A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth
What should the teacher be reinforcing through reward and punishment? Is it simply "obedience," or is it something deeper? Chassidic teachings explain that, in the ultimate sense, the teacher should be praising selflessness and criticizing arrogance and conceit.
The sensitivity which enables the proper distribution of reward and punishment is the ability to evaluate the amount of ego within any act. The greater the self-centeredness, the greater the punishment should be. This means that the same deed could indicate much ego for one person and have an entirely different significance and motivation for another. Similarly a minor misdeed might draw harsh rebuke if it came from a place of untempered ego, whereas a "major" disobedience could go unpunished if it did not express such a large measure of conceit.
An educator can only acquire this sensitivity to his students' ego issues if he has surrendered himself and his ego to God. Then his acts of reward and punishment will be "for the sake of heaven," without ulterior motive, and he will be successful in eliminating the barriers of ego which separate his students from their goal of perfection.
When we speak of eliminating the barriers of ego here, we refer specifically to eliminating arrogance and selfishness. These traits are a direct expression of the universal principle of "evil" as Judaism defines it. "Evil" is the illusion of separation and independence from God, and while there are infinite variations of its expression, generally, the distortion which is called "evil" is the sense, often subtle, of personal sovereignty. Thus the ego's influence is epitomized by arrogance and selfishness.
The deluded voice of arrogance sounds something like this: "I have pulled myself up by my bootstraps. I am responsible for my own success. I owe nothing to anybody. My talents and my aptitudes are my own making. I take full credit for my accomplishments. I know what's best for me. Nobody can tell me what to do." In contrast, the voice of someone who has conquered his ego sounds something like this: "I am a servant of the Most High. He gave me certain talents and abilities so that I can fulfill my mission in this lifetime. Whatever I accomplish is through His strength, inspiration, and grace. I am part of a living, organic whole, each piece fulfilling an equally necessary function in the odyssey of creation. I am limited in my capacity for understanding and must therefore rely on a wisdom greater than my own–the Torah and the sages–to direct me on my way."
The deluded voice of selfishness operates from the premise that "I deserve the best" and proceeds something like this: "It's a dog eat dog world. I must take care of my own needs and desires first. Sacrifice means pain and discomfort. If I don't protect my own interests, no one else will. If I give to someone else, there's less for me. I am the center of my world. I will pursue comfort and pleasure, and avoid sacrifice and lack." Instead of, "Inherently I deserve nothing. All that I receive is a gift from above. The whole purpose of my existence is to serve God. The essential way of fulfilling this responsibility is to emulate Him. Since He is the most generous source of all bounty and sustenance, I emulate Him through giving. I understand that any apparent lack created from my giving is illusory. In fact, my soul is enriched by my giving. If I give something away that I should have, God will replace it, for He is the owner and distributor of all resources. The body is nourished by taking, the soul by giving. God's whole purpose in creating the world was so that He could dwell below in the most physical of worlds through the good deeds and acts of loving-kindness of His creatures. Every act of giving brings His desire closer to realization."
The teacher who understands these things, rebuking the ego and not the deed, does his students a great service. He frees them from the burden of their self-centeredness, the lead weight which prevents them from finding peace and fulfillment in this world.
In addition to deciding what to encourage and what to rebuke, and how to communicate this most effectively, the teacher must recognize the proper moment for delivering his feedback. This ability to choose the most favorable moment for expressing praise or criticism requires an acute sense of timing. Does the student's present mood make him or her more (or less) receptive to feedback? Is it something best done in private or in public? Do things need to settle down before the matter is addressed, or is it best done spontaneously in the moment? Will the passage of time make the student more receptive, or will memory fade and make the feedback less effective? All these factors must be instantaneously processed and a decision made on the spot, according to the guidance of Jewish law which addresses many of these questions.
By means of reward and punishment, the educator insures that his instruction is received accurately and properly. Probing and observing his students' thoughts and behaviors, the teacher proceeds to correct their internalization of the material on increasingly subtle levels. In this way, he causes the growth and knowledge to settle into his students' personality and become an integrated part of who they are.