My Rosh Hashanah Sermon from Wednesday eve, September 24, 2015 at Temple Beth Tikvah of Roswell.
One of America’s greatest Jewish thinkers was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and is the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. His practice as a professor was to explain the Torah portion of the week on Monday in a sermonic manner. On Wednesday, a senior student would present his version of the same biblical text. Dr Kaplan was very demanding and critical instructor, and the students were often inhibited about speaking up and were, frankly afraid of him. Once in a class, a student took down verbatim what Dr Kaplan said on Monday. When it came to be the student’s time to explain the Torah portion, he repeated Dr Kaplan’s words from the previous Monday. Dr Kaplan said, “That is a terrible exposition.”
The student countered, “But Prof, Kaplan, that’s exactly what you said on Monday.” Kaplan replied, “young man, I have grown since then.”
We all have a need to grow if we are to make the most of our lives. Just as our bodies are constantly undergoing changes, so are our minds. We meet new situations and we are challenged by new ideas. We learn more about the past and we develop new thoughts about the present. We learn new ways to deal with people and to cope with problems. All of this is a part of growth, and to grow is to live.
This is a day of journeys. We venture out on our own so that we can have new encounters, new experiences, gain new wisdom. But Sometimes, we can’t have those experiences until we are willing to leave our familiar places and journey forward into the unknown.
I love looking to Avraham Avinu, our forefather Abraham. He was told by God to “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I’ll show you.”
We often focus on the term lech l’cha, which we typically translate as “go forth.” But what it really means is to “go to yourself.” In other words, look inside, and find your potential. An additional interpretation from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says: “Go back to your essence in order to find out what you are really made of. Before we go on our journeys, we need to look into our souls so that we know where we are heading.”
But journeys can be scary. Moving, leaving… can be stressful. Let’s reflect once again on the text and read the phrase: “From your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.”
Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman, one of the world’s greatest Bible scholars, wrote: “The point of this order is not geographical. It is emotional. The three steps are arranged in ascending order of difficulty for Abraham. It is hard to leave one’s land, harder if it is where one was born, and harder still to leave one’s family. And where is he to go? To ‘the land that I’ll show you.’ That is, he must leave his homeland without knowing for what he is giving it up…”
Let’s add one additional layer. Abraham is introduced to us as an Ivri – a Hebrew. The word Ivri is rooted in the term “to cross over,” with the Hebrew root letters of ayin – bet – resh. Abraham left everything he knew to cross over many rivers in order to arrive go to the Promised Land to fulfill his destiny, his purpose.
We are his spiritual descendants. We are the Ivrim; we are the ones who have to cross over rivers. And it is not only that we have to, we ought to. We ought to go beyond our comfort zones so we can strive and grow the way Abraham models for us.
Each of us needs to grow. We all have rivers to cross. We are designed to have experiences not simply to enjoy them, but to learn from them, and to gain wisdom through these encounters. We venture out from our parents homes… at some point. Some of us have moved to different cities. Others have changed careers. Some went back to school. Others went to a campus for the very first time.
Change is a part of life and quite frankly, it is a scary part of life. Maybe that is why Abraham is among our spiritual heroes and greatest of role models. He is far from perfect, but his faith in the One God gives him the strength to journey – to be a seeker. We don’t have to change addresses in order to be that kind of seeker. We simply need to be open to new opportunities.
A new year is an opportunity for change. With a Jewish New Year is the focus on one of our most central tenets in Judaism — teshuvah, generally translated as “atonement.” I prefer to read it as “turning.” If that is the case, then this Rosh Hashanah and every New Year is an opportunity for change, for growth, for renewal, and for us to strive to reach our potential.
Have you ever wondered why God didn’t bring our Israelite ancestors directly to the Promised Land? Isn’t it strange that after everything they had endured in Egyptian servitude, that they didn’t just get the… Get Out of Jail Free card and Go Straight to Israel?
It couldn’t be that way. They needed to make the journey themselves. They needed to experience the angst and the doubt, alongside the potential for strength and hope.
…They needed to go through the desert, the midbar.
The fourth book of the Torah is called Bamidbar, in English, it is the Book of Numbers. We see an interesting teaching right at the beginning:
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite people community by the clans of its ancestral houses listing the names, every male, head by head. (1:1)
Our sages ask: why does the Torah say that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness AND in the Tent of Meeting? One well known teaching is that we would all benefit if we would be as open and accepting as the wilderness – to new opportunities, to new ideas, and to God. After all, Torah is given in the Sinai – not in the Land of Israel.
And yet, when we think of a wilderness or a desert – both are translations for midbar – we think of a place that is empty, desolate, even barren. But it is in the desert, the wilderness, where we find God. Just like Jacob who encountered God when he was all alone on his own journey where he dreamed of a ladder bridging the Earth to the Heavens with angels going up and down on it. That was where Jacob had his first incredible, intimate encounter with God and said,
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי
“God was in this place and I did not know it.”
The wilderness is filled with opportunity, but it isn’t always easy to traverse. Our bias about the wilderness leads us to panic. But we aren’t wandering aimlessly. The first lines of Bamidbar show that God wants us to get organized, take a census, move into camps, and be prepared for what is in store. In the very place where they had angst, they were able to tap into strength that they never even knew they had to make the journey meaningful.
This is the sermon I needed to give tonight. This is the truth that I needed to share. As I leave a place of comfort and kindness, I am following in our ancient ancestors footsteps to enter into the midbar, an unfamiliar place. I also know that my decision to journey forward puts you, my congregants, in a midbar, too. My decision to cultivate my rabbinate and nurture my soul is a frightening prospect on the practical level… leaving a wonderful community, saying good bye to friends. And yet, on a spiritual level, we are all on our own journeys and I am a human being who seeks challenges and meaning like you.
