Monday, June 23, 2014

Chukat 74 –Aaron, the most Successful Parent

In the 40th year of Israel's wandering in the wilderness, Aaron the high priest died. He had the privilege of seeing his son Elazar    dressed up in the clothes of the high priest and thus succeed him in his lifetime. Moshe also wanted to die like Aaron his brother and see one of his son's succeed him, but this was not to be. 

Moshe and Aaron had different leadership roles. Aaron was the parent, the father figure and Moshe was the teacher of the whole of Israel, lovingly known as Moshe Rabeinu – Moses our teacher. Moshe and Aaron's different roles - parent and teacher gives us a clue why Aaron's son succeeded him and Moshe's son did not.
Parents are also teachers; kids call their fathers – my father, my teacher –אבי מורי.  And teachers are advised to love their students as a father loves a son in order to be successful. But their roles are essentially different.

Let's look at Aaron's role. Aaron's family lived by their mission statement of serving the nation as priests. He had the pleasure of seeing Elazar conduct the red heifer – parah adumah ritual as the deputy high priest. Aaron's sons were already involved in the family business and so it was natural that they would succeed their father. The same goes with the involvement with charity institutions. Kids that join their parents will continue the charity work after their parents are no longer alive.

Aaron's personality as a father created a strong bond and relationship between Aaron and his son's. In order for a child to learn from a parent's example and want to follow in his footsteps there needs to be a good relationship.If there is not a good relationship between a father and a child , the kid will not learn from a father's personal example. Aaron was a father to all of Israel. The clouds of glory which protected Israel in the wilderness were in his merit. The pillar of cloud which had protected and guided the nation in the wilderness temporarily left them  when Aaron died, and was then restored in the merit of Moshe. Aaron was a holy man of peace. He made peace between man and man, man and his wife and his children. When there is peace the Divine presence rests on each family and the nation. When he died, he was mourned by the whole nation – men and women alike, because he made efforts to bring reconciliation, peace and harmony to peoples ' lives. He would always greet people with a broad smile, warm words and respect even if the person was a sinner. People asked themselves – Why did Aaron the high priest greet me and relate to me in such an honorable way. He must think I am a fine and righteous person. Aaron helped the person to think of himself as a good person at his core. Embarrassed that his actions did not conform to the image perceived by Aaron, the person decided to try and better his ways. Aaron knew how to emotionally connect with people, share in the burden of others, feel and empathize with the pain of each person and the nation as a whole as if it was his personal plight. He also was incredibly happy with the successes and happiness of others, as if it was his own and even when it came at his expense as it did when Moshe was appointed to be the leader of Israel ahead of him. For this reason it was only fitting that the breast plate with the Urim and Tumim was to be placed on Aaron's  large heart. In order that the Urim and Tumim would give the right answer, it needed to rest on a heart that embraced, felt and understood the questioner and the nation.

Aaron had the family business of Kehuna – priesthood, a personality and a  supportive relationship with his children that would ensure that they would identify with his values and goals and continue his mission in this world. When parents accept children for who they are and not for what they do, kids then are more accepting of them and see themselves as basically good people. Parents then need to  able to see their  kids world through their kids own eyes and then try and support their kids' needs for  autonomy and respect – the need to be self-directed and connected to one's inner core – not independence-, their need for competence , relatedness and other emotional needs. When kids screw and mess up, parents are usually the last ones to know, but when problems are solved in a collaborative way and kids are helped to make amends and do Te'shuvah - repent – kids will turn to parents for help to get them back on track. Also having a family business, whether it is just being involved in charity or being of service to others as a family or doing things together as a family will ensure that children will continue with this family tradition with their own children. In this way we can be successful parents like Aaron where our children will really succeed us.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Korach 74 - Competition or Cooperative Learning ?

