A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth

A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth: Part 56 – Setting Priorities

Having completed the process of knowing the student, the teacher must now identify the top priority in educating the student and begin from there.

The existential reality of change is that it can only proceed one step at a time. Attempting too much at once guarantees failure on all fronts. Thus the educator must identify the appropriate starting point–a subjective determination, based on his intuitive sense of the student’s needs and abilities at that moment. He has to decide:

  1. should he start with the pivotal problem, the one upon which many other things depend; or,

  2. should he begin with something small and almost insignificant just to get the student used to working and to give him or her a taste of success, which should motivate further effort.

There are no objective criteria here. Rather, the teacher's ability to choose sensitively and accurately reflects the degree of his own rectification.

In this sixth skill, the channel of influence flowing from the teacher to the student can be visualized as a pipeline that can only transfer one morsel of advice at a time. Keeping this image in mind forces the educator to order his priorities for bringing about the growth he envisions. A successful educator is one who has internalized the limitation imposed by the pipeline and never tries to do too much at any one time. Any attempt to the contrary is a strong indication that his own channels are unrectified and undisciplined.

This skill is distinguished from the previous skills in that it calls upon an inner, almost unconscious sensitivity of the teacher and demands a high degree of subjectivity. The information gathered in preceding stages was dictated by objective reality–the nature of the student, his or her temperament, character traits, etc. The subsequent analysis required sensitivity to be sure, but of a type attuned to objective truths. Now, with all the data before him, the teacher must rely upon his intuition to make the decision of where to begin and how to proceed. There are no formulas or rules of thumb. His approach will necessarily vary from student to student and his reliability mirrors his own state of rectification. A personality cleared of ego, selfishness, and other negative characteristics will be a more transparent channel for intuition. Otherwise, the teacher’s insights will be distorted and the message he attempts to convey to the student will be compromised in its integrity.

The level of intuitive sensitivity called upon here is similar to that mentioned in the Talmud in relation to those exceptional court cases which cannot be resolved on the basis of objective evidence. An example is a situation where two people are claiming to be the same person mentioned in a contract, and the facts of the case do not favor one over the other. In such an instance the judge is required to decide according to his intuitive sense of truth, even though there is no objective evidence to support his choice. In the realm of teaching, the decision of where to begin comes from this same place of inner sensitivity.

Yet there is one guideline, one principle from the Talmud, which should influence this decision. The sages explain that "something dangerous is more grievous than something forbidden."  In other words, the danger to the body takes priority over a possible danger to the soul. This is not a self‑evident truth. We could argue that since the soul is more important than the body, perhaps death in this world is preferable to death in the spiritual world. The sages don’t agree. They maintain that in this world our lives and our survival are God’s overriding concern, and when there arises a question of choosing between something that will damage the body over something which will injure the soul, we are required to worry first about the body, because the soul’s purpose for existing is to serve God in this world. To accomplish this, the soul must reside in a body. Therefore, since spiritual damage can be removed through repentance, while physical death is irreparable, the sages give priority to the body's survival, as long as the soul has need of it.

In terms of education, this might apply, for example, to a student with two negative character traits: an explosive temper and a propensity to lie. Since the problem of an explosive temper is potentially dangerous, both to himself and others, its rectification must be the teacher's priority as it is the more urgent problem. The propensity to lie, while not as urgent, may in fact be more serious in terms of ultimate implications, since chronic lying may generate more problems than anger in the realm of interpersonal relations, but it still has less priority than the anger problem.

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