Archive for June, 2012

Lessons from a Talking Donkey

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

By Sam Glaser

Being self-employed isn’t easy. Your daily routine is completely open and there is no one imposing deadlines except you. Being a self-employed musician is even harder. The craft is vastly time consuming, goals are difficult to quantify, and the quality of the final product is entirely subjective and resides in the ether. Most of my peers survive from gig to gig, no grand schemes or business plans. All of my kids are becoming musicians in their own right and while I am gushing with pride at their accomplishments, I am not pushing them into the field as a profession. It’s so easy to flake, to get distracted, to start projects and never finish. If by some miracle you manage to get that masterpiece shrink-wrapped, you then have to put on the businessman’s hat to bring your product to market. Musicians don’t like switching hats; they feel it isn’t part of the job description.

I have always thrived on structure. Making lists keeps me sane. Since I was a kid I programmed my days with specific goals and postponed gratification until they were checked off. My summers never included lazing away on the beach; I planned a plethora of nurturing adventures on a week-by-week basis. I kept a written roster of my cash flow. I even ate single candy bars methodically over a period of weeks. I don’t know where I got the discipline. I figure that I got my mom’s creativity and my dad’s business sense and a gift for keeping the two in balance.

Now I find myself obsessed about passing this trait to my offspring. I feel like I’m failing miserably. We’re on the cusp of summer vacation when my kids have more leisure time than ever. The incentive to write this tome came as my wife and I endeavor to fill this two-and-a-half month period with meaningful activities. I lecture to a catatonic audience, zombified by their addictions to any electronic device with a screen. “Hello! Human here! Please acknowledge that I am speaking to you!” Max gives me his undivided

attention save for the furtive glance at his iPhone every few seconds in case a text has arrived. Jesse is a joy to behold unless he’s on headphones mid-battle in his World of Warcraft universe. Sarah plays Mindjolt and Super Mario via Facebook while watching the Food Channel on YouTube. Did I mention we don’t have a TV? We don’t! But everyone has a computer (for homework, of course.) When I get a word in about the importance of self-mastery or using time wisely, I get that look that tells me “you are the ultimate curmudgeon on the planet!” I feel like I’m in a desperate race against the clock to get my kids to appreciate and use their free will wisely while they are still living in my home.

The gift of free will is a two-edged sword. Too much and we crave boundaries. Too little and we feel imprisoned. Time management is all about limiting free will so that we can focus on the task at hand, set goals and prioritize. When we procrastinate or seek escapes of the broadcast or the chemical variety, we are denigrating the potential of that God-given free will. The Torah puts it bluntly in Deuteronomy: “I place before you life and death…choose life!” Every extra cupcake, succumbing to the allure of yet another episode of American Idol or professional sports, mindless web or channel surfing: these are “death” experiences. Conversely, using those exact same indulgences as rewards for reaching goals can generate moments of triumph, which I call “choose life” victories. I’d like to devote the balance of this essay to communicating techniques I use to stay in a “choose life” mind frame.

A good time management tip I use is to create an awareness of when I am slipping into “choose death” rut. The opposite of choosing life is suicide. We all tend to commit suicide using an “installment plan.” Little increments of wasting precious minutes add up to years flushed down the drain. While downtime and a good night’s sleep are crucial…choosing “death” is disguised in the brainless timewasters that occupy a shocking amount of our allotted hours. I emphasize to my kids that their sports, hi tech and biblical heroes make every moment count. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy in his spare time. Einstein played the violin. I heard a story of a rabbi who completed the entire Talmud by filling in the time waiting in carpool and grocery store lines. When we see that every decision is a “choose life” opportunity we are empowered to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It sounds severe, but when I catch myself watching yet another video that a Facebook friend has recommended and it’s noon and I haven’t yet accomplished a thing, I force myself into a “life” activity.

Another tool, morbid as it may seem, is to retain a constant awareness of one’s mortality. Perhaps that is why we have a commandment to visit the sick and attend shiva minyans (post funeral prayer gatherings.) When you are prioritizing activities, focus on the ones that might make it into your eulogy. Time spent working with charities and loved ones trumps Netflix and weekends in Vegas. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan puts it

best in his unconventional description of hell in “If You Were God.” According to our sages, we are constantly being measured on how we are maximizing our potential. We are not judged against our peers. Instead, at the end of 120 years, we face the distinction between our potential and actual selves. The degree of difference between them is a source of tremendous humiliation, the “fires of hell,” if you will. Were you the best you that you could be? By maximizing “choose life” moments, we have a better chance of finishing the game in alignment with our greatest potential. According to author Leo Buscaglia, “Who you are is God’s gift to you, who you become is your gift to God.”

