“Allow me, [O Holy One], to be counted among The Good People.” (Zohar 2:206, Siddur)
In my formal lectures, as well as in private conversations, I have often asked hundreds of parents, “What would you like your children to be when they grow up?” In various orders, the four most common answers are: “happy”, “healthy”, “a Mensch”, and “Jewish”.
In my group talks as well as in private conversations, I have asked thousands of teenagers, “What single thing could you do at this stage of life to please your parents the most?” The near-universal answer: “Get good grades.” And they usually answer very quickly and spontaneously.
When I review these two polls in front of an audience, you can feel a certain uneasiness in the air. I usually break the tension with a joke from the not-well-enough-known and too-often-remaindered classic of Jewish humor, The Unorthodox Book of Jewish Records & Lists (authors, Allan Gould and yours truly), “The Smartest Jewish Grandchild: Harold Weinstock of River Junction, Missouri, grandson of Earl and Anne Grossinger of Teaneck, New Jersey, recited the Four Questions of the Passover Service at birth.” There are three jokes in the chapter, concluding with Sharon Firestone who “at the age of five weeks began her own petition to fire the rabbi.” We get some good laughs out of this lampooning of precociousness. Then return to the issue at hand.
There is a very serious disparity in the results of these two informal polls. What could possibly explain it? Numerous people have offered possible reasons. One reason they give is, that since the polls were not taken by the standard rules of poll-taking and statistical analysis, it could very well be a false result. Other possibilities suggested include: The people polled may not have constituted a truly random sample; the question may not have been accurately phrased and may have led to “the answers that Danny Siegel wanted to hear”, and finally, the same teenagers I asked may not be the same children of the parents I asked. Their own children may, indeed, know that their parents want them to be happy, healthy, a Mensch, and Jewish. I suspect that the last reason is extremely unlikely. I have asked thousands of teenagers. The sheer size of my sample leaders me to believe the answers given reflect a fundamental problem we need to face squarely.
In truth, I wish the results were different. But since they aren’t, we have to make some sense of them, and do something about this enormous disparity. However the message has become central in their thinking, the teenagers are swept up in the pursuit of excellence and achievement, and the sensation of competitiveness for good grades is often brutal. Inevitably, it takes a toll on the teenagers’ well-being.
I remember reading an interesting phrase in a newspaper long ago — “the prison of excellence”. When excellence has no context, I think this reporter’s phrase is extremely appropriate. To illustrate: Certainly in the world of sports, The Olympic Games are a prominent example of competitiveness. The motto of The Games is “citius, altius, fortius”, Latin for “faster, higher, stronger”, and the rewards are gold, silver, and bronze medals. The question remains — “context”: For the victors, what is the greater, the ultimate significance of winning these medals, and for those athletes who did not place 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, what is the ultimate meaning of losing?
At this point, I need to make myself absolutely clear, since many people in the past have misinterpreted my words. Some have even taken offense. I am not saying, either explicitly or implicitly, that being a straight-A student and being a Mensch are a contradiction in terms. That is why this article is called “Getting A’s And/Or Being a Mensch”. Nor am I saying that there is something essentially wrong in getting good grades. I am only trying to interpret the results of these two polls. I want to understand the underlying forces that reflect themselves in the emphasis, values, and priorities relating to grades and Menschlichkeit.
A “myseh“, a real-live story: In the summer of 2000, I was studying with my Ziv Tzedakah Fund summer interns in Israel when, out of the blue, I asked the question, “Which of our Mitzvah heroes do you think has the highest IQ?” The minute I asked, all of us were taken aback. It was such an irrelevant question, and even though we spent no more than 5 minutes going down the list, we remained uncomfortable about it. It really had nothing to do with their Mitzvah work, absolutely nothing. What difference, at all, would it make in their awesome Tikkun Olam activities and projects? Even now, reflecting back 17 years, I wonder, why I asked it at all. And even stranger is this: I began my work with Mitzvah heroes in 1975. A full quarter of a century had passed before the thought even occurred to me to ask, and having asked it then, I don’t think it will ever come up again in any future conversation.
Now, we need to deal with this issue of Getting A’s And/Or Being a Mensch.
Indeed, I believe we need to deal with this issue, and, I believe we need to deal with this issue Jewishly.
Jewishly, the first point to consider is that there are no Talmudic terms for “excellence”, “achievement”, and “competitiveness”. While the Rabbis of the Talmudic era did have the term “Yetzer HaRa”, it meant the human inclination to do the wrong thing. Competitiveness was only one aspect of the Yetzer HaRa, and the term itself is negative. Competitiveness as a single concept would not have been part of their thinking.
I believe the rabbis’ understanding of these concepts would be that, without a connection to some kind of values, the terms had no ultimate meaning. For them, to say that someone should achieve excellence because a person should achieve excellence would make no sense. Concerning all three of these terms, I believe they would have asked, “Be excellent, be competitive, achieve — for what purpose? To what end?”
Even nowadays, if you were to ask in slightly literary Hebrew, “For what purpose?” you would say, “Leshaym Mah?” Someone attuned to the language would then expect to hear “Leshaym Shamayim – For the sake of Heaven” meaning “for some higher purpose”.
If, for example, we are competitive when we have to raise large sums of emergency Tzedakah funds for a recent catastrophe somewhere in the world, that is For the sake of Heaven. The same is true for a sense of achievement — we are entitled to feel good for having made this effort and achieving our goal.
For another example, “achievement” might mean that a community achieved the goal of making certain that everyone in the community had enough money to make a decent Passover Seder.
In the context of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, excellence should not, therefore, be determined by the fact that he or she recited the blessings fluently, though that is important to a certain extent and very nice. I have never really been comfortable with well-wishers telling the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, “Good job!” It just feels to me like the wrong phrase. The appropriate Jewish phrase would be, “Yishar Koach – All the more strength to you [to live a wonderful life of Mitzvahs].” According to the latest Talmudic dictionaries, the root of the word “yishar” is “shin-resh-resh” – the very same root that gives us the word “muscle”. With your encouragement, the Bar and Bat Mitzvah kinderlach are building their constitution to its optimum strength and efficiency to prepare them for a life filled with idealistic good deeds.
The praise of excellence really ought to be: That the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has brilliantly achieved the goal of fully joining the Jewish community as a full-fledged 100% Mitzvah Person.
Returning to the poll of the parents and their answer that they want their child to be a Mensch, let me conclude with some excellent Jewish terms that help us define and articulate what we really want the teenagers to grow up to be: Menschlich, best translated as “a decent, caring human being (and much more); Ehrlich, honest; Fein, just like it sounds, a fine human being; Shayn, meaning beautiful, as in “a beautiful human being”; Ziess, sweet; Aydel, noble, as in “a person who has a noble soul”; to have Temimut – a powerful word meaning simplicity, innocence, and humility; to embody the all-important principle of “Tocho KeVaro” – one’s inner being is the same as one’s outward behavior, and from Turkish Ladino – the self-explanatory terms for a Mensch…“hombre bueno/mujer buena” or “precioso/preciosa.”
Perhaps with the approach of this important Jewish milestone of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss what you, as parents, really, do expect of your child.
To state it in Yiddishized English syntax — Your child should only grow up to be happy, healthy, a Mensch, and a Jew….all four of them, not three, not two, not just one of them.