Can You Make Change? (Yom Kippur Day 5778 Sermon, 9/30/17)

On December 4th 1960, President Eisenhower, and the American people, received the gift of a rare, white tiger named Mohini.  For years, Mohini lived in the Washington Zoo and spent her days pacing back and forth in a 12-by-12 foot cage.  Finally, the zoo decided to build her a larger outdoor park enclosure, so Mohini could run, climb, and explore. But, when she arrived at her new home, she didn’t rush out, eagerly adapting to her new habitat.  Rather, she marked off a 12-by-12 foot square for herself, and paced there until her death, never enjoying the new opportunities in front of her.  (As told by Rabba Sara Hurwitz, in Jewels of Elul IX, edited by Craig Taubman, 2015 + other facts from the internet)

In the words of Rabbi Sara Hurwitz :  “As we age, our brains are hardwired to reject change. We are conditioned to resist new challenges and remain within our comfort zones. However, growing older should not mean that we must exist within self-imposed boundaries…The shofar inspires us to free the Mohini inside and move beyond our boundaries.”

Our adult education/L.I.F.E. theme for this year is Transitions Happen: Can you make change? 

These High Holy Days encourage us to explore the cages in which we reside and, literally and figuratively, to think outside the box about how we might embrace changes for our future.

There are changes that are out of our control: the death of a loved one, or an unexpected diagnosis that turns our lives upside down; the job that ends abruptly or the one that changes because of relocation, a new deployment, or a merger or acquisition.  And there are other changes out of our control caused by events such as natural disasters, crime, accidents, crises, war, or terrorism often demanding major changes that we didn’t want and certainly didn’t ask for.

And there are changes that are a result of the fact that the world keeps changing.  People are constantly inventing, evolving, and discovering new technologies, science, cures, and possibilities previous generations could only dream of.  That Star Trek tricorder is no longer a figment of Gene Rodenberry’s imagination. There are real medical devices that do so much of what the fictional tricorder was supposed to do, from evaluation to diagnosis, and people are working daily to perfect the design.

The Epcot and World’s Fair visions of tomorrow, that we marveled at as children, are now in our homes, our schools, our businesses, and even our synagogues. The rabbis of old could never have dreamed of a Torah cam.

Changes happen rapidly today, especially in the world of technology, whether we are ready for them or not.

I say I can’t imagine being in a driverless car.  Me, give up control?  But then, I am on the Fairfax County Parkway praying that the person driving while texting and not looking at the road at all doesn’t kill someone.  Then, driverless cars don’t sound so bad.   It may be a change that could save lives.

My horoscope in the Beverly Hills Courier, on 7/21/17 said, “Remember that change is the only constant. Whatever is going on now, for better or worse is not going to last.  So why not be strong through it?  You want to look back and be proud of yourself.”

There are times that life demands change from us, and there are times that we demand or need change in order for life to be better for us.

What is the best way to change?

Years ago, Dr. Steven Danish, a Pennsylvania State University psychologist said, “I think people don’t understand how difficult it is to change behavior. You need to be setting a goal that you can think about and apply daily.” Dr. Danish suggested that the more specific your resolution and the more positive, the more likely you are to change, and the key to climbing the ladder of change is one accessible rung at a time.  (Elkins, Moments of Transcendence, RH, p. 97)

Change is built into the universe. It is a necessary part of living and aging.  Change not only happens to us; it is forged by us.

As I was hanging up New Year’s cards at home last week, I found a fortune that I got at a Chinese restaurant this summer, which I saved on my bulletin board: “Change is happening in your life, so go with the flow!”

 “Who are you?” said the caterpillar…

“I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was  when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” 

Alice in Wonderland knew that our bodies change every single day. And some of us are able to change our minds, as well.

On these High Holy Days, change is demanded by God, but not just any change – change for the better.  God only asks us to make changes that we can be personally responsible for, and changes that can be made with an act of contrition or atonement, like an “I’m sorry,” or a change in attitude or behavior – like getting a grip on anger, gossiping, or jealousy.  We are never asked to make change for the sake of making change. That rarely bares fruit.

As Reform Jews, we know that changes are often necessary to meet times and circumstances and current realities.  Our view of history teaches that Jewish survival, like human survival, requires us to change to stay relevant and to help us evolve for the betterment of humankind and to improve ourselves for the good.

