September 25, 2022 | 29 of Elul,
Erev Rosh Hashanah
ערב ראש השנה
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
What will be in 5783? I can't wait to see!
These are the opening lines of my theoretical Dr. Seuss-inspired Jewish children's book. This picture book (again in theory) details the inevitable ups and downs & twists and turns of any given year, highlighting the importance of finding or paving a path that keeps you keeping on, all the while taking time to discover and smell new flowers along the way and remain excited for whatever you might encounter. No doubt, it is cringy and trite as theoretical picture books go. Nonetheless, each of its readers cherishes the repetition of the optimistic, rhyming words and reads them aloud as if they were lyrics to a song.
I write a version of this theoretical picture book each year around Rosh Hashanah, it just feels less forced in 5783. The natural title for 5781 (a.k.a. 2020) was more "I Feel Done in 5781," and 5782 (a.k.a. 2021) begged the title "What am I to Do in 5782?" While our president did announce the pandemic's official end, there's a lot that lingers from the past two years by way of trauma and ongoing challenges. Nonetheless, those years are technically over. Can we go back to a more authentically optimistic outlook?
We have probably all read something or a whole lot of different things about the way mindsets affects our lives. We've read about studies that show the practical benefits of positive thinking, manifesting good, positive self-talk, or even the belief that something good is happening when it is not technically happening (like the potential impact of a placebo, or believing that people are praying for you when they are not actually). This idea has become fairly mainstream in our society, and it has a lot of merits. In fact, we teach our students about self-talk, and we practice it with them. I came across an elementary school student's desk last year and saw a brightly colored index card taped onto the front announcing that they can solve challenging math problems, they can ask for help and persevere until it is accomplished because they are smart and persistent. Just the other day, I discovered student-made signs all around the middle school sharing words of encouragement, persistence and optimism. And still, does positive thinking end a war, resolve a disease, or make it stop raining?
Is it honest or even fair to teach our children to focus on their mindsets? Is this akin to teaching denial as mental health strategy? I think about this a lot because I feel obligated to be optimistic, and I crash hard sometimes and wonder whether those hard crashes are exacerbated by my intense commitment to an optimistic mindset.
On his podcast Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam interviewed psychologist Alia Crum on her research into the impact of mindsets. Dr. Crum explained that mindsets "influence what you expect. They influence what you pay attention to. They influence our physiology and they influence what we actually do. And, therefore, they create the reality that's implied. Now that process could be useful or not useful. It could be adaptive or it could be maladaptive depending on the situation and the circumstances that you're in.... [For example,] the best mindset to be in when you have cancer is not, ‘I don't have cancer or cancer is nothing.’ It's, ‘Cancer is manageable.’ That's a different mindset that has more adaptive outcomes."
I love this analysis, and I am so happy it is being substantiated by research and explained neurologically by folks like Dr. Crum. Why? Because it justifies my (still theoretical) children's book "What will be in 5783? I can't wait to see!" Indeed, there will surprises good and bad. There will be things out of our control that we cannot wish away or resolve with even the utmost of efforts.
Even though 5782 and 5781 are done, that doesn't mean 5783 will be peachy.
And, we still have the ability to both choose what we hope for and how we respond to whatever we get. These choice are entirely about mindset and do have an impact on our day-to-day reality.
As a head of school, my job is not to sermonize to a community of adults. I share this with you by way of two reasons. First, I can’t write anything before Rosh Hashanah that isn’t personally reflective. This is my work of 5783, writing the picture book and reading and reading it to myself on a regular basis. It’s the work of reframing my own mindset, and noticing the inner voice that has become a regular presence for me over the past few years, the self talk that says “I am so exhausted, I can’t do this anymore,” the inner monologue that wakes me up with the announcement “prepare yourself to check your text messages to see who has covid and then deal with the impacts before you get out of bed” or “I have to open the NY Times app to see whatever disaster has struck overnight or has been exacerbated.” Second, this our work as educators, more fundamental than teaching any core skill- whether it is decoding words, identifying roots of Biblical Hebrew, or even technique for conflict resolution- it is our responsibility to teach a child that they have agency first and foremost over the way they encounter themselves and the world around them. This sense of agency, practiced to the point of habit from a young age, should set children up to choose those mindsets that are most productive and healthy. The sort of mindset that allows you to go into Rosh Hashanah each year reflective and able to both admit your faults with a sense of weighty responsibility and look forward with an empowering sense of responsibility to the make change in yourself and, in turn, in your circles if obligation.
Going into Rosh Hashanah when we pray for all the good and none of the bad, I will include another prayer, as I do each year, to be able to handle whatever comes. This year I will add a new prayer, prayer for a Shanah Tovah mindset.
Tizku l’shanim rabot, neemot v’tovot! May we merit an abundance of years to come, all sweet and good!