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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘aaron’

Creating a Team that Builds

Friday, February 21st, 2014

How do you re-motivate a demoralized people? How do you put the pieces of a broken nation back together again? That was the challenge faced by Moses in this week’s parshah.

The key word here is “vayakhel” – Moses gathered. Kehillah means community. A kehillah, or kehal, is a group of people assembled for a given purpose. That purpose can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive. The same word that appears at the beginning of this week’s parshah as the beginning of the solution appeared in last week’s parshah as the start of the problem: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered [vayikahel] around Aaron and said, ‘Make us a god to lead us. As for this man Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ ”

The difference between the two kinds of kehillah is that one results in order, the other in chaos. Coming down the mountain to see the golden calf, we read that “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control – and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” The verb pharua, like the similar phara, means “loose, unbridled, unrestrained.”

There is an assembly that is disciplined, task-oriented and purposeful. And there is an assembly that is a mob. It has a will of its own. People in crowds lose their sense of self-restraint. They get carried along in a wave of emotion. Normal deliberative thought-processes become bypassed by the more primitive feelings of the group. There is, as neuroscientists put it, an “amygdala hijack.” Passions run wild.

There have been famous studies of this: Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: a study of the popular mind (1895), and Wilfred Trotter’s Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1914). One of the most haunting works on the subject is Jewish Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960, English translation 1962).

Vayakhel is Moses’s response to the wild abandon of the crowd that gathered around Aaron and made the golden calf. (I mean that it is Moses’s response only figuratively. The building of the Tabernacle was, of course, God’s command, not Moses’. The fact that it is set out as Divine command before the story of the golden calf, in Parshat Terumah, is intended to illustrate the principle in Megillah 13b that “God creates the cure before the disease.”)

He does something fascinating. He does not oppose the people, as he did initially when he saw the golden calf. Instead, he uses the same motivation that drove them in the first place. They wanted to create something that would be a sign that God was among them: not on the heights of a mountain but in the midst of the camp. He appeals to the same sense of generosity that made them offer up their gold ornaments. The difference is that they are now acting in accordance with God’s command, not their own spontaneous feelings.

He asks the Israelites to make voluntary contributions to the construction of the Tabernacle, the Sanctuary, the Mikdash. They do so with such generosity that Moses has to order them to stop. If you want to bond human beings so that they act for the common good, get them to build something together. Get them to undertake a task that they can only achieve together, that none can do alone.

The power of this principle was demonstrated in a famous social-scientific research exercise carried out in 1954 by Muzafer Sherif and others from the University of Oklahoma, known as the Robbers’ Cave experiment. Sherif wanted to understand the dynamics of group conflict and prejudice. To do so, he and his fellow researchers selected a group of 22 white, eleven-year-old boys, none of whom had met one another before. They were taken to a remote summer camp in Robbers’ Cave State Park, Oklahoma. They were randomly allocated into two groups.

Initially neither group knew of the existence of the other. They were staying in cabins far apart. The first week was dedicated to team building. The boys hiked and swam together. Each group chose a name for itself, becoming the Eagles and the Rattlers. They stenciled the names on their shirts and flags.

Then, for four days they were introduced to one another through a series of competitions. There were trophies, medals and prizes for the winners, and nothing for the losers. Almost immediately there was tension between them: name-calling, teasing, and derogatory songs. It got worse. Each burned the other’s flag and raided their cabins. They objected to eating together with the others in the same dining hall.

Stage three was called the integration phase. Meetings were arranged. The two groups watched films together. They lit Fourth-of-July firecrackers together. The hope was that these face-to-face encounters would lessen tensions and lead to reconciliation. They didn’t. Several broke up with the children throwing food at one another.

In stage four, the researchers arranged situations in which a problem arose that threatened both groups simultaneously. The first was a blockage in the supply of drinking water to the camp. The two groups identified the problem separately and gathered at the point where the blockage had occurred. They worked together to remove it, and celebrated together when they succeeded.

In another, both groups voted to watch some films. The researchers explained that the films would cost money to hire, and there was not enough in camp funds to do so. Both groups agreed to contribute an equal share to the cost. In a third, the coach on which they were traveling stalled, and the boys had to work together to push it. By the time the trials were over, the boys had stopped having negative images of the other side. On the final bus ride home, the members of one team used their prize money to buy drinks for everyone.

Similar outcomes have emerged from other studies. The conclusion is revolutionary. You can turn even hostile factions into a single cohesive group so long as they are faced with a shared challenge that all can achieve together but none can do alone.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, once remarked that he knew of only one joke in the Mishnah, the statement that “Scholars increase peace in the world” (Berachot 64a). Rabbis are known for their disagreements. How then can they be said to increase peace in the world?

I suggest that the passage is not a joke but a precisely calibrated truth. To understand it we must read the continuation: “Scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: ‘All your children shall be learned of the Lord and great will be the peace of your children’ (Isaiah 54:13). Read not ‘your children’ but ‘your builders.’ ” When scholars become builders they create peace. If you seek to create a community out of strongly individualistic people, you have to turn them into builders. That is what Moses did in Vayakhel.

Team building, even after a disaster like the golden calf, is neither a mystery nor a miracle. It is done by setting the group a task, one that speaks to their passions and one no subsection of the group can achieve alone. It must be constructive. Every member of the group must be able to make a unique contribution and then feel that it has been valued. Each must be able to say, with pride, “I helped make this.”