I love the fact that the Hebrew word for “year” is “shanah,” and that the verb “to change” in Hebrew is also “shanah.”   One might say that change is built into every year.  And the Hebrew noun for change, “Shinui” comes from that verb “shanah.”

My value-added for this year of asking the question “Can you make change?” is to present a Jewish framework for change.  Perhaps the best framework comes from the Babylonian Talmud, in the section called Rosh Hashanah, page 16b.  Jewish tradition teaches that Rabbi Isaac said:

“Four things change a person’s fate, namely

  • tzedakah,
  • tze’akah (crying out) ,
  • Shinui ha’shem (changing one’s name) &
  • shinui ma’aseh (changing one’s conduct) … and some rabbis added:
  • shinui makom – changing one’s place.”

Tzedakah: I know for a fact that philanthropy and a practice of giving is at the heart of everything we aspire to be as human beings.  Judaism teaches over and over again that one must give of one’s substance to open one’s heart and see that you are not the only person in need.  It begins with the thing we seem most inclined to hold on to…our money.  Givers change the lives of others and in doing so open their own hearts to change.

We are living in the least philanthropic Jewish age in history.  Jews have forgotten to give Jewishly.  The generosity of the High Holy Day appeal sustained congregations for an entire year.  The Jewish community chest kept every indigent family fed and clothed.  Even a Jewish beggar is commanded to give a portion of what he has in our Jewish texts.

Today, more Jews give to their universities and non-Jewish causes than to Jewish ones.  And those of us who tithe as Jews, giving 10% of our gross income, willingly, as commanded in the Torah, is at an all-time low.  We are supposed to give tzedakah before we do anything non-essential for ourselves- before we buy luxuries, or take a vacation, or buy a new iPhone.

The practice of giving opens your heart in ways NOTHING else can.  Tzedakah more than any other Jewish value changes our fates and the fates of others. Tzedakah links us to the God within and helps us to become “vessels of God” in our world.  In a High Holy Day video message this week, I loved the idea put forth by Dean Josh Holo of HUC in LA:  Atonement lies in transforming your sins into a mitzvah.” And tzedakah is a phenomenal way to do that.

The second thing that changes our fate is:

Tze’akah (Crying Out):   It is not enough to post a rant on Facebook or Twitter.  You need to use your voice and your will to make effective change in the world through action.  Not speaking out against evil and wrong in our world is one of the greatest sins of all for Jews.

Even in times when our voices were silenced as a persecuted minority, we spoke out for righteousness and justice at personal peril.  Those who do not cry out against injustice are complicit to it.

And those who let others cry out for them, vote for them, be activists for them, or let others worry about what is good for our planet, fail to be God’s change agents in the world.

There are issues that obligate all Jews; issues that require TZE’AKAH –screaming out for the voiceless and most vulnerable everywhere.  There are people living in boxes smaller than 12X12. What are we doing to change that?

The third thing to change our fate is:

Shinui Ha’Shem – literally “taking a new name” “Change your name you change your mazel.”  But, imagine for a moment that you changed your name by changing the way you perceived yourself:  “I am not a loser, I am a winner.”  “I am not an outsider, I can be an insider.”  Let me tell you that I wasn’t popular at all in school. I was a brainy nerd.  It is still a marvel to me that people line up to talk to me at oneg.  Sometimes, I still can’t believe that little Amy Rosen is now Rabbi Perlin.  Think tall and you will be tall!

We are all nouns: wife, student, boyfriend, athlete, friend, classmate, neighbor, colleague, writer, artist, dancer, scientist, grandparent, and the list goes on.  But, the name change that is most important is the adjective we put in front of those nouns:  loving son, faithful friend, supportive sister, attentive caregiver, tireless volunteer,  caring person, good Jew.  Change your adjective in any relationship for the better and you will change your life.

The fourth category of change for the rabbis is:

Shinui Ma’aseh: Change what you do.  There are things we all do that could use improvement. We fall back on old habits and responses.  I have learned in all my years of counseling that people who make an effort to change, or improve one thing, find it easier to change the second and third thing. The first change is the hardest to make – going to therapy, giving up smoking or drinking, ending an unhealthy relationship. You can’t always anticipate every change ahead, but avoiding change doesn’t get you very far.  And, it is usually best to take one change at a time.

