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.

Rest and Relaxation Are Not the Same

rest vs relaxationThe following is a “D’var Torah” – an essay written by me, but inspired by the weekly Torah Portion. Though it comments on a 3000 year old, classic Jewish text, the I hope the message is current and universal… Although it’s really for teachers.


Parshat Behar

A few days ago, after a particularly challenging day at work, after the commute home, after the schlep up the stairs, the first thing I did was to drop my stuff in a heap by the door. Briefcase, jacket, tie. An hour later, I’d eaten half a bag of Trader Joe’s snack, checked my email eight times, and watched the latest You Tube “must-see cat videos.”

The thing is, I still didn’t feel rested, I didn’t feel nourished. Naturally, I was happy not to be at work, but I wasn’t exactly happy to be at home, either. I made some phone calls, I lay on the sofa and spaced out, I was suspended between exhaustion and chasing a feeling of relaxation I couldn’t quite achieve.

As it turned out, that feeling persisted until well into night-time. I made a mental note to myself.

 “Rest and relaxation are not the same thing.”

As I posted this note in my head, I found a bunch of other Post-Its there. Surprise, they all said the same thing. Apparently, I’ve learned and relearned this lesson many times. I am tempted, in the first moment of freedom, to let everything go, not in a Zen way, but in an uncontrolled way, a drop everything and pretend the world doesn’t exist way.

One of us is relaxing. The other is resting.

One of us is relaxing. The other is resting.

Ironically, my most restful after-work hours are spent in a bustling café, drinking coffee, people watching, and journaling. I’m still in my work clothes, my tie, but I am at peace.

The key to understanding this paradox is found in the wisdom of this  week’s Torah Portion:

Leviticus 25:1-5  TNK Leviticus 25:1 The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD.  3 Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  4 But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest [Shabbat Shabbaton], a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

This ancient Mizvah (commandment) goes far beyond the practical “laying fallow” of modern agriculture. The Miztvah is not just to desist from planting. It is to actively achieve a “Shabbat Shabbaton” – an extreme rest. It is not about stopping something. It is about starting something new.

resting with coffee. not a paradox, at all.

My hour in the café, writing or drawing, turning on the right side of my brain, is about rejuvenating a part of myself that has been on hold during the busy work day. The Land of Israel transitions, during the Jubilee Year, from being used for production, to being a sacred space with its own spiritual value. Likewise, I can experience the joy of being separate from my value as a producer:  not by letting go, but by celebrating.

This is, on the one hand, the essence of Shabbat. A time to celebrate the joy of being. And at this time of the school year, this is what our students have at their fingertips… two months to enjoy the celebration of being. The challenge is: will they know the difference between relaxing and rest?

We should be blessed to know and show what rest looks like. We should be blessed to guide our students towards experiences that nourish. We should be rejuvenated from our time with family and friends.

And still, we can leave time for You Tube piano-playing cats.