Friday, April 20, 2018

Some thoughts about Reluctance

One of the things we wrestle with is the resistance we encounter from people when they are tasked with the performance of a particular responsibility. And yes, I’m speaking in vague generalities. This thought was inspired by very specific realities but I’m trying to allow my argument to take root all over the place.

So what is it that breeds such reluctance and how can it be addressed and remediated? It dawned on me that one approach would be to isolate the source of refusal. Why do things stop being appealing? The fact is, the biggest drain on someone’s zeal is obligation. Tell a 15 year old that he “gets” to drive the car on errands and he’ll do whatever you ask. Tell a seventeen year old who has had his license that he “has” to drive those errands and the eyes will roll. Talk to an 8 year old about the privilege of voting and compare that to the conversation with the 38 year old – the sense you get will be different. In the world of Jewish education, we struggle with getting students to focus on prayer. When they are 10, they seem excited but by 14, many have started to drift away. What changed? The idea that they are getting to pray becomes the notion that they are obligated to pray. Yes, there are intervening pressures, influences and variables but that same 14 year old will still sparkle with anticipation if he is told that he “gets” to sit at the adult table. The unusual, the unexpected and the unique are enticing and attractive.

So how can we make those things that develop into obligation remain as interesting and worth the effort as they were when they were perks? One way, historically, has been when external pressures threatened to take the ability to perform the responsibility away. The possible loss of an earned right has inspired people to stop taking what they have for granted and return to the level of appreciation which they had. Existential threats work wonders against the specter of apathy or assimilation. Take a child’s access to a car away and when he is again allowed to drive (and knows that the potential for loss continues to exist) he will be more excited at the opportunities afforded. Refuse to grant tenure and no professor can rest on his laurels (I am not necessarily advocating an abandoning of the tenure system, just a recognition of one of the dimensions which might be negative) – the fear of loss will keep him sharp, theoretically.

Can we aim to live in a world inspired by fear? If we told people that they will lose the right to vote if they don’t exercise that right to a specific degree, would that make them better citizens? Would the threat of expulsion based on non-engagement with prayer make students more connected to prayer? Wouldn’t these fears fail to encourage an honest sense of investment? Maybe we should rely on the negative consequences as a catch-all and supplement with the other ideas to try and catch the fancy of those who are at least committed for other reasons. But none of these will necessarily bring about excitement along with the engagement. In fact, might they instead breed resentment and foment rebellion even in the face of dire consequences? Do we need to find a way to progressively add on those perks that continue to make the activity constantly the milieu of the select, thus making participants feel special at every stage? Would some sort of concurrent, required continuing education reinvigorate people or would it, too, be an imposition unappreciated by the masses? Maybe we just need the repeated reminder that what we can do is different from what others are allowed, and should be appreciated not as a given, but as an accomplishment, though I don’t know how this would be communicated. No answers right now, but I’m hoping that if we recontextualize the discussion and consider the real source of tension, we might be able to brainstorm alternatives which might lead to more positive results than any of the approaches which we are relying on now have thus far engendered.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


You may or may not know this but I live with a dog. He is a little ball of cuteness who is named Sparky. We rescued him from his life of solitary wandering on the mean streets of Newark and now he lives with us. We feed him, walk him and basically cater  to his every need.

There is nothing wrong with this set up. Pets are a responsibility and we have to take this seriously. We treat them like part of the family, talking to them and training them, the way we might engage with a baby. Their survival is our job; their growth is our goal.

But through all of our hard work and after all of our sacrifice I still find it disheartening that Sparky has never once said "thank you. " I just figured that by now he would have realized that simple rules of decency dictate that a small show of appreciation is called for: a nice word in return for all we have done. But to date, nothing. And I'm saddened by it. I give him a bowl of food and even some of my food. Nothing. I play with him. Nothing. We snuggle on the couch. Nothing.

It just seems wrong to me that he withholds this basic courtesy and refuses to acknowledge all I do with those two simple words.

Please dear reader, understand the importance of recognizing what people do for you and say something. I still hold out hope that Sparky will eventually get the memo.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

I'm seriously sickened by what I see in the Mid East

So yeah, I’m a little bit angry. I (and I have said this before) don’t like to wade into politics because it undermines the casual silliness of this blog. But there comes a time when one cannot just sit on one’s hands. I reached my limit so I’m taking a sitting stand on current events. I apologize if I offend, but not that much. If you wish to engage me on this topic, feel free to post a comment.

First, to clear the air, I am an ardent Zionist. That’s a very complex concept and term but it boils down to my belief that Israel has a right to exist and to determine its future and policies. This doesn’t mean that it is always right in its decisions, but it means it can exist like any other country and has to be held to similar standards.

