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

Creating Communities at the 5779 Frontier

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This is how it started.

In the beginning Abraham looked around his father’s idol store and said “What the heck? How can these be the power behind the universe?” He took up a broom and smashed the idols to smithereens.[i] And then he had to run from his father and his family. And when he wanted to worship the one and only God, he would just start up a conversation or make a sacrificial offering.

In the second era, his grandson Jacob, also running from home, built a cairn or altars in his encounters with God – for God was in that place and he, he did not know it.[ii]

In the third era, Moses and Aaron made the worship center portable so that it could travel with the Israelites through the desert. They called it the Tent of Meeting or Mishkan.[iii] At its center was the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ten Commandments, the original broken set and the whole complete set, that had been given at Mount Sinai.

In the fourth era, the Priests set about unifying worship in a holy building. They created the cult around two magnificent Temples in Jerusalem where it is said that God’s presence dwelt. There was pomp and sacrifices. Three times a year the people would pack up their families and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals at this centralized shrine.

In the fifth era, community centers emerged, small temples, then synagogues. Teachers known as rabbis, began to lead the people. When the Temple was destroyed, these houses of prayer and study became the centers of communal gathering – places of worship, study and celebration.

In the sixth era, our grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, members of small synagogues in shtetls and shtetlach and cities, moved to suburbia. They needed to find their “people” for they did not live near each other anymore. They reimagined a synagogue center.

They invented a place you could drive to filled with Jewish stuff and called it their Temple. Home rituals like the lighting of candles were brought into centralized walls. Jewish study could be traditional or secular. Being Jewish was hanging with Jews as they swum, danced, played basket-ball. You could participate in Mitzvah Days and do communal good. The Brotherhood hosted a Shabbat spaghetti dinner in the building and there was a Sisterhood store to buy all the Jewish items you needed. A one-stop Jewish place of being.

In the seventh era… ah, the seventh era… here we are folks.  On the 5779 future Frontier, you, me, Har Sinai Congregation.  Here we are having to ask an old, important and essential Jewish survival question. The one our people have asked in all these eras: What does our sacred place of the future look like?

In their national best seller, Ros Stone Zander, a therapist, and her husband Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, suggest some basic rules to foster “The Art of Possibility”. Their first rule is:

It’s All Invented.

And once you accept that all of life is a construct, and thus can be re-constructed, you get to the second rule:

Stepping into a Universe of Possibility.

This is an identical idea to the basic Rosh HaShanah myth, Genesis 1.

HaYom Harat Olam: Rosh HaShanah is the anniversary of the world’s birth. At first there was nothing, tohu v’vohu.  So, God Invented. Step-by-step, day one, day two, day three, through to – day seven. God created a Universe of Possibility.

On Rosh HaShanah we are urged to look at the Invention that is our lives, ask ourselves if we need to reinvent, and then step into the Universe of Possibility that the New Year brings.

It is the same with creating Kehillah Kedosha, A holy community of sacred meaning.

Our ancestors in different eras Invented what their holy communities looked like, stepped into a Universe of Possibility, and step-by-step creating an infrastructure that would sustain the generations ahead, taking with them from the past what they believed would sustain the future.

The reinvention of holy community has always been based on tradition.

Abraham, Jacob, the Israelites and the Priests still maintained sacrifices, even if the form and locale differed in each era. The order and names of priestly sacrifices became the underpinning structure of our synagogue prayer services we know today. The one-room synagogue and the house of study of the small contained Jewish communities of the shtetl and city, were absorbed into the large destination Temples built in the suburbs.

Like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” generations before us have keenly felt the pull of “Tradition” while realizing that the world around them was changing, and that they needed to open themselves up to possibilities to sustain Jewish continuity.

Congregants tell me all the time that they love our Har Sinai traditions. “We love this building, we gave money to this building”, they say. “My late wife’s name is on the wall.” “The rooms and hallways are named after my loved ones.” “Here in our halls there are plaques and pictures on whose shoulders we stand.” “There are programs we could not imagine doing any other way.”

Certain Har Sinai/MiSinai melodies tug on the heartstrings of our memories. The rhythm of Hebrew, or the poetry of an English translation, or a certain prayer book has a strong and important attachment. A Huppah makes a wedding. A Bat Mitzvah reading Torah and leading most the Saturday morning service is seen as essential. And the demand for our grandson to have a Brit Milah on the eighth day is deep in our religious psyche.  The emotional attachment we have for Har Sinai Congregation customs is real. These are powerful pulls to generations of congregants who are invested in these Har Sinai ways of doing Jewish. These traditions are what makes this community ours.

