Our family closed a major chapter of life this past week, which made me think about transitions, and helped me to appreciate how our Jewish heritage adds so much meaning and beauty to my life.
Some context. I look around and see myself, my family, my Kol Shalom sacred community, my work colleagues, and whatever I can glean about the larger world through media and experience. I see people busying themselves with the many daily concerns and activities. Many are working toward a goal or accomplishing a project, others are doing their best to keep an operation active and functioning well, and others are occupied with trying to thrive in the face of hardship. We have so many daily concerns: what to wear today, remember to floss, get to work on time, take care of health, eat right, exercise, save for retirement, what’s for dinner tonight, gosh this traffic is terrible, should I see a movie, maybe I should call my brother, pick up clothes from the dry cleaner, and on and on. Constant thinking, planning, work, busy-ness. Life seems like a constant swirl of activity.
For some people, the swirl continues until a crisis hits, like losing a job, a severe illness, a death of a loved one. At the crisis point, we suddenly confront the question of meaning, and ask basic questions: who am I? Why am I here? Does my life make a difference in the world? Am I loved, and do I love others enough?
One of the things I treasure about our Jewish heritage is how our tradition builds in many sources of inspiration and meaning on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis. Saying ‘modeh ani’ upon awakening, starting off the day being thankful for our souls being restored to us, reminding us that we have a sacred purpose each day. Our morning prayers remind us of the parting of the Red Sea and the miraculous escape from Egypt. We say a short blessing before and after eating, a moment of thanks and recognition of the blessing of having food to eat and the miraculous interlocking network that brings food to my table.
These Jewish traditions affect us, if we find them meaningful and choose to exercise our heritage, every moment, multiple times per day, every day, every week, every year. Our tradition teaches to appreciate and sanctify each moment.
And then there are the rare events that represent major chapters or lifecycle milestones: birth, the end of adolescence (bar/bat mitzvah), wedding, death. In some ways these transition milestones are quite different from the daily sanctifications, because these are not daily occurrences. Eating a meal may not force me to confront the meaning of my existence, but the death of a parent very well could force such a confrontation.
I have found comfort and meaning connecting with our Jewish heritage at these transition milestones. Celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah, following Jewish wedding traditions, and being swept up in Jewish mourning customs all have given great meaning to the transition.
There are some major transitions, however, that we don’t have such strong Jewish traditions to guide us. For me these include finishing a major project at work, getting terminated by an employer, moving out of/ in to a home, starting a new job, graduation, retirement, and children leaving home to attend college. These are major transitions that, at least for me, force me to ask questions about meaning, and challenge me to think, feel, and act in a manner appropriate to the milestone. For these, the Jewish tradition is not as clear, and we are left to fend for ourselves to find meaning in the context of our Jewish heritage.
Our recent transition was completing the task of emptying the home of Annette’s parents following the death of her mother, of blessed memory. Annette had been working for weeks and undergoing waves of memory and feelings of loss, on the one hand, and enduring seemingly endless decisions to sort what to keep/trash/donate/transport. Lots of trips to the trash bin and Goodwill, arranging with packers and movers. A flurry of activity, and at the same time, a rollercoaster of thought and emotion.
And then last week it was finished. An empty apartment. How to mark such a significant closing of a chapter of our lives?
I didn’t know a brakha (blessing) for the closing of this huge chapter, so I did the best I could. We recited Sheheheyanu, thanking God for bringing us to this bittersweet day. I chose that prayer following the same logic that has us saying “Barukh dayyan ha’emet” (Blessed be the true judge) upon hearing of someone’s death. Even when the event is sad, we bless God and express appreciation for our lives.
And then we recited t’fillat haderekh, the traveler’s blessing, because we are closing one chapter and travelling on to the next chapter. We don’t know what is ahead of us on the journey, and we pray not only that God will protect us from harm, but also that we will be prepared and resilient to meet whatever comes our way.
In a small and imperfect way, these blessings helped us to find meaning as we closed this chapter. They help us to frame our thinking as we move forward. I’m thankful to have our Jewish heritage from which to draw sources of meaning.
In closing, this note is not to relate my specific choice of how to mark a transition. Rather, it’s to express my appreciation for how our Jewish heritage guides me in being appreciative. Rabbi Steinlauf teaches us that Judaism is a technology, a way to interact with the world in a good way. In the present case, I see how deeply true this teaching is.