Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Shemot 76 - Mass education and the bondage in Egypt

The beginning of the Parasha describes the radical deterioration in the stature of the Israelites in Egypt. The Torah repeats by name all the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt reflecting their greatness as individuals worthy to be mentioned by name, because like 'stars ' they gave off light and made a contribution to society. Their descendants are regarded as a group, no longer   individuals, but the children of Israel. The Torah then describes the dramatic increase in their numbers in a somewhat derogatory way – they became many, swarmed – like 'insects'    - conducting themselves like a swarm of insects and grew enormously in number and influence so the land became saturated with 'THEM'. They were called THEM – not only a people who have lost their individuality but they became a people without a name, like insects. This transition played into the hands of the Egyptians who were looking for a justification to persecute and enslave the Israelites.  The Israelites began to leave Goshen and began to mingle in Egyptian society. They were seen as a group and not individuals and so they were perceived as a threat. According to the view in the Midrash, the king was dethroned,because he would not comply with the wishes of the people, to deal harshly with the perceived threat posed by the children of Israel. He felt it would be bad for Egypt and it was a lack of gratitude to Joseph who had saved Egypt from the famine. After 3 months he agreed to cooperate with the people and deal with the Israelite problem. He was reinstated and  became a 'new king who did not know Joseph '.He was no longer willing to make the sacrifice for his values – showing gratitude and therefore is considered an ungrateful king.
In order to enslave the Israelites, and oppress  them , and ignore  the  contributions, Joseph and his descendants had made to Egypt, the king began to objectify and dehumanize them. Even Joseph, no longer had a name.. Once you objectify and dehumanize people, the next step – being cruel to them is no problem. They were construed as a threat to the country and all evil including infanticide  could be justified.
 Moses, due to divine providence was raised as a prince in Pharaoh's palace. Only a prince, an individual with great stature could redeem Israel from Egypt. Moses empathized with his brothers and showed compassion. He   began to intervene to improve the plight of the Israelite slaves as a group. But just as important were matters of the community – Tzibur, was the plight of each individual person and here too we see Moses intervene on behalf of individuals.

The treatment of the Israelites by the Egyptians was extreme, abusive and cruel, but in certain ways it shared  something common with traditional parenting. Traditional parenting focuses on ' doing to ' the child as opposed to ' working with ' the child. Traditional parenting seeks to control and manipulate children's behavior by being contingent, consistent using the tools of control  - punishments, consequences, praise and rewards. The way the child experiences ' being done to' and  love and privileges made  conditional on behavior and grades in school is not a factor. A child's concerns, perspective or how he sees the world through his own eyes is totally ignored. What concerns the parent is behavior, not the whole child, the motives, feelings and underlying values behind the behavior. 
The alternative is to work with the child, supporting his autonomy so we focus on the whole child and the development of his unique character and potential in the context of caring community of learners. We can help him develop a love for learning, discover his unique contribution and connect to God by focusing on what he does and not on how well he does. If we get rid of judgment, kids can develop in stature and become leaders impacting on society and God's presence in the world. Unfortunately the focus is on mass education and trying to get each kid to fit a certain mold and look the same. The tools of mass education are the consequences,  rewards, praise and punishments and a focus on grades and competition rather than focusing on developing the uniqueness of each individual child and making him into a potential leader. The difference is expressed in the leadership of Pharoah or Moses.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Vayechi 76 - R' David Pelcovitz - Balanced Parenting , a response

Here is a response to R' David Pelcovitz's views on parenting -' Balanced Parenting ' gleaned from the 3 keys of parenting talk - not the book. So the response is very much about what is stressed and emphasized in  talks and what is missing. R' David Pelcovitz talks about the 3 keys of parenting.   (1) Balanced Parenting – the balance between limit setting and love, (2) Perspective taking and (3) nurturing the Uniqueness of your child.
I will start with nurturing the uniqueness of your child as this is alluded in our Parasha. Jacob blesses his sons in a way that seems to be more about describing their personalities and sometimes being very critical when their inherent natures were used in an inappropriate way – like that of Shimon who with his brother attacked the city of Shechem.  In fact, the city of Shechem is inscribed on the flag of Shimon, the flag representing the essence of the tribe. Rabbeinu Yeruchum explains that the blessing was a stimulus for personality growth based on the unique strengths and natures of Jacob sons'. Developing their inherent uniqueness would not only lead to character actualization and perfection but also have a ripple effect on other lesser dominant traits.  'So hoping that your kid will realize your dreams for yourself or a 'one- size fits all ' approach with the same parental expectations for all kids - everyone to Ivy League or Lakewood etc.  Is not the way to go and certainly will not help the child to achieve his uniqueness.' Your wishes and blessings for your kid must relate to his innate talent and character , something for which  you are also grateful  - DP
                                                                                                                                                    I suggest it is not only about focusing on a child's strengths and sending a kid to a school that fits the kid, we need to also support his autonomy in order to help him realize his potential and give expression to his uniqueness.  Kids   should feel that they are the authors of their actions, 'self –determined - endorsing their actions on the highest level of reflection and connected to their inner –beings, souls and core values. When we support their autonomy, we enhance the uniqueness of the children.

'Perspective taking is a key skill and value needed to be successful in human relations like marriage and in the work place. When kids see parents treating each other with respect and parents being able to see the perspective of others with whom they disagree, kids   internalize this value better than being told how to behave. '  - DP

R' David Pelcovitz  advocates a balance between Love and limits, that a child's behavior is contained with limits but there is always love no matter what the kid does. He suggests that we are love specialists and weak on limit setting.  To give context to his words and dramatic effect he refers to a book by Jean Twenge on how kids are becoming ever more narcissistic and this is due to permissive parenting and the fear to set limits and enforce them with consequences. He uses anecdotal evidence of silly parents from dysfunctional  families , in the same way as many  articles on today's  parents  show that instead of disciplining kids they coddle them and shield them from frustration and what we get is a generation of narcissists with a sense of entitlement . He quotes Twenge who says that the sign of the times is that ' obedience ' - to be obedient children is no longer a goal that parents have for their children.

