19 December 2014
27 Kislev 5775
It is the college season or, at least, Act I. With early acceptances, deferrals, and rejections having been sent out over the past several weeks, many Gann students continue to be accepted to the colleges of their choice, including the most competitive schools in the country. For many this is a season of joy and relief.
At the same time, you can feel the heaviness in the air, the weight upon college seniors waiting with baited breath to learn whether their dreams will be fulfilled—or crushed. The competitiveness of the process and the randomness of it, the sheer volume of early applications that schools receive, and the immediacy of notification online and through social media make the process as stressful as ever. I am so proud of our seniors who, in spite of this stress, work so hard to be mensches, to support their friends, and to keep perspective.
Recently, I listened to a TED talk entitled “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success” by philosopher Alain de Botton. His talk opens with reflections on the high levels of anxiety that so many adults feel today about their careers, which I found directly relevant to the anxiety high school students feel about college. Among de Botton’s many insights was an observation about our society’s emphasis on individual empowerment that reminded me of both the Chanukah story and the Joseph stories we are reading during these weeks.
It used to be, de Botton observes, that it was not we who are in control of our destiny but “the Gods.” This more traditional, theocratic worldview implies that some people get what they get because “it’s part of God’s plan.” Yes, this can bring with it troubling theological problems as well as human passivity and resignation; however, it also accounts for the randomness in the world and reminds us that we are not actually in control of everything. This worldview is humbling, and it demands faith and trust in some larger plan for our lives. Any given moment is just one step in a process, one stop on a journey, one detail in a much larger picture.
At the same time, de Botton points out, our Western society is profoundly meritocratic— we believe that we each get what we deserve. This can be empowering and should inspire a work ethic and a faith in our ability to succeed, even against difficult odds. It also can lead us to ignore all of the other factors that contribute to success and, sometimes, to failure. De Botton suggests that an overblown sense of our own control and our tendency to judge people based on that sense are contributing to the levels of anxiety people are feeling.
How do we balance these two worldviews and their social, political, ethical, and spiritual implications, and how might this help our children navigate the college process?
Our tradition has something to teach us about the balance between the individual empowerment and responsibility called for by our meritocratic aspirations and the humility and sense of perspective called for by a more theocentric understanding of the world. Judaism sees human beings not as passive observers of the world or as recipients of a fate that we cannot affect but instead as God’s co-creators, responsible for repairing and, sadly, destroying our world. In the Chanukah story, for example, human initiative and the heroic courage of the Maccabees to fight for our way of life led to an unthinkable military victory of the few over the many.
Yet, for our rabbis, this is not the whole story. They emphasize the miracle of the oil to remind us that it is not we, alone, who determine the outcomes of history. So, too, Joseph reminds Pharaoh and, eventually, his brothers that it is not he who is in charge but rather God, that he is just a player in God’s grand narrative.
Regardless of your personal theology, our tradition and these stories drive home the message that you cannot judge a story or a life based on one moment in time, no matter how high or low that moment might be. One moment you are wearing a beautiful coat, a symbol of your father’s love, and the next moment your brothers have thrown you into a pit. One moment you’ve been sold into slavery, and the next moment you’re the most powerful man in Egypt.
Life is a process, a journey, with ups and downs, sadness and joy. To have faith is to trust the process, to know that there is more to the story and that there are many right and good paths we can and will travel. To have faith is also to trust that our lives, ultimately, will be measured by the goodness and justice we do and pursue and by the meaning and purpose we find and create along the way.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker