“Every day at 12:30 pm I freeze..."
In this week’s parsha, Toldot, we learn that there was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that was in the days of Avraham. Like his father, Yitzhak intended to go down to Egypt, but G-d appeared to him and said: “Do not got down to Egypt for you are like an unblemished sacrifice, and leaving the land is not appropriate for you.”
The question arises: Why is Avraham encouraged to leave the land, and his son, Yitzchak discouraged? Some would say that Avraham was the courageous adventurous type, who was stronger than Yitzchak. Avraham was man on a journey, on a mission to seek a future for his people. Yitzchak, on the other hand, could be seen as a man who is milder in temperament, who needs to be protected from the world, as he is “unblemished” in nature and may not be able to withstand outside pressures.
A different perspective could be taken. There are times in which it is appropriate to leave a place and seek another alternative to a problem. While change can be painful, it can also be a relief. There are also times to stay in place, to be resilient in the face of struggle, to be resourceful in finding solutions through perseverance and grit, and determination.
I like to think of Yitzhak as a man who was capable of “sticking with it” in the face of struggle. A famine was upon him in the land, and rather than leave, he was told to stay and sweat it out. It takes immense courage to confront an seemingly unsolvable problem. It takes patience, faith and resilience. These are the attributes of great strength and determination.
At Sulam we talk about perseverance, grit, and resilience as skills we work to help our students develop so that they can confront their struggles head on. G-d promised to stay with Yitzchak and bless him, and provide for him. I believe this is an encouraging message that when we have resilience, G-d has our back!
Tenth grader, Emuna, wrote this essay for her english class.
As the story goes, when I was born, my father talked about my ear and how perfectly small it was, and how perfectly shaped it was, because what else would he talk about? He didn't know me, and all the little quirks about me.
By the time I was 12, my father had 12 years to get to know me. Yet, at my Bat Mitzvah, as I sat in a chair in front of everyone, I was listening to my dad speak about how perfect my ear was, again. As I was sitting looking at everyone while my dad was talking, my eyes jolted from place to place, from the brown walls, to the huge windows, to the green pink brown and blue color theme. While he walked around in his blue striped collared dress shirt, and his pink shaded glasses, (my father always says, “everything looks better through rose colored glasses!”) he had a nervous smile on his face. He paced back and forth in the room that everyone was gathered in, the sun was shining in from the humongous glass windows, the shadows from the trees reaching from table to table.
As his speech went on, he started relating my ear to how life isn't perfect and how it's not easy to live with dyslexia because no one is perfect. We “all have struggles,” my dad said as he continued his speech, “as life goes on we have to persevere and push ourselves to strive and work hard to become the best versions of ourselves.” As my father spoke with confidence, I thought about the ways my parents taught me to strive. When you hit a bump in the road, my parents taught me, that you should bulldoze through it; face it with a smile on your face and keep on trying. We have to become like that perfect ear that our parents see in us when we are born, and during our whole lives until we believe it ourselves. Struggles don't define who we are, it means we have to learn to work hard and overcome to succeed.
It's hard to believe that you will become that perfect version of yourself, because of all the hard times that you have gone through, because you see the flaws and the mistakes that you make and you hold on to them for longer than you need to. However, when your parents see your mistakes, they calmly say to themselves, "Ok, you did something wrong, it's fine, try harder and learn from your mistakes". They see the perfect version of yourself within your grasp, a lot closer than you believe it to be.
I hope when I'm older, married, and have children I will be able to see that perfect ear my father saw in me when I was born, and see it in my kids, and guide them with similar views in the world. I hope to be able to help them through their struggles in the same loving and supportive way my parents support me.
A Sense of Purpose
This week the Sulam team met on Monday for a professional day in which we discussed the task of helping our students develop grit - the power to stick to a task and to persevere through failure, struggle, feeling overwhelmed - and not give up. There are techniques to help children develop this important skill, such as using the correct type of praise. For example, rather than telling your child he or she is smart, talented, or intrinsically good at something, it is always best to praise the effort, perseverance and hard work a child puts into a task. Grit is an important factor in the success of our students.
Having a sense of purpose is also what will determine the “stick to it-ness” a student will have. Without a sense of purpose, without passion for a subject or objective, it is hard to have grit. For this reason, it is essential to help our students discover their strengths, their interests and what motivates them. They don’t have to know exactly what career they want to pursue. A sense of purpose is developed when a child feels that they are important, that they matter. Giving a child responsibility helps them recognize that their contribution to the home and family counts, that their worth at school is valued. Becoming a member of a sports team, contributing to a group activity, participating in a mission or program, all help create a sense of purpose.
