Parshat Vaetchanan – Transitions

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I delivered this dvar torah — sermon at the first joint Shir HaMaalotAltshul services on Friday, August 3, 2012.

This week’s Torah portion is about transitions. And transitions couldn’t be a more apropos theme for me as this is my last Shabbes in Brooklyn after seven years living and working in the wonderful Jewish community of New York City.

This parsha is one of the readings where Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the Land of Israel without him. Joshua is the new leader, the desert wandering is over. But denied permission repeatedly to go with them, Moses is downloading in a rush everything he feels they must remember when he’s not with them anymore: where they’ve come, where they’re going, the central tenants of their faith, like the Shma, the V’ahavta, the Ten Commandments and so on. It’s about transitions, leadership and fear of change.

There is an incredible midrash about the reluctance of Moses to turn over leadership. Moses prays so hard his prayers are described as swords that batter down the gates of heaven! He begs the elements and planets to intercede on this behalf! The greatest angels refuse to bring his soul to heaven and the Angel of Death is thrown to the ground while trying. Moses consents to die only when the Almighty offers to personally escort Moses to heaven. But even then, Moses stalls with final speeches to the people of Israel. (He also inaugurates the tradition of long Jewish goodbyes.) The dialogue is actually incredible when God finally says to Moses, in essence, “Yo, Mo, I’m gonna count to three:—  one…two…two and a half…” And then and only then is Moses’ soul taken from his body and Joshua able to lead the people into a new era. It’s a spectacular example of bad leadership, bad transitions.

When we think about leadership qualities today, we’ve made notable progress from back when society thought leaderly qualities were inborn. Now we see that changemakers lead from behind as well as in front. And we see the difference between technical leadership that knows how to fix a given problem and transformative leadership that answers uncertainty in times of tectonic change. Most of the very big problems in our world require leadership that helps us adapt to future uncertainty: we seek a permanent shift in people’s attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors.

Working on those very big problems is exhausting. Like the change demanded of a stiff-necked people glacially slow to change during 40 years in the desert. And of course it’s hard — being called out to change your ways sparks embarrassment, frustration, rejection, self-doubt, and resistance. And it seems there’s a neverending march of things we could do better, do differently: the way we talk, the things we consume, where we love, who our friends are, and more. As soon as one issue is fixed, there is still another to solve. Is there no comfort for someone trying to do good?

Saul Alinsky, the Jewish sage of what we now call community organizing, connects this perpetual struggle to Sisyphus:

If we think of the struggle as a climb up a mountain, then we must visualize a mountain with no top. We see a top, but when we finally reach it, the overcast rises and we find ourselves merely on a bluff. The mountain continues on up. Now we see the “real” top ahead of us, and strive for it, only to find we’ve reached another bluff, the top still above us. […]

Knowing that the mountains have no top, that it is a perpetual quest from plateau to plateau, the question arises, “Why the struggle, the conflict, the heartbreak, the danger, the sacrifice. Why the constant climb?” […] Because life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys in a dreamless day-today existence whose only purpose is the preservation of an illusory security and safety. The latter is what the vast majority of people choose to do, fearing the adventure into the unknown. Paradoxically, they give up the dream of what may lie ahead on the heights of tomorrow for a perpetual nightmare – an endless succession of days fearing the loss of a tenuous security.

This is fear of transitions. Leading is about changing, social change is about changing society. We must push on people’s growing edge. We must instigate productive discomfort. Because, Alinsky says, to inappropriately rush the change so that you’re no longer heard by the people you’re trying to reach is in effect to silence yourself. He points out that silence is most often interpreted as assent to the system. We’re selling a leap of faith: leave behind your way of live, your comforting symbols, the place where you were born, and join me in the wilderness with my invisible god and nothing but a promise of milk and honey…

Last week for Tisha B’Av, we mourned the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. Those events forced a paradigmatic transition for our people – from sacrifice to prayer, from self-governance to exile, from one model of leadership to the next.—  In our own time, we see plenty of change coming with uncertain results. Which President we’re going to have in just three months. Change is scary.

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But following Tisha B’Av, this week begins Shabbat Nehamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, when Isaiah in this week’s haftarah assures us that after exile comes redemption. The prophet Isaiah invokes a comforting vision of the future (poetic translation mine):

Take comfort, comfort, my people

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem

And tell her that the discomfort is over

The trying period is done

And its difficulty has been double.

And so a voice rings out in the desert!

Make a road leading to Eternity!

Remove the obstacles and make a road

Every valley will be raised

Every mountain will be lowered

Uneven ground will be smoothed

And obscuring terrain will be become open spaces.

To our exiled ancestors, this sounded like a road back home from exile. But it reminds me of the valleys of a dreamless day-to-day existence and the mountain of Alinsky’s Sisyphus. “Every valley will be raised, every mountain will be lowered.” Isaiah is painting a better future: where love and human potential are raised above fears and prejudices; where mountainous obstacles preventing equality because of race, class, gender, religion, disability, and citizenship are paved away; where stumbling blocks are smoothed before the blind, and where humankind lives with itself openly, sustainably, charitably, peacefully.

What productive discomfort did we lead here in New York, in Brooklyn, over the past seven years? Remember before there was gay marriage in New York, before there was a NY domestic workers bill of rights? Remember when lots of us took employment for granted? Remember before there was dancing in these streets as a black man was elected President of the United States? Remember Brooklyn before it was cool?

Remember when synagogues didn’t want independent prayer groups in their halls? Remember a Labor Day before everyone was fundraising for the Hazon Jewish Environmental Bike Ride or their AJWS foreign service trip? Who remembers when nobody had heard of Matisyahu? Or before the plethora of groups working on issues from peace in the Middle East to poverty, and before Altshul and Shir HaMaalot!

These were all dreams of a different type of community. We shouldn’t undersell the struggle of the future, but damn how far we’ve come.

On this Sabbath Nehamu, we assure ourselves that despite difficult transitions and necessary discomfort there is consistency to the universal human drama, that eternal truths do exist, that there is a time for everything under the sun – like rest and healing too – and that the arc of history is long, hard and sweaty but does bend towards justice. This parsha says instead of “Because I took you out of Egypt, you shall love the stranger,” it says “Because I took you out of Egypt, you shall remember the Sabbath.” Rest, be comforted, do not fear change, it can and does lead to betterment.

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Transitions are such fraught and difficult tasks, especially when we’re trying to be better person, trying to live with someone who is gone, taking relationships to new depths, trying to hand off leadership to successors, embarking towards new frontiers.

What are the transitions you face this season, especially as we look towards the High Holidays? What solace are you seeking this Shabbat? What productive discomfort do you fear but should not? Where have you been asked to step move from technical leadership to transformative leadership? What transformation is asked of you?

On your journeys internal and external, here and abroad, I wish you safety and serenity and comfort so that you can not only climb that mountain, but when you hear the call in the wilderness – “Make a road!” – you can — level that mountain to the ground.

Shabbat shalom, Brooklyn, and goodbye.