Friday, June 05, 2009

Guest Posting By Rabbi Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaiim - Misken, Mediated Learning, & MiLa

One very common but profoundly misunderstood Hebrew word is Misken. It's usually translated as Pitiful, Poor, Miserable, Pathetic …

The problem is that all these connote condescension. Something is wrong – with that individual. He has failed at something and is now stuck in a place, at best, where we never hope to be.

If you've ever heard the term being used with spontaneous Jewish compassion, however, you know it means something very different. "Oy, Misken!" conveys a piercing overlap of spirit; an abiding kinship; a mutual commiseration that leaves each feeling a little lighter, a little holier.

Certainly that's how the holy Baal Shem Tov understood the way Shlomo HaMelech used the word when he penned his famous metaphor (Ecc. 9:14 -16):

Ir katana…

U'matza ba EEsh Misken V'khakham…


Khokhmas Ha'Misken


The basic translation goes like this:

(There once was) a small city within which were few men. A great king came upon it, besieged and built great bulwarks against it. Now a man was found within it who was misken and wise and by whose wisdom he caused the city to escape; yet no one remembered that misken man. Then I said (in shock): While wisdom is better than strength, the wisdom of the misken is disgraced and his words are not heard!

The Besh"t heard a much more nuanced and symbolic narrative (as brought down in Nesivos Sholom I, Mavo: 6 & Avoida: 9, based on Gem. Nedarim 32:B; see also Rashi on the verse, where he immediately explains Misken as "Ha'Yezter HaTov"):

Every Jew's inner life is a small city. This world for him is restrictive. Opportunities for making his mark are painfully few. But what can he do? There's an awful tyrant out there, the Yetzer HaRa, the desire for resisting the Creator's Will. We must be constantly on guard.

Indeed, this tyrant will inevitably attack. He does so with a two-pronged strategy: besiegement and bulwarking.

Besiegement means cutting off the Jew from his primary sources of spiritual revitalization – Torah learning and prayer. When this happens, the city may keep functioning but with a severely deflated spirit. Bulwarking is what happens when the tyrant asserts himself via foreign ideas. Once they're allowed to loom high and mighty over a Jew's life they can fire their ammunition straight into the heart of the city – his belief system.

If this occurs, G-d forbid, his Judaism is doomed. His few men (merits) are overwhelmed.

Yet, there's a secret weapon: Eesh Misken v'Khakham, the town's wise and, well, let's just call him Misken man. Though the average citizen hardly knows him, lo and behold he's there in times of need. The problem is that after he does his heroic thing, galvanizing the divine determination to NEVER give in to an anti-G-dly way of life or thinking, all that anyone recalls is his wisdom. They fall all over themselves trying to analyze the psychology of his counterattack and completely ignore his simple, gut level resistance to the profane allurements of this world.

About this, our truly wise and righteous King Solomon sighs, in paradoxical enlightenment: It's difficult to identify with the misken. But if understood properly, he offers us the greatest of gifts. Hence bezuya, disgraced, can be mystically rendered b'ZU - Ya!

"In THIS is G-d!"

You hear?

The capacity to be a Misken, suffering from apparent failure in this world, is G-d's gift; a secret weapon He's planted within our souls for remaining loyal to Him no matter what the challenge. It's that purely Jewish orientation of being both at odds with this world and transcending it. A proper translation must respectively imply both a lack and strength; a deficiency and asset. Is there any such word in the English language?

Well, how about this. The buzz word of the generation:


That's right. The label given to those myriads of unsettled folk whom our outreach programs have been targeting for decades. Just think about it. Sikune, the root of Misken, means risk. And sounds like it! More importantly, the sociological implication of calling someone At-Risk is that what concerns us is not what got him to this point but what lies immediately ahead. He's extremely susceptible. The fact that he hasn't yet succumbed can therefore be viewed as a tremendous strength.

Aye, the best way to help our fellow Misken is to let him know that WE are the ones in need – of learning his stubborn refusal to succumb to the risks of this world. If only each of us would sublimate such energy then maybe just maybe our "healthy" religiosity would really bear out what it's touted to.


The revelation of G-d's Presence.

Actually, our nation once learned this lesson in a very big way. Long ago, back in Egypt we had reached such a low ("49 levels of tuma" which the sefarim point out was not about actual sins but the way we did Mitzvahs!) that we needed pharaoh to force us to build Arei Miskenot (Ex. 1:11). Now everyone falls over themselves trying to explain why this phrase is used for the obvious pshat (contextual meaning) of storehouses. They say it's referring to a breakdown in the Israelite-Egyptian social fabric, or the physical structure of old storehouses, or…

But maybe we can render it quite literally: Energized units (Arei from the root l'hisorer, arouse) of Misken-men.

Or more accurately: women (MiskenOT)!

