Monthly Archives: April 2014

Transition Time

Transition Time


Transition time is the time a dynamical system takes to switch between two different stable states when responding to a change in the input signal. In a logic circuit switching between its two valid states, the transition time is either the rise time or the fall time of the output voltage. It is therefore correct to speak of two types of transition times: transition time low-to-high, the rise time of a logic gate’s output voltage. And transition time high-to-low, the fall time of a logic gate’s output voltage.

The science of transition time is clearly defined here. It’s all about energy flow and its consequences. It just makes sense. And this is from a person who, as you may remember, has had no qualitative science class since sophomore year – of high school.

Transition time goes beyond logic circuit switching (whatever that is). Transition time is a fundamental aspect of human existence. At some point in the 80’s, parents were told that we needed to utilize principles of transition time when it came to how we were raising our kids. Announcing: “Bed time! Let’s go!”, rarely created a win/win environment. Kids would get oppositional and parents would get peeved, resulting in heated conflict along with an escalation of energy. Not exactly an opportune ambiance for tuck-in and sweet dreams.

But what if we treated this like a high to low transition? We were told that if we announced, “Ok, you have 10 minutes before bed” that there would be a much greater chance of tucking happier children into bed and being happier parents. And I think this was more or less the case. Bedtime could still be hard, but transition time made it a bit less painful.

As kids (and adults) get older, transition time also came into waking up in the morning. The military version of banging garbage can lids together and yelling as a way to start the morning could make for a rotten day. But what about low to high transition time logic? A soft wake up, a ten minute snooze period before the day truly must begin makes a huge difference. Again, it’s not a panacea, but it’s a start.

There is also spiritual transition time. Selichot, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, helps us ramp up our rise time. It helps us pace ourselves to the first evening of the new year. Or take this period called the Omer which counts the days from Passover to Shavuot. It is actually a 49 day transition time from the celebration of the Exodus to Shavuot, the holiday commemorating when we received the Torah from God on Mt Sinai. But is Passover to Shavuot low-to-high? Or is it high-to-low? The way we celebrate Passover – and don’t celebrate Shavuot these days – feels like very high to very low!

Our tradition always wanted us to take the energy of Passover and not let it dissipate. Passover generates too much of a good thing to just let it all go. The sense of fellowship around the table, the sharing of our stories, the laughter, the resolve, even if for a moment, to acknowledge that we are free and thus responsible to help those who are not: all these things and more are powerful and central to our souls.

The transition from Passover to Shavuot is from high to higher (credit to YL Peretz and If Not Higher). Passover celebrates going free. Shavuot reminds us of our ongoing responsibilities of freedom. Shavuot challenges us to go from our liberation story to engaging in the universal liberation story. It reminds us that social justice is not merely an interesting topic; it is our duty as Jews to be involved in it. At Passover we recline as we eat, unhurried, unhassled. But Shavuot demands we get ourselves in gear. How can we blithely enjoy our freedom and success and ignore the needs of others? Answer: all too easily.

The Omer is the transition time for putting away all the seder plates and hagadahs and gearing up for the next round. This is our time to prepare to see the world differently, to embrace our common humanity, our shared world, and our responsibilities. Shavuot is time to say, “We forward in this generation triumphantly”. Will we ever reach redemption? Will all slaves finally be free? This Omer is the time to ask and then resolve to try to do something and then Shavuot is time to make the promise to act. Rabbi Tarfon says: It is not our responsibility to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:21).


Shabbat Shalom


We A People

We live at a time when the individual reigns supreme. We value everyone’s autonomy. We praise everyone’s uniqueness. We strongly espouse an ethic of individual rights. We live by the notion that no two snowflakes are the same; how much the more so when it comes to humans?


When we meet people for the first time, we often begin our line of inquiry from this perspective:  Where are you from? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What do you do? That is, we begin with the microcosmic, our focus a tight close-up.


A generation or two ago, it was done differently. The first question would be, “Who are your people?” In other words, your individual life may be interesting, but the more important story is your family saga. How did your family get here?


We are the Jewish people. We share a common story and connect with powerful common symbols and rituals. When we lose that sense of peoplehood – and I think Jews all over the world have lost a significant sense of peoplehood – we lose an existential mooring to a common set of stories that join us together over time and space.


