As most of you will know, I am in my final year as Senior Rabbi of TBI. I plan to retire before the high Holydays next year. My retirement has given a special poignancy to these High Holydays for me, and it has actually presented me with some unforeseen challenges in preparing for them. These challenges have become part of my transition, the transition from Senior Rabbi to Rabbi Emeritus, which will transform me – to borrow an expression I understand is popular in management circles – from being a “rabbinic rooster” to being a “rabbinic feather-duster”.
Some people say that transitions are part of life, but they are mistaken. Transitions are life. In a profound sense, they are what give life meaning. As we read every Kol Nidre in the poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine, life is constantly in motion: “Birth is a beginning, and death a destination. And life is a journey….” Within the journey that we call life, certain moments stand out. They are markers on the way, and they have special capacity to give direction or meaning to our journey. These are the moments of transition. They actually make life worth living. Without them, life has no meaning, it is directionless, there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to mark our progress. Without transitions, we may exist, but we don’t truly live.
Although transitions occur in all aspects of life, those that fall within a religious context – within our Jewish living – have an added dimension, a dimension of kedusha, of holiness. Again, following the poem by Alvin Fine, they transform life’s journey into an aliyah kedoshah, a sacred pilgrimage. These are the events that change our image of who we are; they transform our world. They include giving birth, with the attendant rituals of brit-milah for boys and simchat-bat for girls; marking our coming of age by reading and explicating Torah as bar-mitzvah and bat-mitzvah; marriage and the wedding ceremony under the chuppah; fare-welling those we have loved with the rites of death, burial and mourning.
The man considered by many to be the father of sociology, August Comte, identified birth, marriage and death as the transformative moments in life because with them the world changes before our eyes. At birth a new human being literally comes into existence; at marriage two people from different backgrounds and circumstances literally become one, forging a new family unit, a “bayit beYisrael,” in society; at death someone who has occupied a space in the world and in our hearts is no longer physically present in our world. To these formative experiences we Jews, alongside many other cultures and faith traditions, add coming of age, a transformative moment for both the individual and the community, when the child marks his or her transition into adulthood, taking on responsibilities within the framework of the community. At a bar- or bat-mitzvah the world of Judaism contains one less child and one more adult, someone who now counts for a minyan though they never did before.
These are our religious transitions, and there is no wonder that they are the very life-blood of a Jewish community. The more we have of them, the stronger our sense of purpose and wholeness as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred congregation. We all know this from our experience as Jews at TBI; there is nothing surprising in what I say. But what is surprising, therefore, is the fact that the numbers of these celebrations in our congregation is dropping. We are having fewer bnei-mitzvah, fewer chuppot and even fewer brit-milah and simchat-bat ceremonies. The Jewish population of Melbourne is growing, but our celebration of transitional events is not keeping pace. Something has gone wrong. We are not grasping the transformational power of these ‘rites of passage’.
There are, of course, many explanations for this. With new shuls being founded virtually every day (or so it seems), the Jewish population is spread more thinly over them. Also, strange as it may seem, many members of TBI are actually going to other shuls for their simchas. But these are not the areas I wish to address this evening. The area that concerns me tonight is societal. We are deeply influenced by the patterns of social behaviour and thinking around us, and the trend for many years has been away from a focus on community and towards radical individualism. In other words, our sense of responsibility towards and within the congregation is diminishing. When we believe that these rites of passage exist only for our own benefit, abstracted from their religious moorings in the Jewish community, we are in danger of losing the sense of the holy in them, the transformative nature of what we do. These moments are no longer a celebration of Judaism, but rather, a celebration of the individual - the self. Our transitional experience is no longer seen as part of a “sacred pilgrimage”; rather, it is simply another excuse for a party. And this means that they become dispensable, in a way that a person driven by religious motives would not see them as dispensable but indeed as mandatory for a complete life.
I have been talking about transitional moments that are marked within our tradition. There are, as well, many moments of transition which are not traditionally part of the Jewish world-view. Yet, for those for whom Judaism is a central part of their self-definition as a human being – in other words, who cannot conceive of themselves other than as Jewish – it is essential that these nontraditional moments of transition also have a Jewish context. So, for example, the Australasian edition of the siddur Mishkan T’filah contains prayers for such life-events as “taking an examination”, “a child leaving home or traveling”, “ending a relationship”, “before surgery” and “after surgery”, “suffering from depression”. One might go so far as to say, if a religion doesn’t address these events in a human life, then of what relevance is it?
I think that, for too long, this is a question that many of us have been asking ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not; but we have not taken action to correct the situation. Nonetheless, each of these situations, and many others not here covered by prayers, can be sacred transitional moments for us; moments of new direction and meaning. For example, there is no prayer in Judaism for retirement, a time - I am beginning to appreciate - of significant transition. In common with so many other transitional moments, including changing school, going to university or taking on a job for the first time, re-entering work after having a child, being made redundant, changing a career path, and many more, retirement can be the gateway to a new life; or it can effectively mark the end of life. Every transition functions in this way.
