Role Models for Adults

Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, April 23, 2010

In a variety of ways, through formal programs and informal opportunities, we try to provide positive role models for the young people in our congregation. For the Confirmation class we recruit adult members of the community to be mentors to our students, and in our B’nai Mitzvah preparation we attempt to connect each student with an adult whose is not their parent to work with them in writing a D’var Torah. Our teachers and youth group advisor are role models as are the older students who act as teaching assistants on Sunday mornings and at Hebrew school.

There are other less formal ways that our young people find role models at Temple. If you, as an adult come to study on Sunday mornings, you will probably be seen by the Sunday school students, coming and going to class. Even without exchanging a word, you become a role model for our students. If the kids see you staffing a table outside on Sunday morning, or helping with a project in the classroom, then they get the message that volunteering is what adults do. If they work side by side with you on Mitzvah Day, or at the Health Fair, or in building our pre-school garden, then they learn that adults see this type of community service as important enough to give their time to help.

Having adult role models has been identified as one of the developmental assets that make for healthier, better adjusted, and more productive young people. Having many of these assets makes it more likely that a young person will do well in high school, and not engage in dangerous and self-destructive activities, like early sexual activity, substance abuse, and violence. The developmental assets fall in eight different categories of human development. They are support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive identity.

Though one might think that the students in our local affluent communities would rank high in these assets, recent surveys have not been that reassuring. Many of our middle school and high school students have surprisingly low scores, in some categories even lower than the national average. Our high school students for example are lower than the national average in school engagement, caring, honesty, responsibility and resistance skills. That is why Congregation Shir Hadash joined with the Town of Los Gatos in recent years in making a commitment to building developmental assets in our community.

During the upcoming week we will be focusing on the developmental asset #14 adult role models, which is in the boundaries and expectations category. We will tell stories about role models at Tefillah on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, and next Friday night, at our no shush Shabbat, Hillel, Rabbi Akivah and B’ruriah, will be introduced to the young people as positive role models.

But what about for grown-ups? Do adults need role models?

Pirke Avot, the section of the Mishnah we study this time of year, seems to say, yes.

Rabbi Yehoushua Ben Perachya taught: Chose for yourself a mentor, acquire yourself a friend, and make it your habit to judge every person favorably.

Actually the Hebrew is Aseh lechah Rav - rav being the same as the modern word for rabbi. Though sometimes translated as teacher, this is not the same word as would be used for a teacher of children, Moreh. Aseh Lechah Rav could mean find a teacher for yourself or it could mean literally, make yourself a teacher, ie make yourself a scholar, become learned enough to be an authority.

A rav is chosen not so much for mastery of material but for setting a direction in life. In traditional communities one might go to the Rav for advice on personal matters or even business concerns, not just to study a blot of gemorah. For that reason perhaps mentor is the right translation, or guide or even to be very contemporary, life coach.

The second phrase - acquire for yourself, kenei lechah chaver, buy for yourself a friend - is understood by Rashi to mean books. Real friends cannot be bought, but a book can be the best of companions and valuable for the acquisition of knowledge. Living for many years in a community without other sages, perhaps books were the only friends Rashi had at that time in his life. Mary Anton, author of the Rashi’s daughters series, suggest it was this isolation that caused Rashi to began teaching his daughters Talmud in the first place.

Our tradition puts a very high value on friendship and for that reason the acquiring of a friends, has an even greater urgency to it, than the making for oneself a teacher. The rabbis believed that it was through friendship, camaraderie, a study partner, that one advanced, not only in one’s studies but also in the development of one’s character. A true friend is someone to whom one can divulge one’s secrets, a mirror to one’s soul.

Perhaps that is why our text goes directly from friendship into judging others favorably. This is a quality you must have in order to keep a friend. Everyone will offend at some time, and it is only those who are able to balance the general good in a person, with the occasional offense, who are able to keep their friends.

Having a teacher or mentor is valuable as it gives us another way to look at things beyond our own judgments and reasoning. If we rely always on our own reasoning, we will be limited in our growth. Though we are encouraged to learn from multiple teachers, we are not encouraged to change mentors. Perhaps this is because it is not just a matter of our learning from our mentor, but also our mentor getting to know us, to know what sort of mentoring we need. The rabbis, in addressing adults, advised that we not wait until someone invites us to be their mentee, but rather that we actively seek out the mentors we need. Certainly those looking for mentors in the work world, are advised to take the initiative.

A friend is not only for learning, according to Jewish tradition, but also for the fulfillment of mitzvoth, because of their encouragement and for their advice and counsel. The rabbis suggest that although a person will readily see the faults of others, we are blind to our own faults and defensive when they are pointed out by those whom we don’t trust.

The words hochiach tochiach in this week’s Torah portion, “you shall surely rebuke your neighbor” support this view. The obligation to point out faults only applies to your neighbor, that is someone you are close to and whose trust you have won.

That is why the rabbis say a person without a friend is like the left side without the right. For many people their best friends are the ones who provide a critical sounding board. Rabbi Teleushkin tells the story of a man who writes a very critical public letter which gets him into a lot of trouble. He must be a lonely guy, says another man. If he had friends, this wouldn’t have happened. No man’s friends would let him do such a foolish thing. A good friend sometimes protects us from ourselves and thus spares us embarrassment and ill fortune.

When Choni the circle maker fell asleep for 70 years and outlived all his friends, his satisfaction in reaping the fruit of the tree he had planted was limited. Without his friends he was bereft, and there was no one to comfort him. It’s a reminder of the words of Proverbs, “how unfortunate is the one who is alone when he falls, for there is no one to lift him up, but two are better than one, for if they fall, they will lift each other.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

Project Cornerstone which has introduced the developmental assets approach into the greater Silicon Valley community, notes that young people with support from three or more non-parent adults do significantly better than those without this support.

Perhaps for us as adults this too is the case. If there are others in our lives ,who provide us with support and encouragement, whether as mentors or as friends, then we too will thrive.