Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Vayechi 75 - A Father's Blessing to his Sons

Joseph- Yosef visits his sick father Yaakov- Jacob with his 2 sons – Menashe and Ephraim.  Yaakov wanted to bless Yosef's sons. Suddenly the divine spirit – ruach ha'kodesh that was resting upon him departed from him because he saw a spiritual defect and blemish present in Menashe and Ephraim. He saw in a prophetic vision that wicked people would descend from them- Yeravam and Achav from Ephraim and Yehu ben Nimshi from Menashe. So Yaakov asks Joseph – Who are these '? Yosef replies בני הם אשר נתן לי אלוקים בזה, - that they are my sons which God gave to me   -'   ba'zeh ' as they are with all their spiritual defects from a holy union here in Egypt. Yosef's answer helped the divine spirit – ruach ha'kodesh to return to Yaakov who then proceeded to first bless Yosef – Joseph - that God should bless his son's and that because of their actions and who they were, people would associate their names with their righteous ancestors, myself Yaakov and Abraham and Isaac. The greatest blessing a father can receive is to have his sons blessed and achieve greatness. Yaakov then blessed Yosef's sons ' by you shall Israel bless saying ' May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe '.  May people bless their sons in the hope and wish that their sons grow into great men like Ephraim and Menashe. Ephraim and Menashe became symbols of commitment to their heritage and spiritual growth despite living in exile and in a hostile and hedonist    Egyptian culture. They achieved more than their potential by moving up a generation from being grandchildren of Jacob to becoming his sons are thereby the founding fathers of their tribes. In their personal lives they showed brotherly love and no sign of jealously as the older brother – Menashe had no problem with his younger brother Ephraim getting the blessing of the first born child.

. We need to ask the following questions - What was it in Joseph's answer about his sons that made Yaakov suddenly change his mind about blessing Menashe and Ephraim? Nothing changed the fact that they are spiritually blemished and that  wicked  people would come from them. The Torah talks in general terms - Israel =Jews will bless children and not specifically about fathers blessing their sons. So why don't Sages and Rabbis bless children  with the blessing – May God makes you like Ephraim and Menashe. Why is  this blessing only for fathers and  irrespective of their spiritual stature?  When Jacob blesses his grandsons, he says  - by you בך   in the singular, referring to Joseph, Israel shall bless…  The Torah should read – By them or by you in the plural referring to Menashe and Ephraim will Israel bless… What has Yosef- Joseph got to do with this blessing?

Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro explains that it was Joseph's   unconditional acceptance of his sons   with all their faults and blemishes and standing by them that made Yaakov change his mind.  Menashe and Ephraim had a father in Yosef that   unconditionally   accepted   them and saw   his children as a gift of responsibility from God. This will guarantee that they will turn out fine. The success of children depends on them being blessed with a father like Yosef.  So the blessing is only suited for fathers. It is the fathers who pray and bless their sons that they will have a father like Yosef that will help them grow into men of the stature of Menashe and Ephraim. Joseph is referred to as the ' stone of Israel - אבן= אב ובן ' having the ability to connect father and son.

 As a father Joseph helped to make his children identify and feel part of his vision and mission of his family to be a ' light unto the nations'. It is a well- known fact that many children of Rabbis serving country and small town districts where there is no or very little formal religious Jewish education do very well when they go to study in schools or yeshivot in bigger cities. Because they identify and are part of their parent's mission and vision, their study, religious observance and social commitment reaches high levels of understanding and performance. When kids share a common mission, there is also no place for envy or jealousy as they see each other as friend and ally in their holy mission.

One of the basic needs all children have is to be loved unconditionally, to know that they will be accepted even if they screw-up or fall short.  Most parents believe that they love their kids unconditionally, but what counts is whether kids feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.  Saying to a kid “I love you, but not your behavior” is problematic. The kid wonders: what’s this elusive me you say you love when all I hear is disapproval and criticism. Instead of criticism, we can engage, ' working with the child ' in a non-judgmental way to solve problems in a collaborative way and help them engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution and do some Teshuvah – repentance. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vayigash 75 - Nurture Yourself so that You Look Good

At their first meeting Pharaoh is struck by Jacob- Yaakov's appearance .This prompts him to ask Jacob his age, something that a king would not normally inquire of a visitor. Yaakov felt that he had to justify   and explain why he looked much older than he was. He answered that he was 130 years old.  He   had not lived as long in a qualitative sense as his forefathers as his life was not a happy one with many problems, living as a stranger in other peoples lands. The commentators note that God criticized Yaakov.  Yaakov's complaining about his life was in fact a complaint against God. Although Jacob had   had serious problems concerning Aisav-Esau, Lavan, Dina and Joseph  that made life very hard and difficult for so many years, there was a 'happy ending'. In any case, despite problems people should be happy and grateful for life itself. As a consequence, Yaakov's lifespan was shortened by 33 years because of the 33 words of complaint he had voiced. Instead of living to 180 years like his father Isaac- Yitzchak, Yaakov died at the age of 147. But if we look at the verses in the Torah, we see that  Yaakov only uttered 25 words including the words and 'Yaakov said to Pharaoh.'  Only if we add Pharaoh's question – 8 words, we get 33 words. Yaakov is not only held  accountable for complaining about his life but also for the way he looked – something that prompted Pharaoh to ask his question. If we happily accept reality and don't complain we will have less stressful lives, deal with situations more creatively and   look so much better.
As parents we have a responsibility to nurture ourselves and have the right attitude so we look good. We need to be thankful and feel honored by God for believing in our abilities and giving us the privilege to raise these ' challenging kids '. We need to be the source of happiness, hope and joy, so it is fun to be around us. We have to be the ' Thermostat' that calms things down  in the home, avoids conflict and solves problems in a collaborative way, rather than causing stress.

