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 – TheJonathanStation.com – 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.

JSpic

 

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.

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.

D’var Torah: Pinchas….Of Superheroes and Defining Moments

What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to live your life?

Before we get to those questions, let me tell you how one man, Pinchas, lived his life. When we meet Pinchas at the end of last week’s Torah portion, he had just saved the Israelites from their own worst enemy – themselves. The Israelites are once again ignoring the lessons of the past and engaging in idol worship and illicit affairs with foreign-born women. God is obviously displeased with this latest example of human transgression, so he sends down a clear and direct message in the form of a plague. Pinchas takes it upon himself to make things right. In one fell swoop, he uses his spear to kill an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were having an illicit relationship. We learn their names in this week’s Torah portion: Zimri and Cozbi. One strike of Pinchas’s spear and they’re both dead. Immediately after Pinchas slays the couple, God lifts the plague.   

It would be easy to think of Pinchas as the Torah’s first superhero. The Amazing Pinchas: mild-manner priest acts without divine intervention, comes out of the crowd and slays a lawbreaking couple in a single bound. There would be merit to this analogy. Mythology focuses on the superhuman. Humans and demigods with extraordinary abilities appear in many cultures, ancient or modern. Look at Gilgamesh. Or Spider-Man. These figures have a real purpose, and that’s to show us that if they can do the impossible, so can we. But there’s a deeper layer to the superhero story. What’s the difference between a superhero and the rest of us? What is it that makes us soar above the crowd if we have to? Is it something within us – something in our character that some of us have and others do not? Or do external events inspire us to rise to the challenge?

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing….What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

That’s Winston Churchill talking about the point when life hands us our defining moment. We don’t know when it’ll happen, or under what circumstances, but it happens to all of us. The first thing is to recognize it. That doesn’t always happen.  The second critical element is to act on it. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, recognizes his defining moment. He sees a crisis, assesses it, and decides in an instant that he’ll do what he can to restore God’s law to the Israelites. He acts at an important time for the Israelites. When Pinchas makes his move, freedom is close at hand for the Israelites. They’re in Canaan, just east of the Jordan River. The Promised Land is within sight. But the Israelites are still ill-equipped to handle the challenge of freedom. They forsake the Torah and worship idols, just as they did in the Golden Calf episode. Pinchas behaves better than his grandfather, Aaron, did. When he’s tapped on the shoulder, he acts.

Elsewhere in the same Torah portion there are other defining moments. The five daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (their names always appear together) – they see their defining moment and muster up the courage to act on it. They approach Moses, the chief priest, the leaders and the entire congregation and ask for something unheard of, something unprecedented. They ask for their father’s land inheritance since there are no male heirs. They ask boldly. They don’t beg. “Give us a holding,” they say. Their action initiates a change in Torah law. This is one of just three instances in the Torah where we witness the process by which Torah law is changed. It’s the only one set into motion by women.

Later in the Torah portion God instructs Moses to ascend the heights of Mount Abarim and view the land that he, Moses, will never inhabit. This, I believe, is Moses’ defining moment. Some might say Moses had other defining moments, like the exodus from Egypt, where he had the collective energy and forward momentum of the Israelites right behind him. Or the moment when he received the Ten Commandments, and then smashed them, because he knew the Israelites were not worthy of this gift from the Almighty.

It’s easier to be courageous and act with fortitude when you’re in battle mode, but much harder when the war is almost done, when your strength has worn down. Think of a marathon runner. During those last miles, you find yourself pulling out strength from reserves you never knew you had. Crossing the finish line becomes sheer agony. In this Torah portion, Moses is near the end of his marathon. He knows his days are numbered. He knows that although he fought the war, he’ll never celebrate the victory. Yet he climbs Mt. Abarim and looks at the Promised Land. He appoints Joshua to succeed him. Before the entire community he does what God commanded him to do – he lays his hands upon Joshua and makes possible a future that he will never experience, a new world of freedom that he will never explore. There’s a quiet elegance in Moses’ actions. Old, with the full knowledge that his dream has been dashed because he disobeyed God, he acts selflessly and bravely and fulfills God’s will. That is his defining moment.    

The truth is that most of us are not Pinchas. Most of us are like the Israelites, moving imperfectly, and sometimes gracefully, as we make our way through a world of unknowns, a world where turmoil ends up in our laps. We’re not Moses. We’re the huddled masses who entered New York at Ellis Island, people working hard to make our way in a land where those around us don’t understand the language we speak — or don’t bother listening to the words we say. Finding the courage to move forward or stand still, the courage to make a life or let the world control you — these are the types of choices at the heart of the defining moment.

Some of us are middle-aged men and women caring for our aging parents, giving their lives happiness and purpose when we know full well how the story will likely end. That is a defining moment. We cope with sickness – our own or our loved ones’— and with the reality that not all endings are happy endings. That’s a defining moment. We stand behind our friends in their time of need, even when most people walk away – in fact, especially when most people walk away. We pull each other up from despair. Loyalty and compassion inspire many a defining moment.

What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to live your life? I asked these questions at the beginning of this d’var Torah.

Defining moments have the potential to make super-humans out of all of us. We’re not as impulsive as Pinchas, perhaps, and most of us have no desire to shoulder the kind of burden that Moses did. What we do want to be is the kind of person who moves ahead with courage, honesty and conviction — no matter what. We want to live our lives with decency and kindness, the way God intended us to, and with passion, empathy and intelligence.

In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous “Citizen in a Republic” speech in Paris where he described what success really is:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”   

It’s often the ordinary, day-to-day struggles, not the extraordinary events and crises, which create our defining moments. Like Pinchas and Moses, let us not shy away from our struggles but embrace them. Let us learn from them. Let us all have the ability to recognize our defining moments for their potential value, which is to make us better people than we ever thought we could be.

Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.