Being an A+ Human Being
Rosh Hashanah Day Two – September 8, 2021
Kenichiro Fumita was crying so hard that he could barely get the words out.
“I wanted to return my gratitude to the concerned people and volunteers who are running the Olympics during this difficult time,” Mr. Fumita, a Greco-Roman wrestler, said between sobs after finishing his final bout at the Games this week.
“I ended up with this shameful result,” he said, bobbing his head abjectly. “I’m truly sorry.”
Mr. Fumita, 25, had just won a silver medal.
These words are from a New York Times article written last month about a curious spectacle at the Tokyo Olympics: the sight of Japanese athletes apologizing profusely for coming in in second place.
Of course, we know that everyone who goes to the Olympics dreams of winning the gold. But for most of us weekend tennis players and neighborhood joggers for whom dreams of Olympic success are mere fantasies, for us, just making it to the Olympics would be a great cause of joy and pride – not to mention how we would feel if we actually won a medal.
But for some of the athletes who stood on the podium last month, being second best felt like failure.
The issue of what it means to achieve, what it means to truly be successful, became a major theme of the Olympics this past summer – fueled by news stories like this one, but even more so by the drama surrounding key athletes like Simone Biles.
Simone Biles, of course, made headlines by deciding not to participate in the team gymnastics competition. When she made that announcement, it was the “no” heard ‘round the world.
Biles’s decision garnered strong reactions, with some people calling her a coward for supposedly taking the easy way out. But to many of Biles’s fellow athletes, and to many of us watching from our sofas, Biles’s act of refusal was a strong act of self-determination, a way of wielding power and authority.
In the New York Times, sports columnist Kurt Streeter asserted that “this was an act of individual resistance, putting up a firm wall between herself and the glaring burden of competition.”
Why did Biles drop out? She explained that she was suffering from the “twisties,” a phenomenon well-known to gymnasts. When a gymnast like Simone Biles executes the kinds of complicated flips that she does, she needs to have a strong sense of direction – to know which way is up and which is down, to be able to sense how she is oriented in the air at any given point in time.
For any of us who have ever gotten dizzy after a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl, we can probably understand how amazing it is that gymnasts are able to keep their sense of space and direction as they twist and turn through the air – and how terrifying it must be for them to lose that sense. Without it, they could put themselves in serious danger if they execute their usual complicated moves.
By the way – throughout much of the history of American gymnastics, putting themselves in danger and competing through injury and trauma has been exactly what gymnasts have been expected to do.
Many of us still remember the 1996 Olympics, when Kerri Strug was persuaded by coach Bela Karolyi to keep competing even though she was injured. She did as she was told, and the world watched as she stuck her landing – and then collapsed in agony. Karolyi carried her to the podium to receive her gold medal.
Simone Biles, like many other gymnasts, has sacrificed much to achieve her success and her position in the world of gymnastics. When she said “no” at the Olympics, she chose to put self-care and self-preservation ahead of her desire for one more success, one more win.
This drama playing out at the Summer Olympics brought into stark relief the way that many of us feel about the importance of achievement.
Although we might feel sorry for the athletes who were brought to tears by the supposed sin of being second best, are we American Jews really that much more relaxed about the question of our own achievement – and our children’s achievement?
We push ourselves relentlessly, striving to get that promotion or that raise, to make division head or make partner, to make enough money for a new kitchen or a second home.
And we push our kids to succeed – signing them up for more and more AP classes and labor-intensive extracurriculars, sending them for SAT prep and essay-writing help and volunteer gigs that will pad their college applications.
And we seldom stop to ask ourselves – what is this accomplishing for us and for our kids? Is all of the success we’re striving for really leading to true joy and satisfaction in life?
There’s a new book by Dr. Ron Wolfson and Dr. Bruce Powell, both of whom are professors of education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. You might be familiar with Ron Wolfson via his book Relational Judaism, which had a profound impact on the American Jewish community when it was published in 2013.
In Relational Judaism, Dr. Wolfson taught about how synagogues and other Jewish institutions needed to prioritize relationship-building over other supposed measures of success.
Wolfson’s and Powell’s new book is called Raising A+ Human Beings, and it details what the two authors have learned throughout their years in Jewish education, and their vision for what it takes to create positive, productive Jewish learning environments for students.
The book focuses on Jewish private secondary schools, but its implications are powerful for all Jewish education, for all ages, both in and out of the synagogue.
Bruce Powell begins the book with a story from his days as the general studies principal at the all-girls Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School. One late-spring day, as he gathered with the students for their morning prayer service and assembly, he noticed that the students seemed incredibly anxious. Final exams were approaching, and the tension and stress seemed to permeate the room.
Instead of his usual morning announcements, Powell decided to share with the students a story of one of his own academic challenges when he was in school – and how he succeeded in life despite getting a less-than-stellar grade. Powell explained to the kids,
“It seems to me that every girl in this room is an A+ human being even if you are not an A+ student in every subject. So, has anyone done a good deed today? Has anyone brought joy to a friend? If so, you are an A+ person, so stop worrying about grades. Study hard, but always know that life and friends will judge you on the grades that do not appear on your transcript. Please be A+ human beings every day.”
Powell writes that after he spoke these words, the tension in the room seemed to ebb, and he could see the girls start to relax. Powell’s message about being an A+ human being became the unofficial motto at the school, and he recounts that 40 years later, former students still contact him to express how much that idea strengthened them during times of self-doubt.
