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Shinui Tov: Towards A Year of Good Change

09/27/2017 09:19:20 AM


Rabbi Laura J. Abrasley

Rabbi Abrasley delivered the following sermon on Rosh Hashanah 5778, Sept. 20, 2017.
I discovered the music of glam-rocker David Bowie my senior year of high school. Or rather I discovered one song of Bowie’s, a classic he released when I was still a baby. I played it over and over and over again throughout that last year of high school (most likely to the annoyance of my parents).  I first heard the poignant lyrics during a youth group friendship circle. The song resonated deeply with the angst I felt in my late adolescence.

Bowie’s melodic keyboard opening and the stuttered vocals of his famous chorus bring me right back to the anxious, excited sense of uncertainty I felt during that transformational year. I still like to sing it loudly in my car with the windows rolled down.

Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes … (1)

These lyrics became an anthem for me during a moment in my life that felt swirling with change.

Some of this change was expected:

  • graduation from high school
  • finding the right college to attend
  • moving out of my parent’s house.

And some completely unexpected:

  • a parent divorcing again
  • a beloved great-grandmother’s passing
  • a longtime childhood friend moving away.

The song’s lyrics speak of defying the critics, believing in your ability to step out on your own, and the possibility that you can always reinvent yourself. I loved the message of optimism about the changes I was experiencing. Bowie reminded me that not only would I make it through these changes, but that they had the potential to alter me in ways I could never imagine.

We find ourselves again at that season of change in the Jewish calendar. Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, literally translated as the ‘beginning’ or ‘head’ of the ‘year’. Many of you used a familiar greeting upon seeing family and friends tonight, wishing one another a Shanah Tovah – a ‘good year.’

The Hebrew word shanah, found in both phrases Rosh HaShanah and Shanah Tovah is quite interesting. The root – shin, nun, hay – has multiple meanings. In both biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, these meanings could be understood as polar opposites. One meaning of words containing this root is ‘repeat,’ as in sh’nayim (a word used for ‘two’) or as in mishnah (a word used to describe a style of Jewish learning that involves students repeating the words of their teachers). 

Using the word to connote ‘year’ makes sense in this context. We are about to repeat the Jewish calendar, to cycle again through the seasons and celebrations and stories found in our tradition. If we follow this explanation, we could translate Shanah Tovah as ‘good repeating’ and Rosh Hashanah might be ‘beginning of the repeating.’

But the root carries an additional meaning in Hebrew. Shin-nun-hey can also imply the meaning of ‘to change or to alter.’ Most of us are familiar with this word during the Passover seder when we sing the four questions, mah nishtahnah ha’laila ha zeh – why is this night different or changed from the others? If this definition feels more accurate, we could translate Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of change. And we would wish each other a Shinui Tov – a ‘good change. (2)

The second translation of shana as change becomes even more compelling when we broaden it to incorporate the ritual practices within these holidays. A core High Holy Day theme is engagement with return and renewal, a call to come back and embrace the changes a new year provides. The liturgy and symbolic ritual that surround these days guide us to examine ourselves and our relationships in order to determine how we can be better and do better in the coming year.

We even have a built-in mechanism for change present in one of the practices used to prepare for the holiday. This season calls for chesbon hanefesh (the accounting or checking our souls). We reflect on the past year: what went right, what perhaps did not go as we might have hoped, how we might celebrate our successes, forgive our challenges, and where in the coming year we might make the necessary changes so as to live the life we want to live.

How beautiful that we are commanded to ritually reflect on the changes that have happened and ritually prepare for the changes that will come.

Judaism teaches that engaging in this reflective process can move us towards living our life to its fullest potential. As the Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “Teach me … to make a fresh start; to break yesterday’s patterns, to stop telling myself I can’t, when I can; to stop telling myself I am not, when I am; to stop telling myself I am stuck, when I am imminently free. (3)

I suspect many of you will also agree with me when I point out another certain truism about change. Change is hard. And sometimes change is quite painful, most often when comes unexpectedly. Furthermore, we like to label hard, unexpected change as ‘bad’ and welcome, expected change as ‘good.’ Good change is change we want: a sought-after promotion at work, a business risk that paid off, a beloved finally saying yes to a marriage proposal. Bad change feels outside of our control. Something that happens to us: a job loss, a spouse asking for divorce, a devastating life-threatening health diagnosis.

In truth, we humans do not really enjoy change. We prefer routine, the predictability of our lives, of knowing what to expect. We resist change even when we know deep down in our soul that clinging to old habits or expectations may not be in service to our higher selves.

