On this beautiful evening I want you to journey with me to the stars.
First discovered nearly 150 years ago by Edouard Stephan, this eponymously named group is a cluster of galaxies which has been heavily studied since.
This first image of the Stephan Quintet comes from 1946, which you might recognize as being from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” from the same year. You can mostly make out the big four in the center, and then the fifth, which is to the bottom left and all on a collision course. This picture is fuzzy and hard to fully understand what is happening. Later discovery exposed that the fifth galaxy is really only in the forefront and not part of the true cluster of four. But the name “Quintet” has persisted.
In 2009, Hubble took a picture of the famous quintet with much clearer images as you can see here. One of these galaxies is tripping into another at a speed of millions of kilometers per hour—which is pretty impressive even on a galactic scale. It’s kicking up space gas like a motorcycle kicks up dirt on a rural road.
And finally, just this year, the new Webb telescope gave us this image, revealing details of star nurseries, sweeping tails of gas, and huge shock waves causing tremendous gravitational interactions.
The change in these images is astonishing. However, given that they are 300 million light years away, and that they will theoretically collide around the same time that our sun expands enough to swallow the earth in a few billion years, do we really think that we are witnessing true changes in the images from the last 80 years?
Or, more probably, are we capable of seeing more clearly the nature of this quintet because of a change in our technological advances?
Put another way, is the change external—happening to something else, or is change internal—happening to us?
Though we are all made of star stuff, let’s come a bit closer to home. Our own bodies. Each day skin cells are made and others slough off. Hair grows and falls out. Maybe we gain or lose a pound. We don’t really notice these small changes.
And then there are the days when you glance by a mirror and don’t quite recognize the face. When seemingly overnight, wrinkles appeared. Maybe a once-dark mane has been replaced with silver one. Maybe your eyes reveal a depth not there before. Maybe your smile is softer from years of kindness or harder with the years of pain. And you might ask yourself, when did that happen? When did I start to look like this?
At any given point we are ending a beginning and beginning an ending and stuck in the middle. At Agudas Israel, we need only glance at our three torot to understand that visually. Over the course of Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, we read from the very beginning of Genesis, wade into the middle of Leviticus, and dabble in Deuteronomy. On Simchat Torah in a couple weeks we will read the very end of Deuteronomy in one breath and in the very next breath, we start over with the first verse of Genesis. Though these Torah readings are cyclical, and apparently continually start and end at the same spot, they are changed – for we, the reader, are changed.
Talmudic Rabbi Ben Bag Bag 1Pirkei Avot 5:22 pointed this out in his statement to “turn it again, and turn it again”. At any given point, something is always changing. It is up to us to pay attention to that change and to lean into it too.
I can hear you say, “but change is hard”. Yes, extremely hard. And, in many cases inevitable. And sometimes, out of our control. And sometimes, completely in our control.
Let us look first at why we are resistant to change, and then at why it is good for us.
This list is neither comprehensive nor is it necessarily hierarchical, as some statements might resonate more with you than other ones.
- I am resistant to change because I don’t know if I have the energy to make it happen. My habits and routines are so ingrained in me and altering my muscle memory in order to do something different takes more than I have to give.
- I am resistant to change because I am not sure if the change that I am thinking of making is a right one.
- I am resistant to change because it means I have to face a reality different from the one I’ve constructed.
- I am resistant to change because I have too many other ‘fires to put out’.
I cannot possibly take on another stressor. There are only so many difficulties in my life that I can handle and I cannot add yet another one.
- I am resistant to change because I worry about what others will think about me. I worry that I will lose friends or community or be treated differently.
- I am resistant to change because I am just one person and I cannot make any difference.
- I am resistant to change because things are fine the way they are, so why should I rock the boat?
- I am resistant to change because it means that something outside of my control is happening and I don’t like the feeling of not knowing what is happening in general, or what will be happening to me.
- I am resistant to change because I am afraid. I am afraid of the unknown.
- I am resistant to change because it might mean that I was wrong about my behavior or an interaction I had.
Every one of these is valid and reasonable and true. Identifying what our personal resistance is, is the first step to making a conscious change. I am not going to go through point by point, though I do want to look at a few of these examples more closely.
First, changes outside of our control. These are the easiest to address. There is literally nothing you can do about them. We cannot prevent wars, natural disasters, deaths, births, friends’ choices of residences or jobs. What we can do, however, is acknowledge our difficulty in these cases. We can lean on the support system that we have and talk about our anxiety of the unknown.
If the change is something that will alter a relationship, you can talk to that person and express yourself about what you’d like to see happen with said relationship. We cannot control what others do. We can control our interactions, our reactions, and our perspectives of their decisions. This requires knowing our own emotions and needs and having open honest conversations. At the end of the day, we may not have control of these external situations, but we do have complete control over our perspective and attitude.
