Shanah Tovah.

A story, first, from the legendary town of Chelm, whose residents were particularly Jewish, but not particularly brilliant.

It came to be, once, that two of the leading citizens of Chelm were stuck in an intense argument over how it is that we human beings grow over time.

Ever the literalists, the first Chelmite argued that we grow from the ground up, saying “Just look at the army as it marches by, and you’ll see that I’m right!  None of the soldiers’ heads is at the same level, but all the soldiers have their feet on the ground.  Clear proof, don’t you think, that people grow from the ground up?”

But the man’s friend would have none of it.  He countered by observing that if you looked closely at the marching band that was passing by, you’d see that the pants of their uniforms didn’t reach all the way to their shoes!  Some of the pants were too long, and some were too short.  This, he insisted, proved that people grow…from the head, down.

When the two men failed to resolve their argument, they turned to their rabbi for a resolution.  Thankfully the rabbi stepped in and announced: “My dear friends, we human beings do not grow from the top down, or from the bottom up.  We only grow…from the inside, out.”[1] 

Is there a better time than on Rosh HaShanah for us to consider the Chelmites’ question…as to how it is that we grow and evolve over time?  On this New Year in which we celebrate New Beginnings, let us take the night to reflect on the changes we face in our lives, and how managing them properly can lead us to a more fulfilling year ahead. 

We often utter the maxim that change is occurring in our world faster than it ever has before. 

With the near constant flow of information between our electronic devices, some of us feel that if we step away from email, Facebook, or Twitter for even an hour (and God forbid we take a weeklong vacation!), then it’s as if the world has literally passed us by.

That’s the kind of disorientation that some of you no doubt are feeling tonight.  For you are not just faced with the arrival of a new Jewish year.  You are also coming to terms with the fact that there is a new rabbi standing before you.

For some in this room, this will be the first Rosh HaShanah in more than three decades in which Rabbi Klein has not greeted you, or guided you through this season of contemplation.  His absence from this space is, perhaps, unsettling to you.   

It will not be easy for all of you to think of me – the new guy – as your rabbi, when Rabbi Klein has been the one who has been present for you and your family, for such a long period of time.  In light of your shared history with him – and with Rabbi Gordon – let’s acknowledge this evening that it might take a little while for us to forge such deep connections with each other. 

Nonetheless, I have been hard at work throughout the summer to begin meeting as many of you as possible.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the service, Amy and I have been deeply moved by the warm welcome that we have received from you.  And I am anxious to continue getting to know as many of you as possible in the weeks and months ahead.  I look forward to greeting you throughout these Holy Days, and I want to reiterate my invitation to all of you: do be in touch….I’d love to be able to schedule time for us to sit together and continue to get to know each other.

But the lay leadership and I are of one voice in articulating that this transition isn’t just about us getting to know each other, and to reminisce about our respective past’s.  It’s also about us beginning to share with one another the hopes and dreams that we have for the future of Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El

There is something paradoxical about the fact that our High Holy Day season is focused simultaneously on both past and future.  We are, on the one hand, taught to engage in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh - literally, to do an accounting of our soul…in order to discern where we have fallen short in the year that has just passed.

But we do that in order to change our future….To affirm that just because we have always done something that way in the past…does not mean that we have to continue doing it that way in the future.

What about here at the temple?  With a new rabbi here: surely some of you will be wondering: what’s going to stay the same, and what will be new…and different? 

There are no easy answers to those questions.  On the one hand, I stand before you on this holy day to affirm the very best of Scarsdale Synagogue’s traditions.  And I look forward to considering some of those qualities in a little more detail with you tomorrow.  For now, though, let me just say that I would like to think that, in the best sense of the word, your synagogue – now: our synagogue - won’t change…just because there happens to be a new rabbi here.

And yet, I have a confession to make: I am not Rabbi Klein.  You will undoubtedly discover, over time, that every rabbi does their job just a little bit differently.  So: anytime there is a new rabbi, there is a certain amount of automatic change, because…as I said…Rabbi Klein and I are different.

There will of course, be change here at the synagogue for other reasons too.  I would, for example, mention the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who once wrote that: “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”

I think that what he was trying to say is that: In order to continue to thrive, change has to come…over time…If our synagogue is going to truly be able to write a new chapter in its history, it will necessitate a certain amount of change along the way.

In our temple life, we have processes that have been put into place to insure that that goes as smoothly as possible.  Temple President Ellen Baken and I are consciously re-committing ourselves to model what it means for temple staff members to work hand in hand with our lay leadership.  We’re doing it not only to manage my transition well, but also to build a strong foundation for our community’s future.  It’s our hope that this kind of working relationship will help insure that what our institution is doing and working on is what you aspire for our community to be doing and working on.

That’s one example of how we are managing change, and fostering a sense of institutional growth and renewal here at the temple.  But what about in our personal lives?  How do we navigate change there, when every molecule in our bodies often warns us that it is more comfortable…to stay the same?

