Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015
It was one of those sweltering July days. The movers were finally finished with their task. Our home in Hamilton, Ontario, had a small footprint- maybe no more square feet on any level than this bima- but it had three floors, plus a finished basement, so there was a lot of stairs to go up and down. The movers, braving it all with strong legs and stronger backs, loaded all our stuff onto the truck, and told us they’d see us in five days in Bridgewater. Along with a couple of friends, we stood on the porch of that now-empty 100-year-old house, our home for the last nine years, and waved goodbye to everything we owned. The moving truck started with a shudder, and slowly began to pull away, taking a chapter of our lives with it. Then all hell broke loose.
Our youngest, Aitan, whom we prepared for this moment, but who knows if we could have prepped him more thoroughly, let out a loud, primal scream: “Give me back my bed!” He weaved past family and friends and tore off down the street, running at top speed, following the moving truck, shouting and holding his arms in almost a prayerful position, “Give me back my bunk bed!” All the intellectual explanations, all the emotional planning, it all gave way in that pivotal moment to a deep fear of the unknown. Moving isn’t all that easy on anyone, but for a child, who lacks the memories of pains experienced and survived, all the more so. I followed Aitan, following the now-distant truck, and tried to comfort him, to no avail. Five minutes of screaming to the now-empty street turned into ten minutes turned into thirty minutes. The enormity of the change, of the endof something, was simply too great. Karen came by to trade places with me. But he was inconsolable. Distraught. Unmoored. And- he was right. Life as he knew it had ended, never to return. It doesn’t matter if life ahead would be better or worse, in some ways it doesn’t entirely matter if life before was all that great. Change is disconcerting. Change is disorienting. At the same time, it is not only a part of life, it is an essential part of life.
I bring this up not merely for to tell you about my summer. Aitan’s visceral reaction to change is but another reminder that change doesn’t often come easily. It’s not just me, here at Temple Sholom, we’re in the midst of one of the biggest periods of change in many decades. After so many years, for those who are here three days a week or three days a year, it’s got to be a bit of a shock to the system to get off that bus, look up, and find new faces on the bima. That said, in good times and in bad, there may not be a people more experienced in dealing with change, in successfully coping with physical or mental displacement, than Jews. We have a tradition of building lives after hard times, of creating community in fresh circumstances, of not letting difficulties, or even tragedies, and especially not letting institutional change distract us from our historic mission.
Millenia ago, in the generation following the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Jews were left as bereft as a seven-year-old on moving day. All they had known had been destroyed: the sole religious center of their faith, the sole political capital of their nation, the sole altar to offer sacrifices, that help atone for individual and communal sin. The physical and spiritual center of the nation no longer existed. There was a real sense of the world having changed for the worse. The story is told in Avot d’Rabi Natan, an ancient Jewish wisdom text, that years after the destruction of the Temple, and the Roman razing of Jerusalem, two sages, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, saw the ruins of Jerusalem. “ אוי לנו, על זה שהוא חרב, Woe is us,” said Rabbi Yehoshua, “that the place that atoned for our sins lies in ruins”. You can feel his despair, his sense that all he knows, all his ancestors ever knew, is destroyed. He can’t get past the enormity of his grief and confusion. We’ve all been in situations where sadness and shock make it difficult to imagine positive change. But, if the Jewish people had adopted that “woe is us” mindset, we would never have survived, much less progressed and prospered. Fortunately, Rabbi Yehoshua’s companion, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is the paradigm of a a person who feels the displacement no less deeply than his friends, yet has a sense of vision of how to move forward. “בני, על ירא לך,” replied Rabban Yochanan. “Don’t grieve, my son. We have another path to atonement… גמילות חסדים, acts of lovingkindness also atone, as the prophet teaches: כי חסד חפצתי, ולא זבח. [God says:] ‘Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.’”
Do you see the difference in the response? Both men are mourning, years after the event, but Rabban Yochanan knows that not everything was destroyed. Everything physical has a lifespan, but the idea- planted centuries before- that acts of lovingkindness are at the heart of the Jewish tradition- has the power to survive all change. Change and displacement may be traumatic, it may be tragic, it may be ultimately for the best; there is always room for kindness in a response. History credits Rabban Yochanan with rebuilding Jewish life after the devastating loss to the Roman Empire, and so it is his perspective that serves as our example in how to deal with change. He felt the same sense of displacement everyone else felt, but he was not paralyzed by fear of an uncertain future, nor was he going to give up. He re-built Jewish life- not exactly like it was before, but a new version, adapted to new times and new circumstances, and he did so based on a simple principle: the wisdom and practices of earlier generations must remain integral to our lives, and, when necessary, will be adapted to the new situation. Whether the new Jewish life was better or worse than the old was less of an issue than the fact that the world had irreparably changed, and Judaism changing with it, without compromising its distinctiveness, was necessary. There was not looking back. In this era, when the pressures on building flourishing Jewish communities are great indeed, we would do well to emulate his example.
