We are about to celebrate Shavuos, the Yom Tov which we refer to as the “Time of the Giving of our Torah.” The timing of this holiday is not coincidental. We celebrate Shavuos in the middle of the spring, the heady time of year when the weather is warming up, the trees are blossoming and all of nature seems to be singing. This time of year necessitates a “mission realignment” since the world around us is beckoning to us in a most alluring way.
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 2b) tells us that Hashem offered the Torah to the other nations to give them an equal opportunity in gaining the strong antidote to the Yetzer HaRah- evil inclination which the Torah provides. The nations responded by identifying challenges in the Torah to their national vices. One nation said we cannot abide by the commandment not to murder. Another said we cannot refrain from adultery, etc. Although the Jewish people are considered the fiercest of nations (see Beitza 25b), yet they responded with נעשה ונשמע- we are ready to commit. The Jewish nation had the trust that the gift of Torah will not only help them overcome the challenges posed by their moral weaknesses, it will give them the ability to elevate the, mundane and make it holy.
We need to focus on this important aspect of Torah life when we prepare for the wonderful opportunities and pleasures that this part of the year promises to afford us. If we choose to access the Torah’s wisdom, it will make this wonderful time a time of growth and appreciation of Hashem’s wonderful world and help Hashem’s physical world fulfill its purpose the right way.
In the beginning of the Torah portion of this week, we are commanded to walk in the ways of Hashem. Rashi explains this commandment does not refer to doing the mitzvos, but rather, the effort that goes into the action of doing them. The reward for this effort as stated in the ensuing verses includes peace, prosperity, and that G-d will rest His presence with you and walk with you. How do we understand the meaning of this last blessing? How does G-d walk with you?
The Seforno (a 16th century commentator on the Chumash) explains that walking with you means that G-d is ready to interact with us wherever we may be. We should not limit our interactions with G-d to only designated places for Torah and tefillah. Yes, our synagogues and Batei Medrash are places where the presence of Hashem is felt. However, we have to understand that they do not have to be the only places.
If we do as the Torah commands us, to walk in the ways of Hashem, applying ourselves as much as we can in the effort of doing the mitzvos, we will have the ability to feel His presence wherever we are. It is not about how much we do, but rather about the effort we put forth in doing. This effort leads us and keeps us focused on strengthening our connection with G-d in our synagogues, in our homes, and wherever we may be. The more effort we put in, the more we are thinking about doing His will, which will subsequently lead to feeling His presence in all aspects of our lives.
This week we read the Torah’s main description of the mitzva of Shmita – the sabbatical year. This mitzva obligates us who are fortunate to be in Eretz Yisroel to leave the ground fallow, make the perennial fruits available to all and to treat the fruits with special sacredness. There are several rationales given for this great and difficult mitzva.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 39a) says that it is Hashem’s reminder to us that in spite of all of our work and our investment in it, the land is still His. This is demonstrated by the אפקעתא דמלכא – the “seizure of the King” meaning that we lose ownership of the land for the Shmita year so that we always remember who the true owner is. This idea reappears later in the parsha when the Torah tells us that all land must revert to its original owners in the Jubilee year and that the land cannot be sold in perpetuity.
The Chinuch (a Spanish medieval sefer which expounds on the rationale of the 613 mitzvos) says that the mitzva is intended to reinforce our belief that the world was created ex nihilo. When we stop our work in the field once every seven years, it is just like when we stop our activities for Shabbos. We also make the fruits available to all to show that we understand that it is all the creators and not ours.
The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda A. Leib of Gur 1847-1905) explains that since our right to Eretz Yisroel (and the true response to those who challenge our right) is grounded in a divine grant which is recorded in the Torah, it is appropriate that the Torah dictate the parameters of its usage. This unusual and seemingly impractical mitzva is the Torah asserting its sovereignty over the land and, in turn, it justifies our presence in it.
Reb Meir Don Plotsky (prominent Rov and Rosh Yeshiva in Congress Poland 1866-1925) in his sefer, Kli Chemdah, explains that Hashem stops all agricultural work for a complete year to show us that He can provide us with food without our efforts to make it grow. This is done when Hashem blesses the previous year’s crop and it provides us with abundant food for three years, all from one crop. The Chinuch alludes to this idea by saying that it strengthens our faith when Hashem demonstrates His ability to provide for us without our own efforts and intervention.
The Rambam writes in his Guide to the Perplexed that the benefit of this mitzva is a social one by making the produce available to the poor. It is also beneficial from the agricultural standpoint since the land can rejuvenate when it is left fallow.
The Kuzari (R. Yehudah Halevi) writes that the Jewish farmer restores balance to his life by abandoning physical work and the pursuit of material wealth during this year and focuses on his spirit and his spiritual acquisitions since he is unable to work in the fields.
Rabbi Yitchak Abarbenel (Spanish Torah commentator 1437-1508) adds that a man needs to realize his mortality and recognize that the “the day is short, and the work is abundant.” When we pause from our intense agricultural work and take the year off, it helps us focus on the waning years of our lives when we need to withdraw from the “rat race.” The seventh year should remind us of the seventh decade of life which is typically close to the end of a person’s lifespan.
