HaChodesh and Cautious Radicalism
If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...
This week marks the conclusion of eight wonderful years at Dunstan Road – we joined the community on 1st April 2003. It’s another opportunity for Vicki and me to remind ourselves what a privilege it is to serve as spiritual leaders to this wonderful community and to thank all of you for your support and continued enthusiasm for everything that we do.
Such milestones are also an opportunity to reflect on a particular aspect of the rabbi’s role in the community – ensuring that I am actively and constantly engaged in fostering Jewish growth, change and development, balancing those with the need to preserve and continue our community’s legacy. Every community, especially ours, includes people who would like the rabbi to overhaul everything with little regard to the past, and others who see no need to change anything at all – if it worked last year or century, why shouldn’t it work now? Striking the balance between these needs is no mean feat.
This week’s special reading of HaChodesh is helpful in considering this issue. It begins with God telling Moshe that ‘this month (Nissan, which begins this week) will be the first of months for you’ (Shemot 12:2). Simply understood, it refers to the beginning of independent Jewish nationhood, which is characterised by our own calendar and festival cycle. And of course, it all happens in Chodesh HaAviv – the month when nature comes back to life after the dormancy of winter.
However, the Sefat Emet of Gur (d. 1905) understands the verse to refer what he calls כח התחדשות – the ability to renew, change, reform and innovate (‘month’ and ‘renewal’ are the same word in Hebrew). He explains that this capability is something innate to the Jewish people; yet it was lost when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and, indeed used against them by Pharaoh. According to Sefat Emet, this is the meaning of the phrase ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים – a new king arose over Egypt (Shemot 1:8) – a king arose who usurped the ability to change and adapt and used it against the Israelites, heralding the start of the Egyptian slavery. As such, the redemption dawned when the capability to innovate was restored to them; this is the true meaning of HaChodesh.
Yet while this renewal may have involved national redemption, it did not wipe away the past entirely, just the negative aspects of the slavery. Their renewal and recreation was based on the promises that God made to the forefathers, and the continuation of their legacy. Real Jewish renewal requires one to have one eye on the future with another on the past.
So, while the rabbis sometimes gets caught in the crossfire between the changers and the conservatives, proper pro-active leadership ensures that we are constantly growing, changing and re-evaluating, but only in a way that secures the future by neither merely aping the past or disregarding it: it should make both groups slightly uncomfortable, but not too much! If it isn’t an oxymoron, this might be termed ‘cautious radicalism’.
I have a feeling that the next year in our community is going to be very exciting. There are hard decisions to be made, but we have a great management team with a terrific plan; we are about to undergo a carefully-thought-through makeover / repackaging, we have innovative ideas for educational and social programming, and do you know, that we’ve had a recent flurry of young couples joining the Shul and expressing interest in our plans. All these build on the past without being enslaved by it. This is real התחדשות, something I am proud and honoured to lead and guide, and should, with God’s help, steer us towards a rosy and vibrant future.