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Erev Rosh HaShanah 2018/5779

09/17/2018 01:35:05 PM


Rabbi Jill Perlman

A Growth Mindset for the New Year – Rosh HaShanah 5779/2018

This summer, I took one of my sons to a rock climbing gym. It was a new experience for us; we had never climbed before. We laced up our climbing shoes and let our eyes scan up the height of the wall. As we prepared ourselves for the challenge, we turned to the staff member nearby and said, “We’re ready.”

And he said, “Great. Now it’s time for your falling lesson. The first thing you need to do is learn how to fall.”

And I’m not going to lie. I immediately thought to myself – SERMON.

I mean: think about what he had just said. When attempting to go up, the first thing to learn is how to fall. How true for that wall… how true for life!

Learning how to properly fall assumes that we will fall at some point, so we better be prepared. The journey upwards is never guaranteed.

It also assumes interestingly that there are better ways to fall than others. Our teacher taught us how to protect our heads, our wrists, and our vital organs. He told us not to try to turn our bodies around while we were mid-fall; it was better, safer, he said, to fall backwards. He was teaching us how we could best cushion the impact and lessen the pain of a fall so that we could quickly get back up and try again.

So we started to climb and at first, we could only make it a little ways up before needing to head back down to re-group. We climbed some more. And yes, we fell. We survived. We rested and then pulled each other up for another go.

My hands were hurting. Muscles in my sides I didn’t even know existed were screaming at me, but I knew that this was good not just for my son, and not just for my body, but for my soul. It took over an hour for us to finally reach the top, but when we did, the feeling was exhilaration.

And that process, the climbing and the falling, and that awesome feeling of finally reaching the top got me thinking about how we change and stretch and how sometimes we need to force ourselves out of our comfort zones to wake up our dormant muscles within.

Perhaps you can relate - I know I can - to that moment when God turns to the people at Sinai many moons after revelation and honestly and frankly says to them: Rav lachem shevet b’har hazeh - You have lingered too long at this mountain.[1]

It’s time to go.

In this season of change when the holy days beckon us into discernment, how do we recognize when we, too, have lingered too long? And when we realize that it is indeed time for a change, how do we even start? Where is the falling class for life?

In thinking about all of this, I’ve found the work of social scientist Dr. Carol Dweck to be helpful. In her book, Mindset,[2] Dweck teaches us about change and specifically about what she calls the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

People who operate with a fixed mindset, she argues, believe that intelligence and talent are fixed within all of us. Sure, we can learn new content, but our strengths are fixed as our strengths and so are our weaknesses. We may think of ourselves as athletic or clumsy, as bold or shy, as brilliant or definitively not – and we’ve been that way since birth. A fixed mindset is the belief that we are simply who we are. People don’t change – not really.

On the other hand, people who tend towards a growth mindset are people who believe that we can change and grow over time with hard work. Failures and falls are not reflections on the core of who we are; rather, they are opportunities for growth that will help us become smarter and stronger.

While a lot of Dweck’s work is being used to design better classrooms to help children grow as learners, these ideas apply just the same to adults, we who too often and to our own detriment think of ourselves as fixed, as grown, as done with all the learning that we are going to do. The truth is that if we think that we are already fully baked into who we are, then honestly the work of this season, the work of change and teshuvah will do very little for us.

Deuteronomy warns us against becoming too self-satisfied. In the voice of Moses, we learn: Perhaps you will eat and become satisfied, you will build nice homes and become settled… then you could become arrogant and forget about God who brought you out of Egypt, who led you through the vast wilderness… and you may say ‘My power, the strength of my hand made me all this wealth.’[3]

We all have work to do.

A growth mindset, though a new term, is not, I would argue, a new idea. For millennia, we have had teshuvah in our back pockets, the core belief that accompanies these holy days, teaching us that change is indeed possible. Lest we think that we are merely our past actions, especially our mistakes – teshuvah says no, you can be more.

Teshuvah is often translated as repentance but is better translated as turning and best understood as change.

Teshuvah is completely about mindset. The potential for change is completely about mindset.

Studies have shown that simply believing that it is possible to change helps us actualize that change. And it is possible. Scientists have discovered that our brains continually re-organize throughout our lifetimes. A brain is like a dynamic, connected power-grid and it can be re-wired. Trying new things, working on new skills, even feeling new feelings can ignite our neurons and get them firing to create new pathways. With practice and hard work, these pathways can become stronger and old pathways, old habits can fall away.

This knowledge can be a powerful tool in the work of teshuvah.

And we need that tool to get to what Dweck calls “The Power of Yet.” She studied a high school in Chicago where if a student didn’t pass a course, they received the grade “Not Yet.” Instead of F for Fail – they received Not Yet.