If you are entrenched in this Invention, that is now Har Sinai Congregation, you may be asking: “Rabbi, are we really standing on a 5779 Frontier at all?” To you I say, you do not need to look far afield to see that in our generation, and in generations to come, the sense of community is changing.

People today live within multiple communities and are juggling complex and diverse demands. The traditional family, friends, interest groups, volunteer committees and synagogue are still part of their lives.

Then there are the new communities they are members of. They are constantly on the road between different groups, listening to the podcast or radio show that has also become a community for them too.  They email and text and tweet and put a picture on Instagram, and instantaneously find connection to a wider community.

How many of us here are on Facebook, and have “friends” whose lives you are part of virtually? How many of us at work no longer travel to meetings but rather use Zoom or Facetime or Skype to conference across cities or the world? How many of us met our partners not by introduction by family or friend, or at a party or a bar, but rather on an on-line dating service? How many of us have attended a rally or meet-up organized out of electronic air?

Stores like Apple and Starbucks are built around creating town-square community experiences and JC Penny is just about to experiment with that new format too.[iv] Our children play games with their friends while sitting in different houses and they text each other even when in the same room to communicate. You can even now worship online at Har Sinai Congregation, you just need to tune into our streaming from our webpage.

These are all communities we are part of and that we juggle in our lives.

Try telling someone who participates in these newer community experiences that this is not a community. Or that what they are participating in does not have meaning. Our technology, our mobility, and our world view has widened the walls of what we understand connection and interconnection to be.

And ultimately, my friends, it cannot help but impact what our kehillah kedosha, our holy communities looks like.

On the 5779 frontier of the Jewish community we need to ask: How will we structure the community of the future that will expand to encompass these ever-widening walls of connection? We have difficult and emotional questions we need to ask and seek answers for.

Do we need a huge campus for the community to gather, or a smaller space that can be ours, or at least our center? Do we need a traditional synagogue, or can our center be a house or a store-front, or a restaurant, or a club? Can it be a shared space with another synagogue or holy community?

Do we even need a physical place, or can we be without walls? Can our community be made up of non-traditional meeting places like coffee shops and people’s homes and a museum, a conglomeration of virtual and moveable meeting areas?

What sort of programming can connect us into being Jewish and works in the new ways that community is created? What sort of leadership is needed in such a community? How will that leadership meet? What is the membership model and the investment model of this new emerging entity?

And it is also important for us to ask: What is essential to bring with us? What is indispensable to our continuity, our chain of tradition? And what are we able to let go of, and what might hinder us from creating the new Har Sinai Congregation future?

It is time for us to apply ourselves to thinking about community on the 5779 Frontier. This is the first of a series of sermons this High Holy Days that will do so. I have more questions than answers, and need you, need us, to help find the way forward.

It feels like an oh, so risky conversation.  It is a hard topic for the builder generation and the legacy generation sitting here that has invested in this special congregation. It is risky and personal for me. It is my job, the Cantor’s job, the way we staff, our employee’s future. It is a hard discussion for the people in the pews that were dragged here by their families, because we are asking them to re-engage, to think about reinventing with us, to create a community that does mean something to them. It is a hard dialogue for those who have chosen not to come and be here, because we are asking them to identify what is wrong with something we hold precious and help us figure out how to make it work.

Yes, risk hangs here, right here, right now, in this moment, in this place that we have Invented.

On the 5779 Frontier, I am reminded of a beloved 1981 Debbie Friedman song.  She begins with the quotation from the book of Joel, a prophet that looks at what was invented in his time and advocates for a Universe of Possibility. “That the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions.”[v]  Debbie Friedman echoes that idea in her present:

Today’s the day I take my stand, the future’s mine to hold.
Commitments that I make today are dreams from days of old.
I have to make the way for generations come and go.
I have to teach them what I’ve learned so they will come to know.
That the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions,
And our hopes shall rise up to the sky.
We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.
Give us time, give us strength, give us life.

All is Invented, and the future demands that we step into a Universe of Possibility. We are at a transitional moment in history where our conceptions of community are changing. We must manifest sacred community with meaning for now and lay the creative groundwork for the future.