Rabbi Stephen Listfield and Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins teach:  “One of the many things that prevents us from changing is the enormity of the task. How can we be one way all our lives, and then suddenly, after a few days in synagogue, become another person: The truth is that we are being asked only to make small gradual changes each year. After many years, they add up, and putting the small changes together they become a very large improvement.  They give an example:

At a service honoring him in Jerusalem… a righteous Gentile who acted bravely for our people during the Holocaust said this:  “I did little; but if many had done their little, it would have added up to much.”

The rabbis conclude: Just by tending to our small corner of the world, we have the potential of making a great contribution.” (Elkins, Moments of Transcendence, RH, 98-99)

And some of those rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud add a fifth change… change your place.

To me this means living the Jewish axiom from the Mishneh, Pirke Avot 2:6 attributed to Hillel the younger, Hillel ben Gamliel: Bamakom sheayn anashim tishdadayl lhiyot ish.  “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be human.”

Sometimes, the toxic work place, or family, or community necessitates a move to an environment more conducive to living your values.   I am thinking of the girl who left her dysfunctional family to make a better and healthier life in a scary world, that proved to be safer than the one she came from. Or the woman who left her job because the work she was asked to do was contrary to her values and her faith.

And I will always admire the man who left a wonderful corporate job, because the dishonesty and lack of integrity at the top tainted everything he did, and he couldn’t live with that.  These changes of place take a great deal of courage, and a determination to live one’s values all the time, not just when it is convenient or profitable.

A woman proudly hung a needlework plaque on her mantelpiece that said, “Prayer Changes Things.” A few days later, the plaque was missing from its place. The woman asked her husband if he had seen it. “I took it down, I didn’t like it,” her husband replied.

“But why?” the woman asked.  “Don’t you believe that prayer changes things?”  “Yes, I honestly do,” her husband replied. “But it just so happens that I don’t like change, so I threw it away.” (Rabbi Eric M. Lankin DMin, as told in Elkins, RH Readings, p. 27)

I am not sure anyone one of us likes change, but just like prayer, sometimes we need it.    It’s up to you. You can put the plaque on your mantle or throw it away.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes:

“The High Holy Days teach us that we can change.  They challenge us to break the curse of apathy and begin to live more intensely, to care more deeply.  By becoming conscious of what we are doing, by being willing to change, we turn from serving time to living life. We create a new self more loving, more vital, more connected to others. ” (Elkins, Moments, p. 118)

Let’s try something:

Take a moment to sit and be still. When you are ready, think about the following:

Imagine yourself five years from now as you would most like to be.

  • What is the greatest source of your happiness?
  • What is the thing you have done that you are most proud of?
  • What is the contribution you’ve made to the world that brings your heart the most satisfaction?

Pause:  Now just more question:

  • What change or changes would you have to make to enable the answers in your heart to become the daily and continued reality of your life?

(based upon Moments of Transcendence p. 31 RH, from Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield in Seeking the Heart of Wisdom)

The questions are in your service folder to take home with you.  Think about them.  Can you make change?  What do you need to make change?  And as our tradition teaches, “If not now, when?”

In their meditation for change, Rabbi Irwin Kula and Professor Vanessa Ochs suggest we recite the following to God:

“God, help me to take a good look at my life and give me the courage to make the changes I want to make. Guide me on my journey as I strive to make good changes, in myself and in the world in which I live. [based upon a writing by Rabbi Irwin Kula and Prof. Vanessa Ochs in Elkins, RH Readings p. 230-232]

One last story:  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) told the story that he started out his rabbinic career wanting to change the world. After several years, he realized that was too hard, so he decided to change his community. Several years later, that goal was also abandoned as too difficult, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak chose to concentrate on changing his own family. We could have told him – Good luck with that!  He finally concluded that the only one he could really change was himself.

If we decide not to help ourselves, then we can’t possibly hope to make all the other repairs that are so desperately needed in this broken and divided world.

You can live in a 12 X 12 cage forever, or you can change yourself, and then your world and perhaps even someone else’s world for the better.

For Jews, the possibility to change is given by God. The desire to change is all up to us.

So I ask you, “Can you make change?”

Can WE make change.

I believe in you.