I want to suggest that if we focus on one key - being responsive to a child's needs and particular supporting a child's autonomy, we have an integrated system and don't have to balance between love and limits and we promote perspective taking and the uniqueness of the child.

. DP talks about for a need for a balance between limits and loves and he says that if one does not have a good relationship with a kid, imposing limits will lead to rebellion. And this reminds me of the ADHD specialist who told parents that if they have a good relationship with kids, it will make your consequences and punishments more effective.  And this is where I disagree.  A good and loving relationship is our goal, relationship is also a skill kids need to learn and it depends on how we set limits and why we set limits while still supporting their autonomy. Relationship isn't for helping you make limit setting more effective.  Everyone agrees that people and especially children need limits but the question is how you set limits, the parent or teacher alone, unilaterality or together with the child and how do we deal with problems and infractions focusing on CPS – collaborative problem solving and teshuva or with consequences. Is it a' working with' approach or a 'doing to' approach?  When the parent's concerns are being addressed by the solution, a limit is being set, and the limit is also something which the child has participated in creating. If we are really interested in a child's moral development we need to help them to grapple with the issues at hand and try figure out the limits and boundaries needed and generate choices and solutions. We want kids to learn to set limit themselves, limits that are intrinsic to situations, limits that are decreed from the situation itself and this is done grappling with the underlying values of how to behave in the context of different situations. This is not about imposing rules and limits but rather helping kids to live according to principles and values. 
 When we parents and kids solve problems in a collaborative way, perspective taking and understanding the concerns of both parties is crucial to the problem solving process. Here, the parent not only models perspective taking by addressing the child's perspective and concerns, but the child acquires the skill as well, as he learns to articulate his concerns and take into account the concerns and the perspectives of the parent. CPS – collaborative problem solving is very different from a parent or teacher telling a kid how to behave, or even a parent making decisions taking into account the perspectives of the child. It is a collaborative dynamic where we support the kid's autonomy, his competence - as he learns   to articulate his concerns, address both concerns   by generating solutions that are mutually satisfactory to both parent and child. And in the process, the relationship is enhanced. So the obvious question is why not promote ' perspective taking and empathy' by the way you directly interact with your child instead of just relying for an indirect way of teaching this value?

For sure, there will times where we have to insist on a limit, thwart kids autonomy  and kids will be unhappy about it, but the more we solve problems in a collaborative way , be  open to discussion,  they will begin to trust that our judgment takes into account their concerns and is in their best interests. This is a rather different take on limits from that of Twenge and DP who say that if we don't set limits and cause frustration and discomfort to children they will grow into narcissistic people with a sense of entitlement who won't be able to cope in the outside world. The question is are we using a 'doing to' approach ,imposing limits to contain children's behavior  or are we ' working with them ' so that they grapple with ideas and figure out how the limits they need to set. 
I take issue with the idea that we are love specialists. The question is not whether we love our kids but how we love our kids. Is it with strings attached? –  do we love them more when they behave themselves or do well at school and use love to leverage behavior. Even more important is how our kids experience our love, do they feel just as loved when they 'screw up and fall short.'  In fact many – SDT researchers, and in the frum world R' Benzion Sorotzkin hold that ' conditional regard and acceptance ' is one of the main problems in parenting or teaching. When a kid's need for respect, love and unconditional acceptance etc. are not being met, kids compensate by becoming more materialistic but when parents are responsive to kids needs spoiling a kid never becomes a problem.  Unconditional acceptance and love is not about being a permissive parent. In an illuminating passage from her book Learning to Trust (2003), Marilyn Watson explained that ' a teacher can make it clear to students that certain actions are unacceptable while still providing “a very deep kind of reassurance – the reassurance that she still care[s] about them and [is] not going to punish or desert them, even [if they do] something very bad.' Unconditional parenting means solving problems and dealing with a teacher or parent's unmet expectations using collaborative problem solving and enabling the child in an autonomous way to do Teshuva and engage in the moral act of restitution. This is rather different from imposing consequences if rules or limits are broken as suggested by DP and Twenge.
It is not the place to discuss Twenge's writings and the validity of her ideas and research Imho, difficulties with kids have to do the ever increasing demands placed on kids that outstrip their skills and development stage, a regime of high stakes testing, and an educational system that is driven by grades, the learning itself has no inherent value alienating kids from learning. I would like to comment on the negative way she and David Pelcovitz see the fact that ' obedience is no longer a goal that parents have for children. The fact is that hardly anyone would want their kids to grow up as obedient people and for sure kids themselves place no value on being obedient.  Parents long –term goals for kids are usually more about being decent human being, kind people, happy and being concerned about the happiness of others, independent, critical thinkers, altruistic, fulfilled, self-reliant, inquisitive, responsible, competent, etc.  Obedience and compliance are more about a parent's need for control rather than being responsive to the needs of kids. And the tools of gaining obedience and compliance are imposing limits and enforcing them with rewards, consequences and punishments which teach kids to ask what's in it for me – thus we promote the most primitive of moral behavior.

Imho it is not a balance between 2 opposing forces - loves and limits.  A respectful and loving relationship with kids, nurturing their uniqueness and moral development, perspective talking and empathy is dependent on how we support their autonomy,love them, how we set limits - together and helping them grapple with issues involved, and solving problems and unmet expectations using CPS – collaborative problem solving with a focus on Teshuva - engaging in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Vayigash 76 – Repeating the parenting and discipline mistakes of parents and teachers.

Joseph sends off his brothers with wagons containing a generous supply of provisions to go and bring their father, Jacob and the rest of the family to Egypt. He also gave each of his 10 brothers 2 sets of clothing .He treated  full brother Binyamin differently by giving him  5 sets of clothing and 300 pieces of silver.  The Talmud asks how could Joseph ,a victim of jealousy  do such a thing. Joseph had been singled out by Jacob when he gave him the 'coat of many colors ', and  now he was adopting the same strategy that caused him so much suffering.  Because siblings vie for the love and attention of their parents, their anger is directed against the sibling who is being treated as the favorite child. The Talmud answers that Joseph was alluding to a future event when the descendant of Binyamin, Mordechai would in a triumphant way emerge from the presence of the King Ahasuerus wearing 5 royal garments.  The commentators ask how could  the brothers  know that the 5 sets of  clothes communicated this message and not a message of favoritism. The answer given is that the word for the sets of clothing given to Binyamin is written in the shortened form חליפת and not  in the long form חליפות indicating that the quality of Binyamin's present was of a much lesser quality. Thus the differences in the presents could not be ascribed to favoritism but to some other message. The 300 silver pieces could have been given in secret or as compensation for Binyamin's suffering.

