"The future always comes too fast, and in the wrong order." --Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
Every now and then, I like to regale my children with stories about “the way it used to be.” When you wanted a baked potato, you put in the oven and had to wait a whole hour. If you had a school project, you went to the library to do research. If you had to write a paper, you typed it on a typewriter, and if you decided to add another paragraph, you had to type the page all over again. If you wanted to talk to someone, you called them on the phone, and if they weren’t home, there was nothing to do but try again later. There were just a few TV stations, and most of them went off the air after midnight.
It’s staggering to catalogue the technological changes that have transformed our lives in just the past few decades. The 1990s brought us the World Wide Web, text messages, Nintendo, DVDs, genetic engineering, cloning and stem cell research, Match.com and the rise of online dating; as the decade went on, our lives were transformed by the Internet.
Since 2000 we’ve seen a flood of inventions and innovations, including Bluetooth technology, Skype, Facebook, YouTube, hybrid, electric and driverless cars, all-robotic and micro-surgery, GPS, data storage in the Cloud, the iPhone, iPod and iPad, e-readers like the Kindle, instant streaming of movies and other media, and completion of the Human Genome Project. Just as significant have been the dramatic, sometimes traumatic, changes we’ve seen in our economy and the nature of work, gender relations, family structure and demography.
The futurist Alvin Toffler argued in 1970 that too rapid a pace of change – social, structural and technological -- is profoundly disturbing to human beings. In a book co-written with his wife, Heidi, he defined “future shock” as “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” The Tofflers were prescient in their concern about “information overload,” and the harmful effects of change that hits us too fast for us to absorb – impaired decision-making ability and the paralysis of “too many choices”; the over-stimulation of children; rising anxiety, depression and stress-related illnesses.
In times of rapid and intense change, wrote the Tofflers, we need “islands of stability” in our lives – sources of security that anchor us and make us feel safe. Many of us turn to spouses, family and close friends as our “islands of stability.” When daily life seems faster and more frenetic, our job unpredictable, our national politics chaotic and the state of the world ever more frightening, we long for what is constant and unchanging; something or someone we can count on for steadfast warmth and support.
That’s one of the significant gifts that a religious community can offer us. Certainly synagogues and churches change; they may adopt different music, develop new programs and bring in new leaders. But strong religious communities are grounded in values, teachings, traditions, rituals and relationships that endure over time. When we come together each week at Beth Am for Shabbat worship and Torah study, we experience the power of immersing ourselves in a stable, loving and consistent environment.
The years go by, bringing large and small changes into our lives. But at Beth Am we continue to delve into the same rich and timeless texts, drawing forth lessons that address our current reality. We continue to honor traditional values – respect for elders, the nurturing of children, compassion for the vulnerable, honesty, decency, fidelity, the sacred value of every person and every life. And as we invest ourselves in this community, we continue to interact with the same cluster of fellow congregants who grow into trusted, lifelong friends.
“Change,” wrote the Tofflers, “is the only constant.” Certainly that prediction has proven true. But what helps us to thrive in times of change is our connection to something solid and abiding: the wisdom of our tradition; time-honed spiritual practices that elevate our lives; prayers and rituals shared with our great-great-grandparents and our distant descendants; warm and nourishing human relationships that sustain us over the course of a lifetime.
October brings us the holiday of Sukkot – seven days we celebrate by sitting in a fragile hut exposed to the elements. Because it emphasizes life’s inherent instability, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks dubs Sukkot “the festival of insecurity.” We spend this holiday outdoors, attuned to nature, and must therefore confront the realities of incessant change, aging and death. We know that the glory of the brilliant leaves is painfully short-lived; the golden days of autumn will all too soon morph into the chilly gray skies of winter.
But tradition calls Sukkot “z’man simchateinu -- the time of our joy.” The special poignancy of the holiday comes from this paradox: acutely aware of the passing of time and the precariousness of all that we cherish, we nevertheless exult in the beauty of the present. “Zeh ha-yom asah Adonai,” we say, in the festival Hallel psalms. “This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” [Ps118:24].
Surrounded by family, friends and fellow congregants, holding fast to the symbols bequeathed to us by our ancestors, Jews sit in the sukkah, cultivating gratitude and joy, celebrating the fruits of the season. In doing so, we affirm this truth: life is uncertain and fleeting, and we are forever buffeted by the winds of change -- but on this day we are blessed by the gift of life. Around us, all is in flux, and all will in time pass away – but our brief lives are ennobled when we attach ourselves to something beautiful, grand and enduring. Chag sameach! May you exult in the special joy of Sukkot, and may we all gain strength from belonging to this beloved community.