“Go out unto yourself”

Recently I was part of a small discussion group on grief and blessings. I had mixed feelings about participating. Part of me knew it was perfect yet my inner critic resisted: Can’t we skip it and mumble through some traditional prayer? Sometimes I am not up for discussing all the losses. But then of course something radically shifted, as it often does in the presence of caring community.

As I listened to the eight people in my group tell their stories, tears ran down my face. To my surprise, it was hearing others’ stories that jolted me beyond belief, not my own. One man in his 50s longed to connect more with his son after a painful divorce. One woman in her 20s expressed deep sadness for being estranged from her family who was alive. An interfaith couple wished they had the blessings of their families. One person’s work represents everyone’s work when we see the common denominator of humanity. The collective losses tapped my individual experiences.

When it came time for me to share, I was almost surprised what happened. “I lost five immediate loved ones by age 40,” I said, “and I miss them everyday, our love, laughter, talking, swimming, eating, being deeply seen and understood, jamming, Jewish holidays, and just life.” Also I said that America’s gun violence epidemic affected me. I wished life was easier and that people were better informed of what is ‘safe’ and what is not, with false messages disappearing. These sentiments were all too familiar. But then I announced in front of several ‘witnesses’ in my discussion group on the solemn day of Yom Kippur at Pnai Or Jewish renewal that I dedicate parts of my life to transforming my losses for educational purposes, to help others suffer less. If not, my pain seemed pointless.

For years I wondered — how do we transform personal suffering? How do we process loss in healthy ways without letting it take over and without abusing its power? There’s no easy answer, yet this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha offers substantial advice. It says ‘Go out unto yourself.’ Leave your family and leave your home behind. Travel to new terrain, among new cultures. Have an adventure, but this is not just talking about moving to the west coast and wearing Birkenstocks. Been there done that ✔ however Lech Lecha is more nuanced.

We physically depart from what is familiar while also refining our connection with ourselves, and we are told that the journey will be a blessing. I am not sure what that means but I know Abraham leaves home, explores new ground, reexamines his roles in life, AND stays true to his roots. To extrapolate — we can have an inward journey and outward journey simultaneously. Do not throw the baby out with the bath water. Acknowledge that there are multiple societies and many ways to shape our lives. Sounds more zen Buddhist than Jewish; it is of course both.

Our formative habits are shaped by the people around us, those who raised us, the communities we grow up in, and potentially by reading and learning about diverse cultures. We learn about speech, thoughts, behaviors, money, love, life, and violence at early ages. We tend to think that however we were raised is ‘normal’ until we are older and see varied lifestyles in the world, with multiple ways to eat, dress, pray, love, and communicate. Lech Lecha shows that it is upon us to venture out, explore new ideas, and question our upbringing while listening to the still small voice inside.

Many of us know how to leave. We pack a bag and we are out. Gone. Sometimes we leave quickly, with drama, while blaming the ones who are left behind. Sometimes we leave for our lives, to flee danger, escape bullies and perpetrators, in hopes of restoring dignity and peace. Whether we rely on our GPS technology or not, Lech Lecha instructs us to reflect on where we are coming from and where we are going. We may need to make space for new things to come in by ‘decluttering’ the old. We don’t really know where the trek will take us. We ‘figure it out’ as we go, with trial and error. There is no exact instruction book or app.

Change can happen when we initiate it, and change happens by banging on our door, with no invitation. The text models relatively healthy change. Abraham willingly goes out to re-examine his past, present, and future. He recognizes that his dad worships idols. Today’s idols may include money, power, greed, and hatred. Abraham’s journey in the Torah allows him to expand the definitions of family, worship, and power. Today when we ‘go out’ we encounter brown, black, purple, Tzfardi, Ashkenaz people; may we recognize that each person we encounter represents part of our going out unto ourselves, part of what makes us whole.

Mixing the familiar with the unknown and the old with the new balances us. If we think in terms of yes-no, black-white, great-not great with only two ways of thinking, our growth becomes stunted. If we expect ourselves to fit into narrow boxes, we rob ourselves of our uniqueness and overlook the sacredness of what is.

Eventually we ask Which parts of our old selves do we want to keep and which parts do we want to discard? In order to answer that, we have to ask: Which parts are still serving us, and which are not? These questions take time — maybe weeks, months, years — to consider. And that is okay. And worth the investment. Genuine reflection and cultivating supportive friendships along the way strengthens us.

Some say tragedy brings people together. But why wait for a storm? Why wait for more floods, fires, bullets, and bombs to recognize that we’re all human, regardless of our cultures and the amount of money in our bank accounts? Why wait to speak with our families? Why create such narrow definitions of who is in our family and who is out. Life is short. What if we connected with people of different backgrounds, financial status, and worldviews even on sunny days? Perhaps it is hard to learn about human suffering when things are good. Why leave our comfort zone. But at some point, the bigger questions catch up with us: Can we minimize our suffering by learning from others? Can we modify our behaviors for the greater good before it becomes dire? Do we have to personally suffer to arrive at empathy for the other?

Writing is an art form, a skill, and it takes time. If you would like to sponsor a future article, you can contribute here. Thank you very much.

Thank you to Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, for her incredible song for Lech Lecha ‘And you shall be a blessing…’

And thank you to the English department at the University of Texas at Austin, to Dr. Flowers, and Dr. Trimble for showing me how to pen prose. I knew the training would prepare me for more than pizza delivery.

In gratitude, Aviva

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