  In general we should always try to attribute to people and especially children the best possible motives consistent with the facts.

The question I want to examine is why children who were parented in a controlling and conditional way - making love and attention conditional on how kids behave or perform in school and use love to leverage behavior,- as parents ,  do the same things to their kids. They use the same parenting that contributed to their needs not being met and that sometimes caused suffering to the point of physical and/or emotional abuse. We can also ask how teachers who were once pupils and were often treated disrespectfully by teachers who totally ignored their concerns or perspectives and controlled them with punishments and consequences adopt the same approach to discipline and learning as their teachers did. Even though parents were once kids and teachers were once pupils, they seem to totally have forgotten and are totally unaware of how kids and pupils experience the way they discipline and teach. In education it matters not what we think is the lesson we teach, but the message kids take home and how they experience what we do to them.

Parents will often justify a ' doing to approach ' rather than ' working with ' kids because this is how I was raised and I turned out OK.  For sure they have not turned out OK if they do not respect the dignity of kids, are controlling and love and accept them conditionally. The obvious answer is that kids learn how to parent the way they were parented and because it is the only way they know. And as a result of this, a cycle of aggression or even abuse that is intergenerational is created. According to Alice Miller kids who are emotionally abused have a natural tendency to deny or minimize the harmful nature of the parental abuse and blame themselves for being bad kids. This causes a variety of emotional and behavior problems. There is an unconscious need to believe that everything that our parents did for us, was really for our own good and was done out of love. It is too threatening for many kids to even entertain the possibility that our parents weren't well-meaning or even competent. In order to show what was done to them was not that bad and out of love, they do the same things to their own children that their parents did to them.

Another simpler reason is that because of various fears and weaknesses ,  parents have a need for control and therefore adopt  a ' doing to ' approach that  trumps the needs of the kids for love , attention, guidance and unconditional acceptance. These needs can only be addressed by adopting a ' working with' approach. A  ' doing to' approach is also so much easier. It is often mindless, relying on power , status and position and does not take into account how the child experiences what is being done to them. However this ' bad discipline' works, at least in getting temporarily compliance. So because a ' doing to ' approach is easier and ' works' (works for what? = temporary compliance),  it is so easy to parent this way and fall back on these ways even when one has adopted a working with approach. 

 Working with kids and supporting their autonomy is much harder and takes a lot of thought and patience. It is giving up control so that you gain influence and can inspire kids to connect to their inner souls and give expression to who they are and develop a love of learning and a love of people. When we attribute to kids the best motives consistent with the facts, and believe children do well if they can and not children do well if they want to, we will be more inclined to work with them and find out what is getting in their way. We will also put our relationship first and try to see the world through their eyes, the eyes of kids as we collaborate with them to solve problems and grow together with them to make a better world.

If we focus on the long term goals for our kids and not our need for control and compliance we will be able to ask ourselves if what we just did to kids had more to do with our upbringing, our needs and fears and is not in the best interests of our kids. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hanukah – Vayeshev- Mikeitz 76 What you stop yourself from doing – defines who you are

The Talmud asks -  ' Why was Hanukah enacted ? - on account of which miracle?  For the Rabbis taught  -  Hanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev and lasts for 8 days on which it is forbidden to fast and give hespedim = eulogies for the dead. The reason is that the Greeks entered the temple and defiled all the oil there. When the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they found only one flask of oil with the seal of the high priest. The flask had the amount of oil sufficient for one day, yet miraculously it lasted for eight days. The following year these days were designated as a religious holiday on which the Hallel and Hoda'yah = thanksgiving praises are said.'

The obvious question concerns the structure of the passage and the way the prohibition of fasting and saying eulogies for the dead is emphasized and stressed. I would have first told the story of the miracle of the oil, the fixing of the holiday of Hanukah to say praises and give thanks, and therefore in the spirit of the holiday it is forbidden to fast and or give eulogies.

Similarly, the first law=Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch = code of Law on Hanukah is the prohibition to fast or give eulogies during Hanukah.  So what is so significant about this negative prohibition that it is the first law that is taught and precedes the positive mitzvoth= commandments of lighting candles and saying praises and giving thanks.

Hanukah is also called the festival of the lights because of the mitzvah to light candles. The lighting of candles has a universal message – a small amount of light can chase away a large amount of darkness. For this reason many non-Jews light candles on Hanukah because they identify with its universal message and feel spiritually enriched by the ritual. Non- observant Jews also light candles because of the universal message and the association it has with the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks and the regaining of the lost independence of the Jewish state. By lighting candles, non-Jews or non-observant Jews have not changed or redefined themselves; they are merely enriching their lives by introducing more spirituality.

Jews who are in the process of becoming more observant and 'dati', do not change and redefine themselves as observant and dati until they start to keep and observe the negative mitzvoth and prohibitions - Shabbat – Sabbath, Kashrut = dietary laws and family purity. Until they stop for eg driving  or working on the Sabbath , stop  eating non-kosher food and or begin observing the prohibitions involved in the laws of family purity , any positive mitzvoth they do,  merely enriches who they are , but does not change or redefine them.

The negative mitzvoth and prohibitions define us with their limits and boundaries, the positive commandments and mitzvoth enrich our lives in the context of the negative mitzvoth – the boundaries and limits. It enables us to  ' Sur me'ra ve' aseh tov, turn aside from doing bad and then do good. There are many wicked and evil people who also do a lot of good. It is their failure to stop and resist doing evil , that defines who they are.

So on Hanukah what defines an observant Jew and gives his mitzvah of lighting Hanukah candles a completely different dimension is the Isur = prohibition of fasting and giving eulogies for the dead.

