by Rabbi Judy Kummer
Change doesn’t come easy for most of us. Many know the joke about the Buddhist monk who says to a hot dog vendor: "Make me one with everything." Chuckling, the vendor assembles the hot dog, gives it to the monk and says "that will be $4, please." The monk hands over a $20 bill, which the vendor pockets. After a moment, the monk asks for his change, at which point the vendor taps his chest and responds, “Change? Ah, change must come from within.”
I grew up in a family not known for a love of change. My late grandfather was in fact so set in his ways that for some 50 years, he used a particular hair oil — in the days when men wore hair oil— and it turned out he hated this brand. So why continue using it? “I’ve used it all these years,” he said — “why should I change now?”
Why change, indeed? Well, there are things we might do better, or might do at all, if only we were to try to change…
Our Jewish tradition actually encourages us to change! When we wish each other a shannah tovah, a happy New Year, we can remember that the word shannah comes from the verb l’shanot, to change – so in fact we are wishing each other “a good change.”
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I’m a distance swimmer. Lately, I have faced a somewhat distressing situation: in the middle of blissful summertime lake swims — with blue skies overhead, green trees all around and sunshine spangling the silky water through which I glide, my body exulting with good health and my soul feeling full to overflowing— it’s been distressing that I have run aground, not once this summer but several times. It seems this year that my kick is off; one stroke has me swimming in less than straight lines. As I come ashore unwittingly, my hand will suddenly graze an underwater rock, my foot will touch the muck at the bottom of the pond. Limbs that had expected to feel nothing but the steady glide through water are now coming into contact with objects —and I will admit that I find the muck especially yucky. It feels slimy and rotten; while it’s been lying there placidly, it makes me wonder about any small creatures whose homes I had just disturbed who, creepily, might be swimming up to join me.
But this is my new reality: until I get my stroke straightened out, I may be swimming ashore, whether I’ve aimed there or not. It seems like encountering this newness, this muck at the bottom of the pond, may be an experience I will need to learn to accept.
And then, if I can accept this, who knows what other newness I might be open to, might even embrace?
As we approach the High Holidays, we are asked to do a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual stock-taking, identifying patterns of behavior that might not have served us well in the past and experimenting with changing them. Perhaps we don’t have to go wading gleefully into the muck we might find, but putting a toe or even a foot down onto unfamiliar terrain can lead to a realization that it’s not so bad, that there’s been no harm, that newness could even possibly lead to good things – and it might result in our broaching some things we might have shied away from trying until that point.
Our Jewish tradition holds hope that a new future might unfold for us, sparkling in the sunlight, if only we will be willing to try to change.
Shannah tovah, a good change!
Rabbi Judy Kummer is a board-certified chaplain in private practice, offering skilled spiritual care visits, eldercare programing and warm lifecycle events. She has served as Executive Director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of MA and other nonprofits, and has served congregations in DC, NY and NJ. She is happiest outdoors hiking in the woods, swimming in a lake at sunset or tending to her Boston organic garden. She can be reached at rabbikummer.com.