Nurturing oneself is for your children and the following story explains it well. It is important for all parents and especially parents of challenging kids.  A woman went to check out what was happening at her neighbors, a young widow who  had 7 children. The kids were in the yard, some were crying and the others did not look too happy. The woman went into the house and to her dismay found the mother eating a good meal. The widow explained that if she wants to have the strength and energy to look after 7 hungry kids, she needs to eat well. So we need to be selfish - it is for the kids.

 Nurture yourself; consider yourself a person who has needs, for relaxation, privacy, rest, exercise, to eat well, reading, socializing, and learning, being empowered emotionally and spiritually. Live your own life .If you don't consider yourself worthy of the above, your kids will treat you as a doormat and not a real person with needs.
 Be positive and think positively about others and remember the CPS mantra, – children (also people) do well if they can.  Deal   with negative thoughts and decide that you want to be happy and not be  right. When we rely less on others, and don't have expectations we are less likely to become angry. Don't take issues personally, mouthing is part of the poor coping skills. Put your relationship with your kids first before getting them to do things. Remember to use – LEE = low expressed emotion and not HEE- high expressed emotion.   

 Nurture your relationship with your spouse, spend time together not talking about the kids, best to have fixed times during the week.  Let your kids do 'sleep over's' during the school week - respite for you and generally they ' think ' better at others and it is a good learning experience. Find mentors, buddy-tutors, family, baby sitters who can spend time with your kids, good for them, respite for you. Get support from local charities, your community, an older brother or buddy from the local school.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Understand that education is a process; there are no quick fixes or magic bullet. Patience is the name of the game. But think positively about your kids so that you attract positive forces. Only talk to the few people who understand how stressful parenting a challenging kid is, get support on forums or other support groups. To the others say that your child has certain challenges and that you are following expert advice.  But believe in yourself, that you are moving in the right direction and have the ability to parent your kids.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mikeitz 75 - Joseph - Honoring your father

Joseph has become the ' viceroy' of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh. He is blessed with 2 sons. He names his eldest son Menasheh acknowledging that God has helped him to forget all the  hardships which his brothers inflicted on him and his entire father's home.  This seems to explain the 22 years that Joseph did not contact his father and put him out of his misery and focus instead on creating a new family and history.  Joseph was being thankful that God removed any ill feeling that he had for his brothers and that he understood that everything   that happened was part of a Divine master plan. Joseph saw his purpose was   to reunify the family and to realize his dreams. Only after the brothers had done Teshuvah= repentance and regretted their ' selling' of their brother could the family be reunited. He couldn't reveal his destiny to his father because he was part of an agreement made by the brothers that 'banned' anyone revealing to Ya'akov- Jacob what had happened and Joseph's whereabouts without their consent. Even God was party to this oath and so Isaac who through prophecy knew of Joseph's plight was unable to comfort a mourning Jacob.

 Contacting his father and performing the mitzvah of honoring his father presented another problem. It could be only done at the expense of his brothers. They would have been disgraced when the reality –' a beast has devoured my son Joseph and torn him to bits' was found to be a cover up for the sale of Joseph. This would have also compromised family unity. There are limitations and boundaries to the mitzvah of honoring parents. The Talmud –Ketuvot 103 relates how 'Rebbi' on his death bed gave instructions to his sons as to what positions of leadership some of his   sons and students were to be assigned. R' Haninah was to be given the position of Rosh Ha'yeshivah.  He refused to accept the position as this would be at the expense of R' Afes who was older than him. Rebbi's sons and students did not insist on honoring Rebbi's instruction as it would be at the expense of someone else.

I find it interesting that both Isaac and Jacob did not rebuke their sons for not honoring them and not fulfilling the mitzvah of ' Kibud AV'. It could be that parents perceive their parental authority and honor is not dependent and derived from the Torah itself.  Teachers teach kids that the Torah gives a parent authority because of their positions as parents and there is a very important mitzvah to honor their wishes and respect them.   Parents however cannot demand obedience because of the Torah. It not only undermines their authority, but it comes at a cost to children. Parents who invoke the Torah in the hope that kids will respect them come across as weak and have no stature, personality or leadership to deal with their kids. Parents should embrace the ' authoritative pose or stance ' of leadership rather than ' authoritarian '. Their source of authority is not because of the 'power' their position or status gives, but their sense of humility about the great responsibility of parenting and addressing the needs of kids in a way that respects their dignity. Their credibility is independent of their status but rather depends on who they are as teachers, guides and care givers. I remember a father asking a Rabbi if his child has to stand up when he comes into the room. The Rabbi said yes, but you also have to be a father. And that's why the child stands up and addresses the parent – My father, my teacher. Demanding respect and having demands that are developmentally not appropriate or you know your child is not the easy going compliant type of kid, will just create conflict and disrespect. You will also have some responsibility for the child's behavior - transgressing the mitzvah of' ' Kibud Av ve Aim ' as your parental demands are for sure to be ' a stumbling block before the eyes of a blind person'. Focusing on 'compliance' means that parents have to resort to the use of power either using punishments, consequences or trying to control through seduction with rewards. Not only do kids resist being controlled but these methods do not contribute to a commitment and kids internalizing the values behind the things we ask them to do. Better to use  ' I messages ' -  the playroom is in a mess , It would  be great to have a nice, clean and tidy room instead of you made a mess of the playroom , go and tidy it up! I messages focus on how the parent feels, they don't judge the kids and provoke resistance but allow the kid to take responsibility for her behavior. We can use ' dialog questions '  and even better use collaborative problem solving as a tool not only to solve problems but to collaborate with kids in all areas of life. Parents start to feel listened to when they use collaborative problem solving. When kids feel understood and they concerns heard, they are more likely to hear the concerns of parents and take their perspectives. They learn to trust their parents as guides and seek them out for guidance, support and feedback as they navigate their worlds.  And in this way parents earn respect and honor in the most authentic way.  When parents don't focus on their honor and are prepared to 'forgo ' or relinquish it  =' mochel  bich'vodo' , they  make room for their roles as guides and teachers  and this actually enhances  the respect and honor kids will have for them. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014


