All Beginnings are Hard by Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff

Yom Kippur Morning, 10 Tishre, 5780 Temple Sholom of Chicago

I want to share with you again what an honor it is to serve as your Interim Rabbi this year. Fran and I appreciate so very much the warm welcome you have extended to us. You have made our beginnings here much easier than they might have been. As I am sure you know from your own experience, beginnings are difficult. Often very difficult. Somebody, some un-named ancient Rabbi pointed that out in the Midrash when he said, “Kol hatchalot kashot. All beginnings are hard.” i I can’t say that this was a revolutionary addition to human awareness as many rabbinic teachings were. After all, it’s obvious that beginnings are difficult because beginnings imply change. But the wisdom of this Rabbi was that he named what we all experience. By naming how tough it is to change and begin something new, he normalized it and enabled people to break through denial and take off the mask of feigned confidence. Change is not easy. But as the ancient philosophers taught, the only thing that is constant is change. We live our lives in the ballpark of time, and change is the game we play – using the calendar, the seasons, and the holidays to mark and measure what is different and what remains the same.

So here we are, another set of High Holy Days. Using these Days of Awe as a bookmark in time, we have begun the process of ending that which was, holding on to that which is to remain, and beginning that which is yet to be. Each of us reflects back on 5779, its gifts and challenges, it joy and sadness, what was gained, and what was lost. There were lives which ceased to be and lives which came into being. There was love lost and love found, friendships formed and friendships dissolved, moments of pride and times of upset, concern, and disappointment.

There were beginnings which brought both joyous exhilaration and painful anxiety. There were endings which brought sadness, pain, and relief all at the same time. Some of us found ourselves in situations we never dreamed we would be in – for better or for worse, situations which, in the blink of an eye, changed everything. We were pleasantly surprised by unexpected blessings just as we were motivated to act when things we had taken for granted were turned on their heads. For that which we did and that which we became, these holy days, can be a kind of reset button, enabling us to begin again – again.

Tonight, I want to talk about change, about endings and beginnings, and about transition, that unsettling and uneasy time between the no more and the not yet. I want to talk about them because they are important to name, especially here and especially now, as we have begun this transitional year together.

Attention must be paid to transitions. William Bridges, in his seminal book on transitionsii explains the difference between change and transition. Change is simply what happens. Transition is the emotional effect that the change brings about. Transition begins with the ending of that which was, and ends with the beginning of that which is to be. In order for a transition to be successful, that which is ending must be recognized, celebrated, and mourned, and that which is beginning must be welcome, understood, and celebrated. Not doing this well is a disservice to the old and an impediment to the new.

Good transitions begin with naming the reality of the ending. For many, my presence here in this pulpit as your Interim Senior Rabbi concretizes the end of Rabbi Goldberg’s years of inspirational service at Temple Sholom. While you were no doubt aware that he had moved to another pulpit, these Holy Days may be your first experience of his absence. I imagine for some, this is a bit surreal and filled with mixed emotions.

For many of you, this homecoming of sorts is particularly sad. If you joined Temple during Rabbi Goldberg’s tenure, these are the first services you have attended without him, and that, if not difficult, is different. For others, you have been here or at other synagogues long enough to know that this is what happens in synagogues. But knowing that does not make it any easier.

Regardless of the degree to which you connected with Rabbi Goldberg, his departure was a tremendous loss on many levels, both personally and institutionally. Many of you were intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually inspired by the depth of his teachings, his insight, his song, and his skill at connecting the timely with the timeless. So many of you were touched by his personal presence in your lives and remain forever touched and forever grateful. That touch, by the way, that enduring touch is among the greatest legacies any Rabbi can create.

So, so many of you were touched and inspired and will ever remain so. Others, not so much, as is true for any of us who would stand in a pulpit and be simply who we are, as we can only be. Some hearts were hurt by his departure; many hearts still mourn. Often when there is loss, there is anger, confusion, and fear for what is ahead which often abide and pop up in other unexpected places. As with all loss, healing takes time. I pray that these moments together will be a part of the journey to the healing we need. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is not only for out there, it’s for in here [for our community together] and in here [our hearts].

