Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Emor 75 - Are you a parent or policeman ?

The portion-parasha of Emor begins with God's command to Moses – SAY to the Kohanim –the priests, the sons of Aaron and TELL them not to contaminate or defile themselves by coming into contact with dead people except their relatives.   -                                             

  אמר אל הכוהנים בני אהרון    ואמרת  אלהם לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו  

The double expression – Say and tell -אמר ואמרת   conveys the importance of this commandment to the Kohanim to maintain a purity, consistent with them being the spiritual leaders of the community. The sages add that the apparent   redundancy implies that the adult Kohanim as parents have to be cautioned and warned to be concerned about the purity of their children and not cause their children to contaminated by the dead. – להזהיר גדולים על הקטנים  .The Rambam -  Avel 3:12 states that adults are not allowed to physically defile or contaminate children, but if the children  themselves on their own accord contaminate themselves  , the Beit Din-Law courts  as the authority that sees that the people are keeping and observing God's commandments doesn't have to interfere and remove the child from sinning. The child's parents however have a duty to educate the child in holiness.

The Rambam changes his language when he talks about parents. He does not explicitly say that the parents in contrast to the Beit Din-Law courts  have to remove the child from sin, but that parents' obligation is to educate him in holiness. That goes way beyond removing him from sin. It is more about being pro-active educating their children in holiness so that they become God fearing and caring people, free of sin.

Being pro-active educators is crucial especially for the Kohanim. They have to set higher standards for their children. Other people are allowed to defile themselves. They have to teach their kids that other children may behave and act in a certain manner , it is OK for them , but not for you.

  The problem with traditional parenting is that it is 'reactive '. Parents are usually responding to misbehavior '  in the  moment  , by removing him from the situation and threatening him with a time-out or being  put in solitary isolation in his room. Rewarding a child is also reactive, is experienced as controlling and also as punishment if the kid does not get the reward and privileges are withdrawn. 

The best way to prevent problems is to deal with them before they happen. Education should be pro-active, being pro-active in providing structure, a safe and pure environment free from contamination and impurity and triggers that cause challenging behavior. Parents should be teaching lagging skills, solving problems in a collaborative way usually 'out of the moment ', and having expectations of the child appropriate to his personality and developmental age. The parent has to set  an example , impart to their children the beauty and spiritual light of the commandments  - from the word  Zohar, le'hazhir- להזהיר –זוהר  and give  his  children a sense of pride and responsibility that goes with  being the sons of Aaron. He has to give his kids a sense of their purpose , mission and role in the community that goes beyond the commandment of not defiling themselves.  Manoach, the father of Shimshon- Samson sensed the challenge of raising a child in holiness different from other children. The angel said to him – Do what I said to your wife  concerning  your son  -  Rabbi Schwab said that Manoach was given advice to  also take on the life style of his son, and in this way he will have more success in raising his son.

Providing structure supports the autonomy, true freedom and competence of the child, and limits the impact of external stimuli so he learns to make ' intentional choices ' that reflect his values and personality   and meets true needs.  Passive external stimuli hinder a child's freedom to be himself, because they become what shapes   his choices. The choice of simply ' wanting ' something is often because the experience of TV, media, candy or peers has created an illusion of a need. The addiction to sugar, TV, cell phones, videos etc   means that the 'sugar' and cell phone are choosing. Families that have plenty of sugar, sweets and soft drinks in the home in addition to healthy food are not providing choice and true freedom for kids. It is the sugar and the advertising that comes with it that chooses what the child eats. Instead of wooden or natural toys that require the kids to use their imaginations and generate games and activities as 'subjects', kids have so many toys and some of them so overwhelming entertaining   that they cannot make intentional choices. Too much choice is no choice. 

We can avoid being controlling and need to thwart the child's autonomy by not exposing kids to unsafe and inappropriate situations and activities. We can provide a child with a safe environment, set the boundaries and limits which are age appropriate and then join the child's exploration and follow his lead. A good example is a park and playground which is safe and age appropriate. The child is able to lead with the parent following providing minimum guidance.  Structure also provides an environment conducive to child led play that is crucial for the development of many cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills.

