written by Rabbi Michael Friedland
If you are like Lizzie you like visiting new homes. You enjoy seeing how people decorate the different rooms in the home – the colors, the fabrics, the furniture. You enjoy seeing how much light the room receives as well as the shape of the room. In our own homes, every one has a favorite room and a room they want to redecorate – the living room, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the sitting rooms, the bath rooms. Rabbi Sherre Hirsch asks in the opening of her new book, Thresholds, “But when do we ever think about hallways?” And yet we spend much of our time in a home traversing hallways, or crossing thresholds. To move from one room to another, we must access the hallway. In our lives as we move from one life stage to another, one key life decision to another, from one circumstance or relationship to another we need to access those figurative hallways – what Social Scientists call ‘liminal moments’, from the Latin limen or threshold, what many of us would refer to as ‘transitions’.
And this was true for the Friedland family this summer. It was a very moving time in our lives. Literally, it was a moving time and I was the mover. Tali moved from Boston to Chicago, Moshe moved from Bloomington to South Bend to Chicago and back to Bloomington, Ilan moved to Three Rivers MI to Camp Tavor – that was Lizzie’s move, and Hillel moved to Greensboro, NC, with both Lizzie and I taking turns driving him there.
The Talmud states “kol Hatkhalot Kashot” All beginnings are hard, but it isn’t just the beginnings. The whole process of transition and threshold crossing is formidable. Every step of a transition challenges us, excites us, frustrates us, scares us. Two people marry, they look with anticipation to the birth of children, then children come into the world and one’s whole world changes – how one uses one’s time, how one plans one’s finances, professional choices – all of these choices affected by this life change. And then our children grow…into teenagers and we say “how much longer are they going to be around?”, and then they leave and we wonder, “it’s so quiet, when are they coming back?”
The ebb and flow of transition is true for every type of transition. Liminal moments can be a new stage of life, or a new professional opportunity. Thresholds must be crossed when we confront illness, as well as with new or discontinued relationships. Even extrinsic changes such as technological innovations demand we move out of a room we have grown comfortable with and push us into the hallway in order to reach a new room. I had to have Steve Lotter hold my hand as I signed on to Facebook last year. I still don’t understand why people are poking me. Each and every one of these transitions offer us opportunities and challenges, joy and fear.
Our daily liturgy acknowledges the predictability and reliability of transitions. In the evening service, Maariv, the very first blessing we recite after the Barchu reflects the change in the passage of time experienced by the worshipper on that very day: “It is You who are creator of day and night, rolling light away when darkness falls only to roll the darkness itself back when it is time again for the world to be bathed in light. You cause the days to pass and nighttime to fall”. The prayer describes a comforting constancy of alteration and transformation. Time is not only linear it is also circular.
This morning’s Torah reading is a portion rife with transitions. Some are joyous, others painful; some familial, others transactional.
The Torah portion begins with a birth – the birth of Isaac. How wonderful and exciting this birth is. For decades, Abraham and Sarah have longed for a child of their own and in their old age, they are now blessed. This threshold crossing is followed by a transition of loss and celebration. “The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” Abraham celebrated this marking of advancement and independence but for Sarah it must have been difficult – the special bond between mother and child is undone a little at the moment of weaning. According to tradition, this feast to honor Isaac’s weaning came when he was two. Rabbi David Kimhi states this is the age when a father begins to teach his child letters, because this is the age a child begins to speak. And our Sages have taught when does a child become beloved of his father? When he begins to speak. Thus, the weaning represented a transition in attachment from mother Sarah to father Abraham. The Torah shifts immediately from this moment to Sarah’s insistence that Ishmael is a bad influence on Isaac and must be expelled. Perhaps for Sarah the loss of her natural biological bond with Isaac triggered a fiercer attachment to him and Ishmael’s relationship with his younger brother threatened to further disconnect her from Isaac.
The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael that Sarah demands of Abraham is a transition that impacts on Abraham as well as Hagar and her son. We know that he is distressed and the psychiatrist Samuel Klagsbrun has even argued that Abraham’s leading Isaac up the mountain to be a sacrifice in tomorrow’s readingis a misplaced attempt to respond to his guilt for letting Ishmael go without resistance.
Wandering in the desert, fearing that her son will die of dehydration, Hagar’s abandonment of Ishmael is a way for her to run from this transition. His redemption when the angel opens her eyes to the hidden well brings not only relief but also leads to another life change, marriage for Ishmael.
