Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tetzaveh/Ki Tissah 75 – The Incense Altar – Community, Empowerment and God's revelation

Part 1  -  The incense Altar - מזבח הקטורת   
Parashat Tettzaveh ends off with the commandment to build the incense Alter- מזבח הקטורת  also known as the golden Alter מזבח הזהב- or the inner Altar המזבח הפנימי – . It is called the inner Altar because it  was situated opposite the Ark – ארון הברית  together with the table-שולחן  and Menorah- מנורה.  The sacrificial Alter – מזבח העולה או חיצון  was situated in the courtyard of the tabernacle and temple. The obvious question is why was the incense Altar- מזבח הקטורת  not mentioned  in last week's parasha Teruma together with the  Ark, table and menorah and before the sacrificial Altar –מזבח העולה as  the Torah does when it details the tasks assigned to Betzalel, the description of the work done ,and  the way to  transport or assemble  the tabernacle-mishkan. After the sacrificial Altar is discussed at the end of Parashat  Terumah ,  the Torah interrupts the discussion of the vessels of the Mishkan  and discusses  for eg the clothing of the Kohanim- priests, the sanctification of the Kohanim and the daily sacrifice  -קרבן תמיד . At the conclusion of the section dealing with the daily sacrifices – קרבן תמיד  we have a pronounced and festive conclusion to all the commands concerning the construction of the Mishkan (29:43-46)  that echoes the introduction of making a sanctuary- מקדש, to dwell in their midst –  ושכנתי בתוכם  and I shall meet with you there found at the beginning of parashat Terumah. The question is now not only why the incense Altar is mentioned last , but why is it listed  separately from the other vessels – Ark, Table, Menorah and sacrificial Altar.?
The commentators explain that the essential purpose of the vessels of the Miskan was to provide a place where the Divine Presence could rest among the people. The incense Altar –מזבח הקטורת  had a different function. No sacrifices were brought on this altar . The incense , 11 ingredients were brought twice a day, on the incense Altar before the testimonial tablets in front of the Ark  – לפני העדות  . On Yom Kippur the Kohen  gadol,  the High Priest would bring the incense directly into the Holy of Holies, in front of the Ark. The fragrance of the incense was a way for the people to welcome the King, show honor to God and express their hope, responsibility and desire to serve God in a manner pleasing to Him. The incense had also the purpose of sheltering and protecting the people from the danger posed by the ' power of the Miskan' or any divine punishment in the form of a plague. The Mishkan and God's presence was like atomic energy , if not treated with the right respect and honor His Presence – the attribute of justice-מידת הדין  would cause a plague and a lot of destruction. The incense Altar in one way is considered as less important than the other vessels because if we don't have the Menorah we can't light the candles, if we don't have a table we can't bring the bread –לחם הפנים etc. The presence of the other vessels and constructions are considered a precondition for God to rest his glory on the holy Mishkan, but if the incense Altar is absent the incense is burned in its place, the altar is  not considered as  necessary for the fulfillment of the mitzvah. However, we can say that it is because of the importance of the Incense- Ketoret , that we may burn it without the Altar and it does not reflect on the Altar's importance. The Incense Altar is  a' holy of holies unto God', whereas the sacrificial Altar is just a holy of holies.
Rav Elchanan Summit suggests we look to service of the Kohen Gadol- High Priest on Yom Kippur to get an insight of the role of the incense Altar and the incense and why it is listed separately . In Vayikra 16:2 , the High Priest has to burn incense which will cause a 'cloud' of incense to cover the covering that is on the Ark. In many places  the Torah describes the revelation of God to a person from within a cloud. When man initiates the revelation, he must spread a man-made cloud of incense between himself and God. God's revelation is from above the covering between the 2 keruvim which are upon the Ark. So this is the reason why the incense Altar is placed before the partition directly opposite the Ark where I-God will meet with you – Moshe.
The Function of the vessels and constructions in the Miskan was to provide a resting place for the Divine Presence while burning the incense on the incense Altar was man's effort in initiating God's revelation and facilitating the encounter that takes place between Moshe and God above the Ark's covering. It is for this reason they are listed separately.

