Many years ago, my daughters bamboozled my husband and me into taking them to Sesame Place, where I somehow found myself strapped in next to them on what turned out to be a long and quite terrifying water roller coaster ride. My daughters are now 19 and 17 and for the past two years, I have lived alongside them, as well as their friends and classmates, while they applied to college. I have on many occasions felt like I was right back at Sesame Place, strapped in next to them on a ride whose ups and downs were much higher and much lower than I would have preferred, feeling that I was largely powerless in the face of forces much bigger than myself.
May 1st, the deadline for enrollment decisions, is the day when most high school seniors will finally step out of the car and end the ride. As we all know, it has been a particularly wild ride this year, now that the price list has been made public, from faking your SAT scores (starts at $15,000.00) all the way up to admission to the college of your choice as a varsity athlete (up to $6.5 million). Although I’ll admit I felt some schadenfreude for a moment as I read all of the salacious details, it also occurred to me that our intense focus on the admissions scandal has obfuscated another, more hidden cost of the whole process, one that is far more pervasive than bribing coaches.
I am a rabbi and a teacher. My colleagues and I have devoted years to nurturing the students at our school, helping them to discover the unique sparks of holiness that we know are hidden inside each and every one of them. Overall, the experience of applying to college felt like the polar opposite of this effort. It seemed to exert a hypnotic effect on students, bidding them to always reach for the brass ring above all else: what is the BEST (i.e. most competitive) college I can get into? We all know the numbers and clearly, many of them will not grasp the ring in the end. This outcome generally deals a significant blow to their self-worth, after 4 years of many late nights and exerting a level of discipline and motivation that is actually pretty amazing for a group of teenagers.
In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jewish people’s lives are redeemed from their servitude, the moment is marked by a sign — the blood on their doorposts which indicates that the Angel of Death will pass over them. A rabbinic midrash (commentary on the Torah) called the Mekhilta asks a question about this moment — where was the blood? Was it on the outside of the door or on the inside?
This question is not simply about architectural design. It is a much deeper inquiry into the nature of redemption. Is redemption a process that takes place on the outside, where it can be seen by all, or is it an internal transformation? The response offered is that the blood was on the inside of the doorpost, because the verse from Exodus says “the blood will be a sign to you,” meaning: to you, and not to others. Redemption is not visible in public. It does not come with a sign advertising our achievement to other people. It is a private matter, indicated by signs that only we can see about ourselves.
The gift that I so badly want to give my students, and that I felt so much in need of when I was in their shoes at 17 and 18, is to notice the signs of transformation which are on the inside, where it counts. As my daughters and their friends graduate from high school, I can think back to so many signs of spiritual, intellectual and ethical growth along the way — when they spoke up for something they believed in, made a choice to stand by a friend, or persisted in the face of adversity. These moments may not be as public as a sweatshirt with a name emblazoned across it, but to me they are much more authentic signs of transformation. I only wish I could have been more effective in teaching them that it is an illusion that any particular acceptance letter is a sign of redemption.
Why is this question about the location of the sign even asked in the first place by the Bible commentator? When you picture this moment, would it ever have occurred to you that the sign was anywhere but on the outside of the door? The purpose of the question is to point out that while it may be easier to notice signs on the outside, we are also called upon to pay attention to the ones on the inside. High school seniors will probably always compete to go to the “best” colleges. But for my part, I am going to persist in the face of adversity and keep teaching my students. with my words and my actions, that I see the holy sparks inside of each of them, no matter what sweatshirt they wear. I guess you could say it is my own effort to liberate myself.