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Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Liora Alban

The last few months have surely brought unanticipated transition and instability. This could have easily led to fixed thinking.

The Torah’s continuous relevance to the happenings of contemporary life surprises me weekly. This week, in which we read Devarim and enter the final book of our Torah, is no different. Our Torah portion contains the final speech that Moses gives to the Israelites so that they will be prepared to thrive in the Land of Israel after his death. Moses recounts the previous forty years in the desert and discusses how Joshua will succeed him as Israelite leader.

In thinking about this leadership transition from Moses to Joshua, I reflect on recent transitions in my own life as well as the transitions that the world’s events have recently demanded of all of us. Moments of transition often lead to uneasiness and keep us from thinking expansively. We compare our new stage to the past and struggle to imagine how change may bring opportunity. We feel unstable so we compare ourselves to others in a futile attempt to feel secure. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains that when life feels uncertain, we each have a choice to either think expansively or rigidly. She writes that a “fixed mindset” assumes that character, intelligence, creative ability, and modes of being are static and cannot change in any meaningful way. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as insurmountable but rather as a springboard for stretching what already exists in new and improved ways.

Moses, Joshua, and the People Israel could have easily fallen prey to fixed thinking during the transition from Moses to Joshua. After all, Moses was uniquely gifted and carried the Israelites through their earliest years. Deuteronomy 34:10 tells us, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses–whom God singled out face to face.” Moses, Joshua, and the Israelites could have assumed that things needed to continue exactly as they had under Moses’ leadership. Instead though, Moses embraces Joshua and others follow. In the Talmud we learn that when passing leadership to Joshua, Moses was only commanded to place one hand on Joshua’s head. Instead, he laid both hands upon him with all his strength. In Deuteronomy 31:6 Moses advises the People Israel, “be strong and resolute” against your enemies and, “be not in fear or in dread of them.” I take this to be guidance that the Israelites should not think rigidly, assuming that enemies will only bring about negative outcomes. Instead, perhaps enemies and obstacles can force the Israelites to evaluate themselves and rise to meet challenges.

The last few months have surely brought unanticipated transition and instability. This could have easily led to fixed thinking. Instead, I notice a growth mindset of the Jewish community. For example, I recently joined a community of practice with other Bay Area Jewish educators. Together we wonder how to best educate learners in virtual settings. We brainstorm relevant educational tools and methods. Jewish education will look different this upcoming year, but it will be meaningful and relational in its own way. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organization that represents Reform rabbis in North America, has hosted webinars and offered resources to help reform leaders imagine the High Holidays of 2020. The High Holidays will look different this upcoming year, but they will be transcendent nevertheless.

Moses, Joshua, and Israel opened themselves to new opportunities using a growth mindset. So too will we open ourselves to new opportunities in the coming year. I look forward to rising to the challenge of 2020 with Peninsula Temple Sholom. I thank all of you, my search committee, my welcome committee, the clergy, and the staff of Peninsula Temple Sholom for making me feel at home in this community and for being open to growing together!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Alban