Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pesach- Acharie Mot 76 – Aaron and the 4 Keys of Well-Being

For some, happiness and well-being is a goal in life. For Torah Jews, this is in a sense a preoccupation with the ' self' and that happiness and well-being should rather be viewed as a vehicle for becoming greater, kinder and more compassionate human beings. Dr Richard Davidson says that neuroscientists show that we can change our brains –due to the plasticity of the brain – by creating more, new and stronger neural circuits by using the keys or skills for well- being in a deep and emotional way. The 4 keys are Resilience, Outlook, Attention and Generosity. It seems that Aaron the High Priest is the Torah's role model for these well-being keys.

Resilience – Resilience is the rapidity with which people recover from adversity. People who show a more rapid recovery in key neural circuits have higher levels of well-being. The problem is that our brains have a negativity bias to cope with threats and avoid danger.  The brain sucks in negative interactions and their impact on the brain is said to be 5 times more powerful than positive experiences. We don't only suffer from negative experiences, but we tend to self –inflict, brood over it for the rest of the day, becoming more negativistic, stressed out, depressive, pessimistic and self- critical. Self-compassion is a skill that helps people recover and get back on track. People who see mistakes, falling and failure as opportunities for growth turn these negative experiences into positive experiences and when they repent and do Teshuva they can transform negative actions into positive actions. Aaron lost his 2 sons during the inauguration ceremony of the Tabernacle. Moses consoled Aaron and Aaron's response was to accept the Divine decree and remain silent- וידם אהרן. In order to deal with painful situations, we have to first accept the new reality. This liberates us emotionally – and instead of fighting reality, we are now in a position to be creative in handling the new situation.

Outlook – This refers to the ability to see the positive in others, their innate basic goodness, the positive side of situations and events and the ability to take positive facts and convert them into deep emotional experiences which people savor and enjoy. We also see the ' hidden miracles ' in our personal and national worlds as the Ramban explains – the great and open miracles particularly those from the exodus from Egypt teach us to look for the hidden miracles in our lives.  Aaron had a compassionate approach to people. He had the ability to see the good in each person, convey it to others and also ascribe more positive attributes and motives to people's negative actions. In this way, he was able to resolve conflict, make peace between people and in this way he engaged people during Golden calf episode.

Attention.  A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Instead of being mindful, connected and attentive, a large amount of people's waking life is spent not paying attention, going through physical motions in an automatic way, doing things just to get something else - reach a milestone or pass a test as there is nothing intrinsically valuable in what we are doing, and therefore we are   not connected to what we are doing etc.,.  The Mitzvoth we do become – מצוות אנשים מלומדה   - without any emotional input, automatic and in a rote manner. When it comes to our personal interactions we should focus on deep listening and being present with the other person, and also read their non-verbal messages.  Paying attention and being mindful are skills that were never taught to people. But what makes the situation worse is routine and doing things out of habit. Aaron is warned – ואל יבוא בכל עת אל הקודש – not to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur at all times of the day but only when he carries out the sacrificial service of the day. The Divine spirit rests there and Aaron should not make entering there, a habit, but be mindful of the holiness of the place and the presence of the Divine spirit. The same idea is expressed by the commandment that on the festivals people should not leave temple using the gate that they entered the temple. Familiarity breeds contempt if we are not careful to invest in relationships and quality of our actions.

Generosity –When individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being. These circuits get activated in a way that is more enduring than the way they would respond to other positive incentives such as winning a game or earning a prize. The Rambam says something  similar -– we experience true joy and happiness, when we act in a generous and altruistic way and have needy people at our festive meals. Aaron not only promoted peaceful relationships between people, but was very generous in the way he approached and received people, which changed their self-worth and self-esteem.