 One can provide structure without being controlling and thereby support the autonomy of the child. People conflate control and structure, and hold that 'structure ' in a family requires the use of extrinsic motivators and contingent reinforcement. This  is an approach of a policeman, reactive and controlling rather than being creative and pro-active. Parents should give kids a sense of purpose and mission ,  solve problems collaboratively, create  an environment that is safe, holy and promotes the autonomy  of the child. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Kedoshim 75 - Respect for Authority

The parasha – portion of Kedoshim teaches how we can become Holy like God, involved but separate from the physical world and people who are giving and make a contribution. The Parasha begins with 2 Mitzvoth -commandments. In the same sentence we are told to show (1) a special respect and reverence   for parents and comply with their wishes, and (2) keep and observe the Sabbath. The juxtaposition of these 2 mitzvoth means that they inform each other. A special respect for parents will contribute to keeping the Sabbath and other mitzvoth as the purpose of the mitzvoth of honoring and respecting parents is to acknowledge their role and support their efforts  in transmitting the ' tradition- masoret ' to their children. The Sabbath promotes respect and honor for parents as it provides the time and opportunity for parents to endear themselves to their children by providing for physical, emotional and spiritual needs as parents, teachers and guides.  In fact, the verse can be read not only as –you shall keep the Sabbath, but also the Sabbath shall keep you. The juxtaposition of the 2 commandments also teaches the limitation and condition placed on the mitzvah to revere parents. Children do not have to obey the wishes of parents –in a respectful way -when it  negates  the Torah. But it is more than that – it means that with the power that comes with the authority given by the Torah, comes great responsibility – to attend to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of their children and pass on to them  the heritage of the Torah.

 Parents and teachers should also be respectful towards their children and students. We are supposed to love others as ourselves and thus show respect. And more important being respectful says more about us than the other person as being people who have the characteristic trait of respect - who is a man of honor and respect, he who honors and respects the dignity of others. Likewise if parents and teachers fail and neglect   their responsibilities, their children and students should act respectfully as they would to any other person and in this way, protect and honor their own dignity as well.

Our success as parents and teachers and our relationship with our children and students depends on how we and our children and students perceive our authority. Our stance can be ' authoritarian', meaning that the source of our authority is from our ' status' or position as parents or teachers and the power we have over others. It can be expressed simply as being assertive and insistent in imposing our will, because we are the authority figure or using extrinsic motivation such a punishment, consequences and rewards to get compliance.
 Our stance can be ' authoritative ', meaning that our authority is derived not from our status, title or power, but the respect we command because of our wisdom, stature, personalities, quality of leadership and deep concern for our children's   and students' well-being. Instead of relying on our position of authority and compel others, we try to convince them of our cause and inspire them with our intellectual power and authenticity of our values. We also have a sense of humility which allows us to focus on our great responsibility, the dignity of our children and students and what they need from us, rather than focus on our need for control and authority.  A lack of humility leads to the 'might is right' attitude and abuse of power. It is our humility which allows us to expose our humanity  and vulnerability, see the children or students' world through their own eyes , give them a voice , ask for their input and perspectives and ' work with ' them. It allows us to relinquish control and support their autonomy, competence and relationship. In this way kids become intrinsically motivated and self – determined endorsing their actions and commitments on the highest level of reflection. Humility means we can   see the difference between of the obligation of children to respect revere and honor parents and as the Steipler put it, my duty not to impose myself on others.  Instead of giving orders, we would rather ask for help, which respects the dignity of others and makes them feel valuable and worthwhile. Because we address our children's needs especially the need for respect, acceptance and love and focus on our mentoring  relationship with them rather than compliance, children will more readily respect our wishes. They have learned to trust and rely on us, acknowledge our wisdom and caring attitude. This is what the word   סמכות = sam'chut which is authority in Hebrew, conveys. The authority is derived from the fact that kids rely = סומך on the parent and teacher and that they are ba'al sam'cha – the authority on whose knowledge, wisdom, caring and experience kids can rely. Kids should address their parents - my father /mother, my teacher and try to find qualities in their personalities that they can admire.  This is because the source of respect for parents and teachers is their teaching, and their personal qualities. The question is not whether parents and teachers have authority – it is which type of authority we want ourselves and children to respect.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tazriah-Metzorah 75 - A positive attitude

