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Transitions

Yom Kippur Day
October 8, 2011

Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Rodfei Zedek, Chicago

My message in this year’s “Welcome Book” is about the meaning of transitions in our lives.  It grew out of my decision to become a “transitional” or interim rabbi after taking an early retirement from Congregation Rodfei Zedek in June of 2013, which will mark 25 blessed years with this congregation.  My theme this morning is that same theme, “Transitions.”

It occurred to me that the Book of Jonah is a very helpful guide to the transitions that we must all make in life.  The Book of Jonah holds a special place in my heart because of this congregation.  We have long had the custom of reading it in English. In recent memory it has been read by members of one family, the Jadwin-Horwich-Epstein family.   We speak of them a bit on Yom Kippur afternoon before the reading. I have felt fortunate to have been able to have associated this haftarah with all of the wonderful longtime families, as well as newer families and leaders of this congregation, who have combined their affiliation here with leadership in many facets of Chicago Jewish life.

As regards the Book of Jonah as a guide for transitions, there are three lessons that I would mention today.  Two of them, I think, the Bible intends for us to learn from Jonah’s mistakes.  The third we learn from the virtue of the men on the boat, who, from the perspective of the Book of Jonah, are more thoughtful, generous and gracious than Jonah himself.

The first lesson is that we cannot run toward the past, but that pieces of the past enable us to build what we can build for the future.

God gives Jonah a clear assignment:  “Go to Nineveh and proclaim judgment on their wickedness.”  But Jonah runs away.  He doesn’t want to face possible anger, derision, contempt, hostility or failure.  He doesn’t want to try.  He doesn’t even care whether or not the people repent.  Maybe he thinks that their repentance will make him look foolish and angry.  So he runs.  But running away does not preserve the past or make for a smoother way to the future.

More often that not, running away is running toward a past which we think we would like to remain the same.  But neither we nor circumstances remain the same.  Whether events force us to make changes or whether we decide to make those changes—in jobs, in activities and in other aspects of life—we suffer loss and we may even find ourselves at a loss—of enthusiasm, of direction, of drive, of certainty.  We break a bit every time we break away, but breaking and breaking away are a part of life.  As Rabbi Sharon Brous has pointed out, in Hebrew, the same word, mashber, means both birth and brokenness.

I read that the Chinese have what are called “shard boxes.”  When there is an earthquake and the family ceramics fall and are smashed, the family gathers the broken pieces and brings them to an artist who fashions a shard box.  The box itself is a piece of art, all the more treasured because it is made up of the pieces of past treasures.

Whether we transition to new assignments and challenges, or face losses or illness or disappointing changes, we do have to deal with some kind of breakage, both physically and interpersonally and in our routines.  But this is an opportunity to reassemble, as it were, the pieces of the past into a work of art in progress.  In time we come to see those pieces not as pieces left over, nor even as broken shards, but as part of jigsaw puzzle.

A beautiful poem by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner would have us regard our lifetimes and, indeed, the transitions in life, as a wonderful jigsaw puzzle in the making:

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.
Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
trying to assemble the myriad parts.
But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the says they used to seal
jigsaw puzzles in cellophane.
insuring that all the pieces were there.
Everyone carries within them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it
Sometimes they don’t.
And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger of the Most High.

The tragedy of Jonah is that he did not understand that in presenting his message, he would have better appreciated what he had been doing before.  Our transitions enable us to use what we have learned and what we have done, to be helpful to others and to appreciate our own skills in ways that we might not otherwise have realized.  What we once considered breakage and wear and tear become pieces of the puzzle through which we can help others and understand our own skills in ways we never thought possible.

The second lesson of transition is that we must not impede or harm others in their transition, or undermine our own transitions by burning bridges with anger and recriminations and pettiness.

Even as Jonah runs to a boat, God sends a wind on the sea, and Jonah is so confident that he has thrown over the weight of responsibility, and so content in his hiding, that he falls asleep.  The men on the boat cannot understand Jonah’s complacency. They had been crying to their gods.  Why wasn’t he crying to his?  He tells them:  Don’t worry.  My God, the God of the Hebrews, who made the heavens and the earth, is a bit upset with me.  Throw me overboard and the sea will calm.  The men on the boat were reluctant to cause harm to Jonah.  They asked God to forgive them, suggesting that all they had to go on regarding the Divine will was Jonah’s request.

The boat’s crew, much to their credit, followed a “Do no harm” policy.  That policy of “do no harm” is all too rare in the world.

