Great Expectations

Expectations are tricky things. If they are too high, we risk continuously falling short. If they are too low, we risk remaining stagnant (at best). For both parents and educators, finding that sweet spot between low and high expectations for our children is like trying to hit a moving target from within a moving vehicle. One way of conceiving that sweet spot was laid out in the early 1930’s by a Russian Jewish student of child psychology named Lev Vygotsky. His “Zone of Proximal Development” refers to the skills and knowledge that a child is in the process of mastering with guidance from an adult.

When we teach, whether as parents or as professionals, we have to intuit the level of reasonable expectation we lay on our kids. We want them to grow, and it is perfectly acceptable to push them, but we need to decide whether or not they are currently capable of what we ask.

In Vayigash, the current Torah portion, a remarkable scene takes place in which Jacob/Israel, father of Joseph, meets Pharoah. At this point Joseph is the second most powerful person in Egypt, and has more than earned Pharoah’s trust. Pharoah receives a blessing from Jacob, and then asks how old he is. Jacob responds:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י וְלֹ֣א הִשִּׂ֗יגוּ אֶת־יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י אֲבֹתַ֔י בִּימֵ֖י מְגוּרֵיהֶֽם׃

And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my residences are a hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and bad, and they haven’t attained the days of the years of my fathers’ lives, in the days of their residences.”

Genesis 47:9, translation by Richard Elliott Friedman

This answer stood out for me. Jacob could have just given his age, but instead gives reflective commentary, noting that in his opinion he hasn’t lived up to his own legacy. He is saying this is the presence of his favored son, who is now significantly wealthier than he is, and whom he will now rely on for his food. Two items I’d like to note about this answer:

First, Jacob’s cycle begins with manipulation and deception – he tricks Esau out of his birthright, and later tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. In his last days, there is obvious growth – he is not trying to impress Pharoah or Joseph, but instead he is humbly and honestly reflecting on his failures.

Second, to link back to expectations and proximal development, this response indicates that Jacob may have had high expectations for himself, but that he doesn’t feel he achieved them. Whether those expectations were really those of his parents or not, he saw the high standard set by Abraham and Isaac, and doesn’t believe that he has lived up to it.

Sometimes the expectations we lay on our children are clear – we expect them to help around the house, to do their homework, brush their teeth, etc. Even more powerful, though, are the expectations we lay on them without even realizing it. Perhaps these come from our own accomplishments, or comments that indicate our values – they are usually deeply held beliefs, and we often communicate them to our children without even intending to. These could include assumptions about the world or human nature, how to interact with others, or what it means to be successful.

Perhaps when we think about Jacob’s response to Pharoah we can borrow a page from his book, and think reflectively about our own expectations of ourselves, our partners and friends, and our children.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a fun and restorative winter break,