Monday, October 3, 2016

Let the Old Be Renewed and the New Be Made Holy - Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5777

L’shanah Tovah – it’s very good to see you here tonight! Welcome Home!
As I look out at the sea of familiar faces it feels like nothing has changed since last we all came together to greet another year. And yet, of course we all have changed – as much as we’d like to think that we haven’t.
This point was recently driven home to me at the Cherry Creek Mall. It’s not often that one has an epiphany at a shopping mall – but I did. A while ago, I found an old pair of pants in my closet -- my favorite jeans. You know the ones I’m taking about: they fit perfectly. They’re broken in -  in all the right places. They’re forgiving and comfortable.  I slipped them on, and, to my great chagrin – I couldn’t button them. Now it’s true that I hadn’t worn them in a few months -   but I had no idea how this could have happened:  maybe I washed them in hot water….. Anyway, as a result, I found myself at a large department store looking for a new pair.
It’s been a while since I’ve bought a pair of jeans. The salesman asked me what kind I wanted.
“Blue,” I said.
He smiled -  patronizingly - and asked, “Do you want traditional fit? Relaxed fit? Skinny fit? Slim, tall, retro?
Do you want Blue, washed blue, broken in blue, light wash blue, dark rinse blue……”
“I just want a pair of jeans,” I said.
He must have seen the pleading and glazed look in my eyes because he nodded his head, sized me up and said: “‘Relaxed Fit’.”
I told him my size and he found them and sent me off into a dressing room loaded down with several pairs of what my dad used to call “dungarees”. I slipped them on and, strangely, they were all too big. I called the salesman over and he said, “Hmmmm – try these.” And he handed me a pair of pants that were three sizes smaller than I had originally asked for. Now you need to understand, the last time I wore pants that size, I was in college and disco was cool. I told him that there was no way that they would fit. “Try them on anyway,” he said. And so I took that pair of ‘relaxed fit boot cuts’ and tried them on. They fit like a glove! It was amazing! I was 20 years old again! I was back in college. Man did I feel good!!!!
I bought 2 pairs….
“Those 2 days at the gym last month must have done the trick,” I thought to myself. “Maybe it was the salad I had for lunch…”
I came home, went into my bedroom and prepared to celebrate my newfound svelteness by purging my closet of all of my old pants.  But, just to be on the safe side, I slipped on a pair of slacks. You guessed it – not only were they not were too big…as a matter of fact – they were a bit snug.
It was then that I realized that “relaxed fit” was a code word for “three sizes too big”.
Today’s marketing wizards understand exactly how to motivate us – simply tell us what we want to hear:
They help us to see ourselves in the way that we want to be seen – the way that we used to be.
They provide us with the  momentary fantasy: that nothing has changed since we were young;
That’s the way to sell an awful lot of dungarees.
Truth be told, it’s not only sales people who try to paint a rosy picture of the present – we all do to some degree. We want to see ourselves like we do in the dressing room of a clothing store: reflected in the best light – unchanged, eternally young. We spend billions of dollars on cosmetics, clothing, and other gizmos and gadgets that are designed to slow the aging process and help us hold on to the fantasy of our seemingly better, youthful selves.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is reputed to have said that “the only thing that is constant in life is change.”  This is sometimes hard to accept, but it is the most basic truth that we know.
I recently read an article  about a group of Harvard University researchers who set out to find how people perceive change in their lives.  They asked a series of questions to different age groupings:  people in their 20’s, 30’s 40’s 50’s and 60’s.  They asked two basic questions:  the first was:  “how much have you changed over the past 10 years?”  The second question was:  “How much do you think you will change in the next 10 years.”

Their findings were fascinating.  In terms of how we tend to perceive change that has already happened, it is clear that the younger we are, the more we see the difference in the present from the past.  As we age, however, our perception of how we have changed decreases.  And this makes perfect sense. During our formative years – from adolescence through young adulthood – we are constantly experiencing new things:  leaving our families, going to school, starting new careers, beginning families… life is a constant state of flux.  But as we get older, for most of us, we get more set in our ways and the changes that were a constant in past decades become fewer and fewer.

