First and foremost, you and your husband must be commended for having sacrificed financial security and proximity to family so that your children might benefit from a true Torah education. But nothing in life is simple and there are always challenges with which to contend. The problem that you raise is one that concerns many families. Parents want their children to attend the very best schools; they want them to excel in all studies, so they pressure the schools to develop accelerated programs, and if the schools don’t comply, they take their children elsewhere. A vicious cycle develops as the schools succumb to parental demands and the children are more and more pressured. Ideally speaking, children should be taught to love their studies and that love should focus on the pure joy of learning.
In reality however, it doesn’t work out that way. The pressure to excel is intense and not every student can deal with it. My husband, HaRav Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, often related that in European yeshivot, he never encountered this emphasis on grades. The bochurim learned just for the sake of learning, and the sort of pressure that our young people are experiencing nowadays was unknown.
There is a Yiddish saying which, loosely translated, means, “The way the non-Jewish world
goes, so goes the Jewish world”, meaning that we are impacted by the culture in which we live. In our contemporary world, the goal that every parent sets for his child is success. Now, what does that mean? Does it indicate that there is a desire to see the child commit to a life of service such as teaching, reaching out to the indigent, the needy, the oppressed? Or does it mean that the goal is wealth, power and status? Obviously, the answer is the latter, and in the secular world, to achieve this end, everything is justified. Some of these attitudes have rubbed off on us. We, too, have become obsessed with success, which in our terminology means being the “best” in everything, from limudei kodesh – Torah studies – to secular studies, and even to popularity, so that when information is asked regarding a shidduch, the report should come back, “He/she is the best!”
There is very little emphasis on mussar, mesiras nefesh – sacrifice; chesed – loving kindness; derech eretz – respect for others and yirat shamayim – reverence for G-d.
When Chana, the paradigm of motherhood, beseeched G-d for a child, she begged “Give me ‘zera anoshim’ – a seed of a man” – a difficult expression to understand. Our sages explained that she humbly prayed to G-d that her son be neither too smart nor too dull, too tall or too short, etc., and yet, when the child was born, she named him Shmuel. I say “and yet,” for that same year, a bat kol, a heavenly voice, was heard proclaiming that a child named Shmuel would be born who would bring blessing to the nation. Now, if Chana had such humble aspirations for her son, why would she have named him Shmuel?
To be a source of blessing to others however, does not connote being the “best,” the “first,” the “brightest,” the “most successful”. Rather, it means reaching out in chesed, helping others through kindness and compassion – and that is a lesson that we have yet to impart to our success- oriented generation.
I remember my first school experience when we arrived in this country following the Holocaust. Report card time came around and I experienced culture shock. My classmates were petrified at the possibility of coming home with marks below 90. I could not relate to their fears. My parents looked at only one subject with any measure of concern – and that was conduct. Everything else was secondary. But nowadays, if a child excels in his studies, that’s all that matters, and everything else becomes secondary. As I write these words, we are in Parashas Vayera in which Hashem tells our patriarch Avraham, “For I have loved him (Abraham) for he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice” (Genesis 18:19). And that is the goal that we must set for ourselves.
Having said all this, let us see how we can apply these teachings to your problem. You and your husband are remarkable people who have demonstrated that you are capable of great sacrifice. You left your loving, close-knit family, a secure family business, and relocated to New York so that your children might benefit from a Torah education and environment. It is this commitment that you must instill in your son so that he understands that there is more to education than grades… that he doesn’t have to get the highest marks, and it’s not the end of the world if he gets an “80”. He does, however, have to endeavor to be best in midos – character traits, chesed and derech eretz. As for his studies, he has to do his hishtadlus – put forth his best effort – and that’s the only “best” he has to be.
When our Torah refers to Moses and Aaron, at times Aaron is mentioned first, and at times Moses is mentioned first – teaching us that they were equal, although we know that Moses was greater, for there was no man as great as he. But Hashem evaluates a person by his effort to realize his potential, so the two brothers were equals because they each realized their
potential – and that is all that Hashem requires of us.
There is a wonderful story in this regard about the great Rabbi Zisha, who once said, “I will not be afraid if Hashem asks me why I was not like our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Moses or David, because I will simply answer, ‘Almighty G-d, you never gave me the tools of those giants,’ but I will be afraid if G-d asks ‘Zisha, why were you not like Zisha?'”
This is a critical lesson for your child to absorb if he is to have a serene life, for the comparisons never stop. Today, it’s grades, tomorrow it’s a car, income, a house … there’s no end. Having said all this, I will also tell you that if it were up to me, I would dispense with all labels. I believe that such labeling can create arrogance on one hand and crushed egos on the other. Unfortunately, I have seen many children adversely affected by such competitive programs.
However, it is not up to me, and to be fair, I don’t think it’s even up to the schools, for most often, these programs have developed as a result of parental pressure. But no matter, it is what it is, and we have to deal with the reality of the situation. Running from school to school is not the example that you want to set for your child, but on the other hand, you don’t want him to become tense and nervous either, so the best you can do under the circumstances is to borrow a page from Chana, the mother of Shmuel. Assure your son that that which concerns you the most is that he aim to become a “blessing” to others. Impress upon him that Hashem has a different way of grading us than that employed by the school. Hashem grades us according to the effort we exert and the goodness of our hearts. That is why the first and last letter of the Torah spells “lev” – heart.