I’d wager that there isn’t one of us here who hasn’t fallen down at some point. Instead of thinking of that fall as indicative of our failure, how radical would it be if we thought of our stumbles as stops on the way to our eventual goal.

The idea that I have failed sometimes stops me in my tracks; it makes me want to give up. It makes me to think to myself: I am a failure. But not-yet screams to me that I better get up and give it another go.

The Power of Yet is about the belief in self even if it takes me the long road to get to my destination. As we’re taught in Proverbs: “The righteous will fall seven times and will rise again.”[4]

Stumbling and falling, it’s part of the journey, but it’s what you do after you fall that determines who you really are.

We might call that resilience. Or perseverance. Or we might call it grit.

Angela Duckworth recently wrote a best-selling book entitled Grit[5] and in it, she digs deep to discover why some people succeed when others do not.

She studied academia, athletics, business, and more. She visited West Point. She visited the Scripps Spelling Bee. And what she discovered was that talent and brilliance weren’t the determining factors for success in each of these elite areas. Everyone was talented at West Point; everyone was brilliant in the Bee. But her research revealed that the folks who graduated West Point or were the top performers at the Bee were the ones who knew how to get back up.

Sure, someone else may be able to run the course faster or spell some unknown, unusual word without much study, but the folks who thrived were the ones who had become acquainted with failure early on rather than the ones who had become accustomed to always coming out on top.

Knowing how to deal with failure said more about long-term success than any other factor. Talent counts. Luck is a part of success, too. But grit time and again was the best determining factor to explain who crossed the finish line.

Grit is the belief that hard work pays off and failure once doesn’t mean failure always. As Duckworth explained, Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.[6]

So then: how do we get grittier?

It turns out grit is not innate in us either. It is a skill that can be learned.

We can get grittier by practicing persistence. When something is easy, it’s time to step it up. Just like at the gym. When a weight becomes too easy for you, you know it’s time to add more reps or more weight. To get a good work-out, we should be struggling. It should be hard. Not so hard that we walk away. But incrementally harder over time. Another five pounds until it feels easy again. Muscles literally need to tear in order to grow. So, too, with us.

Persistence is going just a bit further, just to where you begin to feel discomfort – and this applies in so many facets of our lives. Persistence in learning. Persistence in being brave and bold. Persistence in love.

We can get grittier by practicing resilience. When we put ourselves out there, we’re not going to succeed at everything – and certainly not right away. We need to practice bouncing back after smaller set-backs so that we are prepared for the bigger ones. Resilience is realizing that difficulties in life need not be paralyzing events, but rather moments to be reckoned with.

Sometimes, we want moments and feelings to disappear. Sometimes the events of our lives are overwhelming. I’ve sat with some of you after something life-changing, after a death or after a trauma that feels like a death and you’ve said to me, “When will I stop feeling this way?”

And any one of us who has gone through this, myself included, eventually learns that the answer is that these bigger events of trauma never truly go away; they come in like waves. Sometimes the seas are quiet and sometimes there is a storm. We never “move on.”

Resilience is learning how to ride the waves and when they knock us down, how to swim back up to the surface for air. Resilience is also all those hands around us that hold us up when we run out of breath.

We can get grittier by practicing empathy. Yes, empathy will help us become stronger, grittier and more in line with a growth mindset. Understanding a problem or a situation from someone else’s point of view reminds us that our view on the world is not the only view. We can practice empathy by slowing down, by listening, and by being present in the lives of others.

Empathy emerges from the very heart of Torah, the heart of our story: You were strangers in the land of Egypt – you know the heart of the stranger.[7] Knowing others, knowing their hearts, is essential for knowing our own.

Grit and a growth mindset, persistence, resilience, and empathy – they show up all over our tradition. Take Jacob, who one can argue is the grittiest guy in all of Torah and also the character who perhaps changes the most.[8]

Jacob begins his existence as a trickster, but with age, experience, and failure after failure after failure finally makes a turn. On the evening before a confrontation with his brother who had threatened to kill him over Jacob’s trickery, our text tells us that Jacob struggles throughout the night with a character only identified as an ish, which is Hebrew for man.

Neither is able to get the upper hand until finally Jacob is injured, but instead of letting go, he hangs on for dear life and demands a blessing from the ish.

Many commentators believe that this unnamed character is Jacob’s moral self - and it’s God, too. And that’s not a large leap, is it? We all wrestle with ourselves, our past, and our decisions. But what makes this moment extraordinary is that Jacob won’t allow the struggle to be for nothing. He demands a blessing, self-aware enough to not let this moment go by without learning something about himself.