The interesting aspect of the study for me was the fact that, even though we are pretty good at identifying the ways that we have changed in the past, most of us refuse to acknowledge the fact that we are constantly changing and that we will be changing in the future.  The study showed that, across the board, regardless of age, the fact that people had changed in the past had little if any bearing on their feeling that they might have more changes in store for them in the future.
But it’s not only in the arena of aging that we want to slow down, ignore or even reverse the effect of change – it’s endemic to almost every aspect of our lives. Tonight is Rosh Ha Shanah. Tonight we engage in the ancient and essential process of reflecting on the past year. Tonight, we have no choice but to see ourselves as we really are – not as we’d like to be seen – not in the words of the salespeople who flatter us – but as God sees us – stripped of the distractions and diversions that we create in everyday life. Tonight we come here to acknowledge the fact that, whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are changing – sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse – but we can no more stop the changes in our lives that we can stop the clock from ticking.

As we enter into a New Year, it is time to recognize that our congregation has changed over the past six years. Look at some key elements of our staff team:  Steve Stark has done an excellent job in his first year as our Executive director. We have a wonderful new Senior Cantor in Cantor Sacks.  Steve Brodsky is now our full-time Cantorial Soloist and Music Director, the wonderful and charismatic Zach Rolf is our new Director of Learning and Engagement – and that is just the tip of the iceberg – there are a myriad of changes in both staffing and program. Things look and feel different at Temple.

And, of course, we have seen and will see this displayed quite graphically in our High holyday services this year as we introduce our new Machzor - or High Holyday Prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh.  Over the past several months, all of us on the Clergy team have written, taught and spoken extensively about this new book.  We are excited about everything from the page layout, the non-gender specific God language, the transliteration of the Hebrew text and the interpretive poems, prayers and essays it contains.  Our new Machzor will, hopefully provide opportunities for everyone to engage, not only with the book itself, but also with the vitally important process of introspection, self-reflection, repentance and renewal that these 10 sacred days are all about.  But that is only a book.  The changes taking place at Temple are much deeper.

I know that while many of us are excited all of this newness, for some members of our community, change can be unsettling.  Traditions run deep here at Temple Emanuel.  This is my 7th year as your Senior Rabbi. I understand the importance of tradition – especially around the High Holydays. For example, by now I know who will be sitting in which rows in this sacred space – without even raising my eyes.  While we don’t have reserved seats, certain families have claimed the same spots for generations.  I also know who will fall asleep during my sermon.  I know who will be checking their watch to see how long I will speak. I know who likes the guitar.  I know who doesn’t.  I know who loves hearing the organ and the choir.  I know who would prefer NOT to hear the organ and the choir…..
I’m also keenly aware of the fact that, for many of us, there are empty seats in this sanctuary – seats that, just yesterday were filled by loved ones who were taken from us this past year; and we feel their loss especially keenly during this time of tradition and coming together.

There are those who want Temple to remain exactly the way it has always been – and there are those who want to see radical change overnight.  4 years ago, when we introduced Rosh HaShanah Unplugged and then Shema Koleynu a year later on Yom Kippur, some people felt left out:  This didn’t seem like their Temple Emanuel! Others asked the question:  What took you so long?

If we look at the numbers of attendees at our traditional High Holyday services, we can see that things are radically different now than they used to be.  Our early Erev Rosh Hashanah service used to be packed.  Not anymore.  Many of our members have elected to stay home with family and friends tonight – especially during the traditional service time.  Tastes and traditions are constantly in flux.

We have many new members at Temple Emanuel.  Our Religious School and Early Childhood Center are bursting at the seams.  This year, we will celebrate about 40 young people who are becoming bar or bat mitzvah.  Next year, that number will be close to 50. The year after that we will exceed 60. And that is great news. Our Early Childhood Center is bursting at the seams and many classrooms have waiting lists. We must be doing something right!  If we look at how, across the country, synagogue affiliation and participation is declining, we can be justifiably proud. But, at the same time, we still face many challenges ahead.  Documented research and anecdotal evidence about affiliation and engagement patterns in our community and around the country point out the unpleasant reality that, for many Jewish households – especially younger Jewish households – the role of the synagogue is rapidly changing. As I have repeatedly said from this pulpit, the traditional expectation of “Synagogue Membership” as we once knew it is no longer a given.  If synagogues are to remain relevant in the 21st Century, we must look at new forms and definitions of engagement and involvement.

