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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"And you shall teach them diligently to your children," -- Deut. 6:7
In his "Guide for the Perplexed", Maimonides tells us that the perfection of a person is the achievement of knowledge of God and God's creation. In this single statement, he includes metaphysics and science. In every aspect of life, knowledge is key to success and empowerment. The process of acquiring knowledge is education.
This nation's Founders knew that democracy cannot succeed without an educated electorate. For example, John Adams wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” Adams' remarks were validated by history. In the French Revolution, what was intended to be democracy, very rapidly degenerated into mob rule.
Moreover, education is necessary for humanity to achieve its Cosmic role as observer.
There is the story of the recent graduate, who had studied overseas. He decided to take a leisurely trip home by ship. One day, he sat on the deck reviewing the notes of his studies. A sudden gust of wind blew all of his notes out to sea. Looking forlorn, he said to himself, "Four years of education gone in a moment".
Education is not merely the absorption of information by listening and reading. It is the process of developing the ability to recognize and apply information. Education is the process that allows us to learn from our mistakes. This requires that education also makes it possible for us to recognize our mistakes.
Ultimately, education is the part of learning that we absorb into ourselves and, through it transform ourselves. Rabbi Schneerson taught, "Man alone is capable of transcending the very bounds of self." The means of achieving that transcendence is education.
The desire to learn is an inner drive. No teacher can produce a learner. Only the student can produce a learner. The initial requirements are aspiration, motivation, discipline and ambition. The role of family, teachers and society is to stimulate the drive to learn.
Education does not only occur in the formal classroom. It enters every aspect of life. Athletics provides a fine teaching model. The coach or trainer provides the athlete with the information and motivation necessary to achieve successful performance. Then he/she demands the discipline and effort needed to attain that performance. It is the latter that transforms the trainee into a successful performer.
Poverty is not necessarily a barrier to education. It can be a challenge to motivate success. A most dramatic recent example of this is the story of the world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson.
Dr. Carson was born in Detroit, Michigan, and was raised by his single mother, Sonya Carson. He struggled academically throughout elementary school, and emotionally with his temper. Then his mother reduced his television time and required him to read two books a week and produce written reviews for her. His mother would mark up his reviews and grade them. He started to excel in middle school and throughout high school. He then went on to Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School. What Carson did not know, at the time, was that his mother could not read. She was a remarkable teacher. She understood the true nature of education. The measure of any educational process is in the outcome.
John Adams also wrote, “There are two types of education… One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” He recognized that the two were inseparable. The genius of Sonya Carson is that she understood that. And, she taught them diligently to her children.
Carson's story is not unique. The City College of New York (CCNY) provided children of immigrants and the poor access to free higher education based on academic merit alone. Within a generation, its graduates not only lifted themselves out of poverty, many rose to the heights of society as authors, businesspersons, physicians, scientists, scholars, etc. It produced nine Nobel laureates.
What was its secret? It was nothing more than requiring its students to earn an education by meeting and maintaining the highest academic standards. It also provided its students with a faculty that could deliver an education of the highest quality.
CCNY did not accept the current malicious myth that the poor were not capable of achieving elite status. It provided the opportunity for a high quality education. That provided the incentive to achieve. In turn, that led to demonstrably successful outcomes for its students. They did achieve elite status. Outcomes are the only valid measure of the success of any endeavor.
We have had a demonstrably successful model of how to eliminate poverty through education for over a hundred years. The question remains. How did we bring down the United States from first in education in the industrial world to twenty-fifth? And, we did it in just one generation!
Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"The buck stops here."  --  Pres. Harry S. Truman

With those four words, Pres. Truman defined the essence of leadership.  A leader is the one who takes final responsibility for the actions of all of those who are within the boundaries of his/her leadership.  The weakness of a leader is measured by their need to blame others, their need to find scapegoats.

Prior to D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote two letters.  One was to be released if the invasion was successful; the other if the invasion failed.  In the second letter, he took full responsibility for the failure.

Moses was such a leader.  He took responsibility for those who followed him.  He defended those who were loyal to him against the wrath of God.  His leadership is exemplified in the events of the "golden calf".  He was not even present at the time.  Nevertheless, he took full responsibility.  When God threatened to destroy the people, Moses argued for redemption and replied, "Yet now, if you will forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I beg you, from your book which you have written."  Moses chose his own obliteration, rather than that of the people.