Our students sometimes come to us feeling defeated by their academic struggles. Our job at Sulam is not only to turn their academic struggles into success. We must help them recognize their value in the school community. Each student has something important to contribute, and we work with them to find their passion and to develop their sense of purpose. After that, developing the grit to accomplish their goals comes more easily.
Parshat Bo is one of my favorite parshiot in relationship to school and education.
After suffering through the drama of repeated disappointments, the Jews finally broke free from slavery. They made a harrowing escape through a miraculously parting sea. Once on dry and safe ground, with the wilderness ahead of them, few possessions to maintain comfort, and nothing but un-risen bread to sustain them, Moshe had the challenging task of motivating them to continue the arduous physical and spiritual journey to become a nation. What words of encouragement could he use? On his website, Covenant & Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that in such defining moments for nations, other leaders have spoken about freedom, like Abraham Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address, or like Nelson Mandela did in his famous “long walk to freedom” speech. Moshe certainly could have done the same but he didn’t. Instead he spoke of children and education. He spoke about the distant future and the duty of parents to educate their children. He spoke of answering questions that your child may ask, thus encouraging active dialogue between parents and children.
Considering the strategies that nations have used to promote survival and longevity, this is a counter-intuitive act. It has also resulted in the survival of the Jewish nation. Wherever we are, we educate our children. We teach our children the importance of justice, righteousness, kindness and compassion. We teach them that freedom can only be sustained by an educated people who know the laws, and practice them. But education itself is not the entire objective. We need, grit, or determination, to sustain freedom.
Speaking of grit, this is an essential character trait that researchers have found to be needed for school (and life) success. Researcher Angela Duckworth found in a study that the single most important indicator of success is grit - or stick-to-itness. IQ was not as strong a determinant in success as the quality of “grit”. Check out her TED talk if you want to know more. https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en
Grit is what is needed to persevere through difficult academic material. It is what is needed when you prefer not to do something but you do it anyway, because it will result in a good outcome. Grit is following the rules, even when you don’t want to. It is what holds children in check when others around them are making poor choices. Grit is a pathway to education, which is a pathway to freedom.
At Sulam, our goal is to help our children develop the grit they need to do well in exams, in their coursework, and in the general school environment so that they will succeed in their lives. In order to help develop grit, we hold our students to high expectations, in a supportive environment. We hold them accountable to well articulated rules. Sometimes they balk, but we persevere with understanding and firm expectations. This does not mean we expect high grades and a track record of success. It means we want them to try, try and try again.
This week’s parsha, Parshat Vayeshev contains the famous story of the brothers throwing Joseph into a pit to be sold to slaves. So begins the story of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt. There are very many aspects to this story that are intriguing, but one particularly meaningful aspect is that of Reuven’s role in saving Josephs’ life.
The brothers had intended to kill Joseph. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a wild animal devoured him,” they plotted. Only Reuven disagreed. Realizing that he was only one against many, Reuven devised a stratagem, saying: “Let us not kill him. Let us throw him alive into one of the cisterns and let him die. That way, we will not be directly guilty of murder.” Reuven’s intentionwas to come back to the cistern later to rescue Joseph. Reuven is recognized in the Torah for his strength and courage in standing up for his brother in the face of adverse opinion and possible danger. His brothers had evil intent, and were at a dangerous level of aggression.
Our history is full of sad examples of individuals not acting in times of evil, or simply doing nothing when action could change the trajectory of a life. A single life, says the Mishnah, is like a universe. Change a life, and change the universe. That is how we make a difference: one life at a time, one day at a time, one act at a time. We never know in advance what effect a single act may have. Sometimes we never know at all.
A Sulam, we have many people who recognize that their acts of kindness and generosity are not inconsequential. They make a difference to the lives of our children by selflessly giving their time as volunteers on the Sulam Executive Board, by working as ambassadors of our program that supports every precious individual to become included in our community, and by giving financially if they can.
This past Tuesday Sulam announced a $250,000 match grant from a group of highly dedicated and committed community members who believe in our mission, and who believe they can make a difference. Please spread the message to family, friends, colleagues and others. We need support and commitment from everyone to continue to make a difference in the world. Please direct them to our website to make a contribution. www.sulam.org/match
At Sulam, we teach our students that their journey is not an all or nothing event. Like the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”, we at Sulam celebrate each rung a student climbs. We revel in gradual, yet consistent achievement.