I was embarrassed by her sharp rebuke. But looking back, I realize the lesson I learned from her criticism was more valuable than most of my other training experiences.
It happened about 40 years ago. I was attending an intensive workshop to teach young mental health professionals the basic skills of the method known as psychodrama. The workshop leader was a world-famous psychodramatist, expert in both the complexities of the human psyche and the art of improvisational theater.
Early on the second day of the workshop, I volunteered to play the therapist for another member of the group (let’s call him John), who played the patient. John told of the challenges he was facing with key persons in his life. I suggested he act out one of these conflicts in a particular fashion. I, of course, was convinced that my suggested strategy was brilliant and insightful, until, about three minutes into the exercise, the workshop leader thundered: “That’s your psychodrama! That’s not John’s psychodrama!”
At that moment, I learned to appreciate that what was going on inside of me was based upon who I was and was very different from what was going on within another’s mind. Those words of rebuke taught me a lesson to remember forever: I am different from you, and you are different from me. We are all exquisitely and irrevocably different from each other.
This lesson was well understood by our forefather Jacob.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, just before Jacob dies, he blesses all his sons and two of his grandsons. He bestows these blessings upon them separately, fully aware that no one blessing fits them all.
The Torah sums up the entire deathbed drama with these words: “…their father spoke unto them and blessed them, every one according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Genesis 49:28). No two blessings were alike.
I have often thought that the greatest blessing each received was the message: “You are special. You are not the same as your brother. You have different personalities, different strengths, different talents, and therefore you each have a different destiny.”
When I read this week’s Torah portion, I am struck with wonder by the dazzling array of metaphors Jacob uses: “unstable as water,” “weapons of violence,” a “lion’s whelp,” “a colt bound to a tree,” the “blood of grapes,” the “shore of the sea,” a “large-boned donkey,” “a hind let loose,” “a bowed shoulder,” “a judge,” “a serpent on the road,” “a troop upon their heel,” “fat bread.” Diversity, uniqueness, complexity, individuality — that’s the message.
Every parent and every teacher must learn this basic lesson. Teachers and parents must treat each child individually, and must assure that each child comes to know his or her specialness.
Our sages throughout history have imparted this lesson to us. For example, Maimonides, in his fascinating review of the early life of Abraham, writes: “…and he reasoned with each and every person according to that person’s intelligence, until he convinced him of the truth.” (Mishne Torah, “Hilchot Avoda Zara,” 1:3). Again, when instructing us of our duties at the Passover seder, he tells us that it is a mitzva to relate the story of the Exodus to each child according to his or her intellectual ability. A very young child must be told stories, one with limited mental capacity must be given concrete examples, older and wiser children can be taught in a more abstract fashion. “Everything must be done according to the particular intelligence of the child.” (Mishne Torah, “Hilchot Hametz Umatza,” 7:2)
Among my favorite essays on the subject of education was the one written by the late Rabbi Elimelech Bar Shaul, once the rabbi of Rehovot. He wrote, “If we give more to one who is only capable of receiving less, then we have given him nothing. And if we give less to one who can receive more, we have failed our mission, and worse — the student may come to think that there is no more, or that there is no more for him.”
Giving too much to one with a lesser capacity can frustrate him irremediably. Giving too little to one with a greater capacity shortchanges him and cheats him, and worse — may alienate him forever.
Jewish mystics see human differences as part of the Almighty’s cosmic design. Thus, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap, a mystic in the tradition of his master, Rav Kook, writes: “There is no duplication in the universe. Just as no two people are perfectly alike, so there are no two things, in all of the universe, that are alike.” Each person, like the grains of sand on the seashore, has a special quality and a special novelty.
Mystic or realist, appreciating our differences is our vital task as Jews, as human beings, and as residents of the Almighty’s cosmos.