Yom Kippur 2017-5778
Every summer at Camp Ramah in New England, (one of the overnight camps of the Conservative Movement), on the last Friday night of the summer, the oldest campers (those entering 11th grade), lead the shabbat service. Every age group at camp over the course of 8 weeks has an opportunity to lead the service which entails presenting a song and a dance to the entire camp community (over 1,000 people) and also conducting the service. As the oldest campers recognize that it will be the very last shabbat in their lives as a camper, some of whom had been campers for 7 summers, it becomes quite an emotional scene. The campers arrange themselves in a semi-circle, link arms, and sing a song that has become the custom for that Friday night - a song by the Israeli singer/songwriter Arik Einstein called “oof gozal - fly away little bird.”
Though Lenore and I have never been at Camp Ramah to witness the performance of that song, each of our 4 children has been involved in singing it. When we spoke to them on the Friday afternoon before their last shabbat they all said they couldn’t talk to us. They had already rehearsed the song and they were crying too much to be able to have a conversation.
Arik Einstein writes simply yet beautifully about mother and father birds watching their chicks fly away from the nest. The song begins, “My little birds have left the nest, spread their wings and flew away, and I, an old bird, remained in the nest, really hoping that everything will be alright. I always knew the day would come, when we’d have to part, but now it came to me so suddenly, so what’s the wonder that I’m a bit concerned. Fly away little bird, cut through the sky, fly to wherever you want, just don’t forget, there’s an eagle in the sky, be cautious.”
As a father of 4 such young birds, I was emotional too as I watched the video the camp had made of their performance. Lenore and I had worked at that very camp years before and we knew that we’d want to send our children to Ramah. Thankfully all of them enjoyed their summers there and we were ecstatic that they made new, lifelong friends; learned to be independent; and most of all thoroughly enjoyed being in an environment which celebrated their Jewish identities. There is nothing like singing the Friday night service with 1,000 people and then being with the whole camp as they all sing the traditional Shabbat table songs at dinner.
I recognized that by my kids being emotional about leaving camp that they had acquired the very values I wanted them to. Their crying meant that they would miss being with their friends, they would miss the great experiences they had as campers for so many years, and perhaps the tears were a reflection of their understanding that they were growing up - transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
Though Einstein’s song is a tear-jerker, the words really hit home for me about 5 weeks ago. That Friday at the end of August I drove my youngest son, Eytan, to the University of Maryland and helped him move into his freshman dorm. It didn’t take long to unpack his things and set up his room and when we parted we hugged and said goodbye. Sure College Park is only just over 30 minutes from here, and he came home the following weekend for Labor Day weekend, but there was something different about moving Eytan into his room. Now Lenore and I are officially like the song describes - empty nesters. And I must admit that I shed a few tears later that Friday afternoon after saying goodbye to Eytan. As Einstein says, “I always knew the day would come when we’d have to part, but now it came to me so suddenly…” For 27 years Lenore and I always had at least one child at home. Sure we knew the day would come when the kids would leave the house - and at times we felt that day wouldn’t come soon enough! - but when it finally did we weren’t prepared.
Not only weren’t we prepared, Einstein adds this additional element in his song. He sings, “I know it’s just nature, I also left a nest, but now when the moment comes, I get choked up in the throat…” There really shouldn’t be a reason for us to be upset because we ourselves left a nest too! We should know how it feels and we should have been ready for this emotionally challenging moment; this transition to a new chapter in our lives.
But leaving the nest is experienced quite differently by the child who leaves and by the parents who watch the child leave. The child usually can’t wait to leave. He or she is looking forward to beginning adulthood in college, exploring their identity and becoming an independent adult. Sure there may be anxious moments as the child settles in, but most children can’t wait to leave the comforts of home and begin the next phase of their life’s journey.
For parents, though, the child leaving marks a transition that highlights how much older we are than when the journey of parenthood began. Parents have so many dreams about how they would raise their children. They dream about the experiences the family would have, the values they would instill in their child, the mensch their child would become. As the children grow in the home and parents are overwhelmed by the hectic pace of family life, parents may not get too many chances to slow down and evaluate whether their dreams are coming true. And then, almost in the blink of an eye, the child leaves and those remarkable, event-filled, years of child rearing are over.
A child leaving home marks a transition that is emotionally challenging and painful. There are of course other transitions in life that test our strength. Those who go through a divorce experience the loss of their marriage. They remember the love with which the marriage began and the hopes and dreams that were expressed on their wedding day. Yet something changed as a couple to the point where the spark of love is extinguished. How does each partner move on? How does each partner find meaning and love again?
When we retire from work perhaps after decades at the same job that too is painful. We felt a sense of accomplishment for the work we did and the relationships formed with colleagues. We hopefully enjoyed going to work because we felt we were contributing our skill set and our energy to a project or a goal that would benefit the company and the greater good. Now what do we do every day? How can we continue to use our talents in a meaningful way? How do we transition into a new routine and a new phase of life?
When a loved one experiences a sudden serious illness that too can be transformative. In one moment a vibrant person is stricken and everything about their life has changed. Now loved ones and caregivers may need to drive to doctor appointments, and therapy. Once a thriving and active person, the ill is now dependent on others. How do both the loved one and the ill cope with this sudden change?
What is common to all of these events is that one phase of life ends and another begins. All reflect an investment of years and energy and force us to face a new reality. Do we have the capacity to do so? Are we emotionally and intellectually prepared? Do we have the necessary resources to see us through?