Rav S. R. Hirsch says that this mitzva is a national statement that we recognize that we are all guests of Hashem in the land, and we will show more concern and respect to the strangers and those who are disenfranchised from society.
While many of these explanations to this mitzva vary and some are quite similar, this discussion teaches us how nuanced the mitzvos are. While some relate to the Torah and mitzvos as a set of legal and technical parameters for all aspect of our lives (which it is), it also contains a whole layer of beliefs that are aroused and brought into our consciousness by the practice of these laws. Shmita frames our relationship to Eretz Yisroel which is not just a territory which is dear to us from a nationalist standpoint. Instead, it is a spiritual mandate granted to a Chosen People by the King of Kings. It changes the whole national enterprise on the Land to be a special and holy one.
Perhaps this is why the Torah introduces this specific mitzva as being given at Har Sinai. All the mitzvos were given at Sinai, why mention it here? Perhaps the message is that the Holy Land which was given to us by Hashem needs to be appreciated as a mitzva from Sinai and not a land granted to a conquering people which is subject to the waxing and waning of historic events. The Torah defines us and our homeland, and it is not that the land defines the nation.
When it comes to parenting, children don’t come with a manual. Most parents learn from experience, copy repeat generational behaviors and seek advice from friends and family. That can be enough, but at times when kids display challenging behaviors, having some advice from experts is helpful.
REACH teachers are trained in the Collaborative Problem Solving® (CPS) approach, which is proven to reduce challenging behavior, teach kids skills they lack, and build relationships with adults in their lives. Seeing this approach work so well in the classroom has led REACH teachers to offer parenting training in this method as well.
In a three-part CPS series, Tamar Shames and Bryna Towb from REACH, certified by Think:Kids in the CPS approach recently introduced the parenting approach to parents in ATT schools on Zoom. Classes were spread out over three weeks so that participants could test out the approach and come back together to troubleshoot or reiterate.
The Collaborative Problem Solving approach
Collaborative Problem Solvingis an evidence-based approach developed by Think:Kids, a program in the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, that is proven to reduce challenging behavior. The goal of CPS is to teach kids the skills they lack and build relationships with the adults in their lives.
Those following conventional parenting wisdom typically assume that kids do well if they want to. When kids act out, it’s because they haven’t been trained well enough to behave. CPS instead says that kids do well if they can. They act out because they don’t have the skills to handle difficult situations. The difference in assumptions means focusing on skill building instead of punishing for problematic behavior.
The assumption behind CPS is “Behind most challenging behavior: a problem to be solved and some skills to be trained.”
Parenting with Collaborative Problem Solving
At the heart of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach are three steps:
These three steps take time to master for both you and your child. And a cycle may need to rock back and forth depending on the reaction of your child. For example, you may show empathy and then move onto sharing a concern only to have your child become dysregulated again. When this happens, you return to showing empathy before moving onto collaboration.
Step 1: Showing empathy by listening to your child
A parent or teacher using CPS at the time of a problematic behavior starts by showing empathy to the child. Bryna offers the following concrete ways to show empathy:
Avoid drawing conclusions
Don’t parrot – use your own words
Contain your emotions
If sharing their concern makes your child upset, you can try using reassuring language to calm them down. Phrases like the following are helpful:
“I’m not saying no”
“I’m not saying you have to”
“I’m just trying to understand”
“I know there must be an important reason why”
”You’re doing great”
“Take your time”
Once your child feels heard is a more opportune to share a concern. Together, you and your child can collaborate to find a solution. It’s a process that sometimes takes several rounds to resolve, but repeating the cycle can de escalate and resolve problematic behavior.
Bryna explains how this works in practice:
Start with empathy by reflectively listening to understand your child’s concern or perspective. To do this, actively listen to why and how your child is feeling or struggling. It helps to reflectively listen, by repeating back to your child what you hear. Use a phrase like, “What I hear you saying is…”
You can move onto the stage of sharing your concern once you can answer the following questions:
Do you have a clear, specific understanding of the child’s concern or perspective?
Do you feel like you’re at a point where you could suggest a solution?
Is your child calm and accessible now?
If you answer yes to these questions, you’ve likely done a good job at empathizing and reflectively listening. If, on the other hand, it took a lot for your child to express their concern or perspective, you might want to save the rest of the conversation for later. “It is totally okay to stop the conversation there and say, you have given me awesome information. Thank you. I’m going to remember this and tomorrow at the same time, let’s continue the conversation,” says Tamar. “Don’t feel like you have to force the whole conversation.”
Part 2: Ensure the adult’s perspective is on the table
The next step is to share your concern. At this point, there’s a chance that your child might get dysregulated again when they hear what’s bothering you. This is why it’s so important to start from a good place. It’s then that you can move on with the conversation.
A good way to start this stage of CPS is by asking your child, “May I share what’s important to me?”