These days, along with the stale trend of vilifying the state of Israel, there is a series of protests at the border of the Gaza strip. The Gaza strip – a piece of land repeatedly given away by Israel and then taken back when those who move in insist on attacking Israel. Now the attack isn’t by tunnels or rockets, but by simply overrunning the border. Let me just say this – Israel has a border with Gaza. For all those people holding fast to a multi-state solution, states have borders and part of being your own country is not walking into the other guy’s country. That’s how borders work.

The videos have been clear. This isn’t about some sort of protest, because what are they protesting? That the border is closed? Two things – one, it is closed because Israel is another country (and even with closed borders, Israel sends in truckloads of humanitarian aid…yes, references available…) and two, it is closed with Egypt also but no one is burning tires there. This is about not wanting a separate country in Gaza, but about “from the river to the sea” – taking all of what is Israel. And this isn’t some hidden agenda. It is overt and stated outright. Israel is supposed to sit by and let another country invade?

The fence has been attacked. People have made it into Israel. Guns have been fired into Israel, explosives thrown. Tires are being burned (forget the ecological nightmare for a second) creating a smokescreen under which who knows what kind of demolition is being attempted on the fences. So here’s what I see as the possible ways this plays out:

1. Israel does nothing and the fence is breached. People stream in. Some are just looking for a better way of life and are illegal immigrants. Some have more violent goals, but one cannot see that thing from a distance so they all just move in and violence ensues. The world excoriates Israel, saying it caused this by having a border and when Israelis die, the world (a it has historically done) counsels Israel’s forbearance, reminding them not only of the higher standard to which they are held, but also of their also being the author of their own suffering by “occupying” a land they have no right to.

2. Israel does something and it causes a loss of life. Israel is to blame. How dare it fire on what could very well be civilians? The right to protest is really important. And if a couple of bad apples use the guise of protest to starm the gates and throw Molotov cocktails, what right does Israel have to respond?

The Arab government of the area doesn’t caution anyone or recommend staying away, quite the opposite – it encourages participation; it seems to be seeking casualties! If people die, it earns the world’s sympathy. It cannot be expected to exert any control over its people because Israel is going to be to blame no matter what. So if people get in, the Arab government wins. If people are kept out, the Arab government wins. If people die, Israel looks bad. If people don’t die, Israel suffers.

Sorry about this rant, but this all just sickens me. It sickens me that Israel is being put into this ridiculous and impossible spot but it also sickens me that the world turns a blind eye here. I mean, it often does, but this is just so egregious.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

2 Rantz

1. On the eggshells of youth

I’m a mass, or mess of contradictions and I know this. Hypocrisy, it could be said, is my watchword, so I apologize if this comes off to some people as a “do as I say” kind of rant. The fact is, I do try to live the life and alk all the alks, so give me the benefit of some doubt on this one.

We try too hard not to offend. Judaism has a strong theme of avoiding embarrassing people and we take this concept to an extreme sometimes, and hope that with enough honey, and enough spared rods, we catch our fly-children and get them to be good. The thing is, I don’t see it happening. We work so hard not to call out the young people so that they won’t feel put upon or offended by our harsh words. We hope that by sparing them this humiliation, and asking nicely, or hinting, they will choose to fly right. We don’t want them to be pushed away by our choice to walk up to them and tell them things that they don’t want to hear.

But that’s what they need.

If I have a student who is talking in the middle of my class, I have to break things down in a particular fashion:

A. The student must know that there is a classroom code which forbids talking
a. The student, by being in the class, is acceding to the code.
b. The student, making the choice to talk (especially if silence has been formally requested) is acting in a way which violates the code.
B. My reaction can be to
a. ask again for silence – this has proven ineffective already.
b. ignore the talking – this might be useful because the talking student then misses content, but others do also because of the noise/distraction, and the misbehavior is not remediated but, in a sense, rewarded
c. speak to the student privately later – while this seems useful, it does not change the distraction, nor does it overtly address the issue which sends a message to other students that the behavior is acceptable.
d. isolate the talker publicly – this is what embarrasses students. But the fact is, they have already forced my hand

Should our police shy away from catching criminals because it will embarrass the criminals? Should our justice system simply ask for compliance repeatedly? We can’t always be about happy talk. Certain aspects of society are in the realm of law and rules, not mercy and emotional safety. The individual has made the choice to break the rule. The move to identify the rule-breaker is not embarrassing – it is necessary. And the choice to be embarrassed by someone else’s pointing out a broken rule is a selective and manipulative way of discouraging any authority figure from doing the job of keeping an entire society in line.

