The motivating power of self-esteem

The motivating power of self-esteem

Beha’alotecha — Numbers 8:1-12:16

It was a lesson I learned long ago as a high school teacher. I found then that my greatest challenge was to find ways to motivate the students. I tried giving special prizes and awards, granting extra privileges, and even resorting to outright bribery in order to motivate them.

It was a wise mentor who taught me that you can’t motivate students by giving to them; rather, you must find ways to encourage them to give to others. The student who gives to others feels important, and it is the consequent sense of self-esteem which is the most powerful motivator
of all.

I’ll never forget the first time I tried that strategy. I approached the most recalcitrant student in the class, a very bright young man, who was, in today’s terminology, “totally turned off” to his studies, and asked him to assist two weaker students with their daily assignment.

“Who, me?” he exclaimed. “Why should I help those two dunces? If they can’t figure it out for themselves, let them flunk.”

I told him that for a society to function successfully those who are blessed with talent must share their gifts with those who were less

He responded, “Do you really think I’m blessed with talent? I guess you’re right. I am a talented dude, and I’m going to try to teach those blockheads a thing or two. But if I don’t succeed, it won’t be my fault!”

He did succeed, and very dramatically. And he recognized that if he was to succeed again at this tutorial task, he would have to be even better prepared next time. He went home that night and studied hard and was indeed even more successful with his two “blockheads” the next day.

This secret of human motivation is implicit in a brief passage in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. In this parsha, the Torah devotes the 10th chapter of Numbers to a detailed description of the sequence in which the tribes marched through the desert. About two thirds of the way into this chapter, we unexpectedly encounter the following conversation:

And Moses said to Chovav, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Lord has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel.”

“‘I will not go,’ he replied to him, ‘but will return to my native land.’”

“He said, ‘Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide [literally read as “eyes”]. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us.’” (10:29-32)

That ends the dialogue, and we are never explicitly told whether Moses’ second attempt at persuasion convinced Chovav to accompany the children of Israel. His first attempt, promising to be generous to him, was rejected emphatically by Chovav.

What did Moses change this time? Quite simply, he told Chovav that he would not be merely the passive recipient of another’s generosity, but that he had expertise that was indispensable to the Jewish people. He would not just be a taker, but a giver as well.

There is a lesson here for all of us in dealing with other human beings. We must be sensitive to their needs for self-esteem. When a person is convinced of his or her own value, he or she will be motivated and will act accordingly.

Understanding the dialogue between Moses and Chovav in this manner allows us to readily accept the conclusion of our Sages. They filled in the “rest of the story” and assured us that Chovav was finally convinced by Moses’ second argument and did indeed join his fate and those of his descendants to that of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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