Joseph- Yoseif is called 'Yoesif Ha'tzadick' – Joseph, the righteous and saintly man because he stopped himself from having relations with the wife of his boss – Potiphar despite incredible pressure, bribes and threats. He also allowed himself to be incriminated when she grabbed his garment. He slipped out of it and then he ran outside leaving his garment in her hand instead of using a bit of 'force' to grab back his garment. This became Joseph's undoing as she used the garment as evidence against him. Joseph was prepared to pay the price for being the person he was – someone who does not commit (a) immoral sexual acts, (b) nor betray his master or (c) does not use violence to get what he wants. On this account he spent 12 years in an Egyptian prison. After the officer of the butlers tells Pharaoh about Joseph's ability to interpret dreams, Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph. THEY brought him hastily out of the dungeon and HE – Joseph said he is not a person who goes to meet a king looking like prisoner who has not had a haircut for years, so he first went for a haircut and shopping to buy new clothes.

Parents and teachers should be helping and guiding kids to define who they are and how to give expression to their values and develop a love for people, learning and life. Traditional approaches to discipline or learning focus on obedience and compliance and the tools to get compliance and obedience are power, seduction, extrinsic motivators like rewards, punishments, consequences, praise and grades etc. Limits and boundaries are set and enforced with punishments. Instead  we should be helping kids learn to set their own limits and boundaries because of their values, who they are and guidelines to behavior which the Torah gives. These guidelines help kids to analyze situations and let the limit be derived from the situation instead of following and complying with rules out of context. The reason why kids in a traditional framework do things or avoid doing things is because of what they will get or what will be done to them.   It teaches them to ask what is in it for me, instead of asking ' what type of person do I want to be, what are the consequences of my behavior on other people, how do I impact on others '. 

 We give value to ideals and Torah when we make sacrifices and prepared to dedicate a lot of money and effort in expressing and fighting for these values.  The Hanukah story is not about people asking ' what is my reward or what will I get if I go to war. It is about being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and go to war over values, because it expresses who I am and my commitment to the Torah and Godly values.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Vayeishev 76 - Joseph, his brothers and Collaborative Problem solving

It is a well- known fact that when a group of people share common goals, and  a commitment and duty to lofty ideals, they are able to overcome things like personal interest, ambition, jealousy and suspicion which cause conflict and division. And this is especially true, if the ideals are Godly and people collaborate and work together to achieve these goals and ideals. So what went wrong with Jacob's family where  all the brothers had a role and joint commitment in the building of the nation of Israel?  

We need to look at the powerful influences of character traits and the importance of a caring community in the social dynamic.

One characteristic that comes to mind is  arrogance and  a lack of humility which leads people to be judgmental and not engage in collaborative problem solving. Not matter how great and righteous the people involved, like the sons of Jacob, a slight flaw or failing can distort thinking and cause a lot of damage.

Jacob's family situation was challenging from the beginning. There were 3 contenders for the leadership role – Reu'vein = the first born, Yehudah who was fit for royalty and Yoseif who had already been singled out by his father for a leadership role and was obviously his favorite son. Joseph was Jacob's confidant, and in a very self –righteous and superior way,  he reported the wrong doings of the brothers to his father. He further shared with all his family  his dreams of him being the leader and ruler of the family . This  added a jealousy to the hatred the brothers had for Yoseif.

 There was already a hierarchy and ranking in the family which was very apparent in the meeting of Jacob  with Eisav- Esau. Bilhah, Zilpah , the former maidservants and their sons were up front, followed by  Leah and her sons and finally Jacob's favorite wife Rachel was with  Joseph=Yoseif. The Midrash says that the sons of Leah used to humiliate and belittle the sons of the former maidservants – Bilhah and Zilpah. Yoseif – Joseph slandered and defamed Leah's sons  = spoke lashon ha'rah about the brothers to his father. One of the untruths he said was  that the sons of Leah,  called the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, slaves.  In truth, the sons of Leah did not call them slaves but referred to them as the sons of the maidservants, the previous status of their mothers. Because of his touch of arrogance, Yoseif misinterpreted the actions of the brothers and gave a faulty evaluation. Instead he should have reserved judgment and only presented what he saw to his father. He should have first  confronted  his brothers without being judgmental, just describing what he saw and then  engage them  in conversation to solve problems or his unmet expectations of the brothers. The Midrash however does still criticize the sons of Leah for referring to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as the sons of the maidservants. It did not mean that sons of Bilhah and Zilpah did something wrong, but they were reminded that they were the inferior and second class sons of Jacob, while they- the sons of Leah, were from the ' elite'. They certainly did not show unity, brotherly love and acceptance, but rejection which created social  division and bad feelings. The Midrash then describes God's displeasure and that the exile and bondage in Egypt would remedy the situation. After the redemption, all the tribes would say in gratitude – we were slaves in Egypt , showing acceptance of all  and unity. Trouble from outsiders is often God's way to tell one - your brother is not the enemy. The brothers did achieve a certain unity when they all saw Yoseif as a threat to the family, attempting to expel them from the family and establish himself as Jacob's sole successor. A common enemy, promotes unity and conversation in the group which leads to solving problems in a collaborative way. But when you see your brother as the enemy, and don't include him in the peace process,  the solutions will lack compassion. Because of the antagonism they felt for Joseph , the verse says that they could not speak to him -  for the sake of peace = le'shalom. They could not resolve the conflict through conversation and discussion.

 Joseph was sold into slavery because his arrogance and lack of humility prevented him from seeing the situation from the perspective of his brothers and engaging in collaborative problem solving that would address both his and the brothers concerns. A slave learns to be humble and leave the judgment of others to God. Humility, empathy, compassion  and being non-judgmental are crucial for the collaborative problem solving process.

 The lessons for teachers and parents are obvious. Instead of criticism, just describe what you have seen in a non-judgmental way and then try to engage in collaborative problem solving with a sense of humility and compassion. A sense of humility means we forget our theories why the child is behaving as he does and rely more on the child to feel safe and trust adults to share his concerns and perspective about the underlying problem. A compassionate approach will help one wear the lenses – that  'children do well if they can ' and not ' children do well if they want to'. So instead of making a child to ' wanna behave ' , we will ask what is getting in his way , so we can help him be successful and happy. We , like Beit Hillel first  explore and examine the  child's (other's)  concerns so he feels understood. Once we have a good idea of his concerns, we can put our concerns and expectations on the table and then invite the child to engage in CPS , collaborative problem solving finding mutually satisfying solutions that are realistic and durable .