Ilana Kurshan in her newly released memoir titled If All the Seas Were Ink describes such a transition in her life. Ilana made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) as a newlywed 10 years ago and shortly after arriving in Israel her marriage failed. By the end of her first year in Jerusalem, Ilana was divorced. Instead of moving back home to Long Island to be with her family, she decided to stay in Jerusalem. Though she recounts months of depression as she attempted to understand what happened and to make a new life, she describes how she found comfort most of all in the Talmud. Ilana describes the tradition of studying a folio page of Talmud every day, known as Daf Yomi, and how she immersed herself in that tradition. The memoir describes the next 7 ½ years of her life (that’s how long it takes to get through the Talmud one page a day) and how the Rabbinic teachings not only saved her but guided her toward her future.
Granted, immersing oneself in text may not be the way for everyone to move forward, but it is a way nonetheless. Someone like myself, a student of Judaism and one who loves traditional Jewish texts, found this memoir to be powerful and meaningful. I knew exactly what she was describing as she explains and interprets the pages of Talmud. The stories she recounts and her unique interpretations of them helped me see my own personal transition in a new light. It helped me understand that I wasn’t the first to see my children leave home nor will I be the last. Relating to stories of the rabbis and their spiritual thoughts on this matter provides comfort as we face our own changes in life.
Though for some, study and research may be the way they cope with change, for others it may be through the comfort and support of family. Einstein in his song writes, “we are now alone in the nest, but we are together, hold me tight and tell me yes, do not worry, it’s fun to grow old together.” If you are experiencing a transition with a spouse or partner then these words ring true. It may at first be challenging for spouses in an empty house - Lenore and I often find ourselves looking at each other at the empty kitchen table saying, “now what?” However, the transition to an empty nest should ideally be one in which spouses can rekindle the spark and find again the reasons why they married in the first place. All transitions are times to evaluate one’s goals and to reestablish connections with family. Finding comfort in one’s spouse, seeking support from one’s parents, siblings, and grown children are all ways in which we can cope with the harsh reality of the transition.
Ilana Kurshan, aside from finding inspiration from text study also found motivation from her religious community. As a daughter of a Conservative rabbi she grew up in an egalitarian congregation. In Jerusalem those egalitarian synagogues are hard to find so she and friends founded a traditional, egalitarian minyan. Kedem, as it’s called, was another outlet for her as she organized the logistics of weekly shabbat services - getting people to lead the service, chant the Torah and haftorah, and set up the chairs. Finding and praying with a community of like minded people, people who were mostly her age, proved to assist her in her transition as a divorcee. The tasks involved in organizing the services forced her to go to shul, to be with people, to get her out of her apartment. The community enabled her to have shabbat and holiday meals so that she wouldn’t be alone.
Next shabbat will be the shabbat during the holiday of Sukkot. On that day we will chant segments of the book of Ecclesiastes. That 12 chapter book, ascribed to King Solomon, is understood as reflections on life. The author says that he has witnessed a lot and these are the teachings he wants to pass on to the reader. The king recognizes that his life is nearing the end and he wants to provide support for others who are experiencing transitions in their lives.
Kohelet, as the author calls himself, says a crucial line near the beginning of the book. He says (Ecclesiastes 1:4), “dor holech ve-dor ba ve-ha-aretz le-olam o-ma-det - one generation goes, another comes but the earth remains the same forever.” The hardest thing for someone going through a transition, especially someone who has dealt with the death of a loved one, is to recognize that the world still exists. The sun still rises every day. People still go to work every day, TV programs are still broadcasting and people still go to the supermarket and carry on with their lives. Though life has paused for someone in transition, the world still moves on for everyone else. The challenge is to be able to re-establish our lives so that we can continue to keep up with the world.
It’s interesting that the Hebrew teaches us a way to reconnect with the world. The English translation says “the earth remains the same” and though that’s not wrong, it gives a new or different meaning. The world keeps on going, and nature continues its course is a powerful lesson to be learned by someone facing change in their life. But we could also translate that phrase literally which would mean, “one generation goes and another generation comes and the earth constantly stands still”. Perhaps the author is telling us that no matter how long it takes for us to recover from the loss or transition in life, it will seem that life and the world will be waiting for us. Whether it takes months or years, however long it takes, we’ll be able to step back into our routine and connect with all aspects of the world again.
Whether we need to immerse ourselves in tradition, get closer to family, or get involved in community, we need to face the reality of the transitions in our life and confront them as openly and honestly as possible. Life inevitably is filled with such events and we must acknowledge that we have no choice but to move on. Though we may get stuck, though it may be too difficult we should take comfort in our tradition, feel the love of our family and feel the support of our community. Not only do we have to reach out for support we also need to reach out to offer support. When we reach out to each other then it’s as if the world is standing still.
In her song about Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the land of Israel, Debbie Friedman says, “Lekhi lakh to a land that I will show you, Lekh lekha to a place you do not know, Lekhi lakh on your journey I will bless you, And you shall be a blessing, you shall be a blessing, You shall be a blessing lekhi lakh”. This song reflects the hopes and prayers we all have on whatever journey we take. We want God to be with us and we want to be blessed. We have no idea if the transitions we experience are for the best or not. We have no idea what the future will hold. The chicks will fly away. We only pray that the eagles won’t find them. We pray that they will be blessed and by extension we will be blessed too.
As we prepare to recite the Yizkor prayers let us find the means to move forward. Let us be comforted by the presence of our family and friends. Let us feel strengthened by our connection with God. Let us face the year ahead and our transition confidently and may we be blessed. Amen.