Cantor Shukiar’s Sermon on Transitions

I opened up my Facebook account and started doing my daily reading. Really I am trolling all of you, as TAE learns of more life cycle events and illnesses from Facebook than any other source. I started seeing these strange posts, and after seeing about a dozen or so I chose to click on the link. It took me to a page that instructed me to click to hear what the fuss was about. So I followed the directions and clicked. Laurel. Laurel. Laurel. Laurel. I didn’t get it. I clicked it again, Yanny. Yanny. Yanny. Yanny. Wait a second… A minute ago I heard Laurel, and now I am hearing Yanny? I kept going back to this site again and again, sometimes hearing Laurel, sometimes hearing Yanny and, honestly sometimes hearing Yally. So which camp are you? Laurel or Yanny? The New York Times put out a link where you can adjust the pitch and actually hear both Laurel and Yanny. I am grateful that the New York Times is tackling such life changing issues! So how is it possible for us to hear Laurel one moment and the next moment, Yanny? I am sure I was being manipulated and the recording was actually changing.

Every time I walk into our sanctuary, I am greeted by these beautiful stained glass windows that depict the parting of the Sea of Reeds, signaling our end of slavery and our journey towards freedom. I often find myself thinking, “What must it have felt like to be a Hebrew going through the transition from slavery to freedom.” We know from our text that our people reacted to this transition in many different ways. Some were looking ahead to what the unknown freedom could mean while others were yearning for the stability that Egypt and slavery provided. After all, we had houses and food that were provided for us. And I think that it must have taken such an act of faith to walk between the walls of water towards the unknown.

A midrash, which is an ancient commentary or story linked to our scripture, coming from around the 2nd century of the common era or even earlier teaches us about this moment at the shores of the Sea of Reeds. Everyone was stunned to be trapped in front of this mighty sea. The sound of the pounding surf ahead of us and the sound of Pharaoh’s chariots racing towards us behind us paralyzed us in fear. Even Moses stood in fear. The midrash teaches us that one man, Nachshon, chose to enter the water. It wasn’t until his nose was covered with water, the moment when he could no longer breathe, that the water parted for him on either side. His act of faith enabled all of us to cross the sea to freedom.

At TAE, we are now starting to walk through yet another Sea of Reeds towards an unknown future. Transitions like this are nothing new to us. Over the past 5 years, we have seen the departure of Rabbi Riter, the welcoming of Rabbi Diamond as our Interim Rabbi, the departure of Rabbi Dubowe and Rabbi Diamond, the welcoming of Rabbi Straus and now his departure. For some of us, it feels like we have been in one long Sea of Reeds in search of our stability. And we are now preparing to welcome Rabbi Diamond home to TAE. Transitions like this are hard and often painful, as we feel the weight of relationships ended, the potential for a change in the norm that we have grown comfortable with. I know we all share the same hope that Rabbi Straus and his family find their new home and happiness in this next phase of their lives. And at the same time, transitions are also wonderful opportunities for us to dream about what our community can be.

I think back to our windows and the story of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. We are taught that more than 600,000 Hebrews participated in our Exodus from Egypt. This means that while some were finishing their crossing, others were just beginning to get their feet wet while others were in the middle of the sea with the walls of water on either side of them. When you look at these windows, what do you see? Are you standing in Egypt looking through the Sea of Reeds towards Mt. Sinai and freedom? Are you across the sea looking back into Egypt and what you left behind or are you right in the middle of your crossing? I have asked myself this question countless times during the last 5 years of transition at TAE. And on different days, my answer is different. There were times when I felt like I was in Egypt, yearning to cross the sea to the unknown of the future, and there were times I was across looking back at how strong we, as a community have been to make it across so many Sea of Reeds. But mostly, to be quite honest, I felt like I was stuck somewhere in between, with the walls of the pounding surf on either side of me, praying that I didn’t get swallowed up. Feeling the weight of my feet stuck in the mud. Knowing that transition was coming, but feeling like it was an eternity away, after all, Rabbi Straus’s departure was announced more than a year ago. Always wanting to be respectful of Rabbi Straus and recognize the many gifts he brought to TAE and at the same time wanting to feel the excitement of Rabbi Diamond’s homecoming, and wanting to help all of you get excited about our future. Stuck looking back at our history as a congregation and looking ahead to what our future could hold.

One thing I have learned through our transitions is that the power of our community is not found in a rabbi or a cantor or a program. The power of our community is found in us. It is in our relationships to one another. It is in the meaning we find in embracing our neighbor and turning them into our friends. It is in the power we find in giving the gift of Torah and community to our children and our children’s children. It is in the work we do together to transform our world.

And so I ask each of you tonight, where are you in this scenario? Are you Nachshon? Are you one who has entered the Sea of Reeds and are almost finished crossing this latest transition? Are you looking back into Egypt? Are you at the very beginning of this transition, meaning you are unsure if you have the faith to even enter the sea? Or are you stuck somewhere in between, looking both back and forward?

This brings me back to the Laurel and Yanny question I posed earlier. I have come to understand that when asked, do you hear Laurel or Yanny, the answer is yes. At one moment, for whatever reason, I need to hear Laurel. And the next, I hear Yanny. The recording isn’t changing, I am. And I have the ability to hear both when I need to. I have come to understand that it is ok that I hear Laurel now and tomorrow Yanny. It is ok that while some of the Hebrews were finished crossing the Sea of Reeds, others were still terrified to walk into the water. It is ok that today I feel ready and excited for this current rabbinic transition looking forward and tomorrow I might feel sad looking back. It is all ok.

No matter where you are in this transition, I promise that I will be there to walk with you. And I know that if we choose, as a community, to hold each other’s hands and walk together, this transition we are starting, as have all of the other transitions we have faced in the past, will lead to blessing. It will lead to a stronger TAE because we are choosing to walk this path together. And I hope that each time you walk into our sanctuary and are greeted with the sight of our beautiful stained glass windows, you will be reminded what a blessing it is to be a part of the TAE family.

As our own poet, Suzanne Gallant writes:

When we reach the shore
Of our own sea of reeds
Fear will not hold us back
And like the children of Israel
We will put our toes
Into the water
And find that we,
Like they
Can cross bravely and safely
To a promised land
More wonderful
Than our minds
Can imagine.