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Seeking the Growth Mindset on the Jewish New Year

Change is hard, but necessary, particularly when it comes to healing and strengthening relationships. We come together as a community on the High Holy Days to support one another in the process of teshuvah, our return to a more meaningful, wholesome life.
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One of the great joys of parenting is reading bedtime stories. My two boys have outgrown bedtime stories, so, we're left with our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter for this truly sacred task. I grew up as one of three brothers, and then our first two children were boys. So, now, for the first time I'm being introduced to girls' story books. My daughter loves anything from the Disney lineup of princesses: Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and the "queen" of them all, Cinderella. In the classic stories, the princess marries the prince and they live happily ever after.

In one book we checked out recently from the library, Disney takes each of the princesses and crafts a sequel to the theme of "happily ever after." The Cinderella sequel begins: "It had been exactly one year since the day the Prince and Cinderella had been married. To celebrate, the Prince had decided to hold a splendid anniversary ball. And that was not all! That very morning, he gave Cinderella a gold ring set with an enormous, brilliant blue sapphire -- Cinderella's favorite stone." Then the tension mounts. Cinderella loses the ring. Will she find it in time for the ball? She searches all over until finally her two mice friends, Jaq and Gus, go down into a well, find the ring and return it to Cinderella in time for their anniversary ball. What a relief! Order is restored to the universe. Again, they live happily ever after.

In our real world, a more sophisticated, adult-oriented, exploration of Cinderella and Prince Charming one year later would explore their relationship. How was it holding up? What were their sources of tension, and how were they managing them? Were they trying to have children? If they weren't able to conceive a child, how was that affecting them? With Prince Charming's ample financial assets heading into the marriage, did he add Cinderella's name to the checking account? Did they sign organ donation cards and living wills? If they had relatives who were ill, did they invite them to live in the palace? If I were to write Cinderella: The Sequel, these are some of the questions that I would seek to address. I would want to know how they learned to change and grow together.

We come together today and during this holy period because we have the important task of changing and growing together. Change is hard, but necessary, particularly when it comes to healing and strengthening relationships. We come together as a community on the High Holy Days to support one another in the process of teshuvah, our return to a more meaningful, wholesome life.

The Torah has a character who does not live a Cinderella story. His name is Jacob. Of all the characters in the Bible, his biography is the most extensive. He does not live happily ever after. He starts out as Yaakov because he was holding the heel of his brother Esau as they exited their mother's womb. The name Yaakov/Jacob symbolizes his trickery. Indeed Jacob tricks Esau out of his inheritance and tricks his blind father Isaac into granting him the special blessing for the oldest child that Esau was supposed to receive. Jacob runs for his life to escape his brother's wrath. He spends 20 years with his uncle Laban and marries his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. When the time comes for Jacob and his family to return to to Canaan, he must prepare for confronting Esau. On the eve of their meeting, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being.

Rabbi Harold Kushner posits that this "may be an account of Jacob's wrestling with his conscience, torn between his human tendency to avoid an unpleasant encounter and the divine impulse in him that urges him to do the difficult but right thing... We can imagine Jacob saying to himself, 'Until now, I have responded to difficult situations by lying and running. I deceived my father. I ran away from Esau. I left Laban's house stealthily instead of confronting him. I hate myself for being a person who lies and runs. But I'm afraid of facing up to the situation.'"

Kushner continues, "By not defeating his conscience, Jacob wins. He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding and manipulating them. At the end of the struggle, he is physically wounded and emotionally depleted." Nevertheless, Kushner writes, the Torah describes Jacob [in 33:18] as shalem, which connotes "whole," at peace with himself (shalem is related to the word "shalom"). He possesses an integrity he never had before (Etz Hayim, 201). The Torah's portrait of Jacob is more in line with the real world. Living "happily ever after" is a fantasy. Shleimut, wholeness or integrity, is a more authentic and worthy goal. As Kushner writes, to achieve shleimut is to live a life that matters.

There's a great American story about change whose main character is a stark contrast to Jacob. It's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain. Most of us read it as children because it is indeed an exciting collection of adventures. There is indeed plenty of adventure in the book including a blood-and-guts murder plot, a frightful villain, a tale of buried treasure, and a daring, happy-go-lucky main character. There's even the childhood romance of Tom and Becky. Twain, of course, brings these people alive through his keen sense of Missouri dialect. The result is that generations of young readers have been delighted by this collection of adventure and romance. It turns out, though, that there's more to the story.

In a recent book, Ira Fistell's Mark Twain, the author follows the arc of Mark Twain's writings and notes the points of intersection between Twain's works of fiction and his personal life. He takes us deep beneath the surface of his stories to reveal the full extent of Mark Twain's biting commentary of 19th century America. Through the character of young Tom Sawyer and the townspeople, Mark Twain crafts a penetrating, sophisticated rebuke of a society that doesn't change. Fistell argues that Tom Sawyer sets the stage for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not only in terms of character development, but in his critique of a hypocritical, morally decrepit society.