 Organizations, schools, communities and families may have lofty ideals and a commitment to a vision and mission. These ideals , missions and commitments must find their place in the context of a caring community. It is  most important  that there are pro-social activities in place that promote cooperation, cooperative learning and altruism and that conflict is resolved and cooperation achieved using collaborative problem solving. If not, personal interests, ambition, arrogance can lead to jealousy, hatred , social divisions and disparity and conflict.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vayishlach 76- To Be or To Have

The parasha reveals to us Ya'akov's –Jacob's attitude to money and material possessions. He brings his family and his possessions to the other side of the Yabok stream and then realizes that he has forgotten some  פחים קטנים    = small earthen pitchers and returns to fetch them.  The Sages learn from this that to the righteous, their money is dearer to them than their bodies, and they are willing to suffer or endure bodily discomfort  for sake of insignificant  or trivial objects and the reason for this is that they don't steal from others. R' Isaac Sher asks that this may be a good explanation for a poor man, but Jacob returned from Haran as an incredibly wealthy man, and needing something that belongs to others or being enticed by material goods was simply out of the question.  In fact, we later find that Jacob was  not so attached to his money and was  pretty liberal in giving away all the gold and silver coins he had earned in Haran in order to buy from Esau – Eisav, Eisav's   share in the Ma'arat Hamachpeilah burial site in Chevron. R' Isaac Sher answers that we have to make an effort to earn a living in an honest way , but in reality what we earn is a gift from God, a gift of the  opportunity to make a contribution and make the world a more spiritual place. So if we lose things or even misuse our material possessions we are in fact stealing from God. We have become responsible for losing our chance and opportunity to realize the purpose of these possessions.Money is dearer to us than our bodies, because we are much more powerful people and can do a lot of good with money, much more than our bodies. Of course , this does not mean we don't have to be careful about our health, there is a biblical commandment to do so, it just gives us a perspective about money , that money can be a powerful tool in the creation of spirituality and good in the world. 
There is another explanation why material possessions are so significant. Since every penny is diligently and honestly earned and the righteous avoid even a suggestion of  dishonesty, these objects are not only dear to them but also as in Jacob's case,  the pitchers acquired spiritual value and became the bearers of holiness.

An attitude to money is very significant to a religious person - not only should he be careful to be honest in his dealings and not steal but he should not be involved in the pursuit of wealth - re'difat ha'mamon ' .In fact, one has to repent not only for inappropriate  actions –like stealing but also for characteristics and life style that is focused on the pursuit of wealth, no matter how honest one  is, because these characteristics are contrary to a spiritual and contributing life.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says if there is no flour, there is no Torah. Money can be a very powerful tool  in creating spirituality, spiritual experiences and making a contribution to the world. Likewise – if there is no Torah there is no flour - it is the Torah that  gives value to money and the reason for God to share his abundance with man. The question Eric Fromm asks us  is  whether we are  ' TO BE or TO HAVE'   people–using the material to create experiences and focus on ' being '  or do we focus on getting and having  -  getting  status or getting  pleasure and being  entertained by the material world . So a poor person can very easily be a TO HAVE person , while a rich person can be a TO BE person.  We can also have a materialistic attitude to mitzvoth and focus not on the experience and process but on collecting mitzvoth.

In education, teachers and parents think they are promoting learning or acts of kindness if they motivate kids with prizes, rewards, grades or even verbal rewards such as praise. Instead we are motivating kids to get more prizes and see the learning or kindness, not as intrinsically valuable but a means to an end - to get a good job, make an impression, fame and  candy etc . Kids become addicted to these extrinsic motivators,  so kids won't learn if it is not on the test or won't be graded, and  before they do anything– they ask what  will  I get for it. They see everything in contractual or economic terms and it is hard for us to wean them off rewards.   In the words of the behavioral economist Dan Ariely parents and teachers are guilty of converting ' social norms' into ' economic norms'. They are promoting materialism and immoral behavior at the expense of spirituality and connection.

 A school tried to encourage kids to return lost articles or money found in school or on the playground by rewarding kids for handing in lost property. All of a sudden, kids were finding lots of  coins on the playground.

A kindergarten imposed fines on parents who came late to pick up their kids. The situation became much worse after the imposition of the fines. Previously parents were guided by ' social norms' – a guilty feeling and 'conscience ' about keeping the kindergarten teacher or kid waiting , now it was purely an ' economic ' decision – was it worth the money to come late.
A man, who was about to go overseas for while approached his neighbor's 10 year old son. He needed help with his dog. He asked the boy to look after his dog and take him for walks etc while he was away on holiday.

He asked the kid  -   How much? The kid replied – ' I am willing to pay $15.

This is really the behavior and values we want from kids. They should be willing to spend time and money to make a contribution and create spirituality thus converting material into spiritual, converting  economic norms into spiritual norms.

So instead of rewarding a kid with candy for leading the prayers in the synagogue when he sings ' a'nim zemirot ', I recommend that we give the candy before he sings. We thus give the mitzvah an association with happiness, he does the mitzvah with joy and happiness  and he is left with an inner pride and feeling of spiritual satisfaction. We have not converted this spiritual feeling and intrinsic reward for singing into a physical reward such as a candy.

Jacob was careful not to waste or squander his possessions because they are opportunities to do good  in the world. He certainly was not attached to money and converted money into spirituality by buying Eisav- Esau's share in the ' ma'arat ha'machpeilah ' burial site in Chevron.

