Identity Shift – Rosh Hashanah 5777

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Did anyone here see The Temptations when they were in town in August? Tualatin Valley Parks and Rec brought them in to headline their summer concert series. Matan wasn’t even a week old, so unfortunately I couldn’t make it, which was a little disappointing. When it comes to Motown, I’m partial to The Temptations not only because they were actually from Detroit, but also because the song “My Girl” held special significance between my dad and me. And regardless of your own personal musical tastes, between the harmonies, the choreography, and 14 number-one R&B singles, you have to admit this quintet pretty much defined Motown.

Here’s the thing, though. Otis Williams is the only original member still singing with the group. In fact, the next longest-term singer, Ron Tyson, started with The Temptations in 1983, 17 years after the world first heard “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” So as much as I love this music, perhaps it’s a bit more accurate to say that Tualatin Valley hosted The Temptation, singular.

My question is this: At what point are The Temptations no longer The Temptations? When you consider percentages, a whopping 80% of the performing group has turned over. But the music is the same, the feeling is the same, and the nostalgia is clearly there.

Not-so-hypothetically-speaking, at some point the sad day will come when Otis Williams will no longer be a Temptation. What happens then? Will there still be a performing group called The Temptations? And if there is, what would differentiate that group from a cover group? In other words, once there are no longer any original Temptations, what would be the difference between a group that calls itself The Temptations and another group that sings the exact same songs?

In Judaism, especially conservative Judaism, we walk a similar fine line between preserving tradition and adapting to a culture of change. In fact, every time we take the Torah out of the Ark and go to put it back, we recite the words “Hadesh Yameinu Kekedem.” God, renew our days as those before. It’s an interesting message. Knowing what we know about our history, in biblical times and since, our people have had more than our fair share of not-so-good days. So which “days” are we referring to?

Perhaps we’re not actually talking about a renewal of literal days, but more a sense of renewal. A reminder every time we take out this beautiful story of our heritage, our wisdom, our past, that we should approach it with new eyes, the kind of eyes that may have experienced everything in the Torah for the first time. Part of what makes The Israelites’ journey so captivating is that so much of it was new at the time. New leaders, new lands, even a new religion. What if we were to approach the retelling of this thrilling biography of our people with the fresh, open eyes of our children, hearing it for the first time?

Let’s return from Canaan to Motown for a minute. From the time of miracles, to the time of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I mentioned earlier that I’m partial to The Temptations. But if I can get just as much enjoyment out of the same music sung by different singers, maybe what I’m partial to is the feeling the music provides. The memories of sitting in my mom’s car with the oldies station on. The hairbrush microphone jam sessions.

The paradox of identity – the one that questions when The Temptations are no longer The Temptations – is actually many centuries old. This idea has been discussed at length by philosophers like Plato and Plutarch, and it’s illustrated in a thought experiment you may have heard of called The Ship of Theseus. It goes something like this. Theseus has an old wooden ship that needs regular maintenance. If he replaces one of the planks on the ship, is it still the same ship? What if every month for years and years Theseus removes one plank and replaces it with a new one? Does this remain Theseus’s original ship? And if not, at what point is it no longer the same ship? Is it not until the final new plank is put in place?

And consider this twist. What if you secretly collect all the old planks and you reconstruct them into an identical looking ship? Is that Theseus’s ship?

This questioning of the nature of identity is fascinating to me, and I wanted to set aside time in the middle here for discussion, so take a few minutes and share your thoughts with someone sitting near you. Feel free to use either of these examples – my favorite Motown group or The Ship of Theseus – and see if you agree on the point at which identity shifts.

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I want to share another story with you that hearkens back to my childhood. For Hanukkah when I was in kindergarten my Grammy bought me a TV for my bedroom. Legend has it that she did this to spite my mother, but that was truly the moment – when I had my own set – that I got hooked on television. This was in 1980-something-or-other, so not only was there no cable, there wasn’t even a remote. It had two knobs to turn and I had to move the antenna in order for a picture to come through. But at least it was in color.

Over the years I can remember turning the volume really low and watching TV after I was supposed to be in bed. George Clooney on ER – he was hard to resist. Of course some weeks it meant I had to stand there holding the antenna in the right place to make it work, but it was totally worth it.

For some reason these TV-based memories stuck with me. It wasn’t just sneaking George Clooney into my room, it was also snuggling with my parents on the couch watching reruns of Bewitched. Can you believe TGIF was nearly three decades ago? But I don’t have to wonder what happened to these characters. Netflix has decided to create reunions and reboots of two of my all-time favorites: Gilmore Girls and Full House. And it’s not just TV playing on our nostalgia. In the past year we’ve had more Star Wars, more Ghostbusters, and more Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The point is not to talk TV with you for the entirety of Rosh Hashanah, although if you’d like to have an in-depth conversation on Gilmore Girls, please stop by my office any time. But these big reunion shows got me thinking about what really created those memories for me. Was it the Tanner family or was it the time spent with MY family watching the Tanner family that stuck with me? What made TV time special? Was it Darren and Samantha or was it my mom taking care of me when I had to stay home sick from school?

A year from now when 5777 is over, you may remember certain details of certain events, but it’s the way you’ve constructed your life and the people who are a part of it that leave the lasting impressions. The ones that remain constant and stick with you forever.Every year at Rosh Hashanah, we replace a plank, so to speak. It’s a new year, there’s a new part of you, but most of you – what makes you, you – remains the same. We’re constantly experiencing growth in some way, yet I would guess there’s no point at which we would stop and say, “Wait a minute – this is a whole new vessel. I’m no longer me.”

Too often in Judaism we get stuck thinking about the planks. The problem with this philosophical paradox is that it’s just philosophy. It’s in a vacuum. In reality, there is no ship without a sailor. There is no ship without an ocean. The real identity that we cling to isn’t the identity of the ship – it’s the identity of the individual on the open water. And in the same way, the Judaism you make for yourself isn’t about the individual components. It’s about your connection to it.

You know I love TV, but it’s the moments of collective enjoyment that made me who I am, not the plot lines and laugh tracks. And let’s be honest – I’m too young to remember any of the original Temptations. It’s not their names, but their music that lifts my soul. I’m passionate about Judaism, but I’m not passionate about the shofar, or the sukkah, or a kosher steak. Well, maybe a little passionate about a good kosher steak. But I’m passionate about Judaism because of the memories that are the result of all of these things.

May 5777 be our opportunity to reconnect to why we do what we do. We’re not just swapping out another plank. We’re creating a journey. Shanah tovah.

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