Rabbi David Walk
Over the past week I discussed with my daughter some of the educational ideas of Carol Dweck, and we agreed that we truly appreciate her work. Over the past three decades Dr. Dweck has developed a theory of motivation which has great value for both parents and teachers. According to her work, individuals can be placed on a continuum based on their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a 'fixed' theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a 'growth' or theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement about their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don't mind or fear failure because they realize their performance can be improved and learning can result from failure. Those with a fixed mindset view failure or set back as an unmitigated disaster. Those with the growth mindset can use a fiasco as a learning experience and resolve to do better next time because everyone is ultimately judged by their effort.
In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), she cites an experiment done with adolescent students in math which included some anecdotal math history. One group was presented with stories which illustrated the outstanding intelligence of these great mathematicians. How some of them understood complex ideas at a very early age, and solved complicated problems effortlessly. The other group was told about these same math greats and their passion for the material. There were descriptions of their many hours of struggle to solve difficult problems and their many failed attempts to decipher thorny mysteries. Not surprisingly when the groups were given math problems to solve the first group was more prone to give up more quickly than the second group. She writes: Too often in our culture these geniuses are portrayed as having been simply born with special talents. Students should know that the distinguishing feature of such people is their passion and dedication to their craft, and particularly the way in which they identify, confront and take pains to remedy their weaknesses (Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement, 2008). Remember what Thomas Edison said: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
This point was not lost on Jewish educators as well. There is a genre of books out there called 'Gedolim books'. Rabbi Aharon Feldman pointed out two major flaws in these works: First of all, all gedolim are presented in a stereotyped fashion, their lives all following the same trajectory from child prodigy to precocious adolescence to marrying a pious woman and, finally, to Torah greatness. Such presentations frequently ignore the self-sacrifice and dedication which of necessity must have gone into the development of every gadol. They often overlook the fact that certainly these men must have surely had their moments of self-doubt, error and human frailty...Great men are, of course, humans as well; on the contrary, they are great because they overcame their human shortcomings. Secondly, these works mistakenly highlight the brilliance and genius of their subjects. It would serve the reader better to emphasize the hard work, sweat and tears that went into making them gedolim. Portraying gedolim as geniuses tends to make their accomplishments appear unattainable: how can anyone not born with such extraordinary gifts ever expect to emulate them? (A. Feldman, The Jewish Observer 27:8, November 1994)
Now we can go back to this week's Torah reading. Our parsha presents a record of the 42 stations where the Jews encamped during the forty year sojourn in the desert. Why do we need this lengthy (and boring) list? Rashi says to show God's compassion that we didn't spend all forty years traveling but only moved a limited number of times. The Ramban points out (based on Maimonides) that these stops all refer to miracles performed by God on our behalf. This is important because we must appreciate the miraculous nature of the time in the wilderness. Miraculous survival is a pretty important theme in Jewish history. But Rav Aharon Lichtenstien has developed an approach to this Torah reading which will sound very familiar.
Rav Aharon offers for our consideration the concept that the journey through the desert was unlike other trips for business or the like. When you rent a car neither Hertz nor the automobile are concerned for the stops just the final destination. However, in the wilderness each trip and each encampment was determined by the word of God. That makes them all significant. The journey itself is noteworthy. That's going to be true about one's Jewish education and even about one's life. How we get there is of substantial consequence. Rav Aharon quotes from Pirkei Avot: It is not your obligation to finish the task, but at the same time you are not free to desist from it (2:16). We are more concerned about the journey than the destination. Life is a process, not a race.
I don't mean to give the impression that we have no goals or that they are not important. We also refer to this world as an ante-way leading to the great hall or final destination. But Rav Aharon adds: We must know that in life, not only the final goal is important. We reject this pragmatic view of reality. As we have seen, the journey towards the goal is also important, and so are the tools that one uses to progress. This is true of the wilderness, and no less so of Jewish life.
So, we learn from Dr. Dweck's mathematical geniuses that passion and effort are necessary for success. We learn from Rabbi Feldman's Gedolim that overcoming human shortcomings is the hallmark of their greatness. And Rabbi Lichtenstein pointed out that we really learned all this from the list of stops along the route to Eretz Yisroel. Life's a trip. May yours be a meaningful growth experience.