Steeped in the very meaningful history of Har Sinai Congregation of the past, we can re-form the Har Sinai Congregation of the future, step-by-step.

It is our time to invent. “We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.”
Let us step into the world of possibilities.

Bereshit. Beginnings. L’Shanah Tovah.

[i] Gen. R. 39:1

[ii] Genesis 28

[iii] Exodus 25–31 and 35–40

[iv] https://www.retaildive.com/news/apple-plans-to-transform-brick-and-mortar-stores-into-town-squares/428570/

[v] Joel 3:1

Ki Tetzei – We Go Forth

There were rules to how things operated at Disney.[i] Walt Disney had an Advisory Board. The early days of the studio were difficult, but Disney refused to give up on his creative visions. You can imagine, that there were those on his advisory board that agreed and disagree with him.

There was a cultural and social norm at Disney around these disagreements. Walt Disney would present some creative, imaginative dream that he was thinking about. Often the members of his advisory board would look at him with a gulp of disbelief and resist his dream with intense arguments.

You would think that their disagreement would stop Disney in his tracks. But no. Walt Disney’s rule was, if every member of his advisory board resisted the idea, he would pursue it! Yes! You heard right!  In the face of majority disagreement, he saw opportunity. If the challenge was not big enough, Walt Disney, felt it was not worth the while.

What an interesting way to operate! All organizations have their cultural and norms of operation.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, meaning, “you shall go forth,” contains a great number of commandments that teach us how society should operate. Out of the 613 Mitzvot of our tradition, nearly an eighth of the rules are found in this Parashah. Maimonides numbered the commandments of this portion at 72, Sefer Chinuch (an anonymous medieval work) 74. In the most oft used Torah Commentary in the Reform Movement, “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, he labels this segment of the Torah: “The Social Weal,” emphasizing the structural society that is created by all these Mitzvot.

Rules and norms of society can create a cohesive social weal. As the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it – a sound and healthy and prosperous community; a place of well-being. As human-beings we feel comfortable knowing what rules and norms exist… it puts us in a place of security.

As we continue to watch the tragic pictures of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we see folk not just struggling with the tragic loss of property and livelihood, but living with the reality that the rules and norms of lives are all disheveled around them. What was once clear has morphed into unclear. Work. School. Housing. Insurance. What will the near future hold? What will the distant future be? The storm has bought them to a place of insecurity. So many affected. Including our own. Federation estimates, 71 percent of the city’s Jewish population, 63,700 lives in areas have experienced high flooding, including 12,000 Jewish seniors, have been effected. When life is so deconstructed it is natural that psychological disarray follows. We look at what they are facing and with empathy and hold them, hold them, in our prayers and Tzedakah.

The security of rules and norms stems from our childhood Our parent’s gave us boundaries. Our schools gave us rules.

We are about to begin our Religious School JEM year. One of the first things our teachers in our JEM classrooms will do is sit down with the students and devise the classroom rules, so that teacher and child are all on the same page of behavior. Setting parameters allows fun and productive learning to happen. If the rules are not set, the classroom will most likely have behavioral problems that will require intervention. The creative and joyful classes that we pride ourselves on at Har Sinai Congregation will not be realized.

It is natural to us as dreaming to desire behavior and operational boundaries. The rules and norms don’t always remain constant. However they can change or transition. William Bridges, in his reknown book “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change” talks about the difference between change and transition.

He likens change to just moving about chairs. It is situational. The move to a new site. A turnover of staff. The revision of a pension plan. The merging of two businesses. The destruction of a Hurricane. It is the movement of the physical or an actuality into another place. It is concrete.

On the other hand, transition, is psychological, the creating of a new way of operating. This is the process that that has the greatest possibility of creating a new social weal. Transition tends to be messy. They are an organic process.

Managing transition, creating a new social weal, involves providing space for people to let go of the old ways and identity and allowing for the loss of the past.

Then comes an in-between time when the old is gone, but the new is not yet in operation. William Bridges calls this “the neutral zone.” It a time of experimentation and often discomfort when things are in disarray and the dream or vision is articulated.

Finally, people come out of a transition into a new beginning. People in organizations, society, and life do this all at different paces and times, two steps forward and one step back, as it is a psychological process that cannot operate on a set time frame.

Recreating a new social weal is not easy, it requires a lot of listening and reframing, experimentation and risk taking, because it is an emotional, psychological process.

