The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder

Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben
Several seasons lay claim to being the “most wonderful time of the year.” Ironically, several seasons use the same 1963 Andy Williams version of the song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to advance their claim. The popular holiday song [written by two Jews, Edward Pola and George Wyle (born Weissman, who went on to write the TV theme to Gilligan’s Island)] proclaims the virtues of winter. An extremely effective Staples commercial (pictured left), which debuted in 1996, proclaims the virtue of fall. And a recent Miller Lite commercial uses the same song to proclaim the wonderful-ness of summer.
So many claims to being the most wonderful time of the year! For schools, summer is the quiet time of transformation. When the routines of everyday life change, we confront change and the unfamiliar. How fitting it is that we take up the book of Numbers during the summer. In Hebrew it is called Bamidar (lit., “in the wilderness). A place so different from the routine of everyday life. A place of transformation. A place whose many wonders call out for attention.
The wilderness occupies more Torah than any other place in Torah. It is the place for consolidating and testing our experiences from the civilized world. It is the place that transforms the ancient Israelites through their journey from slavery to liberty to responsibility. The wonders of the wilderness are like summer itself.
This summer, the members of the JCHS Class of 2017 transform themselves into college and gap-year students. Everyone else also is transformed: 8th graders become high school students, 9th graders become sophomores, and so on. These transformations bring to mind my charge to the JCHS Class of 2017 at graduation.  
I referred them back to the summer just before they started at JCHS when the faculty read (yes, even the faculty has summer reading!), Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. His book pushed JCHS educators to reexamine the conventional definition of success rooted merely in wealth or celebrity or power, suggesting instead that we see success as fulfillment rooted in virtue, resilience, and wonder.
For me, Tough seems to be echoing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who believed conventional standards of success blind us to experiencing wonder and deafen us to the rich sounds of a meaningful life. Heschel himself seemed informed by Talmud in general and Pirkei Avot in particular. One particular passage urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others. (Avot 4:1)
In Heschel’s words, “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” Heschel describes “wonder” as the capacity to experience radical amazement through the experiences of everyday life.
For me, the beginning of high school happiness lies in our capacity to integrate learning from different areas. For some this means a mash-up of science and theatre, for others humanities and athletics, or creative arts and Jewish Studies, or music and math. In that spirit, I offer a mash-up of stories from one mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi.  
The mathematician is Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman who astounded the math world about 10 years ago by solving the Poincaré conjecture. The first musician is Joshua Bell who first performed at Carnegie Hall when he was in high school and is the celebrated director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The second musician is Chance the Rapper. And the rabbi is Abraham Joshua Heschel. He not only survived the Holocaust but also lived in every stream of Jewish life-- Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative. Heschel was as comfortable marching with Dr. Martin Luther King as he was composing Yiddish poems.
A Mathematician: The math problem solved by Perelman was about the geometry of multi-dimensional spaces and their impact on quantum physics. It was baffling experts for 100 years. That Perelman solved the Poincaré conjecture was astonishing enough. But Perelman also surprised people by turning down not one, but two, separate $1,000,000 prizes intended for the person who solved Poincaré’s problem. He also turned down faculty offers from Princeton and UC Berkeley.
When asked why he rejected the wealth and fame, Perelman answered, “I have all that I need.” Ultimately, Perelman became more famous for rejecting wealth and fame than for solving the math problem.
The respected educator Diana Senechal addressed the fuss over Perelman in her article, The Cult of Success, asking why so much chatter about Perelman’s motives? What bothered people, it seemed to her, was his violation of the social codes of success: social codes that superficially idealize money, status, and appearances. The public could not accept that Perelman rejected conventional measures of success and achievement simply because he was satisfied with the astonishingly, amazing feat of solving one of the world’s most perplexing math problems.
Perelman’s resilience and nearly inexhaustible curiosity were not “success enough” in the eyes of many. His outright rejection of money and prestige provoked their ire, swallowing up their admiration.
This summer, learn the Perelman lesson, don’t let convention drown out your capacity to define success on your own terms.
One Musician: Joshua Bell is a world famous violinist who plays concerts on a Stradivarius valued at more than $4 million. Working with a journalist and film crew, Bell took part in an experiment to test the extent to which we ignore extraordinary wonders available in daily life. To explore this, Bell disguised himself with a baseball cap and went busking in a Washington, D.C. Metro station, where he played a complex 45-minute concert of Bach music. It was spectacular.
Nearly 1,100 people were filmed walking past Bell that morning. How many stopped to listen? Seven, out of 1,100. Virtually every time a child walked past Bell, the kid tried slowing down to listen, but an adult pulled them along past Bell. (A good reminder that many of us lose our capacity to experience wonder as we get older.)
Bell had an open violin case collecting gifts. But despite his wonderful artistry, Bell was seen as nearly worthless that morning. One adult actually recognized Bell so she put $20 in his violin case. From everyone else -- 1,100 people -- he collected $12.17. [Check out this remarkable story from journalist Gene Weingarten].
If Bell had been playing the same music on the same instrument at Kennedy Center or another concert hall, ticket sales would have exceeded $100,000. But without a fancy concert hall, or an attentive audience, or wearing concert dress, even Bell and his wonderful music were treated as worthless.
This summer, learn the Bell lesson, don’t let the speed of everyday life blind you to the extraordinary wonders available in it. Treasure these wonders!
A Second Musician. The summer between your 9th and 10th grade, Chance the Rapper released his remix of the Arthur cartoon theme song. It topped out at #1 the day after it was released.
Listen to your heart
Listen to the beat
Listen to the rhythm
the rhythm of the street
Open up your eyes
Open up your ears
And I said, Hey! What a wonderful kind of day
And I say hey! Heyyy!
Learn the Chance the Rapper lesson, open up your eyes, open up your ears to have a wonderful kind of day.
A Rabbi. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote something similar, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible.” Take nothing for granted. What you otherwise miss could be so wonderful.
A mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi walk into a graduation to teach this lesson. It is best summed up by another thought from Heschel: "Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and [God] gave it to me.”
This summer: Listen for wonder and you will hear it; Look for wonder and you will see it; Ask for wonder and you will receive it.
Jewish Community High School of the Bay
1835 Ellis Street, San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: 415.345.9777
The Jewish Community High School of the Bay (JCHS) is a unique college preparatory high school committed to integrating deep learning, universal wisdom, and Jewish values. We empower each student to embrace their Jewish identity, generate empathy and compassion, delight in lifelong education, and improve the world.