While we resist the idea of being in the wilderness, I believe that is where most of live every single day. Listen to this poem by Rabbi Zoe Klein – I think it illustrates the point well:
There are three regions in each of our souls,
There is Egypt, there is the Desert, and there is
the Promised Land.
Many of us have glimpsed our Egypt,
Or perhaps some are still there,
Wearing the chains,
Bearing the burdens of fear, insecurity,
Doubt, and weakness
Mustering the strength to clamber up.
Still fewer of us have glimpsed our
Fulfillment of dreams,
Our fruitfulness, our blossoming,
We talk of Egypt often.
Every holiday, every prayer service,
Mentions we once were slaves,
Recalls our hardships under Pharaoh.
We talk of the Promised Land often,
Every holiday, every prayer service,
Longs for Israel,
For the Voice to come forth from Zion,
We turn to the east,
But rarely do we talk of, or pray about, the Desert.
Yet that is the region in which most of us are,
Pushing forward in the wilderness,
Dragging our footsteps across that forty year stretch
Of pristine, barren, moonscape.
It is there we encounter truth,
It is there we encounter miracle,
We are nomads still,
At the shore of some sparkling oasis,
And we sing our nomad song.
So maybe, we have been in the wilderness all along, together. Carrying each other from stage to stage.
My time with you, moving into my ninth year at Beth Tikvah, has had many meaningful encounters. I have cried with you and held you; I have celebrated with you and rejoiced with you. I have seen children grow into amazing young adults and I have helped to bury those you loved most. For some I brought you to places of safety; for others, I tried to. I sought to sit with you in in hospital rooms and bedsides in your homes. I have tried to be present when you felt trapped and when you were ready to take a leap of faith and renew your own commitments to journey forward.
I have striven to share my Torah with you. I have challenged you, sometimes out of your comfort zones to new ways of thinking…
And I have loved you… I have loved this community.
When Deborah and I needed a community of our own, you accompanied our family, too. From the beginning of our journey, bringing three little girls to a new city far, far, far from home and what was familiar to us. You befriended us. Coming to Atlanta where there was no family, many became our adopted families. You supported us through heartache, diagnoses, even through a surgery… for a different kind of heart…break. And you have celebrated our simchas and made them sweeter through your presence. I have grown as a rabbi here. I have learned how to be a better teacher here. I hope that my gifts have been welcomed and more so, that they made a difference. We have people we care about here; that will never change.
But alas, there comes a time when we need to grow… When we need to find a new challenge… When we need to nurture ourselves and live our lives out to the fullest.
If we are to be as open as the wilderness to new experiences, as difficult as they may be, then I hope we will see the possibilities in front of us too. I know that there are concerns, but there can be blessings in going as there are blessings in arriving. If my presence has been positive, then I hope this community will continue supports its leaders, and welcomes its next rabbi, embrace their family, and take care of her or him as you have done for me.
I know as I take my next step in my journey, I will take much from this community. I hope that what I leave will be celebrated and carried with you, too, as this great synagogue continues on its journey.
This is a year of transition, not just for the synagogue. It is a year of transition for our Selves. If we seek to be spiritual beings, if we seek encounters that are meaningful and awesome, then we can embrace the changes that are ahead of us. That is the ultimate lesson for us in this new year.
But change needs a foundation of faith. Let’s look at a parable that I believe provides us a lens through which to seek and understand that foundation:
Sometimes I fear my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.
Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I am in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in awhile, as I’m merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness. In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well known bar to move to the new one.
Each time it happens to me, I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across that void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It’s called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get pushed.
I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as “no-thing,” a no-place between places. Sure the old trapeze bar was real, and that the new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real too.
But the void in between? That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us.
Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.
And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang-out” in the transition between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we may just learn how to fly.
Letting go is our work of teshuvah, atonement, turning, striving, transforming…
Letting go requires that we know that there is a net. We call that net emunah – faith.
I need faith to feel secure enough to let go, to make the necessary changes, to be willing to journey into the midbar. And so do you.
So let’s be grateful for our journeys, for our opportunities, for the ability to ever increase our wisdom so that we can not only find meaning in our lives, but so we can bring meaning and purpose to our community and to our world.
I thank God for the possibilities that are before all of us. For our ability to dream, to hope and be courageous as we enter into the midbar together. We might be moving on different paths from one another, but we are all striving to reach the Promised Land.
May your journeys be sweet this year.
May our time together be filled with more joy then sorrow.
May this year be a year of strength and courage for all of us.
May the New Year be a good year, a sweet year and a healthy year for you and yours.
 Adapted from Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Moments of Transcendence, p. 101. Message by Rabbi Bernard Raskas in Heart of Wisdom II.
 Genesis 12:1.
 Ed. by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah. Tel Aviv, Yavneh Publ: 1996, 83.
 Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky. Sparks Beneath The Surface: A Spiritual Commentary on the Torah, 1993.
 Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 2001.
 Genesis 28:16.
 Reprinted in Richard Address’ To Honor and Respect: A Program and Resource Guide for Congregations on Sacred Aging. New York: URJ Press, 2005: 42-43.
 Danaan Parry, “The Parable of the Trapeze: Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear,” Warriors of the Heart: A Handbook for Conflict Resolution. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2009. Thank you, Rabbi David Wolfman, for introducing this powerful teaching to me.