5779: A Year of Sacred Opportunity

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I think you might know this one:

 

Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.[i]

Ah. “The times’ they are a changin’.” Now this is a song that would have resonated with the Israelites about to leave Egypt.

William Bridges in his brilliant essay on transition management theorizes that the story of the Exodus is the archetypal transition-management project.[ii] Moses is the head of this organization called “Israel” who since the time of Joseph had lived in Egypt and were content with their power. But by the time Moses took up the helm, they were in bondage and needed change, and he began looking for ways in the system to “Let My People Go”.

Moses discovers that it is hard to move a system. The first reaction is for the system to tighten its grip, and that is indeed what happens, as the Pharaoh says: “No, no no, I will not let the people go!” And then he adds hardship to the Israelites daily lives.

Then as usually happens at the beginning of a time of transition, plagues of problems begin to develop that are disruptive to the organization’s life: blood, frogs, livestock diseases, darkness. The plagues are simply symptomatic of old ways that no longer work. Moses does the difficult task of a good leader managing transition – he lets the problems escalate, so it becomes clear that something needs to be done. By the time of the death of the firstborn it is BEYOND clear that the Israelites NEED to leave Egypt. Moses allowing this escalation of plagues, also works at caring for his people during the full impact of the outbreaks by putting a mark on their door. One must protect in the old system elements that will be needed for the new system to be built.

Then Moses gathered together pivotal people, Aaron, Miriam, Jethro, who will help build a new structure and a new vision for “A Promised Land.”

Our Holy Congregation, our Kehillah Kedosha, our Har Sinai Congregation, is at the cusp of change.

I am certainly no Moses. The last two years of my rabbinic leadership here have followed a prototypical healthy transition management story as set out by William Bridges.

Even before I became your rabbi, it was shared with me that challenging decisions needed to be made in this congregation for its financial survival and for its growth in this community.

We have as William Bridges would term it: our metaphoric Pharaohs who have wanted to ignore these realities, holding on tightly to “the old ways” and “old systems”. And there have been some plagues: those who have left, withheld their pledges, some staff turnover, and, well we are Jews… so some kvetching.

As in the William Bridges’ Exodus analogy, we are providing as this reknown re-organizational expert suggests, protection signs. They are symbolized in the biblical text by the paschal lambs’ blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites’ home. Here at our Har Sinai Congregation, the Cantor, the staff, lay leaders and I have sought firm and meaningful protective marks on the doorposts of our spiritual home. We have ensured preservation and celebration of our history, sacred services, simchas, programs, and a strong Posner JEM. These are essentials to take with us into our future.

Our President Anne Berman established two committees of pivotal people to work on alternate visions – one a merger with Temple Oheb Shalom and one to look at the continuance of Har Sinai Congregation in another form. One path has emerged as the stronger viability for multiple reasons – and the Futures Committee has reached out to you for your input into the vision of our Promised Land.

We are only part way on what is a typical path for a successful transition journey. We still need to get through the split of the Red Sea – to sell this building and find a new home. We still need to wander through the wilds of the desert as we figure out what the new structure of our Har Sinai Congregation is going to look like, but:

If your Temple to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.[iii]

 

Once there was a couple that lived in a house who one morning found a pomegranate tree growing out of their living room floor. In their marriage, they had always been avoiders of hard conversation. Typically for them, they decided to ignore the obvious problem of a pomegranate tree in their living room.

The pomegranate tree grew. Its branches blocked the television, so the husband moved the TV and they continued to live their daily life.

The tree grew, its red seeded fruit smashed onto the couches, it’s trunk blocked access to the dining room table and made the floor buckle. Neither husband or wife said a thing.

They kept finding ways to avoid discussion about that ever-growing tree growing in their living room. They kept finding multiple solutions for existing around a tree in the living room however inconvenient these were.

The pomegranate tree grew, the roots effecting the plumbing and foundation, its branches began to lift off the roof of their house, and the walls began to fall.

This morning I want to name some tree branches in our spiritual living room. Let us talk about limbs that are bewildering within our synagogue in transition. Naming is powerful. It helps us understand. It helps us move on our journey. It helps us strategize.

This morning let me point out, that in our spiritual living room, we have a branch named: fear. Human beings are animals and we have a natural instinctual fear built in our beings. Elizabeth Gilbert refers to this animal instinct of fear in her book Big Magic[iv]:

“If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. The tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.”

We all have fears. But as human beings we are able to reason and become greater than our fears.

