Passover and Growth Mindset

A professor at a local college recently shared a story from a conversation with an incoming Freshman.  The student, who preferred science, technology, engineering, and math, was dismissive of the humanities.  She asserted, “I’m not interested in questions for which there are no answers.”   One wonders how such a learner might respond to Passover’s Four Questions next weekend.

A brain is like a muscle.  It can be developed with exercise.  Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck notes, “nobody laughs at babies and says how dumb they are because they can’t talk.”  Her groundbreaking research clarifies the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.  Our culture values identity and prizes authenticity.   Indeed for political candidates, growth as expressed by changes in policy is widely perceived as weakness.  Yet our past does not predetermine our future.   And a recipe for how we become better is baked into the way this season has greeted us for 3500 years.

The Seder story we tell and taste schools us in a growth mindset.  Belief in hope and change, especially in dark and desperate times, is elemental to our people’s founding story.   The way of striving matters more than any particular destination.  This is illustrated in the Dayenu passage where the goalposts are inched forward with gratitude upon each successive arrival (Exodus, Sinai, Israel, Temple).  By night’s end history vectors toward Elijah.  The Festival itself can turn our dining room table into the most impactful classroom ever conceived.  But this too is not inevitable.

This week’s Torah portion introduces the unexpected notion that houses can be afflicted with spiritually polluting lesions (Lev. 14:33-54).  A fellow worshiper reminded me after services this morning of the unusual proximity of these passages with the intense house cleaning we are currently engaged in to prepare for a Hametz-free Passover.  Rigidity, overconfidence, and categorical certainty are spiritual pollutants worthy of being dispelled.  Ingredients for the most delectable Seder include curiosity, joy, and generosity.

May we glimpse in others and embody within ourselves evidence that prefers change agents to talent scouts.  And may our Seder table be curious.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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