Our transitional time together began in July as you welcomed Fran and me to this wonderful community and it will end next June so that you can begin a new journey with your new Senior Rabbi. I am sure that your new journeys will be wonderful – just as I suspect it may not be easy. Kol hatchalot kashot. All beginnings are difficult.

Let me tell you a bit of my experience after we left Temple Sholom and began our 25 years at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ. Their rabbi for 28 years retired on June 30, 1990, and I was brought in as settled Rabbi starting July 1. It would be a couple of decades before Reform Temples understood the wisdom of bringing in an interim following the departure of a Senior Rabbi. Consequently, those first few years at B’nai Or were really tough. Modesty aside, when I stood in this pulpit for most of the 1980’s, there were those who thought I was a pretty darn good speaker. But when I got to Morristown, it was like I could not give a good sermon if my life depended on it, which it kind of did, not my life but my livelihood. You see, before he was ordained, my predecessor was a Cantor, and before that, an actor. Not an easy act to follow, especially on the pulpit where he was dramatic and often bombastic. The old timers were particularly critical of me. They were used to one model of what a Rabbi is and does and the style in which he does that, and my model, my style, was very different. For many, what had worked quite well in Chicago bombed in Morristown. But I stuck with it and they stuck with me.

There was one moment when I realized that the Temple and I indeed would have a future. One of our most respected congregants, a grand dame of sorts and a dear and loyal friend of my predecessor was a vocal critic of this new Rabbi. No names, but her initials were Judy Steinberg. Well, I knew I had made it two, maybe three years in, when Judy was overheard saying, “I don’t know if he is getting better or if I am just getting used to him.”

The reality of course, was both. I became better attuned to congregational style and expectations while at the same time, more people got to know me, recognize the gifts I brought and, as my friend Judy said, got used to me. You see, it takes time for a Rabbi to get to know, understand, and grow into a new congregation and make it his or her own. It takes patience and time for a congregation to get to know, appreciate, and grow into a new Rabbi and make her or him its own. Trust, confidence, connection, and affection take time to take root, but I am confident that they will.

Rabbi Goldberg’s departure would have been all the more difficult for us all were it not for the outstanding clergy team and dedicated staff with which you have blessed me, indeed, blessed yourselves:

Over these last 3 months, as I have worked and gotten to know my new BBF’s, Best Bimah Friends, my respect and appreciation has only deepened. Of course, I am referring to Associate Rabbi Conover, who has blessed this congregation for so many years with her deep learning and wisdom, her passion and compassion; Cantor Ben David, naim zemiort Yisrael, sweet singer of Israel whose beautiful soul draped

in goth black lights up this pulpit and this congregation, and Associate Rabbi Gellman, whose smarts, energy and great ability to connect with people are true blessings for us all!

Of equal import are our dedicated administrative staff, educational staffs and faculties, maintenance team, security personnel, and musical talent, each of whom works to make sure that you receive what you expect and deserve from Temple, not only during these Holy Days but year-round.

And of course, there are all those volunteers who give of themselves so generously in the office and in the various programs which embody the Temple’s Jewish values.

The strength and continued health of the congregation are also maintained through the steady guidance of your dedicated lay leadership, your devoted Board of Trustees headed by your amazing president, Jed Silberg. Your choosing of Jed is an indication of how wise and forward thinking this congregation is. We are so very grateful for the special gift which he brings, indeed which each and every one of them brings to this sacred community.

Over the last few months, I have had candid, one on one discussions with Board members, finding out what, in their eyes, is special about Temple Sholom and their ideas on how to make it better. I have to tell you, I have been so very impressed by the depth of their caring about this Temple, about its future, and about you, the members, without whom there would be no Temple. One thing that was clear in speaking to each one was how much they need your help and want your help, your voice, your hands, your engagement, and your affirmation that you prize this community too.

As I mentioned, transitions begin with an end and end with a beginning. And in between endings and beginnings, there is this middle phase which Bridges calls “the neutral zone.” The neutral zone is that liminal, uncertain time between the no more and the not yet. Bridges uses Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness as a model for what happens in the neutral zone. No, the past was certainly not Egypt, and have no illusions about the future being a perfect promised land made so by a messianic new Rabbi. But wilderness is an apt model to describe what happens in the moments between when the end really ends and the beginning really begins.

