Monday, July 7, 2014

Shades of Gray

Many years ago, I worked as the arts and crafts specialist at the family camp I'd attended with my own family for many years. Just on the cusp of my twenties, I was young and silly and thought I knew everything. My own work with teens over the last decade has taught me these things don't change.

The first summer I worked there was incredible. I loved and was loved by staff, campers and families, and it was a fantastic, positive summer of work and growth. The second summer, however, things were not as great. My new supervisor and I weren't as good a fit, my responsibilities were different, and I found that the culture of this camp had shifted in a way where I didn't feel quite as comfortable. Some of it was hard to articulate; these changes existed in feelings, not fact.

A situation arose in which I was accused of things that, from my perspective, I simply had not done. Unfortunately, my supervisor handled things poorly, I was dealt with way too harshly, and when push came to shove my parents and I concluded I could no longer finish out the summer in my position. The air was too thick with animosity, I felt emotionally unsafe in my work environment, and no one saw an opportunity to start fresh.

I was devastated. I was quitting a job for the first time and felt like a failure. I was certain that this would stay with me for life; that it would haunt me forever. (And it has - just not in the way I'd anticipated)

However, I also felt completely let down by a group of people who had held some significant presence in my life since childhood. I did not understand how they could treat me so poorly, or back me into a corner where I felt my only option was to quit.

And so, my prevailing feeling became one of anger and defiance. When I quit, I quit in a maelstrom of strong-woman fiery passion, where I made sure my point of view was heard loud and clear.. I had done nothing wrong, they were the villains, and I was leaving with my head held high.

Looking back, I'm pretty impressed that nineteen-year-old me was such a rabbi-in-training; that I had the guts to stand up to the big boss and say, this is not okay, and I am leaving because this situation has become untenable. So, bravo to that.


As I reflect on this moment in my life - to date the only job I have ever quit - I realize just how brash and arrogant I was.

The reality was this: I was a young, immature kid who probably did something stupid and my immediate supervisor didn't like me very much and so she exaggerated the story and I got a bigger slap on the wrist than I should have.

I would love to believe that I was somehow superior; that I was in the right, that there was black and white and I was good and they were bad. But that's [likely] not entirely correct.

Sometimes we hold ourselves to a higher standard because we are taught and conditioned to believe we are better than the circumstances we find ourselves in. Sometimes we are arrogant, complacent, or just have a bad attitude. Sometimes we have to reel ourselves in, take stock, and hit refresh.

I share all this as a long introduction to an article in the Times of Israel that has circulated on Facebook and Twitter today, shared below. I share all this as a way of reminding those who read this blog that I am human, and we all are human, and being human is sometimes really, really hard. I share all this because I truly believe that these words are powerful, that they cut to the heart, and that we as individuals and as a community must always remember just how many shades of gray exist in our lives and in our work.

The article is below, and I look forward to reading your comments.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Perspective is Everything

This past Friday evening - July 4th - I gave my first drash at Temple de Hirsch Sinai in Seattle. It was awesome. I'm sharing it here with all of you and look forward to sharing many more sermons, divrei Torah, and life musings in the future:

Shabbat Shalom.

The father of one of my closest friends has a blog he updates fairly often, titled “Perspective is Everything.” This blog chronicles Michael’s daily activities, musings on life, love, family, and politics, and often serves as a platform for a cause about which he is passionate. Normally, a blog like this might make me feel as though I was peeking into someone’s online diary, snooping around someone’s personal business. But Michael’s blog is unique … Michael himself is incredibly unique … and the blog’s tagline should tell you why:

Living with a Disability … What a Blessing.

For as long as I’ve known him, Michael has lived with advanced MS – Multiple Sclerosis. Over the last decade I have watched his physical health deteriorate. Today he is bound to a wheelchair, unable to work or drive; he needs round-the-clock supervision and help doing even the most mundane tasks.

And yet – Michael genuinely considers himself to be truly fortunate. He sees himself as deeply blessed. And when you ask him whether he sees his cup as half-full or half-empty, he will look at you with his huge, Matinee-idol grin and tell you, “neither … because my cup runneth over.”

Perspective is everything, Michael constantly reminds me. What could have been the most horrific curse on his body and his family – he has chosen to see it as a blessing. (pause)

How we choose to view the world around us defines who we are; it sets us on a path toward our future, no matter what roadblocks stand in our way. For many of us, it’s simply natural to wallow in pain and despair when life goes awry, when we are delivered hard news, or when our greater, global community suffers. But for others, those very curses can be spun into blessings and opportunities. For them, it’s all about perspective.

This week’s parsha, Balak, shows us the people of Israel inching closer to their Promised Land. The parsha is named for the evil Moabite king Balak, who sees the Jews as a threat and hires the sorcerer Balaam to curse them.

Balaam sets out on this “cursing mission” on a donkey – one who miraculously speaks to him over the course of their journey. Balaam finds three separate vantage points from which he attempts to curse the Jews – three separate visuals on the people Israel. Yet three times, only blessings emerge from this non-Jew’s mouth, culminating in Ma Tovu O’halecha Ya’akov Mishkenotecha Yisrael – how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel – a prayer that, today, opens our morning liturgy.

The text tells us that it is God who intervenes; that it is God, working through angels and talking donkeys, who spins these curses into blessings.

Balak, the Moabite king, is … disappointed … that this hotshot sorcerer couldn’t actually do what he was hired for. He calls out to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them three times! Now, flee back to your place. I said I would honor you greatly, but God has prevented you from receiving any honor from me.”

In parshat Balak, curses are spun into blessings because God intervenes.

Today, thousands of years later, how can we spin that which plagues and stymies us into blessing and opportunity? (pause)

It’s not an easy task. We cannot simply snap our fingers and choose to suddenly view the world through a totally different lens. We are human beings, and we are infinitely more complex and dynamic than that.

However – we can begin by shifting our perspective. We can remove our shoes and step into those of another. We can look at troubling, frustrating situations from alternate angles and vantage points – just as Balaam attempted to do on his “cursing mission” – and move forward with that information as our guide. We can always see a different side.

For example …

We can look at today – at the Fourth of July – as a noisy, crowded circus of hot dogs and Americana. Or – we can see it as a celebration of our nation’s independence; an opportunity for family and friends to gather together on a warm summer evening.

Or …

We can take what is currently happening in Israel, this horrific and tragic escalation of violence, and quietly, angrily sit in our frustration and hopelessness. Or, we can shift our perspective ever so slightly, reach out to those with whom we disagree, and seize an opportunity to foster dialogue; to pursue peace in the face of war. (pause)

Again, none of this is easy. None of this just … happens overnight. And sometimes we really do have the right to sit and wallow in our anger and despair. But in parshat Balak, we are reminded that it is possible to spin curses into blessings; that we can shift our perspective; that we are capable of adapting, regrouping, and … starting over. (pause)

On March 5th of this year, our friend Michael posted the following on his blog: “Today … is an unusual anniversary. Today … is the anniversary of my diagnosis of MS. It is the date that my life, and the life of my family and many of our friends, was forever changed. Although some of the changes have been quite dramatic, they are not all bad. In fact, many of the changes have been quite positive and that makes it an anniversary worth celebrating… Today is my thirteenth anniversary. Today I feel grateful for what I have learned from living with a disability. It has truly been an opportunity.” 

May we – as individuals and as a community – be blessed with the ability to shift our own perspectives; to see our curses as opportunities, and to recognize and celebrate the abundant blessings in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.