When we interact with our children, we should be aware that we are building the neural circuits for well –being or enhancing neural structures that are negative and aggressive. By giving our kids the 4 well-being keys Resilience, Outlook, Attention and Generosity we are helping them to become better and happier people who are also concerned with the happiness and well-being of others.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Metzorah- Pesach 76 - Leadership, Humility and Internalization

  The Metzorah has to undergo purification, cleansing – tahara and atonement so that he can rejoin the nation and rededicate himself to the service of God. He attains kappara- atonement by removing part of his negative  personality and rejecting it – his self-pride, arrogance and haughtiness which is responsible for his contempt for other people and the underlying cause of his slander, gossip and la'shon ha'rah. The purification ritual is a process where the metzorah repents and changes from an arrogant person to become  a humble human being. The ritual includes the bringing of ושני תולעת ואזוב - scarlet thread which was dyed with a pigment made from a lowly creature and a low bush – the hyssop symbolizing the idea of humility. He also brings of cedar wood which grows tall and is imposing as a symbol of haughtiness. The question is asked - if our concern is to help a person become more humble, let him just bring the hyssop and the scarlet thread, why also  bring the cedar wood. ?
Being a humble ' nobody ' is not what the Torah wants of people. People are supposed to become leaders in their lives , strive for greatness, virtue and righteous and like the cedar in Lebanon grow tall - כארז בלבנון ישגה, but at the same time be humble. Humility is not taking credit for any achievements or success but acknowledging that without God's divine help and providence and the merit of the community he serves, he could not achieve in the world. But it goes further than this – humility is a precondition for great leadership. It gives one the courage to expose one's vulnerability and admit mistakes, learn from other people and listen to the concerns and perspectives of others. Being humble makes more space for others to come into his circle. A sign of Moses growth in stature was his going out and including his brothers in his circle of empathy – ויגדל משה ויצא. The arrogant person is concerned with protecting the image of his ' self', does not have the courage to expose his vulnerability, admit mistakes and listen to others. There is only place for himself in his circle and a fear of exposing himself makes him not willing to cooperate or support others and just be competitive . This breeds distrust and suspicion. People just don't connect with the person who is aloof and acts as if he is perfect. Leadership attracts people with  traits of humility and humanness – the courage to expose vulnerability.
The exodus from Egypt also required a purification process from the impurity of Egypt. A bundle of hyssop – אגודת אזוב, a symbol of humility was dipped in the blood of the Pesach sacrifice. It was an acknowledgment that only God's intervention would redeem them from Egypt and they had to demonstrate a unity which included as many people in their circle.
The ritual designed to cleanse and purify the metzorah focuses on humility. The question is asked – let the Kohen give a lecture to the metzorah on humility and tell him that he should become a humble person instead of him going through the ritual using symbols – 2 birds, spring water, cedar wood, scarlet thread and hyssop etc.? We cannot tell people to be humble. Becoming humble is an autonomous, self-directed internal process that comes from being reflective and making meaning of one's life. It means giving expression to values rooted in in his soul and inner-being. The symbols stimulate questions, making meaning and internalizing values. The Kohen as a leader and teacher has to create a learning environment and help with the process  where the metzorah can make meaning and internalize values. It goes beyond the old Chinese proverb - Tell me, I forget. Teach me, I remember, Involve me, I understand. We want internalization of values and in the case of the metzorah – it is becoming a person of stature who is also a  humble person. The ritual process helps him repent and be reflective. He sends away the bird a symbol of the person who talks badly about others, and the hyssop, cedar wood, scarlet thread and blood of the slaughtered bird are mixed with the spring water and then sprinkled – hazayah on him seven times.

