Friday, September 29, 2017

Character Ambition

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

Text from Rabbi Harcsztark’s teshuvah drasha to the school before Yom Kippur.

Here’s how it happened: I had already been up for over an hour; it’s Sunday morning, had my coffee, read the headlines and had learned for a while. Figured I would go with my boys to the 9am minyan. It’s 8:45, time to wake them up. I got the usual groan and then the turn over. I said to myself, “I will come back in five minutes for round 2”. As expected. At 8:50, another wake up call, another groan, another turn over. Now it’s 8:55 and no one is moving yet. “They are getting up, right?” By 8:59, I start to get agitated: why can’t you just get up? You do realize that I am coming with you to shul today! Why can’t you just get up on time?” My irritation grows, kids grumbling and finally, we get out to shul. At this point, mutual aggravation, and now none of us really in a davening mindset. And so, it has happened again - my irritability, my desire for things being just so, has taken over. It made a shul moment with my kids and with God, into a not-so-sacred moment.

When I think about my irritability, I feel bad. I don’t want this to be true about me. But at some point, I made a decision to work on it: I wanted to change, to grow. It wasn’t easy. But it was important and it made a difference. 

In these moments that we have together before Yom Kippur, I want to focus on an aspect of our theme, tikkun hamiddot, but in a specific way. I want to talk about ambition. Our SAR community, is very ambitious - we have driven and hard working students, driven and hard working faculty and driven and hard working parents. We want to get good grades, do well on SATs, get into a good college, get a good job. We want to win our championship games and be popular with our friends.

But I want to talk about a different kind of ambition. I am going to call it Character Ambition. What I mean by character here: the moral and ethical qualities that are particular to who we are and how we live our lives. So Character Ambition means having ambition, a desire, to develop our moral and ethical character in the best way - and putting in the planning and hard work that is necessary to achieve it. For me in my story, it means cultivating patience so I won’t be so irritable. For you, it will mean something else. And in regard to this type of ambition, I want to make two claims today.

My first claim is that while we are all nice people, and we all want to do the right thing, being nice is not enough. We want to be the very best possible versions of ourselves. My second claim is that sometimes we get a little lazy, and forget to make choices that would help us become the people we want to be. If we want to grow, we need a plan.

As I was preparing for this talk, Shoshana Kattan (better known as Shoco) shared a video with me and I would like to share thirty seconds from Drew Dudley’s talk on leadership (:09-:38). Drew Dudley is saying something so important, so memorable-- that HOPE IS NOT A PLAN. We need to be more concrete.

How do we figure out a plan? How do we decide what to work on? The truth is that we have a long history of thought about this. The Torah has high “character expectations” for us. The Torah’s mitzvot push so strongly for ethical and moral sensitivity. 

I know what we tend to say: we’re just being high school kids, that’s what high school kids do. And our teachers give us too much work for us to think about character, about working on my middot. And faculty, will say, we are so busy doing important things that we don’t have the luxury to think about tranquility, humility, wasting time or money. But that’s why we need to talk about it. Having ambition means wanting to be better. We need to believe that we are not yet at our best and we need the drive, the desire to be the best that we can be. Ambition, by definition, means never saying “I am good enough”. Maybe everyone around me thinks that I am ok. But I am not doing it for someone else; I am doing it for me.

The Rambam wrote in his Shemoneh Perakim: “The ancients maintained that the soul, like the body, is subject to good health and illness”. That is a very deep idea. Our inner beings can be healthy or ill just like our bodies. Think about it - when it comes to my body, what people around me do is not necessarily what is good for me. People eat too much, become unhealthy. I know it will make me physically unhealthy so I shouldn’t do it. People need to exercise their bodies. It will help us live longer, healthier lives. We need to think of our souls, our inner beings, in terms of health and sickness. In what ways are we healthy? In what ways sick? What must I do to make myself as soulfully healthy as I can be?

When it comes to character ambition, here is the point: If we take tikkun hamiddot seriously, then it requires action and determination. I want to outline the beginnings of a path towards working on that. And I want to do that by taking that which we know - planning and hard work for our grades, our teams, our college applications - and applying those same strategies to our middot, to our most daily interactions with others, with God and within our own selves. So I share with you my four steps of character ambition.

