lists each offering separately, the total sum of the offering is given to show how each leader shared his and his tribe's spiritual and material resources with the nation.

The account of the tribal leaders offerings teach us the importance of inner thoughts, feelings, motives and values together with a concern for the community. But when it comes to families and schools the focus is on behaviors and competition, how can I  help  the kid choose appropriate behaviors or more accurately how can we get obedience and compliance. And this is done using rewards, awards, punishments, logical consequences, positive reinforcement, praise and competition. In this way we ignore what matters most about a child- his thoughts, feelings, perspectives, motives and values, concerns, needs and lagging skills, in other words the child himself. 

 A kid can choose to share some candy with a classmate for at least 3 different reasons. He may want to have some of his chocolate - he  has been taught that if you want kids to share with you, you must share with them,-  or he shares  in the hope that his teacher will notice and praise him for it, or he shares  simply out of concern for his friend who did not have any candy.  A teacher responding to the behavior with praise is trying to reinforce the behavior and in the process strengthens the kid's dependence on adult approval. A teacher focusing on motives will ask why he decided to give his friend some candy and ask did he see his face, he is really happy with that candy. Isn't he? Here the teacher helps the sharer experience the impact of sharing and to come to see himself as the kind of person who focuses on community and wants to make other people feel good – irrespective of verbal rewards. Instead of focusing on behavior and competition - focus on motives and community.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bamidbar 74 - Family and School Mission Statements

The Parasha-portion of Ba'midbar= in the wilderness   describes the structure of the Israelite camp in the desert. Each tribe had its own place and own flag. The verse Bamidbar 2:2 says - The children of Israel shall encamp, each man according to his banner/flag according to the emblem of their fathers' household, at a distance surrounding the Tabernacle
. אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל  מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ

The flags symbolized the individual characteristics and mission of each tribe, Yehuda – royalty, Issachar – Torah, Re'uvein – Repentance and Bravery etc. The individual tribes had their own flags and goals and yet they were united and complimented each other by  ' raising their flags in the name of our God' - Psalms 20:6-תהילים כ:ו וּבְשֵׁם-אֱלֹהֵינוּ נִדְגֹּל;

The tribes, like our modern day companies, organizations or   institutions had their own mission or vision statements expressed by their flags. Mission/vision statements can be very useful for both families and schools when kids participate in drawing up the statement. This conscious pledge   to live by our values is not only a unifying factor, but helps to a create a culture of compassion, of integrity, and schools and families where kids (and adults) grow to hold the well-being of the larger community in mind.

Julie Stevens of the Center of Spiritual and Ethical education shares author Marie Sherlock's suggestion of a three-step process for developing a document that can serve as a spiritual roadmap, reflective of and unique to your own family or school. First hold a values brainstorming meeting. Then hold a vision-brainstorming meeting. Finally, use notes generated in these meetings to draft a family mission statement.

A .Values Brainstorming meeting – Questions can help kids focus on the purpose of a family or school, characteristics of people, their core values and goals of individuals and the community.  Empathy, compassion, integrity, honesty, fairness, respect, courage, and responsibility, are examples of goals and virtues
B Vision Brain-storming meeting  - Here we attach these values and core virtues to actual examples from daily life –how we live by these values,  how we can support each other , solve problems in a collaborative way and make a contribution to the community as a whole . We can then invite kids to imagine what the family, school and community at large would look like if everyone practiced these values.

C Drafting the mission/vision statement
·         Our Family Values. In our family we value the following: List each value with descriptions of each.
·         Living Our Values. Our family/school practices it values in the following ways - List each value and the different behaviors and actions that show family/school members living in concert with that value.
·         Our Family/School and World Vision. We believe that practicing these values can make a difference: List each value again and state what would happen if your family/school – and the rest of the world – practiced that value.

Family and School mission statements are in contrast with discipline approaches where things – rewards, punishments, consequences etc. are done to kids and students to control their behavior and get compliance. Family and school mission statements are examples of  ' working with ' kids to create caring communities where decisions are made together and problems are solved in a collaborative way. In this way we can promote character, ethical and moral development of the child in contrast with traditional approaches that just teach the child to ask – what are the consequences of my behavior for me and not ask how my behavior has an impact on others. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bechukotai 74 - Materialism and Learning

Governments, schools, parents and the media exclusively focus on one benefit of education: how it is positively related to one's earning power.  Students agree that the chief benefits of a university education are to increase one's earning power and to be able to make more money. (I prefer Judith Shapiro's reason for investing in one's education - .  “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.")

 The Bible – Torah seems to be giving the same advice.Leviticus 26:3 if you will follow my decrees and observe my commandments and perform them ……אם בחוקותי תלכו ואת מצוותי תשמרו ועשיתם אותם,   a list of material blessings follow. Because the phrases seem to be repetitious the Sifra explains – if you will follow my decrees as' toiling and being engaged to intensive Torah study',   אם בחוקותי תלכו- שתהיו עמלים בתורה   then material blessings will come your way. Study hard and you will gain financially.

The research however says that materialism has a negative impact on learning and the efforts to promote learning by impressing on teenagers  and  pre-teens  the financial benefits of education may be in fact counterproductive.

