Thursday, July 7, 2016

Chukat- Balak 76 Self-control and Self-discipline

In our parasha, the children of Israel, defeat Sichon and capture the capital city of Cheshbon.  Sichon had captured the city Cheshbon from Moav with the help of the curses of 2 famous sorcerers Bil'am and his father Be'or. The Torah relates this with the words –Numbers 21:27 Regarding this the poets-  those who speak in parables - would say  Come to Cheshbon ….עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן The Talmud  Baba Batra  78b translates ' moshel '  as ruler and ' cheshbon ' as an account or calculation . The righteous people who have attained mastery over and rule their evil inclinations proclaim – make an account and a calculation. They live their lives with thought and circumspection. They calculate the loss or cost involved in doing a mitzvah against its profit and the gain of a transgression against its loss and calculate the impact  of their actions on  the world. על כן יאמרו המושלים וגו' המושלים אלו המושלים ביצרם בואו חשבון בואו ונחשב חשבונו של עולם הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ושכר עבירה כנגד הפסדה

The Talmud talks about the value and virtue of self –regulation, having self- discipline and self-control. Self-discipline is about marshalling one's willpower to accomplish things that are generally desirable and worthwhile, while self-control is using the same willpower to stop oneself from sinning, doing something undesirable or to delay gratification. In educational circles, the famous Marshmallow test by Walter Mischel and its conclusion echo the same message. Children were left alone in a room after having been told that they could get a small treat – one marshmallow,  by ringing a bell at any time to summon the experimenter or if they held out after his return they would get a bigger treat – 2 marshmallows. Children who had better self –control and could delay gratification, scored better on measures of cognitive and social skills about a decade later and also had higher SAT scores.  Mischel says that home environment and not the ability to delay gratification might have been responsible for the children's achievement found 10 years later. Also,  it was the ability to distract themselves  and focus on something else and  not grim determination, self-control and will-power  that helped children to wait longer. One cannot engage the evil inclination head on, but we have to use   תחבולות, tricks and other strategies. The Talmud Baba Batra 78b says that those people who can control their evil inclinations do so, by engaging their thinking, their prefrontal cortex, rather than their emotional and  animal brains. They focus on values and do a cost-benefit analysis of their actions or plans and  make an account or calculation, not only for themselves but for the world as a whole.  In delaying gratification and not sinning, the reward may be in the distant future in the world to come, but when we do good God supports us in this world  so that we can do more mitzvoth and good - מצווה גוררת מצווה.  What's more important than a future reward is the intrinsic reward of doing the mitzvah itself– שכר מצווה מצווה. The Talmud goes further and takes us out of the realm of the ' self 'and self -interest , even if the  focus is on spiritual self- interest. The Talmud says; make a calculation, an account for the world. As an individual you can tip the scales of the whole world by doing a mitzvah.  Our actions can impact on others, the community and society in either a positive or negative way. A concern for the community and a spirit of altruism should be guiding our behavior , and help us overcome any temptation.

In schools, there is a new focus to help children acquire ' grit' – the power of passion and perseverance. It is quite understandable that we should want kids to be able to persevere and persist at worthwhile tasks, but is grit a character trait that should be promoted by teachers without qualification   - as a character trait that can stand alone? Grit is problematic in its own right in that not everything is worth doing, let alone for extended periods. Persistence can be counterproductive and unhealthy when a problem resists solution or persisting in a task no longer provides satisfaction and also one can end up with missing out on new opportunities. In schools the focus is on test-scores and compliance so ' grit' teaching promotes these limited goals and the  focus on the process of learning, discovery, curiosity and collaboration, experimenting and being more interdisciplinary etc is pushed aside . When  goal is persistence and it does not matter if the student's learning is driven by interest and passion, by a competitive spirit where others kids are seen as obstacles in your way to success or a desperate need to prove competence. The problem is that schools are focused just on fostering  persistence and perseverance and ignore passion. Not all kids have the resources to find their passion, or teaching, coaching and mentoring to inspire them to keep digging in. The solution is not just in the individual kid, being able to persist and persevere but providing the ' structure' and resources that support passion and perseverance. And even when kids do display grit and do well in school, it does not guarantee a future if grit does not come with privilege. Kids need ' agency', the ability to leverage opportunities to change their circumstances, to acquire social capital and connections that will open doors for them. While children might believe that education works on the whole, he or she might not think that it works for him or her and that depends a lot on parent's level of education and whether peers are dropping out or graduating from school and furthering their studies. The Talmud Nedarim 81A says that educators should be zealous in teaching the poor and providing them with the resources and opportunities to succeed. This is learned from the verse in parashat Balak, Numbers 24:7   - Water = (the Torah) will drip from its well = mi'dalyo. We read this like mi'dalim, from poor people. הזהרו בבני עניים שמהן תצא תורה שנאמר יזל מים מדליו – מדלים ,שמהן תצא תורה .   
Unlike the rich who can be very focused on what they have, the poor focus on who they are as people who love learning so they have the potential to become great Torah scholars.

In Parasha Balak, Bil'am says of the children of Israel –That God - He perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel Numbers 23:21 לֹלא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.  The word a'mal = perversity has a second meaning – toil, work that is exhausting and laborious. Bil'am says that God sees no exhaustion, toil or drudgery in Israel's service of God and the learning and study of the Torah. Because they are whole-heartedly devoted and dedicated to doing the mitzvoth and learning Torah, and  they do so with a passion, they  are therefore tireless in its pursuit. Their  passion fuels persistence and perseverance.  And when there are challenges and obstacles in the way, self-discipline supports the intrinsic motivation and  passion for what we do. Intrinsic motivation and passion is promoted when kids feel self-directed, autonomous, and competent and have a sense of belonging and support.

Self-discipline and self-control must be expressed in the context of  a passion for values, of doing things that are worthwhile and making a contribution to others.

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