That is what Moses understood and did. He knew that if you want to build a team, create a team that builds.

The Only Commonality Is Mass Killing

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Originally published at The Investigative Project on Terrorism.

Aaron Alexis murdered 12 people and injured at least eight more at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard before he was shot and killed by law enforcement professionals. It is tempting to compare Alexis to a suicide bomber, especially now that we have heard rumors he opened a website under the name “Mohammed Salem.” However, clear thinking demands that temptation be resisted. Let me explain why.

As an Israeli criminologist who has studied suicide bombers for almost two decades—making extensive observations of and conducting numerous interviews with those who failed, as well as with those who dispatch the bombers, with family members of suicide bombers and decision makers and elites in their society— I can say with confidence that the differences between mass killers in the West such as Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine, and yes, Aaron Alexis at the D.C. Navy Yard, and suicide bombers are categorical and insurmountable.

After the Sandy Hook tragedy, Eric Lankford, an American criminal justice professor, sought to show that America’s lone shooters have more in common with suicide bombers than is commonly believed. But his op-ed piece, “What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers” (New York Times, 12/19/12), is fundamentally flawed. America has certainly suffered enough with the recent Sandy Hook, Aurora and other tragedies, but clear thinking demands we realize that even if someone is characterized as a “shaheed” (a martyr for the sake of Allah, including suicide bombers), the differences between mass killers in the West and suicide bombers are categorical and insurmountable.

The overriding distinction between the two is their native cultures: the suicide bomber’s education and attack preparations are diametrically opposed to that of mass killers, as is their socialization. Suicide bombers are radical Islam’s celebrated heroes, its darlings, whose acts are viewed by the larger culture as exemplary and heroic; in contrast, the West’s mass killers are aberrant individuals isolated from their resolutely life-affirming culture.

Specifically and most importantly, Western culture in general, and American culture in particular, cherishes life. American children are raised in the belief in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; they are raised to embrace life and respect the lives of others. Clearly there are a disturbed few who kill others, but those are not the heroes of the American people: their murders and subsequent own deaths do not bring honor to their families or elevate them in their society’s collective memory.

But that is exactly what does happen in radical Islamist culture. In Gaza, for example, children collect cards of shaheeds, the same way American children collect baseball cards. It is absurd to think that anyone would propose National Park Stadium be renamed Aaron Alexis Stadium, and the absurdity illustrates and emphasizes the difference between American mass killers and Muslim suicide bombers whose names emblazon schools, sports teams, stadiums and public squares.

The Western mass killer’s acts are motivated by individual pathology rather than by collective ethos. The individual’s aberrant thoughts trigger the plan for a mass killing. The suicide bomber is not driven by psychological pain, although he is selected because others see him as weak or vulnerable. A culture that celebrates death and declares to the West that “we love death as you love life” is the petri dish in which suicide bombers develop.

Another distinction is that suicide bombers are not lone gunmen, instead, they are merely tools in a comprehensive, well-advertised terrorist production, manipulated to achieve political goals. To understand the significance of the difference, try to imagine Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris as inanimate objects whose owner chooses not only the location of the killings, but also the date, the weapons and even the victims. The suicide bombers’ locations are chosen by others to ensure that the greatest possible damage will be inflicted; the bombers usually have little or no advance notice. A suicide bomber, in contrast to Adam Lanza, will never embark on his mission by first killing his own mother—the most significant and beloved person in his life.

The mass killers choose their victims, the locations and the timing of their deeds, usually planning their acts meticulously over a long period of time. For the suicide bomber, his body is the murder weapon. His death is the only way to achieve his true goal: to enter paradise physically, where 72 virgins and the rivers of wine await him, and spiritually, by bringing honor to himself and his family. All this is possible only if his corporeal being merges with the bomb fragments to bring death to others, an ideal far removed from Western moral conceptions of life and afterlife.

A Western mass killer’s death is not a precondition for the mass murder; the deaths of those they have selected is what matters. The suicide bomber, however, is on a mission aimed at propelling himself toward a better future in the afterlife, where he will be able to enjoy everything he was unable to enjoy or achieve while living. America’s mass killers have no future: they will be vilified and not celebrated, and in contrast to radical Islamic culture, their families will suffer ignominy and isolation. We have already heard the anguish suffered by Aaron Alexis’s mother, who, in a public statement, expressed deep sorrow over the pain caused by her son. She also said she was glad her son was in a place now where he can no longer do any harm to anyone.

The West’s mass killers have no recruiters, handlers or dispatchers, all of whom are essential in a world where suicide bombers are the logical means to achieve the collective end. In the United States, anywhere and at any time, the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” does not elicit the answer, “A mass killer (or suicide bomber).” However, the Gazan child for example, will not answer “fireman,” “policeman,” or even “I’m going to work in an office like Daddy.” The virtually guaranteed answer is “shaheed,” and his mother will likely cheer.

Radical Islam’s suicide bomber is the manipulated tool of an aberrant death-glorifying culture, while the West’s mass killer is an aberrant member of a robust, life-affirming culture. There are similarities between the two, but it is a mistake to put them on the same level. To blur the distinction is to insult America.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/the-only-commonality-is-mass-killing/2013/09/25/

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