Tuesday July 16, 2013
Tisha (9) b’Av, 5773
Packing for Exile
I am standing amidst boxes of my life. The saddest day of the Jewish calendar, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, finds me amidst the greatest chaos of personal possessions. Nothing is where it used to be. Important items have been stored or shipped. Much has been dumped. Questionable items take up space on our shelves and mind.
The last time I was involved in packing a house was exactly eight years ago. It was with a family I had just met the day before. They were our impromptu hosts in the village of Gadid, which had the unfortunate geographic luck of being part of Gush Katif, the Jewish settlements in Gaza.
It was a beautiful, large home. Just the day before, we had enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat meal at their table. He was a prosperous business man with a local agricultural production and export company. The father had put up a brave face and determined to resist the army’s efforts to uproot him and his family from their home. The mother however was sad. She struck me as a normally happy, highly competent person. But the army’s tactics of intimidation were taking their toll. She was suffering from a nervous breakdown. She was in tears and yelling. The next day they decided to give in, to pack up and move out voluntarily.
As I am learning yet again, to pack up a home is not a quick or easy process. Thankfully, there were many of us there that day. It helped both emotionally and practically. We sadly handled vases, books, kitchenware, picture frames of happier days, albums filled with happier memories. The mother clutched certain items, spontaneously breaking into tears and moving to another room, the solace of company momentarily unbearable.
There is something both traumatic and brutal about moving. One is forcibly detaching inanimate objects from their earned place in space and time. The unread book that sat in the same place for a decade was somehow reassuring, comforting. The smiling faces of my ancestors on the wall were a constant reminder of my roots. The memorabilia in the breakfront were physical witnesses to a rich history of travels, friendships and events.
Now I look at the bare bookshelves, the naked walls, the empty breakfront, and the mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem mixes with the mourning over the destruction of Gush Katif and the mourning over leaving our home of sixteen years.
This morning, under the leadership of my friend, Dr. Avi Shmidman, we studied the Kinot, that saddest of Jewish liturgy, sitting on the very rubble of the destroyed Temple in the Davidson Center’s area of the excavations of the Temple Mount. It is quiet and cool in the shade of a warming Middle East summer day. The incredibly large Herodian stones lie at unusual angles, in the same positions they fell some 2,000 years ago. They look as if some enraged giant smashed the upper part of the impressive supporting wall of the Temple, leaving his multi-ton Lego blocks strewn across the ancient roadway.
It was the perfect place to contemplate destruction. Destruction and war and loss and mistakes. Mistakes that we are repeating. Wars that we are fighting. Loss that we are incurring and destruction that we are bringing upon ourselves. The morose thoughts are appropriate for the day, but cannot remain as a painful sore. They must lead to action, to healing, to peace, to construction.
I return to the boxes of my life and realize there is less clutter. A house accumulates clutter. The clutter of our lives, the clutter of our minds. By having to pack, by having to choose from amongst the physical items we have become comfortable with, which can stay or go, by deciding the life and death of these intimate inanimate objects, one re-prioritizes one’s life. It is no longer the simple inertia of doing what I did the day before, the year before, the decade before. I have to ask what items, what things I need for my mission ahead. What things were distractions and what things are vital. What things are nice and what things have I outgrown. It is not always easy or clear choices. But the choices must be made. The clock is ticking. Are there items I’ve discarded that I will miss in my journey ahead? Are there items that I’ve kept that will continue to clutter my life? What little mistakes do we make in such choices and what are the consequences? How do we overcome the personal and the communal losses and how do we rebuild? These are just some of the items I consider on this national day of mourning as I stare at half-empty boxes carrying physical extensions of my being.