The Kabbalah Approach to Mental Health

A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth: Part 63 – Reward and Punishment

A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth

The seventh and final skill that a teacher must acquire is the ability to use reward and punishment in monitoring his students' progress. The teacher must perfect the art of cultivating appropriate responses to instruction with praise and approval, while eliminating mistaken ones with criticism and rebuke. In this way the teaching becomes a dialogue between teacher and student, enabling the teacher to correct, on increasingly finer levels, the student's internalization of the material.

Whereas the discussion of the second skill warned against  use of severity as a methodology of effective communication, there is a difference here. In that case, the tendency to idealize harshness as a valid approach was condemned. However, in this case, the circumstances are different. The educator has already communicated his advice in a calm, respectful way and has demonstrated his concern for his students' highest good. He has thus resisted the temptation of employing severity which brings immediate gratification because of its shock effect but which leaves no enduring impression. Now he is at the point of responding to his students' reaction to his teaching–a reaction which may either be positive or negative–and he must address each one appropriately. For this he needs the tools of reward and punishment, praise and criticism, in order to censor the bad and reinforce the good. Nevertheless, even at this stage, the use of severity is greatly restricted in order that it should not be exploited as a self-indulgent outlet for impatience and anger. The teacher is thus cautioned not to criticize his students when he is feeling angry or irritated. Rather, harsh words (if necessary) should come from an inner state of love and calm–not from a place of agitation.

This idea is expressed in the Hebrew word for "rebuke" (tochachah) which can be divided into two fragments, toch and chah. The first, means literally "in the midst of" and the second has the same numerical value as the Hebrew word for "love" (ahavah). Thus the two together indicate that rebuke should come "from the midst" of "love" (instead of from the midst of anger.)

The power and necessity of feedback, as expressed through reward and punishment, reflects a basic principle of human nature–the innate human tendency to derive pleasure from praise and aspire toward reward. Yet the reverse is also true. Human beings equally, though perhaps unconsciously, seek chastisement for their wrongdoings. To withhold either is to refuse something that the human soul needs and craves.

This craving comes from an innate longing for growth and perfection. Therefore, when we behave in ways that further this end, we expect reward and encouragement. On the other hand, when we misbehave and defy this end, we expect constructive criticism and punishment. Thus we all feel, on some deep level, as much frustration when our rebellious deeds go unpunished as when our good deeds and accomplishments go unacknowledged.

To reward and punish properly, the teacher must study his students' reactions to his instructions, observing both their words and behavior as well as nonverbal signals. Only in this way can the teacher become sensitive to his students' cues and can reward and correct properly. It is essential, in this regard, that the teacher be at least as generous with his praise as he is with his criticism. Otherwise, he could damage his students’ self-confidence and self-esteem, thereby squelching their motivation for growth and learning.


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