Part 2-  The incense – הקטורת
We have mentioned above that the incense – הקטורת  was expression of the wish  to serve God in a manner pleasing to Him,2. it played a role in initiating God's revelation as on Mount Sinai and 3.  would   protect the people against divine attribution –מידת הדין  in the form - of a plague- .  The incense was made of 11 ingredients including a spice, the galbanum –חלבנה  that  had a foul aroma .  The Sages learn from this that sinners should be included with the community in its prayers - for example on fast days and Yom Kippur , a fast that does not include sinners is not called a fast. God's revelation at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given was made possible by unity of the people, righteous and the sinner sharing in the service of God. In a similar way , the unity of the people is expressed through  the burning of the incense and this facilitates God's  revelation . When a plague was decreed on the people it did not distinguish between righteous and wicked people, so the remedy – the incense=קטורת    does not distinguish between good and bad people, everybody is accepted and can find a place in the community of God. There are no winners when there is conflict , discord and argument. Your brother is not the enemy. The   bad  smelling galbanum - חלבנה  brings out even more sweet fragrance from the other spices. When we try to be inclusive and make people feel welcome and accepted in the community and do our best to help these people with their challenges, we ourselves become more empowered and more resourceful as we make ourselves be a friend and a help to needy people ,  who need our help both emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Part 3 The school, home as a community/supportive family
When it comes to our children we tend to be very protective of them against the negative influences of other children in a school or we even force a kid to leave the home because of a negative influence he may have on other kids. If the school and home are interested in building ' community ' , kids and their teachers , family members who have a vision and are  working, learning and playing together in a cooperative and caring way ,  can be inclusive and have a positive influence on so-called  negative kids. When there is no  community , negative kids can have a big influence on other kids who don't feel accepted and successful. In a school community where the focus is not on competition but on being a resource for other kids, helping other kids with their learning, excellence is redefined. Excellence is not about honor rolls and achievement in academics and on the school sports field , but making a contribution to other kids learning and making an impact on their lives as friends, confidants and peer mentors. Thus struggling kids can bring out the best in the talented ones. The same goes with the family. If parents focus on how their behavior contributes to the family dynamic and interactions with challenging kids ,and  with what these kids need from them, on connection  and not on control , they become very much aware of themselves and the challenging kid becomes the catalyst for enormous personal growth. The same goes for siblings who take a certain responsibility for their challenging brothers. And in the process challenging kids learn skills and they too become contributors to the family and school community. As individuals we tend to think just of ourselves – what will I get if I do what is expected of me or what will be done to me if I break a rule. When we are in a community- family mindset , we ask how do my actions impact on others , is this the type of community we want , and is this the type of person I want to be. And this is all based on seeing people and kids and even the most challenging ones being made in God's image and having a soul deep down waiting for connection. 

The incense Altar and the incense inform us how Community can empower us and facilitate God's revelation. When our approach to school and family is based on building a community of learners and a supportive family , we will adopt an inclusive approach to struggling kids which will empower the other kids as well as kids who struggle with behavior , academic or spiritual issues.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Terumah 75 – Setting Limits – Restrictions or Guidelines

Parashat Terumah deals with God's instructions to build a Tabernacle- mishkan –to be  a resting place for God's presence. The most important component of the mishkan was the Ark of the Covenant – ארון הברית which housed the tablets – לוחות העדות a testimony to God's revelation. After the revelation at Mount Sinai, God would continue to communicate with Moshe and teach him the Torah in the mishkan =the tabernacle or also called  'tent of meeting' – אוהל מועד.                                             Moshe stood before the Ark, its covering and the keruvim, from between which God spoke to him.
The Ark-aron itself was made from 'acacia wood '- עצי שיטים. The inner box was made from wood and 2 other boxes in a sense covered or plated the inner box with gold, one from the inside and the other from the outside. The wood symbolizes the dynamic, flexible and living nature of the Torah which is made possible through the Sages- חכמים   and their application of the ' Oral Law' – תורה שבעל פה. The gold plating symbolizes the Torah and God's immutable and unchanging spiritual laws and methodology. At Mount Sinai, God gave the Sages the power to create Halacha- a legal system using God's immutable spiritual laws, principles and methodology. The Halacha governs every aspect of life and has the dynamism to adapt to changing times and situations without losing any of its authenticity and deviating from Torah's principles. It is because the Torah is not in heaven- לא בשמים היא   ,  the Sages have the power to create Halacha and we must follow them "ועשית ככל אשר יורך- לא תסור מכל אשר יורך " that the Torah has been able to adapt to changes and new situations and  yet remain authentic.

