Friday, December 2, 2011

Jacob's Ladder, Balance and The Jewish Future

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ

He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached the Heavens and the angels of God were going up and down it.  Genesis 28:12

In his book Getting Things Done (GTD), David Allen, a work-flow guru, talks about different areas of focus in work and life using imagery from air travel, specifically delineating things in 10,000 foot increments.  There are the things we have to focus on at 3,000 feet, the minutiae of the day to day, the logistics, the concrete next actions to move something along.  He describes the twenty to thirty thousand foot levels as broader visions of projects.  Forty to fifty thousand feet is the big picture of life and work, our aspirations for ourselves, for others.  In Allen’s system, we are constantly moving between levels of focus depending on our energy levels, the context in which we find ourselves, how we prioritize, etc.  When we are at our best according to David Allen, we are as though we are moving smoothly across water, we are working at a seamless black belt level.  Of course, we still need to be aware of what level we are working at and why.  We have to constantly challenge ourselves to insure that we avoid neglecting one level in favor of another.  

The opening verses of our parashah present a similar idea far earlier than David Allen.  Jacob, while fleeing his brother Esau, settles down to sleep and dreams of a ladder, one firmly established on earth but reaching for the Sky.  Along the ladder, Divine Beings move both up and down.  There is constant motion.  God stands beside the ladder and beside Jacob, makes a covenant of protection and reviews the promises made to Abraham of descendants and a homeland.  God reminds Jacob that there is a larger goal at hand, that of Peoplehood. Implicit in the promise is that its fulfillment will take time and that there will be many steps and challenges along the way.  Until the goal is achieved, God promises to be with Jacob, never to leave.  In other words, there are 50,000 foot goals:  growing a people, being in constant Divine-Human relationship, and establishing a homeland.  Along the way, there will be lots of 3,000 to 10,000 foot details that have to be handled.  Proper work-flow and proper levels of focus are concepts that predate the modern period and, it seems, emanate from Torah.

In thinking about the work we do, that of strengthening the Jewish People and creating more love for and commitment to Torah, I wonder if we are working at the right levels, focusing on the right things and giving sufficient attention to all levels, from the 3,000 to the 50,000 plus foot levels.  Are we focusing too much on finding “Big Ideas” or the next “Great Jewish Idea”?  Are we focusing our attention too low by giving too much attention to symptoms and tactics when we should be focusing on whether or not we are moving in the right direction in the first place?  Do we worry too much about those on the periphery and ignore the core or is it the other way around?  Are we too focused on our own silos and turf thereby ignoring the power of networks to lift us up the ladder or help us learn from the experiences of other networks when they focused on details?  Maimonides reminds us that we should strive to pursue the “Golden Path,” that of moderation, and his exhortation applies here as well.  Finding the balance between focusing on the 50,000 foot vision challenges of the Jewish People and our 10,00 foot tactical/ operational challenges is the course we should be pursuing to insure a vibrant future for Judaism.  

In the silo in which I spend the most time, that of camp, the challenge presents itself in the following ways.  How do we balance recruiting campers and hiring staff with developing new programs to keep camp fresh while also focusing attention on what our vision of success looks like?  How do we energize our network of campers, staff members, parents, board members, alumni and funders to help keep camp viable financially and increase the role we play as a significant Jewish touch point in the lives of those same groups?  How do we balance fun and friendship with real health/safety concerns and meaningful Jewish learning and living experiences?  Trying to find the balance between these different areas of focus is where I spend much of my own time.

The image of the ladder, the movement of the angels, Jacob and God being near to one another and the greater goals of land, people, and relationship serve as reminders for us of the power of networks, the importance of Big Hairy Audacious Goals, and the importance of balance in focusing on broad agendas and on operations.  As we grapple with the serious challenges that face the Jewish People and Judaism in this period, from the gap in dialogue between Jews of different practice and ideology to questions of inclusion to the challenges of understanding between American Jews and Israel to how we engage Jewish teens in a more effective way (, it will be more important than ever to make sure that we are balanced in our focus, to pay attention to the broader questions and to the details and to avoid spending “all of our time planning” and no time actually executing those plans.

Shabbat Shalom.