Our current lack of a sense of peoplehood comes partly from our great success in America. We are essentially free as Jews to do what we want wherever we want. Jews in America are prime example #1 of assimilation and acculturation. We have gotten closer to non-Jews – professionally, personally, intimately – than at any time in our history. A sense of expansive Americanness – to coin an awkward phrase – certainly trumps a less immediately accessible Jewishness.


This is not an either/or gambit. We are proud and free Americans. Thank God for that. And our doors open ever wider to non-Jewish partners and friends who want to draw closer to our unique heritage. But as American Jews we can also acknowledge that we come from someone and somewhere else. We can raise up our peoplehood as an essential component of our lives. In fact, our history, our sense of family, our centuries of dedication to justice, to learning, and to tradition, all can make us more sensitive human beings who richly contribute to American life – as Jews.


The Passover Seder is the place where a foundational tribal tale is told and retold every year. We are adjured to see ourselves as the very people who went free with Moses. We are not at the Seder table to tell their story. There is no they! This story is about us! Passover reminds us to celebrate our freedom and to recognize just how hard it’s been to achieve it. Crossing the Sea of Reeds after escaping the Egyptians, and throwing off the bonds of slavery, this was miraculous. Establishing the state of Israel 3 years after Auschwitz, this was the sign of peoplehood.


The Stern Gang wishes you a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover. Tell our story well: the long version, the short version, just tell it. Celebrate the sweetness of our lives but don’t forget to acknowledge how much bitterness exists in the world. The Jewish people must not only give thanks for where we are. We are obligated to make the world better. Because we were slaves, we know in our hearts that slavery is a sin. There’s work to do.


The Vineyard

I’m not sure what one calls a large gathering of rabbis. Is it a rabble of rabbis? A den of rabbis? A blessing of rabbis? Whatever the official appellation, there sure were a lot of us at the CCAR convention I just attended in Chicago. In fact there were over 500 rabbonim gathered at the Fairmont Hotel for 4 days of learning, studying, schmoozing, and connecting. As always it is a sweet reunion of old friends, pulling out our iPhones, sharing pictures of our spouses and our kids and now for some of us, our grandchildren. It has also become a chance to meet new colleagues with new ideas about so much of what we senior rabbis have been doing for decades. These encounters can be bracing: the young are so certain about so much… These encounters can also be humbling, because they produce fresh insights into long held views on any number of practices.

We invite young scholars, many of them now teaching at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. And they are so smart! So credentialed from fine universities: Yale, Sorbonne, Hebrew University, and so forth… We learn that there are few eternal verities in Jewish Studies.

We also invite people from the world of business and politics to share their wisdom as it relates to Jewish life and leadership. With them we learn the shifting complexities and expectations of community, whether that be a community of consumers, Congressmen and women, or congregants. It is sobering for all of us to recognize that everyone agrees with the notion that we are living during a transition; we just don’t know to what we’re transitioning. There’s the rub…

Yet with all the stress on the new and evolving, some things do not change, including the Reform movement’s commitment to social justice. This past Wednesday night Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center reminded us that for 50 years, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (“the RAC”) has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. He spoke with Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and political activist who is best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. Together they reminded the rabbis to keep our eyes on the prize.

Congregational life is changing and by definition, so too must the congregational rabbinate. We are less and less called upon to be scholars, experts in Jewish studies. More and more we are called upon to serve our temples through compassionate caring and connection. Adhering to “the way we have always done it” has slowly changed to doing “whatever is new and hip.” We are truly in new digital territory with analog maps. That consensus is shared by the vast majority of rabbis. So many Reform rabbis agreeing about anything en masse is cause to pay attention.

Rabbis are opinionated people with a deep sense of obligation to our congregations. We know that we will be called upon for unimaginably wonderful moments. We also know that we will be called upon to be present, to hold the center in the midst of devastating loss. We are not prophets yet we are often expected to fill that role – as well as the role of priest. Being at a conference of colleagues reminds us all that we are all human. We lack super powers. We are lonely sometimes. We are blessed to be present in the most sacred moments of life. Thirty years after my ordination and a day after the CCAR annual convention, I feel more blessed, luckier every day, to be a congregational rabbi.

Shabbat Shalom,


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