The rebellion against the leadership of Moses and  Aaron his brother – the high priest-  by Korach and his followers raises the following question. How could such people of great stature steep so low and act out of jealousy and the pursuit of honor.?
Rabeinu Yerucham, R' Leib Chasman, R' Isaac Sher etc explain that the concerns of Korach were actually legitimate and praiseworthy.  Korach saw Aaron's and his younger cousin – Elizaphan the son of Uziel positions in the community as making them closer to God. Korach was not jealous because Aaron was closer to God, but rather he saw and felt pained at how far HE was from God. This was a legitimate and holy type of jealousy. In fact when God denies Moshe's request to enter the land of Israel so he could grow in spirituality and become even more closer to God, God criticizes Moshe's response to Korach. When Moshe said to Korach and his followers – That their request -' It is too much for you, the sons of Levi' רב לכם בני לוי, he implied that they should be satisfied with their present levels, and not aspire to greater levels. God uses the same language and says to Moshe '- It is too much for you'. Korach's initial intentions were pure and his jealousy was not a personal one, but what the sages call קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה -the envy of teachers promotes knowledge.
 Unfortunately, like with the pursuit of wealth which may begin with pure motives –' lishmah and then become driven by the wrong reasons – lo lishmah, the same happens with spiritual growth. People  initially make  money to support the family and give charity ,and   then they  become focused on status, being number one and having more than others in the community. In spiritual matters we may be inspired to emulate and learn from great people, but as we grow there is the danger of being self-righteous, becoming ' competitive', seeking honor and trying to outdo others. Korach's dispute was no longer the for the sake of heaven, but ' lekanter' in order  to provoke others and to replace the leadership. In the time of the Beit Ha'mikdash = temple there was a 'race to the top' of the ramp leading to the altar to earn the privilege of removing the ashes – terumat ha'deshen – from the altar. This competition was soon stopped as one runner pushed another and he broke his leg and another pulled out a knife.
But competition in schools still persists because educators interpret wrongly the saying – that envy of teachers will promote wisdom - קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה applies  also to school children. The problem with competition and awards is that it makes the reward scarce. Not only are we using extrinsic motivation, but competition teaches kids to view other kids as potential obstacles to one's success.  Learning in order to win a competition is not only learning for the wrong  reason -lo lishmah , but according to R' isaac Sher it is learning in order to לקנטר , to provoke and do harm even if this is not the kid's intention. Setting kids against one another reduces trust, generosity, empathy and sensitivity to other's needs and so kids are unlikely to help each other. Kids begin to focus just on achievement and impressing others. The winners develop superiority complexes but their self-esteem becomes precarious and conditional on how many people they have beaten. Winning, like receiving a prize feels good only for a while, so there is a need to compete again and again to reclaim that good feeling.  Also there is the internal pressure to stay the top of his class. This need to keep on winning creates a lot of destructive stress and tension for these kids.  Competition obviously undermines the self-esteem of weaker students. Instead we want to help the weaker student maintain that core of acceptance even when they fail. Giving everybody a prize that meets a certain standard does not eliminate the problem of giving rewards for learning.
For excellence in learning we need cooperation and the absence of competition.  Competing reduces the probability that cooperation, which does promote learning, will take place; it generates anxiety; it leads children to attribute their victory or loss to factors beyond their control, such as innate ability or luck, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will try harder next time; and it functions as an extrinsic motivator, reducing interest in the task and creative performance just as other artificial inducements have been repeatedly shown to do.
Instead of a competition we can focus on building a cooperative classroom where students are connected to their peers within a safe and supportive community of learners and see their peers as learning resources. Each child finds his place in the Beit Hamedrash =study hall and is connected to the learning.  The tradition of learning in pairs – chavrusa or a kid sharing his learning with a group – chabura- is the foundation of cooperative learning.  And of course according to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 3:7, when people learn Torah together, the Divine Presence rests upon them, so why would we ever think of a competitive environment.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Shelach 74- Mindfulness and the Mitzvah – Commandment of Tzitzit.

The beginning of our Parasha-portion Shelach deals with the mission of the meraglim-spies and the national crisis of faith caused by their negative report. The end of the parasha-portion Numbers 15:38  concludes with the commandment/mitzvah to wear Tzitzit-fringes on the corners of our clothes. The Mitzvah of tzitzit comes to repair the spiritual damage done by the spies and is a constant reminder to us, to be mindful and aware of our duty towards God – being holy and performing all his commandments. The spies were told -  וראיתם את הארץ    and you shall SEE the land and God commands us – וראיתם אתו and that you may SEE it= the tzitzit. The problem of the spies was not what they saw, but ' how ' they looked at the land, what color lenses were they wearing. In light of the spies' sin, we are warned ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם אשר אתם זונים אחריהם, and 'do not explore after your heart and eyes after which you stray.' Here, the heart and the eyes are the spies for the body –the material, animal and negative emotional side of us.

There are 2 problems which distort and interfere with a person being in the present and having clear perception and insight. We look at things with a personal bias and self interest , often colored with our fears, anxieties, insecurities or other negative emotions. Secondly, we often operate as automats, without any thinking and our bodies totally in control. In this way our seeing and subsequent actions are rote and automatic - מצוות אנשים מלומדה.

Mindful awareness or simply Mindfulness gives us a ' way of looking' that helps ' being in the present ' without bias or the emotions directing the way we look and see. We need to become impartial spectators that look, see and notice   without any judgment. But first we need just to learn to stop and be in the present. We just need to notice and be aware of the outer world and be aware of where our attention is and then choose where to focus and then see with intention in a purely objective way. We may need to quieten our inner world – our emotions by simply being aware of how we are feeling and then put it aside.  Once we have made our observations, we can then make a decision how to act in the world connected to our inner core and values such as caring, compassion and courage. Mindfulness supports a person's need for autonomy and self-direction.

If we look at the mitzvah of Tzitzit, we see that the Torah is using a Mindful Awareness technique. We first need to stop and intently notice the Tzitzit. We need to be aware of our biases, our emotions that are seated in the ' heart' and then put them aside so that we do not stray after our eyes and hearts. We notice the Te'cheilet, the blue color which reminds us of the sea and then the sky – who both serve God – and then we are reminded of God's throne of Glory representing God's sovereignty over man to obey him and perform all his commandments. We can also notice the knots. Tying a knot is often a useful way to remind us of something. So the knots remind us something about Tzitzit , that the numerical value of the word is 600 and there are 8 threads and 5 knots make a total of 613 , the number of the Biblical commandments. And this leads to us performing the commandments and being holy.

