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What is More Important the Process or the Result?

We live in a society that largely values outcomes. “How much is he/she worth?” Person’s “value” is frequently measured by his external success. Is that the appropriate way to look at a human being and his worth? Of course, it is true that often the success is a manifestation of hard work and dedication. However, as we all know it is not always the case. In fact, reverse is frequently the case. What is the Jewish perspective?

The Torah describes the meal-offering (made of simple flower) in the temple in Jerusalem that a poor person offers when he wants to express his gratitude to HaShem. The Torah uses unusual terminology in describing the offering: “When a soul offers a meal-offering to HaShem”. Why does the Torah used the word, ‘soul’ as opposed to the more common, ‘person’? Rashi, based on the Gemara [1], explains the unusual usage of the word, ‘nefesh’ that means soul. It teaches us that even though the poor man gives a simple korban (offering) God ascribes great value to it since a great amount of self-sacrifice was invested by him in order to be able to bring even this humble offering.

The Midrash tells a number of stories to demonstrate this point [2]. One of them involves King Agrippas who wanted to offer 1000 birds on one day; he instructed the Kohen Gadol (head Kohen) not to allow anyone else to bring an offering on that day yet one poor man came with two doves to offer. The Kohen Gadol told him that he could not do so because of the King’s instructions. The man replied that every day he caught four doves and he offered two of them and made his livelihood from the other two – he had a strong Emuna(trust) that it was the merit of his daily offering that enabled him to make his livelihood. Accordingly he argued that he would lose his livelihood if he was unable to bring this offering. The Kohen Gadol was could not refuse his supplications and accepted his offering. That night Aggripas was told in a dream that the poor man’s simple offering was considered greater than his thousand.

One of the important lessons that we learn from here is that HaShem is more interested in the process that led to a Mitzva than the actual resultant Mitzva. The effort that a person makes is far more significant than the results he achieves. This idea has a number of applications in life; one very important application is in the realm of chinuch (child development). A number of Torah- based mechanchim (educators) [3] stress that is recommended to praise effort as opposed to natural ability. The Midrash here teaches us that a fundamental reason for this is that natural ability that leads to good results does not make a person worthy of praise since that is a G-d given gift, whereas effort is deserving of praise because one does have free will as to how much effort the exerts.

A number of studies in the academic world show how there are also a number of practical benefits to praising one’s efforts over his achievements. Researchers found that children reacted very differently depending on the kinds of praise they received. One surprising result was that praising innate ability could actually later lead to feelings of inadequacy: In one study children were given moderately difficult problems to solve. When each child was finished, he was told, “Wow, you did really well on these problems. You got a really high score.” In addition, each kid received one of three treatments. He was praised for his intelligence (“you must be smart at these problems”), praised for his effort (“you must have worked hard at these problems”) or not given any additional praise (this was the control group). Then the children were given a second set of problems, which were very difficult. They were asked to explain why they performed poorly. The children who had been praised for their intelligence on previous tasks attributed more of their failure to a lack of intelligence. Whereas those initially praised for their effort (and those who were not additionally praised) attributed their failure to a lack of effort. In this way, we see that praising one’s ability had a negative effect – even though initially it could make the recipient feel good about itself, it ultimately ‘sets him up for a fall’ in that when the inevitable failure takes place, his self-image is damaged. In contrast, one who is praised for effort does not feel unworthy when he fails, rather he sees that he needs to work harder in the future.

These and similar studies revealed other important lessons: children who were praised for their intelligence tended to avoid challenges because by undertaking them they were liable to feeling inadequate were they to fail. And when they did fail, they were more likely to perform poorly after that failure. They were also more interested in being better than other children rather than trying to better themselves. And finally, they were more prone to cheating or lying in order to attain better grades in order to justify their reputation of being naturally intelligent. In contrast, the children praised for their effort displayed the opposite trend. They preferred tasks that were challenging so that they could improve themselves; and failure did not have such a damaging effect on their future performance [4].

We have seen that the humble Mincha offering of the poor person is of great value in God’s eyes because of the effort involved, and how in general, stress on effort is far more successful in helping educate children and students, May we all merit to learn and integrate these vital lessons.

[1] Menachot, 94a.

[2] Vayikra Rabbahm 3:5. See Ayelet Hashachar, 2:1.

[3] People who are well founded in the Torah approaches to teaching and parenting and may well educate others in these areas.

[4] Meuller and Dwek, 2002.

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