Tom stands in stark contrast to his friend Huckleberry Finn. In this novel, Huck is a classical hero who is forced out of his familiar surroundings, faces and overcomes extraordinary challenges and, through the process, is profoundly changed. The vagabond Huck and Jim, a fugitive slave, float in their raft down the Mississippi River and develop a bond of trust and friendship amidst a society that is morally crumbling. On the other hand, Tom Sawyer never changes, nor do the people around him challenge him to change. And that is the point. Tom Sawyer gets into all sorts of mischief and escapes near death. He is even presumed dead, and he sneaks into the church to witness his own funeral. Tom hides in the back and listens to the eulogy, then he and his gang make a grand entrance to the shock of all the townspeople. Ha Ha Ha, big joke! One would think that after witnessing his own funeral, Tom might be humbled or chastened and resolve to take life more seriously. Rather than shaking Tom to the core, it's not long before he's back to the same old mischief. As Fistell writes,

"[E]very one of Tom's actions in the novel is the product of his never-ending search for self-aggrandizement, ego massage, or the desire to manipulate the emotions of others....Never does he demonstrate any serious consideration for the feelings of others... In brief, Tom Sawyer is as selfish and unfeeling a character as American literature has produced."

Not only is Mark Twain critiquing the unrepentant Tom, he is also critiquing the townspeople who tolerate Tom's antics. "[H]is image as a not-too-good boy blinds them to his real inadequacies. They see him as they want him to be, not necessarily as he is..." Fistell brings to light a sophisticated reading of Tom Sawyer in which Mark Twain, a master of irony, criticizes a society that is oblivious to the larger world and incapable of meaningful change. For us, Tom Sawyer is a template of what NOT to do on the High Holidays. He is the opposite of teshuvah.

In that light, we gather today on Rosh HaShanah for the expressed purpose of change. Tom Sawyer and his neighbors wouldn't and couldn't change. We, however, know we must change. We yearn for change. Earlier, we called out to God, Avinu Malkeinu, our Parent, our Sovereign, and we delivered a list of petitions. We asked for health, sustenance, forgiveness, peace and the end of famine and disease. Embedded in that list of petitions is a request that God grant us the ability to change. Avinu Malkeinu, return us to Your presence, fully penitent.

In the wisdom of the prayer, we don't just pray for goodies from the sky. We ask God to change us. We pray for change and the strength to change ourselves. In changing ourselves from within, we then move to our larger goal of changing and strengthening our relationships with others.

How do we go about this difficult work of change? If our classical religious concept of teshuvah were not enough, it turns out that social science confirms the value of teshuvah. Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, wrote a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She notes that some people fall into a category called a fixed mindset. These people tend to define themselves and others in fixed sorts of ways. For example, a person with a fixed mindset might label herself smart or stupid and apply similar labels to others. When using such labels, it's hard to extricate oneself from those definitions. Fixed-mindset have a harder time adapting to a constantly changing world. In contrast, other people have what is called a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset tend to look at every challenge as an opportunity for growth to find greater opportunities for personal and professional success.

The different mindsets, of course, affect relationships, including marriages and romantic relationships, in different ways. In the fixed mindset, if you have ability, you shouldn't have to work hard. This thinking surface in relationships: if you're compatible, everything should happen automatically. Applying the fixed mindset to romantic relationships, Dweck writes: "It's not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It's that this will magically occur through their love, sort of the way it happened to Sleeping Beauty, whose coma was cured by her prince's kiss, or to Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly transformed by her prince."

Dweck says that this fixed mindset discourages the effort in relationships. This is a doomed relationship. It takes work to communicate accurately and it takes work to expose and resolve conflicting hopes and beliefs. When a couple's relationship is rooted in a growth mindset, perhaps we could say they lived happily ever after. More accurately, "they worked happily ever after."

In describing a healthier, growth mindset couple, she writes about a newly wed couple sitting together on the couch. Suddenly the husband blurted out: "I need more space." For the wife, everything went blank. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. Had she been completely mistaken about their relationship? Finally, she summoned her courage. "What do you mean?" she asked. He said, "I need you to move over so I can have more room." She was glad she asked. This simple story shows the value of good communication and active listening.

When in conflict with someone, the fixed mindset leads to name calling and judgment. In the growth mindset, a powerful formula is "When you say or do x, I feel y." By using language that is action-oriented, rather than judgement-oriented, we can move more firmly into the growth mindset column. The growth mindset thesis is scientific affirmation of the value of teshuvah.

In conclusion, as we say in Avinu Malkeinu, one of the greatest gifts we can receive from God is the strength to grow and transform ourselves. Openness to growth and inner transformation will, in turn, enhance our relationships with others. Jacob's greatest reward was shleimut, wholeness and integrity. Our received wisdom from both tradition and science is that with a growth mindset we can do the same and live a life that matters. May we all work, grow and live happily ever after.