I have four sons, one of whom lives in the Washington, DC area. He is currently teaching a course on social entrepreneurship to students in a Jewish school in Grade 7.
On the first day of class, he asked students to write a list of hobbies and talents. One was good at drawing. Another liked writing. Another did soap–carving.
Then, he asked them to write a list of real-life problems that they’ve experienced. For starters, the problems could be small, perhaps even trivial. The students didn’t need to focus on grand problems like finding a cure for a particular type of cancer. In fact, the smaller the problem, the more likely it’s something that these kids can do something about.
One student wrote that it always bothered him when he cut his fingernails too short that there’s no scissors or clippers that has a built-in way to avoid this. Another who is a soccer player thought about the fact that her shin guards keep slipping and her shoelaces keep untying. Another listed illegal poaching of birds.
The class shared their “problems” with their classmates.
Then, they were asked to draw a line between their talents and one or more of the problems to identify which ones they might be able to help solve.
Perhaps the soap carver could use her talents to create a prototype for the fingernail problem and the writer could help craft a letter to a politician protesting illegal poaching of birds.
I like that activity because it trains Middle School children to start thinking about how they can translate their talents into something that benefits others. It teaches the important lesson that the more people you can help, the more you can help others achieve their goals, the more meaningful one’s own life becomes.
The Talmud (Berachot 31a) makes a similar point in an unusual way. It discusses the architecture of a synagogue or any place where you pray.
It says that we should always pray in a place that has windows. At first glance, it seems that what the Talmud is saying is simply that if we see the grandeur of nature, it will increase our awareness of God. But one commentator suggests that the windows are meant to ensure that our prayers are connected to the outside world. Our prayers should motivate us to get involved in the problems of the world, not just meditate on God. Prayers shouldn’t just motivate us to perfect the soul, but to perfect the world.
The same is true not just with our prayers but with our learning and academic achievements. The goal is to connect the lessons learned inside the school and our accomplishments earned inside the school to what’s going on outside the school. The world around us is in need of repair. The more we sense those problems, the richer we are. The more we use our God-given talents–whether in math or science of English or business or law or the arts–to help alleviate those problems, the more significant our lives become.
Tonight, we wish you mazal tov. Take pride in your accomplishments. But remember to strive connect the lessons learned inside school with the needs of the world outside school.