Similarly, our membership looks different today than it did 20 or even 10 years ago.  We have many more interfaith households whom we welcome with open arms.  The number of single members in our community is growing.  Same-sex families and transgendered people increasingly see Temple as a safe and welcoming place to worship and celebrate being Jewish.  In addition to the many young families who are filling the classrooms in our Early Childhood Center and Religious School, we are seeing an increase in retirees who are coming to us looking for meaningful ways to become involved – and who want to be part of a caring community.
The Jewish world is rapidly changing.

I once heard it said that there are 3 ways to deal with change:
We can make things happen;
We can watch things happen;
or we can sit back and ask the question: “what happened?”
Our task – that of each of us who cares about this holy congregation: the clergy and staff, the leadership and all of our members – is to forge a partnership that will not only make things happen –but will create a dynamic environment where change and growth will be managed in a healthy way – where we will create an environment where our change is transformative – not additive; where we can celebrate our strengths and rejoice in the possibilities that lie before us.

Over the course of the past year, as we planned about how we would introduce our new Machzor at these high Holydays, our team of lay and professional leadership thought long and hard about the best way to introduce change.  A key principle of our process can in found in the words of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook who taught:
Ha Yashan Yitchadeysh V’HaChadash Titkadeysh
Let the Old be Renewed and the New be made Holy.
In other words, if all that we did to introduce change here at Temple was to discard the past, we would never succeed – we would have forsaken the beauty and power of our tradition.  But at the same time, we owe it to ourselves and our future to take measured risks: to explore new dimensions of program, of community building, of listening closely to the hopes, dreams and fears of our membership and crafting new modalities of engagement in our sacred community.
There will be change – but there also will be constants that will only grow stronger.

Make no mistake about it; we at Temple will continue to educate our children and adults about the sacred dimensions of our heritage. Shwayder Camp will continue to inspire our youth and create a magical experience of Jewish living every summer. We will worship together and celebrate holydays, festivals and important milestones.  We will continue to be a center of new and dynamic Jewish music for all.

We also will be there in times of difficulty:  providing comfort, consolation and community when we need it most.  We will continue to heed the prophetic call for justice and be a voice of conscience wherever and whenever it is needed.  We will reach out to feed the hungry and house the homeless.  We will educate and motivate our membership about key issues that face us.
On Erev Yom Kippur, at our Kol Nidre service, I will be introducing a new initiative for Temple called Family Promise that will enable our members to get directly involved in addressing the problem of homelessness in Denver.  I’m very excited about this hands-on opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who need our help. Stay tuned

My dear friends, we are a dynamic, growing congregation that is facing a tremendous amount of change. Change isn’t always easy -- but it is very exciting. No matter what we do – change will come. How we deal with it will impact who we are becoming. As we grow; as we work together to continue to create the holy community that is Temple Emanuel I ask that you join with me, our incredible staff team and our dedicated and hardworking leadership as we embrace all that is to come while celebrating all that we have been and that we are now.
Ha Yashan Yitchadeysh V’HaChadash Titkadeysh
Let the Old be Renewed and the New be made Holy.
As we anticipate the growth and the changes that are taking place around us, let us look back on the visionary leadership and the strong foundation upon which our congregation was built 141 years ago. Let us continue to be the caring and creative community of learners who are dedicated to Torah, spiritual growth and Tikkun Olam.
Ha Yashan Yitchadeysh V’HaChadash Titkadeysh
Let the Old be Renewed and the New be made Holy.
At the same time, let us move forward in our quest to grow with courage and commitment to the ideals of our faith and promise of the future.
May the coming year, 5777, be a year of growth and renewal. May we look ahead with confidence and have the faith to celebrate our past. May God continue to bless us with the light of Torah and the promise of peace.
L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu – May we all be inscribed for blessing in the New Year.

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