Har Sinai Congregation is a place we love. Some of you are from legacy families who remember the beginning of this community 176 years ago. Some of you recall when this was an 800 plus household congregation when there was a lot more staff and a greater capacity for programming by the professionals.  Some of you recollect sitting down for High Holy Days under the beautiful dome on Park Heights Avenue. Others of you were instrumental in the plans to move Har Sinai Congregation here to Walnut Avenue and worked so hard so that our congregation could prosper in this locale. Some of you are new and have just found your spiritual place here in our walls.

Our future at this moment is unknown and hence a fear. What will a different locale mean, a smaller building or a shared building, new programming, and what does it mean for our “status” in Jewish Baltimore? The branches of fear grow naturally. But if we let fear run our lives we would never leave the door of our houses, we would never leave our parent’s homes, we would never have children or move jobs or create a painting or write a story or a song.

Yes, let us acknowledge fear and yes, let us dare to be brave and embrace reason. Some of the things we love about our beloved Temple will come with us on this new journey, and some of those things will be left behind, because “the times they are a changin’”

This morning let me point out, that in our spiritual living room, we have a number of branches named: mourning. As we sit in this beautiful sanctuary of Har Sinai Congregation we are aware that this may be the last or the near-to-last High Holy Day services in this space. Some of you built this building. Some of you have never known another spiritual building. Some of you have made this your community home because you were impressed by this building.

Those of you who have known the true nature of the finances of our congregation over the last ten years have recognized that these days have been imminent for a while. Others of you may feel that you have just heard the news a few months ago.

We are all at different stages, different branches, of a mourning process. We are in what William Bridges calls the of the “Neutral Zone” about to leave Egypt and the life we knew for a life in the wilderness, and we are anticipating what the Promised Land will be. We are in a difficult space that Pauline Boss labeled “ambiguous loss”.[v] A time of mourning with an undefined closure, we see no ending yet, though we know resolution will come.

In that uncertain wilderness each of us travels the circuitous path of the seven stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler Ross – shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and some of us may even be at the stage of the upward turn of reconstruction and acceptance and hope.

A healthy transition process will ultimately turn to reconstruction and acceptance and hope. But for now, our community members are all in different emotional places. And there is ambiguity as our Futures Committee investigates several viable paths of possibilities.

Eventually the pomegranate tree in our sacred living room will be uprooted, and we hope that you will journey with Har Sinai Congregation to our Promised Land, our synagogue of the future. That you will move with us from fear and loss, to the possibility of abundance. From scarcity to possibilities.

“How many seeds are in this pomegranate?” asked a facilitator in a workshop to a group of participants. She held it aloft for them to see.

The workshop broke into small groups to come up with how to answer this question. Each group had a different way of calculating this answer. One group quartered the pomegranate and counted the seeds. Others estimated based on the pomegranate’s weight. Another group tried to visualize the inside of the pomegranate. A predominantly Jewish group consulted Jewish text which said there were 613 seeds for each mitzvah in the Torah.

Each group were hundreds off each other’s estimates.
The facilitator asked the workshop if they wanted to know the exact answer?

Of course! Wouldn’t you? And then the facilitator revealed:

“The correct answer is: that there are enough. Enough seeds to save and plant next year, enough seeds to give to the neighbors so they have pomegranate trees, and enough seeds to create more seeds.” [vi]

We live in a moment which can be, if we reframe our fears and mourning, filled with abundant possibilities for our community. Our congregation can reimagine who and what we are to build a community of success for the future.

What lies before us in this year 5779 is a year of sacred opportunity.

On Kol Nidre eve, I will continue this important conversation as we move through this transitional moment in our history.  I will speak about my vision for Har Sinai Congregation’s future. On Yom Kippur Morning I will speak about why we need a congregational community. On Yom Kippur afternoon I have asked congregants to share with you their thoughts of what could be.

This is our message: We have abundance and sacred opportunity.

I am positive we have enough. I am certain that we can dream together a plethora of possibilities for success. I am sure we will traverse this wilderness of uncertainty and reach the Promised Land.

Journey with us.

If your Temple to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.[vii]

 

 

[i] Bob Dylan

[ii] “Getting Them Through the Wilderness” by William Bridges, 2006

[iii] Bob Dylan

[iv] Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2015, p. 20

[v] “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief” by Pauline Boss

[vi] Based on http://www.i-open.org/blog/the-tomato-story-and-shifting-from-scarcity-to-abundance-in-half-a-day

[vii] Bob Dylan

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