Over the past few years I’ve become an unwilling expert in moving – a process that previously made me want to tear my hair out – and somehow managed to come out with my spirit intact, maybe even stronger. This is my Torah (teaching) of moving.
Before rabbinical school, I struggled mightily with leaving my native Bay Area. I knew life was pulling me towards the rabbinate, but I kicked and screamed. I protested – “It’s unfair; a person shouldn’t have to leave their aging parents, their community, their home;” “There should be a rabbinical school in the Bay Area;” and so on. I still believe my protests against this reality. But because I practice mindfulness, I realize that’s what they were – protests against the way things actually are. They were expressions of the tension between the reality of my personality – I don’t like change or saying goodbye – and the reality that I needed to move 3,000 miles to become who I was meant to become.
At one point during my protests, Rabbi Rosalind Glazer told me that life is one long series of leave-takings. At the time, I found this counsel unwelcome, too sad to be true.
Since then I have gradually come to terms with that truth. First, life proved to me that it is in fact a series of leave-takings. In the end I brought myself to leave the Bay Area. And then it turned out that wasn’t the end. After arriving in Philadelphia, building community, making professional networks, I discovered that the school that had drawn me 3,000 miles away wasn’t the right one after all, and that the right school was another 300 miles further up the road, in Boston. And now, a year later, we have just moved once again – a temporary move to Jerusalem, part of my studies.
But it isn’t just the back-to-back-to-back moves that helped me come to terms, it was the spiritual practices that I maintained throughout them, especially mindfulness. For me, mindfulness includes Buddhist-inspired Jewish meditation, Shabbat, the Jewish year-cycle, and other Jewish practices meant to awaken us to the moment we find ourselves in, the bitter and the sweet. Leaning on these practices throughout the moves has allowed me to accept the fact that life is leave-taking. Today, despite my resistance to moving, I have uprooted three times in the past two years, and I am as content as I was before those moves – in some ways more so. I discovered my own Torah of moving in the process – the ways in which the experience of giving up much of what I find comforting, of what affirms my identity and orients me, actually made me more aware, more able to work with life as it is and as it may yet be.
By being mindful of my resistance and fears without getting caught up in them, stoking them, and becoming attached to them, I was able to watch how they, too, faded away, just like that beloved phase in our lives before the move. I was able to sit in the empty living room of our “magical tree-house” in Oakland, staring out the window by which I meditated and prayed daily for three years, looking to the hills where my body and soul had grown up, and weep. I sat in the fullness of my sadness without weaving more tales of how fate had victimized me, and without judging myself for my tears. I was able to cry the next day as my parents said goodbye to us in the driveway of their home as we pulled away. And I was able to watch those feelings subside and be replaced by new feelings – wonder at the scenery we drove by, delight at the friends and family we stayed with along the way, anxiety, joy, gratitude, and back to sadness, and on again to new feelings. I was able to see that the feelings were transitory, that I would just as surely take my leave of them as I would take my leave of beloved people and places. When the second and third moves came, I was able to be present for the sadness, but this time I was also present for the goodbyes and savored their sweetness – the ways that saying goodbye can bring out the best in people, can prompt us to say things we wouldn’t say when we expect to see each other next week.
Oddly enough, through practicing leave-taking, I have found more peace. I am less attached to things I cannot have, to fantasies of permanence and security. I am more present to each turn in the road and whatever it may bring. The Torah (Hebrew Bible) is full of wandering. Its protagonists are often on the move, and it is those times of transition that get the majority of Torah’s column inches. Our yearly cycle of reading the Torah keeps us in a perpetual state of movement – just as the Israelites are about the reach their final destination, their beloved leader dies and we start the cycle all over again. Moreover, we actually celebrate this unresolved starting over with feverish dance in the upcoming holiday of Simchat Torah. And just before that – beginning tonight – we’ll commemorate the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert with Sukkot, a holiday dedicated to joy, in which we dwell in impermanent huts under a roof of withering branches and sky, open to the season’s changing weather. During Sukkot we take shelter in dwellings that provide no physical shelter, dwelling, as the tradition teaches, beneath the Shechinah, the abiding presence of God. Torah, our holidays, and our lives are gently hinting to us that resolution and permanence are forever out of reach, and yet we can be at peace with that, we can even find joy in it. And so, for a third year in a row, we are in a new temporary apartment, not yet unpacked, happily building another Sukkah that we’ll live in for a week, before we move again.
Image courtesy of the author, shows him building a sukkah this year in Jerusalem with neighbor Berhanu Yoseph.