Empowering Forward

By Naphtali Hoff

“There is always a gap between intention and action.” Paulo Coelho

This week's Torah reading introduces us to a new stage of the Hebrew nation's development. It is here that the people begin their desert odyssey. While the journey begins with much pomp and celebration, it quickly veers off course with some surprising negativity and faithlessness.

Having experienced numerous open miracles, including the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, we naturally assume that the witnesses to such manifestations of Divine power would comply with the rest of the plan. They faithfully would do as they were told, and accept any subsequent challenges without protest. Instead, we are struck by an immediate chorus of complaint and despair. Consider:

Moses brought the Children of Israel from the Red Sea and they went out into the wilderness of Shur and… found no water… And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:22, 24)

The entire community… complained against Moses and against Aharon in the desert... “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death.” (Ibid, 16:2-3)

(The Children of Israel) encamped in Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.  So the people quarreled with Moses, and they said … “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to make me and my children and my livestock die of thirst?” (Ibid, 17:1-3)

All of this begs the obvious question. How it is that our ancestors could have witnessed so many open miracles and still lack basic faith? Why did they not hearken back to the many recent miracles and trust that more deliverance was soon forthcoming?

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the great dean of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, (Sichos Mussar, 5733, pp.47ff) suggested that miracles alone do not transform people. We can experience the most inspiring event, but if it does not lead us to elevate our behavior, it is of little consequence. It is not enough to know what is correct. Rather, one must take that information and internalize it, making it part of their character and behaviors, if it is to truly take hold.

This thought carries tremendous implications for leaders, educators and other change agents. We seek to make a difference, to engage, educate and inspire others. Oftentimes, we are content to present a thought, concept or a vision, and expect that our demonstrations will result in learning, compliance, readiness and change.

But that’s not the way that growth occurs. We may get people excited at first and even lead to some initial progress. However, for learning and progress to take hold and endure, we need to give others the chance to ruminate and ponder, to question and to consider. Most importantly, we must give them opportunity to engage and take ownership of the concept before they take action. This, more than anything else, will deepen and personalize the experience, resulting in meaningful, lasting change.

In the classroom, this means allowing children to engage in the content, to explore and discover somewhat independent of the teacher. Offer choices and various ways to arrive at the desired outcome. Differentiating the content as well as the learning process offers much-needed variation that not only meets a child’s learning needs but also connects them deeply with the learning.

At the minimum, focus more intently on skill building and application, rather than memorization and repetition of information. Sure, they need to retain the material, especially when it defines our essence as Jews. But if we want children to genuinely hold onto the learning, to remember as well as to continue to study and seek connections as they advance in years, then we are best served forging a deep bond that places them at the center of the learning process.

In the words of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno (Chovas Hatalmidim, 1932, pp. 1), “We must raise and educate the person with the aim of drawing out (God's spirit), revealing it, making it flower, so that he becomes a faithful Jew who serves God. The person’s connection to tradition will thus be borne of free will.” Our goal must be to capture the child’s essence as much as his intellect.   

In the workplace, leaders succeed most when they give others opportunities to become invested and independent. Throw out ideas and measure for stickiness. If interest exists, give them opportunities to learn more and become resident experts. Take advantage of existing passions and find occasion to advance others’ ideas. Seek opportunities to engage in rich dialogue, ideally in committee. Delegate carefully and strategically and then step back just enough so that your colleagues or subordinates can feel empowered and take actionable steps that will offer them satisfaction while also advancing the corporate agenda.

If we wish to inspire others to learn and grow, it is necessary to help them take meaningful steps towards that end. Otherwise, the inspiration will quickly dissipate and we will remain standing where we were before, fielding complaints and wondering where all of the inspiration went.