Friday, June 29, 2018

Praise: A Double-Edged Sword

Praise: A Double-Edged Sword

                Balak, the King of Moav, wanted Bilaam to curse the Jews, but as we read in Parshat Balak, the only things that Bilaam says are blessings.  Taking note of this difficulty, Rabbi Yochanan in Masechet Sanhedrin (105b) teaches us:

“From the blessings pronounced by that wicked man (Bilaam), you can deduce what was actually in his heart.”

The Talmud then goes on to analyze each of the blessings and explains what Bilaam really wanted to say. For example Bilaam wished to curse Bnai Yisrael that they should have no synagogues or study halls. Instead he was forced to say Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov- how good are Jacob’s tents- a reference to shuls and Batei Medrash.

Bilaam cannot catch a break from our tradition. Even when blessings utter from his mouth, the Rabbis attribute evil motives. Why do they insist on viewing Bilaam’s blessings with suspicion, even scorn?

                Perhaps the problem that the Rabbis had with Bilaam is in the blessings themselves. Praise can be given with two completely different outcomes. I can give praise that encourages the recipient to strive and want to do better. Or I can give praise that causes the person to feel that s/he has no reason to strive any further. Psychologists today are concerned that in America we are raising a generation of over-indulged children. One of the symptoms of this overindulgence is that some parents are prone to over-praise. Although it may come from noble and loving motivations, over-praise can backfire and make the child addicted to praise. It can give that child an unrealistic notion of his own capacity and talent. It can also lead a child to reason that he does not have to strive for improvement or excellence, because praise will be given regardless.

                Bilaam as a prophet understood that praise can be extremely motivating or extremely harmful. His words were meant to lull Bnai Yisrael into a sense of complacency. There was no mitigating call for improvement within Bilaam’s blessings. And it is when people feel that there is nothing more to achieve that they are most prone for failure. For example, let us examine one of the most famous of Bilaam’s blessings:  Mah tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, How good are your tents, oh Jacob.

                The Talmud in Baba Batra page 60 says that this blessing refers to the Jewish People’s modesty. Their camps were set up such that no two tent doors opened directly opposite one another. This prevented families from seeing inside each other homes thereby maintaining a high level of modesty. And yet at the end of the Parsha we read about the People’s sin with the daughters of Moav, extreme violations and disregard for any semblance of modesty, let alone Torah commandments. So what happened? How could a nation that had been praised for its modesty so soon after act in such immodest fashion? The Rabbis tell us to look no further than to Bilaam’s supposed blessings for the answer. Instead of blessings that encourage the recipient to continue to strive for excellence, Bnai Yisrael heard about Bilaam’s blessings and decided that they had reached the pinnacle- they had been blessed, and there was no reason to maintain that standard.

                It's important that we see the good in ourselves, each other and our community. Praise is a great way to convey these sentiments. However we must remember our tradition’s suspicion of Bilaam’s praise. Let us be careful not to allow praise to lull us into complacency, or even backtracking. Rather let us utilize praise as a motivating force for us to maintain and even exceed our achievements.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Commands Vs Collaboration, and Moshe’s Generation Gap

There are two primary methods of communication that business executives like to utilize: The transmission method and the exchange method. Traditionally leaders would use the transmission method of communication, where they speak to the audience and expect everyone to listen. This is the method used when a CEO lectures his/her employees, possibly making use of a slide projector or a video to convey information that the audience must ingest as presented. In recent years institutes that specialize in leadership training have found that the transmission method of communication is usually a failure.

                Today, the preferred method of communication is generally through exchange, where instead of a leader speaking to the people, he or she speaks with the people. Conversations and brainstorming sessions are far more effective than lectures.

                The generation gap between those who left Egypt and those now ready to enter Israel expressed itself in each one’s preferred method of communication.

                The people who left Egypt had been slaves. They were used to other people making decisions for them and being told what to do. It is not surprising that they obediently followed G-d’s commands and Moshe’s leadership. When offered the Torah they say “Naaseh V’nishma” - We will do and (only after) we will understand.” When it came time to build the Mishkan the Torah tells us over and over again in Parshat Pekudei that the people did “as G-d had commanded Moshe”.

                Those who experienced the Exodus had their shortcomings. They complained a lot. They had trust issues - they found it difficult to trust what Hashem and Moshe said. And they did a poor job improvising when thrown a curve ball - as the sin of the golden calf demonstrated. But they excelled in obedience. Their preferred method of communication was transmission. Tell them what to do and they would do it. That is why when the people complain for water, they turn to Moshe and say,

“Tnu Lanu Mayim - give us water.”

They are completely dependent on Moshe as leader. Since they listen to everything Moshe says, they expect him to also provide for their needs.

                The next generation of Bnai Yisrael is more interested in an exchange method of communication. No longer do they depend exclusively on Moshe. For instance, they send spies to make sure that the Land is conquerable, even against Moshe’s advice. Moshe’s leadership is challenged by Korach and his followers and then by the entire nation. When they are thirsty this generation does not ask Moshe to give them water. Rather the Torah tells us “Vayikahalu”- the Jews gather. They invite Moshe to a meeting at which they present their claims and want answers. They demand to be part of the process. No longer will they be dictated to. This is the generation who, upon entry to Eretz Yisrael, will be asked to partner with Hashem in the conquest and then settling the land. They are active participants in their destiny and want to be treated as such.

                Moshe was chosen as leader because of his ability to tend to his flock. He knew how to take care of helpless sheep that needed to be told what to do. But no sheep ever second guess their shepherd. No sheep ever ask to be included in the decision making of where to graze. This was a task that Moshe was not prepared nor necessarily suited for. Each generation needs leadership appropriate for its unique personality and historical period. It is therefore not surprising that just as the new generation is ready to enter the land, Miriam, Aharon and finally Moshe exit the scene.

                Since those first two generations, the situation has become more complex and nuanced. Today, we need both methods of communication. Teachers, parents, employers - each of us as leaders need to strike a challenging balance: to give direction while allowing for a sense of independence; to encourage feedback and brainstorming at times, while laying down the law at others; to promote dialogue while instilling principles.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Strong, Influential Women: Then and Now

The verse in Mishlei states:

חַכְמוֹת נָשִׁים בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ וְאִוֶּלֶת בְּיָדֶיהָ תֶהֶרְסֶנּוּ:

The wisest of women-each one built her house, but a foolish one tears it down with her hands.

    The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110) explains that this verse alludes to two women who play critical roles behind the scenes in Parshat Korach.

    “The wisest of women” refers to the wife of Ohn ben Pelet. At the beginning of the Parsha (16:1) we read how Ohn is one of the named members in the band of Korach’s rebels. However when the story ends with punishment for all of those who rebelled against Moshe, Ohn’s name is noticeably absent. The Talmud in Sanhedrin explains that Ohn is not mentioned at the end of the story because he was saved due to his wife’s intervention. Ohn’s wife convinced her husband that he had nothing to gain from getting involved in the rebellion, and everything to lose. Ohn agreed with his wife but felt trapped because he had sworn allegiance to Korach. So Ohn’s wife did what she had to in order to save her husband: she got him drunk and put him to bed. Then she blocked the doorway so that no-one could bring him to the rebellion.

    “A foolish one tears it down with her hands”: the Talmud explains that this refers to Korach’s wife. According to this tradition, she was the instigator of the entire rebellion. She goaded her husband into rebelling by suggesting that Moshe had overstepped his bounds, and he was taking honor and privileges that rightfully belonged to Korach.

    The Talmud is teaching us that, oftentimes, the most influential person in the story/ in the family is the one who may be behind the scenes, yet is directing all of the events.  And like the story behind the scenes in our Parsha, oftentimes this is a role taken by women. As Nia Vardalos said in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding “The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.”

    In the past few decades, the role of wife has changed dramatically, more so than the role of husband. More married women are working outside of the home than ever before. This fact is just one of many that make a woman’s role in today’s world complicated and challenging. Other factors that complicate everyone’s family life (for both women and men) include: technology, raising children in the 21st century, and seeking a balance between work and life, as well as a healthy synergy between one’s mind, body and soul.

    Seeing a need for synagogues to engage and service the female half of our Orthodox communities, the Orthodox Union created its Women’s Initiative. The OU Women’s Initiative aims to create and promote women’s programming in the areas of Torah study, community leadership, spiritual, personal and professional growth, health and social well-being for women of all ages. One of its first programs was a competitive challenge grant to support innovative women’s programming concepts proposed by synagogues.

    Close to 100 applications were submitted. I am proud to share with you that our shul was one of 16 synagogues to receive the grant. Our proposal, Eishet Chayil Initiative, was created and submitted by Mrs. Sara Frieberg, our Coordinator of Women’s Engagement. The idea is to convene a monthly forum for women to learn about necessary ingredients for being N’shei Chayi (“Women of Valor”): spiritual inspiration, mental health, physical health, leadership skills, and more. Some of the potential areas of focus include: spirituality, mindfulness and meditation, nutrition and fitness, management skills, time management, communication skills, parenting, conflict resolution, building self-confidence, and financial literacy. We hope that through this initiative women will feel encouraged and empowered to excel in all of their roles, thereby benefitting themselves, their families, and our community.

