Pinchas: Nothing to Lose, So What’s Stopping You?

About midway through this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses to do the following: “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was gathered.”

In other words, God tells Moses, go to the top of the mountain and look at the land you’re not going to be entering because you disobeyed me. And then, God tells Moses, it’s time for you to die.

Let’s think about what must’ve been going through Moses’ head at this moment. He’s old, he’s tired, and after leading his people through the desert for 40 years, he’s not going to enter the Promised Land. Even worse, he’s instructed by God to go look at the Promised Land….and to see the world that’s going to go on, but without him in it. For Moses, this must have been a heartbreaking realization. For someone who’s spent much of his life as a leader, and a gifted leader, truly there is nothing more demoralizing.

After Moses gazes upon the land, something amazing happens. In Chapter 27, Verse 15, Moses decides to speak to God and it’s introduced this way: “Vayedaber Moshe l’Adonai laymor.” Which means, Moses spoke to the Lord, saying….”

There’s something interesting about that line that’s not at all apparent in the English translation. In every other instance in the Torah where Moses addresses God, the word that’s used is “vayomer” Moshe, which means, “Moses said.” But this time it was “vayedaber” Moshe. Which can also be translated to mean “Moses said.” They’re synonyms, but not identical ones.

The rabbis have a lot to say about the difference between the two words. Most agree that vayedaber has a harsher tone than vayomer. The former also has an implied hierarchy and it’s not something you would typically use when speaking to someone whose status is more elevated than yours.

Rashi says that by using vayedaber, Moses is more than simply saying something to God. He’s demanding a response. These are the words of Moses: “Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

So what possesses Moses to speak to God this way — not only to tell God to appoint a new leader but also to dictate the kind of leader God should pick? We would be correct in assuming that Moses is deeply concerned about the quality of leader who will come after him, and in ensuring that his successor will be capable of carrying out the business of detailed, day-to-day governance that will be required in order to build a nation. It’s also natural that Moses is cognizant of the shape his legacy is going to take.

But I believe there’s a more compelling reason Moses addresses God so forcefully. He has absolutely nothing to lose. He doesn’t have to worry about disobeying God: he’s already done that, and the worst thing that could’ve happened to Moses has already come to pass. His leadership is ending, he’s not going to be entering the Promised Land, and he has already been told that he is going to die. So why not just say what’s on his mind? To borrow a saying by Hillel, if not now, when?

We can all relate to this sudden burst of fearlessness….when you don’t care what people think and you just speak or you just act. Think of all the videos on YouTube of sprightly 90-year-olds cutting loose on the dance floor. If you still have the agility — or at least the energy — hey, why not? Might as well grab at life with gusto while you still can.

Anyone can adopt this philosophy. A few years ago there was a viral video of a little girl dancing at her school’s ballet recital to the song “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. She was shimmying and shaking with abandon and clearly didn’t give a damn what anyone else in her group was doing. The video got about 60 million views, not just because the kid was hilarious (which she was) but because her behavior was admirable. Most of us would like to be like that little girl, but we harbor grownup-sized fears of what we’ll look like, and what people will think of us.

How often do we stop ourselves from taking chances? For many of us, the answer is too often. How often do our fears stop us from trying something new? Fear of embarrassment. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of conflict. The truth is that maintaining the status quo is much easier than changing it. That’s true for people, governments and, yes, synagogues. Change can be a difficult and painful process, but it’s necessary for any kind of growth to take place.

Going back to Moses, he changed the status quo with his decision to be direct with God, and speaking to God in this manner turns out to be effective. In the end, Moses’ words carry real weight. God could’ve appointed Pinchas as Moses’ successor, but that wasn’t the kind of thoughtful leader that Moses envisioned carrying on his work. Instead, God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses.

Moses’ behavior sets an important example for all of us. We don’t have to wait until we have nothing to lose in order to speak freely or to take decisive action in our lives. We just need to pretend that we have nothing to lose. We need to remember that we have value and power. That our words matter. That our actions can lead to even greater actions. That although we’d prefer not to think about it, our time here may, in fact, not be infinite.

So, in the coming week, may we move ahead with purpose and intent. May we, as a community, always encourage each other to speak freely – because a healthy exchange of ideas is what inspires us to grow and to find fulfillment within ourselves and with each other.

Have a peaceful and safe week, and Shabbat Shalom.

Va-et’chanan: The Stories We Tell

After my mother died in 2015, I moved the 76 years of accumulated memories she’d somehow fit in her small apartment to my house in Brooklyn. Since I lack her organizational skills, her stuff quickly took possession of a space far larger than its former home. I emptied a bureau to make room for hundreds of photos and the 40 years’ worth of greeting cards she’d exchanged with my father, including one for every month of their first year of marriage. I stashed her teenage diaries next to my own. (“I had a date with that boy Phil,” she wrote on a spring day in 1956. “I think he may be the One.”). Odd items like the receipt from Carson C. Peck Memorial Hospital (when she gave birth to me) and her Howdy Doody Club and Lincoln H.S. Senior buttons are in a box under my bed.

All these years later I still can’t seem to throw anything out, and I don’t feel at all bad about that. This is my family history. If I part with the evidence, what will become of the stories behind it?

I was thinking about family stories and the role they play in our lives when I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan (meaning “I pleaded”), the second parsha in the book of Deuteronomy. This parsha continues Moses’ first-person speeches to the Israelites and includes the second recitation of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. (The first recitation is in Yitro in Exodus.) The Commandments deal not with the nuts and bolts of governance but with family dynamics: Honor your father and mother. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Remember the God who brought you out of Egypt (and who won’t hesitate to punish you for the sins of your parents). These are hopeful instructions designed to engender a civilized and respectful community. They are at the core of who we are as people seeking to live harmoniously with other people. The Ten Commandments guide us on how to be human.

There were practical reasons for re-stating the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy; their precepts encourage the Israelites to sustain the family unit and uphold the law. Additionally, the Israelites hearing these words in Va-et’chanan had a different relationship with God than the generations that preceded them. They weren’t present at Sinai. They experienced neither the intense wrath of God nor the awe-inspiring moments that their forbears did. Their daily existence is focused on the mechanics of becoming a free people.

The oral history that this generation of Israelites is receiving from Moses throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy is brand-new to them, and they’re hearing it at exactly the point when they will benefit from it the most. Certainly, they face some challenging and frightening times ahead. Although they’ve been assured that they have God’s support, they are also well aware that the generations that perished in the desert was habitually disobedient and often unappreciative of its God-given blessings. This generation knows that they must do better if they’re going to succeed in governing themselves.

It’s during perilous times like these when we most need our family stories to give us stability and a sense of control over our circumstances. For the Israelites, and for us, our family stories remind us that we’re part of something greater than we are. We’re reminded of our interconnectedness and the strength that comes with being interconnected. There’s a real sense of comfort in knowing there’s a roadmap to guide us, especially when things get treacherous.

As the carriers of our family stories, we’re responsible to those who came before us. We’re the ones entrusted to carry the stories forward and add our own stories to the mix. Depending on the audience, we may choose to reinterpret the stories we tell, just as Moses tweaked the narrative that he gave the younger generation of Israelites. We may want to teach a lesson by telling a story, so that means shifting a perspective. We may want to edit out a behavior that we feel doesn’t need to be part of our family’s legacy.

Memory is notably imperfect. We all forget things. A few years ago, I watched a wonderful documentary called Obit, about the people who write obituaries for The New York Times. (For those who don’t read obituaries regularly, they contain some beautiful storytelling.) One of the obit writers spoke about the importance of double- and triple-checking the information that family members provide about a loved one. Someone’s son, for instance, will tell you that his father was a football hero in college — and you’ll find out that the father never left the bench. Stories tend to be embellished. Often we want to make events more interesting or make people seem more accomplished or heroic than they were.

Sometimes we also reinterpret our family stories to mitigate old hurts and eliminate painful episodes. Other times there may be hurts that can’t be mitigated — or we choose not to mitigate them — in our stories. This, too, serves a purpose. Just as Moses wanted the Israelites to stay on the right path as they made the leap to freedom, we don’t want the generations that follow us to repeat our mistakes. We want them to learn from our missteps. We want them to use what came before them as a foundation and build a life that is uniquely their own.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites the following:

“See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.

“Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.

“For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is our God whenever we call? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this teaching that I set before you this day.

“But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children — and to your children’s children…”

May we all appreciate the value of our own family stories. May we use our words to teach, to inspire, to bring people together, to connect our past with our future. May we have a safe week, and a week filled with contentment and experiences that bring us joy.

Shabbat Shalom.

D’varim: A Few Words About Listening

I deal in words. I start the day with words, usually Yiddish or Russian words on Duolingo, and I end the day with a five-letter word — Wordle fans will understand — and then a book. Every night my daughter and I scramble to see who can finish The New York Times crossword puzzle online first (she usually wins). I’ve also been lucky enough to write for a living ever since I graduated from college many years ago.

Perhaps it’s because I’m so word-driven that I’ve always had a special fondness for the fifth book of the Torah, which we begin reading this week. The book is Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is D’varim, or “words.” In this parsha, which is also called D’varim, we begin to see that it’s not just the awesome power of God that’ll bring the Israelites over the river to freedom. It’s the awesome power of words.

Not much happens in the book of D’varim to propel the action forward, yet without D’varim the Israelites wouldn’t be able to move ahead at all. While the previous books of the Torah provided the Israelites with the specific tools they would need in order to survive as a free people — the commandments they had to follow, the constant reminders of their need to be obedient to God, the punishments that could rain down on them if they failed to be obedient — D’varim has a different role. Even without any real action, D’varim is the book that instills in the Israelites with the courage to take the final step toward freedom. The first four books gave them the ability and understanding they will need to be self-governing, but it’s D’varim that infuses them with spirit and confidence, which are equally essential life skills. Now, how is this accomplished?

We think of Deuteronomy as Moses’ first-person addresses, but from the Israelites’ point of view, they are uninterrupted listening sessions. The Israelites are the ideal audience: they’re not going anywhere (a truly captive audience) and nothing else is being required of them except to listen to Moses’ words. At this moment, they’re literally and figuratively on the precipice between being a wandering people and a free people. They face the enormous burden of trying to correct the history of misbehaviors that got their ancestors doomed to die in the desert, and, in addition, they must somehow figure out how to incorporate the vast amount of information they’ve learned (all orally) into a system of governance that will work for them. Try to imagine yourself in their position. It has to be terrifying. And overwhelming.

From Moses’ perspective, you have an audience that for the first time feels a real sense of urgency. The guidance the Israelites have received up to this point is no longer theoretical. They can see Canaan from where they are. It’s there for the taking, and they know that the leader from whom they are hearing these words of guidance won’t be the same leader they’ll have on the other side of the river. Joshua has already been chosen to succeed Moses. This sense of urgency makes the Israelites a more attentive and receptive audience. This is their last chance to hear Moses speak.

In parsha D’varim, and in the rest of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are not simply hearing Moses’ words — they’re listening. As we all know, hearing and listening are two very different things. One is passive (hearing) and the other requires active attention (listening). Hearing is involuntary and requires you to be no more than a receptacle for information. Listening is voluntary and makes you an equal participant. It establishes a connection with the person who is speaking.

In this parsha as well as in the entire book of D’varim, the Israelites’ future — and their lives — depend on having well-developed listening skills. But what happens when the situation is far less urgent? In our own lives, how often do we simply hear and not really listen?

When a spouse or a friend is speaking to us, how often are we looking at our phones, or thinking about the groceries we need to pick up later, or the bill we forgot to pay, and we find ourselves saying, “What? Were you just saying something?” And here’s another question: Have we allowed ourselves to become so distracted that we don’t even realize the difference between hearing and listening?

It should come as no surprise that the problems of distraction and overall inattention to people and surroundings have worsened considerably in recent years. Not coincidentally, these problems have intensified at the same time our dependence on phones and other devices has increased.

A couple of years ago, science journalist Casey Schwartz wrote a book called Attention that combined a story of her own addiction to Adderall with the phenomenon of what she called “splintered concentration.” She wrote about being in the playground with her baby in Brooklyn and noticing that all the fancy strollers were now equipped with cell phone holders, or being in restaurants with dining companions whose focus is on text messages coming in from people who don’t happen to be sitting at the table. “It struck me,” she wrote,” that this new pattern of splintered concentration and constant interruption made it seem that everyone around me had an attention disorder.”

I should note here that the issue of phone addiction is not unfamiliar to me. There’s a feature on iPhones that lets you view your seven-day average screen time. Last week my daily average was 13 hours, 46 minutes. (That’s down 9 percent from the previous week, but I’m not sure if this is cause for celebration.)

It’s inevitable that we’ve lost something by multitasking and having our attention pulled in too many directions. We can’t be consistently attentive to other people. We can’t appreciate our surroundings the way we should. Our brains simply are not capable of processing the sensory overload. There’s also plenty of evidence that inattention can cause us serious harm or much worse — that’s why texting while driving is illegal in most U.S. states. (Montana is the only state without any statewide ban. Missouri bans texting while driving only for drivers under the age of 21.) We’ve all read stories about someone on a cellphone falling into a fountain or into the path of oncoming cars and even a freight train. We may think we hear what’s going on around us. But in too many cases, we’re not really listening.

The parshas we’ll be reading in the next few weeks serve as the prelude for Elul, which is the time of year when many of us prioritize reflection and introspection in preparation for the High Holy Days. Our tradition instructs us to take a deep breath, to turn our thoughts inward, and to listen — truly listen — to the accounting we take of our lives. The hope is that we try to follow the path that our hearts know is right and do a better job of meeting the expectations we set for ourselves in the year ahead.

The Israelites knew how critical it was to listen to — and not just hear — Moses’ words as he began to prepare them for the challenges awaiting them. We all face our own challenges, both those we know and those that are unexpected, and these challenges demand that we listen fully so that we’re properly equipped to handle them.

May we all make a concerted effort to listen, to be present without distraction, and to give our full attention to those who deserve it. Let us have the strength to block out the noise that doesn’t merit our attention, and to have the wisdom to appreciate the words and sounds and music and beauty that surround us. Have a safe and satisfying week, and Shabbat Shalom.

Matot/Masei: Hope, Gratitude & Passing the Torch

Last Sunday I was up until about 2 a.m. watching videos from the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had both made surprise appearances over the weekend and the videos were all over Facebook and YouTube. If you’re of a certain age, as I am, this was the music of your youth. I was 10 when Simon & Garfunkel broke up, and I remember buying Joni’s “Court & Spark” at Sam Goody during one of the many afternoons I spent at the mall in junior high. I still have the album.

It was joyful to watch these videos. Paul Simon is 80. Joni Mitchell is 78 and suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 that nearly killed her. She had to relearn how to walk and talk. Yet there she was onstage in Newport on Sunday, miraculously singing and playing the guitar. (She said she practiced the latter skill by watching her old YouTube videos.)

A jazz artist I know said that she was crying after seeing Joni Mitchell, but likely not for the right reasons. I understood what she meant. The vocals were at times halting, though Joni seemed to gain confidence and strength as she moved deeper into the set. (Gershwin’s “Summertime” in particular was breathtaking.) There was magic on display, but it was not the same magic you remembered. Musicians like Brandi Carlile and Rhiannon Giddens accompanied both artists onstage, and while their admiration and respect were evident, you couldn’t overlook the distinct feeling that a torch was being passed to the next generation right in front of your eyes.

It was with this twinge of melancholy that I re-read this week’s double Torah portion: Matot (which means tribes) and Masei (travels). These are the last two parshas in the Book of Numbers, and a lot happens. There’s talk about oaths, and battling the Midianites, and Reuven and Gad’s request to settle outside the Land of Israel. There’s a lengthy section about homicide and the penalty for homicide. Zelophehad’s daughters finally get their inheritance. Aaron dies at age 123. And we hear an accounting of everywhere the Israelites have been up to this point in the story.

The conclusion of Numbers marks the end of the forward motion in the Torah. The next step is freedom. In Deuteronomy, Moses will re-tell the Israelites their own history (with some key details changed), and instructing them on how to govern themselves and properly use the gift of freedom that God has entrusted to them. Matot/Masei represents the last time that Moses is an active leader rather than a keeper of (selective) memory.

We know that change is coming, and change can be painful. Moses can only look across the Jordan at the promised land; God forbade him from entering it. Joshua has already been chosen to succeed Moses. Moses and Aaron have reached the end of their useful life as leaders. Once again, the torch is being passed to the next generation. This transition may be regarded as bittersweet, but also necessary and even critical. It is a long-held expectation for new leadership to innovate, preserve and/or eliminate the traditions of the previous generation.

Well, up to a point.

From our current perspective, the population of Baby Boomers is so huge that its impact is impossible to ignore. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are the second-largest population group in 2022, comprising 69.6 million individuals. (The only demographic that’s larger, and not by much, are the millennials.) Thanks to advances in medical care and some genetic good luck, people much older than Boomers are still shaking things up in a multitude of ways.

The other day The New York Times published an op-ed by Norman Lear, the TV producer, on his 100th birthday. “Reaching this birthday with my health and wits mostly intact is a privilege. Approaching it with loving family, friends and creative collaborators to share my days has filled me with a gratitude I can hardly express,” Lear wrote. “This is our century, dear reader, yours and mine. Let us encourage one another with visions of a shared future. And let us bring all the grit and openheartedness and creative spirit we can muster to gather together and build that future.”

There’s such hope here. And determination. And gratitude for the chance to keep contributing.

Even though Moses will never see his people experience freedom, his work continues. He has value and he is respected as a leader. Which is as it should be. What a blessing it is that the Israelites have the opportunity to experience the full arc of Moses’ life, and to see the grace that comes with Moses knowing that his role is changing from one of leader to legacy builder.

By the end of Numbers, the Israelites are learning a whole new set of lessons from Moses. Yes, they are still learning how to govern. But they are also observing how Moses perseveres despite grievous (some would say unjust) disappointment, despite the various challenges that come with aging, despite the world changing and moving ahead around him. The art of persevering is something that the Israelites will desperately need to rely on as they work toward building their future as a free people.

May we all move forward with grace and determination, and may we remember the value we have and the gifts we bring to the people around us. Let us have the strength to persevere, to embrace life, and to seek happiness no matter what our circumstances happen to be.

Have a great week, and Shabbat Shalom.

B’ShERT’s Cantorial Soloist, Nonie Donato, provided a nod to Joni Mitchell with this anthem. Here is Joni’s version from her appearance last weekend in Newport. I dare you not to cry.

Pinchas: Hear Us Roar

The other day I saw a photo of Meghan Markle, the American-born Duchess of Sussex, and Gloria Steinem, the 88-year-old writer and feminist icon, after they had lunch together in Manhattan. The two have been working together in the wake of the Roe v Wade debacle to try to get the Equal Rights Amendment finally ratified.

After I saw this, I promptly submerged myself in a Gloria Steinem rabbit hole — easy to do when I’m front of my computer — and unearthed an article she wrote that I hadn’t seen in many years. It was a two-part, diary-style account published in May and June 1963 for an arts magazine called Show. The title of the article was “A Bunny’s Tale.” (The first installment ran with the billing, “Show‘s first expose for intelligent people.”)

At the time, Steinem was a young journalist in New York City, and she set out to expose what it was really like to work as a cocktail waitress — better known as a Playboy bunny — at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club at 5 East 59th Street. In addition to writing about the many indignities that one would be subjected to when clad in a skimpy leotard with a bunny tail and stiletto heels (minimum three inches required), she also uncovered some eyebrow-raising business practices at The Playboy Club. For instance, she learned that all newly-hired bunnies were forced to undergo a gynecological exam and blood testing for venereal diseases, which was not required for any other waitress job in New York State.

After her article was published, The Playboy Club quietly ended these practices. Interestingly, for many years Steinem said she regretted writing this piece because she ended up objectifying herself in the process. Later she changed her mind and said she was glad she wrote it. I was always struck by Steinem’s willingness to chase a story that made her vulnerable to the very same sexist tropes that she was working to eradicate.

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with this week’s Torah portion? Well, powerful women are the stars this week. Parashat Pinchas includes the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who, as you probably know, argued for a woman’s right to inherit land when there were no sons in the family. By way of brief background, in Numbers 26 there had been a census taken of all males over the age of 20, and God instructed Moses to apportion the land to those listed in the census. Since they were women, and therefore unaccounted for in the census, Zelophehad’s daughters were not eligible for their portion of land.

Given these circumstances, it would have been perfectly reasonable to assume that the daughters would stay silent. This was the law, and it was not to be questioned. Instead, they decided to take an unorthodox, unheard-of and rather bold course of action. They decided to fight for their inheritance.

The daughters left their tent and went to the Tabernacle, which was a place where women did not congregate. Without being summoned to do so, they put themselves right in front of the men who were in authority — Moses, Eleazer the priest, and the chieftains — and they made a logical, well-thought-out case for themselves. They told the male leaders that while their father Zelophehad was part of the generation that was doomed to die in the wilderness, he was not, in fact, one of Korach’s men who banded together against God. They went on to explain that the law, in their view, was inadequate and that their father’s name (which was tied directly into land inheritance) shouldn’t be lost simply because he had no sons.

After Moses finished listening to them, he admitted that he didn’t know how the matter should be handled, so he brought it to God to decide. God happened to agree with Zelophehad’s daughters. This approval initiates one of just a handful of times where we witness the process of Torah law being changed. And it’s the only one, not surprisingly, set in motion by women.

These five daughters of Zelophehad — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — saw a situation that they believed needed to be addressed, and they addressed it. They did so at enormous personal risk — they didn’t know the reaction they’d get from Moses and the rest of the male leadership. They didn’t know if there would be repercussions from God; it certainly wouldn’t have been the first time humans experienced the weight of God’s wrath. The daughters must have been afraid or at least apprehensive. Who wouldn’t be?

But in this case, they couldn’t NOT speak up. The matter at hand was critical, and it was one that affected not just their family but countless other women in future generations. They decided to set their own fear aside and use their wits and their voices to effect change.

I was making notes for this d’var last night while watching Liz Cheney, the lone Congress member from Wyoming, deliver her closing remarks at the January 6th hearings. “We must remember that we cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation,” Cheney said. How amazing was that? Here’s someone who has quite possibly sacrificed her own career because she’d rather see our democracy survive. Her own well-being is clearly less important to her than the need to speak out and protect our nation, its legacy, and its place on the global stage. You can love Liz Cheney or you can find her politics abhorrent. Either way, you have to admire her dedication to justice.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is the perfect story for right now, in 2022, when there are so many urgent issues demanding our attention and action. Gun violence. Reproductive rights. Climate change. We need strong voices to speak truth to power, to use logic and reason, to not be deterred by opposition or failure, to not be intimidated by voices that may be even louder than our own. Gloria Steinem has been on the front lines of the battle for equality for over 60 years — her persistence is worth emulating. Do what is right rather than what is easy. And don’t stop.

May we all dedicate ourselves to using our voices to make a difference in whatever capacity we’re able. May we all find some common ground with those with whom we disagree, strength from those who share our views, and the courage to articulate ideas and solutions that may yet be untested.  

Have a safe and healthy week, stay cool in the heat wave, and Shabbat Shalom.

Our cantorial soloist, Nonie Schuster Donato, followed up the sermon with an anthem that summed up perfectly womankind’s ongoing battle to be heard and acknowledged. You can watch Helen Reddy’s original here.

Va-et’chanan: Masters of Nothing


Vaetchanan-image-POST-wrong-way-right-wayA few years ago, the author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a bestselling book called Outliers that profiled a few highly successful people and tried to analyze how they were able to achieve what they did.

What Gladwell concluded was that there was nothing magical about their success – no divine inspiration that enabled them to rise from nothing to the top of their field. What he found was that these highly successful people, these outliers, all shared some common elements that contributed to their success. One of the factors he identified was something he called “the 10,000-hour rule.” He called it “the magic number of greatness.”

According to Gladwell, if you devote 10,000 hours to learning a skill – any skill, be it bouncing a basketball, or playing the piano, or cooking, or arguing a case in a courtroom – by the time you reach 10,000 hours of practice, you’ll become highly proficient. That translates to 90 minutes of concerted effort each day for 20 years – or three hours a day for 10 years, if you have extra time to set aside. If you’re a very busy person, and have less time to devote to learning your skill, you’d be able to reach the 10,000-hour mark if you work at it for 45 minutes a day over 40 years. Now, that’s not a realistic possibility for every person, but it raises an interesting point that relates to our Torah portion.

At this point in our story – Va-et’chanan, in Deuteronomy – the Israelites have been wandering in the desert for 40 years and freedom is within view, on the other side of the river. They’ve had 40 years to learn God’s teachings and the importance of obeying them. Forty years to learn the skills necessary for living as a free people.

During that time, they’ve received some pretty clear indicators from God when they’ve strayed from the correct path, like the plague that befell the people after some Israelite men decided to carry on with Midianite women, to name just one example. They know that their own leader, Moses, won’t be entering the Promised Land as his punishment for disobeying God. In short, they’ve experienced God’s wrath. Let’s also remember that the only reason they were wandering the desert for 40 years at all is that God believed the first generation of Israelites wasn’t worthy of embracing freedom. You’d think they would’ve learned a few things by now, or at least learned to steer clear of the things they shouldn’t do.

But after 40 years, and ample opportunity to reach the 10,000-hour magic number of greatness, the Israelites have become masters of nothing. Of all the enemies they’ve encountered through their wanderings, the Israelites are their own worst enemy. The situation is so bleak that Moses pleads with God a second time to let him enter the land. He’s not asking for selfish reasons. He knows the mortal dangers that the Israelites will encounter once they cross the river, and their ability to lead hasn’t exactly inspired his confidence. There’s a midrash that has Moses pleading with God, “Let me go in as an animal, or even as a bird which can fly the length and breadth of the land.”

Moses knows the Israelites need protection. He wants to watch over them. God refuses his request, so Moses continues what he’s been doing throughout Deuteronomy. He repeats as a narrative everything the Israelites failed to learn over the course of 40 years, which in this Torah portion includes a slightly revised Ten Commandments. It’s not so different from a parent giving a recalcitrant kid the same piece of advice over and over again. You think that perhaps this time will be different. Maybe this time they’ll buckle down, focus, get serious and start doing what’s expected of them.

So we could reasonably ask ourselves: What kind of role models are the Israelites? They’ve had fewer distractions than the rest of us – no internet – and they’ve had plenty of feedback along the way. They’ve benefited from loads of repetition. Frankly, if they haven’t gotten it by now, when will they? Or, more accurately, will they ever get it?

We read the Book of Deuteronomy as we approach the High Holy Days — the time when we reflect on our own failings, and on those occasions when we might’ve unwisely ignored guidance or feedback. Maybe we’ve made the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe we’ll even do better next time. That’s all we can hope for — and that’s the same hope that Moses has for the Israelites.

Most of us have a way of performing as we should when we have to. We do our work, we pay our bills, and we meet our obligations to our community and each other. We rise to the trivial and significant challenges that life presents us. It would be nice to think that it’s self-motivation that informs our actions, and often that’s the case. But we’re not always motivated. No one is. We need deadlines. Sometimes we need something stronger, like fear, frustration or even desperation. We need to imagine what might happen if we don’t take action. We need to see that land waiting across the Jordan. After 40 years it’s right there, not just within the realm of possibility but almost within our reach. We need only to take that next step. And we ask ourselves: if not now, when?

As we move toward the Days of Awe, we’re reminded that change is within reach for all of us. This is an incredibly comforting thought and also a deeply empowering one. Think about it: We’re handed this opportunity each year to set new goals and embrace life’s possibilities. On a personal level, we’re replicating the Israelites’ journey. Their goal was freedom; we seek to liberate ourselves from our bad habits or past mistakes.

In spite of God’s protection, the Israelites knew that living as a free people would be fraught with peril and uncertainty. We’re well aware that the future is uncertain too — sometimes in a good way and, sadly, sometimes not. But we’re compelled to move forward. The High Holy Days demand it of us and – whether we like it or not — so does life. We just have to do our best and count our blessings.

May we all continue to appreciate our strengths, to accept a degree of uncertainty in our lives, and to maintain our faith in those possibilities that we cannot see.

Have a good week, and Shabbat Shalom.

Jonathan Schwartz is Back (And So is Sanity on Sunday Afternoons)

For me and plenty of other people who love decent music, sanity has returned to our Sunday afternoons. Jonathan Schwartz is back on the radio. Internet radio this time – – but no one really cares. After a long winter and spring with Jonathan absent from the airwaves, we’re just happy to have him back.

Jonathan’s new Sunday show debuted on Father’s Day, and the occasion was fitting. For more than 50 years, wherever he wandered on the dial, from WNEW-FM to WNEW-AM to WQEW-AM to Sirius and finally to WNYC, Jonathan had served as our idiosyncratic master teacher in The Great American Songbook, created by people like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, and his own father, Arthur Schwartz.

On a personal level, he was an almost palpable part of my existence, an angel on my shoulder with unusually good taste. In the late 1970s, as a homesick college freshman with hall-mates who favored Donna Summer and “Le Freak,” I discovered one night that if I opened my window, held my boom box in the air and tilted it at a 90-degree angle, I could hear Jonathan’s voice on WNEW-AM, 150 miles away from my Providence dorm. I could hear Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald too, but it was Jonathan’s voice that mattered the most to me. Still does.

Later, back in New York, I would listen to Jonathan pontificate about his beloved Boston Red Sox and Philip Roth as I wrote speeches and press releases at work. When the kids were little, I drowned out the “Barney” theme song that perennially emanated from my living room by keeping Jonathan at top volume in my kitchen. (The super-sized mimosas I hid in red Solo cups also helped.) Much later, it was Jonathan, and the little packages of graham crackers in my oncologist’s waiting room, that helped sustain me through six months of chemo.

In mid-December, a #MeToo frenzy exploded at WNYC and Jonathan was removed (along with fellow on-air host Leonard Lopate). The station’s paltry attempts at justification only made it apparent that the dismissals were without cause, which made the situation especially heartbreaking. Jonathan issued no public statement. Listeners, including me, promptly cancelled our WNYC sustaining memberships. Many of us congregated on the internet, gravitating to the Facebook group The American Songbook with Jonathan Schwartz – which was not formally affiliated with Jonathan — to express our anger and sadness.

On the Facebook page, listeners, both men and women, pointed to the lack of due process in Jonathan’s removal. Age-ism seemed the likely culprit. (Jonathan was 79 at the time of his removal; Lopate was 77.) It occurred to me, in the current un-nuanced climate, that if Sinatra himself had suddenly materialized and serenaded his female coworkers with a song like Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine” – “Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?” – well, he probably would’ve been fired too.

People joined the Facebook group from as far away as Dubai, and a community took shape around Jonathan’s absence. We mourned. We reminisced. We had a lone malcontent banned from the group. And we did our best to recreate what we’d lost, posting songs that Jonathan would play and even attempting our own “Salute to Baseball” like the one he hosted every Super Bowl weekend. We wondered if we’d ever hear Jonathan on the radio again.

In early April, after searching the internet regularly for news on Jonathan, I spotted a logo on Twitter for a new entity called The Jonathan Station. Shortly after that, the station launched a 24-hour music stream featuring the American Songbook. Finally, on Father’s Day, Jonathan went live for the first time in six months. There’s a photo of him, smiling, on the Facebook page, taken right before the inaugural show. He looks like he’s precisely where he’s supposed to be. One member of the Facebook group said that when she heard Jonathan’s voice, she cried.

There’s something to be said for loyalty, for continuity, for well-deserved resurrections, and for those memorable voices that make your heart sing. I’m not just talking about musicians here.

“Oh! So there you are,” Jonathan began his first show. “It’s become June.” As though he’d never been away.



October Song

It was the fall of 1982. I’d been back in Brooklyn since graduation, living with my parents and trying to figure out what to do next. I had a bundle of clips from Seventeen magazine and The Brown Daily Herald and no game plan to speak of. My friends were all in med school or law school, which left me with no one to talk to all day except the dog. No, that’s not exactly true. Sometimes I talked to the mailman when he delivered the rejection letters I got from small newspapers in towns I didn’t want to live in. But still. By the time September came along, depression had set in. I needed to make a few bucks until I got a real job. I walked into a local chain pharmacy, filled out an application (“What the hell are you doing here?” the manager asked after seeing where I’d gone to school) and shortly thereafter found myself behind a cash register, wearing an ugly jacket with the word “Rockbottom” written on it. It seemed appropriate.

Desperation may have made me a cashier, but it didn’t make me a good one. I bagged two-liter soda bottles on top of Marshmallow Peeps. I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing and made wrong change. (I majored in Latin and Ancient Greek, in case you’re wondering.) Once, I yelled “How small is small?” across the store when a surly customer had a question about proper condom fit. The latter transgression ended my Rockbottom career before my training period ended.

Then it was October. I answered an ad and got a job as a features reporter for Courier-Life Publications, a weekly newspaper chain headquartered in a windowless building in Sheepshead Bay. About a week later, the editors got fired. Since I was the last one hired, I figured I was next out the door. That wasn’t what happened. From my days at the college paper I knew how to edit, assign stories and write headlines. As long as the pay was more than I was getting — which was nothing — I was good to go. So it happened that by the end of October I’d managed to climb from Rockbottom to a job as managing editor of what was, at the time, the largest chain of weekly newspapers in Brooklyn. (Courier-Life was swallowed up by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. a few years ago.)

Years later I married someone I met that same October. He was the guy I shared an office with, the editor-in-chief. On one of our first dates he took me for a late-night spin on the Staten Island Ferry. Cars were still allowed on the ferry then — paranoia wouldn’t descend on the city for another nine years — and he brought along a couple of cassette tapes to serenade us. Whenever I think of that roller-coaster October, the month of romance, Rockbottom and, finally, my rebirth as an honest-to-goodness employed person, what comes to mind is a song I heard for the very first time that night on the ferry: “Penthouse Serenade (When You’re Alone)” by Tony Bennett.

Just picture a penthouse way up in the sky
With hinges on chimneys for stars to go by
A sweet slice of Heaven for just you and I
When we’re alone.
From all of society we’ll stay aloof
And live in propriety there on the roof.
Two heavenly hermits we will be in truth
When we’re alone.
We’ll see life’s mad pattern
As we view old Manhattan
Then we can thank our lucky stars
That we’re living as we are.
In our little penthouse we’ll always contrive
To keep love and romance forever alive
In view of the Hudson just over the drive,
When we’re alone.
We can thank our lucky stars
That we’re living as we are.
In our little penthouse we’ll always contrive
To keep love and romance forever alive
In view of the Hudson just over the drive,
When we’re alone.

(Penthouse Serenade (When We’re Alone) lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, LEIBER & STOLLER MUSIC PUBL, CARLIN AMERICA INC.)

There are plenty of eponymous songs for September, a handful for October, even fewer for November, and then you hear nothing but holiday music until January because no one really wants to hear songs about a month that signifies The End. I attribute the October drop, creatively speaking, to emotional overload. After all the bittersweet regrets (“September Song,” especially Jimmy Durante’s version), the pain of lost love (“September in the Rain”), and the realization that youth is long gone (“September of My Years”), you reach the point when you say enough already. You’re wiser than you were before, maybe a bit battered, but you come to the conclusion that you just need to let it be for a while. Stop worrying. Eat chocolate. Enjoy the music without wondering when it’ll end. That, folks, is October. “Penthouse Serenade” isn’t an October song, but it should be.

When you hit Rockbottom — or rock bottom — eventually you figure out that there’s nowhere to go but up. I’ve remembered that long-ago October lesson on many occasions.

When I left the newspaper in 1988, I started a new job that October. Six years later, there was yet another job. I started that one in October, too — October 8, 1994, to be exact. I expected it to be a transitional move, the kind of job I’d keep until the kids were old enough to manage without a twice-daily chauffeur. Of course I stayed — for 18 years. I loved my job. Several of us raised our kids there, and we figured we’d retire there as well. But on a late-December day it became evident that our clock, already ticking insistently, was about to stop for good. Some of us felt the pain more keenly than others. I went into mourning, not just for the impending loss of a great job but for the imminent absence of an employer I’d grown to consider a friend.

Our office closed on March 20, 2012. For the first time since graduation 30 years earlier, I had nowhere to go during the day. I began staying in my pajamas later and later and eating too many Oreos. I answered a bunch of ads for writing/editing positions and learned that the job application process had changed considerably since I last needed it. This time around I didn’t get any rejection letters. My resume simply ended up in the black hole of cyberspace. (I hear this from anyone over 50 who’s job-hunting, by the way, and there are too many of us to write it off as coincidence. Note to potential employers, who are probably younger than the people they’re not hiring: Get some manners. Quickly.) I dreaded the arrival of September. I stopped eating Oreos and switched to Mallomars after they arrived in the stores.

Finally, October came to the rescue. So did a new employer (not through a job ad), and I am most grateful for the opportunity as well as a compelling reason to get out of my pajamas. I have two new employers, actually: When times are tough you have to be flexible and hope for the best. So that’s what I’m doing. The work is fun, and, unexpectedly, I’m learning something new. I’m not worrying about how long it will last, or what I’ll do when it ends. I’m trying, anyway. Jobs end. Friends leave. If you’re lucky, they come back. Sometimes you need to let things be. Just enjoy the music.

It seems fitting to end with “When October Goes,” written by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow, and recorded here by Nancy Wilson.

Words, Music and the Art of Staying (Moderately) Sane

I deal in words. I start off the day with the New York Times crossword puzzle, read the New York dailies online, and browse Facebook, Twitter and my email. That’s all before 7 a.m. I write and edit for a living, and then most nights I spend a few hours on my laptop, working and chatting. For fun, I read. (At the moment I’m still trying to get through the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and “Passage of Power,” Robert Caro’s third volume on the life of Lyndon Johnson.) I fall asleep playing “Words With Friends” on the iPad. Then it starts again the next morning.

Invariably, at some point during the day my head starts to hurt. First I thought I needed new glasses, but that wasn’t the case. After ruling out several other possible but unlikely causes, ranging from having three children to having a brain tumor, I concluded that it was word overload. It made sense. Imagine words swirling around you all day like mosquitoes. Eventually, the buzzing starts infiltrating your brain until you can’t hear yourself think. That’s where Yo-Yo Ma (pictured above) comes in.

Today is Yo-Yo Ma’s 57th birthday, so this morning I started searching on YouTube for videos to post in his honor. I love Yo-Yo Ma — he has his own playlist on my iPhone — so I took my time looking for just the right ones. I ended up getting lost in the music the same way I get lost in words, but without the accompanying headache.

The selection shown above, which is different from the two others I posted on Facebook, happens to be my all-time favorite Yo-Yo Ma performance. It’s from his 2003 CD “Obrigado Brazil,” and the song is “Doce de Coco” by Brazilian composer Jacob do Bandolim. I invite you to stop reading and take a listen. If it’s at all possible, make sure the room is quiet. Pour yourself something soothing to drink. Even if the room isn’t quiet and you’re not drinking something soothing, the rhythm and sensuality of “Doce de Coco” will transport you. I dare you. Try it.

For me, at least, that’s the thing about “Doce de Coco” and Yo-Yo Ma. If words are my swarms of mosquitoes, Yo-Yo Ma is the bug spray that silences my inner noise. Works every time.

It’s not just Yo-Yo Ma. The same goes for jazz, standards, cabaret, the timeless and intelligent stuff of the “American Songbook” that Jonathan Schwartz plays on Sirius XM (and before that on WNYC, preceded by WQEW and WNEW. Believe me, I know — I’ve been listening to Jonathan Schwartz since I’m 14.)

I blocked out the disco era of my teens and never had much of an affinity for pop or ear-splitting guitar riffs. But give me “Autumn in New York” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong — anything by Ella and Louis, separately and together — and that’s something else entirely. Or “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Laurindo Almeida, “Wave” by Sinatra, “Penthouse Serenade” by Tony Bennett, or “Two for the Road” by Nancy LaMott. Give me Stacey Kent, Julie London, Rosemary Clooney, Eva Cassidy, Kenny Rankin and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Many others, too.

Many high-strung people resort to Xanax, but music is my preferred drug. The sad or bittersweet songs work better than the happy ones. I’m really not sure why. I start breathing easier almost immediately. The stress begins to fall away.

When I work at home, music is always on in the background, very softly. It’s greatly minimized the physiological effects of word overload, and for that I am grateful. I can’t explain my response to music. The wonderful thing is that I don’t have to. It just is.

I’ll end with the impossibly beautiful rendition of “Simple Gifts” that Yo-Yo Ma recorded with Alison Krauss.

The Next 18 Years Can Kill You. Love Every Moment.

