Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.
But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.
I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.
If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?
This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.
It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.
The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.
Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.