Another characteristic of a great leader is his/her ability to bring ordinary people together to achieve extraordinary results.  In a single generation, Moses transformed a group of former slaves into a mighty nation.  The most remarkable event occurred at the shores of the Jordan, before the invasion and creation of a nation.  The people realized they could achieve their goal without Moses.  They were empowered.  This is the greatest achievement of a great leader.

A leader cannot be expected to be right all of the time.  They will make mistakes.  However, they are responsible for the actions of all within their leadership.  If a leader chooses to blame others for their shortcomings, they are publically admitting that they are not a leader.  One of my favorite management cartoons shows a furious boss shouting at an employee.  The caption reads, "What have you done to me?  You did exactly what I told you to do."

True leadership depends on mutual trust and loyalty.  When subordinates are exposed to their leader's blame and denial of responsibility, the consequences can be disastrous.  If those who work under his/her leadership know that they are liable to become scapegoats, they will devote their time to protecting themselves.  The result is loss of credibility, distrust, chaos and failure.

Leadership is not just in the domain of the "high and the mighty".  All of us are called upon to be leaders at sometime in our lives, as parents, members of our community or on our jobs.  The same rules apply. 

At the level of family, consider the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain blamed Abel, his younger brother, for his own shortcoming of not bringing the best of his crop to God.  The result was the murder of his own brother, and his separation from God.

The path to empowerment begins when we take leadership for ourselves, when we stop blaming others for our mistakes and shortcomings.  When we strive to confront our mistakes and shortcomings and take responsibility for them, then we will be becoming our own leader. 

Every person has the capacity to be a leader of themselves. We can find inspiration from those among us who have sustained serious injury in our wars.  Those who accept the responsibility for their decisions and struggle to go on with their lives with honor, courage and dignity.

In conclusion, let's turn to William Ernest Henley's inspiring poem, "Invictus".

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"If I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am only for my own self, what am I, and if not now, when?"  --  Hillel

On May 5, President Barak Obama made the following statement at commencement ceremonies at Ohio State University:
"We, the people, chose to do these things together — because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition."
It was a shocking statement.  For one who is known for his ability with words he clearly confused the words individual ambition with greed.  Worse than that, he equated ambition with greed.

As we have already noted everything that is good must balance two extremes of evil.  Individual ambition reflects the good of Cosmic Truth.  The extremes, which turn that good into evil, are greed and self-sacrifice.

It was individual ambition that lifted this country from a group of weak colonies to the peaks of national wealth and power.  The railroad, the assembly line, the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the computer and all of their benefits to our society are the products of ambition.  Those without ambition could not have performed these modern miracles.  It was when this nation perverted ambition into the extreme of greed, that we started its descent.

Adam Smith, moral philosopher and the father of modern economics wrote:
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
These simple truths tell us that the only just nation is one that makes it possible for each of its citizens to pursue their unencumbered, just ambitions.  This is freedom.

President Obama loves sports.  Sadly, he apparently fails to see that athletics provides an allegorical model for the virtue of individual ambition.  Each member of a football team is driven by the ambition to acquire a Super Bowl ring and all the benefits that come with it.  Every player struggles to be the very best he can be.  He knows that, although he has the talent to achieve his goal, he cannot do it alone. He must contribute one hundred percent of his talents to the team.  In turn, every other player must contribute one hundred percent of their talents.  

He also knows that the players provide different value to the team.  The quarterback is critical to moving the ball to a touchdown.  They also know that each of the others bring varying benefits to the team.  Together they achieve the win.  They accept the fact that their particular benefits will be proportional to the value that each brings to the team.  Each member seeks to achieve his benefits.  He knows those benefits can only be won by the unstinting effort and cooperation of every member of the team.  The drive to compete inspires cooperation.

We can extend this model to the owners, the coaches and the water boy.  All of them are ambitious for the Super Bowl victory.  Each contributes their best to the effort.  In addition, each should benefit in proportion to their contribution.  Anyone of them has the opportunity to increase their benefits by increasing their value.  This is the path to self-esteem and empowerment.

Some might argue that there are those who are too disabled to achieve.  I respectfully disagree.  I know severely disabled people who have brought enormous benefit to those around them.   Despite their status, they have achieved that which nobody can give them: self-esteem.  They know that they have value.

