Our Transitions: All Beginnings are Hard (Kol Nidre, 5755)

Friends, it’s hard to begin. Very hard. Somebody, some nameless Rabbi pointed that out in the ancient Midrash when he said, “Kol hatchalot kashot. All beginnings are hard.” [i]  I can’t say that this was a revolutionary addition to human awareness as many rabbinic teachings were. After all, it’s obvious that beginnings are difficult. But the wisdom of this particular Rabbi was in making explicit what we all experience. By naming how tough it is to begin something new, he normalized it and enabled people to stop hiding behind the mask of confidence and enthusiasm by admitting upfront that change is not easy.

But as the ancient philosophers taught, the only thing that is constant is change. Time is the arena of our lives and change is the game we play, using the calendar, the seasons and the holidays to mark and measure what is different and what remains the same.

So here we are again, another set of High Holy Days. Using these Days of Awe as a bookmark in time, we have begun the process of ending that which was, holding on to that which is to remain, and beginning that which is to be. Each of us reflects back on 5774 and the gifts and challenges that last year brought. There were lives which came into being and lives which ceased to be. There was love lost and love found, doors opened and doors closed, moments of pride and times of disappointment, of endings which brought both sadness and relief, beginnings which brought both joy and fear.

For that which we did and that which we became, Yom Kippur can be a kind of reset button, enabling us to begin again – again.

Beginnings usher in new and desired opportunities, but they are also are fraught with unexpected challenges and unanticipated disappointments. And there are no beginnings without endings. And as we all know, kol siyumim kashim – all endings are difficult.

Tonight, I want to talk about beginnings. Beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings. These holidays mark the beginning of an end, the beginning of my last year as your Rabbi before I retire from the congregation after 25 very fulfilling years.  I will be your Rabbi Emeritus, pursue my next journey and you will do something which you have not done as a congregation since 1990, start a new journey with a new Rabbi. I am sure that our new journeys will be wonderful – just as I am sure that they will not be easy. Kol hatchalot kashot.

I address my leaving now at the beginning of the year for a reason. That I will be retiring from the congregation at the end of June is not new news. But any change, especially a change of Rabbis, takes time to process. Attention must be paid to our transition. William Bridges, in his book entitled Transition: Making Sense of Life’s Changes,[ii] teaches us the difference between change and transition. Change is simply what happens. Transition is the emotional effect that the change brings about. Transition begins with the ending of that which was, and ends with the beginning of that which is to be.  In order for a transition to be successful, that which is ending must be recognized, celebrated, and mourned, and that which is beginning must be welcome, understood and celebrated. Not doing this well is a disservice to the old and an impediment to the new.

Kol hatchalot kashot. All beginnings are hard. Mine certainly was.

Those of you who were around in 1990 may remember how challenging my first years here were. You may even remember my first sermon on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, 5751. It did not help that I used an untested wireless microphone. It also did not help that moments after I began the sermon, one of our members collapsed in the back of the sanctuary. (I tried not to take it personally.) It also did not help that my first sermon was the High Holiday appeal – not exactly what people wanted as their first impression of the new Rabbi.

But mostly what did not help back then was that we did not know each other.  You were used to one model of what a Rabbi is and does, and my model was very different. What had worked quite well in the large, urban Temple in Chicago where I had been for nine years was not as well received in Morristown. But I stuck with it and you stuck with me.  You see, it takes time for a Rabbi to get to know and understand a congregation and make it his or her own. It takes time for a congregation to get to know and appreciate a new Rabbi and make her or him its own.

There was one moment when I realized that the Temple and I indeed would have a future. One of our most respected congregants, a dear friend of Rabbi Levy and not what you might call a great fan of mine – no name, but her initials were Judy Steinberg – was overheard saying, “I don’t know if he is getting better or if I am just getting used to him.”

The reality of course, was both. I became better attuned to congregational style and expectations while at the same time, more people got to know me, recognize the gifts I brought and, as Judy said, got used to me.

And now, here we are, almost a quarter of a century later, as I begin my last year here as Senior Rabbi.

