Continuity and Innovation

This Shabbat, Jewish communities everywhere will read Parashat Toledot, so named because it begins with the phrase "v'eileh toledot yitzchak ben avraham," "These are the generations (or descendants or stories) of Isaac son of Abraham." The text moves on pretty quickly to the drama of the next generation: the famous sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau. But, before we skip ahead to there, the opening words invite us to linger with Isaac and the "sandwich generation" that he and his wife Rebecca represent.

This Shabbat, Jewish communities everywhere will read Parashat Toledot, so named because it begins with the phrase "v'eileh toledot yitzchak ben avraham," "These are the generations (or descendants or stories) of Isaac son of Abraham." The text moves on pretty quickly to the drama of the next generation: the famous sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau. But, before we skip ahead to there, the opening words invite us to linger with Isaac and the "sandwich generation" that he and his wife Rebecca represent.

If you've been following along with our tour through the Torah, you may recall that Isaac and Rebecca met at the end of last week's parasha. Characteristically (as we will come to see), Isaac had stayed behind as his father Abraham sent a servant off to find him a wife, whereas Rebecca opted to journey far from home and embark on a new life with a partner she had never met. Isaac is passive to Rebecca's active; however, their relationship really works -- theirs is one of the great love stories of the Torah, perhaps because of this yin-and-yang.

This week, we find Isaac setting out to establish himself. Along the way, he digs wells, but -- as the text of the parasha emphasizes -- they are not new ones: "So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham's death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them" (Genesis 26:17-18). In redigging his father's wells, rather than digging new ones for himself, Isaac clearly represents stability and continuity. He is Abraham's son, through and through -- the next link in the chain of tradition and transmission.

Rebecca, on the other hand, is more radical by nature, and this plays out throughout the entire parasha. While Abraham in the previous generation had struggled with the idea of casting out his older son Ishmael, Rebecca moves with certainty. As a pregnant mother of twins, she inquires of God and then interprets the oracle-like prophecy for herself. Throughout the sordid saga of Jacob and Esau, Rebecca guides Jacob with a heavy hand; she is decisive and thoroughly controls the action. She is a change-maker, not content with society's automatic preference for the eldest child, and ready to subvert the dominant paradigm of her day.

The opposing forces that Isaac and Rebecca represent - stability and change - are at play not only in their marriage, but in every generation, within each of us, and within each human-created institution. Without a doubt, we can all imagine how these impulses play out in contemporary Jewish life as well. In the Conservative Movement where I was trained, an important motto (since the 1950's) has been "Tradition and Change.” Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement (now called Reconstructing Judaism) frequently wrote that “the past has a vote, not a veto."

For 15 years now, Kavana has been trying to ride the fine line between continuity and discontinuity, or perhaps -- more accurately -- to toggle between the two. In some ways, our community is decidedly "old school" in our approach: we seek to understand where we've come from and feel a reverence for the past; we teach Torah (the real thing, with layers of commentary) and its thread traces us back to our source like Isaac’s wells connected him to his father's work. At the same time, we've always been a bit irreverent: willing to experiment and innovate, to shake things up and -- like Rebecca -- to subvert paradigms of convention.

It takes special skill and focus to live in this tension with intention. This is one reason, I think, that the Kavana community attracts such amazing people: because everyone who comes to Kavana is consciously playing in this space and trying to find their own balance: valuing continuity, authenticity, and being part of chain of tradition, on the one hand, and questioning, experimenting, and being willing to embrace radical change, on the other.

It also takes very special staff members to hold a community in this kind of Isaac-and-Rebecca tension! Every rabbi, educator, and administrator who is part of our staff team engages in this work, day in and day out.

Today, I am excited to announce that Kavana is ready to hire another rabbi to join us in this work. As many of you recall, Kavana had two rabbis on staff for the 4-year duration of the Jewish Emergent Network Rabbinic Fellowship. When that program sunsetted in June 2020, we had plans to hire another rabbi soon, but Covid pushed back our timetable. Now, finally, we are ready to move forward!

I invite you to read the Rabbi job description that has just posted on our website, and to pass it on to any potential candidates you may know. I want to thank, in advance, the five members of our new Hiring Committee who will be moving this process forward over the coming months --  pictured below with me (counterclockwise from top left) are Brian Judd, Scott Porad, Julie Kohl, Yelena Neuman, and Ingrid Elliott. Anyone is welcome to reach out to them with suggestions or concerns (emails sent to info@kavana.org with "Hiring Committee" in the subject line will be forwarded along), and there will of course be opportunities for the broader Kavana community to meet candidates and provide input as the search process unfolds.

As for me, this week I am reflecting on Kavana's position as we sit at this exciting crossroads. Without a doubt, whoever we hire to be Kavana's new rabbi will be re-digging wells of a previous generation -- that is, helping us to continue along a path we've already been on -- and also bringing entirely new skill-sets and interests to our community -- helping us to grow in more radically new ways. I really can't wait to welcome a new rabbi to our staff team, and to our community, in the spirit of both Isaac and Rebecca together!

Shabbat Shalom in advance,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum