Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Vayerah 76 - The Healing effect of Visiting the sick

'Hashem- God appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamre '. Since Hashem- God did not say anything the Sages learn that God  ' came to visit the sick '. It was the 3rd and most painful day after Abraham's brit milah = circumcision. Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, so Hashem – God attending to the needs of the sick, makes sure that Abraham's desperate need for guests is addressed. Abraham saw the 3 angels in the guise of men coming, and then stopping as to indicate they did not want to trouble him. Abraham, despite the pain ran towards them to invite them in. The 3 angels were Michael - who informed Abraham that Sara would have a son, Gabriel would overturn Sodom and Raphael would heal Abraham and save Lot.

The obvious question is that if I would have a choice, I would prefer Hashem- God to be the doctor and do the healing and Raphael to do the mitzvah of visiting the sick. Further, from where did Abraham get the energy and strength to run towards the angels to invite them in?

The doctor is in fact the ' shaliach ' or God's agent who has been given the permission and help from God to heal. But the mitzvah of 'visiting the sick ' essentially cannot be done by an agent or a shaliach. If one cannot come, the sick person will always experience some disappointment. Just being there, has a positive impact on the emotions and therefore the health of the patient. One could always be more of a help and attend to his specific needs and requests and of course pray for the sick person asking that ' Heaven send a ' refuah Shelia – a total recovery – to the patient together with all the other sick people of Israel. The Talmudic Sages say that just being there has a healing effect, as the visitor removes one sixtieth of the illness in some mystical way. The research has an explanation for the healing effect of a visit – the placebo effect and impact on positive emotions. So it was the healing effect of God- Hashem visiting Abraham that gave him the strength to run towards the angels. There is the well- known placebo effect, where a positive attitude, expectations and belief that one has received an active treatment, even if the med is a placebo,   impacts not only making the patient report feeling better as in the case of asthma, but in the cases of pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, heart rate and blood pressure the 'placebo' can cause some objective physiological changes. The prayers, positive thoughts and emotional support that a visitor offers a patient, strengthens the patient's belief in his treatment and expectations to return to good health.
Emotions have a powerful effect on a patient's health, so close and supportive relationships and the accompanying positive emotions  are reported to  improve a patient's health  - increase a person's resistance to illness and reduce the risk of having a another heart attack etc . When a visitor has a smiling face and  is in a loving and cheerful mood, the patient becomes infected,  as the patient's ' mirror neurons' mimic the emotions thereby lifting up the spirit of the patient and making him feel better. Love, kindness and caring can help a patient recover from ill health. When people and friends fail to turn up, they not only deprive patients of loving contact, but their feelings of rejection activate the very areas of the brain that generate the sting of physical pain.

Vising the sick is an expression of the commandment to ' love your neighbor as yourself-  ואהבת לרעך כמך . One acts in a certain way, but more important is the emotional response you elicit from the patient. On the physical level we can appoint agents or a shaliach, but on an emotional level only we can be ourselves. Visiting the sick is an example for the many other interactions we have with people. The important lesson is that our expectations, moods and attitudes impact on others as their ' mirror neurons ' pick up and mimic our emotions. We have to be aware that we relate to people also on an emotional level. The feeling of well- being, happiness, being intrinsically motivated and self-determined

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lech Lecha -Vayeirah - Love Your Kids and Believe in Them !

In our parasha , God recognizes Abraham's dedication to  the people of the world and bringing them closer to God- Hashem by changing his name. God changes his name – from Abram to Abraham .This change represented  his new status,  as no longer only being  the Father of Aram, but becoming  the Father of a multitude of nations.  Abraham served God through the characteristic trait of 'chesed', generosity, acts of hospitality and kindness,  building caring communities of God fearing people. He ' touched their ' hearts and souls ' and the 'souls he made in Haran ' decided to join him on the journey where God would lead him. Abraham both loved and believed in the potential of people to change, no matter how evil were their ways. He prayed and pleaded on behalf of the people of Sodom who faced destruction. He believed a righteous community of 10 people  could impact positively on a whole city whose inhabitants were wicked and evil.   By being ' upright in his ways = ya'shar, he showed honor and respect to all people and at the same time 'hated evil'. People would change their ways  if he could make a personal connection with them, show that he loved them and cared for them and then help them connect to God and His ways.  Abraham's and the other fathers – Isaac and Jacob are called – y'sharim, the upright ones because of  their personal interactions = halichot olam with people and for this reason the book of Genesis = Be'reishit is called Sefer ha'yashar – the book of the 'upright '.

In our parasha there are 2 incidents where Abraham is criticized for lacking faith in God. The first incident is the meeting between the king of Sodom and Abraham to deal with the spoils of the war – the booty and prisoners after Abraham's victory in the war between the kings of Canaan. The king of Sodom offers Abraham to take the booty-money and he, the king  will get back his subjects. Abraham refuses   the offer - he does not want any personal gain – both no booty-money and  no prisoners. He does not want the King of Sodom to feel and say that it is he and not God that has made Abraham rich. Because Abraham refused to take the prisoners, he is criticized for preventing them from becoming  converts and entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah = Divine presence. 

The second incident is Abraham questioning and doubting God's promise that his descendants will inherit the land of Israel. He asked how can I know that my descendants will be worthy of inheriting the land of Israel?  As a result, to fix and repair this minute flaw of faith at the 'root and source ' of the nation's faith, the descendants of Abraham would be exiled and be slaves in Egypt.

Abraham's lack of faith seems to be more about a lack of faith in people -  the prisoners= subjects of the king of Sodom to connect to God and the descendants of Abraham to repent and do Teshuva and reconnect to God rather than a lack of faith in God. When one lacks faith in man one is limiting the potential belief in  God in the world, declaring that God can only connect with certain and a limited amount of people. One also ignores the answer that God gave to Abraham -  ' your descendants will be worthy of inheriting the land of Israel because I have given them sacrifices to help them repent and atone for their  sins. In fact, the covenant - brit that God made with Abraham included sacrifices similar to ones offered on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.   One is also lacking faith in God if one does not have faith in  people -  that  God  created  people  who have been made in his image that can  do Teshuva and  repent.

Abraham has proved to be the example and epitome of ' loving man and believing in mankind.'  So what went wrong?   The Dalai Lama has an insightful saying - people ' Love Money and Use People, instead they should Love People and Use Money. The King of Sodom offered Abraham a deal – take the money and I will take the people.  Abraham replied that  he did not love money or use people – so he refused,  all personal gain - taking no money and no people.  Instead he should have answered. I don't love money and don't use people – I love people and believe in their ability to do Teshuva – repent and connect with God. I,  as the victor in this war am  going to exercise my rights and keep the people so I can invest in them and contribute to their lives by bringing them close to God. 

The exile and redemption from Egypt fixed and repaired this flaw. Although Moses initialy  showed that he lacked a belief in the Israelites  to be deserving of redemption, the redemption process restored a love for man and a belief that man could  do Teshuva and repent ' even if they had reached the 49th level of impurity and contamination. It also enabled  them also to accept and embrace those Egyptians who wanted to join the Israelites and so give them the opportunity to enter under the wings of the Shechinah- Divine presence and become  close to God . The laws of loving converts, inviting non-Jewish residents to participate in the Temple service and the ' Hakhel ' ceremony are examples of ways to make amends and rectifying the minute mistakes and flaws in Abraham's behavior towards the prisoners of war.

When it comes to our children and students we have to unconditionally love and accept them and believe that they have a place close to God and the ability to connect to God, holiness , the Torah and Mitzvoth. Too often kids get the feeling and impression that it is only the outstanding students, the ones that are well behaved, love to learn and have good concentration and thoughts when praying are the only ones that have a place near God and are able to connect to him. All kids need to feel that they are worthy of God's attention, love and connection. We have to emulate Abraham who believed that people don't need punishment but to experience the beauty of Judaism, feel accepted and appreciated and live in a caring community. Parents and teachers who focus on punishment have essentially given up on their kids and students. What these kids and students need is help and have  concerned parents and teachers who care about meeting their needs for their emotional, religious development etc. The lesson of Abraham – love and believe in people means that people and especially children are less interested in how much we know but how much we care about them . If we believe in our children , we will love them and if we truly love them, we will believe in them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Noah 76 - The Tower of Babel, A lesson for educators