    Mrs. Ohn and Mrs. Korach are two examples of many that we have within Jewish tradition of strong, talented, powerful women who have shaped our history. This remains as true today as it was back then. I hope that our Eishet Chayil Initiative is just the beginning of a conversation on this topic, and of opportunities we create to acknowledge and address the ways in which our shul can better serve women, and the ways in which women can provide their unique and indispensable contributions to our shul.  

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Believing is Seeing

Parshat Shelach begins and ends on the topic of sight. The Parsha opens with the episode of the spies. Moshe sends ten distinguished Jewish leaders to tour the Land of Israel (perhaps the first Jewish leadership mission to Israel):

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אֹתָם֙ משֶׁ֔ה לָת֖וּר אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן
Moses sent them to scout the Land of Canaan
The mandate was clear: go and see the land firsthand and report back to the people 1) the beauty/bounty of the land and 2) strategies for victory in the anticipated wars with the current inhabitants.

וּרְאִיתֶ֥ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ מַה־הִ֑וא וְאֶת־הָעָם֙ הַיּשֵׁ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ הֶֽחָזָ֥ק הוּא֙ הֲרָפֶ֔ה הַמְעַ֥ט ה֖וּא אִם־רָֽב:
You shall see what [kind of] land it is, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many?

The plan here is in line with the expression “seeing is believing”. Moshe’s hope was that by seeing the land, the spies, and subsequently the entire nation, would believe in the goodness of God’s plan. The power of seeing something is well documented within Jewish tradition. At Har Sinai the nation saw a manifestation of God unlike anything in history. Right after the Ten Commandments, Hashem says:

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם כִּ֚י מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי עִמָּכֶֽם:
You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you.
According to the Talmud, only eyewitness testimony can be accepted by a Beit Din. As to why hearsay cannot be accepted by a court, the Talmud explains: “Eino Domeh Shemiya L’Re’iya”, seeing is much better than hearing. My family and I will, please God, be going to Israel this summer on family vacation. This is the first time my children will be in Israel. I am making our itinerary, and my goal is to foster a Chibat HaAretz, a love for the Land of Israel, through the sites that they see. They’ve read and learned about Israel, but nothing beats being there and seeing the Land up close.
And yet we all know that our eyes can deceive us. Obi-Wan Kenobi was right when he told young Luke Skywalker, “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.” Neuroscientific research has shown that “People rely on their eyes for most tasks – yet the information provided by our visual sensing system is often distorted, unreliable and subject to illusion.”

This is what actually happened with the spies. Because of their fears/ low self-esteem/ ulterior agendas, the spies twisted what they saw into an evil report- leading to catastrophic results.
Which brings us to the very end of the Parsha; a selection that we read as the third paragraph of our daily Shema. In it we are warned:

ולֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַֽחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַֽחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַֽחֲרֵיהֶֽם
and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.
Rashi notes that the same word is used here and by the spies, hinting at the fact that the sin of the spies, or other sins, can occur when we allow our eyes to deceive us.
While our Parsha rejects the notion that seeing is always believing, I think that the inverse is true much more often: believing is indeed seeing. What we believe, our assumptions, perspectives and disposition, will greatly impact how we see/ perceive people and events around us.
Barry Neil Kaufman in his book Happiness is a Choice tells the story of a young girl named Katie. Katie had severe disabilities, and after years of medical testing had been brought by her parents to Kaufman’s institute in a last-ditch effort for help.  Instead of discussing Katie’s history with his staff or showing them her thick file, Kaufman told the staff to make their own assessment and recommendation, basing themselves primarily on their first-hand interactions with Katie.
At the end of the day, one of the staff members was reviewing her notes with Katie’s parents. She mentioned that she had held one of Katie’s favorite puppets at arm’s length, and encouraged the child to come and get it.

“She took almost five steps to reach me,” the staff member said. “She’s a real plugger.”
Katie’s father leaned forward aghast and said, “But my daughter doesn’t walk.”
“Oh,” the staff member said respectfully, “I didn’t know.”

While we should never judge someone until we’ve been in their shoes, it appears that this man viewed his daughter’s limitations as an unalterable fact. Whatever the cause, the father’s pessimistic attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and did not reflect reality. Katie had the ability to walk, but her father would have difficulty seeing it on his own, because he was unable to perceive that possibility.

Believing is indeed seeing. Let us develop the necessary attitudes that will enable us to see the great blessings and potential in our lives, and in our community.