Monday, October 27, 2014

Lech Lecha 75 - Caring Communities or a Welfare State

The portion-parasha of Lech Lecha deals with the many trials and challenges to Abraham's  faith in God and his unique approach to serving God through charity and loving kindness – 'chesed.' . God promised him lots of blessings in his new homeland of Canaan, but as soon as he settled in, there was a famine and he decided to move to Egypt. Abraham is criticized for leaving the land of Canaan. He should have shown trust and faith in God to help him through the drought and remain in Canaan just like his son Isaac would do. The Egyptians were notoriously immoral and Abraham would endanger his life and put Sarah, because of her great beauty, at their mercy by going to Egypt. Abraham's behavior  is dubious – he tells Sarah, please say that You are my sister –  and I will benefit as they will offer me gifts and let me live , but  if you say you are my wife they will kill me. After Abraham succeeded in defeating the kings and free Lot who was taken into captivity, Abraham rejects the offer from the King of Sodom of the spoils of the war saying that he did not want any personal gain from the war and so that The King of Sodom could not say he is the one who made Abraham rich and not God. Why is Abraham happy to accept gifts now from the Egyptians because of Sarah? Would it not have been better for Abraham to remain in Canaan and trust in God rather than have compromised Sarah's safety? The Plan does not seem to take care of Sarah's safety concerns.

R' Isaac Sher explains that we need to understand Abraham in the context of his role in the world. Abraham introduced a different type of theology into the world. The Yeshivot and houses of learning of Shem and Eiver were more detached from the physical world. Abraham taught that one should serve God by following God's ways of doing  good to mankind. Abraham would serve God by being involved in the world, providing for and doing chesed and loving kindness to his fellow man. He would use his money and wealth in a very spiritual way by addressing peoples' both physical and spiritual needs. He would take no credit but say the wealth is from God and then teach people about God and spirituality. Abraham taught that doing 'chesed', loving kindness and charitable acts is not enough. One has to be active and participate in building God fearing and caring communities with many organizations reaching out to serve God and people.

 Because of the famine in the land of Canaan, people were not in a position to hear Abraham's message and participate in a spiritual journey. Abraham had to move on and find another place where he could build charitable institutions and caring communities and teach the people about God and his ways. Egypt was the place but had challenges. Calling Sarah his sister is true in a sense as a sister can mean also a relative. It would absolve the Egyptians of the sin of wanting a married woman. People would try to impress Abraham by donating to his projects and institutions and participating in the learning programs. In this way Sarah would benefit Abraham – promoting the belief in God and involvement in charity. Sarah herself was taken to Pharaoh's palace to lecture to women and girls and there Pharaoh thought that he would be honoring Abraham if he took his sister as a wife. After seeing God's   miracles done for the sake of Sarah, Pharaoh decided to give his daughter Hagar to become a handmaid in Abraham's home.  When it became known that Sarah was really Abraham's wife and not his sister, Abraham felt his loss of credibility compromised his ability to work and promote  God's truth and ' chesed' in Egypt. Abraham left Egypt not tainted by its immorality and impurity and having succeeded in establishing charitable institutions and teaching about God's truth and 'chesed.

 Abraham taught that serving God through ' chesed' was not only being caring and supporting other people both physically, emotionally and spiritually but actively cooperating with others to create caring communities with   institutions that can help many people. Schools can create an environment which encourages cooperative learning and pro-social behavior. Many schools have 'jobs' where each grade can not only learn by doing but also be of service to the school community as a whole. Jobs include running the school Post Office, canteen, supplies store, newspaper, print shop, and an older brother- sister and tutoring organization. Parents can not only invite people into their homes, support needy people but also participate in chesed and charity organizations. Their children can become partners with parents in these endeavors.

Unfortunately the ' welfare state' has replaced ' caring communities'. It is now the government and the social services who deal with poverty and supporting the needy. While the government role is crucial, every person has a need to be of service to others. When doing chesed and charity is how we serve God and follow his ways, there will always be caring people and communities and a welfare state.   