To be sure, our women of that time were known to be much more meritorious than the men. So perhaps what was going on was that the Egyptians were beginning to affect our spirits like the bulwark-builders in Shlomo's metaphor. Egyptian Jewry was the "small city within which were few men"… but plenty of women! As we learn in the verse immediately thereafter:

K'asher yaanu oso

Ken yirbei

V'ken yifrotz

As (Egypt) would afflict (Israel), so would (Israel) increase and so would (Israel) burst forth

Rashi: "As much as (the Egyptians) would set their hearts to afflict (the Israelites), so was the heart of the blessed Holy One to increase (them) and make (them) burst forth."

And how did this happen? By blessing the women with miraculous quantity (six at a time) and quality (Moshe, Aharon and the entire Dor Deah) of children!

It was all because our women understood the secret of embracing the Misken.



Professor Reuven Feuerstein, shlit"a, is the founder of a world famous psycho-educational school of thought, based in Jerusalem, which seeks to radically improve the lives of official Miskens, otherwise known as "uneducables." The title of one of his books says it all: "If you love me – DON'T accept me as I am!" He claims, based on half a century of experience with and research into the assessment and remediation of major At-Riskers in every society, that the worst thing we can do for such individuals is to take pity on them. That leaves two options: Neglect or build them.

Better yet: Help them build themselves.

And so he set out to do. His most remarkable achievements (for which he's won prestigious prizes) have occurred with young children who would normally be placed in Special Education classes, like those with Downs Syndrome and other genetically based mental handicaps. For most of these precious souls, Special Ed means being condemned to a life, at best, in which they'd be pampered and "understood", but hardly ever challenged to make something of their lives. Thus he determined to challenge them with rigorous programs of "cognitive modification" that proved that their intelligence was much higher than believed and, most importantly, that this intelligence can be translated into the real world.

Amazingly, many of these "uneducables" have ended up carving out respectable positions in the army, dignified professions and sometimes even marriage.

A key notion in Feuerstein's theories is that intelligence is not a quantity that is genetically bestowed or even attained in childhood and then statically plateaus, like reaching a physical height. Rather it is a dynamic, structured way of thinking that can be increasingly molded throughout one's lifetime. It's all about learning HOW to learn. The capacity to learn anew is the crux of intelligence, Feuerstein asserts. True education accordingly enhances principles of good thinking far beyond the specific material being imparted.

Now, for the last eight months I've been participating in a course for religious men which is studying a classic Feuerstein model called the Mediated Learning Experience (MLE). It revolves around the use of various, content-less exercises known as Instrumental Enrichment. One of the most popular of these instruments is the Organization of Dots; a series of dot-patterns within which the student is challenged to discern geometric shapes, reflect on his success and build strategies for discerning the next, more complex dot-pattern.

An official summation of MLE explains: The teacher is "not concerned with solving the problem at hand. Rather (s/he is a) mediator who is concerned with how the learner approaches solving the problem. The problem at hand is only an excuse to involve the mediator with the learner's thinking process."

As an educator who has long been frustrated by the information stuffing aspects of most educational curricula (especially the religious ones), I've found this approach extremely refreshing. As one who has studied and worked for many years in youth counseling, I find the emphasis on personal process deeply encouraging. Finally, as a chossid of the Baal Shem Tov I've found it tremendously inspiring to witness the selfless passion and sensitivity that Feuerstein and company pour into the lives of those who are otherwise written off by society.

Yet, in light of the above teachings, I'm also disturbed. It's the whole de-Miskenizing mystique.

You see, even though the institute works with many religious Jews and some of their teachings are even seeping into the so called Ultra-Orthodox school systems, I'm finding myself questioning whether they're not eviscerating the b'ZU from the Ya! That is, they're attempting to normalize those who've been given the gift of NOT being normal!

This is not right. We should be concomitantly seeking to challenge their minds and sublimate their uniqueness.

Ponim b'fonim diber Ha'Shem imokhem

b'hor m'toch ha'aish;

V'Anochee omeid bein Ha'Shem


Moshe Rabbeinu tells us in this verse (Deut. 5:4): "G-d spoke with you face to face on the Mount, within the fire, while I was standing between you and G-d". But the Besh"t questioned (Nesivos Sholom II, 338): Was Moshe really BETWEEN them? If so, then how could it have been "face to face"?

Rather, the Besh"t emphasizes, there's no doubt that every single Jew had an absolutely direct encounter with blessed Infinite One. That's the foundation of our faith. Yet the power of that encounter all too quickly dissipated. How could that happen?? Because "I" (not Moshe himself) got in the way – the ego of each individual.

How did that "I" manifest? In the desire to be "normal"! As recorded a few verses later, in the nation's argument to Moshe about why they should STOP hearing directly (5:23-24):

Who is there amongst the flesh like us who have heard the voice of the living G-d speaking from within the fire and have lived?

(we respectively plead that)

You (alone) draw near and hear all that the L-rd G-d will say.

No question, the Sinai experience was abnormal. It caused our holy nation to experience a total unease with this world. Unfortunately we sought an escape.

Oh, it was a "kosher" one, to be sure! But in essence, a very grave spiritual descent had occurred. As Rashi points out, the Hebrew form of "you" that is used for Moshe here is feminine, because this request "dilluted (his) strength (until he became, spiritually) like a female, for (he) grieved (…) since (he) saw that (they) were not anxious to come close to (G-d) out of love".

