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09/19/2009 - Change In Our World, Change in Ourselves (Rosh Hashanah, 5770)
September 19, 2009
1 Tishri 5770
Rosh Hashanah Day, 5770
For all of us, this has been a year of tremendous change. Some of us have children going off to college. Others have parents transitioning into assisted living. Some of us have become new grandparents. Others have lost a parent. Some of us have lost jobs. Others have had retirement delayed. Personally, it's been a year of tremendous change. I've become the rabbi of a new congregation. I've become the father of a baby boy. I'm living in a new home and neighborhood. Yet, while change can come in greater and lesser degrees, it is always constant. Man plans, the yiddish proverb says, and God laughs. Aside from death and taxes, change is the only constant in life.
Whether change is good or bad depends on our situation and perspective. Often, it is a mix of the two. And sometimes what seems like good change evokes anger and frustration. Recall the Exodus story. Moses leads the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Sinai desert. Immediately after they escape pharaoh's army and cross the red sea, what do they do? They complain. Where is the delicious food we ate in Egypt? Where is the stability we knew there? Even though we were slaves, at least our lives were predictable. Now we don't know what to do.
In his classic book, Escape from Freedom, the great psychologist as well as refugee from Nazi Germany, Erich Fromm, tried to explain this phenomenon. What is predictable, he said, is comforting. Even when we want change, we react negatively to it. To use a more prosaic example, think of those who win the lottery. While some build happy lives, many later regret it. For many, a rush of winnings leads to overspending, broken families and ultimately bankruptcy.
Part of what makes change in our world so difficult is its speed. At least the Israelites had forty years to get used to their change. For us, change often happens overnight. We see this in our personal lives. An illness or a car accident upends us quickly and dramatically. We see this in our offices. We see this in our economy. “Change,” writes British management guru Charles Handy, "isn't what it used to be."
What resources sustain us in such a world? How do we manage endless change? First and foremost, we look to the people around us. When we go through life with others--when we appreciate that what matters most is not the inevitable twists and turns of our path but the people with whom we are traveling--when we do this, we see change through a different perspective.
Rabbi Harold Kushner illustrated this in a beautiful story. "I was sitting on a beach one summer day, he writes, "watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water's edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand.
I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.
I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody's hand to hold will be able to laugh." How beautiful, and how true!
All of us have experienced losses like the children. We can't change that. The issue, rather, is how we respond. Part of responding is understanding that change is a form of loss. The losses are tangible and intangible. When the economy deterioriates, we lose that vision of a long and care-free retirement. When a relationship breaks up, we lose that vision of a perfect life and family. When a friendship breaks up, we lose a sense of trust and connection. Adapting to such a change can be tremendously difficult.
What can guide us, I think, are our core values and purpose. When we know what is important to us, change becomes part of the journey. When we travel, for example, we bring a map. The map helps us stay focused on where we are going. If we get lost, if we veer off course, we can take another path to the same place. Knowing where we are going helps us get through the bumps in the journeys.
It can also keep us focused on the present. Indeed, resistence to change is often accompanied by nostalgia for the past. We yearn for the good old days. There is a beautiful story in the Talmud that illustrates this. It was written near the end first century, when Jewish life was changing dramatically and the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem. Many of the great rabbis had been lost. We can almost feel the despair of the the surviving sages who wrote, "When Rabbbi Meir died, there were no more storytellers. When Rabbi Hanina died, there were no more men of action. When Rabbi Yochanan died, there was no more wisdom. When Rabbi Judah died, it was the end of humility. One by one, all the important qualities of the world seemed to pass away." Then, however, one of the surviving rabbis, Rabbi Joseph stood up and said, "Do not teach that humility has ceased with the death of Rabbi Judah; for I am here." (I thank Rabbi David Wolpe for alerting me to this text.)
At first, we might think this sounds arrogant. Rabbi Joseph is proclaiming his humility. Yet, he is saying something deeper and more courageous. Humility and virtue, he is saying, do not belong just in the past or only to others. They belong to us. They endure through us. We dare not allow the beauty of the past to detract from our own place and purpose and vision in the present. Rather than simply seek solace in the past, we can remember and build on it for our future.
