Sign In Forgot Password

We Are Moving - Yom Kippur 5780

10/31/2019 06:57:13 AM


Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald

“So, did you get a new house?!”

This is what I heard over my shoulder at the crowded supermarket last Friday, as I was rushing to finish my last-minute Shabbat purchases.  I turned around and there was a congregant….

“Rabbi: You didn’t finish the story…!” she said, “It was a lovely sermon you gave at Rosh Hashanah, but I was waiting to hear how it turned out.  You didn’t tell us if you have a new house!” 

It’s funny what people will fixate on – and it goes to show that everyone loves a good story.  It made me laugh because, the story of falling through the ceiling was merely a rhetorical device; a “hook” to frame my topic.  My Rosh Hashanah sermon, of course, was not really about me or my house – it was about your house.  It was a sermon about imagining your own home as a place of meaningful gathering; and how gathering on Shabbat can teach us to gather across difference in ways that can change our lives and heal our splintered world.  In reality, the sermon was about this house – this “beit Knesset” – our synagogue community. 

Nonetheless, that congregant was right! I didn’t finish telling the story! And so, perhaps, by extension, I didn’t really finish the sermon.  I left something out: you can’t really talk about leaving for a new place without dealing with the challenges and opportunities presented by change, loss, and transition

This is the season for change and growth.  We call it teshuvah.  Often translated as repentance, teshuvah is much more than a remedy for sin.  The word tshuvah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “returning” or “responding.”  The thrust of this season is simultaneously a turning around to look at what we’ve done, and how we got to where we are now;… and at the same time, it implies a forward trajectory – a movement into the future, resolved to do better. 

Change is hard.  Behavioral science teaches us that people will tolerate an unsatisfying situation for a very long time, even when they consciously express a desire for change.  How people make changes in their lives and how communities and societies change is complex, but there are two key phases. 

The first is leave-taking.  Essentially, it’s how we say good-bye.

The story of falling through the ceiling represented that tipping point when the status quo was no longer acceptable.  Yet that’s not really what effects change, because even desired change evokes fear and anxiety about the unknown.        

What people fear is not change, but rather people grieve for what they perceive they are losing.  In order to be prepared to depart where we are, we have to allow ourselves to express grief for what was and what could have been.  Believe me, I know a little about grief.  But, like I told you, this sermon isn’t about me.  And this home – HEA – is different than it used to be.  Some of the people we loved have moved on, and there are new faces at Kiddush and around the office.  It’s true that big new things are on the horizon, as Seth Davis shared with you.  But before we can be excited about the new, we have to grieve a little bit for what was. 

In the spirit of this season of reflection and repentance, I think it’s worth saying that we have not done enough to acknowledge and honor the sadness of bidding farewell to beloved members of our HEA community and we need to do more to give voice to those feelings. 

So, where can we look to for wisdom about how we can respond when the home that has felt so familiar and safe needs to change?   

As a people, we have a rich set of narratives about home – finding home, losing home, and seeking new homes.  From Abraham’s journey to a land unknown; to the enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt; to the Exodus and the long journey to the Promised Land – yearning for home is a central theme in Judaism. 

We can learn most perhaps from our most traumatic loss of home.  In the year 70 CE the Roman Empire destroyed our home – our Beit Mikdash – Our Temple.

But out of the rubble a new expression of Judaism emerged.  Our rabbis gathered to dream of ways to keep the covenant alive without a Temple. 

What might our ancestors’ experience teach us about how we leave one sense of home and establish a new one?  This brings us to the second, and perhaps most crucial, phase in transitions: the point at which you begin to dream about the future. 


When Melanie and I started looking for a new house, we didn’t bring the children with us, not wanting to raise the kids’ anxiety.  We’d come back and excitedly tell them about a house we saw; and my daughter would fold her arms and do her best impersonation of a teenager and declare “I’m not moving!” 

It turns out we went about it all wrong… we rarely do people a favor when we withhold information, thinking that we’ll spare them hard feelings. 

It was only when we starting taking the kids along with us that their attitudes shifted.  When the realtor would open the door to a house for us, Hannah and Micah would race to the bedrooms and immediately start negotiating who would get which room.  They pictured the placement of their furniture… where the bed and desk would go and where they’d keep their belongings.  They started making plans about which space would be ideal for fort-building and where the basketball hoop could go.  They began to place themselves in that space in their mind’s eye. 

The same is true for our congregation.  We make the same mistake so many organizations do: we avoid talking about the future because we fear the anxiety such conversations will produce.  This sermon is an invitation to dream.  

Guided by our values, and grounded in our rich past, we need to kindle a desire to make Judaism relevant and meaningful in our lives for the future.  Does it feel scary to think that way?  It should.  Usually anything worth taking a risk on is going to make you feel that way.  We’re going to try things, we’re going to gather in groups to listen and explore ideas together.  Some of those ideas we will adopt, others will fail.  It will bring up feelings, anxiety.  The challenge is to turn anxiety into excitement; to turn fear into learning.   

The rabbis who salvaged Judaism out of the ruins of Jerusalem took a great leap of imagination. 

Following the destruction of our Temple, our Sages made a bold claim: they asserted that Judaism no longer required a fixed sanctuary.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, God was not lost; and our Brit – our Covenant – with God was not broken.  Rather than being confined to one home, God would now be found in the world, in countless homes. 

“Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the great assembly,” we are told, in the 2nd Century compendium of rabbinic wisdom known as Pirkei Avot.  “He used to say: עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד  the world stands upon three things: the Torah, prayer, and acts of loving kindness.” (Avot 1:2)  , עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

We all know the summer camp version of this song (“Al shlosha devarim, al shlosha devarim…”).  But this is, in fact, an audacious assertion.  What Shimon Ha-Tzadik, a survivor of Jerusalem’s destruction himself, is saying is that the world upon which Judaism stood is not gone.  The Jewish world now rests on three things: Torah, worship, and loving-kindness.  It rests on distilling the wisdom of Torah through rigorous learning.  It rests on people coming together to worship, pray, and celebrate – offering up the words of their hearts rather than animal sacrifices.  And it rests on doing justice and acting with mercy toward other human beings. 


This is how we begin to transition and adapt to change.  We have to confront our sadness for what we leave behind; but we don’t really begin to change until we can imagine an alternative future

If our sages 2000 years ago, in the wake of the most cataclysmic event in pre-modern Jewish history, could reimagine a new sense of home, shouldn’t we be able to do the same? 

We replaced the Beit Ha-Mikdash – the House of Holiness – with the Beit Knesset – the House of Gathering (or, rendered in Greek: synagogue).  Over the centuries, the Beit Knesset became a center of Jewish life and the home that Shimon Ha-Tzadik dreamed of – a place of Torah, Avodah, and Gimmilut Hassadim. 

So let’s dream a little together today, and in the months ahead, and ask ourselves what kind of home we want our synagogue to be for pursuing the wisdom of Torah, for inspiring souls through payer and other spiritual practices, and for acts of righteousness and loving-kindness.


Torah: How will HEA be a resource for better living through the wisdom and practices of Judaism?  How will we use the tools of Torah to make ourselves better people and how can we make that wisdom relevant to ourselves and the world?  Judaism needs to speak to our real lived experience and it can serve the public good as a source of wisdom that can repair our world.

Avodah: Service and Worship.  How will we as a congregation gather with friends and community to celebrate, to mourn, to rejoice, to give thanks, to sing and dance and experience the richness of life in the company of others?  Where else in our lives are we readily invited to do that? In short, what will we do to grow our souls?

The third pillar upon which the world stands is gimmilut hassadim – acts of kindness.  How will we make our synagogue home, and our families’ own houses, welcoming places for everyone seeking to engage in Judaism; and how will our synagogue contribute to a world of justice and compassion? 

In other words: what are we about?  And that doesn’t mean we all have to be about the same thing, but we have to decide that our Judaism is going to be about relevant things in our world. 

When we can answer these questions, we will be the spirited, engaging, empowered community we imagine for ourselves.


I didn’t tell the whole story… We are indeed moving…

We’re looking forward to making a change.  In many ways the place we’re going to is much like the previous one and serves some of the same purposes.  But things will be different now and we have choices to make about how we want to live.  Grief is starting to give way to hope and imagination. 

Not everyone with whom we started the journey is still with us, and yet we continue to welcome in new people and grow our sense of family.  We are determined to make our home a place of human connection and transformational gathering; a source of wisdom and inspiration for living a more meaningful life and growing our souls.  It will be a place pulsing with life, color, excitement, and joy.  It will be a home that embraces us in times of need, in moments of grief or defeat.  It will be a home where we share what we have with others and dream together about a better future.   

Get the picture?

Does this sound like a lot to expect from a nicely remodeled 4-Bedroom house on Hillcrest?  It is… That’s because – as I told you before – I’m not talking about my house.  I’m talking about your home – our beit Knesset – here at HEA. 

We are in the opening days of the year 5780.  Twenty years from now, what do we want our shul to look like, at the turn of the 59th Century?  What’s the story we want to tell in 5800 about the choices we made in 5780 that led to a renewed and revitalized HEA for a new generation of Jews seeking meaningful engagement with one another and the wisdom of Torah? 

So, I guess, I did it again.  I didn’t finish the story… That’s because it isn’t my story alone to tell.  And the story isn’t finished.  It’s up to each of us to tell our story and, collectively, for our congregation to write its next chapter. 

G’mar Hatima Tova – May we be sealed for a good year. 

Fri, July 30 2021 21 Av 5781