Someone who is considered a guru in the area of managing transitions, William Bridges, describes transitions as comprising three stages. The first stage is letting go. This involves no longer seeing the world in terms of what was previously the everyday reality; fare-welling the past without forgetting or rejecting the past. There are significant similarities in this process of letting go with the nature of bereavement. In this stage, transition is less about taking on the new, than it is about giving up the old. That makes it very risky, as well as painful. We all know how difficult it can be to let go of old habits, traditions, preferences and positions. But, according to Bridges, this is the first step in transitioning from one life situation to another. There is a misunderstanding that is sometimes expressed about letting go, that we are betraying the past, or not giving our history its full due – that we are dishonouring the past by letting it go. This view is stultifying and incorrect. On the contrary, the past will always remain a part of us; it formed us, and we honour it best by acknowledging the strength and confidence it has given us to move on.
Bridges calls the second stage the ‘neutral zone.’ Anthropologists might refer to it as the liminal phase, an interval of time during which the transition has not yet been confirmed. It is a most difficult, generally lengthy and often uncomfortable period of in-between-ness, when we are no longer able to rely on the stability of past practice and yet our future direction is not yet clear. The third stage is the period of new beginnings, when our future begins to take on a design or pattern of meaning; we can start to see where it is taking us. When we enter that stage of renewal, the journey no longer feels like we are wandering through the wilderness. It is a homecoming. Life‘s journey once again takes on the character of a “sacred pilgrimage”.
It is not only individuals who go through transitions that mark their lives with sanctity. Our communities do the same. This is bound up with the notion of change, a notion which so many of us find bewildering and even frightening. Religious communities in particular resist change, because they think in terms of many lifetimes, of generations, l’dor vador. In general, they view time as an endless series of cycles with only a distant, amorphous sense of goal, often expressed in terms of a messianic vision. Jewish communities are no different from other communities in this respect. So, there is little impetus for change. We commonly hear people say, The way we do things was good enough for my parents, it’s good enough for me, and it’ll be good enough for my children and grandchildren, too. When things ain’t broken, why fix them?
But the falling number of life-rituals that we celebrate at TBI, the lack of connectedness of so many of our members even – especially - at those transitional moments in their lives, the absence of a sense that the journey is indeed a “sacred pilgrimage”, suggest that things are broken. More to the point, change happens, whether we will it or not. The question is not whether things will change; the question is, Will we direct the change or endure it; will we be proactive or reactive?
This is where the notion of communal transitions becomes so important, far more important than we at TBI have ever acknowledged, certainly over the past 15 years. According to William Bridges and other change gurus, change is what happens outside of us and impacts on us. Transition is what happens within us, how we adapt to change and make it work for us. Transition is an inner process, a process of adaptation and acceptance. When I see my retirement as a transition, I am acknowledging that I have to do some work on myself in order to accept the changes that will occur. Of course, those changes will happen whether or not I am prepared for them. But what makes this a true transition is my state of preparedness. Have I let go of my past perceptions of myself and my life situation, including my sense of status based on my position? Am I ready to travel through the ‘neutral zone’ and allow that things may feel uncomfortable and uncertain for awhile? And will I be ready, when the time comes, to grasp the opportunities that present themselves for the renewal and re-patterning of my life?
So, too, with this congregation. We have already begun the transition with the hiring of new staff; most notably this evening we can mention the creation of a cantorial position which has already been filled – brilliantly, I might add - but requires much more financial support from the community; providing appropriate financial support is part of the transition. We have an associate rabbi who, having enlisted the active support of a small army of volunteers, has begun to transform our children’s and youth activities; though there is still far to go. We have over the years, and again with the active involvement of dozens of volunteers, created religious and pastoral support networks that are the envy of other synagogues right across Melbourne and indeed Australia.
These efforts mark the beginning of our transition, and they have required a difficult stage of letting go. Alas, many in this congregation have not been participants in this process. They are still spiritually and psychologically living in their parents’ era. The hardest thing is to let go of the past without feeling that we are betraying the past. But the contrary is the case. If we fail to accept change, we dishonour those who created this great congregation, and who knew full well that change is inevitable and transitions are what take control of change and give change its meaning. Their very act of establishing TBI was a moment of transition, an act of faith.
When I retire next August, we shall be entering the ‘neutral zone’. As a new Senior Rabbi takes his or her post, the direction of TBI for the next several years of its life will gradually take form, and the period of renewal will begin – a ‘new beginning’ for our community. This transition will take huge effort from every member of this congregation. Every single person, from the most active to the least engaged, will play a role in determining how successful the transition is handled. Now is the time to start preparing ourselves for it.
We need hardly ask why all this is relevant to Yom Kippur? Yom Kippur itself is a period of transition for us. The past year has ended. A new year has begun. We are in the ‘neutral zone’, honouring and at the same time letting go of the past; preparing ourselves for the unknown future that awaits us; and praying that God sees us through. May God see us through.
Ken y’hi ratzon.