Reflections on Harvard's Rescission Letters
Imagine what it must feel like to have your acceptance to Harvard rescinded, as recently happened to ten young men and women accepted to the Harvard Class of 2021. It is safe to assume that admission to Harvard – acceptance rate five percent -- was the attainment of the goal for which they had been striving most of their lives. And if so, the rescission of that acceptance represents the nadir of their still young lives.
But it gets worse. Not only will they not attend Harvard, it is highly unlikely they will end up studying at any of the other prestigious schools to which they were almost certainly accepted. Even Podunk U. is not a sure bet. They have been permanently marked as creeps.
I have little doubt that the offensive memes that the ten posted on a small Facebook subgroup of entering Harvard freshman were truly cringe-worthy. (The Harvard Crimson reports the students denigrated minority groups and made fun of the Holocaust.) And yet I am not without a shred of sympathy for those who lost their places. My guess is that most of them are better people than their posts would lead one to believe. No doubt their extra-curricular resumes, including charity work, are impressive.
Some of the posts may have been a form of pushing back against oppressive political correctness. Others just immature teenage rituals of proving oneself: "I can match your gross comment and up you one."
Teenagers, even smart ones, routinely say and do stupid things. It is called sophomoric humor for a reason. Adopting a tone of superiority based on little support – epater les bourgeoisie – is one form. Vulgarity is another. Hard as it is to believe there was once a genre of "dead baby jokes." Most tellers of such jokes probably grew up to be something more than the sociopaths the jokes would have suggested.
Hopefully, the students who lost the opportunity to wear Harvard T-shirts will learn some valuable lessons from their self-inflicted loss. And if they don't, the rest of us can. The first would be that there is no correlation between one's percentile on the SATs and one's ranking as a decent human being – a point often forgotten by those in the upper 1%.
A second mundane lesson is one taught long ago by Chazal: Do not assume that your words will not be heard. Eventually, they will be heard. Apparently, it is now regular operating procedure for colleges to view the social media profiles of applicants. And what admission officers find very rarely helps the cause of the applicant, and quite frequently has a significant negative impact.
And that negative evaluation is not unfounded. Participation in social media, especially on a regular basis, can turn us into worse human beings. People express thoughts on social media that they never would give voice to face-to-face. But once thoughts are given concrete expression -- be they obscene, racist, cruel, or merely vulgar – they change the one who gives expression to them.
Everyone has certain thoughts that they would be humiliated to recognize as their own if revealed to the world. The comparative anonymity and distance of social media, however, tempts too many to give expression to those thoughts. But once that happens those thoughts and emotions become much more ingrained in us than if they merely flickered through our minds.
The wise among us can learn from the bitter pill swallowed by the ten teenagers to be very careful that social media not render us less fit for all real human relationships and interaction.
Only One Purpose
Rabbi Leib Bakst, the late rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Bais Yehudah of Detroit, was one of the great Mirrer talmidim who spent the war in Shanghai. Though he rarely spoke about himself and his life history, there was one story that he shared on more than one occasion with talmidim, presumably because he felt the message was such an important one.
While in Shanghai, Rabbi Bakst suffered a burst appendix, and hovered between life and death as the doctors in a Shanghai hospital sought to bring the infection under control and save his life. While in that state, he had a dream.
In his dream, he was before a Heavenly beis din, appointed to determine his fate. Three dayinim were present. Reb Leib did not recognize two of the dayanim. But one was unmistakably, the great Mashgiach of the pre-War Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz. Rabbi Bakst had learned under Reb Yeruchom from the time he arrived in Mir just after his bar mitzvah until the latter's passing six years later.
Reb Yerucham led the interrogation. He asked his talmid, "We know that a malach (angel) can perform only one shlichus (mission). But nowhere do we see such a limitation on a man. How can it be that a malach, who is at a much higher spiritual madrega (level) can seemingly not do as much as a human being?"
In the dream, Reb Leib challenged the premise that human beings can do more than one shlichus at a time. A malach who has been sent by Hashem for a particular task performs that task with total concentration and effort, without be diverted in any way, he said. Only because human beings do not act with a similar total concentration and determination do they perceive themselves as capable of performing more than one task at a time.
But, in fact, we have only one overarching mitzvah: to be marbeh kavod Shomayim in this world. And that must be the focus of our concentration in whatever situation we find ourselves.
At that point, Reb Yerucham nodded slightly. As soon as Reb Yerucham nodded, Reb Leib's fever broke and he regained consciousness, on the way to a full recovery.
In honor of his deliverance, Rabbi Bakst reprinted in Shanghai, the classic Torah work Tomer Devorah by the great Tzefat kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordevero to which he appended his own ma'ama ron the horrible destruction then overtaking European Jewry. Fittingly, Tomer Devorah is a guide to how we can each imitate the middos of Hashem in our lives – the greatest possible increase of Kavod Shomayim.