The parasha of the Tower of Babel and the subsequent dispersion brings to mind the totalitarian dictatorships and  communistic states , whose leadership  in the name of some ideology or defense against possible threats 'made a name for themselves' and called for absolute uniformity and obedience to the state. The rights of individuals must be sacrificed for the success of the state and its goals. The leadership under Nimrod managed to persuade and convince people to put their trust in a leadership whose advanced technological skills - made bricks and mortar instead of using stone and clay – would take care of any environmental and any other threats.  All the people shared this common purpose with the state and there was no dissension or opposing opinions or perspectives. Nimrod even used religion to further his goals and introduced the sacrifice to God of predators like lions in order to glorify the ideals of 'power, government and kingship' that would have absolute power and control over the people. God realized that powerful and controlling governments with the help of technology would try to make ' a name for themselves '. This would be at the expense of (1) looking to God for spiritual solutions to man's problems and (2) seeing the state and society as being there to serve the individuals rather than individuals being there to serve the state. In fact the Midrash describes people mourning the destruction and loss of bricks, while the death of builders went unnoticed.

It would seem that a controlling society, one that demands uniformity and everyone sharing the same opinions is not conducive to spiritual growth and the creation of a caring society. In the fact, it seems the opposite is true. In a comment about his years spent at Shor Yoshuv under the dynamic leadership of Reb Shlomo Freifeld, Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn said it was also the fact that the boys were both brilliant and non-conformists that created a dynamic and spiritually empowering and uplifting environment. -  Yet control, compliance and conforming seem to be what drives parents, educators and teachers, today.

In a classroom setting, it is quite understandable that a teacher should have classroom management skills and be able to ' control' a classroom so to create an environment conducive to learning. But in many schools and classrooms the ultimate goal has become order and conformity where rather than treating discipline as 'instrumental to mastering academic content' teachers reverse those ends and means. They maintain discipline by the way they present course content. If the goal is order and conformity one would choose a traditional approach to education – teacher lecturing and doing most of the talking, text books, work sheets, tests and quizzes and extrinsic motivators like grades , honor rolls, competition and praise to get the kids to learn. One certainly would not choose a classroom where kids are encouraged to construct meaning and share their unique opinions, understand ideas from the inside out so the approach would be collaborative, kids also learn in pairs or groups, open-ended, project-based and driven by students' interests and a love for learning. When it comes to discipline and behavior – both positive and negative, teachers who have a need to control, will keep the locus of control with them, using rewards, praise, punishments and consequences to get compliance and in this way promote the most primitive form of moral behavior – helping a kid to ask – what will be done to me or what will I get if I do XYZ.? Instead teachers can give up control and let kids participate in deciding what goes on in the classroom, reflect on values, motives – not simply behaviors - and goals so kids learn to ask – what type of classroom do we want, what type of person do I want to be, what are the consequences of my behavior on others, how can I make a contribution and if I have ' screwed up ' how can I do Teshuva and engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution.
In the classroom and home the evidence is overwhelming in favor  of supporting the autonomy of the child , so  that he feels self-directed and connected to his inner –being ( neshama)  as opposed to a controlling environment where compliance and not  independent and creative thinking is encouraged. As educators we can learn from  the teaching of R' Eliezer who said that he had never said anything that he had not heard from his Rabbi and then we see in the Avot De' Rabi'Natan  where he is reported to have given a sermon and said over novel thoughts and chidushim that no one had ever heard before. R' Chaim Shmulevitz resolves this apparent contradiction by explaining what R' Eliezer meant when he said that he never ever said anything that he had not heard from his Rabbi. This cannot be taken literally because ' being a tape recorder' and only repeating what one has learned is certainly nothing to be proud of. R' Eliezer explained that whatever he said was something that he was sure his Rabbi would say or agree with. So R' Eliezer was being very creative in his learning and at the same time very authentic. There are 70 faces-facets to the Torah and this is intended to encourage us and our kids to construct and find personal meaning in what we learn and do so we become more connected to Hashem and His Torah. The lesson of the Tower of Babel is to warn us of the dangers of being controlling and not encouraging personal and creative thinking for our kids' spiritual growth and development. Instead of  being ' controlling' and trying to motivate kids , we can inspire them and help them connect to their learning, create the conditions to help them motivate themselves and become caring long life learners.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Be'reshit 76 - Teshuva out of Joy or discipline

One of the most important aspects of education and parenting is helping kids engage in    'Teshuva mi'toch simcha ve' ahavat Hashem ' - repentance out of happiness and a love for God. In fact, that is the lesson and the calling of the Torah for all people.  Life begins and ends with a focus on Teshuva.