Four Steps of Character Ambition
  1. Set a practical goal - think of what this looks like in regular school life. I am imagining my kids writing an essay - for class or for a college application - or deciding that they wanted to make a team. In all of those cases, there is a concrete goal. So when you do it once - write the essay, play ball - you don’t feel that you’re done. You look at it again, assess what you’ve done, find out how it can be done better. Over the course of time, you get better and better at it. I have been amazed to watch my kids’ essay writing or foul shooting improve in just that way. Having a goal propels you forward. We should set goals for ourselves in middot and character growth in just the same way. Pick a middah and work at it; for a while. For me, my goal is to seek מנוחת הנפש, an inner peace, where I don’t get quickly irritated when talking with someone. When that happens, I don’t listen to others with patience and I can speak to them disparagingly. Often it happens because I am feeling bad about myself or upset about something else or angry at the other person for not totally accepting my own point of view. And often it happens with the people closest to me. I actually think that this is one of the על חטא’s - שחטאנו לפניך בלצון that we sinned before you by scorning others. And when I am not at peace, I mistreat other people, I fail myself and the whole situation becomes less Godly. But I need to be practical-- I can’t leave this as an idea. There has to be a plan, and a goal. So I would say this: every time I become annoyed about getting to davening on time with my kids, every time I feel that sense that I’m somehow not a good enough Jew unless I get to minyan on time and find myself channeling that insecurity toward my children, I say to myself: take a breath, I’m ok. I might say it twice: take a breath, I’m ok. This becomes my mantra. It helps me because it’s a concrete step I can take that gets me closer to my goal: patience, tranquility. I ask you to do the same. What middah do you want to improve? To work on over the next 6-8 weeks? Lesson #1: Set a goal for yourself.
  2. Get a coach - Pursuing the analogy further, in pursuing my goals and ambitions, if I really want to to do my best, I get a coach. That is obviously true for sports. That is also true when writing a paper or an application or preparing for the ACT’s or working on a robot car in engineering or if you are in the play or doing art. We always turn the coach. How can we expect to learn how to do it better without a coach? The Baalei Mussar were very clear on the importance of a coach - a rabbi or a chavruta to work with, to give pointers. If I start getting irritable, my rebbe should point it out to me or I should try to unpack the moment with my middot chavruta, or my best friend, or my spouse. The Rambam was very serious about this. He saw the Rabbi as a doctor - there are medical doctors for the body and there are spiritual doctors for the soul. The Greeks thought that too. It’s hard to develop strategies on my own, to teach myself to listen patiently all the time under all circumstances. And it’s not good enough to just “do my best”. Tikkun HaMiddot means working in earnest. And if we are serious about growth, we should get ourselves a coach - just like we have for our other ambitions. And I am pretty sure that your middot partner will do it free of charge.
  3. Third, pay attention to detail - when we pay attention, when we learn about a middah and about ourselves, we begin to see the nuances that make all the difference. So I worked to find other places where the mantra would help. Working on this middah then made me experience davening and making brachot in a new way. I found davening to be a peaceful space carved out in the day to take a breath, take stock and recenter myself. And, here again, it impacted on my relationship with myself, with Hashem and with others all at once. So that’s step 3: pay attention to detail.
  4. Finally, practice! The Rambam says in Hilchot Deot: “How can one train himself to follow these temperaments to the extent that they become a permanent fixture of his personality? He should perform, repeat and perform a third time the acts which conform to the standards of the middle road temperaments. He should do this constantly until these acts are easy for him and do not present any difficult. Then these temperaments will become a fixed part of his personality.” Whatever we are serious about-- we don’t just do it once! After I started working on it, I began to enjoy going to shul with my kids on a whole new level. I was more accepting, we enjoyed each other’s presence - and my davening was more meaningful and more peaceful. It helped in my connection to those around me, to God and to myself.
So these are the four steps—set a practical goal, get a coach, pay attention to detail, and practice.

Picking a Middah

Can you imagine if everyone picked just one thing to work on and actually worked on it with a partner following these four steps? We would be a community of עובדי ד׳, people working hard for a kinder, more sensitive, more principled community. It would be amazing!

I asked faculty members to share with me the middah that most inspired them - and a role model who embodied it. I am sorry that I can’t include them all but I would like to highlight two responses that really resonate with me. 

