Thursday, August 25, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Re’eh 5771-Revisiting B’lo L’sav’a

Twice before, at turning points/new beginnings in my career, I wrote and shared musings for parashat Re’eh entitled B’lo L’sav’a. It seemed fitting at yet another new beginning to revisit this theme again.

Some of you know my history, some do not. I was trained in childhood as a musician and scientist. As fate would have it, I wound up with a career in the performing arts – and not even onstage, but backstage. I was happy in my career. The twists and turns of life brought me to a place where participation and involvement in the Jewish community became important to me. I started by using my musical skills in service to Judaism, but was soon drafted into teaching as well. It wasn’t long before I found myself as the director of a supplemental school. As my passion grew, I decided that I needed to commit myself to working full-time in the Jewish arena. I went back to school, studied theology (not exactly a typical path, but that’s a story for another time) and began to support myself solely through work in the Jewish community.

I wish I could have said “began to support myself solely as a Jewish educator” but the reality is it wasn’t enough. Even teaching full-time at a day school I found it necessary (not just desirable) to supplement my income by using my musical and technology skills. Without additional work as a synagogue music director, teaching at local synagogue schools, plus the editing I did for Torah Aura, the parnassa, the means of livelihood, would be insufficient.

In the years since, I have returned to serving in an administrative capacity for synagogue supplemental schools. While the parnassa was better I still found it inadequate without continuing to be involved in other activities-musical, educational, and even theatrical-yet all Jewish.

Then I relocated again, and the economy went south. While I was able to piece together a little supplemental school teaching, bar/bat mitzvah tutoring, and occasional musical gigs, the ever slowing spigot led to a prolonged bout of under employment and even periods of complete unemployment. It wasn’t fun, and even began to dampen my passion, something I thought wasn’t possible.

Though I sought work as a supplemental school principal, the pickings were slim, and many synagogues, in poor financial health, couldn’t offer me reasonable compensation and benefits for someone of my age and experience. Luckily I was open to a sideways/lateral career move, and now I start a new job as music teacher for a day school on Manhattan’s upper west side. I am still going to have to supplement that work (especially given the cost of living in NYC) and will likely continue to be wearing lots of different hats.

I certainly made some poor career choices if financial security and comfort was my ultimate goal.  The theater business, the music business, and Jewish education (I refuse to call that a business – and thinking of it as a business has been the cause of a lot of the problem we have with it) – none of them known for being particularly lucrative (well, as in any profession, some people do make a great living in the performing arts and music-but for every star there are hundreds of others who toil in the vineyards.)

Yes, I like nice things. I like to live in nice places. Yet I still value some intangibles more than property and lifestyle. I have learned that quality of life is dependent not just on economics. I enjoy what I do. I am passionate about it. In my careers, I have experienced some of the best and worst that these professions have to offer. Right now, I’m just beginning to shake off the effects of a pretty strong challenge to my passion and enthusiasm. My flame got pretty low for a while-almost just embers, truth be told. The spark remained, and slowly, beginning with my part-time work last spring as a substitute music specialist for a NYC synagogue, and my just completed stint as a music specialist for the 92nd St Y day camps, I can feel the flame rekindling. Those positions both showed me that I still had deep wells of passion and enthusiasm on which to draw – and I hope and pray that those deep internal sources become renewed and replenished as time goes on.  They have been depleted pretty heavily, but somehow (or through the aegis of someOne) they never ran dry. Once again explaining why the haftarah for Re’eh speaks to me so strongly:

Isaiah Chapter 55 1 Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water, Even if you have no money, Come, buy food and eat: Buy food without money, Wine and milk without cost. 2 Why do you spend money for what is not bread, Your earnings for what does not satisfy? Give heed to Me, And you shall eat choice food And enjoy the richest viands. 3 Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken, and you shall be revived. (JPS)

When I first wrote a musing on this theme, I said I'm wasn’t going to offer excuses for the paltry salaries paid to Jewish educators, and I stand by those words. It remains a shanda, an embarrassment to the entire Jewish community. We have not put our money where our mouth is. On top of the already dismal pay, benefits, etc. we now have the additional complications of the bad economy and the changing face of Judaism and Jewish Education.

Something I’ve not written about before when musing on this theme, however, is the tendency of synagogues and other Jewish institutions to take excessive advantage of the passion of their undervalued staff.

I was reminded of this just the other day by a tweet that called my attention to a discussion on the Darim Online blog about an all too common reality in the Jewish (and larger religious/non-profit) community – the accidental techie. You know – the person who by default of knowledge, ability, passion, and volunteerism becomes the synagogue’s tech  or web site or social media point person. I added these thoughts to the discussion:

I’d like to expand the category to talk about people like myself – the “professional” accidental techie – i.e. synagogue staff who become defacto IT, web, and social media support and point persons. I have to admit that, as a social deviant, I allowed, and often pushed, for this to happen so I wonder how often it’s truly accidental? As a digital naturalized citizen (my self-coined term since neither digital native nor digital immigrant describes me) who has been active in computing and online since 1980, I have decades of experience as the “accidental techie” and have always enjoyed it. However, I have always worked hard to insure I was not indispensable in that role-keeping things as transparent as I could, so that, inevitably, when I moved on, there was continuity. Unfortunately, not all the places I worked took the hints, and they suffered as a result. Synagogues have a long and sad history of abusing the “and other duties as assigned” clauses in employees’ contracts, and while I have always enjoyed the addition of tech responsibilities to my work, I have on occasion come to resent the dependence and expectation – and the continued insistence to only use volunteers or staff who have other primary duties for this work. Yes, every synagogue has money woes. My own inability to find work as a synagogue educator and thus having to move sideways into other Jewish work is ample evidence. Yet in this digital age, synagogues need to invest in having staff with primary responsibility for technology/social media/etc. Woe unto those who continue to rely on the accidental techie. Wow, when I consider how much more money I could have been making if I were a computer/IT professional instead of choosing to dedicate my life in service to Judaism…

Nevertheless, while I may be a bit older, wiser, and cautious, and I may lament about it a bit, I’m still the passionate and eager accidental techie when asked. In addition to musical and technology skills, my employers over the decades (synagogues, JCC, etc.) also happily plumbed the depths of my theatrical skills, getting me to set up, fix, and adjust their sound systems, or stages, etc. I was even crazy enough to volunteer to be the technical coordinator for those two crazy mass synagogue choir concerts the DC Metro area Jewish community put together for the 350th anniversary of Jews in America, and the 60th birthday of Israel.

Part of me feels like Sancho Panza wanting to ask Don Quixote why he does what he does, and part of me feels like Don Quixote, trying to explain to Sancho the depth of my passion. I’ve always had passion for things, and even in my careers before devoting myself to working full-time in the Jewish community, I had the passion of which others would willingly take advantage. At first, I couldn’t help myself.Then I entered the denial phase where I simply convinced myself I was only doing all this extra stuff because I wanted to do it. When I look back and see how much I did for love in the theater business, working for all those community theaters for little or no compensation, in addition to my full-time work in theater I recognize that this is just who I am. I have come to terms with it. I’m still bad at saying no, but I have a little more self-awareness than before. (Or so I’d like to believe…)

It is nice to know that now feeling continually called to work in service to our faith and tradition, I, and most of us (if not all of us) in Jewish Education realize the truth revealed in Isaiah's words:

Lama tishk'lu-kesef b'lo lechem; vigiachem b'lo l'sav'a? Why do you spend money for what is not bread, Your earnings for what does not satisfy?

I love what I do. It does give me satisfaction. I like things, I like comfort, but not so much so that I would give up the joy of doing work I enjoy doing for the sake of just having more money, more things, more comfort. If I have any “b’lo l’sav’a” in my life – a lack of satiation – it is not in the way this of which this text speaks. If I hunger, it is for more of what I already do with passion. I could be in another profession, and earning much greater amounts of money to spend and save. Yet I could not do this in a profession about which I was not passionate and be happy.

I cannot say it better than I did in my previous musings on this theme:

Even the minimal salary of a Jewish educator is a king's ransom when it is spent for what is truly bread, and for what truly satisfies. The bread and satisfaction that is available to those who worship Ad”nai and follow G”d's ways. To those who seek to teach these ways to our children.

By reinvesting what I earn back into the Jewish community, by seeking to live by G”d's commandments, by showing khesed and acting righteously, I get greater value for my money. The commitment of a Jewish educator to the future of Judaism opens the door to riches beyond imagination.

Shabbat shalom,


©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Portions ©2003 and 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Re'eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re'eh 5766-Lo Toseif V'lo Tigra
Re'eh 5765--Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5761--Our Own Gifts
Re'eh 5760/5763--B'lo l'sav'a
Re'eh 5759--Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5757/5758--How To Tell Prophet From Profit

Friday, August 19, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Eikev 5771-Lining Up Alphabetically by Height

I am not a sports enthusiast. In fact, I am pretty sure I didn’t even watch the half-time show of the last Superbowl. Yes, I do occasionally attend a baseball game. I usually do watch at least some of the Superbowl, and, usually, at least the half-time show. I do dabble in watching Olympic events, and, once in a  blue moon, might watch some non0Olympic ice skating or ice dancing event on television.I don’t believe I’ve ever been to a professional football, basketball or hockey game. As a child and young professional, I enjoyed auto-racing, but I’ve never attended a race. (I do watch the Kentucky Derby but ask me to name a horse other than Secretariat and I’d be stumped. I’ve never been to a horse race live.) I’m barely aware of top sports figures, don’t follow any teams with any gusto or commitment. (I suspect this may change now that I have moved back to NYC, where at least getting to a major or minor league event is easier. On the other hand, I’m pretty much a Mets fan in a Yankee-dominated city, having been in HS the year the Mets won the series for the first time. I actually think NYC Jews should perforce be Mets fans. We have so much in common with them, at least up until the last 50 years or so of our history.)

I am sure there are others out there who can identify with my common discomfort when all around me people are talking sports. I’m glad I don’t work in a typical office or business setting where my non-attention to sports would be outed in a second, and leave me with little to talk about with co-workers when they are talking sports.

Sure, I follow the news, so I have some rough idea of the names of key and popular sports figures. However, besides names like A-Rod and Jeter I would be hard-pressed to name a pro-sports player currently playing. My sports figure vocabulary seems to be stuck in a time warp with names like Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, OJ Simpson, Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Arnold Palmer, Bobby Orr, Richard Petty, Wilt Chamerberlain and Lew Alcindor (err, I mean Kareem Abdul Jabar. He grew up in the same housing project as I did and I’m fairly certain I got to watch him play in our playgrounds.) I think the era/age of most of those names will give you some idea of when I stopped having much interest in professional sports – a long time ago. Sure I know other names like Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning and probably dozens of others, but don’t ask for where they played or when (and in some cases, even what they played!

All of which is merely preface to my caveat that using sports metaphors may not be the best way I can convey things. However, damn the torpedoes, I’ll try.

Our parasha, Eikev, in fact, most of the book of D’varim (Deuteronomy) is a locker room speech or a huddle. The Israelites are preparing to cross into the promised land, and despite all the miracles they have experienced still need a pep talk. Yes, there’s an awful lot of negative reinforcement in the words of Torah from this book, but if the reputation of some coaches is accurate, it wouldn’t surprise me to know they used negative reinforcement as a pep-talk technique too. (Personally, I don’t find negative reinforcement particularly effective, but that’s my 21st-century perspective  on things. Perhaps negative reinforcement was more effective in ancient times. However, given the stubborn and recalcitrant history of the Jews, I’m led to conclude that it wasn’t all that effective back then.)

“We’re Gonna Win!” “You’re Gonna Win!” That’s the enthusiasm of this last book of the Torah. It’s peppered with a lot of “But to win, you gotta….” Probably not atypical of a locker room pep talk.

The consequences for losing (or for not following G”d’s ways) are pretty drastic, much more so than losing a ball game. Yet to hear athletes and coaches talk, sometimes I wonder if they realize that. Parents, too, who push their kids too hard to win at youth sports (or dance, or music, or whatever.)

Ultimately, the lesson in parashat Eikev is “listen to what I am telling you.” Sounds like a coach to me. “I’m telling you this for your own good.” It’s possible we kept losing because we didn’t listen. We still aren’t listening very well, but our streak of bad luck seems to be thinning out (at least for now. Unless you consider the continued existence of Judaism to be under threat, which some people do.)

I’ve little experience with athletic coaches, but a a reasonable amount with band directors – who have quite a bit in common with each other. Some manage to give pep talks without negative reinforcement, and others are pretty heavy-handed with it. (Personally, I continue to believe you catch more flies with honey.)

What this coaching/pep-talk/huddle metaphor does for me is enable me to be a bit more accepting of the striking text we encounter here in parashat Eikev and much of D’varim. When I consider the (supposed) time and place of this long oration by Moses, and place it in the context of a pep talk, it makes it easier for me to digest and accept. It also convinces me that we were just as dysfunctional then as we are now.

Since I am still struggling with so much of what the Torah, and particularly this parasha and this book, has to say, I thought I might offer some Torah from two of my childhood heroes, Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra.

Yogi explained the book of D’varim pretty well:

It’s like deja vu all over again.

Here are a few more of my favorites pieces of CS/YB Torah:

When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed and when you’re older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out. YB

If you come to a fork in the road, take it. YB

There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them. CS

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided. CS

Without losers, where would the winners be? CS

I stayed up last night and watched the Republican Convention all night long. I watched all of them talk, and listened to them and seen them and I'm not interested in politics. If you watch them and listen to them you can find out why. CS

If you’re really a baseball fan, then you’ll know from whence the title of this musing comes from.

We can end with this well-worn YB quote:

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over YB

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ekev 5770 - For the Good Planet
Ekev 5769-Not Like Egypt
Ekev 5766 - Kod'khei Eish-Kindlers of Fire
Eikev 5765-Are We Forgotten?
Ekev 5764-KaYom HaZeh
Ekev 5760 (from 5759)-Not Holier Than Thou

Friday, August 12, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Va’etkhanan/Nakhamu 5771 – Comfort

The timing of Shabbat Nakhamu is consistent in the Jewish calendar, coming as it does after Tisha B’Av and taking us from a place of utter despair to one of comfort and hope. This year, its timing within the secular calendar is equally propitious. Let’s face it. Things, well, to put it bluntly, suck right now. Nobody appears to be happy. In England, youth are rioting. In the US, the stock market is going crazy, our economy is in awful shape, and politicians have gone absolutely mad. There’s still war in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Libya. Syria’s government continues to crackdown. The horn of Africa is experiencing a food crisis.

What scares me is that I’m afraid we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. Consider the words of hafatarah reading for Shabbat Nakhamu (Isaiah 40:1-26.) We have not yet seen the depths of despair and destruction as those being consoled by Isaiah’s words.

We are, I’m afraid, quite guilty of many of the behaviors and sins for which Isaiah (and most of the prophets) take the people to task. Our systems and practices have become corrupted. We do not dispense justice equally to rich and poor alike.

I am not trying to rationalize or defend the actions of the young British rioters. But I understand their angst.  An article I read the other day tried to pass off the riots as the product of lazy, self-indulgent, spoiled British youth with a sense of entitlement and easy to anger and act on that anger. I can’t dismiss the analysis completely – there is likely some truth in it.  I am somewhat surprised it hasn’t started happening here in US. I fear that, when the truly serious cuts to government spending come to pass, without any attempt to raise taxes on the wealthy, our own youth (and adults, and seniors) may be similarly angered and driven to riotous behavior. To turn a phrase around, lo y’hi ratzon.

I make no bones about my politics. I’m a liberal to the core. I truly believe the Judaism of my understanding compels my political outlook, though I fully recognize that others derive totally different understandings and political views from the same sources I use.

Things are not right in this world. The rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor are growing poorer. Pollution? Global warming? Nuclear energy? Nuclear weapons? Terrorism? The democratic spring in the middle east and north Africa? All of these are starting to take a back seat to the worldwide economic spasms. Conveniently so, I might surmise. What better way to take our mind off of things which will cost companies millions to fix and make right that to have worldwide economic panic? (I’m no big fan of conspiracy theories, but there are times that “follow the money” can lead to some very suspicious thoughts.)

G”d is not likely to provide a solution, but it is said that religious faith can provide some comfort. I’m trying real hard to have that faith, and harkening to Isaiah’s words. It’s not easy, and my faith and trust is tenuous at best. When faith and trust are all you’ve got however, it seems foolish to throw it away. Maybe if we all grabbed at a little piece of faith, maybe if we all allowed ourselves to be comforted by the G”d (or non-deity) of our understanding, we can find our way through the darkness.

At times like this we truly need comfort. Would that the whole world , all of us together, united as one, despite our differences, could cry out to G”d “Comfort us, comfort us, all our people. That’s what I’ll be praying for this Shabbat.

Finally, it has been somewhat of a tradition for me to share my musing for parashat Va’etkhanan, “The Promise” at this time each year. So here’s a link to it:

Shabbat Shalom and May You Find Comfort,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope
Va'etchanan 5764--Sometimes A Cigar...
Va'etchanan 5758-63-66-67-The promise

Friday, August 5, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-D’varim/Shabbat Hazzon 5771-Redux 5766-Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists

So, before the mournful Tisha B'Av, we get Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Prophecy (vision? foresight?) named after the first words in the haftarah reading from Y'shayahu (Isaiah) chapter one. Talk about a downer.

Isaiah reports G"d's  words, spoken like a true parent "I reared children and brought them up--and they have rebelled against Me!" The children of Israel are labeled "goi khotei"-sinful nation, an "am keved avon"-a people heavy with iniquity. (I love the use of the kaf, bet, dalet root, more often seen in a positive light as honor or glory--"kavod"--yet here it reverts to the root's base meaning - heavy - we are heavy with (laden) with sin. Perhaps our sin is that we have taken what should be our honor, and have viewed it instead as a heavy burden which we can shuck off.)

We are "zera m'rei'im"--seeds from evilness (JPS poetically uses "brood of evildoers") and "banim mash'khitim" --children who have become spoilers (and, though we can't impute a more modern meaning, I daresay that perhaps we had become not just spoilers, but "spoiled children" ourselves. Maybe we still are.)

"Why," asks G"d, "do you seek to be beaten further, adding to your apostasy?"

Why, indeed? What is it about human beings that make us prone to being refractory, recalcitrant, and recidivist? Could you think of a worse innate trait? Stubbornness combined with obstinacy, resistance, and a tendency to fall back on old bad habits?

Can we truly blame the high incidence of recidivism among those sent to prison for crimes solely upon the weaknesses and problems with the penal system?  And why is it that some are able to overcome their demons and others not? Why are some alcoholics and addicts successful in keeping their recovery going, and others on a constant cycle of falling off the wagon?

So many in our prison system appear to find G"d in some fashion. Yet when these are warrior gods of Norse mythology, or a pure white Aryan Jesus. And Isaiah tells us that G"d isn't interested in our sacrifices or our prayers when what is in our hearts is evil. When we lift up our hands, G"d will turn G"d's eyes away from us, though we increase our prayer, G"d will not listen, for our hands with bloods are full. (1:15)

So just how defiant and off-task must we be before G"d will no longer listen to our prayers? Can any of us truly say that our hands are not somehow tainted with the blood of others? When evil happens in our world, are we not responsible as a community to do something about it?  If we follow the Sodom and Gomorrah example, if at least 10 of us are trying to do something about it, is that enough for G"d to continue to listen to us, hear our prayers, show us favor and mercy and kindness? Is there another "tipping point?" If so, why the different standard, you might ask.  That, my friends, is the price for being a people covenanted with G"d. Yes, we will be held to a higher standard.

"That's not fair! I didn't ask to be born into this covenant" I hear some cry. Opt out then. But don't come crying to G"d the next time you've run out of other options.

G"d not listening to us. It's not a very comforting thought. It seems harsh-it's not the loving, all-forgiving G"d we all want. Yet did we always get what we wanted from our parents?

Nevertheless, how many of us were, in the eyes of our parents, sometimes refractory, recalcitrant, and recidivist? So probably sometimes our parents had to turn a deaf ear to our please in do what they felt they needed to do in order to get to to do family t'shuva. They continued to love us (at least most of them, for even parents are imperfect.) And so does G"d.

Our criminal justice system, to some extent, tries (though often fails) to heed Isaiah's reminder from G"d that "sins like crimson, they can be turned into snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.

All negative messages from our parents (or from G"d) are not likely to be successful at getting us to return to the path of righteous living. And just as our parents knew to temper their "tough love" with a little kindness, so, too, does G"d. We see it throughout our sacred scriptures, and we see it here at the end of this haftarah.

"Zion shall be saved in the judgment, her repentant ones, in the retribution." (JPS, 1:27)

Yet we cannot depend solely on G"d's ultimate mercy. Our Jewish understanding is that this is a two way street. That is why, perhaps, Isaiah has G"d saying:

"L'khu-na, v'nivvakh'khah." It's somewhat odd morphology makes it difficult to translate, but scholars believe the meaning to be something like "Come, please, let us reason together" or, as the JPS committee decided to translate it "Come, let us reach an understanding."

Refractory recalcitrant recidivists that we are, let's go reach an understanding with G"d.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2011, 2006 by Adrian A. Durlester

For another take on this haftarah for Shabbat Hazon, see D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps

Some Previous Musings on the Same Parasha

D'varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D'varim 5764--Eleven Days
D'varim 5763--Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up
D'varim 5760-1-Kumu v'Ivru