All Jewish kids get A's. It's a fact. They're all above average. They all go on to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all are the champ in debate, first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, the captain of the team. But what happens when they're not? What happens when they don't excel? What happens when they fail? "You're not working up to your potential," a teacher once scolded me. And I suffered. Only years later did I realized that no one "works up to their potential." Such a demand is limitless; a requirement that 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 a place within the Jewish family for differences? Is there room for failure? Is there love for the child who tries and can't succeed in the ways we've defined success?
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.
I'm a cancer patient. I owe my life to smart doctors. But I worry about them. He was the smartest kid in elementary school, in middle school and high school. She was top of her class in college, aced every exam and was a star at medical school. And now, as oncologists, they must face the reality that they will not be able to save a large percentage of their patients. How are they prepared for that? How will they cope? Do we really want doctors or lawyers or leaders who have never gotten a "B", never flubbed an exam, never experienced failure?
Those who reach far and dream big, fail big. Einstein spent a lifetime looking for a grand theory that doesn't exist. Babe Ruth holds a record for most strike-out's. Columbus never did make it to India. And Moses never entered the Promised Land. Imagine that, the entire Torah ends in colossal failure -- Moses never gets to see the fulfillment of his dream. Is he any less of a spiritual hero? 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. That we have the capacity to go on. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. We can fail, but we still belong.
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 might 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 is different. Jacob finds words for each of his sons. Some of the words are encouraging, some critical. But each son is included. Each is gathered in. Each belongs to him. And all remain children of Israel. Were we so wise.