Our purpose in this world is to convert ' economic norms' – materialism into 'social and spiritual norms'. We can do this by understanding that the reward of a good deed is the deed itself - the experience and the opportunity given to us by God to do further good. We can help kids by cutting out ' rewards ', less focus on grades and credits   and help them become more self-directed, connected to learning  and intrinsically motivated focusing on the process and experience,   on ' being and not having'. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Vayetze 76 - Kids can help to ' make or break ' a marriage

When we take a look at the lives of the Avot – the Forefathers and especially the life of Ya'akov- Jacob, we see lives that are full of challenges and very complicated, and yet in the end the light of the Torah is revealed.               Proverbs 23:31    implies   that only people who have their eyes on drink think that life runs smoothly without bumps in the road or complications. כִּי-יִתֵּן בכיס (בַּכּוֹס) עֵינוֹ; יִתְהַלֵּךְ, בְּמֵישָׁרִים.Leah as the older daughter,  according to the local people was destined to be married off to Eisav- Esau. She cried and prayed to God .She became Jacob's wife in a most complicated way because Jacob wasn't able to perceive at that time, that his destiny to become Israel needed him to marry Leah. Jacob initially felt a touch of resentment to Leah because of her complicity with her father in deceiving and conning him into marrying her. Leah was extremely conscious of not being the 'favorite wife' and felt not loved and even ' hated.' Thing slowly began to improve when she began to have children. We see from the names she gave her sons how each son helped Jacob's love for her to grow even more. She called their first born son – Reuvein, from God seeing her affliction which was apparent and could be seen by all. Her second son was called Simon, from God hearing her that she was ' hated' = less loved, something that only she could notice from the tone of Jacob's voice in conversation with her .After she had her third son and thereby given birth to her share of the 12 tribes, there would be no difference in the love Jacob showed to his 2 wives and that from now ' my husband will become attached to me', implied by the name Levi. Their connection now had the commitment of a couple that find their happiness only in each other. In fact, Jacob gives expression to his love and commitment by him naming the child, Levi. ( R'SRH). The Chizkuni says that until this point Leah could cope alone in raising her children, one child in each hand, now that she had a third child, she needed Jacob's help. The obvious question is why could not Leah rely on the hands of her maid-servant Zilpah? When it comes to ' education', it is the parent and not the ' super-nanny' that is responsible and has to be active in the child's education.

And this introduction from the parasha reminds me of a woman who had a ' problematic marriage ' and was told , that we can see from Leah's experience that 'having more children ' would solve her problems and cause her husband to show affection, love and support.  Unfortunately, things became much worse and she had to carry the burden of caring for even more children by herself. She continued to be 'emotionally abused' and with the added burden of the children, she had a physical and emotional breakdown. The husband tried to take the kids from her by having her certified by a psychiatrist as being mentally not there and unable to care for her kids. If he would have succeeded, a 'philipino 'and her friend would be looking after the kids.

It is pretty obvious that the cases are completely different. The woman already had a few children and that did not impact positively on the husband. The husband was a self-centered abusive personality and certainly not a Jacob. Leah was less-loved and not – not loved. The husband could be interested in ' having' children, but does not see them as a product of the love between his wife and himself and does not feel privileged and honored by God- Hashem , that they as a couple have been chosen by God to raise these children, however challenging they may be.  Ya'akov – Jacob and Leah were partners in establishing the 12 tribes that would become the nation of Israel.

It is said that God gives people the challenges and difficulties that are within their potential and ability to deal with. One woman who was struggling and feeling totally helpless parenting her challenging kids remarked that ' she wished that God would not have such a high opinion of her. I feel we need to reframe the belief – that if we receive the proper support and guidance, in addition to God's help, we are able to cope with the challenges that life presents to us.

Raising challenging and high maintenance kids is very stressful even when couples are 'on the same page ' and attuned to the needs of their kids. Being on the same page and moving in the wrong direction does not help very much. Often the husband feels the wife is too soft and does not know how to set limits with kids. He believes the kids can behave if they want to, all it takes is to make them ' wanna behave ',  using power, fear, threats, punishments, consequences, bribes and rewards. Using Plan A – imposing Adult will usually escalates conflict and causes more meltdowns. This causes even more stress between the parents, as the one party, usually the mother who is the primary care giver has made a paradigm shift. She believes and this is supported by at least 30years of brain research that ' children do well if they can ' and most problems have at their source in developmental delays and lagging skills particularly in the domains of flexibility, adaptability and frustration tolerance. The way to go is to improve the relationship and connection and reduce conflict by prioritizing problems and putting some of them on the shelf – this is called Plan C.  The focus then is on Plan B, not dealing with behaviors, but rather trying to solve the underlying problems using collaborative problem solving. Here, we first focus on the kids concerns and perspectives and encourage him to open up and express his concerns. We then share our concerns and invite the kid to brainstorm with us solutions that are mutually satisfactory, realistic and durable. We agree to review how the solution is working. In this way the kid feels understood. We support his autonomy = feeling self –directed and connected to his inner core, competence = we promote many cognitive and life skills, enhance our relationship  and moral development. Hillel taught that we should address not only our concerns, but also take into account the concerns and perspectives of others. The father, being concerned only for his need to control creates an atmosphere where it is ' my way or the high way ', so the home becomes more stressful and the developmental needs and needs for unconditional acceptance  are not met. Unconditional acceptance is making it clear that certain actions are unacceptable while still providing ' a very deep kind of reassurance that we care about them and are not going to punish or desert them if they do something very bad. The father is also promoting the lowest level of moral behavior, promoting  only thinking about the consequences for ourselves rather than reflecting on the consequences and the impact our behavior has on other people. If the father is not able to change his lenses and see that his concerns can be met using a ' working with ' approach , a mother most probably decide that being a single mom, would be easier and better for her kids and the family.