FGX Powerstrip - Explanation

Dr Adam Saucedo - the science of Powerstrips 1

Powerstrip ingredients

Powerstrip ingredients article


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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Vayeshev 75 - Favoritism

Jacob-Ya'akov develops a special relationship with Joseph- Yoseif and invests a lot of time learning with him and passing onto him his spiritual heritage. Yoseif's brothers see this relationship alienate their father's love for them and feel that their spiritual futures are being threatened. Only one son succeeded Abraham and Isaac and it seemed that they were going to be excluded from the family. Ya'akov gave Yoseif a coat of many colors symbolizing royalty and leadership, a recognition of Yoseif's potential and talent and also to encourage the other brothers to work on themselves. This was supposed to be a form of constructive competition – kin'at soferim, but was viewed  by the brothers as   favoritism. This caused discord, hate and jealousy. The brothers sold Yoseif into slavery. They  felt fully justified in taking this step to protect their spiritual worlds and future..  Because of this, the Sages warn parents not to show favoritism between kids . This  applies even when it comes to sharing inheritance, one needs  to treat kids equally and fairly. Even a so-called ' bad' child  should get the same inheritance as a 'good' child.  The consequence of this favoritism was the exile and bondage in Egypt. If not for the sale of Yoseif, the exile which started from the birth of Isaac- Yitzchak would have played itself out many more years in the land of Canaan and only  the last generation would spend the exile in Egypt.

When we talk about favoritism and possible sibling rivalry, we need to note that we are dealing with the perceptions of children. Only when kids become parents themselves, they will appreciate, like a candle a parent can light up a child with love and this does not detract from their ability to love other kids. The problem is how we love children. Traditional parenting encourages parents to show more love, warmth and enthusiasm when kids behave themselves and are successful in school, on the sports-field, socially etc and withdraw the love and attention when they behave badly or are unsuccessful. Love is seen to be something to be earned and can 'leverage ' good behavior.  Teachers and some parents go a step further – they think that if David sees that Josh is being praised for good behavior and high tests scores, this will encourage David to behave well and work hard for tests.  What really happens is the challenging kid feels less loved and jealous of his brother.  It is the challenging kids, the trouble makers, the unsuccessful kids who need more attention and love. They need  to be reassured that they are loved and accepted for who they are and not what they do.

Sometimes it is the good and easy going child that needs more attention and love than what they are getting at the present time. Some kids, especially kids with challenges require more 'maintenance ' and time to meet their needs. These kids are usually challenged in the areas of flexibility, frustration tolerance and adaptability so the rules are different, expectations are lowered and fewer demands are placed on the child.  We can explain that we treat kids differently, but fairly. Fairly does not mean equally, it means that every kid's needs and concerns are being addressed and met. A kid will understand that his brother will need extra help with maths or English. In the same way we can explain that he needs help  with the skills needed for ' behavior' , frustration tolerance , anxiety etc. The focus however must be on hearing and listening to the concerns of the ' easy child' , addressing these concerns, making sure he has good friends and trying to compensate him in other ways to show you understand that it is not easy for him. The social life of a family can be very much compromised by a challenging kid and cause a lot of frustration for the other siblings.

When a kid feels frustrated about ' perceived ' favoritism it is often more about the kid than the way the parent is treating her kids. We need to start by asking – why does he feel that way, are there are needs or concerns that are not being addressed.?  It is hard for a parent to explain this, but some kids are more assertive in getting their needs met, has a better relationship with the parents, and sometimes for eg a married kid with or without kids may need more use of the family car, than a single kid.  Single kids feel that a  married kid has in a sense  left the family. Lack of fulfillment or frustrations in other areas may cause a kid to feel sorry for themselves , so they seem to be focused more on how much they are ' receiving ' and less on how much they are ' giving'.'

Kids that become jealous of siblings and blame parents can find them in a place that works against them. Even if the claims are true, blaming parents or being jealous of other siblings will just get in the way of effectively dealing with the situation... Accepting the reality liberates one from negative feelings and allows one to take responsibility for one's life and access the help needed. In any case our perceptions of reality are often flawed and reality changes. If Joseph's brothers would have accepted the reality, they would have been free of anger and jealousy and been in a position not to fight reality but to create a new reality.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Vayishlach 75 - Proverbs- Mishlei and the Pygmalion Effect

There is a lot of thought and psychology   behind Ya'akov's – Jacob's display of vulnerability, respect and servitude when he bowed 7 times before Eisav-Esau and called him my master. He bowed 7 times until he reached his brother and he certainly reached him. Eisav's compassion and mercy was aroused and he embraced and kissed Ya'akov and then he together with his brother cried. R' Hirsch explains that tears flow from the innermost feelings, so one can only cry if he is genuinely moved... The verse from Mishlei- Proverbs 27:19 say      כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים--    כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם, לָאָדָם. as in water, face to face, so too, is the heart of one person to another.  When one has positive thoughts and feelings about another person, these feelings will be reflected back to you as the other person will tend to feel positively about you too. A negative response from a person is a generally a reflection of how you feel about them. The feelings have to be genuine, coming from the heart and lightening up the face. These positive thoughts and feelings will lead us to act accordingly, with more empathy, compassion and kindness..

The idea in Proverbs precedes the so-called Pygmalion effect, documented in the 1960's, which showed how positive teachers'   assumptions, expectations and beliefs about student's intellectual potential affected student's performances in a positive way. Parents and teachers who believe that children have also a brighter side to their human nature and can behave in a virtuous and altruistic way can likewise impact on children and set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How we view children, our beliefs and subsequent expectations about them will guide and dictate our interventions and interactions with them. Parents and teachers who have a dark view of human nature and only see the negative side as in the verse -' since the imagery of man's heart is evil from his youth' –   כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו  
 will resort to very controlling environments with rewards, consequences and punishments. The message to kids is that you can't be trusted to learn or behave unless you are given rewards or threatened with punishments. And then we see how kids become so addicted to and dependent on rewards and punishments.  When we write off kids as disruptive, defiant, manipulative or destructive they are likely to 'live down' to these expectations.

 The key to a parent-child or teacher-child relationship is the child learning to trust the parent and teacher, so that kids want 'relationship', sees  them as  guides and someone to come to , especially when they ' screw up' and make mistakes. Rav Pam relates that as a 'Rebbi and teacher' - a kid came late for class and offered some excuse adding that he could bring a note from his parents. Rav Pam responded that he had already explained why he came late, why  would he need a note from his parents.'' In truth, I wasn’t sure if he told me the truth, but I couldn’t let him feel that I don’t trust him.”  Most teachers would be much more focused on their fear that the student will feel he put one over on the teacher.  They probably wouldn’t even consider the harm that distrusting their student would cause. 

We can help students develop good values and middot by attributing to the students the best possible motive consistent with the facts. So when they are generous and pro-social we do not say they were motivated by self-interest. When  they don't meet our expectations it could be that that they are good kids but were unaware of how their actions impact on others and are lacking skills rather than being selfish, defiant aggressive and lacking in compassion. And we would then  in a collaborative way, ' work with' kids to   teach important life lessons and solve problems by finding mutually satisfying solutions .In this way the kid contributes to the solution, learns important life skills and a trusting relationship with the parent or teacher is enhanced. 'Treat kids 'as if they need to be controlled' we may well undermine their natural predispositions to develop self-controls and internalize commitments to upholding cultural norms and values' – Marilyn Watson. 'Doing to ' kids with rewards and punishments just teaches them to ask – what's in it for me and feel sorry for themselves. It does not help kids to reflect on what type of person they want to be and how their actions impact on others.

Higher expectations of kids are positive, but we need to ask ' higher expectations for what'? If our expectations for academics are higher test scores, we will teach to test .If we expect more engagement, curiosity, and self-directed learning we will teach accordingly. If our high expectations for kids behaving themselves and being responsible is being compliant and following instructions we will be controlling. But if we understand that kids learn to be responsible by making decisions and acting in a pro-social way, we will allow them to participate in making decisions and solve problems in a collaborative way.

We all have a brighter and a darker side to our human natures, capable of being generous and selfish, helpful or hurting. But the good news is that if we follow the advice in the words of Proverbs- Mishlei and take into account the Pygmalion effect we can help ourselves and those we interact with to become more positive and caring people.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vayeitzei 75 - Collaborative Problem Solving CPS and Non-Violent Communication NVC

At an opportune moment while Lavan and his sons were out shearing their flocks, Ya'akov=Jacob   being very much aware of Lavan and his family's resentment to his success, escapes Lavan's attention and leaves without saying goodbye.  After 3 days Lavan hears about Ya'akov unannounced departure and pursues him. When they meet Lavan acts like the aggrieved father and accuses Ya'akov of deception, trickery and embarrassing him by fleeing with his daughters like ' prisoners of the sword' and also taking his gods. Ya'akov answers that he was afraid that Lavan would steal his daughters. After cursing anybody who stole the gods, Ya'akov invited Lavan to do a search.  When Lavan turns up nothing, Ya'akov feeling angry about the search confronts Lavan. The sages of the Medrash praise Jacob's words, preferring the' kapda'nut = taking to task and rebuke' of Jacob to the words of humility of David. Instead of attacking Lavan and using aggressive language Jacob   tries to appease Lavan and just defend and justify himself.  He asks – 'what is my transgression, what is my sin that you pursue me'. Lavan in fact wanted to kill Ya'akov, but he uses understatement and non-violent communication. He says - what is my sin that you ' pursue me and does not say    'kill me'. David in his humility asks Jonathan- what I have done, what is my sin before your father that he seeks my life. David talks about 'bloodshed' in his attempt at appeasing and being conciliatory.

Although Ya'akov is praised for not openly attacking Lavan and  using  instead  NVC  - Non –violent  communication, the Alter from Slabodka, Rabbi Finkel  brings to our attention that the Torah introduces Ya'akov's with the language of argument and confrontation and the sages call it 'kapda'nut ' = taking to task and confrontation . Aggressive and confrontational language may be hidden or concealed but it is implied. When a person is accused of doing something wrong and then in an apologetic way defends himself, he implies that he is the ' righteous ' man and the other person is lacking. A better response would be as the Talmud – Shabbat 88b says that a person should be  one who is disgraced and insulted and yet remains silent and does not respond with insults. But it is not enough to remain silent. Even if one is an innocent party with no interest in a having an argument or conflict one has to make every effort to try and make peace with the other party.  We learn this from Moses who asked Da'tan and Aviram - leaders of a group who joined Korach's rebellion against Moses - to come and speak to him to try and reconcile differences and make peace. They refused to come and said that Moses and Aaron were unfit for the leadership role, in fact a disaster bringing the Israelites from a land of milk and honey to die in the desert.  Moses disregarded his own honor and dignity and went over to the rebels to try and end the quarrel and make peace. If Moses wouldn't have gone over to the rebels , he would have violated a negative commandment of being like Korach and his assembly. The Talmud Sanhedrin 110a learns from Moses that one who does not make an effort to make peace is called somebody who supports and contributes to a quarrel and violates the negative commandment of being like Korach and his assembly.

If Ya'akov was on a higher level, of a greater stature he could have directly dealt with Lavan's concerns and returned to the land of Canaan with his consent. Ya'akov's stature is being judged, not his actions. But still after they met, Ya'akov could have acknowledged Lavan's sentiments and explained in a more neutral and non-judgmental way that in his humble opinion the way he left was the best for all parties concerned under the circumstances. He could address Lavan's concerns for contact with his daughters and grandchildren by saying that he has an open invitation to come and visit them whenever he wants to visit. However, we can see the positive in Ya'akov's ' kapda'nut ' – confrontational stance, as it did get Lavan to think of the safety of his descendants   and ask for a peace treaty to be  made between them. Most of our interactions don't require confrontation, but the pursuit of peace.

Instead of quarrels, argument, criticism and conflict parents and teachers can focus on being less judgmental about their own and others' actions as being for eg. Manipulative, wrong, bad, inappropriate or even good and focus instead on the concerns, feelings, and needs. Being attentive to the needs of others and understanding their concerns will help to solve problems in a mutually satisfying way and promote trusting relationships. Non- violent communication NVC or compassionate communication helps us avoid ' doing to' or even hurtful words and create a ' working with ' relationship. When we first try to understand the concerns of others , the concerns of our kids and students before presenting our expectations and concerns , kids will feel understood , that we care about them and meeting their needs and will more likely be  open to taking our perspective, hearing our concerns and being empathic. Kids then start to think how their actions impact on others and how they can make a contribution and not just what's in it for me. Peace is not just the absence of conflict, but people being interdependent caring human beings.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Toldot 75 - Education and Self- Image

Our Parasha – Portion deals with the lives of Rivkah- Rebecca and Isaac's – Yitzchak's twin boys, Esau = Eisav and Jacob- Ya'akov. And the question that all ask is how come Eisav , despite being raised by the greatest and righteous people of that generation turned out to be a wicked human being while Ya'akov realized his potential for greatness. The verse Bereishit 25:27 says that when the boys grew up ….. Each boy followed a different path. Eisav became a hunter, a man of the field trapping, tricking and ensnaring not only animals but men too. Ya'akov became the scholar who devoted his life to learning and teaching God's ways. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that the striking contrasts in the grandchildren of Abraham may have been due, not so much to the differences in their temperaments and personalities, but rather as to the mistakes in the way they were brought up. The medrash says that until the age of 13, the differences between Yaakov and Eisav were not apparent. So as long as they were little, no attention was paid to the slumbering differences in their natures and both received exactly the same teaching and educational treatment. The famous words of Proverbs – Educate your child according to his way , reminds us that we cannot change tendencies, traits , temperaments and personalities but we can educate the child so he can develop his special characteristics to serve God and maximize his personal potential for the one pure and Jewish life. A nation and society needs so many people who have different roles and professions. Each person has a different path, but all have the same goal to serve God and to be of service to society in their unique roles.

Eisav became a hunter and warrior. He was supposed to use theses talents to fight the wicked and protect the weak, and be the diplomat, politician and statesman for the sake of God.  Eisav's educational and emotional needs were not met in an environment of intense learning .The development of his unique personal identity was hindered and so his talents would be dedicated for purely personal gain and negative goals. He struggled to find intrinsic reward and satisfaction from his learning. The only way he could feel   satisfaction, self- worth and esteem was by impressing others. So instead of nurturing his true identity Eisav focused on  ' superficiality ' and nurturing his image.  The sages describe him as man who epitomized falsehood , a ' clay vessel plated with gold, gems or pearls' who  instead of using his talents for the sake of God , succeeded in manipulating people and leaders and seducing women who then  left their husbands for him.   When hungry, Eisav   asked Ya'akov to give him some of the' red stuff '. Eisav related to the food by its color, on its most superficial level. He does not even call it ' soup'.  Eisav is concerned with his image and so he decides to improve it by emulating his father by marrying for the first time at the age of 40. Eisav is like the pig when it lies down, stretches out its cloven hoof as to say – See I am a kosher animal. He married a Canaanite woman who worshiped idols but changed her name to Yehudit –a woman who  denies  idols - in order to deceive his father. Yitzchak continued to strongly disapprove of  Canaanite  women so in order to improve his image he married  Machalat, Abraham's granddaughter from Yishmael, without divorcing his evil wives.  Eisav felt he was perfect, fully made as in 'Eisav' his name. He never needed to reflect on his actions and beliefs, but just do something technical and external to improve his image.

Parents and educators are very much responsible for kids focusing on their images and not nurturing their authentic identities in that there is a ' one size fits all' approach to education - all kids need  the same  education that will  enable them to go to university or be in long term  religious learning in a Kollel. Finland has a successful educational system because they focus on ' individualized education' and have a high-powered vocational training pathway for which caters for at least 40% of kids. Kids don't have to be in full time learning for all their to be long life learners and connected to holiness. 

Today, we have another problem, with parents and teachers pushing kids to succeed with so much emphasis on academic achievement. Parents care less about children's well-being and happiness than their achievement and success. They are the reason for their kids' success and it makes them feel successful. Kids' feelings of acceptance , self- esteem and image is more dependent on external events – on how well they do and behave compared to other kids. We see this at school, on the sports field and how they rank socially. Instead we should be helping kids to focus on what they are doing , connect to  and enjoy their learning, exercise or other social interactions. They should experience success of failure, not as reward or punishment, but as information so they cope with failure in an objective problem solving way and not focus on the self in an emotional-coping way. In this way kids focus on nurturing their authentic identities and talents, become intrinsically motivated and self-determined  and are not concerned with their improving their images. -

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chayei Sarah 75- It is the way we do Chesed that counts

The parasha-portion deals with Abraham's servant Eliezer and his mission to find a suitable wife for Isaac- Yitzchak. He rests his camels near a well at evening time when women come out to draw water.  And the Medrash  gives advice to those who are looking for a wife – when you hear dogs barking, listen to what they say. A dog is very loyal to his Master, but drives away visitors and strangers. A wife should be one who is very loyal to her family and attentive to their needs, but at the same time welcomes strangers and visitors and ensures that all family members identify with the family mission of engaging in chesed, loving kindness and hospitality. So Eliezer comes up with a plan that with God's help will prove that the young girl is fitting to become part of Abraham's family. Eliezer says that he will ask for a little water and if the girl responds and goes beyond his request and also offers also to water his camels, this  is the girl chosen by God for Isaac- Yitchak.