The last part of our reading this morning concerns the relationship between Abraham and Avimelekh the local chieftain. Abraham and Avimelekh have a relationship which goes through various stages and transitions from mistrust to reproach to covenant.
In all these transitions, one can distill three categories: Changes caused by rites of passage, loss and suffering, and relationships.
Most transitions in life fall under these categories.
As Rabbi Alvin Fine’s poem relates:
From childhood to maturity and youth to old age.
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom.
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and often back again.
From health to sickness and back we pray, to health again.
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion.
From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead:
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination
Such transitions and thresholds can be scary. From “defeat to defeat to defeat” the poem tells us, even if those failures are ultimately rewarding. For many of us, though, the fear of defeat produces paralyzing anxiety. Therefore we are grateful that our Torah narrative also shares with us three promising responses to transition.
How does Abraham respond to the transitions of birth and childhood? With a seudah, a festive meal. Celebration is a way that we respond to family transitions. Yes, weaning encumbers loss, child rearing means sacrifice, independence may create an empty space, but they also mark the growth of a new generation within which lies the seeds of future generation and growth.
How is the catastrophic transition endured by Sarah as she fears the negative influences on her son, by Abraham at the loss of his eldest son, by Hagar as she runs from watching her son die? It is the recognition in each case that God is there. God confirms that Sarah’s intuition is correct. God comforts Abraham in his loss, consoling him that Ishmael will be OK. Hagar’s eyes are opened to salvation – “lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” The angel encourages her not to abandon but to reach out to the endangered child. And “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” This cognition and awareness that God exists, that God is there to console and help us when we are alone and lost in our suffering is what I would say is the proper understanding of the term “Yirat HaShem”. Not the fear of God, but the awesome consciousness that God is with us in our times of need.
Abraham and Avimelekh continue their relationship in this morning’s narrative. First Avimelekh wants Abraham to lend him support. But his servants have been stealing Abraham’s wells. Abraham agrees to make peace with Avimelekh but given the trust they both seek, he takes a chance and informs Avimelekh of the wrongs Avimelekh’s servants have done him. Avimelekh attempts to shift responsibility, denying any knowledge of the transgressions. How do Abraham and Avimelekh resolve the fluctuations in their relationship? Abraham insists they make a covenant, a formal agreement of responsibilities. This is what in Hebrew might be called “Arevut”, guaranty. As in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh lazeh, All of is Israel is responsible for one another – we might disagree, we might argue, we might spend tens of millions of dollars to fight over Iranian nuclear agreements, but ultimately we must know that our connections are unbreakable and that we will support each other when our people are in danger.
Celebration, God Awareness, and Responsibility for one another are three responses to transition.
William Bridges in his book Transition: Making Sense of Life’s Changes writes that there are three stages to confronting transitions in life. First every transition begins with endings. To transition successfully one must disengage and distance oneself from the past. Too often when we begin a new stage in our career or in our lives, we assume that we are done with the old stage. But unless we consciously acknowledge what we are leaving and purposefully disengage from it, we are doomed to be stuck. And what we thought was a transition to something new is simply a recovering of the old.
Following a successful ending, we land in what he calls the neutral zone. It may feel like an unproductive time-out when one feels disconnected from people and things in the past and emotionally unconnected to the present. But in fact this neutral zone is crucial to allowing us to reorient ourselves as we prepare to achieve a successful transition. The time spent in the neutral zone is a time of surrender. He quotes the great historian of religion Mircea Eliade that “In ancient cultures, a symbolic return to chaos was indispensible to any new Creation”. This quiet period of sublimation allows the person in the midst of change, the time to recharge and gain a new perspective on what is happening to them.
Finally comes the new beginning. He counsels that the new beginning depends on taking action, but slow small steps. The new beginning requires the transitioner to look forward and imagine where the person would like to be and what it would look like as he or she crosses the threshold.
Bridges’ three part process of transition mirrors the process that a penitent goes through in order to do teshuvah. According to Moses Maimonides in his great work the Mishnah Torah, in the section on the laws of Repentance, he states that one must confess for teshuvah to be complete.
The confession is recited thus:
Ana HaShem Hatati Aviti Pashati lifanekha v’Asiti Kach v’kach
"I implore You, God, I sinned, I transgressed, I committed iniquity before You by doing the following.
V’harei nichamti u’voshti b’maasei
Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds
Ainee hozer l’davar zeh l’olam
I promise never to repeat this act again
The first part acknowledges the transgressions committed. The beginning of the teshuvah process is an ending, an ending to previous acts of malfeasance and an acknowledgement that the doer knows that it was wrong. The next part of the process is to express remorse. This is the empty space that Bridges calls the neutral zone. The change has not occurred yet because the penitent must not only recognize what he or she did was wrong but concede that it is shameful and has brought chaos into the life of the transgressor. Finally the repentance process concludes with an affirmation to never do the wrong again. This is the true beginning. The transition is complete, and the penitent is a new person. Maimonides goes so far as to suggest that the penitent even take a new name to signify the transformation is completed.
Three stages in transition according to William Bridges parallel the three stages of teshuvah according to Moses Maimonides. Breaking with the past, focusing on the present, looking to the future. All transitions follow these stages whether celebrating a joyous life change, responding to a catastrophic event or confronting relationships.
In the medieval midrashic compilation Tanna D’veit Eliyahu Zuta, a midrash describes how King David by way of prophecy knew that the Temple which he wished to build would eventually be destroyed. How would the Jewish people then make atonement? God answered David “When troubles come upon Israel, let Israel stand before me together as a single unit, and make confession before me and say the Selichot service and I will answer them.”
The key to the transition from Temple atonement to our current system of teshuvah is that Israel stand together as a single unit. In making our way through thresholds a key to entering and crossing them is joining together with community. And here at Sinai whether the threshold be a change of life status, or dealing with loss, or relating to others, when we stand together we assist each of us in making our way through the hallway into the room we are seeking.
A few weeks ago at our annual picnic we celebrated the wedding of Will and Margie Fizer. Looking for a date for the wedding, I mentioned that since Will and Margie had been married for 15 years and were now going to have a Jewish wedding after their conversion, they did not need the burden of a huge wedding. We only needed a minyan. I suggested that if they did not mind setting the date the day of the picnic we could assure there would be at least 10. They jumped at the opportunity to share their simha with the community and over 100 of us in very hot and humid conditions rejoiced in the lovely meditation garden.
We have unfortunately not had much trouble the last year with daily minyan. I say unfortunately because the reason is that a number of us in the community lost our parents last year. While the willingness of so many to make the daily commitment to say Kaddish for a parent is to be applauded, the fact is that there are others who make the commitment to come to daily worship services so that we are insured of a minyan. The sense of loss is mitigated somewhat when we know that our community is there to stand by us and comfort us.
It is the strength of community that helps each of us through our personal transitions. But we have to be willing to play our part in the community and we have to be willing to trust the community to be there.
At Sinai we offer opportunities for growing community and as a result each of us individually are able to make our way through our personal transitions.
Our daily minyan as I mentioned is a source and for many of us whose obligations to say Kaddish are ending we need more people to step up to insure that whenever a person needs a minyan they can trust we will be here for them. Evenings are especially tough so please think through your schedules this year and determine at least one day a week that you can make that commitment.
Our Shabbat activities bring people together allowing individuals to choose from traditional worship, meditation or musar study in order make Shabbat mornings special. And we look forward to Don Gentner’s coming lessons on how to meditate.
Our continuing Monday night Talmud’s greatest hits class and occasional Torah on Tap at Fiddler’s hearth enable our community members to cross the formidable threshold of serious Torah study.
Volunteering in our Jefferson Middle school-Sinai partnership, as a tutor on Monday afternoons to help with homework or mentoring for half hour each week allows us to cross the very real threshold that divides many of us from those in our greater South Bend community who are impoverished financially and culturally.
And our special project that we will be working of for this year and the next three years, of developing a Shabbat retreat for the entire congregation will strengthen our brit, the covenant we make with each other as members of our Sinai community.
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes that when we experience some change in our life as much as we might yearn to go back to the way things once were, it is impossible. What was behind us no longer exists as we knew it, not because it changed but rather because we changed.”
Now that almost all of our kids our out of the house, Ilan will leave next fall, I look back wistfully when they were younger. At night I would walk up the stairs to the bedrooms and peak in each of their rooms. Everyone asleep, in their beds and I was at peace. Not because it was easy when they were at this stage in their lives but because everything was nicely contained. Each one was in the room they were supposed to be in. Today they are each in their own place, four kids in four different places and it is disconcerting. But there is no going back. There are only transitions going forward, some happy, some forlorn. Knowing that in doing so I have this community to surround me, in moments of joy and in moments of consolation, to strengthen and to heal, encourages me to enter the hallway seeking the next threshold to cross.