Therein, I believe, is the key for us. When we feel like a piece of us has been wrenched, when we struggle, the question is: will we fight for a blessing?

Jacob’s blessing is a new name. Israel. It is symbolic of his growth and his struggle, symbolic of the opportunity to make himself anew.

The next morning, he goes willingly to confront the brother who has the power to destroy him. And what does Jacob- what does Israel do? He bows in humility; he bows in apology. He does teshuvah.

We always have a choice. At every point in our lives, at every moment, at every age, no matter what’s already happened, we always have a choice about what we will do next.

Life is not fair. Through luck, some of us are dealt better hands than others. We don’t get to determine our genes or the circumstances into which we are born. We cannot control the additional challenges of life that come our way. But we are not powerless.

Tomorrow morning, we return in our liturgy to that great imagery of the Book of Life laid open before God. And while the Book of Life is not and was never meant to be understood literally, its imagery speaks to us because it feels so much like our experience of this life – our powerlessness at the hands of the universe.

But make sure you have the whole picture. The poet who penned this incredibly evocative image gave us a great gift. The Book is laid open and the poet points for us to pay attention to what’s on the page. On the page are our signatures, he screams. It’s our handwriting, signaling to us that despite our sense of powerlessness in the world, we are still the authors of our next chapter.[9]

We always have a choice.

The approach of the fixed mindset is to relinquish all control and throw the pen onto the floor. It’s fate. It’s my genes. It’s God and that Book of Life.

The approach of the growth mindset doesn’t deny that there are parts of our lives over which we have little to no control. It’s not naïve. But what a growth mindset does is re-position us to pay attention to the power we do possess. To the teshuvah we can do, the change, the growing, the living, the doing, the giving. Don’t sell yourselves short – you are powerful.

We’re taught, Love your neighbor as yourself.[10]

Which is well and good except when we don’t know how. Labeling yourself in boxes, never letting yourself escape and grow and change does not look like love to me.

What stories are you telling you about yourself?

That you can never change?

That you’re afraid you’ll always be the cheater. Or the angry one. Or the alcoholic. Or you’ll always be the victim. Or you’re not the parent you want to be. Or the child your parents need. Or you’ll never measure up because you’re not smart enough. Or deserving of love.

If you can do that to yourself and never give yourself the sacred gift of a new day, a new year, the sacred gift of self-discovery, then you’ll never allow anyone else in your life to change in your head or your heart either.

And that is a tragedy on both counts. That is sadness. That is a prison of your own creation.

…. So break free.

Break the doors down. Let this be the year when you write your own story. Take the opportunity of a new year to re-wire your brain with new pathways of understanding and re-frame your heart with kindness and compassion. Let this be the year where you accept the fact that falling is a part of the journey – and so is getting back up.

And love yourself – and love your neighbor as yourself. We all change in our own time; be open to the possibility that others are moving through their own self-discovery and allow them the opportunity to show you.

Save the labels for those bins in the garage; labels don’t belong on people. They don’t belong on you.

Dr. Carol Dweck wisely wrote: We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.[11]

We, mere mortals, come into our world brimming with potential and power. Our stories are not yet set in stone. Our stories are still being written.

What do you want your story to say next about you?

Say you’re strong. Say you are learning. Say you are not perfect – none of us are – and that is just fine. Say you are not satisfied with the status quo. Say you are deserving. And you will pick yourself up when you fall and you will try again.

Because you believe in the power of teshuvah and transformation. Because you believe in yourself. Because you are making yourself extraordinary.

One last teaching for this Rosh HaShanah, a teaching from midrash that I love more than I can possibly say:

Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and softly whispers: grow, grow.[12]

If that is true for each and every blade of grass and I like it imagine it is, then all the moreso should it be true for each and every one of us.

May we all grow, grow.

Shanah tovah.


[1] Deuteronomy 1:6.

[2] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

[3] Adapted from Deuteronomy 8:12-17.

[4] Proverbs 24:16.

[5] Duckworth, A. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Harper Collins Publishers. Ltd., 2016.

[6] Duckworth. Grit, 20.

[7] Adapted from Exodus 23:9.

[8] The story of Jacob spans much of Genesis; my focus is Genesis 32:23-33.

[9] The prayer is Unetaneh Tokef. The line referenced is: v’chotam yad kol adam bo variously translated as “and every human signature is in it (the Book of Life)” or “every human being leaves it mark” among other translations.

[10] Leviticus 19:18.

[11] Dweck. Mindset, 90.

[12] Adapted from Midrash Rabba, Breisheet 10:6.


Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783