Here, I would invoke the important 1987 book Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst.  In her book, Viorst argues that our inner growth is partially dependent on our ability to constantly grieve and give up a variety of different attachments in order to become the people we are destined to be.

Viorst teaches us that this is a process that begins at birth, when we are forced on a subconscious level to accept the fact that we are no longer inside the womb.

In childhood and adolescence, we undergo a similar struggle, as we seek to make sense of what it means to become independent of our parents.

Our own tradition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah sheds lights on the importance of this turning point in our lives.  How lucky we are to have a ritual which allows our young people to willingly take responsibility for their own choices.  No longer are our teens able, at least Jewishly speaking, to rely on a loved one to take responsibility for their mistakes.  Becoming B’nei Mitzvah gives our young people a set of tools and values that they can draw on as they navigate the confusing passage from childhood to adulthood.  If that isn’t managing change, than I don’t know what is.

There is a difficult kind of loss that we must navigate in early adulthood, according to Viorst.  As we begin searching for healthy relationships with romantic partners, we have to come to terms with the fact that our partners are not, and cannot, be some idealized version of a fantasy that we had in our minds, which came, perhaps, from movies or from television.  In the real world: our partners are not perfect.  They are flawed, sometimes deeply so….just like we are.

And Viorst suggests teaches us that we should mourn the loss of those fantasies, in order to make room for the reality of our lovers and partners.  We should accept them for the people that they are, and in doing so, they might accept us for the amazing, but imperfect, people that we are too.

Grieving necessary losses is not just something that children do in the process of growing up.  It’s something that parents must do, if we are to successfully create space that will enable us to have healthy relationships with our grown children. 

As parents, we don’t just grieve the fact that our children will, for the rest of their lives, seek to establish an ever-increasing sense of independence away from us.  (I’m already having a hard time with that part, and I just have a six year old and a two year old at home!)  But it goes beyond our kids wanting to be independent.  It’s that we must also grieve and accept the fact that they will not grow up to like all of the things we want them to like.  And they will not always do the academic or professional things we want them to do.  And they will not always befriend the kinds of people we want them to befriend.  And they will not always fall in love with the kind of person that we always presumed they’d fall in love with.  Navigating unmet expectations and change is hard.  And it is particularly difficult to handle with our children.

Again and again throughout her book, Viorst invokes the imagery of loss.  For example, she writes: “The road to human development is paved with renunciation.  Throughout our life we grow by giving up.  We give up some of our deepest attachments to others.  We give up certain cherished parts of ourselves.  We must confront, in the dreams we dream, as well as in our intimate relationships, all that we never will have and never will be.  Passionate investment leaves us vulnerable to loss.  And sometimes, no matter how clever we are, we must lose.”

Judith Viorst presents us with a gift….a simple methodology that we can use in order to grow…in our personal lives, and in our life here at the synagogue.  We can begin by paying tribute to the past that we have lost.  And then we can prepare ourselves to welcome a future….one that is new and, exciting, but also….different.

Acknowledging the losses of our lives is a core component of a ritual that is traditionally performed during this Rosh HaShanah season, known as tashlich.  It is an ancient practice in which we customarily toss bread into a body of water.

The traditional interpretation of tashlich ties it to our notions of sin, and of repentance.  We take responsibility for our mistakes, and then we symbolically toss them away, so as to proclaim: I am ready to be a new and improved person in the year to come.

But I would offer an additional reading on the ritual.  It’s not just about repentance and teshuvahTashlich is about change.  It’s about what we sometimes have to give up, in order to grow…both as individuals and as a sacred community.  We have to honor and make peace with our past.  And then, we have to find some way – on some level, and only when we are individually ready to – to let it go, so that we might turn to embrace our new beginnings.

As I said at the outset, this will not be easy.  But I draw on the wisdom of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, who used to teach that we should ‘believe that each day the world is created anew, and that you yourself are born anew each morning.’

At the heart of Judaism, and at the very core of Rosh HaShanah, we embrace the notion that growth and renewal from the inside out is always possible….We affirm our faith in second, and third, chapters.  And we most certainly embrace new beginnings.

How incredible it is that we belong to a tradition that does not just consider this Rosh HaShanah to be the theoretical 5773rd birthday of the world.  But Judaism also thinks of today as the beginning of Day One.  A New Universe is born today, and with it a new world, and a new year.  A rebirth of our lives…in the sense that anything is possible…for our future selves, and for our community….so long as we would be courageously open to it…and to all of the mystery that comes along with anything that is new.  

The Italian writer Cesare Pavese once remarked that “the only joy in the world is to begin.”  And so we shall, in search of that joy…set off on this path…together.

[1] As told by Rabbi Adam Wohlberg in Three Times Chai (ed. by L. Becker), 2007.



Adam Ellis
09/16/2012 9:16pm

Y'asher K'oach Jeff--you continue to inspire from afar!! Shana Tova, Adam


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