This past year, we heard a beautiful illustration of this truth. It concerned Senator Teddy Kennedy. Now his death was a profound event for country. Yet, I want to talk about it not in a political way. Rather, we can look at one of the most moving tributes to his life. It is a story about surviving change told by his son Edward Kennedy, Jr. "When I was 12 years old," Kennedy Jr., recounted in his eulogy, "I was diagnosed with bone cancer. And a few months after I lost my leg, there was a heavy snowfall over my childhood home outside of Washington D.C. And my father went to the garage to get the old Flexible Flyer, and asked me if I wanted to go sledding down the steep driveway.
And I was trying to get used to my new artificial leg. And the hill was covered with ice and snow. And it wasn’t easy for me to walk. And the hill was very slick. And as I struggled to walk, I slipped and I fell on the ice. And I started to cry and I said, I can’t do this. I said, I’ll never be able to climb up that hill.
And he lifted me up in his strong, gentle arms and said something I will never forget, he said, I know you can do it. We’re going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.
Sure enough, he held me around my waist and we slowly made it to the top. And you know, at age 12 losing your leg pretty much seems like the end of the world. But as I climbed on to his back and we flew down the hill that day, I knew he was right. I knew I was going to be OK.
You see, my father taught me that even our most profound losses are survivable, and that is — it is what we do with that loss, our ability to transform it into a positive event, that is one of my father’s greatest lessons."
Part of the beauty of this story lies in the confidence his father's faith gave Teddy, Jr. Sometimes another person's faith in us can help us through profound change. It can help us grow in understanding and in spirit. Indeed, as Ernest Hemingway once observed, "The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places." How do we become strong in broken places?
Well, Edward Kennedy was a man nurtured by his commitment to his faith. And, as a rabbi, no surprise, I believe that it is faith that ultimately guides us through all the vicissitudes of life. We don't often speak openly about it in the synagogue. We tend to believe that Judaism is more about deed than creed, more about what we do than we believe. This is generally true. Yet, each of us has a sense of faith, even if we find it hard to describe. If we didn't, we wouldn't take risks in life. We wouldn't marry, build families, do good things for others, or be here this evening. We wouldn't have the strength to face change.
Perhaps, as Maimonides suggested, the best way to illustrate the meaning of faith in Judaism is through metaphor. This summer my daughter Hannah taught me a good one. In June we started swim lessons. The first few classes were quite difficult. The kids struggled to adjust to a new environment. They did not take kindly to going underwater. In fact, the end of the first class was a sight to be seen. While singing if you're happy and you know it, all the kids were kicking and screaming and holding on to their parents for dear life.
Over time, however, Hannah learned the right moves. She learned to kick, to move her arms, to be comfortable in the water. What took her the greatest time and effort, however, was learning how to float. This may seem strange to us. For most of us, floating takes little effort. Swimming takes all energy. To float, however, we have to let go. We have to trust the water. We have to take a risk and give up control over our direction and pace. In other words, floating, as Rabbi David Wolpe put it, takes faith.
More than a story of my child, it seems that this swim lesson captured a profound truth. We spend most of our lives learning to swim. We learn the skills for working and succeeding. We put great effort into building families, doing the best we can do for our children, our parents, ourselves. Sometimes we feel underwater. Other times we move forcefully and rapidly. Our skills improve and change, and we learn new strokes. Yet, at times--often at times of difficulty, of loss, of unexpected change-- we need to remind ourselves how to float. How to feel at home in the water, and ride through its ebbs and flows. Floating is not giving in. It feeling a unity with the flow of life that gathers around each of us. When we float, we experience change as a part of life. When we float, we can look upward and feel at peace.
Others can teach us how to swim. Only we can teach ourselves to float. Faith, and change, ultimately begin and end within ourselves. As we begin this new year of change--change in our lives, our synagogue, our economy, our world--let us keep this truth in mind. For each of us, this new year is an opportunity. An opportunity to affirm the relationships that nurture us, the purpose that guides us, and the faith that uplifts us. An opportunity to act on the core values of our congregation--our love of learning, creativity, social justice, leadership, and participation. And, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to recognize, even as the world around us changes, that we have much change to do within ourselves.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the leading rabbis of the nineteenth century wrote: “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. So I tried to change my town, but my town did not change. Then I turned to my family, but my family did not change. Then I realized: first I must change myself: and I am still trying.” So are we all.
Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.