This last week Cantor Rhoda Harrison and I participated in the 1000 Minister March on Washington DC. 1000 Ministers was an underestimate, because ultimately 3000 Ministers marched to commemorate the 54th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

2017-08-28 10.25.18-1

I and so many other Jewish professionals became aware that the beginning of the march was a pinpoint of a major psychological transition. We knew we were present to advocate a vision of a society filled with tolerance, justice and love. We also knew that the Rev. Al Sharpton was the instigator of this event. Being there felt like we were taking a risk. After all, Rev. Al Sharpton, has been a highly controversial figure for decades within our Jewish community. He has not come across as a friend of the Jews.

Rev. Sharpton in the spirit of Teshuvah, has in recent years privately expressed regret for anti-semitic statements of the past.  It still must have taken Christian Chutzpah, to appeared amongst the 300 rabbis and cantors gathered at a pre-march meeting organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. There he demonstrated repentance publicly, in word and deed, as he and Martin Luther King Jr III, visited with the rabbis and cantors present in that hotel hall.

Invoking those murdered in the Freedom Summer of 1964 he said: “We should never forget that it was Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner that died together – two Jews and a black – to give us the right to vote.” He spoke of how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed with his feet marching alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And he said: “When we see people in 2017 with torches in their hands, talking about ‘Jews will not replace us,” it is time for us to stop praying to the cheap seats and come together.”

Many in the room said: “Amen” and gave him a standing ovation. What he did was not easy walking into a room of Jewish leaders wary of his agenda. Yet he also walked into a room of clergy who know, that transition is hard, the importance of forgiveness, and the imperative to find allies in a shared vision. Creating a vision of a new social weal – a sound and healthy and prosperous community; a place of well-being, means stepping into that messy neutral zone.

The 1000 Ministers March had been planned before Charlottesville. The change management at our governmental level, the moving about and removing of chairs, the creation of chaos that we witness daily on our TV sets, was and is, fostering this  not-so quiet counter-revolution of transition.

On Monday, it found evidence ministers and people of faith who have not marched together in a long time, aligning with a mutual dream – tolerance and love and a better society. Rabbis and Cantors, black Ministers and white Ministers, Buddhists in saffron, black robed monks, Sikhs and Imams.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a social weal as – a sound and healthy and prosperous community, a place of well-being.

Our transition to that place is a dream.  We have a dream. When Martin Luther King gave his “I had a Dream” speech 54 years ago, he knew the march ahead to transitioning the social weal was hard and long, but he kept his eye on that dream. When Walt Disney had a creative idea, he pursued it despite the nay-sayers on his advisory board because he understood that the big challenges were the most worthwhile.

To create a society of tolerance and love and fairness, that multiple religious traditions yearn for, means that we look for partnership in the multi-faith places that before we may have resisted.

Together in this neutral zone of transition we will march towards a new social weal that supports the best visions of our faiths. Ki Tetzei, we will go forth, we must go forth, towards a dream that will, to co-opt an interesting phrase, make America great again[ii].

 

[i] Charles Swindoll, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, p.107.

 

[ii] Donald Trump

Shift and Consolidation: Thoughts on the Torah Portions Mishpatim and Terumah

Prior to returning to congregational life, I spent 5  years working for the Union for Reform Judaism. When I would go out and speak to congregations we had a common catch phrase that we would use often. A phrase with my Australian accent, but in fact, with any accent, you would have to say very carefully.

That phrase was: SHIFT HAPPENS. One thing we know about congregations, schools, institutions and events in our own lives, is that SHIFT HAPPENS. Shift is one of the few constants in our lives along with… well… death. And while shift is necessary for invigoration, renewal, innovation, it can also be incredibly disconcerting. SHIFT HAPPENS.

Over the last two weeks in the ever-moving stories of our Torah, the Israelites journey from Mitzrayim, narrow places – through the birth canal of the split Red Sea – into the openness of the Midbar, wilderness. Their lives shift immensely. All at once they crave boundaries, vision and stability. Quite a tall order! In Mishpatim, the boundaries begin as 53 laws are outlined. But these laws only inspire the need or want for even greater shift.

So…  At the end of Mishpatim, comes a WOW moment. A visionary moment.  Bring on the shifting sands of the wilderness! The final 9 verses outline a fabulous, fantastical mystical description.

In chapter 24  Moses, accompanied by Aaron and Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu and 70 of the Elders, journey up a mountain and there Yiru et Elohei Yisrael behold the God of Israel –  seeing under God’s feet pavement of sapphire like sky for purity.

