I was honoured with the opportunity to chant the first aliyah for the Torah portion Aharei Mot. I’m still new to chanting Torah, so I practise every day. I can read and translate Torah but, for some reason, I didn’t reflect on what I was reading at first. I was chanting that very sensitive set of instructions given from G-d to Moses to pass along to his brother Aaron.
A few weeks ago, we read in Leviticus 10:1-7 that Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu offered “strange” or “alien” fire. Their sacrifice was overeager and unusual. They drew “too close” – in some readings of Leviticus 16:1 – to G-d and were struck down. They were killed.
After the death of Aaron’s sons, the instructions Moses passes along to Aaron are crucial. He isn’t to go into the Holy of Holies, behind the curtain, because G-d dwells in a cloud above the cover. Aaron’s sacrifices and his approach to the holiest spaces are scripted, careful and correct. When reading rabbis’ commentaries on this, their thoughts are all over the place, from quoting Sting’s lyrics “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” to talking about vulnerability and the divine. This is a text that has a lot to unpack.
As a freelancer, I do writing and editing jobs with various deadlines. Sometimes, I write a piece months in advance, submit, and hear nothing back until the publication arrives in the mail with payment. With other jobs, I get to revise and review copy edits, the editor says exactly when the piece will run and I’m paid early without prompting. Others require me to submit an invoice or I don’t get paid at all. Every gig is different. I’ve even worked for publications that have gone bankrupt before my article was to appear. So, I did all the work but, in the end, received nothing, not even a publication credit.
In other situations, I write or edit something with a short deadline. These can be very satisfying jobs that happen quickly. Sometimes, it’s a political analysis piece that runs in the newspaper. Other times, it’s a healthcare editing job that might improve the lives of breastfeeding moms. There’s a thrill to a tight deadline where I manage to get it done, and perhaps make a difference.
Before Passover, I submitted some queries (ideas) to a publication with which I’d worked before. I got a very fast response. The editor said she’d been about to write on one of these topics. Would I cover it instead? I said sure, asking for her outline and any other details she wanted included. Instead, she suggested I write it on my own, without her outline. I did this as fast as I could, as I also faced the hard deadline of cleaning and cooking for the holiday. I asked for quick feedback, since my time was limited, but I didn’t receive any.
Almost a week later, the editor asked me for revisions, asking why I didn’t include several items, which were on her mental checklist, unbeknown to me. I didn’t feel prepared to do it, but I researched and did one more rewrite before Pesach.
During the middle of the Passover, the copy edits arrived. I’d never seen so many before! Much of it seemed to ask me to prove mundane things with academic sources. Many copy editors have provided me with corrections and solutions over the years, and it’s usually just an “approve” track changes or a comment or two to move ahead. Responding to these comments took nearly three hours. I felt as though perhaps I’d written something wrong, although I’d been researching, writing and teaching on the topic for years.
The next day, I received a note from the editor. It would take too long for us to come to agreement over the edits. I was sent a “kill fee.” A kill fee is usually a quarter to a third of the amount agreed to for the whole project, if the project cannot go forward. This was a bit of a relief. I had more time for the holiday. I could be done with a hassle that already had earned me less than minimum wage.
Moments after I accepted the kill fee, the editor was on social media, writing glib jokes about the article topic and how she had to write the article herself. So, not only had I lost the gig, but there was some shame now, too. This was public “punishment.” Somehow, I’d been incapable of writing on this supposedly easy topic. With the holiday’s end and Shabbat approaching, I had ample time to reflect on the crummy experience.
For context … in the book Little Women, published more than 150 years ago, the character of Jo March is offered a $100 US prize payment for a story she wrote. I was offered $150 Cdn to write this story and paid a kill fee $50 Cdn.
When I thought back on Aaron’s painful loss of Nadav and Abihu, and how they’d been warned not to do things the wrong way, I wondered what lessons I could find there. I don’t make sacrifices at an altar. I never want to lose my children in such an awful way. However, on a much smaller scale, I pushed myself too hard to meet an elusive last-minute work goal. It cut me close when I failed, and then to be shamed via social media for it. I had my work “killed” – perhaps because my writing failed to come close enough to the editor’s ideas, or maybe because it was a little too detailed or uncomfortable and they questioned it. Who knows? Just as we will never know what Nadav and Abihu were thinking, I couldn’t be inside this editor’s thoughts either.
Unlike Aaron, I don’t have to work with this editor/client again. Aaron serves G-d, and cannot make the same mistakes his sons did. He is in a painful place where he must learn to do better. I, too, am in a place where I need to reconsider how I work and what I will work towards.
Luckily, I didn’t lose anything so precious as did Aaron. I can still explore how to make things better – it’s important to find a work/life balance that works, because that article was not worth the hassle. As the TV advertisement goes, some (important) things, like our family and holiday celebrations, are priceless.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.