The decision we made a year and a half ago that I would be leaving the congregation at the end of this coming June was not easily arrived at. When people have congratulated me on my retirement from the congregation, I have often remarked, “Thank you. It is bitter-sweet.”

And bitter sweet it is. Bitter because it will change the relationship we’ve had as Fran and I move on because of the inevitable sense of loss we – and many of you – will experience. Certainly, this is not about somebody dying, but sometimes it will feel that way.

It is bitter leaving all that was sweet – all the genuine, loving and loyal friendships we have made here. I know that we will take away many precious memories, and that true friendships are not limited by distance.

There is much that was sweet and always will be. There is sweetness in the lives and hearts of those who have found blessings here with us, sweet in sacred moments of joy and sorrow, celebration and healing we have shared and which have found an eternal sacred place in your hearts and in ours.

Sweet is the sense satisfaction and accomplishment from what I believe we have achieved together over nearly 25 years, what endures in the ethos of the congregation and in the programs and procedures which I – and Fran – have introduced. Sweet is the legacy in that which will remain.

The institutional legacy that continues after this year will be mine and yours.  Together we worked to build a warm and welcoming family and sacred community. Our Temple became a home to anyone who would join us, a non-judgmental place in which the labels of the world outside were left outside, where Judaism was taught and lived as a gift, not a burden.

Temple B’nai Or has become many different things to many different people. For some Temple is a central part of your lives, their Jewish home away from home, a place of personal transformation and interpersonal connection, and transpersonal transcendence. Temple is the first place that comes to mind when they ask the questions: Where can I go where I feel accepted? Where can I go that helps to make sense of my life? Where can I go for Jewish learning and growth and community, for comfort and inspiration and joy? Where can I go by myself and find family, where can my interfaith family feel Jewishly normal.

For others Temple is one institution among many which they use as a means to fulfil particular needs: Where can I go for the holidays? Where can I say Kaddish? Where can where my children be educated as Jews at least to bar mitzvah so I can look at my parents and say with my eyes, “Look Dad and Mom, I did it. I carried on”?

For others, the synagogue has always been and ever remains the anchor of Judaism and Jewish life, so important that it is vital to support it regardless of how much or little they personally take advantages of what it has to offer.

The legacy which I leave in Temple as an institution is important, but I don’t consider it my most important legacy. I have seen in other congregations where Rabbis of long tenure have retired and that which they had built up over many years quickly went by the wayside. The legacy which is most meaningful to me is the impact I have had in your lives and the lives of your families, the ripples I made in the pond of your soul. I have been blessed to be part of your journeys in the highest highs and lowest lows, to heighten the joys, soften the sorrows, and offer Jewish wisdom and understanding to the lives of those who were open to it. Such is the privilege of this sacred calling, which allows clergy to play a unique role in peoples’ lives and to leave a legacy of love.

My legacy and that of all the dedicated and talented clergy and educational staff with which you blessed me is the children in whose hearts we have implanted deep Jewish feelings, feelings which often only become apparent in later years.

I also would like to believe that my legacy is in the Torah and Jewish values I have tried to teach and exemplify and the integrity with which I strive to live my life.  My legacy is the good name I have tried to give the Temple in the wider Jewish and non-Jewish community. Because whatever I did, whatever Jewish, interfaith, inter-racial settings I was at, at whatever pro-Israel rally I organized, spoke at or even attended, I brought you with me. Temple was there too and people knew what Temple B’nai Or stood for.

There is one legacy I hope not to leave. This will indeed be a year of celebration, commemorating the Temple’s history of three-score years, culminating in May with a weekend celebration of our years together. But truth be told, this can’t just be a year of celebration. It needs to recognize the sadness as well. This year, not only do we need to celebrate our years together but also, in some way, to acknowledge the loss and mourn the separation that is coming our way. For if we don’t, we will be leaving a legacy of sadness, perhaps bitterness and anger for the next Rabbi to deal with and that is going to make his or her beginning all the more difficult. And that, dear friends, is the last thing I want for a younger colleague or for Temple.

In times such as these, there is often what is called disenfranchised grief. That, according to Kenneth Koka, is “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publically mourned.” [iii] It is the sorrow, sadness and anger that is kept inside because it is not seen as appropriate, helpful, or nice. But we know what happens when everyone is supposed to put on a happy face all the time, avoiding or denying the emotional impact of change. It often comes out in other and less desirable ways.

We need to name the sadness and share it. So I will say it. We are very sad to be leaving and we will miss so many of you so very much. As I said, the sweet is certainly sweet, but the bitter is there too as I know it is for many of you. It’s OK to talk about it. This year will be a time of saying good bye. A number of you have already made an appointment or caught me at Temple to sit and share and even cry. You know why tears are so precious? It is because tears are unfiltered feelings.

There are those who will be profoundly affected by our leaving, some with loss and others with satisfaction – as is true in every congregation. And there will be those whose lives are not that affected, seeing this as something that happens in synagogues. And they are absolutely right. As by brother Larry and I were growing up as at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, we were witness to the departure of three fine and nationally respected Rabbis and the arrival of three others equally respected. My family was close with all of them, especially since my grandfather was their dentist.

One of these great Rabbis was Rabbi Fred Schwartz (obm), whom I have spoken of many times. Rabbi Fred came to St. Paul just before I became a Bar Mitzvah. As a matter of fact, I was his first there. Years later, his wife Roberta would tell me how wise and proactive was the grandmother who raised us to have invited the Rabbi and his young family to our home for dinner shortly after they arrived. We might have been the first regular congregants to do that. Gram wanted to make sure that the Rabbi knew her boys and that we knew him.  I was 12 years old at the time and I can even tell you what my grandmother served.

Some of you know that it was Rabbi Schwartz who later inspired me into the Rabbinate and after rabbinic school, I served as his Assistant/ Associate for nine wonderful years in Chicago before coming here. He performed our wedding, named three of our four children, and, sadly, a couple years ago, I officiated at his funeral. So if you have a child becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah in the new Rabbi’s first year, relax! Even better, be like my grandmother and reach out. You never know what good things might come out of a new relationship.

It’s really OK to like a new Rabbi, and I hope that you do. We all will need to give him or her the trust and the confidence, which I know will only grow over time, as mine did.

As I mentioned, transitions begin with the end and end with the beginning. And there is this time in between, that period when the people have neither let go of the old nor truly embraced the new.  In his work on transitions, Bridges discusses this uncertain, liminal middle phase.

As a model for what happens in this time, he raises up the example of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness. The wilderness is a paradigm for what happens in the moments between when the end really ends and the beginning really begins.  Time in the wilderness is fraught with uncertainty and insecurity, of starts and stops, of complaints for needs not met, demands to return to the old, of some being reticent about moving forward, others wanting to move forward too fast, others  wanting to give up and disassociate. The wilderness can also be a time of great creativity and of new voices being heard.  In the wilderness phase there can arise the Joshuas who have a clear vision of the good that lies ahead and can summon in the people the bravery and the faith to go forward into an unchartered future.

It is the Joshuas who know it is not about any one person – it’s not even about the community – it’s about the mission that gives the community a reason to be. It is the mission which not only justifies but inspires the courage, the work and the sacrifice it will take to sustain the community.

The mission of the Israelites then was the building of a sacred community which knew that a higher power had bid them to become a holy people, exemplars of the righteousness to which they were called, and a light unto the nations. That was their mission then, and that is our mission still. Becoming, b’nai or, a community of light, was the prophetic vision of our founders 60 years ago; and for the last quarter century it has been my vision for this congregational as well, the sacred family which I have loved so much and of which I have been so very proud.

And so, beloveds, as we bring an end to the year now past and begin the year yet to be, I pray that the year ahead will bring us health and happiness –the blessing of laughter and the blessing of tears. And may this New Year bring to this sacred congregation renewed hope and a new clarity of vision. May this new beginning serve as a bridge between the proud past we share and the joyous future that surely lies ahead for Temple B’nai Or and for us all!

—————–

[i] Mekhilta Yitro BaChadoesh 2, on vat aim shamoa tishma b’koli.

[ii] Bridges, William, Transition: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 2004.

[iii] Kenneth M. Koka, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow (Lexington, MA: Lexington Press, 1989

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