When I was in college I read a book for a Hebrew Literature class by an author named Eli Amir. The title of the book is Tarnegol Caparot, which translates roughly to “Scape-Chicken,” and it was set in the 1950’s in a Ma’abarah (basically a temporary housing camp for Jews from Arab countries who fled to Israel in 1948). The title refers to a Yom Kippur practice in which sins are symbolically and ritually transferred onto a chicken, which is then slaughtered. The practice has roots in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, which describes the sacrifice of two goats at the time of Yom Kippur, with the goal being the expiation of all the sins of the Children of Israel for the year. This practice, which is the origin of the term “Scapegoat,” is also linked to Tashlich, in which modern Jews cast off their sins by throwing bread into flowing water.
The modern understanding of a scapegoat is generally someone who is unfairly blamed for the problems of others. It is a tactic that we see and hear a lot these days, in a particularly troubling form when it comes from the mouths of potential presidential candidates. From an educational perspective, blaming others for your own issues is a classic indication of a “fixed mindset.” Our faculty has spent some time thinking about the differences between growth and fixed mindsets this year. These concepts grow out of the work of Carol Dweck’s research on what factors lead to academic success, which indicates that one major factor is having what she calls a growth mindset. In her words:
A fixed mindset comes from the belief that your qualities are carved in stone – who you are is who you are, period. Characteristics such as intelligence, personality, and creativity are fixed traits, rather than something that can be developed.
A growth mindset comes from the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. Yes, people differ greatly – in aptitude, talents, interests, or temperaments – but everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
When you operate from a primarily fixed mindset, then when you encounter problems, you tend to externalize the source of the problem, blaming others in order to prevent your own sense of intelligence from being diminished. As a student, you might blame the teacher for not writing a fair test, as opposed to thinking about what you could have done differently to prepare. As a teacher, you might blame a student for acting out, rather than thinking about what else you could do to provide structure, clarity, or stimulation in your classroom.
In general, according to Dweck, the more you can shift your own mindset towards the belief that you can grow and change, the more likely you will be to do so, and thereby find success. We want to cultivate growth mindsets throughout our entire community here at Gesher, and continue to think about what else we can do toward that end. As Jews who recently commemorated the Holocaust, we know what happens when people are allowed to pin all their own issues on others, and we certainly shouldn’t allow ourselves to go down that road.
I encourage you to discuss with your children the idea of a scapegoat – most kids know what it feels like to be unfairly blamed. In what ways can you take more ownership of your own growth? In what ways can you encourage your children to understand that, with effort, they can change and grow?