Once your child agrees, follow up with a response like, “My concern is that…”
Tamar recommends keeping your concern short and specific because you don’t want to lose your child’s attention. You can do this by relating your concern to a meaningful theme, such as health, safety, learning or impacting others.
It’s important to drill down to your actual concern so that you can articulate it in a way your child can hear. “I recommend thinking in advance how you’re going to say what your concern is,” says Tamar.
This process of CPS gets easier over time, a process called dosing. The idea is to expose children to small doses of stress so that they become better at handling it.
By sharing your concern as a parent to your child after first expressing empathy, you’re asking your child then to hear your perspective as well.
It’s possible at this stage your child can become dysregulated, especially when CPS is new to your child. If that happens, go back to expressing empathy before doubling down on your concern.
It’s okay if your child doesn’t share your concern. The point is to have both perspectives heard and on the table.
Part 3: Collaborate: Brainstorm, assess and choose a solution to try
Collaborating with your child to come up with a solution that addresses both concerns is part three of Collaborative Problem Solving.
The conversation sounds something like this: “I wonder if there’s a way that we can address your concern ______ and my concern of ______ so that both of those concerns are addressed.“
This way you are making sure to state both concerns again to demonstrate to the child that both concerns are on the table.
Next, you ask your child first if they have any ideas. It’s okay if the child can’t think of one, but giving them a chance to offer a solution is part of building problem solving skills. “It’s important to wait for what might seem like an eternity but give it however long you or your child can handle it to see if they have any solutions,” says Tamar.
The goal is to brainstorm. When your child comes up with an idea, try to respond with a neutral statement, such as “That’s an idea.”
You can offer ideas as well and then once you come up with a solution that works for both of you, let your child know that you both can test it out for a while.
Doing this lets your child know that you can revisit the issue and adjust the solution. “This sends a message to the child that we’re not going to fail because we’re going to keep working at this. This is what problem solving really is all about,” says Tamar.
When practiced, Collaborative Problem Solving helps you and your child reach a mutually satisfactory and realistic solution, as well as a follow up plan. If that fails to work you start over and revisit the problem.
For more resources on collaborative problem solving, check out thinkkids.org
In this week’s Torah portion Emor, Moshe gives instructions to the Kohanim about their additional responsibilities. In giving the message, G-d tells Moshe “Emor El Hacohanim” (say to the Kohanim). The commentaries wonder why the word emor is used and not the common word used for commandments daber? Furthermore, our sages tell us that these two words have different connotations. Daber connotes a strong tone or command while emor suggests a softer tone. Therefore, one would think in preparing the Kohanim for their additional responsibilities, the word daber would be more appropriate.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l, explains the use of the softer tone is to teach us an important lesson in role modeling. Moshe was to impart to the Kohanim,that as leaders, they were to receive additional mitzvos. When he speaks to the Kohanim using a soft tone, the tone itself as well as its words is delivering a message. The soft tone illustrates that leaders need to take things in stride and make it look easy to accomplish whatever is needed to be done. This calm can-do attitude strengthens everyone around the leader and enables all participants to live up to their responsibilities as well. A more demanding approach is generally not so effective.
In life, we try to teach lessons and values to our children and students. When doing so, we need to remind ourselves of how we speak when role modeling. More often than not, better results come not from a stronger and demanding tone, but from the softer and more encouraging tone. As the saying goes, Easy Does It.
The Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago invites the community to its Eveningwith theStars. Join the ATT as it presents student awards at itsAwards Presentation and Annual Meeting, on Tuesday evening, May 24, 2022, at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, 8233 Central Park Avenue, Skokie. The program will begin at 7:15 pm. For more information, call the ATT: 773-973-2828.
This week’s parsha warns us about the prohibition of acting superstitiously. It is forbidden for a Jew to plan his actions or to make decisions based on omens or superstitious happenings. An example illustrating this prohibition is for a person to turn back from a trip because an unlucky animal crossed his path. The Rambam explains that the reason for this mitzvah is to prevent us from acting irrationally and foolishly. In Parshas Shoftim, the Torah warns us against consultation of conjurers and soothsayers and the Torah concludes by saying that we should walk in innocence with Hashem. This implies that seeking the advice or predictions of occult practitioners display a lack of faith.
These Torah admonitions provide us with an insight into the proper way to navigate during our stay in this world. Hashem wants us to focus on the primary cause of the world’s affairs and that is Hashem’s supervision and His guidance. When we attribute things to luck or to superstition, we are implying that things happen out of His control. We are also saying that one can avoid the consequences of improper choice making and that our good choices won’t always yield the desired effect. This undermines the big principle of בחירה – autonomous choice making – which is one of the Torah’s important definitions, what makes man the בחיר היצורים – the pinnacle of Creation.
When we raise children, we need to inculcate them with the right perspective about attribution. When a child gets a good grade, we should guide them in recognizing what they did to earn that grade. It wasn’t luck or that the teacher liked them. It was because they applied themselves. There is a substantial body of research that demonstrates that effective people use this perspective in replicating success and avoiding failure. It is a big predictor in people’s success in general. This belief and life outlook will serve our children very well as they make their way through life.