Seventh graders were asked to draft an essay on a personal hero. Teachers separated their papers into two piles. Atop the papers in the first pile was a note, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The second pile of essays included a different note, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” 40% of those with papers in the first pile chose to revise and resubmit their work, while 80% of the students with papers in the second pile elected to do so. Expecting more, particularly in encouraging ways, can stretch us to reach further.
Expecting more from our neighbors and colleagues might require assuming less about them. I find myself much more interested in learning from a presenter whose assumptions about me and the rest of the audience feel less conclusive. If a speaker is to make assumptions, let them be more generous. Instead of saying, “We all know that such a naive approach leads nowhere”, express sentiments that esteem an audience for their rigor and discernment.
It’s time for a counter-voice to help rebalance expectations and assumptions. This is a specialty of the Torah. For example, ancient heroes were raised among commoners in humble settings. Only later in life do they discover that they are royalty. By contrast, Moses is raised as a prince in a palace. He matures to discover that he belongs to an enslaved people. We find such counter-myth stories throughout Scripture. The firstborn never becomes the leader. Wilderness wanderings do not produce inspiring transformation. And the land of promise remains unreachable for Moses. Indeed, the Torah schools us in being the counter-voice to normative storylines.
Rampant groupthink is a consequence of social media. Invoking a counter-voice with respect to how we think, for example, about race, religion, and relationships, would offer welcome change. Character-content should always be more vivid than skin color. Religious wellness should be morally upscale, prioritizing reverence over reductionism. And conversations with others that feel transactional can grow more responsive, confessional, and generous.
The arrival of 2018 is not the only signal we have to stir renewal and fresh resolutions. Early in the Book of Exodus’ opening chapter this week we note, “The Children of Israel were fertile, prolific, and multiplied exceedingly throughout the land” (Ex. 1:7). This verse draws upon the wording of three earlier Genesis verses: 1) humanity’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28), 2) the proliferation of Noah’s descendants (shartzu) (Gen. 9:7), and 3) the expansive promise of Abraham’s progeny (bi-meod, meod) (Gen. 17:2, 6). By alluding to these seminal beginnings in the Bible’s opening book, our verse in this week’s portion of Torah signals a new beginning.
May renewed generosity help us expect more and assume less in 2018, enabling us to reach toward new frontiers of the spirit.