Archive for March 30th, 2013

Stepping into the Great Unknown: article published in New Mexico Jewish Link

Stepping Into The Great Unknown

This is a time of great transition. Transition for us as a Jewish people, as this time of year is one of significant shift, as Pesach marks our leap from slavery to freedom. How does Jewish tradition help us deal with transition?

The tradition recognizes that transitions take time. Despite our desire to leave Egypt, it took many repetitions of Moses’ pleading, Pharoah’s refusals, and ever more onerous plagues for the Israelites to finally begin the process of physically departing from Egypt. Certainly Gd could have acted instantly, performing some miracle or set of miracles by which the Israelites could have been immediately delivered out of slavery. But instead, this set of escalating events set up the first step in the transition. The forty years we spent in the wilderness, wandering, taught us that major switches require patience, time and trust.

Every transition, whether monumental (for an entire population) or intimate and personal, also requires a stage of preparation. Some preparations are intentional, and operate on a known timetable, as when an engaged couple plans their wedding, does premarital counseling and signs a prenuptial agreement. When we recognize the preparation stage of a transition, we can analyze the situation, engaging our cognitive abilities to get ready for the change and use our knowledge of past situations to mentally rehearse for this upcoming change.

Other changes are unanticipated and require quick action, as when, in Egypt, we quickly baked matzo and packed our kneading bowls in preparation to depart…trusting that, this time, Pharoah would relent and let us go. When dramatic changes are unforeseen, we depend on trust.

Tradition tells us that transitions are difficult. How many times did the Israelites complain about their situation as free people in the desert, wishing to return to the security of slavery? How often do we, after having made some difficult choice, go back and revisit our decisions, examining the alternative futures we imagine might have resulted from the decision we did not make? A psychological theory known as Cognitive Dissonance explains that when a choice has to be made between two alternatives, say ‘Choice A” and “Choice B” which appear equally attractive at time X, we change our attitudes about the choice we did make over time. If we chose “A”, then choice “B” looks less and less appealing with hindsight. It is not intentional justification of the choice we did make, but a subtle shift in our perception of how tempting choice “A” really was at the time we made the decision. During transition times these perceptions are shifting rapidly, and often unpredictably.

Times of transition require us to experience the discomfort of the unknown. When we are no longer in the prior situation, but the new circumstances have not yet developed or been revealed, we find ourselves in a kind of limbo, often known as a ‘liminal’ period. Overflowing with potential and packed with uncertainty, liminal times can be intensely positive, as when a bride or groom is walking up to the chuppah about to be married, or can be strongly negative, as the period between the death and burial of a loved one. While some Eastern spiritual traditions teach non-attachment as a way to attempt to deal with the discomfort of the “not-knowing” of transitions, Jewish experience has taught us the usefulness of recognizing and honoring the challenge of liminal times, and then encouraging adaptation to the new.

A long history of adjusting to the unfamiliar has given Jews the ability to be culturally nimble while maintaining a sturdy but flexible framework of ritual, practice and belief. Transitions are harder when unexpected, but whether predictable or not, they lead us toward growth — personally, as a community, and as a people.

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Day 5 of Omer Counting 2013 Hod she b’Chesed

Day 5 of the Counting of the Omer 2013
Hod she b’Chesed
Splendor within Lovingkindness

Of the many interpretations of Hod, the one that most resonates is splendor — the amazing variety of everything in creation. Today we focus on diversity within lovingkindness…the many ways love is expressed in the world. The current discussions about the definition of marriage reflect the fact loving relationships are heterogeneous. It was not too many years ago that marriage between two people of different races was illegal; now it is not. Families built by adoption were rare, but families created through surrogacy were just a dream. When we recognize the many ways endless compassion and caring are manifest in the world, we open ourselves even more in the journey toward revelation in which we are engaged this Omer season.

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