 We end the year with the Teshuva of Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then, after our prayers have been accepted, we celebrate our atonement, forgiveness and new connection with God on Sukkot. The Zohar and Arizal explain things a little differently. A second signature is required to validate the judgment made on Yom Kippur. The' mesirat hapitakim' the handing over of the notes ' occurs on Hoshana Raba and the final judgment takes effect on Simchat Torah, after the kedusha of mussaf.  So in fact the Teshuva process does not end with Yom Kippur but on Hoshana Raba. 

Teshuva is intrinsically motivated, but the Teshuvah of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is mainly driven by the fear and awe of God's omnipresence- mitoch yir'ah - and the seriousness and urgency of the days of judgement and atonement - and also  to a lesser  extent by the joy we experience because of the opportunity we have been given to do teshuva and come closer to God. This is replaced on Succot   by a Teshuva motivated by joy and love for God. Only a Teshuvah mi'toch simcha – repentance out of joy is able to facilitate us returning to God and doing '  complete   Teshuva', something that we pray for God's help in this matter every day. Teshuva is not only having regret about the past , making amends and  making a commitment not to repeat these sins but is also about achieving and realizing one's potential and mad'rei'ga-stature . While we may not be sinning, there is plenty of room for improving our midot, our character traits, and our connection to holiness and realizing the unique potentials of our souls. And this can only be done if we feel self-directed, self –determined and intrinsically motivated. When people are happy, fulfilled and have a connection with God, they feel self-determined and the source of their Teshuva is joy and a love of God.

In our daily prayers we pray – השיבנו אבינו לתורתך וקרבנו מלכנו לעבודתך והחזירנו בתשובה שלמה לפניך. ברוך אתה ה', הרוצה בתשובה . Our father, bring us back to your Torah,  and bring us near to your service and influence us to return in complete and perfection repentance before you ………The process of Teshuva starts with a connection to the Torah. If we look at this week's parasha Be'reishit , we see that the Torah opens up with the account of  2 sins, those of Adam – אדם הראשון  who transgressed God's commandment and ate from the tree of knowledge  and that of Cain , who first brought an offering to God from inferior crops and latter in a fight  killed his brother Abel. The Torah teaches from the very beginning that man's life is a focus on Teshuva. 
 God confronts man in a most compassionate way. He does not do it like a parent or teacher who tries to discipline a child. There is no blame, shame or even mention of punishment. God caused his sound to be heard and did not engage them immediately showing that we should be sensitive to a person's embarrassment at sinning and allow them to regain some dignity. God's presence was felt only after they had sewn fig leaves together to cover their shame and embarrassment. God does not reprimand them, but tries to slowly engage them in a conversation. Even though he knows where they are – He calls to man – איכה - where are you? And man answers that he was afraid to be naked before God – when we pray we need to be dressed respectfully - and to this God asked – who told you that you were naked? You are correct to act this way and hide from me because you are naked, your  action is faultless, but how did you get to this ' level ' that you know that you are naked. We learn from  here that while our actions are often  OK , we are also judged for being on the level we are holding and have to do ' Teshuva ha'mad'reiga '  - improve the level we are operating on. 
God responds to Cain in the same way. Why are you so depressed and frustrated about succumbing to the Yeitzer ha'rah – the evil inclination. I have given you a divine intelligence and the Torah to help you deal and overcome the evil inclination. 

Mistakes, failure and even sin are part of our engaging in and learning of Torah and essential to understanding and growing in Torah.  – אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשלים בהם תחילה   - A person does not gain an understanding or appreciation of the words of the Torah until he falters or stumbles in them.

It is clear that God's response to man's sins and inappropriate actions is far from the traditional discipline that parents and teachers use. Instead we should learn from God, how not to be judgmental but focus on helping kids do ' complete teshuva' mitoch simcha ve'ahavat Hashem '  - repent out of joy and a love of God. If kids understand that we are not angry with them and are not going to punish or desert them, but we love and care about them unconditionally and are there to help them, we will be supporting them in reflecting on their actions and in an autonomous way engage in the moral act of restitution and reparation – in other words doing Teshuva. The question we need to ask ourselves – is our focus on discipline or on Teshuva?