Moses-Chovav dialogue: Earning self-esteem


It was a lesson I learned long ago, when I was a high school teacher. I was new at this line of work and found that my greatest challenge was to find ways to motivate the students. I tried various approaches, which all were basically attempts to motivate by giving. I tried giving special prizes and awards, granting extra privileges, and even resorting to outright bribery to get the students to pay attention, do their homework, and learn the subject matter.

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.

The first time I tried that strategy, I approached the most recalcitrant student in the entire class, a very bright young man who was, in today’s terminology, “totally turned off” to his studies. I 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 the haves must help the have-nots, the strong must aid the weak, and those who are blessed with talent must share their gifts with those who were less fortunate.

It was the phrase “blessed with talent” that did the trick, for he responded, “Do you really think I’m blessed with talent?” Then he offered “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. 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 parsha, Beha’alotecha. In this portion, the Torah devotes all of the tenth 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 conversational interlude:

And Moses said to Chovav, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the L-rd has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the L-rd 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 L-rd grants us.” (Numbers10:29-32)

That ends the dialogue, and we are never explicitly told whether or not 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 with a resounding, “I will not go!”

• • •

What did Moses change in his second attempt? Quite simply, he told Chovav that he would not be merely the passive recipient of another’s generosity. Rather, Moses assured Chovav that he had expertise which was indispensable to the Jewish people. He could give them the guidance through the wilderness that they desperately required. He would not just be a taker, but a giver as well.

In short, Moses was appealing to Chovav’s sense of self-esteem. He was saying to him, “You are an important person. Your talents are needed. You are an actor with a part to play in this drama.”

What I was doing to that turned-off student was precisely what Moses was trying to do with Chovav.

 When reading the text, one can easily assume that Moses learned a great lesson which caused him to abandon the strategy of promising to be generous. Instead, he adopted an entirely different strategy, one which conveyed the message to Chovav that he would not merely be a consumer of favors. Rather, he would earn the L-rd’s generosity because of the valuable contribution that he would make, and that only he could make.

There is a lesson here not just for teachers and students, or leaders and followers, but for all of us in dealing with other human beings. We must be sensitive to their needs for self-esteem. We must recognize their talents and what they can bring to bear upon whatever task lies at hand. When a person is convinced of his or her own importance and 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 the destiny of the Jewish people.