The call came the day after Rosh Hashanah – a familiar phone number from Skokie, Illinois, where I had served as rabbi for six years but left more than five years ago. I saw the name and knew what had happened. Mark was calling to tell me that his wife Gail had died on Rosh Hashanah, after waging a four-year battle with cancer that had invaded her bones and stripped her of all her strength. She felt so close to me, he said – could I come to Chicago to do the funeral?
I couldn’t, of course. But the family was adamant that the service not be conducted by a rabbi or anybody else who hadn’t known Gail. It was left to Gail’s daughter Taylor – one of my best, brightest, and most difficult students – to memorialize her mother. Taylor and I went over the service on the phone – traditional psalms and memorial prayers we knew Gail would want. Would it be okay to start with the “Shema?” Taylor wanted to know. Of course it would. Would it be okay for some family members to speak? Absolutely. There would be services at the funeral chapel, at the graveside, and at a friend’s house for shiva. Taylor was focused. She was sure. For all that her mother’s death had been a shock, it was hardly a surprise. Taylor was ready to let her go.
Letting go may be the hardest concept we human beings can grasp. But it may be the most useful strength we can have. And on this most holy night, it is the most powerful tool we have in our arsenal of teshuva. Letting go is an act of cleansing. It is a process of lightening the load we sometimes find too heavy to bear. It is the necessary step we have to take before we can move on.
Letting go isn’t always about saying goodbye to somebody we love. Most of the time, it’s not. Last week at our service of Tashlich, our religious school students and their parents and grandparents let go of a whole lot of things weighing them down. We let go of bad feelings we had about other people, or bad things we said about them, or bad things we did to them: I pulled my sister’s hair, I yelled at my son, I gossiped about my friend. I didn’t clean up my room, I told my daughter I was too busy to listen to her, I forgot to turn in the project I had promised. I spent too much time texting and not enough time talking. For each one of our failings, we tore off a little piece of bread and tossed it into the water. Go away and never come back! – we called out. We were ready – so ready — to let all of that go.
And that was just the stuff we thought of at the time. Over the next 20 hours or so, our Yom Kippur prayers will be full of reminders about other things we need to let go of. More than once, we’ll recite an alphabetic litany of sins and shortcomings, from A to Z, from arrogance to zealotry, reminding ourselves of how much we’ve accumulated over this past year. Like pulling out the forgotten toys and books and clothing from the corners of closets where we’ve been hoarding possessions we no longer want, need or use, we will use these hours wisely in cleaning out our heads and our hearts and our kishkes.
We will let go. We will take control of our “yetzer ha-tov,” that part of us that I talked about last week that likes things comfortable and familiar, and we will challenge it with our “yetzer ha-rah,” the part of us that is full of creative energy and curiosity and a bit of hunger and foolishness. And we will be ready to move on.
And how odd was it, by the way, that just last week I should have spoken about Steve Jobs, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. It was Jobs who challenged us to get on with life, and not to be weighed down by past failures and shortcomings. It was Jobs, wrote Hank Stuever in yesterday’s Washington Post, who really taught us about letting go.
“We spend a lot of time wishing for the past,” wrote Stuever, “carping about our gizmos and the sway they lord over us, while loading up our iPods with songs that were popular when we were in high school, while stalking old boyfriends on Facebook. That in itself is a pleasant form of grief, but it is grief all the same. Jobs kept nudging us away from that. Under his leadership, Apple’s subliminal selling point was: Let it go. Let go of the uneasiness about computers. Let go of ugly, antique technology. Let go of the fantasy figure of personal rocketships. . . But let go of something deeper, something resistant in you that romanticizes the past.”
I think Stuever’s right, that we create in our minds the past as it never was. Our ancestors wandering in the wilderness for 40 years seemed to forget all about the beatings and the starvation they suffered in Egypt, the humiliation of slavery. Somehow they remembered it as a time when they got three square meals a day and everything was just lovely. The Palestinian leadership today remembers the Holy Land before 1967 – or even before 1948 – as a time of pride and self-determination until the Jews came along and ruined everything. Even though their families were under the control of either Egypt or Jordan, neither one of which gave them the full rights of citizens, and still don’t.
In our own media today we have taken to re-imagining American of the late 1950s and early 60s. From “Mad Men” to “Pan Am,” we’re being asked to think at it as a time of high-flying romance, just sort of putting aside nagging little details like Jim Crow laws and political assassination, the Cold War and threats of nuclear annihilation.
Here’s the truth about that romantic past. Most of our families had no choice but to let it go – to let everything go. Most of our grandparents, or great-grandparents, came here in steerage with nothing but a little suitcase. They were lucky if they didn’t have to sell the Shabbat candlestick to pay for bribes for their trans-Atlantic passage. Many of them, like my Bubbie Rose, had to let go of their families, at least for a time, in order to make a new life here, starting from nothing, saving pennies to bring their loved ones, one by one, from the Old Country.
They were told to let go of their old language of Yiddish, of their old way of dressing, of their old way of cooking. And they did all of that – they let go of everything that was comfortable and familiar to them. They embraced the message of the Settlement Houses set up by earlier waves of German Jewish immigrants to teach them how to be good Americans, not just good immigrants. They let go of their past so that their children, and their children’s children, would have a future. As speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote about her own Irish-born grandfather, “He’d cast his lot. That’s an important point in the immigrant experience, when you cast your lot, when you make your decision. It makes you let go of something. And it makes you hold on to something. The thing you hold on to is the new country. It has history, meaning, tradition. Suddenly that’s what you treasure.”
Tonight, as we take stock of the year now past, we think about what we really, truly treasure. Is it the stuff we have crammed into the corners of our lives? Or is it the treasure, the gift, of a future free of all of that stuff. Are we ready to let go? Are we ready to embrace change?
Hank Stuever, in that Washington Post column yesterday, wrote of Steve Jobs, “Let it go and look ahead was the message all along.” And that is our message tonight. Let us unburden ourselves, each of us, of the stuff we have accumulated in our closets, and in our hearts. Let us learn to say goodbye. Let us look ahead to create new history, new meaning, new tradition. And let us say together: Amen.
©Audrey R. Korotkin