Below, please find my final sermon delivered to Temple Solel at Shabbat Morning Services on June 16, 2012.


The German playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”

Change is inevitable.

Agitating for change is at the heart of our Jewish identities.  The very idea of tikkun olam, to repair or perfect the world that we live in, is dependent on the presumption that the world can and should be improved.  Perfection, by and large, does not actually exist in the Jewish imagination.  We are philosophically hard-wired into believing that the nature of the world around us can always be improved upon. 

And yet, Tolstoy was on to something when he observed that “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

That’s because change is painfully difficult.  Whether we are experiencing a sense of transition or transformation in our lives that is our choice: like entering into a new marriage, or travelling across the country to start a new and exciting job….or whether the change is being foisted upon us against our will: like when we have to come to terms with the death of someone we were close to, or when a romantic partner is ready to walk away from a relationship that we are still deeply invested in…in both cases our worlds are turned upside down.  That which we knew, and were comforted by, is gone. 

And in its place is just new, new, new.  New might be flashy and fun.  But new can also be deeply terrifying, because it is so unfamiliar.

Consider, for a moment, the Hebrew words shoneh, which means anything that is different; and, sonay, which represents all that we hate.  The assonance between the words suggests a semantic connection that we can all learn from: that our human nature biologically preconditions us to be suspicious of change, and of the questionable newness that springs forth from it.

Conveniently, all of this plays out in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shelach Lecha

Moses tasks twelve spies with the responsibility of sneaking into the Land of Israel in order to gain information about the Land and its inhabitants.

Upon their return, ten of the twelve offer this report to Moses and the entire Israelite community: “We arrived at the Land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  But, the people that dwells in the Land are powerful, the cities are greatly fortified, and we also saw there the offspring of giants.”

It matters not that Joshua and Caleb tried to counter those words with reassurances that the Israelites could conquer the land.  The damage had been done.  The Ten successfully incited the rest of the people.  They dreaded change.  And so they spontaneously revolted against Moses and Aaron. 

“If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness!  Why is the Eternal One bringing us to this land to die by the sword?  […] Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Shoneh and Sonay: we hate the prospect of dealing with difference and of the new.  The Israelites hated it so much that they would have rather returned to slavery in Egypt!

In preparation for my own upcoming transition, I’ve been studying the work of William Bridges.  Bridges is one of our country’s leading experts on change, and on how companies, organizations, and individuals can navigate it healthily.

At the heart of Bridges’ writing, best summarized in his book Managing Transitions, he argues that there are three stages to the transformations that are a part of our lives.

He calls the first stage Endings.  No smooth transition to something new can happen before we make our peace with the ending of that which is old, or familiar.  He uses the language of grieving: when we leave behind something or someone familiar, it is literally akin to mourning a person’s death – even if no one actually died.

In the parsha, when the Israelites shockingly declare their desire to go back to slavery in Egypt, we can see clearly that they never adequately grieved the end of their existence there.  And who can blame them?  The Torah says that they were in such a rush to get out….If there wasn’t time for the dough to rise, then there certainly wasn’t time for them to reflect on hundreds of years of indentured servitude and the new prospect of freedom.

In an homage to Star Trek, Bridges calls the second stage of transitions “the Neutral Zone.”  For Bridges, this is, by far, the most important part of any change-adaptation process.  The Neutral Zone is the place where we are supposed to do the hard work of beginning to change….We have to change something in ourselves…in order to adapt to the new changes around us.

God seems to recognize the wisdom of giving the Israelites time in order to do the hard work of the Neutral Zone.  For it is in this very parsha that God declares that there shall be forty years of wandering in the desert….and that the vast majority of Israelites who came out of Egypt will not be allowed to enter into the Land of Israel.  God understands that the People will need time – to grow, and to change – in order to adapt to the new world that they find themselves in.

And finally, when all of this hard work is done….when we are ready to accept and embrace the change that awaits us, then Bridges teaches us that we are ready to celebrate our New Beginnings.

Remember: listing three steps is easy.  Actually working these steps….working on them, and doing them, is incredibly hard.  But, as this week’s Torah portion shows us….we as individuals – and the corporations and organizations that we associate ourselves with – have no choice.  If we don’t grieve our losses….If we don’t do some serious self reflection about where we came from and where we want to go to….then we’ll never be able to move forward into our future in a healthy way.  We’ll be far more likely to pay the price of getting “stuck” – like our ancestors did by their 40 year sojourn in the desert - if we don’t do the work to prepare ourselves to move on.

What do we need in order to be able to do the work of these three steps…to prepare us for being open to change?

According to the parsha, all we need is God’s help.  Our rabbis believed that the reason that Joshua did not join the Ten Faithless Naysayer Spies is because Moses prayed to God on Joshua’s behalf.  The implication is clear: Joshua was open to the New because God helped open his eyes to see, and helped him along the way.  Almost like a Divine Transition Coach, we can imagine God teaching Joshua how to grieve his Egyptian past, do the work of the Neutral Zone, and then be open to the idea that God would of course help the Israelites conquer the Land of Israel. 

Yet this solution, proposed by our parsha, presents its own set of theological difficulties.

I am not one who typically believes that God can directly, and personally, intervene miraculously in our everyday lives.  The idea of God is certainly inspirational to me, and believing in a Source of Holiness lends me inner strength.  But our commentaries are clear: Joshua was the beneficiary of a divine revelational miracle….the likes of which I personally do not believe happen today….which means that I am in search of a different path that might enable us to navigate the different steps of change.

For guidance, we might look to other place in the Torah where Moses prays for Joshua’s well-being. In Deuteronomy 31:7, as Moses prepares to present Joshua as his successor, he says: “Chazak ve’ematz – be strong and of good courage, for you shall come with this people to the Land that the Eternal One swore to give to them and you shall cause them to inherit it.”

Note the striking difference between the two prayers.  In the first one, we are taught to passively rely on God’s miraculous intervention in our lives in order to navigate seasons of change.  And in the second, we are empowered to take matters into our own hands – to “man up” as they say, to look our fear and anxiety in the eyes, with strength and with courage….and if we do so, our Tradition passionately believes, then anything is possible.  If we are courageous enough to be able to encounter our present reality, and envision a different one….a better one….and if we are able to somehow master our emotions in order to do what needs to be done….not just to improve our own lives, but also perhaps to improve the world…..then anything is possible.

This is, as I’ve said, hard work to do.  Some of us will find ourselves in Bridges’ Neutral Zone wanting to move forward….but….having a hard time committing.  Perhaps we are waiting around for that day in the future when it will feel easier, or more right, to take the final steps on the road toward fully marking a New Beginning.

Our Tradition believes that that is a mistake.  New Beginnings can, and should happen today – and everyday….and that it would be a missed opportunity if we somehow were to put off the hard work of embracing change until tomorrow, or the day after, or even the day after that.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches us that we should: “Think only about today.  Think only about the present day and the present moment.  When someone wants to start serving God [or, we might say, embrace a change in their life], it seems too much of a burden to bear.  But if you remember that you only have today, it won’t be such a burden.  Don’t put off serving God from one day to the next, saying, ‘I’ll start tomorrow – tomorrow, I’ll [try to get to it].’  All a person has is the present day and the present moment.  For tomorrow is a whole different world.’

 


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