Next, we can look at resistance due to fear. Fear is a very real and powerful emotion. It helps alert us to danger. Fear comes from our animalistic instincts to help guide immediate decision making. This is the flight or fight, fawn or freeze response to unknown situation/stimuli. Or as learned response to trauma.
But we are more than our trauma and we are more than our animals with instincts. Here is where we must also use judgment, relationships, and experience to also guide us. Again, we must dig deep into our emotions and ask, “What is it that I am afraid of?” Afraid of being alone, afraid of losing money, afraid of hurting someone even if unintentionally, afraid of being hurt? And the list goes on and on. If we can put down in writing, or at a minimum aloud, our fears, we are better equipped to handle them.
I do believe that must put into words our thoughts, not simply leave them as thoughts. Write them down, say them out loud to a friend or out loud to yourself. We know the power of words from our Torah every time we read “God spoke and it was so.” God said let there be light, and there was light. Putting our fears into words is like putting a candle in a dark room.
And finally, the resistance which comes from admitting that in some way, we were wrong. Most of us believe ourselves to be good, caring, respectful, moral individuals. When confronted with an alternative view, our natural inclination is to be defensive. Then comes the hard work of listening to this alternative with an open and honest heart. Of believing that we are fallible, especially when in relationship with others. Our default is to think that the way we think or go about something is the correct way. Which extrapolates to that any other way would therefore be incorrect. In fact, situations are rarely so dichotomous. Not only is the world or relationships not black and white, but they also aren’t even gray. They are full of color and nuance. Admitting that we are wrong then, does not mean that we must do a 180 in thought, only that there are many other options available to us.
A deep question arises when we think about admitting a wrong when in relationship. We must ask ourselves if the relationship is worth more than the effort to change costs. Because admittance of wrongdoing is but the first step. We must then endeavor to not do the same thing again, which is what change is.
From where does change come? A Chasidic story 2Classic Tales by Ellen Frankel #273, copyright 1989 of Chaim of Zanz. When he was a young man he set about trying to reform his country from its evil ways. But when he reached the age of 30, he looked around and saw that evil remained in the world. So he said, “perhaps I was too ambitious. I will being with my province.” But at the age of 40, his province too remained mired in evil. So he said, “I was still too ambitious. From now on I will only try to lift up my community.”
But at the age of 50, he saw that his community had still not changed. So he decided only to reform his own family. But when he looked around, he saw that his family had grown and moved away, and that he now remained alone. “Now I understand that I needed to begin with myself.” So he spent the rest of his life perfecting his own soul.
During this High Holy Day season, we are asked to take stock of ourselves and our souls. We are asked to take stock of our relationships and our interactions. We are encouraged to seek forgiveness for harm we have caused. Asking for said apology must be accompanied by a sincere effort to alter ourselves in a such a way that we will not harm someone in the same way in the future.
Let’s also be very clear that harm can come from inaction just as much as it does from action itself. Let us not fool ourselves by thinking “I didn’t do anything wrong” if the retort can be “I didn’t do anything right either”
Here too, let me point out that lacking self-worth is not helpful or healthy either. When we recite our vidui, confessions, and beat our chests, this is a symbolic act that we are acknowledging and owning these misdeeds. But we are not saying that we are somehow worthless. Rather, by acknowledging our faults, we are able to put the effort in and grow. What a tremendous gift that is!
We live here in Hendersonville, in the land of four seasons. People come from all over at this time of year to see the changing of the leaves. The dozens of green hues transform before our eyes into a veritable rainbow commanding awe and photographs. It is not simply the nature which is attractive, but the change of nature which is magnetizing. Imagine that we too can be like the Blue Ridge Mountains – shedding our protective green in favor of revealing our truest colors. Imagine the beauty we could put into the world if we all did that.
Change is necessary and inevitable. And when we lean into it, change is good. Over these next ten days, we are asked to be intentional about who we are, how we’ve been, and who we want to be. I encourage each of us to embrace this time of year and this task. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Name your fears and anxieties, and then let them go. Reflect on your relationships and do the honest work to deepen them— including with yourself. Embrace change!
May this season be one of reflection and honesty.
May it be one of kindness and compassion as we witness growth right before our eyes, in ourselves and in others.
May it lead to more meaningful relationships.
May these changes, small and big, lead to a healthier, happier, more just world.
May you blessed along your journey, and may you be blessing.
Ken yehi ratzon. May this be so.
(This sermon was originally given on Rosh Hashanah evening 5783, at Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, NC. Rabbi Rachael Jackson, a Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumna, is rabbi at the congregation).