Materialism's negative effects on school performance are that it undermines intrinsic Mastery orientated learning and shifts the learners' attention from competence development to   competence demonstration. Thus materialism is associated with lower intrinsic Mastery goals and higher extrinsic performance goals and higher extrinsic performance avoidance goals. Materialistic students believe that 'having' material possessions are the prime indicator of success and status, and essential to their happiness and well-being. Eric Fromm says that these students have also a materialistic extrinsic orientation to knowledge and learning. They 'have' knowledge so that they can pass an exam, get good grades or a degree …..But the content does not become part of their own individual system of thought, enriching it and widening it…This leads to superficial learning and lower Mastery goals. Materialistic kids tend to give up on the chance of learning by choosing a performance-oriented task and exhibit much less persistence. Materialism is further enhanced by negative social motives -  engaging in social comparisons as their self-esteem and self-worth is dependent upon their  ' achievements ' in comparison to others, behaving or appearing in certain ways or possessing certain material goods. They also tend to also avoid challenging tasks as not to appear unsuccessful or incompetent. The positive effects of high performance goals are often short-lived and together with high performance avoidance goals there is a significant   deterioration in learning outcomes over a 1- year time period. Kids who adopt a performance goals orientation usually see intelligence as a fixed entity – they have a fixed mindset and see failure as something personal.  They then seek to repair their negative feelings and overcome self –doubt   by using material possessions, seeing them as good ways to impress peers and gain status and thus avoid peer rejection.
Kids who adopt an intrinsic Mastery goal orientation have a growth mindset, are self-accepting and view failure as mere information as what needs to be improved or worked on.

The problem with materialism is that it does not buy much in terms of happiness and well-being. According to Self-Determination theory S.D.T, intrinsic goals such as self- acceptance, mastery, community feelings, affiliation etc. satisfy our innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness and hence bring fulfillment, intrinsic reward and pleasure. When these needs are frustrated people tend to seek compensation from extrinsic goals such as materialism. In turn extrinsic goals further frustrate these innate needs as they are guided by external influences, such as rewards or approval from others and therefore are less likely to bring happiness. In addition excessive concentration on external rewards can distract people from intrinsic endeavors and interfere with personal integration and actualization.

So what about our verse from the Torah that seems to imply – study hard and there is the promise of financial reward. The blessings really are not a reward but God providing support and more opportunities for authentic learning. Learning is not 'instrumental' but has intrinsic value. Education – John Dewey said, is not the preparation for life, but life its self – how much more can we say of the study of Torah. Ameilim Ba'torah is intensive study- toiling in Torah, being creative and enjoying the learning. The reward for learning, is the intrinsic reward of the learning itself - s'char mitzvah = mitzvah , the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Behar 74 - Shemittah, faith and Community

The parasha-portion of Behar deals with the Sabbatical  year = Shemittah,  when the land lies fallow and the Jubilee= Yovel = 50th year  when in addition to the land lying fallow , land is returned to its original owners, slaves are freed  and debts are canceled .In the middle of this section , the Torah warns us not to transgress  the negative commandments of Ona'at ma'mon and ona'at devarim = cheating, being financially dishonest and hurting  others with words - being insulting , using put-downs to belittle someone or even giving him bad advice in a way he thinks you are trying to help him.  God knows one's true intentions. The question is why did the Torah choose to teach the negative commandments of Ona'at ma'mon and ona'at devarim = financial cheating and using insulting words in the context of the mitzvoth of the Sabbatical year= Shemittah and Yovel- Jubilee?  We can find plenty of reasons why cheating or insulting others is bad in the context of the Man to man relationship, so what does Shemittah and the Yovel add to our understanding?

A man of faith believes that his livelihood is preordained by God on Rosh Hashanah and what he earns is what he needs in order to be a faithful servant of God in this world. The challenge is not only-  not be dishonest in ones' dealings or insulting to others in order to get ahead, but to know that what looks like the fruits of our labor's and our efforts  is actually a  gift from God in order that we should we should be able to live more  spiritual lives. The Yovel   also teaches us not to become attached to our physical possessions as ownership is a temporary state. Land reverts back to the original owner and debts are cancelled.  If we do not use our earnings in service of God and man, we are in fact stealing from God and this is sacrilege. Dishonest dealings and hurtful words completely disregard the role of God in the world and are a declaration that what I have is my hard earned money and I can choose how to spend it.  This person will then find it pretty easy to justify his dishonest dealings and hurtful words.

But the sabbatical year = Shemittah and the Jubilee =Yovel are not just a ' mind shifts', they are leaps of faith. The farmer has really got to give up working for a year and put his trust in God that he will have a livelihood and be able to provide for his family. The contrast between the man of faith putting his trust In God and the man who feels he can only get ahead by being dishonest in his business dealings, or by insulting people and putting them down is most apparent in the context of Shemittah and Yovel years.

The Se'fat Emet adds another important dimension to this connection between Shemittah and ona'at ma'mon and de'varim = dishonest dealings and insults. Shemittah is a communal mitzvah, not a private one. It should lead to unity and cooperation among people of a community in order to support each other. In order to be successful and get ahead, it is not the competitive drive, being number one, being a winner and not a loser that makes people successful. What makes people successful is being able to cooperate and collaborate with others, having a sense of purpose bigger than yourself and your company, and wanting to be of service etc. 

We can help our children see the value of family and community and that others are not obstacles in the way of our success. The opposite is true. When we view our resources and earnings as a gift from God, not only are we careful to be honest in our dealings and sensitive with our words but we use these resources in the service of God and to help other people. This is the way we get ahead in life.