Notice the principle that governs Rabban Yochanan’s thought: כי חסד חפצתי. He says that in times of change and in times of stability, God desires loyal lovingkindness more than anything. Rabban Yochanan did not discard the mitzvot, he embraced the commandments, but he saw the mitzvot through the lens of חסד, loyal lovingkindness. Understand what he means: Judaism demands that everything we do is to be done with חסד, with kindness. Our words. Our actions. Our spending habits. Our free time. Our work time. Our school time. All the time. This is the core understanding that rose from the ashes of Jerusalem: Judaism is not limited to any one place. It is not limited to any one time. Judaismis choosing actions and words that bring a sense of חסד into every moment of our lives. Jewish ritual reinforces this, but it does not limit it. We are called not just to come to shul, not just to act like a decent person while we’re here, not just to avoid this food and to light candles at such-and-such a time— though those are all things we should do. We are called to engage in acts of חסד with constancy, even when it is difficult, even when we’d rather act with harshness.
Change is hard. It’s hard for synagogues, especially a synagogue, like Temple Sholom, long blessed with caring and stable and accomplished leadership, and merely moving from strength to strength. Change is hard for comfortable suburbanites, a group I’m now a part of, to push ourselves to grow and change in a culture that prizes status and acquisition more than building souls and practicing חסד, radical kindness. Social and internal pressures can discourage us from the bold decisions required for positive change. But remember: change is not harder for us that it is for that small child, disoriented and distressed, as his world changes. Sometimes, we’re like him: unwillingly changing due to forces beyond our control. But sometimes, we resist change even though it’s needed. Are we spending our money the way we would if we truly believed we will be held accountable byHaKadosh Baruch Hu for the good we accomplish in this world? Are we spending our time in a way we would be proud to tell our grandchildren about? Are we making a difference on the great issues of our day- the social and political and economic and environmental issues- are we acting in a way our younger, more idealistic selves would admire? That’s what the shofar calls us to do today. The shofar is to be a wake-up call, reminding us that we all have a calling in life to help perfect the world. The shofar asks: are you helping? Another year is gone: have you become the person you want to become? Have you taken the steps necessary to create the legacy you wish to leave behind?
When I visit people in hospitals around the time of Rosh Hashanah, I often will bring a shofar. I sound the shofar right there in the hospital room. I sometimes wonder what the heck the patients down the hall think is going on, but I figure it’s wiser not to check. Do you know what the Jewish patients do when the shofar sounds in their hospital room? Usually they cry. Usually, I do too. Because the shofar, wordlessly, says a lot. Many of us heard the shofar with our parents or grandparents, and its sound conjures their presence. We know we are hearing the same sound our people have heard since the beginning of time: outside of a drum, it’s hard to imagine a more basic instrument than the shofar, something that feels as if it is from the prehistory of humanity: this is the call of the ages. But we also cry because of the meaning of the call: it is a call to change into the person you want to become, and for the seriously ill, there is a fear there might not be sufficient time left. For those of us here, please know: use your time wisely, while we still have it. The shofar calls us not to lives of comfort, not to be told that we’re doing everything A-OK, and don’t worry about a thing. The shofar calls us to change. The shofar calls us to take stock. We are not forced to, like Aitan, forlorn and upset, as the moving truck faded into the distance. We have to gather the strength and make the choice ourselves. He can do it. We can do it. We can answer the call.
As we turn to a new year, let us know the changes we have to make. Let us know that our communities are looking to us to change for the better. Let us know that others, the more vulnerable among us, are counting on us to change for the better. We all have to face the child within us, inconsolably crying on the street corner, unhinged by the insecurity that change requires. Know that, deep down, we ourselves have an abiding hope that we can change for the better, to do the deeds of חסד that our tradition requires of us. And know that, אבינו מלכינו, we have a relationship with the Holy One of Israel, waiting, year after year, for teshuvah, for us to change and become our best selves. It is not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. Change is often accompanied by tears. But, maybe in this new year, 5776, change will take us to a new, worthy home.
May you and your loved ones be blessed with a year of health, joy, and the courage to make positive change. May we all be inscribed for a shana tova u’mitukah, a good, sweet new year.