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.-