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Meeting your children's nutritional needs

I recently said to a friend – that the people who cannot  afford the expensive ' hechsherim' , the super glatt meat, the suits and Borsalino hats, women's wigs and Pei'ot , the imported or Nochri fruit and vegetables during  Smittah, bug free ( but plenty of insecticide ) vegetables  etc  are buying these products , while those who can afford them don't. And it is not  just a question of different communities spending money on different things or having different priorities, but it seems that  the poorer communities  are cutting back on healthy nutrition and this  is impacting on kids' health development  with problems of underweight  kids and malnutrition. Stringent bug-free standards for vegetables mean that kids may also be missing out on many important green and leafy vegetables.

There is a video clip of the Harav Ovadia Yosef  Z'TL on the  -Credibility of the Heter Me'chirah hechsher   . The interesting point for me was his statement that if you have extra money to spend, buy produce from the Otzar Beit Din. I have heard his son, the chief rabbi of Holon remark how families and especially the bigger families could not afford to pay the exorbitant prices of the Smittah le'mehadrin produce and meet the nutritional  needs  of their families.

I was wondering whether parents , educators and rabbis reflect on the saying – when you are machmir in one area you are mei'kel in another area ? 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Noah 75- Wine and Noah's Downfall

After the devastation and the destruction of the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah and charges him with the task of building a new world. Noah sees the destruction, but he lacks a plan and a vision for the world. He plants some vine branches from the Garden of Eden which grow with miraculous speed. It seems that God is happy with his actions. Wine is pleasing to both man and God. The wine libations- ניסוך היין -accompany sacrifices and we sanctify holy days with wine. Wine can open up the heart and mind and add a new dimension to a happy occasion.  But miracles sometimes come to test man and are not a sign of God's approval. The Torah-Bereishit 9:20 and Midrash play on the words -    ויחל נח איש האדמה   and Noah began or figuratively, from the word chulin= חולין- he debased and profaned himself by getting his priorities wrong.  He planted a vineyard instead of grains that will provide for man's basic needs for food. He falls from being a איש צדיק - a righteous man to become a 'man of the earth '– איש האדמה - a man who needs take from the world and compensate for his lack of joy and lack of vision. He drank from the wine, became drunk and uncovered himself within his tent.  His grandson Canaan saw Noah in his disgrace and told his father Ham. Ham castrated his father so he could not have any more children.

The fall of Noah was because he was only a survivor, concerned about his own life, a Tzadik – a righteous man only relative to his corrupt generation. Unlike Abraham, he did not have a vision for the world and the leadership qualities to serve God and support man by building God fearing communities. For him God was a support and not an inspiration.

The fall of Noah is a reminder to all of us that we can never to secure in our spiritual levels. We are never stationary , either working on ourselves, marriages, relationships, businesses – going up  or going down if we do not invest in our lives and relationships. And falling is so much easier and quicker when there is alcohol available. There are so many stories of young men who are trying to create new meaningful live and fall because they drank too much. Even if we use the physical world in a positive way for eg we drink in honor of the Sabbath, Purim and at special family events and simchas, there is danger. There are 2 aspects to drinking - we elevate the wine when we use it for a spiritual ritual, we are subjects, givers = gavra, but when we get pleasure from the wine we become like objects, 'receivers' = cheftza. And the question becomes - are we essentially ' receivers', happy because of the bottle or 'givers', happy because of the meaning and significance we attach to an event. This is the reason we try to be modest and understate ourselves when we are eating, drinking, being intimate or relieving ourselves.

We and especially young people with challenges can learn from Noah's mistakes. We drink and only a little, not because we live in our depressed world, but because we want to celebrate achievement or a meaningful event and wine can ADD to our mood and feelings of happiness. Noah needed to first plant grains, so wine accompanies food and water which are the main part of the meal and not the drink. If we want to stay sober we need to also eat and drink water. Drinking alcohol not only impairs cognitive ability but promotes the making of urine in excess of the volume you have drunk and this can cause dehydration unless extra fluid is taken. Our focus should not be on the drink or even the food but on being pro-social and contributing in a meaningful way to the social event.