Raising kids is complicated and stressful , but if we become more aware of our relationship with our spouses and how we contribute to the family dynamic and the needs of our kids rather than our need for control, children can help ' make a marriage ' , if not they can help to break a marriage.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Toldot 76 - Be a Grandparent before being a Parent

The portion begins with'אלה תולדות יצחק בן אברהם ,אברהם הוליד את יצחק' – these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham fathered Isaac. The verse seems to be repetitive, so what is the Torah coming to teach us by stressing that Abraham and Isaac were father and son. The Midrash commentary quotes a verse from Proverbs עטרת זקנים בני בנים ותפארת בנים אבותם  - The crown of grandparents are their grandchildren and the glory of sons- children  are their fathers-parents. It is easy to understand why grandchildren are the crown of their grandparents. It is a wish and prayer that we ask in our Psalms 128:6 ' And may you see the children of your children, and peace upon Israel' – וראה בנים לבנך שלום על ישראל  and enjoy their company.  The greatest joy of grandparents is their grandchildren and this is because in most cases, the connection is based on ' relationship ' and not based on' power ' and authority and being judgmental '. It is said that people should become grandparents before they become parents, in order to learn that we should put ' relationship ' first in our dealings with our kids. When we see our grandchildren, both good and God fearing people, we see a certain continuity of ourselves following the path of our forefathers in serving God and of being in service of man. It is also proof of our competence - that we have raised children to be responsible people and who are successfully involved in raising their own families. In a way, grandchildren justify our existence – that we have made a contribution to the world. The Midrash actually goes further. Grandchildren not only are a justification for our lives, but they can be the very reason why we were given 'life'. The Midrash says that Abraham was protected and saved from the ' fire of the furnace ' by Jacob, long before Jacob was born. This is because God saw that a Jacob would be a descendent and come from Abraham. The Midrash is saying that both Abraham and Isaac are a source of strength to each other. Rav Charlap says that without outstanding founding fathers - the pillars of the nation and without outstanding children and descendants giving strength to each other, the nation of Israel and the individuals involved have no future.

  Grandchildren bring peace to Israel as they bring families together – Sons and daughters have an interest that their children experience and have a relationship with their grandparents, so they tend to see their parents a bit differently and in a more positive light. Unfortunately there are tragic situations, because of family conflict some children don't allow their parents to have contact with their grandchildren. This not only denies kids of grandparents , an experience denied to  many kids after the 2nd World War,   by the holocaust , but denying grandparents  access to their grandchildren , according to the Tanna De'bei Eliyahu it is as if you have kidnapped them – taken away  both grandchildren and grandparents  from their family. The  proximity of the commandment to honor parents in the Ten Commandments  to ' do  not steal ' -and here stealing refers to people , do not  kidnap  -   teaches that if your children don't honor their grandparents, because of your parenting,  it is as if you have kidnapped them, how much more   so if you actively deny the grandparents access to their grandchildren.

 The glory of sons are their fathers –' ותפארת בנים אבותם  '  - the Midrash says that the ideal is that children are proud of their righteous fathers and  fathers are proud of their children. But if we check the reality ,  relationships between parents and kids are from perfect  and this is reflected in the verse  והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם"  -מלאכי ג כד And He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. I suggest that if we look at the mothers –daughter's relationship we can understand the challenges to effective communication between parent and child, a vital factor in parents being attuned to the needs of their children.
In a book – You're wearing that  ! and in an article oh, Mom.Oh,Honey. Why did you say that  the linguist Deborah Tannen examines the conversations between mothers and daughters. There is a special intensity to the mother-daughter relationship because talk, - particularly talk about personal topics- is the glue that holds the relationship together and the explosive that blows it apart. Daughters yearn for their mother's approval and want their mothers to see and value what they value in themselves. Daughters complain that their mothers are always criticizing them and mothers say ' I can't open my mouth, she takes everything as criticism. ' Deborah Tannen says that ' Both are right, but each sees only her perspective.' A mother feels entitled or even obligated to comment because they are supposed to educate their kids and persist in commenting because they can't get their adult children to do what they believe is obviously right. They focus a lot on appearance– hair, weight and dress knowing that women are judged by appearance and that mothers are judged by their daughters' appearance, because daughters represent their mothers to the world. The problem is that while mothers think they are offering guidance, constructive criticism, showing that they care and are interested in what their daughter is doing, the daughter experiences the comments as criticism, interference, lack of trust and controlling. Even praise is experienced as ' controlling' because praise is about being judgmental and it does not matter if the comment is  positive or negative, people don’t like to be judged. And once a daughter has a certain opinion about her mother – controlling, interfering, critical etc, the daughter has an internal need to justify her position and so everything her mother says or does will be interpreted in a way that will justify her opinion of her mother.
Deborah Tannen says the way to go is to try and be more empathic and take into account the other person's perspective and concerns. One can reframe what a mother has said as trying to show that she cares and is concerned and when she says something it may be more about reflecting on her own personal values and not about being judgmental and critical. Instead of criticism or  praise , solve problems in a collaborative way and keep comments to neutral feedback – just describing what you have seen without any commentary. We have to remember it is not so much what we say or teach that matters but how our parents or children interpret what we say , it the meta-message that counts , not the message itself.

It would have been better if we were grandparents before parents , but now that we may be grandparents as well,  we should speak and relate to our kids like we do to our grandchildren and our children  should treat us like they treat their grandparents who they love and maybe then - parents will be the glory of their children and children will be the glory of their parents. In this way , parents and children will emulate Abraham and Isaac , supporting each other and  being a source of strength to each other in building a family and a nation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Chayei Sarah 76 - Mentoring the Soul

Rebecca – Rivka leaves her home with her ' nurse' Deborah to go and get married to Isaac.  Deborah was more than a nurse, as the Targum Yonatan explains she was a ' pedagog', a teacher and mentor, a disciple and follower of Abraham and Sara.   Rivka's father and brother were far from being moral and upright people, so it was Deborah who was responsible for Rivka's education and social, emotional, spiritual and moral development. Deborah nurtured Rivka's soul, the source of her good character and middot. Deborah's pedagogy was certainly not the ' Supper Nanny ' approach, but being Rivka's mentor and ' guide by the side'.

Eliezer was extremely impressed by Rivka's acts of chesed, generosity and kindness.  It was the same generosity and kindness that he saw in Abraham's home and it now highlighted   the kindness God- Hashem was showing to him. In gratitude to Hashem – God, Eliezer says Gen: 24:27 ' blessed be Hashem, the God of my master, who has not withheld his KINDNESS and TRUTH from my master.                                                     ברוך ה' ......אשר לא עזב חסדו ואמיתו מעם אדוני   . Eliezer is grateful to Hashem, that not only did Hashem help him find a suitable wife for Isaac, but also a girl from Abraham's family. The verse can also be explained that Eliezer was  also thankful that God's gifts  to mankind – the planting of the  Godly characteristics such as    truth and kindness  or ' true kindness ' in the soul  have  now been found embodied  in the character of Rivka, Isaac's future wife.  And so the divine characteristic of ' true kindness or kindness and truth as expressed and manifested in Abraham,  has not been withheld from his master-Abraham,  and will continue to be an important part of  Abraham's family and descendants.