Yes, I break rules. Yes, I would be ashamed if I were called out for my behavior. But I would be a fool to ignore that my shame should be aimed at my own lack of self-control and not at someone else’s response to a choice I made. I am not advocating a purely “strict justice” mode of behavior. Suggestion, private conversation and other modes of response are great early lines of defense. But at a certain point, we have to abandon this notion that a soft answer turns away wrath and we have to teach people that respect for laws and people are highly interdependent and once they abandon one, they lose the moral high ground to demand the other.

2. Maybe later is now

Technology is wonderful but it has ripple effects and one of them is that it has stripped away the idea of a deadline.

I like deadlines. They give me ulcers but in a good way. Yes, a good way. They teach discipline and they regulate the rhythms of life. Some things just have to be done by a certain time and some things have to be done even earlier than that. Learning to respect deadlines is an essential part of growing up. But technology has stripped away any respect for deadlines or any sense of urgency. This is, of course, ironic, as technology has allowed us to live in that present moment all the time because of all the instant gratification it provides. Send a letter? No way – I want an answer NOW. So an email? Not even – a text, and expect a text back on the same schedule (even worse with Whatsapp because you can see that the recipient received and read the message, so any delay in response is an insult). We want to download and watch something in the moment. Back in the day we had to wait for a download to happen (and hope it was without error).

But with all this speed, we have destroyed any need to long term planning or accommodating a deadline. I remember having to submit material for a magazine I was working on. We had to have it done with enough time for material to be typeset, read, returned, proofed, sent, blue lined and copy checked. Pictures had to be taken in time for them to be developed, submitted, laid out etc. So things had to be planned on a calendar well in advance. We learned to use our time, stagger our responsibilities and chart our progress. Now, with instant communication, phones that take pictures and such, nothing has to be planned because we assume that we can take care of everything at the last minute and it will all work out. This bleeds over into other areas – I don’t need to have my paper done well in advance because I don’t need time to type it up, even work on printing it at a printing center, or proofread it. The spell checker will do the work. The grammar checker well. The online site will create my bibliography instantly. I don’t need to keep a shopping list because my technology will keep track of what I have and need. Therefore, I don’t plan before I shop and have no idea what I can make that will go beyond what I recently made. I can get the directions while I drive so I don’t have to plan my trip, so I won’t remember to make t reservations well in advance. We have destroyed process and once we show such a lack of concern for deadline in one area, we have trouble instituting it in other areas. Planning is a skill that, to be applied properly, has to be recalled across the disciplines. If students don’t have to remember to write assignments down because the teacher will post it to a homework site, then they won’t remember to write other notes down in contexts where there is no teacher or web-posting to fall back on.

Do we subcontract our memories to the cloud? Sure. Do we rely on computers to be responsible for lower order thinking skills (thus destroying the foundation for our performance of the higher ones)? Absolutely. And are we, by letting technology dictate the pace of our lives, forgetting how to stretch things out and let them mature and develop over time? Yup, and that’s a really bad thing.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Just one wish

Sometimes I wonder what the greatest gift/blessing could be. At the same time, I also consider what the worst curse could ever be. I’m still unclear on the former but it is pretty obvious that the worst thing a magical being could ever say to me would be “I’ll grant you one wish.” Even just being asked would be horrible and having to turn down (for what?) that offer would be really sucky.

Many people might think of "one wish" as an incredible opportunity but I’ve thought it through and, trust me, it doesn’t end well. Fortunately, we have a spate of popular culture resources which can shed some light on the issue. I'll rabbit hunt it for the non-believers. What do I ask for? The snarky among you are leaning towards “ask for [more/unlimited] wishes.” But that’s just stupid. If one wish is a curse, then many more would, a fortiori, be an even greater calamity waiting to happen. The later wishes would be constantly used up trying to mitigate the disasters which occurred because of the earlier ones. Wishes are designed to subvert the natural order but that leads to consequences (think Jim Carey’s prequel to “Evan, Almighty”). The more the way things are supposed to happen gets shifted, the more problems ensue. The more responsibility for changing the world, the more one feels the weight of billions of voices, all crying and then suddenly silenced. Deal me out, thankyouverymuch.

Maybe I ask for immortality? No – Highlander (among others) proves that this is not only incredibly sad, watching everyone else age and die, but also extremely inconvenient, having to move around to avoid suspicion, and needing to create new identities. All that just so I can be around when the iPhone 23q is released? That’s not much of a trade off.

Should I ask for something more mundane? Everything has a price. Consider the movie “The Box” but replace it with a movie anyone has actually seen. I’ll wait. Now, think about the Monkey’s Paw. Money leads to death. Life leads to monsters. In the animated parody of that story, Homer Simpson asked for a turkey sandwich, and I now quote the sage: “I’ll make a wish that can’t backfire. I wish for a turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with lettuce and mustard and-and I don’t want any zombie turkeys, I don’t want to turn into a turkey myself, and I don’t want any other weird surprises. You got it? . . . Hey! Hmmm, mmm, not bad, nice hot mustard, good bread, the turkey’s a little dry . . . the turkey’s a little dry! Oh foul accursed thing! What demon from the depths of hell created thee?” Also, think about that whole “house elf” slave thing in the Harry Potter series. Food that magically appears on the table still has to be prepped by someone. That wish for a sleeve of never-ending Oreo cookies means someone is staying up nights, baking for me and the finite wheat harvests will not go to feeding the starving babies of Eritrea (it’s a place, I checked) but instead, to my gluttony. Wishing for something ex nihilo would throw off the balance of matter in the universe, and that is not a good way to start the morning, what with a universal imbalance and all, no siree.

Things never quite work out and the greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment when the turkey, after all that pre-thinking, still ends up not living up to what the dream was for it. Do I ask for health for a relative? Which one? Who deserves to (out)live his divinely ordained time? Who has earned this magic more than another? Should I ask for health for all? Do we have the resources on this planet to sustain a race of significantly larger size? What about the lives of all the doctors, undertakers and grave diggers which will be ruined by this. When Donne pointed out in Meditation 17 (one of my top 17 meditations) that no man is an island he wasn’t just pointing out that our deaths (should) impact each other, but that our lives and their choices do as well! Maybe I’ll get rid of war and violence – which would mean the end of human nature, free will and would cause (inevitably) an invasion by Kang and Kodos (same episode…look it up).

Superhero movies used to be this form of escapism – wouldn’t we all want to have powers like Superman or Spiderman? It took a deeper exploration for us to see that with great power comes the death of your uncle and then a series of miscast reboots. The horror. The most recent set of Superhero movies have done a much better job of showing that having gifts of speed, strength, intellect or anything that puts one so far from the norm in society is fraught with downside (now there’s a superpower…being able to see the downside to every situation. My God, I’m SPECIAL!) Go watch WarGames and see what happens when you get what you ask for, when you get access to what you aren't supposed to have access to. You end up with Dabney Coleman mussing your hair and that's something I would want to avoid. And, oh yeah, arrested by the FBI and almost causing the end of humanity. I want to avoid those things also.

I could wish that my dog could talk but that doesn’t mean he will have anything interesting to say (nor that he would understand me when I spoke back). Should I do something to empower other species or will that lead to an ape revolt? Look how that turned out (spoiler alert, “not good”). Do I just want to be loved? That would get a bit stalker-ish, no doubt. I love Willy Wonka, but his quote about the man who got everything he ever wanted is totally off base as is this guy who admires the quote. The guy who gets whatever he wants ends up with no ambition and probably other problems.

Maybe the fascination with the “one wish” scenario is an expression of our own dissatisfaction with our lives. We are afraid to confront the underlying wish, “what if everything was somehow different; could I be happy then?” To make that one wish is to have to accept that things can’t be any better than they are without there being consequences. Just ask George Bailey and every TV show that invoked that “never been born” trope. Now, sure, some people live in such abject conditions that the price is acceptable. A victim who just wants to not be victimized can probably formulate a wish that, while it might negatively impact the world, would certainly, and in a very local sense, make things a whole lot better. We do this when we pray -- we pray most often to thank God for our existence and to recognize that things really aren't so bad. Sometimes we ask Jim to use the normal laws of the universe but bend them a touch to let things play out in subtly different ways, but only if He thinks that it would be for the best. We don't pray for 2+2 to be 5 (well, I used to, after EVERY. MATH. TEST, but I digress). In fact, Jewish law teaches that we don't pray for the impossible. But for the average guy the hypotheticals, when explored, can be shown to have more disadvantages than advantages. Being forced to make a choice about a wish would make me responsible for the undoing of the universe and that’s a burden I don’t think I could handle, at least not before lunch.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Just some random thoughts on Education

So I read this line recently, “Student learning is the most meaningful measure of all instructional practices and must remain the litmus test, or gateway, to determining future teacher practice.” [ Dwayne Chism (Omaha Public Schools) via The Marshall Memo's write up of “Excavating the Artifacts of Student Learning” by Dwayne Chism in Educational Leadership, February 2018 (Vol. 75, #5),] It troubles me. It troubles me because it posits that the way we can assess teacher performance and success is by measuring something called “student learning” but that concept cannot be quantified, let alone measured, especially as a direct consequence of the particular teaching.

