I Am Becoming Who I Am*: Transformation in Our Times of Change (Rosh Hashanah 2017)

In all of my years preaching from our bimah, I think the sermon about which I have received the most response is the one that described my character revealing challenges in the Whole Foods parking lot.  Speaking of which: What do you think of the new Whole Foods?  I know that many of you shop there, because I see you there all the time.  Even after a year of the new lay-out and new procedures, the new Whole Foods still unsettles me.  When I’ve observed my discomfort I’ve thought of you.  I’ve thought, every time congregants tell me that change in something as meaningful as synagogue life is difficult, I need to remember this — how disoriented I can feel about something so simple, as a new version of my grocery store.  Change– change of all kinds– is hard.  

Several years ago, a woman in our congregation came up to me just before a service began to share that she planned to sit in a different location than usual; she was letting me know because she did not want to throw me off.  She was so thoughtfully sensitive to the fact that: change—even indirect change– is hard.

Most of us find routines that bring us comfort, sometimes meaning.  There’s a group of Rodeph Shalom regulars–mostly young adults– who attend our Shabbat services, who consistently choose to sit in Row J — J for Jewish.

For those who are not new to the congregation, how many of you, each year at the High Holy Days, sit in about the same seat or neighborhood?   If I were to ask you right now to switch seats, how would you feel?   Don’t worry, I am not going to do that. We get comfortable.  But life brings change.  Sometimes superficial, but often profound.

The Talmudic sage Resh Lakish, teaches: Great is repentance, for it transforms.  A Midrash on the Psalms expounds: Great is repentance, for it preceded the creation of the world, as it is said, before the mountains were brought forth, You said, “turn, humanity.”  So, life changes; and when we also change; we, humanity, turn.  That’s tshuvah–repentance, transformation, growth.  These Days of Awe are our tradition’s mandate to do tshuvah, to occupy space differently.

For 16 years, I have been your rabbi; yet now I occupy space differently, as we enter a new relationship, which I look forward to marking with you at my upcoming installation as your senior rabbi.

For the past several months I have had the joy of gathering with congregants for meals. Thanks to a group of gracious funders, every adult congregant has been invited to these small groups, and we will continue to add dates giving every congregant who is interested, the opportunity to share in these intimate settings.  Our purpose has been to re-meet each other.  I have learned more about your personal journeys, and about the meaning you seek to bring to your lives.  For so many, this is not only a time that begins a new senior rabbi’s chapter, it is also a time of change on your own path.  Often, your participation is a way to bring transformation to transitional moments, as your own lives and relationships change.

Relationships change for us all; we know this when we take stock of our personal lives.

For families who are working to mend after a time of estrangement, for any of us who receives a worrisome diagnosis, for all of us who have been shaken by the hate in the world, the storms in the world, relationships change.

For the businessperson who reduces hours at the office to spend time with family, for the professional who is unemployed or underemployed, for the homemaker who returns to the office, relationships change.

For the parents who take their child to college for the first time…and then experience them home for college breaks for the first time; for the adult children who help aging parents into assisted living, for the widow living with loss; for the retirees downsizing their homes; for the couple facing infertility; for parents of adolescents such as myself, who begin to see their children spend less time in the house; relationships change.

The question is, in the face of all of this change, what is our response?  Will we face it, honor it, and allow it to transform us?  Will we grow?

In “The Parable of the Trapeze: Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear,” Danaan Parry writes:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.  Every once in a while, I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, coming to get me. I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one. I have a sneaking suspicion that this transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.”

Change management expert William Bridges teaches: “Every transition begins with an ending… that ending, even when ultimately for the good, inevitably involves some sense of loss.  In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative ‘neutral zone’ when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way either.  It is the time when repatterning takes place.”

These Days of Awe offer us the creativity, the repatterning and the potential of the neutral zone, that growth-filled time between trapeze bars.

This is our season for transformation.  And serving as a model for us, ours is a God of transformation.

One stream of Jewish philosophy called process theology, focuses on God as an inspiration for possibility and potential.  In the Torah, God is not static; even the divine moves through a journey.  God unfolds, learns, changes, modeling transformation for us all.   In the Torah when God first catches Moses’ attention at the burning bush, and meets Moses for the first time, God says: my name is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.”  Often translated as “I shall be who I shall be,” contemporary Rabbi Cindy Enger* translates, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh as “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.”

Every day of our lives, but especially in this season, we encounter the question: Who am I; and who am I becoming? These Days of Awe challenge us to do repentance.  Tshuvah, literally meaning turning, is a term of movement.  You cannot stand still and turn.  And so we join together in these holy days to turn inward to determine a path for who we are becoming, and then to turn in an intentional direction, to become who we are.

Some of you personify this perspective on potential, in even the most challenging of circumstances.   A member of our congregation granted me permission to share this story.  When this father in our Berkman Mercaz Limud religious school learned over a decade ago that he was going blind, he found the resilience to respond with transformation.  He would no longer have the ability to employ his vision as a hospitality professional in the hotel business, so he forged a new path and pursued his PhD, to teach hospitality and marketing as a scholar at a university.

When he shared with me the topic for his dissertation, I was moved.  As a person with a disability, he is exposed to discrimination or inhospitality in his every day experiences, such as in a retail store.  This sensitivity made him empathize with other groups who might confront discrimination in similar settings.  So he studied the experiences of transgender and LGBTQ individuals, as well as people with disabilities, in the marketplace.  His important work has the potential to create more inclusive experiences for people who are transgender, or who have disabilities, and has the potential to help businesses strengthen their marketing and service.  Change, even adverse change, propelled this man to transform himself and the world around him, and to make a deep impact.   He embodies those words: “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.

Sometimes our transformation is stirred by external changes; other times, by just seeing our own truth in a new light.  Several years ago, I learned that an old friend of mine entered a recovery program; he had wrestled with alcoholism for many years, but never really addressed it with serious treatment.  I sent him a letter to share my support.  Months later, I received a call from him.  He said that before the High Holy Days, he wanted the chance to thank me for my letter.  He did not have to do that; and no doubt, he had received many such letters.  Why did he respond to each of them personally?  My guess is that he sought to re-establish and grow his relationships, in light of his newly revealed truth.  The call helped us to connect, and to share mutually in his transformation.

Like most things in Judaism, transformation can be more real, and more supported when we connect with others. This morning in the Unetane Tokef prayer, as we sought to understand our destinies, we read: “Let us proclaim the power of this day– a day whose holiness awakens deepest awe.”  We did not say “Let me proclaim,” it’s us, all of us, who move through these days of tshuvah, bound together.

Our tradition guides our great transformation to happen in connection with others. Each of us endeavors toward individual growth, but we are not alone as we say:  Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.”

In the face of change, what is our response?  Will we face it, honor it, and allow it to transform us?  Will we grow?  In reading the plea found in the Psalms, “Do not cast me off when I am old,” 20th century thinker Martin Buber teaches, “the Psalm is not about my age; ‘Do not cast me off when I am old means: do not let my world become old.  Every day of our lives, but especially in this season, we encounter the question: Who am I, and who am I becoming?  Even God moves through a journey.

These Days of Awe challenge us to transform.  And so may we join together, to turn, to grow, that we may say Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, “I am who I am becoming; I am becoming who I am.