According to Rashi, Eliezer is looking for a girl who displays the midot- traits of chesed and loving kindness. One of the problems with this test is we should be looking at the whole person, at all her characteristics rather than just one character trait like chesed –loving kindness. The Ma'or Va'shemes goes further and says that sexual immorality starts with acts of chesed and loving kindness. A' working lady' will try to first establish a connection with a potential client and endear herself to him by doing some kind act of chesed. So he suggests that Eliezer is not  looking for the trait chesed but looking for  Tzni'ut and modesty.

Rivkah responds to Eliezer's request for water by saying in a respectful way – drink my Master. She did  not say help yourself and take some water from the jug, but she actually served him, by lowering the jug to his lips. After he has finished drinking she says she will water the camels until they have finished drinking. She did not want to equate him to the camels, so she did not say I will give you AND the camels to drink. She did not throw away the water that Eliezer left in the jug so as not to embarrass him but used the water for the camels. She did this with great speed and energy which showed her passion for doing chesed – loving kindness and respect for Eliezer. Rivkah exposed herself to Eliezer for the exact amount of time needed to attend to his needs and then quickly moved on to water the camels. This showed that she was not interested in a personal relationship with Eliezer, but  just to be of help in the most modest and Tzniut way. When Eliezer asked if there is room in her father's house to spend the night, she went beyond his request by saying there was place to sleep many nights and also food and straw for the camels.

The act of chesed is very important, but what is more important is the way it is done, in that it  conveys a message and emotion  that you care , respect and are sensitive to the needs of the other person you want to help. The gift wrapping of a present and the letter attached is more important than the gift itself. The good feeling we give to the other person is more important than the gift.Often chesed is done in a way which is embarrassing to the receiver, not respectful and insensitive and even an invasion of their privacy. Giving the gift without the gift wrap and a letter is an insult. The way we do chesed  reflects on our whole personalities , the Tzniut – modesty , emotional intelligence , thoughtfulness,  sensitivity, respect, derech eretz ,  menschlighkeit , decency and common courtesy .

There is so much meaning behind the act of chesed. In order to encourage kids to do acts  of kindness we can help them reflect on how their chesed impacts on the lives of others on both physical and emotional levels. We can show them the sensitivity and thoughtfulness needed in order to do a simple act of chesed. We can help  them experience in a private and intimate way their inner pride, satisfaction in  being able to make a contribution to others. But as teachers and parents we are too concerned with the external acts of chesed and ignore the reasons behind the action. We offer rewards, points, and have mitzvah or chesed campaigns – which usually means that chesed stops once the campaign stops- to encourage kids to do chesed. But we miss the whole point of doing chesed. The important part of chesed is the spiritual part, the part you can't measure, the part that makes the action a positive one or a negative one. And we focus on the data , on what you can measure and so it makes no difference is the kid offers a kid a candy in order to impress his teacher who is watching them , or because he wants some chocolate in return or simply because he wants to make his friend who is feeling a little sad happier.

As Parents and teachers we have to set a personal example and do acts of chesed and loving kindness. But more important is helping kids be sensitive to way we do chesed  and  how chesed should be done. This means sharing our thoughts and the dilemmas of helping people in a way that does not embarrass them.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Vayerah 75 - Yishmael - Vision and Self Compassion

Abraham's oldest son, Yishmael became both a physical and spiritual threat to Yitzchak= Isaac's existence. Sarah insisted that Abraham should divorce Hagar and expel them from his home. This challenged Abraham as he was one who brought people into his home and not one who drove people away from him. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. But Abraham would still be support and be concerned about Yismael's welfare.  As long as Hagar continued to serve God as she did in Abraham's home, they had plenty of water but when they wandered into the desert of Be'er Sheva her mind longed for her father's home and idolatry. They soon had no water and Yishmael became extremely thirsty, sick and close to death. At a time of great danger a man is judged by God. Yishmael was guilty of serving idolatry and deserved to die. The angels argued that God should not perform a miracle and save Yishmael because after the destruction of the first temple, the children of Israel would suffer at the hands of the Yishmaelim, his descendants as exiles being marched to Babylon. God replied that he judges man and so  Yishmael, not on his past = idolatry and not  on the future= he would become a highway man and rob travelers instead of becoming a law enforcement officer and avenging God's enemies. But  God is interested and judges where man is holding in the present-אשר הוא שם. In his prayers to be saved, Yishmael did Teshuvah, repented and created a new vision of himself as a Tzadik, someone who serves God and is associated with holiness and doing good.

As parents and teachers we don't need to be judgmental and punish - and that's the problem with praise, its judgmental nature, but we need  to help kids be in a different place. Some kid's self-esteem is so low that they don't see themselves as kids who can enjoy and be creative or even just having any connection with learning. They don't see themselves as essentially good people that can make a contribution in a pro-social way. We can show these kids that they are indeed valued like the greatest sages of the generation, for if the sage was ordered by the Governor to kill a kid or lose his life, he cannot save his life by killing the kid because who says that his blood is redder than the kid's blood – you have no right to murder the kid to save yourself, his life is no less valuable than his own- Sanhedrin 74A. We can help them reflect on ' their possible selves' and show that they like every human being have unique qualities and potential to make a contribution and enjoy learning. A new vision creates a new future and can help deal with the past.

