Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Yitro 76 - Is it the Individual or the System and Environment

  The parasha deals with the 10 Commandments and God's revelation on Mount Sinai. It concludes with some additional commandments including  (a) not making images, gods of silver and gold, ………….,  (b) when making an altar of stones one may not cut the stones with iron tools, and that  (c) steps may not be used to ascend to the altar, 'so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.' The prohibition of idolatry has already being mentioned in the 10 commandments, so what is the Torah adding here.? The Sages explain that only 2 golden statues of the ' cherubs' that were placed upon the Ark could be made, not more or less and only from gold, not from silver. Replicas could not be made to enhance religious worship. Any deviation from the divine commandment concerning the cherubs in the tabernacle would also be considered as an act of idolatry.  We are taught that the spectrum of  the prohibition of idolatry goes way beyond the classic idol worship but it expresses an internal feeling of commitment to the Divine will and authority and certainly not feeling a touch of arrogance of being the one who decides how to worship. The altar of stones may not be cut from iron tools, for iron, as the raw material of the sword shortens life, while the Altar offers people the opportunity of repentance and atonement lengthens life. Our sensitivity to the command   they shall not to murder goes beyond the act of murder. We give expression to this internal feeling and sensitivity to the act of murder by not using iron in the making of the stones for the altar. The reason why steps could not be used to ascend to the altar, but instead a 'ramp' should be made for this purpose, is that  when using steps, the raising of the legs would ' seem to ' expose their private parts to the steps, even though the priest-kohen wore trousers. A style of walking that would expose the steps to immodesty if the person was not fully dressed in the shows a lack of modesty and contempt for the altar. The 10 commandments talks about the prohibition of adultery- sexual immorality, but a sensitivity to sexual immorality makes one refrain from any hint of immodesty. The truth is that when the Torah and specifically here by the 10 Commandments talks about idolatry, murder and adultery – sexual immodesty it refers to them in widest terms as we have explained the last commandments of this parasha. It is only when the value underlying the prohibitions of idolatry, murder and sexual immorality is internalized do these prohibitions take on new meaning.

 The sages note that if the Torah demands a certain sensitivity and respect for inanimate objects – the stones and the ramp of the altar, how much more so we should be sensitive to the feelings of other people. We need to be aware of how we are able to create atmosphere and create an environment by our presence and at the same time we can destroy an atmosphere or have a negative impact on the environment. The environment is important because it supports our internal feelings, and our intrinsic values that are inspired by the Torah. The problem is when the environment and ' system ' do not support the internal values that we want to pass on to our children. In society the conservatives talk about the individual's responsibility to be accountable for their own achievements as man has the freedom to choose. The socialists focus more on the environment and privilege and how that impacts on the individual. The Torah focuses both on the community- the environment and that the individual and people do well when the environment is supportive.

In the home and school, parents and teachers create the 'system and environment ' which drives behavior and learning. Learning is driven by our need to control and so we use extrinsic motivators like tests, grades, degrees and diplomas, prizes, honor rolls, rewards and competition. Our need for control is even greater when it comes to behavior. Kids are motivated to behave by a discipline code that manipulates and reinforces their behavior with rewards, punishments, consequences and praise. Character education stresses the truth, integrity, kindness, consideration, altruism , responsibility and caring  , commitment, doing teshuva, repenting, learning from mistakes , making amends  grit, self –discipline etc . Kids are told that they should develop a love for learning and become life-long learners.  The problem is we expect noble character and a love for learning, but our system and the environment focuses on control and it leads kids to try and get the best grade in the easiest possible way, learn only if it is on the test, focus on the grade and not on the learning, see others as obstacles in their way in the competitive environment rather than learning from other kids and supporting them in a cooperative learning environment. It does not teach that ' mistakes are our friends ' and that's how learning takes place. The learning has certainly no inherent value and no internalization will take place. It is not relevant to them and they are certainly not involved in making meaning of the world around them. Teachers want to hear answers that they consider are right rather than learning in parallel with kids focus on the kid's thinking and his perspective.  The focus on grit, self –discipline and responsibility is more about the teacher's need for control and compliance. Responsibility is taught not by teaching kids to follow instructions but by participating in the decision making process, generating solutions and solving problems in a collaborative way , based on mutually satisfying solutions. The discipline code promotes lying to avoid punishment or even not offering help when one has injured somebody so as not to be caught. It teaches that the problem is being caught – the consequences, not the consequences and impact that one's actions have on others. The discipline code teaches kids to ask – what will I get if I do this or what will be done to me – what's in it for me. It certainly does not teach kids to reflect on what type of people they want to be and if their actions reflect their true values and inner beings. When consequences are imposed we take away the child's chance to engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution and reparation.