Purim becomes a challenge because there is an obligation to drink on Purim –' l’besumei' – until he cannot discern between Haman and Mordechai. This is because  wine plays a significant role in the Purim story It cannot be that there is a mitzvah to get drunk as the word ' l'besumei' is derived from the word to sniff or inhale a smell. It means we should only have a little to drink during the meal in order to get us into the mood. When we are drunk with happiness because of the miracle of Purim, we will occasionally sing verses of a popular song in the incorrect order, meaning   that we will sing the verse of Arur Haman- Cursed is Haman in the place of the verse of Baruch Mordechai – Blessed is Morderchai. In this way we fulfill the mitzvah of - Chayav einish l’besumei be’puria ad deloi yoda bein arur Haman l’baruch Mordechai” which loosely translated says, that one is obligated to drink on Purim until he cannot discern between Haman and Mordechai.

As Parents and educators we have to offer kids guidelines to wine drinking and alcohol and even to the art of pairing wine with food, so wine is always part of the meal.
Wine and alcohol can cause the downfall of a person but  when he is happy about something meaningful , a little wine can add something extra to the mood of a festive meal .When people are concerned about others , pro-social and giving , drink a little only during a meal , getting drunk will never  happen.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Be'rei'shit 75 - Your child as your Ally

Before God created man,  God said ' Let us make man '. Be'rei'shit 1:26. He consulted with his heavenly council and also asked their permission before he created man.  Man was destined to have dominion and rule over the lower world. The Sages say that God is teaching an important lesson and ethical behavior= derech- e'retz. People in power should consult with their subordinates and get their permission.  Communication and dialog preceded only  man's creation , because man is different from God's other creations. Man was given the power of speech which enables him to communicate his thoughts and feelings. Together,' Man' can share different perspectives and concerns, build God fearing communities and solve problems in a collaborative way. Gods words -  ' Let us make man '  tell us that communication and collaborative problem solving are intrinsic to man, and that man expresses his uniqueness by consulting, problem solving  and achieving consensus with others.

Educators and Parents  should be communicating and having a dialog with kids about their expectations and hopes for building a cooperative  community of caring learners or a family dedicated to supporting each other and other members of the community. Instead of focusing on obedience by creating rules and consequences in a top-down manner , parents , educators and kids can participate in drawing up guidelines and core values that should guide behavior and goals. Problems can be addressed not by 'dong to ' kids with rewards and punishments but  ' working with ' kids using Collaborative Problem solving  -  identify concerns and perspectives and then brainstorming  mutually satisfying , durable and realistic solutions. The Talmud teaches that teachers learn the most from their students, so kids do have  much to offer.  The author Eli Neuberger says - the method of withdrawing privileges and other punishments is essentially negative. I can't communicate with you and so I'll hurt you if you don't mind me. The positive counterpoint is: We all make mistakes and you can trust me to help you do better in the future.

The Ba'al Shem Tov says that when God says ' Let us make man', He is talking to man himself. God is saying ,  man – be my partner and ally in building a world based on Godly values of service , humility , holiness and community etc  despite the challenges of man's physical side and attraction to a physical world. Parents and educators can view kids as partners and allies or people who are immature, controlled by evil impulses and cannot be trusted. If you cannot trust kids to behave you need to control their behavior with lots of rules and consequences. And according to the Pygmalion effect, kids will act according to your negative expectations. Kids see their roles as only to do what their parents want and say, so there is a constant power struggle between kids who are fighting for some sort of autonomy and self- expression and parents/teachers'  wishes. God is saying – focus on the positive side of kids, see them as allies and partners in building a school of cooperative and caring learners, a family with ideals and vision , one  that  supports its members and cooperates to help others in the community. If you trust kids, you can make them feel part of a great idea and movement. And according to the Pygmalion effect they will become more responsible and caring people. Discipline is no longer a question of what will be done to me, what will I get – the consequences for me  or what's in it for me – but how do my actions impact on others , how do they reflect my core values, what do I want my classroom or family to look like.