Our sedras Tazriah – Metzorah deal in the main with the spiritual skin disease called Tza'ra'at. God's divine presence leaves a person's body and this causes changes in the body and skin of a person - a sign of his contamination and impurity. The disease is a response and a message from God to repent and mend his ways. It is his negative attitude to people that stems from his arrogance and self-righteousness that makes him speak badly – lashon ha'ra about others and be miserly with his money and wealth.  He has to dress like a mourner – torn clothes, covers his head and lips and his head is unshaven. He is to live in isolation outside the camp for 7 days until he becomes pure again and if anyone approaches he has to call out and warn them that he is contaminated. By speaking badly about others he has ignored the special connection that people have as being the children of God. He has caused rifts and separation between friends and spouses by his talk, so he needs time in isolation to be reflective and appreciate the importance of connectedness, relationship and belonging to a person. Without the need of belonging and connection being met, a person is considered as having no life, as being dead - 'chavruta o' mi'tutah ', if I don't have a learning partner, I would rather not live. He is thus in mourning for himself, but can change his destiny by changing his thinking by first appreciating that every person is special as a child of God.

 The verse says –Leviticus 13:45  Contaminated, contaminated he will call out. It can be read as he who is contaminated calls others  ' contaminated'.טמא –טמא יקרא, echoing the words of the Sages that a person who disqualifies and degrades people usually suffers from the same bad character traits.הפוסל -במומו פוסל  This is called projection. We try to deny any of our own problems and faults and 'project' it onto to others. When we blame and condemn others for it, it is easier to deny that we have any problems of our own. It blinds us to our own faults and we see only the faults of others.

Another way of explaining why the ' lashon ha'ra ' – evil speech is more a reflection of the speaker and not about the other person is that we are what we choose to see and what bothers us. It reflects on who we are on the deepest levels of our souls – שורש נשמתו.  People have an inner need to validate their beliefs and feelings. So a negative and critical person has a need to justify his position. He will not only look out for the bad and negative, interpret people's actions or words in a negative way; he will also talk to others about what he has seen in other people. The good, positive and optimistic person sees the good in each person and situation, and acts accordingly. When Rabbi Akiva saw a fox come out of the place of the Holy of Holies in the destroyed temple, he unlike his colleagues rejoiced. They saw the fulfillment of the prophecies that spoke of the destruction of the temple and were sad. Rabbi Akiva saw in the destruction the seeds of renewal and resurrection. That just like this prophecy has come true, so will all future prophecies about the rebuilding of Jerusalem come true. Likewise the courts of law, batei din have to look for the positive and try to find a redeeming factor that will save the accused from the death penalty.
As parents and educators finding the positive in kids, no matter what they have done, will not only save them, our relationship with them but also ourselves.  Dr. Ken Ginsburg works with ' at risk ' teenagers. He says that focusing on their negative behaviors - drug taking and selling, being involved in gangs and risky behavior that could lead to pregnancy and disease will just push kids further away.  Because telling them how destructive their behaviors are, is just blaming and shaming them. The only way we can reach them is with love and respect. So he listens to their stories looking for that positive thread. The teenager involved with drugs is stressed out and using drugs to deal with and numb his feelings. That means he has feelings, a soul and cares. The teenager involved in a gang has incredible loyalty, a trait needed in order to make a contribution in the world.  The teenage girl is looking for love and wants to give love back and nurture a child. We need to look beyond the destructive behaviors of these teenagers and see a different person, to see who they are on the deepest levels of their souls. Once we have connected to these kids at this level, we can help them connect to their real selves, deal with problems and live up to our and their expectations as contributing and caring individuals.

