Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

מה שעושה הקדוש ברוך הוא הכל לטובה

June 2017

The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, teaches that nothing is permanent except change. In fact this is so ingrained in the human psyche that it may well & truly be one of those self-evident truths that nearly everyone accepts. Change is not only the human condition; everything that exists changes. Nothing remains forever unchanged. Many would (& many would not) extrapolate this even to God. Lack of change is nonexistence.

In many ways, our reactions to change reveal our personalities. Be it a pleasant gift or the loss of a loved one, how we react when our world changes defines who & what we are. And, even these reactions are subject to change. Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s well known song, “The Times They Are a-Changin,” recognizes the inevitability of change & suggests that those who will not accept change will “sink like a stone.” He asks those who cannot accept the new road to “Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.” There are those who can adapt & those who cannot.

Traditionally, those who are tolerant of change & not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition are labeled liberal while those who are reluctant to accept changes & new ideas are labeled conservative. Yet, even these common definitions are subject to change. History abounds with examples. The religion of Moses was a radical departure from the preexisting Israelite religion yet, Samuel, who champions that religion when the people of Israel want a king, is clearly taking Dylan’s old road. God tells Samuel to listen to the people - “For the times they are a-changin.”

Here in America, the Republican Party was founded as a political party of change - those who would overthrow the accepted order of strong state’s rights & lawful slavery. It boasted such radicals as Abraham Lincoln & Theodore Roosevelt. So, how did the Republican Party become the party of conservative America? The other side of the isle is not immune either. Republican presidents Ronald Reagan & now, Donald Trump, are “conservative” advocates of sweeping change while their “liberal” opponents fight to preserve the status quo. Even these labels are not sacred. “For the times they are a-changin.”

As change is an integral & necessary part of life, then, it is not surprising that our Jewish traditions have much to say on the subject. Biblical & rabbinic tales of change abound. Moses is a story of change, & part of this tale includes the inevitable backlash of Korach’s Rebellion. Institution of the monarchy is a story of change with none other than Samuel himself playing the part of the reactionary conservative. The split of the Davidic Kingdom, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the Revolt of the Maccabees, the rise of Rabbinic Judaism… indeed, our entire tradition is a story of change & our people’s reaction to change.

Our tradition has plenty to say about change itself. The book of Ecclesiastes teaches that one should not pine for the good old days: “Do not say: How was it that days gone by are better than these? For it is not out of wisdom that you would ask this.” Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches: “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?” Again, indicating that life demands change.

Sometimes change becomes so engrained that we forget that once upon a time things were different. After the destruction of the Second Temple, our sages had to construct a religion based on prayer rather than sacrifice. They taught: “To love the Lord your God & to serve Him with all your heart… What is this service of the heart? You must say that this is prayer.” The great teacher, Moses, would not recognize the Mosaic faith as practiced today.

Change is built into the Jewish system. It must be. And, at no time is it on greater display than during the High Holy Days. In order to make any sense of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur at all, the concept of teshuvah - return or repentance - must be valid. That is to say, God can only ask us to improve if change is possible & if God accepts change as adequate compensation for past indiscretions. The intense heshbon hanefesh, or soul searching, that goes on during the Ten Days of Repentance, as well as for the entire month beforehand, only makes sense if God embraces change & encourages it. And, if God embraces & encourages change, who are we to fear it?

The prayer of the great Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, & wisdom to know the difference,” is already partly answered within the Jewish tradition. The opportunity to change, for the better, is granted all year long & virtually thrust upon us during our fall holy day season. All that God asks of us is to recognize the opportunity & to take advantage of it. And, as the title of this column suggests, “That which the Holy One, Blessed be He, does is all for the good”. Do we have the courage to change? Will we have the courage to embrace Dylan’s request to start swimmin’? Or will we be a stiff-necked people & sink like a stone? For the times they are a-changin’.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman