September 23, 2019

Making the Grade

A story is told of a man who came to his rabbi complaining of depression. His life lately seemed like an endless string of failures, disappointments and missed opportunities. Why, he asked, had God condemned him to live such a frustrating existence? The rabbi listened carefully and after some moments of contemplation, he asked the man to reach behind him and remove a large volume from the bookshelf. Assuming this was some tome of ancient spiritual wisdom, the man reached for the volume. He was surprised to notice that his volume was no tractate of Talmud, but an almanac of sports statistics. Read page 543 aloud, the rabbi instructed. And the man began reading the life-time batting averages of baseball’s greatest hitters: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams. Not one of them more than .400! the rabbi observed. That means more than six in ten times, the greatest of the great struck out, popped up or flied out. More than six in ten times, they failed. Are you better than they were? Why do you expect more of yourself than they did?

Jewish kids all have to get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all above average. But what happens when they don’t excel? What happens when they fail? “You’re not working up to your potential,” a teacher once told me. And I suffered. It was only years later that I realized that no one really “works up to their potential.” Such a demand is limitless. Such a requirement can never be satisfied. Like the horizon, one’s “potential” is never meant to be reached. If you’re “working up to your potential” it’s only because your potential was defined too low. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called “disappointment.”

Is there room within the Jewish family for failure? Is there love and forgiveness for the child who tries and can’t succeed?

I’m told of a young engineer at a giant technology company who made an error in calculations and an entire product-line went down in flames. Called in to the chairman’s office, he was fully prepared to tender his resignation and accept a biting castigation. Resign? asked the astonished chairman, I can’t let you resign! I’ve just spent $120 million dollars educating you!

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.

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 kids constantly measured, evaluated, tested and graded. Surely there’s more at stake in education than admission to the next school, the marks on the next report card, the scores on the next exam. If we demand success each time, if we 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.

Those who dream big, fail big. Einstein spent a lifetime looking for a theory that doesn’t exist. Babe Ruth holds a record for most strike outs. Columbus never did make it to India. And Moses never made it to the Promised Land. Imagine that, the entire Torah ends in failure: Moses never gets to see the fulfillment of his dream. Is he any less of a tzadik?

The weekly Torah portion recounts the deathbed blessings and instructions Jacob offered each of his sons. What’s remarkable is that they’re all present: the beloved Joseph, the mighty Judah, inept Reuven, tempestuous Simon and Levi. All have a place in the family. Abraham had but one blessing: Isaac was chosen, Ishmael was cast out. Isaac had but one blessing: Jacob was favored, Esau rejected. But Jacob finds words for each of his sons. Each belongs to him. And all remain children of Israel. Were we so wise.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.