What is truth together with kindness? Truth puts ' kindness ' in its correct and proper context.  It puts limits and boundaries on kindness. It regulates kindness to prevent it from going astray,   so that the kindness is done in an appropriate way, to the right person and is in the best interests of that person. It ensures   that the kindness is done with sensitivity, dignity, respect, emotional intelligence, thoughtfulness, derech eretz ,menschligkeit,decency , common courtesy and modesty= Tzni'ut.  Truth also encourages and enables a person to perform acts of kindness of the highest quality, perfection, excellence, integrity, virtue and righteousness.

Truth can also inform us about the motives, feelings and values underlying ' kindness'.  A person can be motivated to do an act of kindness because of extrinsic reasons -  he wants something in return, if he treats others well , they will treat him well= reciprocity, he wants to impress others or he wants to ' collect'  good deeds . The source of these acts of kindness is not his holy soul, but the materialistic side of man's nature. When a person feels self-directed and self-determined and connected to his inner being and holy soul , his acts of kindness are considered ' true acts of kindness '  whose underlying values and motives are for the sake of heaven – lishmah  and to be of service to man. ( R' Katz- Telse, R'Hirsch, R' Yeruchum )

Rivka's act of kindness was done with zeal, passion and sincerity. She first gave Eliezer to drink, her contact and exposure to him being short, enough time to attend to his needs and then she moved quickly onto giving the camels to drink, showing her sensitivity, thoughtfulness and modesty. She was interested in being of service and not trying to establish a relationship with a strange man for financial and immoral reasons.

If we want kids to be reflective and have a love for chesed- kindness, we have to examine our pedagogy and throw out the ' Super Nanny approach. If we focus on ' control' , on getting kids to do ' good deeds' irrespective of their motives and use rewards , both material and verbal to get and reinforce behavior , the source of their acts of kindness will never be their  holy souls or inner beings . They will just learn to ask – what will I get, what's in it for me.  A mentor, because of a more democratic relationship with the student becomes the confidant of the student and this helps the student open up his heart and mind to the mentor. The mentor can then  focus on helping a kid find meaning in what he is learning and doing , connecting to his inner being and holy soul so that his kindness and other good characteristics are driven by inner soul and not by something extrinsic. The Torah tells us – Dev.30:11,  that the mitzvah of learning Torah , fulfilling the mitzvoth and doing Teshuva – repenting is not out of the reach of people but close by – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform.  The goal of a mentor and educator is not to reveal the Torah and its wisdom to his students, but help them through conversation, reflection and thinking delve deep inside of themselves  so that they themselves discover and make meaning of the Torah and share their unique thoughts and perspectives and way of doing things with others. When the focus is not on how well a kid is doing , but rather helping him focus on what he is learning and doing, the source of his learning and actions will be his inner being and soul.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Vayerah 76 - The Healing effect of Visiting the sick

'Hashem- God appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamre '. Since Hashem- God did not say anything the Sages learn that God  ' came to visit the sick '. It was the 3rd and most painful day after Abraham's brit milah = circumcision. Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, so Hashem – God attending to the needs of the sick, makes sure that Abraham's desperate need for guests is addressed. Abraham saw the 3 angels in the guise of men coming, and then stopping as to indicate they did not want to trouble him. Abraham, despite the pain ran towards them to invite them in. The 3 angels were Michael - who informed Abraham that Sara would have a son, Gabriel would overturn Sodom and Raphael would heal Abraham and save Lot.

The obvious question is that if I would have a choice, I would prefer Hashem- God to be the doctor and do the healing and Raphael to do the mitzvah of visiting the sick. Further, from where did Abraham get the energy and strength to run towards the angels to invite them in?

The doctor is in fact the ' shaliach ' or God's agent who has been given the permission and help from God to heal. But the mitzvah of 'visiting the sick ' essentially cannot be done by an agent or a shaliach. If one cannot come, the sick person will always experience some disappointment. Just being there, has a positive impact on the emotions and therefore the health of the patient. One could always be more of a help and attend to his specific needs and requests and of course pray for the sick person asking that ' Heaven send a ' refuah Shelia – a total recovery – to the patient together with all the other sick people of Israel. The Talmudic Sages say that just being there has a healing effect, as the visitor removes one sixtieth of the illness in some mystical way. The research has an explanation for the healing effect of a visit – the placebo effect and impact on positive emotions. So it was the healing effect of God- Hashem visiting Abraham that gave him the strength to run towards the angels. There is the well- known placebo effect, where a positive attitude, expectations and belief that one has received an active treatment, even if the med is a placebo,   impacts not only making the patient report feeling better as in the case of asthma, but in the cases of pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, heart rate and blood pressure the 'placebo' can cause some objective physiological changes. The prayers, positive thoughts and emotional support that a visitor offers a patient, strengthens the patient's belief in his treatment and expectations to return to good health.
Emotions have a powerful effect on a patient's health, so close and supportive relationships and the accompanying positive emotions  are reported to  improve a patient's health  - increase a person's resistance to illness and reduce the risk of having a another heart attack etc . When a visitor has a smiling face and  is in a loving and cheerful mood, the patient becomes infected,  as the patient's ' mirror neurons' mimic the emotions thereby lifting up the spirit of the patient and making him feel better. Love, kindness and caring can help a patient recover from ill health. When people and friends fail to turn up, they not only deprive patients of loving contact, but their feelings of rejection activate the very areas of the brain that generate the sting of physical pain.

Vising the sick is an expression of the commandment to ' love your neighbor as yourself-  ואהבת לרעך כמך . One acts in a certain way, but more important is the emotional response you elicit from the patient. On the physical level we can appoint agents or a shaliach, but on an emotional level only we can be ourselves. Visiting the sick is an example for the many other interactions we have with people. The important lesson is that our expectations, moods and attitudes impact on others as their ' mirror neurons ' pick up and mimic our emotions. We have to be aware that we relate to people also on an emotional level. The feeling of well- being, happiness, being intrinsically motivated and self-determined