“A Time for Turning”, Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018 sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“A Time for Turning”
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn… It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy… It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways. Adonai, help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, Adonai our God, and bring us back to You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other, Adonai our God, for in isolation there is no life.”

This prayer written by Rabbi Jack Reimer captures so beautifully the essence of these Days of Awe.  Indeed, this is the season of turning.  Each year at this time, Jews all over the world pause for ten days of self-examination, of Heshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of our souls to determine what it is that we need to change as part of our process of Teshuvah — return.  We seek to return towards our highest selves, to return towards one another and, in doing so, we return to God.   Turning implies making a change, moving away from a direction in which we were heading towards a more positive behavior and, with that, we hope, to fulfilling a better vision of ourselves and our world.

There is a Hassidic story about a rabbi who asked his teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Kossov, why the Messiah had not come and why the promises of redemption remained unfulfilled.   Rabbi Mendel answered: “It is written: “Why has the Messiah not come either today or yesterday?”  The answer lies in the question itself: “Why has he not come?”  Because we are today just as we were yesterday.  As Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner note in their commentary on this story “the hidden implication in Rabbi Mendel’s remarks [is] that change is vital, even though you may be uncertain as to where you are going.  Change shakes up old habits and routines and opens up new vistas… As long as there is change there is hope for transformation, and as long as there is transformation there is a possibility for the greatest transformation of all”[1] – through our actions we can transform the world and bring about the coming of the Messiah (or a Messianic age).

With all of the potential that lies within change why is it so difficult for us?   The idea of change is often so overwhelming that we remain paralyzed in unhealthy patterns, rather than take the steps necessary to improve our lives and our relationships.  Here we are again, back at Rosh Hashanah, talking, praying and thinking about teshvuah, promising ourselves that we will really, really try to change this year.   Perhaps we have tried before, but maybe we didn’t do it quite right and things backfired and now we feel like more of a failure than before.  Perhaps we tried, but others wouldn’t really let us change; or, perhaps, it was just too hard and it was taking too long to see a difference, so we gave up.  Now we can’t bear trying to climb that mountain again.

Dr. William Bridges, author and lecturer in the field of transitional management and change, offers an approach to change that might help us move forward and achieve greater success.    He draws a distinction between change and transition.  Change is the desired outcome; but it cannot happen without transition as the process we undergo to get us there.

“Change is situational,” he teaches. “Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become. 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.  This three-phase process – ending, neutral zone, beginning again – is transition.”[2]

Successful changes emerge out of an intentional process of transition.  The first step is recognizing, in Bridge’s words, that “every transition begins with an ending.”   That ending, even when desired and ultimately for the good, inevitably involves some sense of loss.

We can see this most clearly in changes that occur when we move from one stage of life to another:

A couple is about to become parents; it is the fulfillment of their dreams.  As excited as they are, they are surprised by feelings of sadness, as they will miss the freedoms and spontaneity that they have enjoyed until now.

At a dinner honoring him upon his retirement after 30 years of devoted and exemplary service and leadership as a teacher and later principal, instead of the joy he had anticipated when thinking about this next chapter in his life, a man feels an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss as he looks out at his teachers and former students.  What will his purpose be now, he wonders?

Proud to launch their youngest child off to college, a couple re-enters their home, now an empty nest.  They have successfully reached a major milestone in their role as parents; they had looked forward with great anticipation to this time of renewal in their marriage.  Still they will miss the regular presence of their children in their lives and the feeling of being needed on a daily basis.

We can also experience a sense of loss when we consciously choose to make a change in our lives that will ultimately be an improvement for ourselves and our loved ones:

A woman leaves a job she has outgrown for a position in a different company that offers greater leadership and responsibility.  She looks forward to the new challenges; it’s the next step in a professional path she had envisioned for herself.   Still, she will miss her former colleagues and the stability and safety of that routine.

A nicotine patch helps a young man move beyond the physical addiction of smoking and enables him to move forward in the healthy choice he has made of quitting, but it doesn’t address his longing for the way smoking cigarettes helped him relax during his hectic days.

A brother reaches out to his sister after not speaking for many years.  Their lives have taken different paths; they hardly know one another or their families.  A disagreement over inheritance separated them; now their parents have been gone for more than a decade.  He finally decides that too much time has passed and too much has already been lost; he looks forward to this opportunity to rebuild their broken relationship.  Still, he has to let go of his need to be right at all costs; not an easy thing for him to do.

Changing – whether it means moving from one stage of life to another, kicking a bad habit or just admitting that you were wrong, means letting go of some part of our past.

Too often we deny the reality of that loss and any emotional toll it may take upon us.  Without recognizing the sense of loss we may be experiencing, however, we will end up carrying that unfinished business with us, a burden that will hamper our ability to achieve the change we seek, perhaps fulfilling our deepest fears that we couldn’t really change anyway.

If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves the time and space to accept and grieve for those losses, we can see beyond those painful moments with hope towards the future, buoyed by the knowledge that “every transition is an ending that prepares the ground for new growth and new activities.”[3]  We can now enter what Bridges calls the most important element in the process of transition, the “neutral zone” -– the in between space between endings and new beginnings.  It’s the space where we still feel the loss of the old, but we haven’t yet experienced the benefits of the new; we’ve broken away from the past but haven’t quite settled into the new present.  All that we imagined with this great opportunity seems so far off.  We may even begin to question:  was this the right move?

“The neutral zone is… both a dangerous and an opportune place..,” teaches Bridges. “It is the time when repatterning takes place:  old and maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones … It is the winter in which the roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal.  It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and preparing for tomorrow’s.  It is the chaos into which the old form dissolves and from which the new form emerges.  It is the seedbed of the new beginnings that you seek.[4]

The neutral zone – it is both dark and frightening and bright with potential at the same time.  Our society, by and large, does not allow for time in the neutral zone.  Where time is money, there is little value placed on stopping to reflect, to consider, to dwell in one’s thoughts.

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, learned the hard way about the need for a neutral zone when making a significant change.  While the plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds provided a dramatic end to slavery in Egypt, those miracles could not transform the Israelites into a free people.  Moses learned this lesson all too quickly from the moment the Israelites crossed the sea and began complaining about the bitterness of the water, when they then lost faith in God and in Moses and turned to a Golden Calf right after the experience of Sinai, and, ultimately, when they preferred returning to Egypt rather than seize the opportunity and challenge of entering the Promised Land.  They needed the 40 years in the midbar, in the barren wilderness, to successfully transition from a generation of slaves to a generation ready to embrace freedom.

Wilderness is an apt metaphor for being in the midst of change.  Times of transition can be frightening, filled with uncertainty; but at the same time, if we choose to take advantage of the opportunities that this open space can provide, they have the potential for creativity, growth, and redefinition of self.    When we allow ourselves the time and space for real transformation to take place, we can then reach a new beginning and experience real change.

These Yamim Noraim are an annual taste of being in the neutral zone, entering the midbar, as we pause to reflect, take stock of our lives, and repurpose ourselves for the year ahead.   I encourage you to find ways to return to the midbar in the course of this year.  Seek out opportunities to reflect upon the transitions that you are in – some may find that space in prayer, others in long morning walks, or therapy, or taking a weekend away — by yourself.  Seek out any opportunity that will enable you to better recognize the losses you may have experienced with an ending, to reflect deeply about what you need to do to heal, and to find ways to move forward by setting goals for yourself and adjusting to the new ways of an anticipated change.

Endings, neutral zone, new beginnings — this understanding of transition that has the potential to be so helpful in addressing the changes we want to make in our lives, can also guide us through the most painful changes we encounter, those changes that happen to us that are out of our control.  We are reminded of such changes during these Days of the Awe through the haunting and powerful Unetonatokef prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be.

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not.

Who shall perish by fire and who by water.

Who by sword and who by beast.

 Why by hunger and who by thirst…  Who shall be secure and who shall be driven.

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich.

Who shall be humbled and who exalted.

So many changes in our lives – for the good and the bad – can happen to us out of nowhere. An investment long ago forgotten suddenly brings in huge dividends and you find yourself with an unanticipated nest egg.  You take a trip on a whim and fall in love with the stranger you meet across the dinner table. A doctor’s visit leads to a diagnosis of cancer and your world is upended.  A loved one is in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life is changed forever.

While we do all that we can to make the best choices and plan our lives, the

Unetantokef reminds us that all is not in our control.  The actions of others, random acts of nature and chance, can bring upheaval and tremendous loss.  Change, welcome or not, does sometime happen to us.  We cannot prevent or control those changes; we can only mold their effect on our lives by how we respond to them.

U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezera
But repentance, prayer and acts of justice, temper the severity of the decree.