They eat and drink.

The elders, Aaron and his sons, stay behind on the mountain, as Moses is beckoned by God to journey further.

At God’s behest, Moses enters into a cloud for 6 days and then continues up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, residing on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

Amidst all this, the Israelites stay at the mountain foot, perceiving God as a consuming fire atop the peak.

Here is a mystical vision which teaches us so much about how SHIFT HAPPENS.

Change happens in increments:

  • We have the introduction of Mishpatim, ideas, rules, as inspiration.
  • Then the journey of the leadership up the mountain.
  • An aha moment! When they see God.
  • A celebration of that moment.

Not everyone is in the same place  on this continuum of change:

  • Moses is in the cloud.
  • The future priesthood and Joshua outside the cloud.
  • The people are at the base of the mountain.

The process of change is awe inspiring but also very disconcerting.

Our Torah Portion Mishpatim, leaves us with this very cliff hanger. Spirituality. Awe. Intangibility. Uncertainty. Shift. We wonder where will the journey of change lead? Can we keep up this momentum of spiritual growth as a people? What will the next steps be?

And for that we have to wait for our Torah portion Terumah….

Terumah and the Torah narrative bring us back down to earth.

God tells the Israelite people: Asu Li Mikdash V’Shachanti B’tocham Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.  We are told what items to bring to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

God’s presence will no longer be “up there” in a vision, but felt concretely in the Mishkan in the middle of the camp. The vision will be given earthly roots and we will be involved in its creation and implementation as we stabilize the vision amidst us.

And so we learn: In the process of SHIFT HAPPENING, it is important that there is a time of consolidation, a time where every one of us gets involved and invested in the vision, when it becomes actualized and present, part of our every day midst, before we can continue through the desert/Midbar into further shifting sands of life.

SHIFT HAPPENS.

Take a moment for reflection and think about change. Change in your work, or your family, your congregation or your life…   How do these lessons and your experiences of SHIFT past relate to your life experience?

  • What was the impetus?
  • How was the vision articulated and realized?
  • What were the increments in establishing that vision?
  • Where were you in the change continuum? Where were others?
  • How was the vision, grounded and consolidated?
  • When was it time for shift to happen again?
  • How might these lessons be applied in your lives next time… SHIFT HAPPENS?

Predicting the Future

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In a few hours when I arrive in Australia my parents will await me in a coffee shop adjacent to the International Arrivals at Melbourne airport, with a “Skinny Flat White” in their hands to greet me off the plane. There will be big hugs. My Mum will ask if I remembered her Dior perfume from Duty Free. My Dad even though he is not allowed to anymore (for health reasons) will ask to wheel my luggage. Then we will walk into a warm summer day, pay the electronic parking ticket and head down the freeway towards their home.

I will notice a year of changes in them (the aging process seems to accelerate year-by-year) and they will point out little changes in the landscape and the city. I will ask after my brother, sister-in-law and nephew and when I am going to see them? Who is joining us for Shabbat dinner and if we have plans yet for “our birthdays”? They will ask if I am hungry after a long flight with constant servings of food and I will say – “not so much”.

There is something very comforting about knowing what our future holds. Not often do we get to predict with accuracy the way that our lives unfold. Excerpts of Alvin Fine’s words which I sometimes read at funerals “life is a journey… a sacred pilgrimage… made stage by stage…” along with the mantra I would often repeat as advice while working for the Union for Reform Judaism: “shift happens” reverberate more often in our lives rather than predictability.

If I was more of a thrill seeker perhaps I would be better at embracing the unknown future. But as in the real world, my emotional world is not terrific on roller coaster rides. I brace myself on the rise holding tight and close my eyes and gasp at the free fall. I am constantly having to remind myself that at the end of the journey there will be a sense of adventure and a realm of experience that will be part of my growth and well being.

When I look back on times of uncertainty past I have always landed on my feet. Trust in God, the ability to be creative and adapt, to do my best in all circumstances, to keep my options open and fluid, have led to a richer landscape of an unpredictable life. I would not change any of it. And I think to myself: if life predictably unfolded and I always knew what the future held, how boring it would be!

But for now, amidst a time of many changes, just for some short moments, I am hankering for predictability and thankful that soon I will arrive at Melbourne Airport. Mum and Dad: bring that “skinny flat white” on!