When we start to view our challenging child or student in a positive light, we ourselves become liberated from negative thoughts and feelings. We are able see our role in the dynamic and see the child or student's perspective. We come less focused on our need for honor, respect and control and focus more on what our child or student needs from us.  Problems are reframed as challenges and opportunities for growth, empowerment and connection now that we have a positive and' working with relationship' with the child.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Pesach- Shemini 75 - Learning is a Partnership

 The peak of the inauguration of the miskan – tabernacle was fire coming down from heaven as a pillar into the holy of holies, golden altar and then the outer altar causing the incense and sacrificial parts to go up in smoke. The   fire represented   God's love and approval of the children of Israel in the context of strictest form of justice – midat ha'din, not out of midat ha'rachamim – attribute of mercy.   In response to God's display of Love, the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu acting out of a great love and closeness to God, brought what the Torah calls an alien fire into the mishkan- tabernacle.  There are differences of opinion as to what their sin was that caused their death by a fire from heaven. Their sin was that they brought their own incense into the Holy of Holies or they offered the regular daily incense upon the inner altar though they had not been commanded to do so. They acted on their own accord without consulting with their father Aaron or Moshe and did not even discuss the issue amongst themselves. They were also guilty of rendering a decision, making a halachik decision in the presence of Moses their teacher which showed contempt for the Torah learning of the former generation and eroded the authority of the leadership. The Medrash suggests that they had a touch of arrogance  - when walking behind Moses and Aaron, Nadav remarked to Avihu – when will these two elders depart from this world that we may assume the leadership of the community? When people act out of a great love, even if it is a love of God and spirituality, there is often   a touch of arrogance, a love for oneself and relying only on their own thinking and wisdom. Leaders act out love but also out of a fear of heaven because of the responsibility they have for the community. Because of this, they experience God's help – 'si'ata de'sha'maya ' in their decision making.
 .                                                                                                                                                            The root of the sins of Nadav and Avihu could be their lack of understanding about the learning process.  Educators today understand that in order to promote student engagement in learning, learning has to be a partnership between teachers and students. In the process of learning students can question and challenge teachers while still appreciating their teacher's exceptional wisdom, knowledge and practical experience and see them as mentors and guides. From these discussions come clarity and new perceptions. In this way teachers can proclaim that they have learned a lot from their teachers but have   learned the most from their students. In the learning process, everybody is a student – Talmid. The teacher is considered a Talmid Chacham, a wise student who is always learning. When learning is a partnership, there is no generation gap there is no conflict between the present leadership and the younger generation.  And this also applies to Psak, rendering Halachik decisions and law. It is the questions that people – students ask and the discussions that lead to the making of law and practical halachik decisions. So people participate in the process of deciding the Halacha-law by virtue of their questions and input.

The Seider experience where we relate the story of the Exodus from Egypt is based on the idea, that learning is a partnership. It is the questions of children and their natural curiosity that drive the discussions and the acquisition of knowledge. We encourage them to suggest answers and the values associated with them. We focus on listening, using dialog questions to promote discussion. Deborah Meier, the American educationalist says that ' teaching is essentially listening and learning is essentially talking.' In this way we meet kids' needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness and support kids' love of learning, their intrinsic motivation and feeling self-determined and self-directed.  There is no generation gap because they have a voice, feel a sense of belonging, acceptance and are respected and cared about. This is because we have made learning a partnership. And a kid in school can become a learning partner not only with peers and people from other generations, but with the greatest Rabbis and teachers of the generation. An American Rabbi and educator at a girls school – Rabbi Shapiro encourages and helps his students share their learning and ask questions from the leading Rosh Yeshivas and outstanding Torah scholars. They are very willing to listen to kids share their learning and explore ideas with them. When children are given the chance they can construct meaning, share their own perspectives and use their own experiences as learning resources. Because learning is a partnership, the learning of each individual and each child is important. We pray that God will support our learning and give us a share in his Torah. Each child can find his place in the Beit Hamidrash – study halls of Torah. What gets in the way , is our focus on how well kids learn, ranking students, on testing how much they remember and give the answers we want  and using grades  - extrinsic motivation to drive learning. Instead the focus should be on ' what we are learning ', connecting to the learning and not how we are learning. Success and failure should not be experienced as reward or punishment but as neutral information and feedback. When learning is a partnership we encourage student engagement because learning itself becomes important, relevant and we so promote a love of learning.