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On Transitions

Column for Guide to Congregation Rodfei Zedek, 5772
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel (September 2011)

This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of our journey of transition.  The journey has a mid-point:  the day after Simchat Torah of 2012, when I begin my sabbatical.  Then, in June of 2013, we reach the endpoint.  By then, I shall have spent 25 memorable and wonderful years at Congregation Rodfei Zedek, and intend to begin a new path, serving congregations around the country, as an interim or “transition” rabbi.  My prayer for all of us in the New Year is that the transition be a blessed one.

What is it that makes for a “blessed” transition?

It is not surprising that there are at least three words in Hebrew for “transition.”  The ancient biblical words for transition are eye-opening.  I find them helpful as I contemplate our transition.  I believe that they hold the key to blessing in the transitional enterprise of which we are all a part.  I dare say that most of us are in transition more often, more regularly and more routinely than we realize.  Transition is a constant factor in our lives, in the lives of those close to us, and in the life of the community.

The first word for transition is ma’avar, which means to “cross over,” to “pass through” (as in a land or city) or even to overflow (cf. Isaiah 23:10, who speaks of passing through a land “as a stream”).  The very name, Ivri, “Hebrew”, comes from this root.  Hebrews are those who make transitions, who cross over when they feel that God is moving them from one routine and one perspective to another.  It is wrong to obstruct such transitions, whether of peoples or of individuals, as the biblical King Sichon learned when he would not let the Israelites pass through his land (Numbers 1:23).  We have to recognize transitions and allow them to happen.

In the word, ma’avar, I see the word, me-avar or “from the past.”  We are nurtured by our past relationships with communities, and by their pasts which become a part of us.  We do not merely pass through communities in which we have participated.  I am truly fortunate to have benefitted from Congregation Rodfei Zedek’s past and to have helped to shape it.

In the coming months, we shall continue to build on the programs and values and culture of our past together at Rodfei Zedek:  our heritage of the musical classics at High Holy Day services, at the sanctuary and family services alike; our utilization of local talent as in-community speakers and as responders to speakers from the larger community; our commitment to being a “community of learners,” one that is willing to learn in new ways in our programs for children and for adults.  We are delighted to welcome back our High Holy Day Cantor/Composer Jonathan Miller, and to welcome our Cantor/Educator, Rachel Rosenberg, who has been working all summer at adding additional content and meaning to our Family Institute for Jewish Living and Learning.

A second Hebrew word for “transition” is shinui, which literally means “change.”  Our sacred writings teach us that God is steadfast and does not change.  “Lo shaniti,” the Prophet Malachi echoes God as saying, “I have not changed.” (Malachi 3:6).  We human beings, however, do change, for the better or for the worse, for good or for evil.  We therefore need to regard life as a transition from lesser to more, from good to better in the moral and spiritual sphere. That is what teshuvah is all about—“teshuvah” being the term for the process of introspection and repentance (change) that characterizes these Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

After all, the word for year, “shanah,” is related to shinui meaning “change” or “transition.”  So we all go through an annual transition.  In all likelihood, we transition more frequently: every time we decide to change our lives, to refocus or redirect ourselves morally and spiritually.  According to the Bible, our faces literally change when we have transitioned for the better. (See Ecclesiastes or Kohelet 8:1.)  If even fine gold changes (Lamentations 4:1), then we, who are creatures of change, change more than we think, more often than we think.  We need to take charge of changing wisely.

The third biblical word for “transition” may be one of the harshest in the biblical concordance. This is the word, chiluf, which means to “move on” in the way that the grasses sprout anew after the old sproutings have dried up and passed away.  The word is found in the 90th Psalm, often read at funerals and in the Yizkor (“God will remember”) memorial prayers, recited at the conclusion of our cycles of Festivals, which says that we mortals are “like sleeper…like the morning grass that passes (chaluf); in the morning it flourishes and fades (chaluf), by nightfall it is withered and dry.” (verses 5-6).

At its most extreme, transitioning away can mean to pass away, to pass from the scene.  But more often the verb means to “exchange,” as to exchange coins, to transact a passage or a complete a deal, or simply to “change.”  The Psalmist reminds us that change is healthy when he observes that the wicked do not change their ways, or even think of changing. (Psalm 55:20).

The verb, chalaf even suggests a change of garments in order to emerge from unhealthy inertia, as when the Patriarch Jacob, moved by a Divine summons, charged his household:  “Put away the strange gods that are among you, and make yourselves clean, and change your garments (v’ha-cha-lifu et simloteichem); and let us arise, and go up to Beth-El; and I will make there an altar to God,  Who answers me on the day of my distress, and Who was with me on the way on which I went.” (Genesis 35:2-3)

So transition need not be a passing away.  Better a prudent and healthy passage, a healthy exchange, as it were, from one situation and one set of challenges to another, with the emphasis on “healthy.”  Indeed, the first term for “transition,” ma’avar, can mean to “overstep” or to “transgress.”  Each path to transition has its negative aspects.  A blessed transition is one that is healthy, without recriminations and suspicions and second guessing and unrealistic clinging to the past.

We know that a transition has become healthy, rather than awkward or troublesome, as soon as we no longer need to call attention to it.  Hopefully, this happens early in the transitional phase. The old radio shows, like The Shadow, had to call attention to the passage of times and scenes because the audience was unable to see the transitions.  So a character would have to begin dialogue by saying, “Here it is the next day.”  In transitions, congregations, like individuals, need to live each day by focusing on the tasks and activities that move us toward fulfilling the needs of coming days and years.

How do we keep transitions healthy?  Two modern Hebrew words for “transition” are helpful. The negative word, setiah (which goes back to Talmudic times) can mean “deviation,” “digression,” “deflection,” as well as “transition.”  It reminds us what not to do and how not to behave if a transition is to be blessed and successful.  The other more recent term for transition, geshirah, comes from the word gesher, “bridge.” It sees transitions as a “bridging” from one person to another, from one situation to another.

God grant that all our transitions are wise and constructive bridges, a good metaphor for the New Year.  God bless all of us at Rodfei Zedek, and all our neighbors and loved ones, with a year of “bridging” and of blessed transitions!

Bivrachah, Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

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