Ms. Schlaff: When I think of tikkun hamiddot, I think of someone I actually don’t know well at all, and of a very small act.
Here’s the story:
From time to time I speak in my shul. I’m pretty used to public speaking, but no matter how many times I get up in front of an audience, it is always good to have a “nodder” - one person amongst the crowd who looks right at me when I am speaking, and smiles, and nods. When I have one nodder in the audience, I feel perfectly fine about whatever I have to say. So there is this one woman in my shul who is a nodder. I do not know her well at all. I say good shabbos to her every week, but that is pretty much it. But after the last time I spoke, I went over to her to thank her for always smiling when I speak, and to tell her how confident it makes me feel. And what she said totally amazed me. She said that a few years ago, she decided that anytime she heard anyone speak - anywhere - she was going to make it her business to make them feel comfortable by making eye contact with the speaker, and smiling and nodding. She said it was her small contribution to the world. What amazed me was that I had always thought it came naturally to her - something she did without thinking. I was so impressed to learn it was a conscious decision. She had translated an interest in treating people with respect, the middah of kavod, into a specific action. 

Ms. Dweck also responded, and her answer blew me away because she suggested her coach wasn’t some intellectual or even a grown up, but a toddler. She wrote: “A toddler learning to walk. Failure is part of the learning process and perseverance, I believe is the key to embracing the failure. When a toddler is learning to walk it is a process. He/She falls many times and each time he/she gets right back up and tries again. And again. And again. I wish we could bring this resilience with us into adolescence, adulthood and beyond. We are born with perseverance. In our very first breath of life we need to figure out how to manage in gravity. We don't give up. We persevere.”

Perseverence, like מנוחת הנפש, is also one of R. Yisrael Salanter’s thirteen middot.

I mentioned earlier how powerful it would be to have a community of people all thinking about a personal middah, working to better themselves in a kind of shared project that was yet so individualized.

And in this spirit, I want to talk about John Allman. He was just written up in the NY Times this past weekend. He is the principal of the Trinity School, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Manhattan. He wrote a letter to his school community at the beginning of this school year suggesting that they needed to rebuild the culture, that it has become too self serving, too narrow and not enough about personal character and the greater good. 

An excerpt: “consistent with our mission, how ought we to educate our students so that they leave us with a commitment not just to advance their own educational interests, but also serve the common good and to give generously to others for the rest of their lives?..As we have learned in recent years...our students’ default understanding of the purpose of their schoolwork becomes to make good grades, gain admissions to a highly selective college, set themselves on a path of lifelong superior achievement. And this default setting -- one of narrowly individualistic self-advancement -- has been locked into place by a frenetic pace of life and expectations of perfection that devour the energy and time students need to reflect on the meaning of their schoolwork...We need to actively develop in our students compelling alternative understandings of the socially redeeming purposes their knowledge and skills could and should serve. If we do not...” 

What he’s saying is so fitting for this season, for religious life, and it’s this: if we take the idea of being a Jewish school seriously, then our goals have to extend beyond the academic to the ethical and spiritual. We have to work at least as hard at bettering ourselves ethically and spiritually as we do at our classes. 

So I will end as I began. In my family, like many of us, we have the minhag of giving brachot to our kids right before we go to shul for Kol Nidre. You can find those berachot in the machzor. It is no longer a frazzled moment, calling them to get ready, hastily giving them brachot, rushing everyone out the door. I know that my family, Hashem and my own neshama will be with me in peace as I, with מנוחת הנפש, bless my family as we pray for a blessed year together. In that spirit, I challenge you: as you sit in shul, ask yourself: what’s my middah? What’s my real goal? Who can help coach me? Let me dedicate time to practice. Turn every day into a day that will effect real change in your life.

Gmar chatima tova to all.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Let's talk...and listen

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

As we begin the fifteenth year of SAR High School, I have found myself, over the past few months, asking: if I were charged with opening a new school today, what would it look like? Having confronted that question fifteen years ago, it feels useful to ask it anew. In what ways would our thinking be similar and in what ways different? More than a blog’s worth can be said in response to that question. Much has changed over this relatively short period of time, changes that have significantly impacted the lives of high school students - the uses of technology and the nature of the college process are two such examples. But something else keeps coming to mind as I consider the question, something that is crucial for us as members of the Modern Orthodox community in America.

Over the course of the past decade, our community has experienced increasing polarization. We have become more divided over many issues and the political climate of recent years has helped draw those dividing lines even more thickly. And I am concerned that we are not the better for it.

Unless we use this awareness to make us better. If we acknowledge from where it comes, this polarization can help serve as a check and an opportunity for meaningful exchange within our community. Allow me to share some of the theoretical work that has been done in this regard.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, published an oft-cited book, The Righteous Mind (Vintage: 2012). In that work, Haidt describes the results of his research on the nature of moral development. He suggests that just as there are five taste receptors on the tongue, people operate with six foundations of moral intuitions. He calls this Moral Foundations Theory. The categories people use for moral consideration, in pairs, are: care/harm, fairness(equality)/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Seen from this vantage point, Haidt shows that, just as people have natural tendencies when it comes to taste, the same is true regarding moral judgment. Applied to politics and religion, he describes that conservatives tend to endorse all six foundations more equally overall while liberals tend to prioritize the care and equality foundations over the others. That means that conservatives grant more value to the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity than liberals do, while liberals grant more value to care and equality. 

Most important in this analysis: we all value all of these foundations. At the same time, it is not surprising that we are each invested in some more than others of these foundations, according to our personal dispositions and inclinations. Given that understanding, each of us can benefit from interacting with a peer who prioritizes certain of the moral foundations more than we ourselves do. If I naturally prioritize fairness and equality, I might gain from hearing someone speak of the importance of loyalty, or the necessity for an authority figure to help guide us. Haidt suggests that we can “disagree more constructively” when we are both aware of the foundations that are shared most broadly, and understand that we each have our own way of prioritizing them. These acknowledgements allow us to become vulnerable, to consider other perspectives, knowing that those perspectives are rooted in the same moral foundations that I, too, believe in. 

The national and communal polarization has of course affected our school too. Last spring, a group of parents asked to meet with me to review the events at school over the past year and a half surrounding the Presidential election. The people in the room were coming from different political perspectives. And the conversations were purposeful. Purposeful, because we were able to consider the range of values that we all shared - and the different ways that we prioritized them. This did not bring everyone to agreement on the political issues; however it did provide context for a constructive exchange. 

Interestingly, I also found that my awareness of the political debates occurring in our school community informed my response to our senior Jewish Identity curriculum, a seminar that I have taught numerous times over the years - one that is not focused on politics. The curriculum focuses on many of the communal and theoretical issues and challenges that an engaged Jewish adult should be familiar with: denominations in American Judaism, Jew and non Jew, Biblical criticism, sexuality and other topics. It is impossible to be totally neutral on such matters. The act of putting any of these topics into a curriculum is, itself, not a neutral decision. And we should be proud of that, and be able to articulate why we choose to incorporate them into the curriculum. Yet, more than once, I felt that we would do well to present a second side: why would someone choose to reject Modern Orthodoxy and become Haredi? What is the concern of someone who sees feminism as a challenge to Orthodoxy? Might Jewish chosenness indeed be a sign of Jewish exceptionalism? I have spent time thinking about these topics and feel that it is my role to share what I believe and what we, as a school, stand for. At the same time, there are instances where we could and we must do better to ensure that we are teaching towards the issues with binocular vision, emphasizing the range of moral foundations in our teaching. 

And the same holds true for religious practice. SAR is a school which prides itself on providing women with the opportunity to learn and teach Torah on the highest levels and participate in tefillah to the degree that halakha allows. This has been a culture-shaping value of the institution since its inception. And those who emphasize certain moral foundations will find that quite resonant. Still, even if one agrees halakhically (and some do not), the foundations of loyalty and authority might lead one to disagree with a particular decision promoting female participation in tefillah. And both should be respected and engaged. This is not a matter of compromising on convictions but of sharing our convictions in the interest of a more constructive exchange. 

Which brings me back to where I began: SAR High School should be a thinking, courageous institution, prepared to stand tall in its beliefs. It is also a ‘big tent’ institution as yeshiva high schools go, home to a range of modern observant families. This is both an opportunity, and a challenge. It is my hope and prayer that our students become adults who are committed to halakha, confident in their beliefs and, at the same time, aware of the range of members in our community and able to engage constructively with them. Our students and faculty must develop a deep understanding of our Modern Orthodox community and the range of people and views that populate that community. To develop that capacity, we must practice listening carefully to and disagreeing respectfully with others. We should be the model for how best to hold a diverse community of committed Jewish men and women together in discourse and practice so that the next generation is prepared to engage, shape and strengthen our community spiritually, religiously and ethically. 

On a personal level, I feel this as well. I have learned from the constructive exchanges that I have had over the course of last year. As principal of this great school, it is my responsibility to do so. I will work to ensure that in the classroom, conference room and beyond, SAR is a space where we listen, we respect, we learn and we grow. 

We look forward to a wonderful year of learning and growth together at SAR High School. May we all be blessed with a year of health and growth - physical and spiritual - a year of peace, happiness and well being for our families, our community, the Jewish people and the world.