In our defense, the resistance to change may not be entirely our fault. The human brain is wired to work against us. Our amazing brains, with their incredible social, emotional, conceptual, and linguistic abilities, also have a tendency to habituate, to figure out how to effectively do the same thing over and over. Studies suggest this tendency proves useful in completing our daily repetitive tasks. Couple that with the hardwiring found in the human brain related to the fight or flight response, our propensity to perceive possible danger and react quickly, and you have all the makings of humans as expert change avoiders. (4)

Turns out these protective mechanisms do not always serve us in our efforts to effectively cope with the modern change. Mastering change today requires a willingness to work against our human nature, to develop flexibility and adaptability, and a readiness to creatively work around a situation we may have not encountered before. Many other living creatures inherently possess the dexterity to regularly change course. If you doubt that this flexibility occurs in nature, I invite you over to watch my dog change her tactics for hours on end when she wants to get a piece of cheese I’ve hidden in a toy. While it is also true that she craves routine which you can see if you come by at 6 p.m. during dinnertime, she seems to also possess a natural disposition to change and adapt as a situation demands. (5)

Judaism’s vibrancy in today’s ever changing world is a result of our tradition of embracing change. I beg to differ with those who believe Judaism’s staying power resides only in keeping tradition. Actually, Judaism endures precisely because we have a history, a legacy, of adapting to change. When I read the Hebrew Bible, story after story recounts the ancient Israelites as a people who embrace unexpected change. These biblical characters evolve with the story, adjusting, and advancing with remarkable persistence.

And when dramatic change comes, they figure that out too. Consider for example what might have happened if our ancestors resisted the thrust upon them change that occurred when the great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. For our ancient ancestors living in Temple times, the only worship option occurred through a specific set of sacrificial rites conducted at the Temple in Jerusalem. The last book of our Torah, Deuteronomy, dedicates many verses in an effort to solidify this practice as the only way to legitimately connect with God.

But then things changed. The Temple was gone. So we rebuilt – trying desperately to avoid change, to keep things the same.

Then the Romans destroyed the Temple a second time. And made sure to erase any possibility of rebuilding.

The Israelites could not go back. They could only go forward. They had to change.

The rabbis of the Talmud re-imagine and create the beginnings of a service filled with prayer and song designed for worship outside of the Temple structure. Our contemporary prayer practice reflects elements of this re-imagination. And Judaism today, especially the progressive movements, employ and embrace this value of adaptability and evolution. We encounter change. We consider the potential. We evolve our tradition. We reap the benefits of a new understanding previously unimagined.

In her book How to Survive Change … You Didn’t Ask For, author M.J. Ryan lists seven truths about change.

  1. Change is the one thing you can count on.
  2. Change is not personal.
  3. Your thinking about change is not always your friend.
  4. Change isn’t the enemy. Fear is.
  5. There’s a predictable emotional cycle to change.
  6. You’re more resilient than you might think.
  7. Your future is built on a bedrock that is unchanging. (6)

Ryan presents a fundamental premise about the inevitability of change and the human reaction in response. She proposes that instead of being change avoiders, we become Change Masters who acquire a “mastery with change, [a] capacity to adapt easily without losing our center – our values, our talents, our sense of purpose. (7)

I found myself drawn to her reminder that change can be powerful and positive, even when our initial response is as if this change is something happening to us. She encourages the reader to find the gifts provided by all the changes that occur over our lifetimes – ones we pursue, ones we expect but perhaps resist, and even ones that take us by surprise because we never saw them coming. She acknowledges that change hurts. That it can be painful, sometimes devastatingly so, but suggests “there is always a gift to be found in what happens to us, and it helps to create emotional resolution (and perhaps resilience) to look for what that might be." (8)

As I reflect over the past year I do indeed see a remarkable year of change – in our country, in our synagogue community, perhaps in our own families and likely for each of us individually. Some of these changes are welcome. We experience them as an opportunity for exciting, albeit unexpected, growth. Some of these changes challenge us to our core. We cannot yet see the gift within the wound of pain. We need time to examine the cause before we can incorporate the change in our life.

The novelist Dorothy Allison wrote, “Change, when it comes, cracks everything open.' (9) May this season of change, this Rosh HaShanah, this Rosh Shenui, this ‘beginning of change,’ allow each of us to crack ourselves open to the possibility brought by life’s expected and unexpected change experiences.

Give us the insight with which to craft a nimble flexibility that will serve us in our journey to navigate the inevitable.

Create within us a spiritual adaptability so that we may breathe into change and greet obstacles with a gentle holding of the fear and a powerful push towards the unexpected.

May we recognize the life-altering gifts brought by change as an opportunity towards knowing ourselves, knowing the ones we love most and ultimately drawing us towards knowing You, the Divine source of all change.

Kein Yihi Ratzon – may this be God’s will.

(1) David Bowie. “Changes.” Hunky Dory. December, 1971.

(2) I relied heavily on my wellworn copy of The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon and a few of my Hebrew speaking friends in working out how to define and translate the Hebrew root shin-nun-hey.

(3) Moshe Mykoff and S.C. Mizrahi. The Gentle Weapon: Prayers for Everyday and Not-So-Everyday Moments – Timeless Wisdom from the Teachings of the Hasidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. 2012.

(4) Ideas about change influenced by: M.J. Ryan. How to Survive Change … You Didn’t Ask For. 2009. Pages 19-24.

(5) Ibid.

(6) M.J. Ryan. How to Survive Change … You Didn’t Ask For. 2009. Pages 13-36.

(7) Ibid. Page 5.

(8) Ibid. Page 105.

(9) Dorothy Allison. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. 1996. Page 48.

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780