We Must Change

*Delivered in Kehilat Shir Chadash in Tzur Hadassah, Kol Nidre 5779

I knew it was time for me to get a new smart phone when I was trying to get out of Tel Aviv and I could not get the GPS to work.  For me, Tel Aviv is a confusing city to drive and the mishap added a full half hour extra to my trip.  This was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I bought a new smart phone.  I was very excited to finally update – for the same price that I paid three years ago, I got a bigger phone with exponentially more memory, a talking command feature, and a better camera.  My euphoria lasted just a few minutes.  When I sat down with the phone, I found that the calendar worked completely differently, I kept swiping the wrong way, I couldn’t find the calculator, and the camera features were totally different.  My frustration mounted, and I understood quickly that this “better” phone which was supposed to improve my quality of life was going to make it temporarily more difficult as I tried to figure it out.  (Yes, first world problems.)

Technological developments present us with the opportunities of progress and also the dangers and difficulties.  The telephone becomes our mobile office and expands our flexibility.  But, on the other hand, it ensures that we never fully disconnect from work.  Robots make our lives easier and yet frighten us with futuristic stories of robots taking over the world.  Facebook brings me closer to friends around the world with minimal effort, but “Big Brother” knows almost everything about me by following my “likes.”

Change is both the most sought after commodity and the most feared.

Change is necessary – if we aren’t changing, we need to worry.

When politicians run for office what is often their campaign promise?  “I will be bring change!”  The assumption is always that things need to be changed.

There are those that quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) as the one who said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”  Change is not only inevitable and eternal, it is reality itself, the substance of life.

Sometimes change is refreshing – like to go on a trip somewhere in nature or to another country.   Sometimes change is challenging – children adjusting to a new teacher.  Dealing with new schedules with the new school year. Our town is dealing with the change of many new residents. (Welcome all!)

Our tradition encourages change.  It does not expect us to stay the same.

Sometimes change begins up high and trickles down.  It is told in the Talmud (Chagigah 3a) tells about Rabbi Yochanan  Ben Baroka and Rabbi El’azar Ben Chasma that went to greet Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in.  (Rabbi Yehoshua) said to them, “What new interpretation was there today in the House of Study?”  They answered him, “We are your students and we drink (only) from your waters.” (that is to say that we learn new things only from you)  He chided them, “Nonetheless, it is impossible to go to the House of Study and not come out with a new interpretation!”

The students did not want to tell their teacher the new idea they received from someone else because they thought it would be disrespectful. When actually the teacher requests that they bring new teachings.

Sometimes the change is bottom – up.

It is told about the Chassidic rabbis of our day that forbid their followers to own a smart phone that has access to the Internet – with all of its temptations to be exposed to the secular world.  But what happened?  Many members of their public simply disobeyed the instruction.[1]  One Chassid explained that he needed his Iphone to which he was connected every minute for his business.

Throughout the generations, there have been incremental changes that seem to us have always been a part of the tradition.  For example, the obligation to wear a kippah.  It is recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) that “Rav Huna said: I will receive good between I never went even four cubits (four feet) with my head exposed.  It took around 1300 years until it was recorded in the Shulchan Aruch this instruction for all: “(A person) should not go four cubits with his head exposed.”

Not only that, the tradition praises extreme changes, even revolutionary changes.  It is told that when Moses died, G-d said to him that there is a man whose name is Akiva son of Joseph, that he will interpret every dash and dot of Torah.  (Moses) said before Him, “Master of the World, Show him to me.” So G-d sent Moses to sit in Rabbi Akiva’s class, in the back.  But he didn’t understand anything, so he was quite in despair.  When Akiva began to teach on a certain matter, one of the students said (to Akiva), “Rabbi, from where do we know this?”  He answered him, “This is a law that Moses received at Sinai.”  When hearing this, Moses felt relief.

It did not matter to Moses that later generations interpreted the Torah in such a way that was far from Moses’s understanding of G-d’s word. He was happy about progress because he knew that thus tradition was preserved – a thread of remembrance to connect the past with the present.

The Zionist philosopher Ahad HaAm emphasized this very point in his essay “Anticipations and Survivals”.  In 1870, he wrote:  “…We who see ‘the love of Zion’ in its new form, full of life and youthful hope, to treat with disrespect the aged survival of past generations.  It is not for us to forget what the new spirit owes to this neglected and forgotten survival, which our ancestors hid away in a dim, narrow  chamber of their hearts, to live its death-in-life until the present day.  For, but for this survival, the new spirit would not have found straightway a suitable body with which to clothe itself; and then, perhaps, it might have gone as it came, and passed away without leaving any abiding trace in history.”[2]

Ahad HaAm says: Respect the past. Give thanks to past generations.  And go forward unapologetically to make something new.

We read on Yom Kippur the story of Jonah. G-d calls Jonah to be an agent of change in Nineveh but Jonah resists.  He goes on a boat and when the storm begins he descends into the depths of the boat and goes to sleep – perhaps a metaphor for stagnation and maintaining the status quo.

From Jonah’s perspective, the people of Nineveh change too easily, not really based on real conviction but rather only because of their fear of imminent destruction.  Jonah seeks true “justice”.

Jonah’s conviction apparently has an influence on G-d.  We see this in a very subtle difference in each of G-d’s calls to Jonah. In the first calling, G-d said (2:1): “Get yourself up and go to the big city of Nineveh and cry out “against” (עליו) it that its evil is running rampant.”

In the second calling, however, G-d said (3:2): Get yourself up and go to the big city of Nineveh and cry out “to”  it (אליו) this cry that I will speak to you.

It is a very small change. In the beginning, G-d demands of Jonah to take out his wrath on Nineveh, and later on, G-d demands from Jonah to approach Nineveh with compassion.  This shows us that the tiniest change can open up a world of possibility.

Our job as a religious community is to be responsive to what is happening in the world, including facilitating change.

What is the role of our community whose “Reform” Judaism raises the banner of renewal and integrating progressive and liberal values with the tradition?

In today’s era of Jewish sovereignty, it is alright to read the Talmud tractate “Idol Worship”, which was redacted in exile, about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, but it is also critical to integrate much interpretative creativity to be appropriate for the reality of our lives today taking into consideration all the residents of the land and a global economy.

In the era of “Me Too”, we also need the voice of Judaism – the early sources about kavod ha’adam (respect for one another)  and forbidden sexual relationships as well as contemporary sources about the right to personal security and to free of harm.

In our Reform community we embrace diverse expressions of Judaism offering a variety activities in the field of education, culture, charity, and social justice.  I think that we are quite successful with the very limited financial resources in our possession.  But I think that we sometimes also stick to some things because we are afraid to go too far and to cross over some imaginary boundary in the eyes of the public.  For example, the Reform Movement is now working on a new prayerbook, and the discussions surrounding the content are lively.  One of the discussions was about feminine imagery of G-d and prayer expressed in the feminine – such as “We bend and bow (in the female plural – as Hebrew is a gendered  language).  In our congregation, we have established a tradition to hold a prayer service which is completely in the feminine over the Shabbat before Purim which is usually close to the International Women’s Day (a very special experience for women and men alike!).   In the discussion, many expressed hesitation from adding female language to the prayer – ok here and there but not too much.  So, then I asked, “Has anyone here ever expressed feminine language in prayer?”  Silence.  The time has come to bring equality also to our prayer.

Yom Kippur calls us to change – to change our habits, to change our thought patterns, to renew ourselves.  Our existence in the Land of Israel in the State of Israel demands openness, creativity, and innovations.  Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, himself a halachically observant Orthodox Jew, said, “The Zionist program is possible only through new halachic decisions in every area of public life…These decisions require a marked deviation from that religious custom and way of life which the generations sanctified themselves and thus were formed in the absence of political independence and civil responsibility.”[3]

So, it seems that there is a consensus on the need for change.  Of course, the great argument is how much to change and how fast.  We have examples of this and that – slow, incremental change and revolutionary dramatic change.  In my eyes, this is part of our strength – a dynamic movement on a continuum between the edges.

Our Sages said, “Love the work and hate the Rabbinate.” (Pirke Avot 1:10).  I said: Be wary of the establishment of this idea or another and from the “pleasant sleep” of the status quo.  Our job on Yom Kippur – and every day – is to do the work of renewal, to be in constant dialogue with the past, the present, and the future.  It is exhilarating.  It is frustrating.  And it ensures that I and you (masculine) and you (feminine) – we will change the world.[4]

[1] https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/.premium-1.2856169

[2] Ahad HaAm “Anticipations and Survivals”, p. 29 מוקדם ומאוחר בחיים ע’ קלו

[3] [3]ע’ 90, יהדות, עם יהודי ומדינת ישראל

[4] Play on words of the Arik Einstein song “You and I will Change the World” אני ואתה נשנה את העולם


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