When God says ' Let us make man ' He is saying to parents and educators. See in your kids and students potential allies and partners in building  school communities and families based on a vision and ideals.  And the way to go is to consult with kids , let them participate in the decision making process  and setting up of guidelines and core values.  Solve problems in a collaborative way , so that consensus is achieved by brainstorming mutually satisfying solutions. Kids are  encouraged to engage in an autonomous way in the moral  act of restitution to fix damage or restore injured relationships . ' Let us make man ' is a call by God to us to become the men, women and children that God created us to be.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Vezot Ha'bracha - Mattot 75 Zeal = Ze'ri'zut and Context

In Parsashat Ha'azinu Devarim 32: 48-50 God commands Moses' to ascend Mount Nevo and see the land of Canaan and then you will die on the mountain'. In our  Parasha Ha'azinu, Devarim 34:1,  Moses ascended Mount Nebo with  one giant leap  displaying tremendous  ' ze'ri'zut' , zeal  and energy  in fulfilling  God's commandment.  Moses acted in a similar way Numbers 31 when he was commanded to 'go to war against the Midianities, take revenge for the Children of Israel and afterward you will be gathered unto your people'. Even though he would be bringing closer his death, he did not delay and sent the army   into battle with Pinchas as  its commander.  Abraham in Bereishit 22:3, expressed the same ze'ri'zut, zeal and passion, when he got up early in the morning in order to carry out God's command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He would be thus hastening Isaac's death.   In these cases, the question is asked, what's  the  rush ? – life  is so precious, there are so many opportunities to do so many mitzvoth. Every moment, minute and certainly hours are extremely precious. One can do so much learning and many more mitzvoth in this short  time. The question is even stronger on Moses'   ascent  of  Mount Nevo. 

Rabbi Katz from the Telse Yeshivah asks - If Moses would have walked up the mountain in a respectable way, he could have done a lot of learning, which meant a lot of mitzvoth in the hours before his death.  Why did Moses give up so much for the sake of a  hi'dur Mitzvah, doing the mitzvah in an extraordinary way with ze'ri'zut, zeal and energy. The answer is that doing mitzvoth with ze'ri'zut, passion and zeal is not considered as something extra, but part of the mitzvah itself. It is the expression of one's intrinsic motivation and deepest feelings. For Moses, carrying out God's explicit commandments was more valuable than his   life,  despite the many opportunities to do mitzvoth. And he did it with great happiness, zeal and ze'ri'zut, even if it brought closer his death.

But it seems that Moses was not so precise when he carried out God's commandments. In the case of the war against Midian, Moses was commanded to take revenge .He  himself does not go to war but sends Pinchas as the commander. In our Parasha Moses does not immediately ascend Mount Nevo. He  first  gives his final blessings to the tribes  and then leaves them to ascend the mountain. God's commandments   have to be seen in terms of their context and other Torah values. Moses sent Pinchas to do battle, because Moses had taken refuge in Midian after feeing Egypt. It would be throwing stones into the well, from which he drank and that would not be showing ' gratitude ' and ha'ka'rat ha'tov. It was an act of ' de'rech eretz ',common decency and ethical behavior  for Moses to first address his people and bless them before he left them.  Implicit in God's command was to send Pinchas and not go to battle  himself and first to address and bless the nation before he ascended Mount Nevo.

Parents and educators tend to focus on just getting kids to do the actions of the mitzvoth and will use any extrinsic motivators such as prizes, grades and competition to motivate kids to do the mitzvoth. This is based on a false belief that kids cannot appreciate the beauty or value of mitzvoth and that ultimately in an automatic way, kids will come to do things for the right reasons and with intrinsic motivation. The truth is that it is much easier to bribe kids to do something than to ' inspire' them to do something.  Intrinsic motivation, ze'rizut, passion and energy are not 'hidur mitzvah ' but the mitzvah itself. The motivation  for the prize not only gets in the way of kids ' connecting' with the mitzvah itself.We also convert  the spiritual =mitzvoth into money or other prizes. Prizes just motivate kids to get more prizes.  When the focus is on the action and not making meaning of the action we miss out on helping kids see the actions and mitzvoth in their context.Extrinsic motivation tends to narrow focus and helps for manual tasks or tasks that require little thinking. God's mitzvoth require us to broaden our focus and see what we are doing in their context and in terms of other Torah values God does not want blind obedience. He wants us to do mitzvoth with commitment and understanding and love . Moses taught us that ze'ri'zut, zeal and energy  are intrinsic to  the mitzvah and not hidur mitzvah-  something extra. Moses taught how God's commandments must be seen in a context, so values such as gratitude =' ha'ka'rat ha'tov ', ethical behavior and  common decency = 'derech eretz' are given expression when we do our mitzvoth and interact with others.