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Torah Teaches Transformation

Our Torah, when you really think about it, is a record of a community in a process of tranformation. Jewish communities such as ours can look to Torah as a model for how to navigate transition, planning and organization, as well as thinking and moving toward the future.

In Genesis we start with the history of the people. We learn about creation and the individuals who founded our religion. We learn from their victories as well as from their mistakes and we find the core values of our tradition rooted in the mythology of our ancestors. The same is true of any community such as this one. Everything we do – every program we have, every worship experience we participate in, every change we consider making – must be rooted in an understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from. We retell our own history – recalling our own genesis – to remind us of our mission and our values.

At the same time, Torah teaches us that as the generations change, the needs of the people change as well. As the Children of Israel grow from the Genesis generation to the Exodus generation, they find themselves facing tremendous transition. They grow from a small family into a large nation. They find the demographics around them change over time. They are forced to adapt to forces beyond their control. They can’t live the way they used to, but they don’t stop retelling their stories of origin either. They don’t forget who they are. They wait for a better time and for Moses, Aaron and Miriam to step forward and show the way.

It is much the same for a contemporary community in transition. The stories of the Golden Ages are followed by the stories of tough times. People come and go. Some survive the upheaval and others do not. Hard decisions have to be made.
And then it starts to get better. The leadership changes and evolves. New visions arise. Plans are made. Things that were long stagnant begin to move.

Leaving Egypt is an extended transition. Some of it happens quickly. Other parts take years.

The Israelites leave so quickly that their bread doesn’t have time to rise. We know this because we eat Matzah each year, but perhaps we don’t think about the deeper lesson. Sometimes we have to make concessions for the sake of allowing for needed change. Does it mean we are subjected to eating only Matzah for the rest of our lives? Of course not – it’s a temporary measure to get us out and on our way.

But at the same time, it takes the Israelites many years to get back to the kind of eating they did in the Golden Days, before the famine that sent them into Egypt. Their diet goes through a transition of it’s own. From Matzah to Manna, with periods where meat is plentiful and others where it is scarce. It is 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering before they can eat whatever they want. Some changes happen very quickly. Others are only for transitional purposes. And some take a very, very long time. So Torah teaches.

The Israelites also teach us about the steps of transformation. The first thing the Israelites do is take stock. As they are leaving Egypt, the Torah recounts for us who the Nation of Israel is made up of and what they have with them, as well as what they don’t. This reminds us that any process of growth, transition and transformation requires us to ask three fundamental questions: Who are we? What do we have? And what do we need? Like the Children of Israel, we take stock, we figure out what kind of people our community is comprised of, what resources we have and what resources we are lacking. And all the while we keep in mind the stories of our heritage so that our core values, mission and identity are not compromised. This is stage 1.

As soon as the Israelites are free from the dark times they faced in Egypt, they take time to organize themselves. They group themselves by family, clan and tribe. Moses finds others to help him share the responsibilities of leadership. There are leaders who worry about the religious needs of the people and leaders who worry about the day-to-day running of the community. Rules and regulations are written down and taught to the community. And then, once the organizational structure is set in place, the next set of questions are asked and answered: Where are we now? Where would we like to be going? What do we need to do to get there.

At the end of Stage 1, the Israelites are at Mount Sinai. They are their for a long time. They do not leave Mount Sinai until they are organized and have a plan of action for moving forward. From the time they arrive there, early on in the Book of Exodus, all through that book and through Leviticus, and into the beginning of Numbers, they stay in the Wilderness of Sinai. Organizing. Planning. Trying things out. Changing what doesn’t work. And making sure that everyone knows what his or her role in the community is.
Then they set their sights on the Promised Land, and begin to move forward.
That is stage 2.

Stage 3 is all about implementation and revision. As the Israelites wander, they remind themselves of their mission, their goal, their rules, and they face new-challenges and have to adapt to new demographic changes and external forces. Some of the planning and organizing that they did at Sinai is helpful to them. Some of it has to be revised. All along their path they stop, set up camp and take stock before moving on. This is an important lesson for us as well. Even when we begin to immerse ourselves in the transformations we have envisioned, we shouldn’t do so without frequent and thorough check-ins, always asking ourselves if we are on track. Are we closer to where we said we wanted to be? And if not, what do we need to course-correct?

It seems to me that Temple Beth David, today, has moved passed stage 1 and is well into stage 2 and moving toward stage 3. The tough times are behind us and the most volatile of the tough choices and transitions have been made. During that transitional stage your brave leaders made difficult decisions and led you in making assessments and plans for the future. Temporary changes were necessitated by the initial fast-pace of the changes. For a while, there was no time to let your bread rise, and you ate Matzah while you made your way out of Egypt and came to settle at Sinai.

And then, this year, with a new Rabbi and leadership in place, you began to take stock. Organizational structures have been and continue to be clarified. We have asked and continue to wrestle with the question of who is our community made up of and who is our community missing. We’ve done an accounting of our resources. We know what we have and what we would like to have. We know what we love about ourselves and what we’d like to change. And we have set our sights on a goal of where we’d like to be in the future. Much has been revealed to us at Sinai and we have begun to really plan how to move forward.

And now, with stage 3 on the horizon, we look ahead to a period of implementation and revision. Some of what we’ve planned over the past few years will take root. Some will fall short and we will need to come together again to rethink, revise and renew. There will be successes and failures, and we will stop many times along the way to make-camp, and recount, and reconsider. And it will take many years for us to get where we are going. But we are moving forward, just as the Israelites did. Through the Wilderness. Towards the Promised Land.

Interestingly, the Torah ends before the Jews enter the Promised Land. The Book of Deuteronomy ends with us camped across the River Jordan. We can see the Promised Land but we are not yet there. Again, Moses leads the people in a process of review. The story of the journey is retold. The rules are recounted. The Israelites see what has changed over the years of wandering and what has stayed constant. Joshua is appointed to lead them into the next phase of their journey. But we don’t see them get there. Just as they are completing stage 3, they find themselves, somehow in a new Stage 1. One journey morphs into another and the Torah ends in the middle of the story, without us ever having reached the Promised Land.
And then it begins again.

And it’s the same for us. If we are moving forward in healthy ways, we will never reach the Promised Land. We will always be reviewing, reconsidering and setting new goals. And just as with Torah, we will always return to a retelling of the stories of our genesis, remembering who we are, what we care about, how we came to this point in our journey and how we want to move forward in the year to come.

Stages 1 and 2 and 3 are just markers along the road. They overlap and cycle back upon themselves, and although it’s important to know where we are on the path and where we want to be, we must also remember that reaching the end of the journey also means beginning something new.

From the moment I met you all and joined in this journey with you, I have been excited by the vision the values the plans the successes and the challenges of this community. The transition from stage 1 to stage 2 took a lot of collaboration and a lot of work and a lot of people played a lot of different parts. Now, as we look ahead to stage 3, I can’t wait to see how our hard work and planning will play out and I’m so excited to discover what will happen when we reach the points where we will take stock and set our sights on new destinations.

May we always have the wisdom of our Torah, our Traditions and our Ancestors to guide us on our path. And may we be ever-aware of their voices in our lives.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.


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