This past Shabbat, we read Parshat Beha’alotcha, a parsha that is filled with upheaval. Throughout the first half, the people of Israel are in the best place they could possibly be. We receive the description of the Passover sacrifice being properly practiced by almost the entire people, while also being told of a story in which those who were ritually unclean and exempt from the sacrifice. These people, who were under no requirement, approached Moses to tell him they were not willing to accept that they could not fulfil the commandment and to request that they too could be a part of Israel and it’s laws. They are likely the first devotees who wanted to observe a law without any obligation to do so.
In complete contrast to the first half of the parsha, in the second half we find the people complaining (according to some commentators) about the difficulties of their journey and longing for the fruits, vegetables, fish and meat from Egypt. Alongside these complaints, they criticized the manna, a miraculous food between bread and sweet dough that can be eaten as is or cooked, that came down to them from the sky every morning. Food that contained holiness. The divine response to the Israelites’ good deed was not overdue, and it came in the form of a fiery eruption in the midst of the camp and an epidemic that struck anyone who eagerly ate after complaining while meat was still “between their teeth”.
The parsha makes me wonder about the polar behavior of the Israelites, a polarity that appears again and again in some form throughout Jewish history. In my own experience, I have seen this characteristic in quite a few people, myself included, but most often in children. Children are unlike adults, who, barring mental disorders or extreme stress, tend to be consistent in behavior with mostly minor changes occurring over longer periods of time. WIth children, polar changes behavior can be major and occur much more frequently, sometimes they can be observed even within the span of an hour. As educators, we know this quite well with and regularly must handle.
How do we, educators, deal with the phenomenon of shifting behaviors in our students?
If we were to cast Hashem in this parsha in the role of an educator, then his manner of dealing with his students’ (the people of Israel) behavioral upheavals is both through positive reinforcement and punishment. When the people showed good behavior, he fulfilled their request, creating a new commandment for a second Passover. Conversely, when their behavior was negative, the response was accordingly a strong punishment. Just as with the people of Israel, when children’s behaviors are dealt with through rewards and punishment, the children are directed towards what behavior is good and desirable and what is considered unacceptable. As we see throughout the Bamidbar, when the behavior is dealt with the message is conveyed and internalized by the people. The process is long, and it requires strength and focus. At the same time, we must be sure that we are not too severe in our punishments and rewards, or too free with them, only using these methodologies when behaviors truly pass out of the norm.
The prevalent methodology of education today is to be more accepting of students’ behavior. There is often little reward for good behavior, and in terms of bad behavior, punishments or sanctions are usually reserved only for extreme cases. The reward/punishment methodology is overlooked or clearly discouraged. Rather, the methodology of education today leans towards having discussions and processing behavior with students in order to address disciplinary issues.
There are truly pros and cons to either a reward/punishment methodology and discussion-based methodology, and there are methodologies that meet somewhere between the two of them. However, are we looking past the reward/punishment methodology and ignoring a methodology that could possibly produce more short-term results? Results that could produce a more pleasant, meaningful experience that enables long-term learning and mature, healthy behaviors?