The spies went on their mission with a negative view of the land fuelled by their fears, anxieties and insecurities about the future. They had an internal need to justify this view and so their hearts directed the way their eyes would see the land.

Mindful awareness is a great tool to help all kids and not only the ones with attention difficulties or emotional regulation problems to be in the present and become more caring, compassionate and courageous people in their learning, service of God and making a contribution to society.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Beha'alotcha 74 - Choice and the Perfect Excuse

The Parasha –portion of Ba'alotcha , Numbers 9:1, notes that a year after the Exodus, in the month of Nissan God commanded Israel to bring the Pesach Offering at its appointed time – the 14th of Nissan. There were people who could not bring the Pesach Offering because they were impure and the solution given was that they could bring the offering a month later on Pesach Sheini. This passage seems out of place and really should be written at the beginning of the Book of Numbers- Bamidbar. The Book of Numbers- Bamidbar however starts a month later- Iyar- when the children of Israel were counted and given flags. The question asked is why didn't the book of Bamidbar- Numbers begin with the earlier event, and relate the mitzvah to bring the Pesach offering in the desert. During their 40 year stay in the wilderness, the Israelites brought the Pesach offerings only in the first year. Recording the commandment to bring the Pesach offering as the opening of the Book of Numbers would highlight this failure and be a black mark against the children of Israel. The reason why they could not bring the Pesach offering was that all male children needed to be circumcised. Because of the journey and the climate, it was dangerous to do a Bris Mila = circumcision. If circumstance prevented them from circumcising the boys and then bringing the Korban Pesach, why should not bringing the offering be a black mark against them? Don't we say – ' o'nes rach'mana pa'tra –that God is forgiving and exempts if one cannot comply with his commandments because of circumstances beyond one's control ,duress etc? The question is  rather -  what got them into the situation that made them exempt from bringing the Pesach offering? If not for the sins of the Spies, God would not have detained them in the desert. It was because of their sins that they could not circumcise their children and then bring the Pesach Offering.

I would like to suggest another answer. We see that the tribe of Levi circumcised their children despite the danger. So only the tribe of Levi offered the Pesach Offering during the 40 years in the desert. Their perception of the situation was different and they did not see the situation as preventing them from circumcising their  children and then bringing the Pesach Offering. They chose not to use the ' perfect excuse ' to exempt themselves from fulfilling God's commandments. The black mark against the rest of the Israelites is that they chose to make use of the perfect excuse of    ' o'nes  rach'mana pa'tra –that God is forgiving and exempts if one cannot comply with his commandments because of duress etc .  

An insight about the differences between members of communities will share some light on this difference between the tribe of Levi and the rest of the children of Israel.There are those people who are always are present at and come on time to 'shiurim' = lessons, 'minyan' = prayer sessions or social events. There are those who often fail to attend the lessons, prayer sessions and  yet ,they have the perfect excuses - אונס רחמנא פטרא - God absolves those people because of the circumstances or situation they find themselves. What is interesting it is the same people who never miss a shi'ur = lesson or 'minyan' = prayer meeting and it the same people who always miss here and there ,and always have the perfect excuses, so  it is impossible to find fault with them.

The difference is that the people who always attend,  choose not to take advantage of the ' perfect excuse and their attendance is guaranteed by a commitment, resolve, passion and love for what they do .In response God creates opportunities and an environment which supports their passion and commitment. Those people who choose to take advantage of excuses are provided even more excuses not to attend the minyan or shiurim.
Another difference is that when on the rare occasion these people can't attend they respond like the people in our parasha =portion who could not bring the Pesach sacrifice at the right time because they were impure. They asked Moshe's help and even made a suggestion that a Kohen-priest would bring the sacrifice and sprinkle the blood on their behalf. These people try to find ways so that they can make up for lost opportunities. Those who have the perfect excuses don't have any regrets and are actually happy to be free of any obligation.

The question still remains how the 'tribe of Levi' could circumcise their children when it put their children's lives in danger. They would have to rely on God's intervention and support in the form of a miracle. Just as Leah asked for a miracle, the tribe of Levi felt they could rely on God's help and be confident about the safety and health of their newly circumcised babies. Leah realized that she was about to have another son and that would mean that Rachel would only contribute one son to the 12 tribes, not even equal to one of her handmaids. In order to spare Rachel the humiliation she   asked that her unborn son would become a daughter. The Talmud however says that we cannot pray to change an existing reality like the sex of a fetus so how could Leah ask for this?  The Talmud answers that people who lived and operated on a different level and sphere, pushing their limits to be above nature could ask for miracles. The natural laws that governed their lives were different from other people. So too, the natural laws applying to the tribe of Levi were different because of the way they chose to live their lives

.If we want our kids and students to be at every shi'ur and minyan we need to ' model ' this type of commitment. We need to help them find meaning, purpose and passion   in what they do, to become competent and also feel a sense of support, belonging and community. In this way they will become like the tribe of Levi who never had to make use of the perfect excuse – o'nes rachmana patra...