cathate

Open to Interpretation: The Problem With Potential (Dvar Torah Toldot)

cathate“Johnny is not performing up to his potential.”

First of all, we need to let Johnny off the hook. Johnny can’t read, Johnny can’t write, Johnny isn’t living up to his potential. Give Johnny a break.

That said, a second problem lurks in Johnny’s report card. Ask any student how he or she feels when a teacher says

If Johnny could speak, he might say, “How does the teacher know what my potential is?”

Indeed, some teachers use this phrase as a way of saying that the student could – and should – rise to a higher level of performance, but as a result of some character flaw, some insufficient effort, he or she is falling into a pit of mediocrity.

More and more, teachers are learning not to fixate on abstract judgments. Teachers are learning to talk about steps that need to be taken to acquire and perfect skills. Teachers are focusing less on some vague notion of effort, and more on particular forms of practice. Teachers are learning to do less judging, and learning to do more coaching, guiding, and presenting opportunities for success.


twincatsIn this week’s Parsha, we learn about the potential of two unborn twins, Jacob and Esau. Rebecca, the expecting mother, has been longing for a child, and when she finally conceives, behold: twins! The twins struggle within her, however, and she is miserable. She inquires of God, who says:

Two nations are in thy womb, And two peoples shall be separated from thy womb; And the one people shall be stronger than the other people; And the elder shall serve the younger.

As a teacher, my first response is: how horrid! Two children, symbols of infinite possibility, have their destinies laid out even before birth? How can this be?

On the one hand, we can go down the “God knows all” rabbit hole, wherein we debate how there is such a thing as free will if God knows what will happen.

A more interesting approach requires some familiarity with the Hebrew. The translation above, like all translations, is an interpretation. Word for word, God’s speech is:

One nation will prevail over the other nation: and the older, [he] will serve the younger.

yodaSometimes, Biblical hebrew syntax is unclear. In this case, It’s hard to know whether to interpret the line to mean a) the older, he (the older) will serve the younger… or b) the older, the younger he will serve (him). You know, like Yoda speaks. “Powerful with the force, you are.” Who will serve whom?

Exactly! Rather than argue about the correct translation, I’d like to suggest that this is the clever Author’s way of saying that while it is likely that two competitive children will go on to become competitive adults, the “jury is out,” so to speak, on who will serve who. Their potential is, truly, unwritten.


So, Johnny. As your teacher, I see that you are having trouble reading. I see that you have trouble writing. I see that you haven’t done your homework in three years.

And I’d like to suggest that there is a correlation between success and practice.

And if you’d like me to help you, Johnny, I’m here to help.