Reviewing one’s time management techniques forces one to contemplate, “whose life is this anyway?” When you place every activity on the “choose life/death” continuum and maintain an awareness of mortality, you are more likely to ensure that the choices you make are your own. Our forefather Avraham was commanded, “Lech L’cha,” go for YOURSELF to a land that I will show you. My first time in yeshiva was filled with angst as I was confronted with the big questions: “Am I Jewish for my parents, for my ancestors, for my teachers or for me? What subjects really resonate with me? What baggage am I carrying around? How did my society and upbringing shape me? Is this who I am or just a rut that I’m stuck in? What do I need to have accomplished when I leave the world?” Deep introspection clarifies what is merely busy work and distracting you from the big picture. Each day is a new day. I am not a prisoner of my old decisions. My time is my own; my life is mine to live. Cue Bon Jovi, “It’s my life, it’s now or never, I ain’t gonna to live forever…”

So what about the donkey? We are about to read the famous passage of Bilaam (Numbers-Bamidbar 22), the non-Jewish prophet who was driven to destroy the Jewish people. Our sages tell us that Bilaam was an extraordinarily gifted figure who unfortunately chose the dark side. He attempted to use his powerful free will to outsmart his Creator. Bad idea. In the telling of the saga, God seems to be teaching a life lesson on using free will for “choose life” moments and avoiding Bilaam’s pitfalls. They are as follows:

1. He was driven by money. We are all driven by money. Even though he was an enlightened prophet and aware of God’s omnipotence, he made bad decisions because he was greedy. Something about dollar signs makes us do the craziest things.   “I know God is watching me but there is no way I’m going to declare all that cash on my taxes.” “I’ll just work like an animal and ignore my family for a few years so that we’ll have a nest egg.” “Bruce Springsteen won’t even notice if I download his new CD on Frostwire.” Yeah, I know. We all do it. Bilaam was so excited to make some dough that he awoke early to personally saddle his own donkey. Even the donkey could see the folly of Bilaam’s ways and God “opens” the animal’s mouth so that he can tell him so. We all have been given an internal moral compass, a personal “talking donkey” that keeps us honest, if only we would heed its voice.

2. If you want something badly enough, God will help you. Even if it’s really bad. Even if you are Hitler. That’s the power of free will. That’s why the Talmud (B’rachot 33b) says “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” That’s why at the end of “Bruce Almighty” Jim Carrey was powerless to MAKE his girlfriend love him. Free will is empowering and frightening. So, my friends, choose wisely! God will take you down the road of dark or light…it’s up to you.

3. Sex is stumbling block number one. The Midrash teaches us that Bilaam “lived” with his donkey. He was driven by his passions regardless of consequences. At the end of the saga, he couldn’t curse the Jews but he sure could trip us up with the Moabite hotties. How many of our sports, music and political heroes get tripped up by their passions? How easy is it for us to commit career suicide or end our marriages exchanging tawdry banter with ex-girlfriends on Facebook or text messages? How many of us have sacrificed a lifetime of good decisions to a golden calf at the height of our success?

4. Bilaam lived to the extreme. He pushed boundaries. All or nothing. Our sages teach us to find the middle path on the road of life. Not the high road or low road. Bring balance to the world. Avoid fanaticism. Bilaam’s parting words form the famous Ma Tovu prayer where he salutes the inherent modesty of the Children of Israel. As he looks down from above, he sees that the people have their tents facing away from one another. In other words, we’re cohabiting in those tents, but doing so in an appropriate, private manner. The Jewish way is not to gorge on food, sex, money and power, but instead to express our will in moderation, to drink on Purim, to dance at a wedding, to enjoy our relations in the format of loving monogamy. The ultimate balance/time management tool is the celebration of Shabbat. But that’s for another newsletter.

Time management from a talking donkey. That’s the message. We have an inner voice, a pure soul that keeps us on the path of integrity and balance. We can be driven to distraction by our technological tools or empowered by them. We can succumb to temptation and procrastination or use those vices to reward our “choose life” triumphs. We can witness the downfall of that strange anti-hero Bilaam and learn from his mistakes. Think: what would Bilaam do, and then do the opposite. Remarkably, 3000 years later it is still the same things that trip us up. Make lists, prioritize, make sure your time is spent the way YOU want to spend it. And at the end of the game, hold your head up high and sing, “I did it my way!”

So what are we going to do with the kids this summer? Well, for starters, the ultimate Jewish pride builder: a month at Jewish summer camp. The rest of the time we’ll try to keep them away from screens as much as possible. Yes, we have to intervene…for most kids, time management is bigger than them. We will use the remaining six weeks to nurture existing hobbies and jumpstart new ones. Double up on instrument lessons, lots of Krav Maga, a filmmaking workshop. I am taking my oldest son into the wilderness for a week and will take lots of pictures so that he can look back and see that his old man cared enough to do something about it rather than just complain. And yes, we’ll see some 3D movies, visit the waterslides and go to Ben and Jerry’s. We may be strict but we’re not crazy.