The way the Sages derive the Halacha- law from the situation and Torah principles gives us an insight how we should set limits or more important how we help kids set their own limits.

Setting limits and boundaries is an important part of parenting. However the way we set limits can impact negatively on the moral development of children, restrict them and thwart their autonomy and set off challenging behavior and the resistance of kids with difficulties. Limit setting should be used to create structure. It should not be used to restrict kids and make them feel controlled. One does not have to be controlling to create structure, and it is structure with its limits that offers kids more freedom. 'The question - Thomas Gordon, the author of P.E.T – Parent Effectiveness Training says is not whether limits and boundaries are necessary but the question is who sets them? Is it parents unilaterally imposing limits on their children or are parents and kids working together to figure out what makes sense. When we 'work together' with children and collaboratively solve problems by addressing both our concerns and the kids concerns,  and then brainstorming a mutual satisfying solution we have actually set a limit. When parents concerns are being addressed by the solution, we have set a limit in a collaborative way.

When we talk about limits and boundaries in general , the question then becomes what kinds of limits and boundaries are we talking about - how specific or behavioral should they be – are we talking about  boundaries and limits  as opposed to broadly conceived guidelines that can inform a lot of our activities for eg  - a limit on not hurting other people, addressing the needs of others, being empathic, kind and respectful etc .Don't we want kids to derive limits and guidelines on how to act from the situation itself and what other people need ? If so, then our coming up with limits, and especially specific behavioral limits and imposing them on kids makes it less likely that kids will become moral people who say that the situation decrees a kind of a boundary for appropriate ways to act and I will be guided by that my whole life, An example would be the different thinking a kid would have when faced with a bowl of cookies and would love to eat all of them because ' I am hungry and I love cookies '. When the parent imposes a limit – ' You can take only one cookie ' = I cannot take more because mom said I can have only one or else, or where the kid thinks,' I would love to eat all the cookies but there are others kids around too and they are also hungry so I will make sure that everyone has cookies too.' In some situations the kid will offer friends and go without a cookie. When parents say ' you must share because I said so' and follow up with a patronizing pat on the head ' good sharing ', the wrong message gets internalized. I am sharing because mom says so and because I will get a verbal reward for sharing. And when kids refrain from doing something, we want them to ask if doing X is wrong and   how  will doing X impact on the other kids and not ask - am I allowed to do X and what will happen to me if I do X.?  The limits on kid's behavior, in other words, should be experienced as intrinsic to the situation.

The Torah gives us guidelines by which we can give purpose and direction to our lives. They will guide and inform our behavior helping us and our children to derive the limit from the situation itself, so that limits are experienced intrinsic to the situation. We want to reframe the concepts of limits, not as restrictions, limits or boundaries that adults impose on kids, but  our children acting in a moral way by  deriving  the limit from the situation itself, so that limits are experienced intrinsic to the situation.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Mishpatim 75 - The Torah Legal System – Protecting your rights or Collaborative Problem solving

After discussing the laws of the temple and altar in the previous Sidra, our weekly portion of ' Mishpatim ' begins by announcing the laws – judgments=' mishpatim' that Moses would teach the people. The high court had its seat within the temple, to indicate that these laws had the same religious significance as temple worship and prayer. The person acting as a defendant, claimant or a ' shomer' = watching over some object for pay or for free is actually doing a mitzvah , one of God's commandments as if he was eating the Korban Pesach = the Pesach sacrifice . The she'chinah- השכינה = God's divine spirit is present in the court room. When a person approached the judges, it was in fact him approaching God, because the word for God – אלוקים    is used here for the judges as well. The oath of God shall be between the parties.  Moses explained to Yitro, his father-in-law that people would come to him for judgment in order to seek God, to understand how God wants them to act in this particular situation.