The lesson from the altar and ramp and the demands for a ' walking style' that is modest teaches us that the environment and system to need support values and character growth. Unfortunately the parenting and educational environment and system negates the very values we are trying to teach and instill in our kids and students  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Beshalach 76 - Questions and Discovery lead to Song and Faith

The climax of the Exodus from Egypt was the splitting of the Red Sea and the prophetic song at the sea – shirat ha'yam which the Israelites sang expressing gratitude, trust and total belief in God- Hashem. The midrash notes that no one before ,had broken out in song  when saved by a miracle performed by God and now since the singing of the song , God's presence in the world had  become more established.  So what was different about the miracle of the splitting of the Red sea?  Miracles in the past, like those performed for Abraham and the Israelites in Egypt were performed to save people or get them out of trouble. The splitting of the Red sea was different. The route taken out of Egypt most probably raised many questions. There was a shorter route - the route they came to Egypt, which also meant that they did not have to cross the Red Sea. After travelling 3 days and reaching Succot , they back-tracked and started moving in the direction of Egypt . This encouraged Pharaoh and his army to pursue the Israelites as they seemed to be now trapped between the Sea, wilderness and an army going after them.
 It seemed that God was putting them into trouble so that He could perform a miracle which would glorify and sanctify His Name in the world. Previously, miracles were performed to get people out of trouble, now God put the Israelites into trouble so that He could perform a miracle. After the witnessing and experiencing the miracle at the sea, the Israelites gained a flash of insight, a deep understanding of how God conducts the world, how all apparently unrelated and contradictory phenomena meld into a coherent, merciful, comprehensible whole. They saw and heard how every note, instrument and participant in the symphony of creation plays its role and the result is song. The Israelites came to the realization that their purpose in the world and the purpose of the creation was to create a partnership with God in order to glorify and sanctify His  name by the way they live their lives in this world. At the sea the suffering of the Egyptian exile, their hopelessness and helplessness when surrounded by Pharaoh, the sea and the wilderness and the deception that led Pharaoh to pursue them took on a new meaning as being part of the Divine plan.

  When one has unanswered questions and doubts and then one experiences  a flash of insight and deep understanding about one's purpose and relevance in the world, it not only touches the mind but also the heart and soul. When the understanding is both intellectual, intuitive and  comes from revelation and discovery, the knowledge is understood also in an emotional way. And this leads to faith –emunah and deep trust in God.

The process of discovery and not telling, leads to both intellectual and emotional understanding. This cornerstone of authentic education is played out again in our parasha with the miracle of the 'manna from heaven '. The manna was covered with a layer of dew and did not become noticeable until the sun melted the upper layer of dew, whereupon people saw something of the likes that they had never seen before. Their reaction was one of surprise – ' mun hoo ' what is it ? and they guessed that  it was some type of food. Moses informed them that it was indeed food that they would receive every day except for the Sabbath.

'Education is not a filing of the pail, but lighting the fire of learning' – Yeats and that is how the Torah instructs parents and teachers to transmit the message of the Exodus from Egypt. We do this by creating an environment that promotes discovery, curiosity and the asking of questions. The questions of the 4 sons from the Pesach seider are examples how learning and discussion is driven the curiosity and questions of children. And we can help them by sharing our questions and focusing on even deeper questions and the ideas and values behind them.

Things today are going terribly wrong with pre-school education with the focus more on academic readiness like reading, writing and arithmetic  at the expense of intellectual skills.' “Young children enter the classroom with lively minds–with innate intellectual dispositions toward making sense of their own experience, toward reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning and learning,” says Dr. Lilian Katz. “But in our attempt to quantify and verify children’s learning, we impose premature formal instruction on kids at the expense of cultivating their true intellectual capabilities – and ultimately their optimal learning.” In this respect we can learn from the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.”  It is all about relationship and conversation – encouraging young children to use and hear complex language , paying close attention to their thought processes and finding ways to make children think aloud. Preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.

The Torah is also referred to as a song – 'write down this song for you'. A song is not only  an expression of gratitude and joy but an expression of faith and trust. If we want the Torah to be a song for ourselves and our children, our learning and living should be focused on discovery and making meaning in our lives, being of service to man and  serving God. The focus  for kids should be on what they  are learning and doing and not on how well they are learning and doing. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bo 76 - Being a Master over Time

The narrative leading up to the 10th plague of the firstborn is interrupted by commandments that deal with the relationship between God- Hashem and his people -  (a)  the Jewish calendar= the sanctification of the New Moon- Rosh Chodesh and (b)  the laws of Pesach- Passover. The timing of the laws of Pesach is obvious, but why was the calendar-the sanctification of the New Moon given now. And also why was' kidush ha'chodesh' – the sanctification of the new moon given such prominence as being the first commandment given by God to the Israelites as a nation.