Ambition is the balance between greed and self-sacrifice.  That which sustains balance is, by its nature, good.  It follows that the society that nurtures individual ambition in all of its members is a just society.

Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Empowerment III
"I am what I will be"  --  Ex. 3:14

 In Part I, we set out to show the path to individual empowerment.  This led to the first paradox.  Only you can empower yourself.  However, we come into the world with no ability to empower ourselves.  Although the potential is there, it requires an external agent to release it.

This led to the second paradox.  Clearly, the family and society were the required agents.  But, existing societies have very divergent opinions on the issue of individual empowerment.  Furthermore, most seek to limit the empowerment of its members in order to enhance the power of a few.

Does this mean that, for most people, the goal of empowerment is an unachievable fantasy?  Not necessarily.  You could take the view that you are trapped by genetics, family and culture.  Then you must remain who you are.

On the other hand, you could recognize that you can become who you will be.  Who you are at this moment is a step on a longer journey to who you may become. The only issue is do you want to pay the price of becoming? 

If your answer is no, then you have chosen to let others define you.  If your answer is yes, then you must embark on the arduous journey from the enslavement of self to liberation of self.  On the way, you will discover that you have everything available that you need to make the journey:

1. Axiomaticly recognize that there is one, unified Cosmic Truth (Truth).  This Truth is different from the numerous "small truths" that contribute to Truth.  In addition, Truth is not necessarily found in the opinions and assertions of a community.  Creation itself is the model for what is True.  That Truth is the same for both science and metaphysics.  Theologically, this leads to the statement "God is Truth".

2. To seek Truth, you must become an impartial observer.  As we have already said, being an observer is a requirement of the universe (Anthropic Principle).  This is probably the most difficult challenge to achieving empowerment.  We must separate ourselves from our perception of ourselves, and from the influences of family and culture that "programmed" that perception.  As an observer, we can become aware of our own strengths and weaknesses.  Furthermore, we will be able to determine the actual strengths and weaknesses of our community. 

Being observers allows us to put aside self-induced illusions, and draw closer to reality.  We must learn that the world demonstrates its reality in the here and now; there are no "shoulds or oughts".  The world as it is at this moment is the only world we have to work with.

As humans, we already have the tools needed to achieve that separation.  They include doubt, questioning and taking nothing for granted.  Have you noticed how quickly a child learns to question?  From a metaphysical perspective, you might say that doubt and questioning are "God given gifts".

3. To validate our observations we must test them.  The stories of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph in Genesis are examples of this.  Each was severely tested by the circumstances of his life.  In the tests, each was required to confront his strengths and weaknesses.  Each was required to demonstrate his strengths.  They grew and increased their power as a result.  Yoga and Zen Buddhism follow the same process.  The testing is the training.  Life itself is a test.  The level of empowerment that we achieve depends on our response to the test.  Empowerment must be earned.

4. If there are tests, there must be demonstrable measures of achievement.  Who, or what, defines those measures?  We or society could define them.  But, history has demonstrated that our measures are variable.  They can lead to good or evil.  Our standards for achievement and empowerment reduce to nothing more than opinions.  According to these standards, empowerment can mean suppression and exploitation of the weak.  It can also mean the exploitation of the strong by the strong, or of the strong by the weak.  In this case, empowerment is not permitted to all who seek it.

The standards that we seek evolve from our search for Cosmic Truth, the Truth given to us by Creation itself.  The actionable principles of this Truth are balance and connection.  This is the basis of moral empowerment.

Now the assertion of the Pirke Avot becomes clear.  "He who subdues his [evil] inclination" is morally empowered.  He has struggled to discover himself, develop self-control and apply himself to sustaining balance and connection.  People like him can enter society and lead others to empower themselves.  Moses and the Sinai experience is an example.  Through this process, the combined strength of the society balances individual weakness.

5. This process is cyclic.  Empowered individuals empower societies.  These, in turn, increase the capacity to acquire greater knowledge of Cosmic Truth.  Then individuals can apply this knowledge to the next cycle of growth and achievement.

6. Of course, the concept of an empowered society is an idealization that may never be achieved.  However, the same process can empower an individual or a group of individuals who have the courage to confront Cosmic Truth.

Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist