February 27, 2021

Author(s): Rabbi Michelle Robinson,

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Parshat Tetzaveh
February 27, 2021 — 15 Adar 5781
by Rabbi Michelle Robinson
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA



We have heard about IQ, the Intelligence Quotient, a measure of our intellectual capability – our book smarts. More recently, we came to understand the critical complementary role of EQ – Emotional Quotient, or people skills. Now there is a new Q on the block – AQ, Adaptability Quotient, our ability to adapt to unanticipated changes in the landscape of our lives. Boy, do we all need a hefty helping of AQ right now.

There is a lively tradition of debate as to how much of our IQ, EQ, and AQ are innate, and how much we can grow along any of these tracks.

One school of thought argues that given time and exposure, any of us can lift, for example, our IQ. The only limit is access to opportunities that nurture our curiosity and challenge our minds to grow. This school of thought cites experiments like the London taxi driver study, which showed significant changes in brain development before and after a cab driver learns to navigate London’s challenging grid of streets. In essence, in a pre-Waze era, the task of figuring out how to most efficiently get from place A to place B at any given hour turns out to be a kind of “workout” which builds intellectual muscles over time.

Then there is the school of thought that says that, while it is true we can stretch a bit here and there on our margins, our innate capacity remains the same. For example, with EQ, we can adopt habits to “hack” our innate people skills, but are those who learn still limited by some natural set point to their underlying charisma?

With AQ comes the same question: is it something you are born with or something that is acquired? Nature or nurture?

Blogger Miri Gindin shared on CLAL’s site The Wisdom Daily that at the height of the pandemic, the house across the street from hers was filled with three kids under six, and a mother who did not feel comfortable letting them play outdoors for fear they would not be able to properly distance from other children. For 12 weeks, Miri marveled as, from the balcony of that third story home, a little girl named Sadie seemed totally unfazed by the enforced distance. Sadie would see neighborhood kids playing in the street and, right from where she stood, come out to play. “Sadie doesn’t just play with the kids three stories apart,” Miri shared. “She delights in playing with them. She is …confident, bossing them about, making up new and strange games, finding magical ways to connect, from all the way up there.”

Sadie’s enthusiastic and authentic AQ is inspiring. But can her adaptability be taught? What about all the kids – and adults – who found themselves similarly stuck inside this past year, but their different AQ set point had them wondering why they bothered to even change their sweats for yet another day of online schooling or interminable Zoom meetings?

While it may be that each of us comes with a natural AQ setpoint, the good news is that the very premise of AQ itself belies the idea of a fixed supply. As Viktor Frankl taught, “Life requires of man spiritual elasticity, so that he may temper his efforts to the chances that are offered.” Or as British humorist Tom Holt more cynically quipped, “Human beings can get used to virtually anything, given plenty of time and no choice in the matter whatsoever.”

The question then is not if, but how we can stretch our AQ. Fred Rogers, better known as the world’s most empathetic “neighbor,” Mr. Rogers, famously shared that when he was a boy and saw frightening things in the news, his mother guided him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Those words imprinted on his heart and shaped his life so that throughout his career, when our nation was shaken by tragedy, Mr. Rogers turned to our children, and taught us to turn to our children, and say, “Look for the helpers.”

He argued that if we could reshape our media to show not only catastrophe, but the rescue crews coming to repair, we could shape the emotional resilience of a generation. He said simply, “If you look for the helpers you’ll know that there’s hope.”

PBS picked up some of his suggestion last year with its “Meet the Helpers” webpage tackling coronavirus – profiling doctors, teachers, 911 operators, even showing kids how they themselves can be helpers. They quote Mr. Rogers: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

Which is not only good advice, but, in some ways, the core wisdom of the Jewish season we are in now. Last Shabbat we retold the story of Amalek, who attacked our people, the weak and the old, viciously cutting them down as they walked toward the Promised Land. This week, we laughed our way through the painful parable of Purim. Now it is onward toward Pesach. Our ritual calendar is summarized by the quip that there are two types of Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat,” and, “They tried to kill us. We lost. Let’s fast.” Even tongue in cheek, it is easy to see how we got the stereotype of a people who look at the world through “anxiety-colored glasses.”

Yet, we tell these stories not to build anxiety, but to build adaptability. In a sense, with each verse we chant, with each story we read, we strengthen our pattern recognition and pull from our ancestors’ abilities to face down hatred and horror. Amalek is not only Amalek. Pharaoh is not just Pharaoh. We recognize those who seek our harm throughout the generations and learn from them. Or, in the jargon of AQ, we become “active un-learners,” challenging and digging ever more deeply into what we think we know.

Author Mark Gerson, who wrote an upcoming book about Passover, “The Telling,” shared this adaptive attribute of our people as follows: “We learn from everyone – even Pharaoh. In the first plagues Pharaoh hardens his own heart. But then [in the final plagues] God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” What might this mean?

Generations of rabbinic discussion bring us not just a static read of what this might have meant for one people in one place or time, but a profound teaching for us now. As Mark Gerson put it, “If we do something over and over, it becomes a habit and we actually can’t change. Act; then we become.”

This works in both ways. Our habits can limit us, or they can build us up. He continued, “If you want to become more generous, give a little more every day. Then you become a giver. Identify a characteristic you wish you had, then do it over and over again until you believe it.” In this way, every single one of us can take hold of our ancient AQ toolkit to stretch and adapt the person we are into the person we want to be. No matter where we are.

Which leads me back to the helpers. When Texas’s power system collapsed in the cold and snow earlier this month, many homeowners were left not only without power, but with burst pipes and water damage. Digging out from the storm has meant extraordinary plumbing needs for many, but few plumbers to handle that level of demand.

Into that breach came Andrew Mitchell and his wife Kisha Pinnock. They knew that plumbing materials were in short supply in Texas, so they filled every inch of their truck with supplies and drove 22 hours from New Jersey to Texas with their two-year-old son Blake (for those of you who have ever known a two-year-old, you can imagine what kind of commitment that trip takes). As soon as they arrived, they set to work helping to restore water to families in need. One home at a time, they are becoming the helpers they hoped to be.

Now, we are not all plumbers with the ability to drive cross country in the middle of a pandemic to rush to the aid of those battered by a brutal storm. But we are all able to stretch – to not only adapt ourselves to our situation but adapt our situation with deeds that build hope.

We have lost so much this past year. And we can leave that at that. Or we can pick up the most helpful tool in our ancient toolkit, and ask ourselves the AQ question – what more can we make of what we have?

Shabbat Shalom.