Fair is not getting what everyone else gets; it is getting what you need.
This phrase, once the screen saver of Solomon Schechter of Manhattan’s Head of School, Benjamin Mann, is an extremely important phrase for all of us. It reminds us that when we say “life is not fair,” we forget that everyone’s life experiences are different.
Treating everyone as an individual is an essential tenet of the Torah. As we learn in the first parasha of Genesis, God created man and women in God’s image (b’tzelem elohim). This teaches us that everyone has a piece of God within them and we must therefore treat each person with respect and meet them where they are. As we conclude the book of Genesis with the reading of Parashat Vayechi, we are reminded of the themes we encountered in the first parasha, Bereshit. In this week’s parasha we learn that Jacob gathers together all of his sons and offers each of them an individual blessing. Instead of just telling them as a whole what he wishes for his family and his community, he treats them as they are created: in the image of God. Each of them as unique individuals. Jacob makes the decision, as he is on his deathbed, to speak to each of his sons. He is not able to give all of them similar blessings since their actions in life indicate that what would be a blessing for one would not be a blessing for all. Jacob significantly offers different statements to different people; all created in God’s image.
This premise of meeting people where they are is an extremely important lesson, especially in educational settings. If we attempt to treat each person the same we are setting up unfair standards that not everyone can meet; therefore some people will inherently fail. Think about our children with learning disabilities. Many of them enter classrooms where teachers (and sometimes their parents) are not willing to accept their disabilities. Such students struggle with learning and often feel like failures.
In my role as parent and board member at my children’s Jewish Day School (Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan) I witness is the desire to differentiate the learning environment so that each student is able to learn according to his or her own ability. This means that we attempt to create a learning environment that is suitable for all students in each classroom, not just a portion of those students. For example, when the students prepare Biblical verses and their commentary, certain students are given both a Hebrew and an English version of the Tanakh so that they can be assisted in their learning (while others simply use the Hebrew). In the same vain, there are students whose Hebrew abilities help them excel so we prepare enrichment activities so that they have additional opportunities to learn according to their own ability. This extends well beyond the world of education and into the realm of community involvement. That each of us has strengths and weaknesses goes without saying. It is crucial that everyone’s strengths be nurtured to enable our communities to flourish.
Whether related to us by familial ties or when we are their teachers, we must meet each of our children where they are. Created in God’s image, each of them is sacred. When we see sanctity in each of our children, we can treat them with respect and provide them the tools that they deserve to succeed.
Rabbi Rachel Ain is the Rabbi of Sutton Place Synagogue, a Conservative Synagogue in Manhattan. She lives in NYC with her husband, Rabbi David Levy and their two sons. She sits on the board of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, the Chancellor’s Cabinet at JTS, and is an active participant in the Partnership for Faith Communities, a roundtable of religious leaders working to create stronger interfaith connections in New York.