We need to accept kids unconditionally. The more kids are accepted conditionally, by the way they behave or perform at school, they experience affection with strings attached, and so they tend to accept themselves only with strings attached and this lowers their perception of over-all worth as a person. But if we have positive expectations of kids and see them as good and positive people, according to the Pygmalion affect they will meet our expectations.

We need to help kids acquire a ' growth mindset and more self-compassion'. The problem with sin or failing is not the sin itself or failure but not getting up and getting back on track. Rav Hutner quotes Proverbs 24:15 – 7 times a saint =Tzadik will fall and then he will get up in order to encourage students not to despair because of failure or sin. Kids with a fixed mindset think that their qualities like  intelligence, talent , midot = character traits are fixed, whereas kids with a growth mindset see that abilities and character traits can be developed by effort, dedication, hard work and most important a love and passion for what one is doing.

Self-compassion helps kids  get over making mistakes, not despairing but seeing mistakes as our friends, opportunities for new learning and growth. When the focus is on the process, rather than achievement, the journey rather than the destination you are more likely to be more accurate in assessing your abilities and coming up with a better plan which will help you reach your destination. Kids that are hard on themselves tend to despair and throw in the towel and give-up. They focus on the ' self ' as an object and tend to judge and evaluate themselves. Kids who view the self as an object react by saying ' How could "I"  ( capital I )  do that ?  Have feelings of guilt and shame which get in the way, while kids who said ' How could I do THAT, did not focus on the self but on their actions and were successful in changing.

But most important is simply to help kids connect to learning and Torah values without being judgmental. Kids don't connect to learning or Torah values because we have taught them to focus on how well they are doing and not on what they are doing. If we help kids become intrinsically motivated and solve problems in a collaborative way without rewards or punishment we can connect kids to Torah values and learning. Competition, ranking kids one against each other , conditional acceptance , being judgmental – praise and criticism, get in the way of kids acquiring a growth mindset, stable self-esteem and having self- compassion to deal with sin, mistakes and failure and have a vision of themselves of good, successful people connected to learning and Torah values.- 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Lech Lecha 75 - Caring Communities or a Welfare State

The portion-parasha of Lech Lecha deals with the many trials and challenges to Abraham's  faith in God and his unique approach to serving God through charity and loving kindness – 'chesed.' . God promised him lots of blessings in his new homeland of Canaan, but as soon as he settled in, there was a famine and he decided to move to Egypt. Abraham is criticized for leaving the land of Canaan. He should have shown trust and faith in God to help him through the drought and remain in Canaan just like his son Isaac would do. The Egyptians were notoriously immoral and Abraham would endanger his life and put Sarah, because of her great beauty, at their mercy by going to Egypt. Abraham's behavior  is dubious – he tells Sarah, please say that You are my sister –  and I will benefit as they will offer me gifts and let me live , but  if you say you are my wife they will kill me. After Abraham succeeded in defeating the kings and free Lot who was taken into captivity, Abraham rejects the offer from the King of Sodom of the spoils of the war saying that he did not want any personal gain from the war and so that The King of Sodom could not say he is the one who made Abraham rich and not God. Why is Abraham happy to accept gifts now from the Egyptians because of Sarah? Would it not have been better for Abraham to remain in Canaan and trust in God rather than have compromised Sarah's safety? The Plan does not seem to take care of Sarah's safety concerns.

R' Isaac Sher explains that we need to understand Abraham in the context of his role in the world. Abraham introduced a different type of theology into the world. The Yeshivot and houses of learning of Shem and Eiver were more detached from the physical world. Abraham taught that one should serve God by following God's ways of doing  good to mankind. Abraham would serve God by being involved in the world, providing for and doing chesed and loving kindness to his fellow man. He would use his money and wealth in a very spiritual way by addressing peoples' both physical and spiritual needs. He would take no credit but say the wealth is from God and then teach people about God and spirituality. Abraham taught that doing 'chesed', loving kindness and charitable acts is not enough. One has to be active and participate in building God fearing and caring communities with many organizations reaching out to serve God and people.

 Because of the famine in the land of Canaan, people were not in a position to hear Abraham's message and participate in a spiritual journey. Abraham had to move on and find another place where he could build charitable institutions and caring communities and teach the people about God and his ways. Egypt was the place but had challenges. Calling Sarah his sister is true in a sense as a sister can mean also a relative. It would absolve the Egyptians of the sin of wanting a married woman. People would try to impress Abraham by donating to his projects and institutions and participating in the learning programs. In this way Sarah would benefit Abraham – promoting the belief in God and involvement in charity. Sarah herself was taken to Pharaoh's palace to lecture to women and girls and there Pharaoh thought that he would be honoring Abraham if he took his sister as a wife. After seeing God's   miracles done for the sake of Sarah, Pharaoh decided to give his daughter Hagar to become a handmaid in Abraham's home.  When it became known that Sarah was really Abraham's wife and not his sister, Abraham felt his loss of credibility compromised his ability to work and promote  God's truth and ' chesed' in Egypt. Abraham left Egypt not tainted by its immorality and impurity and having succeeded in establishing charitable institutions and teaching about God's truth and 'chesed.

 Abraham taught that serving God through ' chesed' was not only being caring and supporting other people both physically, emotionally and spiritually but actively cooperating with others to create caring communities with   institutions that can help many people. Schools can create an environment which encourages cooperative learning and pro-social behavior. Many schools have 'jobs' where each grade can not only learn by doing but also be of service to the school community as a whole. Jobs include running the school Post Office, canteen, supplies store, newspaper, print shop, and an older brother- sister and tutoring organization. Parents can not only invite people into their homes, support needy people but also participate in chesed and charity organizations. Their children can become partners with parents in these endeavors.