Repentance, prayer and tzedakah – while these actions cannot change the course of events, past or future, they can be the tools by which we alter our experience of those events and help us move through the transition process to find a new beginning.

A colleague of mine shared with me the following parable about twins in the womb.  The whole world, to these two siblings is the interior of the womb.  They can conceive of nothing else.  Somehow, they realize that life, as they know it, is coming to an end.  What will happen to them?  One of the twins is a true optimist, embracing change and seeing it as an exciting opportunity for growth and development.  “Just think of the new opportunities that will present themselves,” says the optimistic twin. “We will have the opportunity to try new things, to do things another way.  Sure, it may not always work out perfectly, and some things will certainly be different, but what a great time it can be!”

The second twin is far more skeptical.  He fears change; change upsets the apple cart, turning the world, as we know it, upside down, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction.  “How can you talk about opportunities?” says the skeptic.  “There is no future, and even if there is to be a new future, it will be so different that we won’t be able to survive.  Our world, as we know it, is finished.  The future is grim.”

Suddenly, the water inside the womb bursts, and the ever-optimistic sibling tears

himself away.  Startled, the skeptic shrieks, bemoaning the tragedy.  Sitting in his morose state, he hears cries from the other side of the black abyss.  “Just as I thought, all is lost.  There is no future.  What was, is no more.  It is time to just call it quits, rather than face the other side.”

But what the skeptic doesn’t realize is that as he is bemoaning the loss of the world as he knows it, his brother sits on the other side, taking a breath of fresh air, hearing sounds that he has never heard before, already feeling his limbs stretching out beyond their previous boundaries.5

Just as individuals go through periods of change and upheaval, and can respond in different ways, so, too, do institutions and organizations.  Vassar Temple is no exception.   I am so proud and excited to be the newest rabbi in Vassar Temple’s very proud 170 year old history.  The fact that I am the 30th rabbi in 170 years means that this congregation has been through rabbinic transition before.  Certainly in more recent history this congregation has been blessed by the stability of strong rabbinic leadership with your wonderful rabbis emeritus, Stephen Arnold and Paul Golomb.  One can hardly go through a day without a mention of their names and their presence being felt (and I say that in the most positive way).  What a blessing for this community!  I’m sure that for many of you, starting again with a new rabbi is a challenge, especially in what feels like a relatively short amount of time since your last rabbinic transition.  Yes, relationships take time to cultivate and nurture and I look forward to building them here with you.

I understand well the angst of transition for this time is one of great transition for my family and me as well.  I am transitioning back into the congregational rabbinate after a decade in organizational life.  I took Bridge’s teachings to heart and spent significant time and energy this past year addressing many of the issues around endings as I prepared to leave HUC-JIR.  My husband and I will be uprooting ourselves from the community in which we have lived for 25 years.  First, we will literally dwell in the neutral zone, between an apt in Poughkeepsie and our home in Great Neck as we settle in and get to know the area.

Arriving in Poughkeepsie just under two months ago, I am now fully in Bridge’s neutral zone at Vassar Temple as well, taking this time to learn about this congregation and you, its members.  My friends, I invite you to join me in this midbar; let us maximize our time in this transitional stage as we get to know one another this year; let us explore together just who Vassar Temple is today and formulate our vision for tomorrow.  Let us take this time to plant seeds of growth and creativity for the future.


5 Rabbi Jan Offel, “Changes,” Erev Rosh Hashanah 5767/2006,Temple Kol Tikvah, Tarzana, CA


We began one aspect of this transition process this summer in small group meetings, called “At home with Rabbi Altman” (my sincere thanks to the gracious hosts who have literally opened their homes for these gatherings).  There will be more such gatherings in the coming months and I urge everyone to attend one.  I also invite you to contact me for individual meetings whether to talk about more private things or just to get to know one another better.  I invite you to share your needs, your ideas, your dreams for this congregation and what you would hope for in this new chapter of rabbinic leadership.

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter…” So, too, may we come to see change as a positive part of the natural order of the universe.  May we learn to embrace the changes in our lives as opportunities for growth and renewal.  In that process may we experience teshvuah.   Help us, O God, as we strive to return to You.  Strengthen us, Adonai, as individuals and as part of this sacred congregation for a year of transformation that leads to change; a year of wholeness and peace.

Rabbi Renni Altman

[1] Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner, Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories, pg. 366

[2] The Way of Transition, p. 2

[3] Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, p. 42

[4] Managing Transitions, p.9

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