Striking events in the world at large bring home to us the importance of being constructive during transitions.  Like everyone else, the Jewish community was hopeful about the so-called “Arab Spring,” the efforts to overthrow brutal dictators with hopes of freedom.  We wanted to see freedom and democracy and peace in the Middle East.  Because of our ties to the State of Israel, we Jews are especially sensitive to those who would do harm, and to those who would truly help, in the region.  We breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude in July when the so-called flotilla organizers, who had hoped to provoke the State of Israel in the guise of a mercy mission to Gaza, were prevented by Greece and by various European airlines, from making their unconstructive trip.  That was helpful.  Yet Palestinian and Egyptian Islamist groups have used the “Arab Spring” to launch terrorist attacks into Israel.  It was revealed by the Italian press in August that right now, in 2011, the Palestinian Authority is using money donated to them from the European Union and the United States and elsewhere to compensate the families of suicide bombers and to finance textbooks that incite hatred against Jews.  Such tactics are patently unhelpful.

I had hoped to find in the United Nations discussions of the past month some creative voice, some new perspective, that might prove helpful at advancing some kind of peace process.  But I saw none. I heard none.

The Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, calls for holding funds for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, while money for the Palestinian Authority has gone forward.  The State of Israel has officially refrained from calling for cutting off funds to the Palestinian territories, lest the hand of Hamas and Hezbollah be strengthened.  But those are already brutal hands that dole out their so-called help at bitter expense.

Does it help to withhold humanitarian aid?  As heartless as this seems in gut reaction, the truth is that being helpful in times of transition often means not helping actions and plans that we deem counterproductive.  We have much evidence of misappropriation of funds spent to incite young people to blow up themselves and their so-called enemies.

In transitions as in every day life, we need to be able to trust those whom we support, and we are entitled to a fair accounting.  In the Book of Jonah, the most admirable transition is achieved by the people of Nineveh, who rebuild their society.  A beautiful Midrash of ancient Sages tells us that the people of Nineveh were so anxious to have a fair accounting of how they acquired and spent their money and how they built their society, that the owner of a mansion would rip it apart if one brick had been stolen or acquired by violence.

In transitions in our personal lives and in the world, we need to find the words and the actions that make it easier for us and for others to be constructive and positive and helpful, and we need to learn not to support what is not-helpful.

The third and final lesson from the Book of Jonah that I would mention today, on the theme of transitions, is that transitions should enable us to help others in creative ways.

After Jonah is thrown overboard, he is swallowed by a large fish and becomes quite a poet.  God asks the fish to spit Jonah out.  That may or may not be a commentary on the quality—or originality—of his poetry.  But Jonah stops running away.  He goes to Nineveh and immediately gives the city forty days to repent.  They repent right away.  God cancels their punishment.  Jonah is not happy.  Working for a compassionate God does nothing for Jonah’s street cred.  Yet he appreciates a shady plant that God provides for his personal sulking.  When God removes the plant, Jonah grieves like a mourner.  God tells him that if a plant means so much to Jonah, how much more does a whole city, with men, women, children and cattle, mean to God.

By the end of the Book of Jonah, we hope that Jonah got it, but we are not sure.  That is left up in the air.  Jonah has done the right thing and achieved the right result, but in spite of himself.  He sulks, even mourns, when others escape bad fortune.  But the goal of any transition, and the sign of a successful transition, is to be able to guide others with joy and with wisdom as the result of one’s own struggles and experiences.

A woman named Lynn Corcoran Roberts has written:  “My stepdaughter, who will be 18 in January, is getting married next August.  Since she has experienced the divorce of her parents and is marrying young, I wanted to do more than just throw her a bridal shower.  I decided to have a marriage party instead at which we will have several happily married couples—some of which married in their teens—share their stories and give advice.  Instead of towels and spatulas, I will be asking the couples to give gifts of marriage books, videos and classes to help this young couple have a successful marriage.”

Now this may seem like a very small way of helping, but it goes a long way.  Indeed, I would suggest that when it comes to helping people during transitions, the smallest things are often the most thoughtful and the most helpful, and I would think that at this hour of Yizkor, we remember most fondly those who helped us in transitions.

God grant that this sermon about the Book of Jonah will prove helpful to you and to me during all our transitions ahead, individually and together.  May we all be helpful in the seemingly small things.  May we do no harm.  May we refrain from running toward the past—or even, God forbid, trying to devaluate the past—in order to avoid the future.  Amen.

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