Unfortunately the ' welfare state' has replaced ' caring communities'. It is now the government and the social services who deal with poverty and supporting the needy. While the government role is crucial, every person has a need to be of service to others. When doing chesed and charity is how we serve God and follow his ways, there will always be caring people and communities and a welfare state.   

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Meeting your children's nutritional needs

I recently said to a friend – that the people who cannot  afford the expensive ' hechsherim' , the super glatt meat, the suits and Borsalino hats, women's wigs and Pei'ot , the imported or Nochri fruit and vegetables during  Smittah, bug free ( but plenty of insecticide ) vegetables  etc  are buying these products , while those who can afford them don't. And it is not  just a question of different communities spending money on different things or having different priorities, but it seems that  the poorer communities  are cutting back on healthy nutrition and this  is impacting on kids' health development  with problems of underweight  kids and malnutrition. Stringent bug-free standards for vegetables mean that kids may also be missing out on many important green and leafy vegetables.

There is a video clip of the Harav Ovadia Yosef  Z'TL on the  -Credibility of the Heter Me'chirah hechsher   . The interesting point for me was his statement that if you have extra money to spend, buy produce from the Otzar Beit Din. I have heard his son, the chief rabbi of Holon remark how families and especially the bigger families could not afford to pay the exorbitant prices of the Smittah le'mehadrin produce and meet the nutritional  needs  of their families.

I was wondering whether parents , educators and rabbis reflect on the saying – when you are machmir in one area you are mei'kel in another area ? 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Noah 75- Wine and Noah's Downfall

After the devastation and the destruction of the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah and charges him with the task of building a new world. Noah sees the destruction, but he lacks a plan and a vision for the world. He plants some vine branches from the Garden of Eden which grow with miraculous speed. It seems that God is happy with his actions. Wine is pleasing to both man and God. The wine libations- ניסוך היין -accompany sacrifices and we sanctify holy days with wine. Wine can open up the heart and mind and add a new dimension to a happy occasion.  But miracles sometimes come to test man and are not a sign of God's approval. The Torah-Bereishit 9:20 and Midrash play on the words -    ויחל נח איש האדמה   and Noah began or figuratively, from the word chulin= חולין- he debased and profaned himself by getting his priorities wrong.  He planted a vineyard instead of grains that will provide for man's basic needs for food. He falls from being a איש צדיק - a righteous man to become a 'man of the earth '– איש האדמה - a man who needs take from the world and compensate for his lack of joy and lack of vision. He drank from the wine, became drunk and uncovered himself within his tent.  His grandson Canaan saw Noah in his disgrace and told his father Ham. Ham castrated his father so he could not have any more children.

The fall of Noah was because he was only a survivor, concerned about his own life, a Tzadik – a righteous man only relative to his corrupt generation. Unlike Abraham, he did not have a vision for the world and the leadership qualities to serve God and support man by building God fearing communities. For him God was a support and not an inspiration.

The fall of Noah is a reminder to all of us that we can never to secure in our spiritual levels. We are never stationary , either working on ourselves, marriages, relationships, businesses – going up  or going down if we do not invest in our lives and relationships. And falling is so much easier and quicker when there is alcohol available. There are so many stories of young men who are trying to create new meaningful live and fall because they drank too much. Even if we use the physical world in a positive way for eg we drink in honor of the Sabbath, Purim and at special family events and simchas, there is danger. There are 2 aspects to drinking - we elevate the wine when we use it for a spiritual ritual, we are subjects, givers = gavra, but when we get pleasure from the wine we become like objects, 'receivers' = cheftza. And the question becomes - are we essentially ' receivers', happy because of the bottle or 'givers', happy because of the meaning and significance we attach to an event. This is the reason we try to be modest and understate ourselves when we are eating, drinking, being intimate or relieving ourselves.

We and especially young people with challenges can learn from Noah's mistakes. We drink and only a little, not because we live in our depressed world, but because we want to celebrate achievement or a meaningful event and wine can ADD to our mood and feelings of happiness. Noah needed to first plant grains, so wine accompanies food and water which are the main part of the meal and not the drink. If we want to stay sober we need to also eat and drink water. Drinking alcohol not only impairs cognitive ability but promotes the making of urine in excess of the volume you have drunk and this can cause dehydration unless extra fluid is taken. Our focus should not be on the drink or even the food but on being pro-social and contributing in a meaningful way to the social event.

Purim becomes a challenge because there is an obligation to drink on Purim –' l’besumei' – until he cannot discern between Haman and Mordechai. This is because  wine plays a significant role in the Purim story It cannot be that there is a mitzvah to get drunk as the word ' l'besumei' is derived from the word to sniff or inhale a smell. It means we should only have a little to drink during the meal in order to get us into the mood. When we are drunk with happiness because of the miracle of Purim, we will occasionally sing verses of a popular song in the incorrect order, meaning   that we will sing the verse of Arur Haman- Cursed is Haman in the place of the verse of Baruch Mordechai – Blessed is Morderchai. In this way we fulfill the mitzvah of - Chayav einish l’besumei be’puria ad deloi yoda bein arur Haman l’baruch Mordechai” which loosely translated says, that one is obligated to drink on Purim until he cannot discern between Haman and Mordechai.

As Parents and educators we have to offer kids guidelines to wine drinking and alcohol and even to the art of pairing wine with food, so wine is always part of the meal.
Wine and alcohol can cause the downfall of a person but  when he is happy about something meaningful , a little wine can add something extra to the mood of a festive meal .When people are concerned about others , pro-social and giving , drink a little only during a meal , getting drunk will never  happen.