 This explains why it is forbidden to go to a secular court even if they use the Torah law. Going to a religious court is not only a religious experience, but to ask God, what is his wish and how should we act in the matter between us. The purpose was not to protect ones interest and win the case. The Talmud Sanhedrin says even if a judgment went against a person and the court has taken his cloak from him, he should sing his song and go on his way happy that he has done God's will.  R' Isaac Sher explains that if a person goes to a religious court of law in the hope to defend his rights , protect his property and win the case , he has defiled the court and turned it into a secular court , and  the judges into secular judges ,  even if the court uses religious law. He should be approaching the judges as representatives of God, who will clarify God's will in this situation.

And if one goes to court not to win, but to find out how one should act according to God's will, what is the underlying principle guiding the religious court. The prophet Zechariah 8:16 says 'you shall judge at your gates a verdict-judgment of truth and peace' –   אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם.   The outcome should reflect the truth and yet at the same time bring peace between the parties. The Talmud learns from this, that unlike secular courts (which are based on the adversarial legal system), the religious court has at the outset to recommend helping the parties come to a compromise or a settlement which addresses the concerns of both parties. Secular courts at the end of the process, will recommend people to settle ' out of court.  In the religious court, even if the court proceedings are fairly advanced and one of the parties is sure to win, the religious court will try to again recommend the parties accept the help of the court and go for a compromise or a win-win settlement. The S'mah asks why a person would accept compromise when he has an excellent chance of winning the court case. He answers that the benefits of a peaceful relationship with other person far exceeds his financial loss. It means that they can sit together at the same table at a wedding and he does not have to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him.

As parents and teachers we can teach children the values of peace and relationship underlying solving problems in a collaborative way. When it comes to conflicts and disputes, there are no winners and losers. There are only losers. We need to reframe conflicts and disputes as challenges or problems to be solved.  When the needs and concerns of all are met and solutions are mutually satisfactory we can help kids think about the higher goals of peace, cooperation, relationship and a unity We have to get away from focusing on personalities, being judgmental and trying to see who is 'right ' –    זכאי   or who is wrong- חיב   .

When kids don't act according to our expectations we don't need any criticism or blaming. All we need to ask is what is getting in their way and try to help. We need information from them. We need to help them articulate their perspectives and their concerns and give them an appreciation of our concerns. Being pro-social is addressing your own concerns and the same time taking into account the needs of other people. As Hillel said –אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני   If I do not care about my own concerns, who will do it for me and if I am only for myself – who am I. Instead of asking how I can protect my interests and defend myself, a child should be reflecting and asking what does God expect me to do in this situation. What are the values that should guide my behavior? In this way a child will address his own concerns, take into account the concerns and perspectives of others and in an autonomous way engage in the moral act of restitution to try and fix things and mend relationships. This is how we teach kids to serve God.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yitro 75 - Honoring Parents and Abuse

The Fifth Commandment, honoring parents is claimed by the psychologist Alice Miller to be the cause of more suffering for children who are victims of parental ' abuse ' and exacerbate their emotional distress and disability. After reading Dr Sorotzkin's article ( a must read )  Honoring Parents who are abusive  , the problem is not with the Torah and the commandment to honor parents , but ignorance on the part of many about the parameters and ' gedarim ' of the Mitzvah and the psychological issues involved. Kids who are emotionally abused have a natural tendency to deny or minimize the harmful nature of the parental abuse and blame themselves for being bad kids. This causes a variety of emotional and behavior problems. There is an  unconscious  need to believe that everything that our parents did for us, was really for our own good and was done out of love. It is too threatening for many kids to even entertain the possibility that our parents weren't well-meaning or even competent. In order to show what was done to them was not that bad and out of love, they do the same things to their own children that their parents did to them. So obligating abused children to unconditionally honor abusive parents not only causes more damage but will serve to perpetuate abuse. Successful treatment and genuine reconciliation with parents means that care givers have to overcome the child's resistance to acknowledging the abusive nature of parent's behavior and the role of their parents in their difficulties. When the child is encouraged to externalize and direct their anger to the appropriate people they don't repress the anger which can cause excessive guilt feelings, self -punishment and other psychological symptoms. This allows parents to take responsibility for their actions, admit their wrong doing, do teshuvah and ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately, children are encouraged to forgive their parents even when their parents have not apologized and done teshuvah. They claim that blaming parents for ones' difficulties is not a good place to be and one has to move on and take responsibility for one's life. This view suppresses and perpetuates the negativity and gets in the way of true reconciliation.

