Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Who moved my cheese?

First, today’s lesson in Canadian culture:

Sports reporter on 680 AM, talking about last night’s unusual confluence of late-game wins by both the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays – “I’ve been broadcasting sports since the Diefenderfer administration, and I’ve never seen this.” Okay, maybe it wasn’t Diefenderfer, but it was something like that. Add this to the list of Canadian politicians I’ve never, ever heard of. They say a startling number of Oklahoma students don't know George Washington was our first president, but I'd wager Diefenderfer ranks even lower than John Tyler.

(WikiUpdate: John Diefenbaker was prime minister in the early 1960’s. Apparently he was also known as The Leader, which reminds me of this comic book villain, and The Dief, which reminds me of, well, nothing.)

But to the more serious point at hand: I mentioned in my previous post that my Rosh haShanah davening had one serious ‘glitch.’ I’ve been mulling that problem for the past few days, and talking to a few shul rabbi friends about it.

When I was a shul rabbi, despite all of the difficulties of concentrating on Rosh haShanah/Yom Kippur davening while being responsible for the shul, and despite the challenge of contemplating, and davening for, so many people’s needs, I always felt - mostly subconsciously - that I had an ace in the hole. I had a claim I could make that would win the day, despite my sins and flaws.

It’s arrogant, and I know that, but I felt that I could stand before Gd and say, “I give all of my time and energy to chesed. I get up in the middle of the night to go to the hospital, I stay up late preparing classes, I go way out of my comfort zone to reach people and help them. I know I am far from perfect, I know I am far from where I should be, but at least I have this merit, and in that merit please help these people, please help me, please forgive me... and besides, I am needed for all of these people...” It was subconscious, but now I see clearly that it underlay my entire approach to Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur.

And now, I’ve lost that.

Certainly, I am spending all of my time on עבודת ה', serving Gd by learning and writing and teaching, but it feels more self-centered and less necessary for society:

• Some of that is because of society’s value system, which recognizes service of others over personal growth.

• Some of it is a “Who moved my cheese” phenomenon, where my success and sense of worth for the past dozen years was defined by how many people I helped, not by how much personal learning I did. I imagine people who retire, or change professions, or have their kids graduate/marry/move endure similar challenges.

• Some of it is that many of my classes here are more technical, like Minchat Chinuch, and are taught to people who are advanced enough to do their own learning. There isn’t that same feeling of תורת חסד.

• And some of it is the fact that I know that there are many great teachers in Toronto, even if I have some unique element in what I do. It’s not like Allentown, where the rabbi is the source for so much, where that which the rabbi does not do will simply not be done.

I shouldn’t overstate; I know that what I am doing here is good, is helping people, and is even important. I enjoy what I am doing; it’s a wonderful challenge and it is a worthwhile enterprise. And Gd knows I’m not slacking off.

But I’m adjusting to a different system of work, a different benchmark for success, a different scale for valuing my impact. I suppose that the self-evaluation process of Elul and Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur will just be part of that adjustment.

, if you're reading, I'd love to hear your take.


  1. I'd start with the question of why you left your previous position, I'm guessing you did a real cheshbon hanefesh - so you would want to see how the reality is comparing to the scorecard you made up in determinig whether to make the move or whether you want to reevaluate any of the weights you gave to the items being scored or add any new scoring categories.


  2. I have so much interface on this one, it's not even funny. Meaning, even if you're doing what you're good at, it can keep you locked up so much of the time that there isn't any time to do what you think you should be doing, really.

    The big question for me, here, or for you, maybe, too, is What does a person with a fairly strong ego, when faced with an impossible decision, do? The answer is, we do what's good for our family, whether or not that's the right answer in Her eyes.

    So although people like us should be in the Allentowns of the world, hanging out with people who really need us, we're preaching to the choir in the big cities, making no real impact, or so it feels.

    But if you ask your kids, would you rather we join the Avraham Avinu's of the world and travel around making friends who don't know a mikvah from a swimming pool, or would they like to have dozens of people they can relate to, people they can sing with, daven with, etc., they're going to say they'll choose the tribe they know over the cousins they don't. And you want them to have that day school education, of course. Home schooling doesn't sing to them.

    Which for me is tragic, the whole parochialism of our "religious" world. It's exclusionary and elitist, and we're not fighting antisemitism one bit, not even making aliyah.

    Does this make any sense at all? I'd say, somehow figure out how to get your cheese back.

  3. So you went from being a big fish in a small pond to a big fish in a bigger pond.

    It sounds perfectly normal to me. It is going to take a bit of time to get adjusted to all of the changes.

    It took a bit of time for Batman to figure out how to make the most effective use of his skills.

    You'll find your way and in less time than you think.

  4. Firstly, Dief was the Chief.

    Secondly we DO need you in Toronto! In many ways we are a homogeneous group and have heard and learned from the same people year after year. Not that they aren't great scholars or charismatic leaders, but you still know who has which opinion on what issue and what they are going to say before they even say it.

    We are all always excited when a new teacher comes to stay with us, a new course to take, a different point of view on this topic or that. The community isn't THAT big that a new voice isn't wanted or welcome.

    If you need to keep score, to find your "cheese" as you put it, you will have the merit of exposing all of to your perspective and knowledge and teaching.

    Wait until after yontif when the shiurs begin. When you see full rooms you will know where your cheese is!

  5. Anonymous 2:32 PM-
    I hear, but my move was primarily about the kids' needs, which I believe logically and feel emotionally must be the #1 priority.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, and I'm glad to get the affirmation. I'm working on getting the cheese back.

    I'm usually with you, but not here. This isn't about the big/small fish/pond deal; that was more the post from a while back on humility. This one is about feeling I am doing what Gd put me here to do.

    Anonymous 7:20 PM-
    Yes, Wikipedia does mention Dief the Chief as well. I think the Wiki picture of him is great, too; it looks like something out of a 1940's movie.
    Thanks for the encouragement. The shiurim certainly have begun - we have archived audio from almost 30 of them at - but I do hope to reach more people, and in more meaningful ways, over the course of time. I hope you'll be there, too!

  6. Having made choices in my own life for the sake of my children, I can empathize when you wonder if you are doing what Gd put you here to do.

    ...and here is my feeling on that one: None of us can truly know what Gd has put us here to do. I have often been surprised at how things turned out.

    It may take a while, but I suspect the time will come when you find yourself uniquely positioned to make a profound difference because of this move to Toronto. Keep doing what you do so well as you try to adapt to your new environment.

  7. Anonymous 2:32 PM-
    I hear, but my move was primarily about the kids' needs, which I believe logically and feel emotionally must be the #1 priority.
    Sorry-that was me. So fine - wadr we all have priorities and competing "goods" which we juggle. We continuously (hopefully) reevaluate to be sure we are maximizing the total avodat hashem
    and learn to live with that you can't have it all-as my rafting guide once said in a tough spot - "hey, deal with it" (now you know why I'm not in the helping professions:-))
    Joel Rich

  8. Fruma-
    Thanks; I hope so.

    Indeed; "Deal with it" is normally not great bedside manner, but it is a hammer that suits most nails.

  9. A good story

    GK Chesterton: “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

    Voila: This book is a poetic view of 30 of the best loved French cheeses with an additional two odes to cheese. Recipes, wine pairing, three short stories and an educational section complete the book.

    From a hectic life in New York City to the peace and glories of the French countryside lead me to be the co-founder of Ten years later with the words of Pierre Androuet hammering on my brain:

    “Cheese is the soul of the soil. It is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.”

    I took pen and paper; many reams later with the midnight oil burning Tasting to Eternity was born and self published.

    I believe cheese and wine lovers should be told about this publication.