As lockdown really started to kick in and the challenges of what it meant to not leave your home for days, social isolation, money worries and bereavement, kicked in, organisations, charities and even synagogues were transforming their work. Liberal Judaism pretty much shifted overnight in terms of its work, much like our communities. Truth is it was only those communities who tried to give the impression of ‘everything is the same’ that were found to have little behind the facade of who they were. Everyone and every other organisation embraced the change even with the hardships entailed and we can only marvel at the professionals and volunteers who switched what they were doing overnight.
It was in April 2020 that Michelle (whose husband I am), who was not yet the co-CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council described what she was witnessing in the organisational landscape of the Jewish community. She said the organisational and institutional change she observed that would normally take five years, was occurring in five days. About three weeks later, Dave Lewis (CEO of Tesco) said about the stores, “Our stores have changed more in the last three or four weeks than in the whole of the decade.” Sometimes prescient and thoughtful leadership is right in front of us, and not making sure the supermarket shelves do not run out of toilet paper, but she’s there steadying the ship of your household in the most tumultuous of years of your life!
As I told Jumoke Fashole on the radio last week, the word for year שנה is from the Hebrew word that means both change and repeat. We talk of the משנה תורה – the repetition of the Torah and the משנה – the rabbinic work learnt through repetition. And yet we also say מה נשתנה – how different is this night from all other nights. Hebrew has that brilliant ability to deliver a message, just in one word. שנה, נשתנה. The year continues on its cycle and yet no year is the same as the previous one. I for one am thrilled to start a new beginning this year with SBJC. That said, I think we’ll all be grateful for some good old fashioned mundane undramatic months after 5780 and 2020.
It was this time last year that I was teaching a special session that opened a series of classes. The course was about living well, health and wellbeing from a Jewish perspective. On the back of my father’s ill health z’l, who died in December, I had been thinking a lot about wellbeing and what we can do as individuals in our lives to feel better, healthier, happier, spiritually intentional and well. The opening session asked a question that I think is not really truly answerable. What prompts us to make change in the first place? I even enrolled on a course during lockdown called ‘The Science of Well-Being’ by Yale University. I didn’t finish it, but the science of well-being is part of the same question – how do we start to make change, preferably for the better?
Social scientists have shown, for example, if you want children to make ‘better’ choices for dessert in the school canteen then you don’t need to force them, you just need to put the fresh fruit lower and in a more accessible place than the chocolate pudding. Maybe, economists and politicians concluded, we could nudge a population to wellbeing and ‘better’ choices.
Now I say this not to make light of the pandemic, but it’s a pretty hefty nudge to read the news reports last week that quitting smoking is at a ten-year high. Guess what – COVID-19, a respiratory disease gave smokers the nudge to quit. But that’s the point really. It’s not a nudge and it’s not a piece of social engineering that any government can plan, foresee or implement – whether desirable or not.
You see – change, major life change, even organisational change, generally happens in response to major stimuli. That’s why in the theory of change handbooks for organisational development they tell you to ensure you start by explaining the risk, need, and potential crisis in not changing.
But who is going to tell you to change? Who will make the case?
And so we arrive at Yom Kippur – change is now. Change is necessary. You don’t have just one chance in a life or a year. But the chances to change don’t come better than this.
Just last week, I was teaching a friend some Talmud and we were looking at a source which starts with our sense of self-perception and then gives us the encouragement to consider change is always possible – we have to start at some point and why not now. The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 40a etc) reads:
The Sages taught: Always a person should view themselves as though they were half guilty and half innocent. If they perform one mitzva they are fortunate, as they tilt the balance to the scale of merit. If they transgress one prohibition, woe to them, as they tilt the balance to the scale of liability…due to one sin that a person transgresses they squander much good.
Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, says: Since the world is judged by its majority and an individual is judged by their balance of deeds, each person must consider that if they perform one mitzva they are praiseworthy, as they tilt the balance of the entire world to the scale of merit (And vice versa.)
These rabbis from the second century of the common era are telling us in simple terms – look no-one is wholly righteous and no-one is wholly wicked. Our deeds are in the balance. Because if we were wholly righteous, we wouldn’t need Yom Kippur. And if we were wholly wicked, well again we wouldn’t need/pay attention to Yom Kippur. And look, if we want the extra motivation – we should see our actions as having cosmic significance because it’s our deeds that will shift the balance of the universe. And the Talmud continues to tell us there is no time like now to make that resolution to change. Even if you feel stuck in your ways, you are never trapped and freedom from fate is only one small step in a different direction. This is the best way to talk about habit changing – you make changes and, importantly, if you fall back you never see it as a self-defining disaster because there is always the next small step to change which will over-shadow the past.
Judaism believes in change. But if we’ve dealt with how we perceive ourselves, what’s the next step?
There is a midrashic origin of the phrase we hear in the unetanneh tokef – Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah – annul the evil decree. It is from a collection of rabbinic teachings from around the 5th century. They describe Abraham being taken into space and told as he looks down at earth from the stars, “Don’t believe in the stars – your future is not written in the heavens and your fate is not determined.”
In other words don’t believe your horoscope. Because it’s not predicting the future that should occupy our focus but our conduct as human beings. The evil decree in my interpretation is not some predetermined judgement by God. It’s not even, as some of my colleagues suggest, the way we view our lot – life feels unjust for lots of reasons and a change in perspective doesn’t make that less rubbish (to put it mildly).
My reading of this source is that the sages are telling us change is never impossible. The turning of the year, the cycle of the heavens, the movement of the stars – it all goes around and around, everything turns. Ecclesiastes was right – there are times for everything and they come and go, ebb and flow, like the moon will assuredly wax and wane in the sky. All is futile, Ecclesiastes says – הבל הבלים (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
We all felt that in the monotony and anxiety of the covid-lockdown which might continue again for months. But listen ‘כי הכול הבל’ – everything is futile…so says the prayer in the morning services ( Ecclesiastes 3:19), swiftly followed by ‘אבל אנחנו עמך בני בריתך’ – but we are your people, children of your covenant. There is something that transcends the futility. It is what brings us together now, it is what guides our sense of purpose, it is what elevates one day from the next as the holiest of the year.
And that’s what the Unetanneh tokef tell us. That’s what the midrash is telling us about Abraham. How do we make change – small steps – we repent, we pray and we give charity. It’s a text book theory of change – self reflection on what needs to change, constant intentional practice and helping others. We are never trapped. That’s the lesson of Ninevah in tomorrow’s reading from Jonah – change is only ever one moment away. Maybe that’s why we fast, amongst all the manifold other reasons for fasting – it is the reboot of the system. For one day we power down, we restart and, if only for one day we focus on the shinui, the change we want to make.
Judaism believes you can change.
שנה, שונה, נשתנה – What do we want to make shoneh repeated from the year that has passed? Fix your mind on the moments of goodness, of uplift, of beauty and transcendence – how will you hold on to them? And at the same time what is the shinui the change you want this year in yourself, how will you overcome the futility and turning, to turn to life, to choice and to something different? Because, as the Talmud tells us, the world depends on our change. These are the questions at the heart of Yom Kippur that I leave you with as we move into the depths of this holiest day.
And in the words of the traditional prayer that the High Priest might have said as he emerged from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur:
“May it be your will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers that the year to come should be a year of abundance, a year of blessing, a year of good fortune…” Amen Amen Amen.
L’Shanah Tovah and gmar chatimah tovah.