Is it not reasonable to assume, then, as believing Jews, that also today any attempt to de-Miskenize is fraught with spiritual danger?

Please don't misunderstand. I don't mean, in any way, to dishearten anyone's dedication to assisting disadvantaged children becoming functionally autonomous, G-d forbid! But does it really need to include educating their abnormality out of them? Perhaps it's time we learn to educate it INTO people. As it's written, a few chapters later (Deut. 10:15):

G-d desired only your forefathers… from all the nations until this very day. Thus you shall circumcise the toxic-sheath surrounding your heart.

No question, the Mitzvah to cut past our emotional excesses is intimately tied in to our abnormal national identity! Furthermore, the root letters for circumcision, Mal, as in Bris Mila, are exactly the same as the official abbreviation, both in Hebrew and English, of this model of Feurostein's – Mediated Learning or Lomida Metuvakhet! Unbelievable as it sounds, let us briefly explore it.

Kosher circumcision involves three stages: Orla – the severing of the outer foreskin; Preeya – the peeling back of the remaining inner foreskin; Metzitza – the drawing of blood out of the wound. These stages perfectly parallel the soul's learning process.

Orla – This refers to the destructive (non-wise) elements embedded within the Misken identity. At this stage of the learning process we seek to detoxify the pupil's spirit from any "can't do it" attitudes by showing that as long as he has even a modicum of thinking strength, it's possible to learn. It could be likened to the beleaguered citizens in King Solomon's small city being encouraged to take control of their most vital means of sustenance.

Preeya – This is the precarious stage I've called de-Miskenizing. It's no longer a matter of detoxifying but of shedding the Misken's identity altogether; the temptation to make the new learner be "like everyone else". After all, haven't we gotten rid of a-l-l the foreskin?! This is comparable to our small city citizens encountering the high and mighty bulwarks of foreign ideas looming over them. The question is not whether but HOW to repel those bulwarks. Shall we fight fire with fire; build mightier bulwarks than theirs? Shall we combat the world's lust for normalcy by striving to become e-s-p-e-c-i-a-l-l-y normal? Or perhaps we should educate for awareness of the experience of normalcy as a deceptive, transitory stage…

Metzitza – Ah. This is when the true Jewish spirit can reign. This is when we imbue the baby with b'ZU-Ya. To be sure, drawing blood from a fresh wound on a sensitive organ will turn anyone into a Misken! But this is precisely what our spiritual tradition beckons us to do. That "G-d judges the righteous until the slightest of hairsbreadth" is a hallowed Jewish principle. It challenges us to believe that the more spiritually developed we become the less normal / conventional / attached to this-worldly comforts we must be.

The problem is that this last stage is extremely difficult to learn on our own. We need teachers. Better yet, as Feuerstein would say, we need Mediators. But is it possible to mediate for trans-normalcy? To the contrary, didn't Moshe and the Baal Shem Tov chastise us about ever entertaining the thought of a mediator between us and our Maker??

Yes and no.

As the pshat indicates, Moshe WAS there, reminding us how much he really shouldn't be! THAT's the kind of teachers we need; the ones whose very bones are challenging us to find the Ya in every b'ZU.


At June 5, 2009 at 10:16:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Yehonasan said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

It's a heartening message: Why be normal????

It seems to me in order to apply this to those "at risk" we can start with ourselves. I wonder if that was your intent in undertaking the MLE exercises you describe. It's a new way of looking at the so-called problem parts of ourselves. If we can view them as the "ish misken vechocham" within us, and see how that "problem" part of us can serve Hashem--and not by "fixing" it and making it appear normal. "Fixing" it would actually be harmful to our soul, since it would destroy the special mission that so-called problem was given to us to perform.


By the way, I saw a similar interpretation as yours of "Ir" as an expression for "energized" or "awakened" in Torah Or, from Dov Ber of Mezritch, Rimzei HaTorah 309.

At June 5, 2009 at 11:52:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

We are all given the tools to accomplish our personal mission, and need to know how to use them to best effect.

However, granted that our personal "rough edges" should not all be rounded off, we still have to live in society, so some adjustments are unavoidable.

At June 7, 2009 at 7:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Rabbi Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaiim said...

I'm very pleased that you hear the case against normalcy. I'm not sure, however, if this is the same thing as not trying to "fix" mistakes. There are problems we create that need to be amended. Also inside our nefesh, our aveiras can create severe handicaps, as it were. They can cool down our love for G-d, make us less forgiving to another, more cynical, less focused in learning, etc., etc. All these realms can be, in principle, corrected.

The trick is in seeing them as isolated aspects of our person, and not the essence. So too, with the so called retarded thinker, they might need very real assistance with their cognitive processes and I tend to accept Feurostein thesis that there are certain cognitive functions that need "correcting". But the idea should be to maximize THEIR capacities to healthily function, not make them like others. Furthermore, I'm suggesting we should learn from these psukim to dig in deeper and try to bring out the uniquely "abnormal" aspects of every neshama; the parts that feel connected with Hashem far beyond this world.


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