Thursday, September 10, 2009

The End

The end, no two words engender more anxiety and dread than those. Whether its the end of a relationship or the end of a good book, we all hate endings. No one likes to say "goodbye". It hurts. And most of us will go to great lengths to avoid having to experience it.
We pretend the sick are not actually dying so we won't have deal with the grief and fear of goodbyes. We often, at times unconsciously, create a fight when we know we need to end a relationship just so it won't be so hard to walk away. We say "see you soon" even when we know it will not be soon and often never, just so we don't have to deal with the finality of endings.
All the burial practices of the modern Western society seem to be focused on making the dead not really dead. They are made to look alive and sleeping. They are not buried but left at the cemetery. Just so we do not have to confront the end .

Paul Simon caught the idea in the unlikely pop song of so many years "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover". Not surprisingly none of the 50 included a meaningful sharing of goodbyes.

In that context its so fascinating to read Moshe's long goodbye to the People of Israel. He confronts his own death...and then, once accepting of his reality, gets on with the business of saying goodbye to his nation. All of Devarim, this fifth book of the Torah, we will soon conclude, is Moshe's farewell. It culminates when he tells them this week in the parsha of Vayelech, that his time is up, " ...I am one hundred and twenty years old today and I no longer can go and come...".

And Moshe is not the only one who said goodbye. Yaakov blessed his children on his deathbed, no pretense here that death was not imminent. David gave instructions to his son Shlomo as he lay dying.
Our tradition insists that we confront our ends...And not only the end of our life but all our meaningful ends. We end a marriage with a get. The husband must write in it you are free to marry any man. No illusions here about what the divorce means. And he must give his wife the get and she receive it (though it can be done via messenger).
We end the Shabbat with havdala, acknowledging the sadness of leaving the Shabbat's peace and joy for the week of toil and heartache. We end the amida, the silent prayer of presence with the Divine taking three steps if to say a reluctant yet formal goodbye. We end a meal with the birkat hamazon. Non-Jews pray before they eat. We say our main prayers after, when we are painfully aware that the food is gone, the meal over, and we need to find the faith to believe there will be food again to sustain us. And when we confront a death we rent our clothes and makes a bracha. We participate in the kevura. We sit shiva, not to escape our loss but to engage it, to remember and grieve.

Judaism teaches us not to flee from goodbyes but to embrace them. They are ritualized. Often we make a blessing acknowledging the time of loss as sacred even if not happy. The question we might ask ourselves is why? Why put so much emphasis on facing closure. Why not do as we would prefer to do and just gloss over the loss, make believe it did not happen or that it isn't quite real?

Our faith's insistence that we confront our ends is one of its geniuses. Our G-d understood that there is an absolute correlation between goodbye and hello. If we are not able to say goodbye, then we will have as great a problem in saying hello. Life is temporal. The world is a world of flux. Things are always changing. As the expression goes "nothing lasts forever". If we are unable or unwilling to say goodbye we will, willy nilly, hold back on our commitment to the hellos in our life, because we know every hello must at some point lead to goodbye.

Many people are afraid of intimacy. They struggle to allow themselves to be known by others, even those closest to them. They struggle to fully love or fully commit to another. They remain outsiders in some important places in their lives. Truth be told, what these people fear is not the nearness. Actually, though they often do not recognize it, they fear the loss should the nearness come to an end. They are afraid of goodbye. And in order to not have to worry about experiencing goodbye they avoid the deep hello. To the extent you are intimidated by loss you will not commit. To the extent you need to avoid goodbyes you will be unwilling to say a meaningful hello.

It is for this reason that Judaism insists that we find the courage to say goodbye and, still more, ritualizes the goodbyes so we can find a way to cope with them. Our faith wants us to be able to face the end so we can begin with a fullness of commitment and a totality of self. It asks of us to not hold back, to love Hashem and each other without limitation. It demands of us that we live intensely, bchal levavcha uvchal nafshecha uvchal m'odecha "with all your heart and all your soul and all your might" as we are commanded to serve Hashem. Since all life is really service to Hashem thats how we are commanded to live. And we could not do that unless we overcame our fears of closure.

We are soon to end the year. Selichos begins motzai Shabbat (for Ashkenazim). In not much longer we will also conclude the Torah. Lots of endings. The End is hard to read, harder to say and still harder to experience. Yet we are called to confront it, to live our endings as much as we live the rest of our lives.

As we approach the Yom Hadin I would like to suggest an important piece of work for us is to look at our lives and determine those things that we need make closure on, whether they be relationships, activities, dreams, or ambitions. We need to say a formal goodbye to them, rather than let them just hang on for fear of confronting our personal reality that they are no longer relevant for us.

Saying the "goodbye " to that which belongs to our past is not a bad thing. On the contrary it is a good thing. It makes all the good that is awaiting us possible to be experienced. It may feel sad and we may need to grieve. But it is indeed yereeda ltzorech aliya, " a going down for the sake of going up".

May we find the courage that Moshe had to say "Goodbye" to those things we need to, close that which must and bring them to an end.
To embrace the gifts our G-d wants for us we need to be unburdened. Goodbye, closure, is the work of honest unburdening.
Is it any wonder shalom is both goodbye and hello. There cannot be one without the other!

Shabbat Shalom

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