In their book, Powell and Wolfson go on to share strategies for how Jewish schools can strive to produce A+ human beings and to make sure that all of their students are enrolled in AP Kindness, even as they work towards academic excellence.
These ideas are deeply embedded in Jewish thought. We learn from our earliest years in Hebrew School that the most important commandment in Judaism is that of kindness.
Our teachers tell us the famous story of the ancient sage Hillel, and how he responded to the chutzpadik request of a stranger. The stranger approached Hillel and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” This, of course, was probably meant to be a troublemaking kind of question rather than a serious question.
Hillel, however, was not deterred. He replied to the man, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
It’s a lovely statement. It’s also an audacious statement, if you think about it. Who was Hillel? He was among the earliest of the rabbis – and who were the ancient rabbis? A group of people who were dedicated to expounding and expanding upon the laws in the Torah. A group of people who enumerated that the Torah included 613 commandments, and who delighted in enumerating extra stipulations for those commandments.
In Hillel’s world, the world of the ancient rabbinic academies, achievement was measured by proficiency in the commandments – knowing them and adhering to them.
And yet – Hillel understood that achieving compliance with all of these laws that the rabbis promulgated was less important than the central commandment to be a decent person. What Hillel told the stranger, in so many words, was: “Be an A+ human being. The rest is commentary.”
Our Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah tell the story of the birth and early experiences of Yitzchak, Isaac, our second patriarch, and some of the struggles that his parents Avraham and Sarah faced in bringing him into this world. In particular, yesterday’s Torah reading tells of the conflict between Sarah and her maidservant Hagar.
The conflict stems from the fact that Sarah is infertile. Frustrated by her inability to provide Avraham with an heir, she takes her Egyptian maid-servant Hagar and gives him to Avraham as a concubine, so that Hagar can hopefully conceive a child for the family. Hagar indeed conceives and gives birth to a son, Yishmael. Eventually, Sarah herself gets pregnant and gives birth to Yitzchak. We would think that all of this would make Sarah happy – but the presence of Hagar’s son continues to be a thorn in Sarah’s side, destroying her happiness.
Sarah casts Hagar out, saying, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
For the women of the Biblical world, conceiving and bearing a child – particularly a male child – was the greatest achievement a woman could hope to have. It was essentially the only achievement a woman could hope to have. With some exceptions, women didn’t have jobs or careers – the way they proved their value within their family and within society was by having children.
This is one of the reasons why it was so painful for women when they struggled with infertility. When Sarah finally conceived and gave birth – to a son, no less, a male heir – she had reached ancient womanhood’s crowning achievement. She had gotten an A+.
But that didn’t make her a compassionate person. When she threw Hagar out of the family home, she certainly wasn’t acting according to our people’s central ethic – treating others as we would want to be treated.
Now, I’m not looking to sully Sarah’s name too much. We can understand some of the pain she was feeling and the difficulty of her situation. And, like all of our patriarchs and matriarchs, she had both good and bad qualities, and good and bad episodes throughout her life.
But in this episode, I think that Sarah’s behavior demonstrates that achieving the maximum that you can achieve in society’s eyes doesn’t make you an A+ human being.
These questions that our sacred Scriptures raise about what it means to achieve, what it means to be successful, are echoed by the words of the High Holy Day prayers that we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The machzor, the High Holiday prayerbook, reminds us that our achievements in this world are ultimately inconsequential – at least in God’s eyes:
“What are we? What is our life? Our goodness? Our righteousness? Our achievement? Our power? Our victories? What shall we say in Your presence, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors? Heroes count as nothing in Your presence, famous people as if they never existed, the wise seem ignorant, and clever ones as if they lack reason.”
Yes, there are concrete measures of success that we can achieve in this world – heroism, fame, wisdom – and they are not without value. But our prayerbook reminds us over and over again that ultimately, these measures of success don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things. When we view our own achievements in the light of God’s greatness, it puts our success into perspective. Only God is eternal – our achievements are fleeting.
So am I standing up here on Rosh Hashanah and telling you to be a slacker? Am I telling you not to strive or achieve? Not to go for that promotion, not to support your children’s education? Not at all. What I am telling you is to have perspective. To recognize that the way the outside world measures achievement should always be second in our minds to the way Judaism measures achievement.
Getting your dream job, or your dream house, achieving financial success, being summa cum laude – all of that is well and good.
But if those metrics become the way in which you measure your self-worth and the value of your life, that can leave you with what I’ll call the spiritual version of the twisties – which is what happens when you find yourself not knowing which way is up and which way is down. When you no longer know what’s really important, and you’re no longer sure whether people value you for your success – or for who you truly are.
Being a CEO, or a perfect student, or even a gold medalist means nothing if the process of achieving those goals leaves you broken so that you can no longer enjoy your own success or be generous enough to enjoy the success of others.
In the coming year, may we remember to measure ourselves by the metrics that really matter – those that have been taught to us by our tradition and implanted in our hearts by God.
May we always keep our balance and our sense of direction by holding fast to our tradition’s teachings about what it means to truly achieve success in life.
May we all strive to be A+ human beings and get high marks in generosity and compassion.
And may the kindness that we show to others come back to us and grant us a deep sense of satisfaction in the unique gifts that we each bring to this world.
Wishing you a Shanah Tovah – a good, sweet, and healthy New Year.