An insight and understanding of the Oral laws concerning the sanctification of the New Moon will answer our question - see R' SR Hirsch, Timeless Hirsch R' Adlerstein.  The Jewish calendar is based on the moon and regulated by the sun, so that the month of Nissan and the holiday of Pesach –Passover will fall in the spring. Unlike other calendars which are absolutely predictable as they follow the path of the sun or moon, the Jewish calendar is based less on ' calculation ' and more on the actual visual sighting of the moon and when the Beit Din's proclaims and sanctifies  the New Moon. So in a case where the witnesses said that they sighted the beginning   and renewal of the new moon on Monday night= Tuesday and it is known that this sighting was viewed by lots of other people, but Beit Din only managed to perform the declaration and sanctification ceremony on Wednesday, Wednesday is Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, and  not Tuesday, the day of the sighting of the new moon. The Beit Din can manipulate Rosh Chodesh- the first day of the new month, so that Shabbat does not come before or after Yom Kippur, as it  would cause hardship for people. The declaration of the court has finality, even when it is later learned that the testimony of the witnesses was inaccurate, whether by error or intentionally.  It was important for communities to know when Rosh chodesh fell so as to know on which day the holy holiday would fall. Distant communities ,  because of this lack of predictability and they  did not yet hear which day the court declared as Rosh chodesh,   would have to observe an extra day , the second day of the  holiday in the diaspora , not one day because  of  this doubt.  Because of the exile and that there were longer judges who were   properly ordinated and had semicha needed for the sanctification of the new moon process, Hillel the second, instituted a fixed calendar. What remains of the authentic Jewish calendar is that communities  outside of Israel observe 2 days of holidays-- the 2nd day of the diaspora and don't rely on the fixed calendar.

The downplaying of the astronomical calculation and the fact that the witnesses and the Beit Din process ' trumps' following ' nature and its laws'  means that man has become master over time and is able to transcend time.  While slaves in Egypt the Israelites were not owners of their time, it was their masters. When they became free, there was still the danger of becoming a ' slave of time' and nature and not being the ones who control time, rather time controlling them. A fixed calendar, following predictable astronomical events and linking the holidays to them would give the impression that we were worshiping the dutiful periodicity of Nature, something glorified by the pagan Egyptian culture. It would imply that the relationship between man and God is fixed, static and constrained. It is the ' oral law' that gives man a role, collaborating with God  in the on-going process of creation and elevating nature making Judaism a dynamic religion which can deal with the challenges of time and yet remain authentic  to the Torah given at Mount Sinai and not become a fossilized religion. The waxing and waning of the moon and its renewal are  merely symbols for us , like the rainbow in Noah's time, modeling the rhythm of life and encouraging us to rejuvenate ourselves and renew our dedication to God. ' It is not the astronomical first appearance of the moon , the Rosh chodesh that has us count the days till the holiday , the mo'ed , the special days that we meet and encounter God. It is the renewal and newness that takes place within ourselves that allows us to spend time with God on the special days of the year. Because we can change and move towards Him, we experience something powerful when He makes Himself available to us. Without that change, we would be commemorating the past, and it would not be a moe'd, a meeting and encounter. In other words, Rosh Chodesh is not determined by the moon as by the way it is noticed and perceived by us. It is man that declares the new moon, not the moon itself. Although today we use a fixed calendar , the second day of Yom Tov- holiday keeps alive the spirit of sanctification of the new moon by the Beit Din –law  court  '- R' Adlerstein.

When it comes to our kids we can not only model behavior that shows we are masters over time and can transcend time, but also give kids the tools and skills to manage their time, avoid procrastination, prioritize, engage in sequential thinking, acquire a wider perspective of time beyond the moment, and respond to changes in schedules and unexpected events. We use time to create ' structure and boundaries' which enables one to get totally lost in an activity and in this way transcend time. Punctuality and respecting other's time is an important value. We need to learn from King David who said I  will awaken the dawn. The reason we have problems with punctuality is that we aim at coming on time and not arriving before the time. If we do that, plan to come before the time,awaken the dawn, we will come on time. By over-scheduling kids, we make them slaves of time, but when they have a say and participate in the decision making process, they can become owners and masters over their time