If our focus as teachers is not in imparting a set of concrete facts but giving students the skills to be lifelong learners then we can’t know if we have succeeded until we measure life long learning, many years down the line. At that point, it is also impossible to know if the end result is linked conclusively to any singular or specific teaching many years earlier.

All of our various methods (formative and summative assessments, standardized tests, exit portfolios…whatever) which supposedly measure learning simply don’t. They measure a whole lot of stuff but not “learning”. We have no baseline performance and cannot account for variables related to test taking skills or external pressures. We can’t include bad days, or antipathy towards a teacher or subject. We have a hard enough time differentiating between true understanding and positive performance and struggle trying to distinguish between the rewards for effort and native skill.

I don’t mean to throw my hands up in resignation, but we keep thinking that concepts such as learning and teaching can be charted and definitively measured so that we can improve them. I don’t have an answer but I know that if we start with false goals, we are never going to get anywhere.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Torah on the Table

The assembling of the various pieces required to furnish the mishkan is of central importance in Parshat T’rumah and each piece is said to import both its literal purpose and deeper, symbolic value. One of the objects discussed is a table for the “show bread”. What is amazing is that this parsha, in 25:23 is actually the first use of a word which is now commonplace, shulchan. In fact, the only instances of the word shulchan in the chamisha chumshei Torah, 2 as shulchan and 17 as hashulchan, occur in relation to this object. No one sits at a table, eats at a table, judges at a table or plays solitaire at a table. Admittedly, as far as my research shows, no one in the 5 books plays solitaire, but if someone did, I think precedent makes it clear that he or she would not do so at a table. A shulchan is a table in common use now but that doesn’t explain why this piece, with its staves and shelves (most unlike anything I have yet to see on sale at Ikea under “tables”) is called a shulchan.

This shulchan has an important role. It holds the 12 loaves of bread which stayed fresh all week (Menachos 96b) as a constant display of a public miracle. Its structure included a “zir” a rim or crown which represented, according to Rashi on Yoma 72b, the crown of kingship. The gemara there also includes the statement that each of the various crowns (zir) is such to one who merits it, but is a stranger (zer) to one who does not. So now, we have 12 loaves of a wonderous bread, a word whose meaning we have had to table and a rim, shot through with meaning and symbolism. All of this somehow is tied into the notion of Hashem’s providing food for all the people of the earth and sustaining them (as per the Rabbeinu Bachya on Sh’mot 25:23) which is seen as the role of the one who has true sovereignty and kingship.

Etymologically, the word might be connected to spreading out (as in an animal skin) though Ernest Klein’s A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English only provides his evidence as to why the conventionally suggested history is actually wrong. He does not provide any alternative. Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch provides a possible connection when he discusses the use of the final letter nun as a suffix to a three letter root (page 298). In Hebrew, often an addition of a final nun to a three letter root indicates a relationship of a person/character to a trait, behavior or action. A slothful person is an atzlan, from the root a-tz-l, plus the final nun; a bayshan is someone embarrassed, from the root for shame plus that nun. Maybe it is possible to see shulchan as related to the sh-l-ch root associated with a person or people.

The word shalach is about spreading out, and is used textually to refer to being sent out. Moshe and Aharon repeatedly implored Par’oh to “shalach ami” (as in Sh’mot 8:16), and we have an entire parsha named after that “being sent out” in Parshat B’shalach. With this “shalach” in the recent memory of the people, calling this table a shulchan would have resonated. The people are the shulchan, those that were sent out. It had to symbolize that person or group that was sent, and as it held the 12 loaves, this would be a direct reflection of the 12 sh’vatim. Bnei Yisrael are the ones associated with being sent and they, who have been sent out, only can stay “fresh,” vibrant and alive as a miracle which comes as a direct result of the crown of Hashem’s sovereignty. Only by recognizing that kingship of Hashem and allowing the crown of kingship found on the shulchan to be in sway does that zir not become zer, stranger; that crown endows the people with the privilege of being recipients of Hashem’s blessing and continued sustenance – he fulfills a role as king over us only when we accept him as such.

We use that word shulchan so often today that we lose sight of its power. It symbolizes a relationship imbued with incredible power and uniqueness. We rest on it and rely on it (as the 12 loaves rests on the table and is supported by it) and it represents us, as those who were brought out of Egypt by the mighty and miraculous hand of Hashem. It teaches our responsibility to accept ol malchut shamayim and our potential as proper ovdei Hashem to be a constant and public symbol of his eternal presence in the world.