The Pesach – Seider experience is about creating an environment which stimulates the curiosity of children to ask questions. It is questions, their questions and we challenging their thinking that drives the acquisition of knowledge that touches the heart and promotes the internalization of the underlying values. True freedom is becoming a humble  leader who supports the needs and  autonomy of  others   around him. As parents and teachers we should support kid's autonomy so that they become humble leaders who internalize the lessons of the Torah.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Tazria 76 - Don't treat your child like a 'pet'

The Midrash commentary notes that just as man was created after the animals, the Torah laws pertaining to man's body and physicality come after a discussion about the features that make animals kosher. These laws include the laws of purity due to emissions or childbirth and spiritual skin disease called Tza'ra'at. Tza'ra'at appears when   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. When man gives expression to his potential and spirituality , we say he preceded all of creation because he gives expression to the spirit of God , the soul and the ultimate soul being that of the Mashi'ach = the Messiah which was created on the first day of creation. If man succumbs to his natural physical drives, the animal side of him, we say that if he is proud and arrogant about his physical achievements, he should know that a mosquito was created before him. Animals are physically more efficient and complete than he is and fulfill their task and destiny in the natural cycle far better than he does. The Mishna –Pirkei Avot 3:1 says that a person should be constantly aware from where he comes – that his soul came from a place close to the Divine throne and will return there, but if he thinks of himself as a sophisticated animal, he comes from a putrid seminal drop and his ultimate destination is to dust and worms.     דַּע, מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן.The Midrash quotes the words from Psalms  139: 5  אחור וקדם צרתני   - Back and front you have created me -  that man has been created with a potential to influence those who come after him , behind him -  אחור  and אחרון and connect to the past –  קדם     those who came before him and most important the connect to the spiritual side , the soul which was created before -  קדם   the body. The front of man signifies the good inclination, the ability to direct and channel his natural drives for the good of others and resist temptation of the evil inclination – the back and be altruistic on a consistent basis.

As parents and educators we have the duty to pass on our spiritual heritage to the next generation and show how them their role in continuing the ' chain of tradition'. Unfortunately, raising kids is very challenging. We tend to speak badly about them – lashon ha'ra and then treat them like ' pet dogs', using punishments, consequences, time-outs , tokens, stickers, rewards, praise and other doggie biscuits to make them wanna behave , be compliant  or to reinforce good behavior. Teachers say that students with the hardest lives and the most difficult behavior are beaten down the most when their behavior is judged with tokens. An assistant in a preschool classroom in a school that uses PBIS – positive behavioral intervention systems was instructed to give a special needs student treats at intervals throughout carpet time to encourage him to sit still. She described how upsetting it was “that he was treated like a dog.” We talk about having difficult kids who are very troublesome and not compliant. We call them lazy, immoral, manipulative, wanting attention and avoiding tasks etc. and in response we try to modify their behavior using extrinsic motivation. We focus on behaviors getting them to be compliant and jump through our hoops.

The way to go to is to focus on the whole child, his concerns, perspectives, motives and feelings – his soul and inner being, his spiritual and emotional side. But we need to change our paradigm. According to CPS, the collaborative problem solving approach – children do well if they can and not children do well if they want to. We say he is a kid with challenges and difficulties, not a difficult child. He is lagging skills to be adaptive and flexible when the demands placed upon him outstrip his skills. People and especially kids do better when we do not try to control them, but rather support their autonomy, competence and relationships.

The verse 13:55 says if וראה הכהן את הנגע והנה לא הפך הנגע את עינו   and the Kohen- priest shall look at the affliction- nega and if the affliction has not changed its color. The Chidushei Harim explains that in Hebrew, the word affliction and pleasure have the same letters, only written in different order נגע and ענג. The word עינו  means its color but homiletically it can be read ' its letter ayin ', so focusing on the person's outlook on life , he has not changed  -affliction -nega – נגע  into  pleasure -oneg – ענג . He sees life's challenges as affliction and not pleasure. When a parent or teacher relates to the spiritual and emotional side of the child and sees educating him as a sacred mission, no matter how challenging, meeting the child's needs is pleasure and not affliction. He longer speaks negatively about the child being lots of trouble but expresses compassion for a child who is struggling. He focuses on the child's neshama- soul; the whole child rather than treating him like a pet dog which not only impacts badly on the child, but also on the parent and teacher. If we think man is a sophisticated animal we will continue to treat kids and even our adult employees like pet dogs, but if we see man as essentially a spiritual being we will focus on supporting their autonomy and our relationship with them and help them address their challenges.