You’ll have to indulge me my sappy moment. I took my firstborn, the guinea-pig child, up to college last week. I helped her unpack, her father plugged in the printer and mini-fridge, and we had lunch at a tin-can diner a few miles away from campus. When I dropped her off afterward, we shared a quick hug. I reminded her to call or text me every day, and that was that. It wasn’t exactly the teary goodbye a lot of parents describe when they unload their child at college for the first time, but for me it seemed a fitting way to mark the end of her childhood. We were never much for the usual rules, anyway.

When Emily was about four, she asked me why she looked orange in some of her old baby pictures. “Too many jars of stewed carrots,” I told her. “You were my guinea-pig child.” It was my blanket apology for the multitude of screw-ups I hoped to avoid with the two kids that followed.

I spent too much time at Baby Gap in those days, and Emily’s wardrobe consisted mainly of pretty little dresses, all with matching hats. After a couple of years of this, I wondered why her hair wasn’t growing. “Take the hat off,” my mother’s friend, Marge, said. So I did, and at age six, Emily got her first haircut.

When she was ten, I cut most of her hair off because she came down with lice after an overnight school trip. The whole class got it. I panicked. Later I found out about an Orthodox woman in Flatbush who uses conditioner and a fine-toothed comb to get rid of the nasty critters. Oops. “That’s what happens when you’re the guinea pig child,” I told Emily.

I avoided these particular screw-ups again, but I made plenty of others. I yelled too much about trivial things. I laughed at Emily’s inventiveness when her second-grade teacher told me that my seven-year-old had forged my signature on a test paper. I didn’t send any of my kids for violin lessons. There was no good reason for that one, except I couldn’t stand the noise.

My biggest mistake, though, was a deceptively simple one: I forgot that nothing lasts forever. No one warns you that the more unpleasant and stress-inducing aspects of parenting, like yelling at the kids to get ready for school and spending a night in the ER because a hookah bar employee gave your 15-year-old free vodka shots, are still preferable to what I’m doing now — which is looking at the empty space on the couch where Emily sat glued to the laptop for so many years that the springs broke. The “What to Expect” books in the pregnancy section should come with a “Warning” label in big pink and blue letters: “The Next 18 Years Can Kill You. Love Every Moment.”

My denial of time’s forward motion set me up for potential disaster, I know. It also created a massively cluttered home where the paraphernalia of childhood came in but never left. My house is a black hole that contains thousands of children’s books I can’t bear to get rid of. The strollers, all three of them, are still in the basement along with the Exersaucer, car seats, American Girl accessories, unopened Easy Bake Oven (I was afraid it would burst into flames) and about a hundred garbage bags filled with stuffed animals. I won’t hold a yard sale. The thought of watching strangers pick through my memories is unpalatable. I believe in holding on to what you can. The kids may leave, but a basement overflowing with stuff is evidence that once they were young and that the hopeful business of raising them occupied every inch of your existence.

When Emily was 10 days old, I dumped her at my parents’ house for a week. I was tired, cranky and, at 34, not ready for the deal I’d signed on for. I wanted my old job, where I felt productive, not this one, where I spent hours each day looking at a screaming lump in a carriage and wondering where the heck my former life went. Then I remembered that cancer and infertility have a way of making you suddenly long for things you might not ever be able to have. I was blessed. Sleep-deprived, but blessed.

A few months went by. Emily became more human and I went back to work part-time. I played Ella Fitzgerald CDs for her as she sat in her baby swing, hoping good taste would somehow sink in by osmosis. I had another baby when Emily was a year and a half old. This is not something I would recommend unless you are a truly gifted parent, which I am not. It is fortunate that my son was a low-maintenance baby.

Every night I’d read Emily bedtime stories and pile books in her bed before she went to sleep. “What’s this word?” she’d ask, and then she’d spell it. “Sound it out!” I’d yell from the living room. She did. At age two, she’d taught herself to read with zero help from me. I had another baby, a girl, and Emily moved on to chapter books. She started preschool and people began to compliment me on raising a genius kid. “Thank you,” I’d answer, offering a silent blessing that the genetic crap shoot had given Emily a stellar hand. And then, at last, I became enchanted with my daughter. For some parents it’s the first smile that gets them. For me, Emily’s ability to read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at age four sealed the deal. Better late than never.

In March, when Emily got the college acceptance she was hoping for, I bought her a Carvel cake with the word “Bard” written on it. After starting out way ahead of the pack in school, she turned into a lazy and unmotivated student who spoke little in class and seldom did her homework, but got near-perfect test scores. In AP English, she ignored the required books and sat in class reading Dorothy Parker instead. I suspect that it was this teacher’s recommendation, along with an impressive SAT score, which got Emily into Bard.

First minutes at Bard: Emily (r.) and her roommate, Marna.

A few months ago, Emily and I were talking about whether I was a good parent. She said she couldn’t really answer that because I was different from the other mothers she knew.

Other mothers taught their kids to ride a bike. I tried, I reminded her, but it became clear that she’d inherited my excessive caution, my fear of imminent doom. Other mothers encouraged their children to play in the snow rather than bringing it inside and dumping it on newspaper. (“Why stand outside and freeze?”) Other mothers didn’t wait until people were coming over to vacuum. (“You never got sick,” I reminded her.)

Other mothers encouraged decent work habits in their kids, Emily said. So did I — but when shouting and threats didn’t get me anywhere, I decided it would be best to let her find her own way, in her own time. (If it doesn’t happen quickly, she knows her career at an expensive college will be short-lived.)

When I dropped Emily off at Bard last week, she announced she’d like to ride a bike, finally, so she could get a job in the neighboring town. Don’t do it, I told her. The country roads here are dark at night. It’s too dangerous. She agreed quickly.

I’m thankful that our hyper-awareness of peril is one of the things that unites us. It’s as powerful a shared trait as our nearsightedness and our love of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. (The jazz-by-osmosis theory worked!) I wasn’t an award-winning parent, but I managed to pass along the gene for self-protection — and when you’re striking out on your own, that’s a good one to have.

I take comfort in this thought as I look across the room now and remember that my firstborn isn’t here. One minute she’s in the baby swing. The next minute you turn around and she’s gone.