In most cases of abuse, parents are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances and often the advice they are getting makes things much worse. But being in a position of weakness, they are often motivated by unacknowledged, unhealthy and subconscious emotional needs, especially to be in control in their mistreatment of their children. Disrespect is the weapon of the weak and it becomes hard for them to convince others that they are acting out of good intentions for the child's good. In a nutshell, children are not obligated to honor abusive parents because   a) they don't have to sacrifice their emotional well-being in order to do the mitzvah of honoring parents, b) one may be lenient in a mitzvah of Love your neighbor as yourself –ואהבת את רעך כמוך   if there is a benefit c) children can defend themselves against abuse or false accusations and admonish – tochacha parents who violate Halacha, d) the abusive parent is called a wicked person - רשע and there is no obligation to honor a parent who is a ra'sha.

    Today the problem with abusive parents is less about hitting and being physical but more about emotional abuse. This includes persistent criticism, sarcasm, hostility, shaming and blaming and conditional parenting. Conditional parenting is making the level of care, love and acceptance you show to a child dependent and contingent on his behaviors, actions and how well he does at school or on the sports field. It loves them for what they do and not for what they are. It is using love and acceptance to try and leverage good behavior and test scores. When a parent's love depends on what children do, children come to disown parts of them that aren't valued and eventually regard themselves as worthy only when they act or think in specific ways. When kids receive affection with strings attached they accept themselves only with strings attached while kids who accepted unconditionally feel better about themselves as good people. Most parents say that they love their kids unconditionally, but what is important is how kids experience our 'love' and the way we treat them. Do kids feel that when my dad disagrees with me , I know that he still loves me and even during the worst conflicts with my mom she maintained a sense of  loving connection with me. The problem is not only with bad advice from experts – Baumrind - says that kids must earn what they get including love and loving kids unconditionally will encourage a kid to be selfish and demanding. Love and acceptance is a tool to help you modify your child's behavior and gain control.

Instead of our need to control children and get them to honor us, we should be asking ' what do they need from us'? We need to address their physical, emotional needs and needs for love, respect and acceptance. The Chazon Ish said that what children need more than love is respect and unconditional acceptance. The Steipler, explained to his daughter who asked him why he did not wake her up in the night when he was not feeling well. He deprived her of the mitzvah of honoring parents. The Steipler answered that his commandment – mitzvah was not to impose himself on her, while her mitzvah was honoring parents. In another story a parent complained to the Steipler about his uncompliant son who was not listening to him. The Steipler answered that the father could lower the rope, not make demands on the child and be ' mochel - forgive  ' him. If the father made demands on his son that he knows that the son won't comply with , the father in a way is responsible for the child's behavior and he transgresses the law of ' lifnei ever lo ti'tein michshol '- do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind. Instead of control and obedience we can promote cooperation and relationship and build trust by meeting children's needs including love and unconditional acceptance.

 Parents complained to the therapist Barbara Colorosa about their teenage son. Until recently he was a good boy who always listened to us. Now he is with his friends and he is listening to them. The therapist replied that nothing has changed – before he was listening to you, now he is listening to his friends. The purpose of parenting and education is to raise children who listen to their inner voices and values and do what is right, do what reflects who they are and what they believe in.