Moses discovered that time in the wilderness is fraught with unease, uncertainty, and LOTS of complaints. “I’m thirsty! You are moving too fast! You are not moving fast enough! It’s too hard! We can’t do it! Let’s go back to where we were before! Where are we anyway?” But at the same time, Moses saw that wilderness can also be a place of great openness and creativity, a place where new voices can be heard and new ideas put forth. “What about this? Let’s try that! You tried it and it did not work? Let’s find a different way to approach it.” Even his father-in-law piped in, “Mo, you can’t do it all yourself. There are others who can rise to responsibility.”

In the wilderness phase there can arise from within the congregation those “Joshuas” and “Joshuettes” who have not closely engaged with Temple yet, but who understand that this year in the wilderness might be their moment to raise their voices and present themselves to the community with “Hineyni – Here I am!” This just may be your time to lean into Temple and become more involved in things that are important to you.

You see, Temple is different things to different people. For some, the Temple is a central part of your lives, an extension of your own homes, many of you having been here l’dor vador – from generation to generation. For some, Temple is a place of personal transformation, interpersonal connection, and transpersonal transcendence. Temple Sholom is the first place that comes to mind when you ask the questions:

Where can I find my people? Where can I go to experience Jewish community and culture and comrades who comfort and care? Where can I bring my children for an innovative joyful Jewish educational experience; where can I go for my own Jewish learning and growth? Where can I go by myself and find family, where can my interfaith or same-sex family feel Jewishly normal? Where can I go where I will be

accepted, even loved, just as I am? Where can I go where I matter and can make a difference in the world?

For some, Temple is the place of conscience where the prophetic vision of letting justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream, is a core value. For others, this synagogue is simply one institution among many which you use as a means to fulfil particular needs: coming for the holidays, saying Kaddish, educating your children so that at your child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah you can look at your own parents and say with your eyes, “Look Mom, look Pop, I did it. I carried on.”

For many of you, the synagogue has always been and ever remains the anchor of Judaism and Jewish life, so important that it is vital to support it regardless of how much or little you agree or disagree with this or that or personally take advantages of what it has to offer. Temple Sholom is all this and much more. Temple is the friendships and the community and the learning and the praying and the singing and the caring and the doing.

And most important, Temple is the mission, the mission that gives the community a reason to be. It is the mission which not only justifies but inspires the faith, the work, and the sacrifice it takes to sustain the Temple. Temple Sholom’s mission is to be “a sacred community which engages, inspires, and matters.” I have to tell you, in the time that I have been back, I have seen your mission come alive in so many real and important ways, in congregational macro-moments such as this, and in thousands of person-to-person micro-moments which remain unnamed but just as real and just as important. Looking ahead, it will be up to you in partnership with your new Rabbi, the other clergy, staff, and lay leadership to discover new and innovative ways to carry out your mission into the future.

Yes, dear friends, Temple Sholom has a great future ahead. Jeremiah told us so in the Haftarah we read on Rosh Hashanah – “Yesh tikvah l’acharitech – there is hope for your future!” Jeremiah told you and I’m telling you, too, as if you had and doubt! Temple Sholom is not going anywhere. That it will be is not a question. What it will be is in your hands. Because Temple Sholom is more than any one rabbi or cantor or staff member or president or board. As historic, beautiful, and awe inspiring as it is, the Temple is not the building which houses it. Temple Sholom of Chicago is YOU! You are Temple Sholom! This is your congregation, your community, your family. You are what makes Temple Sholom so very special and so very unique! How you will honor your past, cherish your present, and envision your future is now in your capable, caring, and committed hands.

And so, friends, as we bring an end to the year now past and begin the year yet to be, I wish you g’mar chatimah tovah, praying that the New Year ahead will bring us health, happiness and fulfillment, the blessings of understanding, forgiveness and healing. I pray that this New Year brings to this sacred congregation renewed hope and a new clarity of vision. May this New Year serve as a bridge between the proud past you share and the joyous future that surely lies ahead for Temple Sholom and for us all!

Shanah tovah! i Mekhilta Yitro BaChadoesh 2, on vat aim shamoa tishma b’koli. ii Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Boston, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books.