.It is the so-called inefficient process that consists of visually sighting the moon and proclaiming and sanctifying the new moon that gives expression to a value of being a master over time and nature. In contrast , the fixed calendar with its astronomical accuracy makes us slaves of time and nature.This lesson was crucial to the Israelites achieving true freedom and not becoming slaves of time and nature.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Vaerah 76 - Sustaining Change or the Teshuva- Repentance of Pharaoh

A central theme in the parasha is Pharaoh's refusal to set free the Israelites despite him and his people suffering the terrible consequences of his stubbornness and counter-will.  Pharaoh's stubbornness and defiance was reinforced by God ' hardening his heart ' so that after a temporary relief from a plague, Pharaoh would go back on his word and was able to endure the divine plan of 10 plagues.  The first question is how can God punish Pharaoh if his refusal to set the Israelites free was due to ' o' nes '= coercion, duress and force. It was beyond Pharaoh's power and control to set them free because God had hardened his heart against making this decision. The second question is why Pharaoh and people in general don't learn from their mistakes or bad choices, even when they suffer the terrible consequences of their choices and behaviors. The classical example is the alcoholic who because of drink loses his job, his wife leaves him, or gets imprisoned for destructive behavior under the influence of drink. He then shows remorse and makes promises to abstain from drink, which is usually short-lived and he is soon back in trouble again. Like Pharaoh , when they feel the stick beating down on them, they repent and do teshuva, but when the stick is removed , they go back to their old ways.

The hardening of Pharaoh's heart had 2 purposes. It came after an initial expression of stubbornness and obstinacy that had to be supported and counter-act   the pain and suffering inflicted by the plagues. God did not want Pharaoh to release the people because of extrinsic reasons that he was unable to bear the suffering caused by the plagues.  The Divine plan was that Pharaoh would release the Israelites when genuinely moved to repent and not for the wrong reasons - to avoid the consequences, punishments and suffering. The second purpose was to strengthen and highlight Pharaoh true will and intrinsic choice – to keep the Israelites as slaves. He was therefore not interested in setting them free. Although Pharaoh had no choice but to defy Moses' request and to refuse to set the people free because God had hardened his heart, this was truly what he wanted in his heart and therefore he was punished for this. There is a concept that when a person is forced or coerced to do something wrong or sin because of ' o'nes ' or duress, and there is an element of willingness on his part to do the action, the willingness in his heart defines the nature of the action. Instead of one being forced and therefore not accountable, the person, because of his deeper inner-will   is said to have done the action intentionally and willingly. This is learned from the verse in Jeremiah 30:14. עַ֚ל רֹ֣ב עֲוֹנֵ֔ךְ עָצְמ֖וּ חַטֹּאתָֽיִךְ׃If most of a person sins were done intentionally – be'meizid, his unintentional mistakes are considered as intentional sins, since without being mistaken or acting without intention, he would have intentionally done those wrongs and sins at some later stage. So while Pharaoh's actions were not in his control, his heart approved and wanted what he was forced to do. 

The reason why people don't sustain change over a long period of time is because they engage in the repentance of Pharaoh – repenting because of extrinsic reasons, changing just to avoid the consequences of sin and inappropriate behavior. And once there is relief from the consequences, they engage in denial or rationalizing what happened to them as being unfair or bad luck etc, and soon goes back to their old ways. Change can be sustained if a person has a new sense of purpose and a new vision of himself. His essential needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness need to be addressed as well.   Change cannot be sustained if a person feels forced to change or change just to avoid consequences. He has to change because he believes in the positive value in what he does. Pharaoh has to change because he acknowledges God's role in the world and the role of the Israelites in God's plans.  People need to feel self-determined, autonomous, and  connected to their inner-beingsand  values. So adopting a new life style and focusing on the underlying philosophy helps people with drink, eating, gambling, anger issues etc. Often people are lagging skills and competence required in order to adopt and live a new life style. They also need a lot of guidance to learn new skills.   Then people also need to be supported by family, friends and care givers and to have a sense of belonging and acceptance. In this way, even if progress is 2 steps forward , one step back , their hearts are for doing the right thing and the teshuva they do is genuine , not the teshuva of Pharaoh done to avoid consequences.

When it comes to kids, most of their behavior can be described as beyond their control as they are lacking the skills needed to behave adaptively and flexibly when the demands that outstrip their skills are placed on them. If we support their autonomy, competence, relatedness and sense of belonging we will raise children who will engage in true teshuva and sustain real change in their lives, engaging in an autonomous way in the moral  act of restitution and reparation and not do the teshuva of Pharaoh simply to avoid consequences. In this way we sustain change and create a commitment to the underlying values involved.