I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been feeling like I’ve been experiencing a tremendous amount of change. About a month ago, I traveled for the first time since the pandemic began, seeing my parents and sister for the first time in over a year. Businesses are opening up, and I’ve been attending in-person yoga classes again, masked and socially distanced of course. And, perhaps most bizarrely, I’ve ventured outside – intentionally – without wearing a mask, relying on social distance and nature’s airflow rather than a cloth over my face to keep me and others safe.
There are other changes, too. We are nearing the end of the academic year, and a class I’m taking is drawing to a close. Several of our spiritual counseling interns are finishing their internship at Beit T’Shuvah, while new interns are preparing to start once the summer begins. These transitions have made a particular impact on me. I’m finding that it’s hard to say goodbye.
In my family of origin, saying goodbye wasn’t really a thing. Instead of the classic “Jewish goodbye”, where you say goodbye and never leave, we did an “Irish goodbye” – we left, and never said goodbye. As I came into adulthood, I started to realize that saying goodbye was sort of like saying thank you – it was polite, and moreover, it was an expression of gratitude. And in my recovery, I have learned that withholding expressions of appreciation is a pattern of relationship avoidance. When I don’t acknowledge that I appreciate others, I can pretend that the relationship doesn’t really matter. This violates one of the most important lessons and values of our Beit T’Shuvah recovery community! Here, everybody belongs; everybody matters.
Why can it be so hard to say goodbye, to experience an ending? First of all: because change is hard! To paraphrase Rabbi Mark: even a positive change can be overwhelming. When we experience an ending, it’s usually not entirely positive. We have a sense of loss, of having to give up a part of our lives. We have a sense of wistfulness, looking back at what once was, and sometimes we have a sense of regret as we reflect on what might have been. And before we say goodbye – before we reach the very end – we are in conflict as we choose between making the most of the time we have left, or giving up hope, as the end is about to arrive soon. I recently learned that, subconsciously, humans start preparing for the end of an experience as soon as it begins. On the first day of school, some part of us is already looking towards the year’s end.
In this week’s Torah reading, Behar-Behukotai, we come to the end of the third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). This particular transition, this particular ending, is likely something you will personally experience without a great deal of sadness. Even though the book of Vayikra comes to an end this week, the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) will start next week; our Torah readings will continue, as they always do, without interruption. Furthermore, we’ll read Vayikra again next year – as we always do. Even so, we have a special ritual for saying goodbye whenever we finish reading a book of Torah in the synagogue. We don’t just finish reading the book’s words and move on.
In a synagogue service, as the Torah reader is about to read the final words of the final parashah of a book of Torah, the congregation listens attentively. Right when the Torah reader finishes, the congregation will sing out, without interruption, the words “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek!” Then the Torah reader will repeat them back: “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek!” This phrase means: “Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened!” Why would we say these words to mark an ending?
For me, this year, the answer seems clear. Endings are hard! Change itself is unsettling, and endings require us to say goodbye, to reflect on all that was, to consider whether we want to make a final effort, perhaps to accept that we’ve done all we can regardless of how things turned out. None of these experiences is particularly appealing – and all of them require us to show our strength.
“Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened!” For me, this year, these words can be both a prayer and an instruction:
I can intentionally consider the endings and changes in my life: how to best process them and how to behave within them.
In that mindset, I can allow myself to be strengthened by the experience of saying goodbye, to understand that goodbyes are a normal part of life, and that I can learn from them and be grateful for them.
And I can choose to show my strength through my vulnerability, to express my appreciation for what I’ve had and my grief at what I’m losing.
Finally, I can choose to act with strength, not giving up my efforts just because an end is approaching, and instead take the opportunity to accomplish what I still can.
As we conclude this third book of the Torah this week, and as we continue to move to new practices and norms in our daily lives, may we be blessed to be strong as we experience change.
May we let go of our regrets, and appreciate the experiences we’ve had.
And may we be strengthened as we learn how to make the most of our goodbyes – as we learn how to make the most of our lives.