rabbinic writing
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rabbinic writing

The Things We Carry

How do we decide when we are ready to let go of a difficult past?

When my husband and were first moving in together, we helped each other pack up our apartments. I sat on the floor of his bedroom, sorting trash from keepsakes. I picked something up… a movie stub, or a playbill, or perhaps a conference lanyard. “You want me to pitch this?” I asked. “No, put it in my memory box,’ he said, pointing to a tattered, cardboard box in the corner.

I peeked inside.

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Some of the contents were expected — tickets from a show we’d seen, cards from his Bubbe, school acceptance letters. Some was trash, like crumpled newspaper articles and old homework assignments.
And some… was… unexpected?
Did he really still need mementos from past relationships?
I looked at him. He shrugged.
“They’re just memories. It’s just the place I put things I’m not ready to throw away, but I don’t need to see.”

Once we began packing up my apartment, I started a box of my own.

America, is, in many ways its own memory box.

Every state has monuments to its history. Teens at the L’Takein Social Justice Seminar celebrate Havdalah at the Lincoln memorial. As a child I remember thinking that Plymouth Rock was much smaller than the story suggested. Not far from here we can visit Montezuma’s castle. And just down the road in Paradise Valley there is a park established in memory of Senator Barry Goldwater, who lived nearby. Even the Roth Family Chapel is like a memory box for this congregation, where we can sit in our original pews before our stained glass windows and remember our 100 year history.

In Richmond, Virginia there is a grassy row that divides east- and west-bound traffic. It’s called Monument Avenue, because it memorializes American historical figures — specifically, several icons of the confederacy. Or, I should say — it did.

This past summer the area became a hotbed for demonstrations in the name of racial justice. Some were peaceful, some were not. Some of the memorials became displays of public art, or, depending on your perspective, were defaced with intent to antagonize and erase American history. Several of the monuments, including ones for Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were removed over the summer, with other removals, like the monument to Robert E. Lee, still pending.

Protesters gathered around the Robert E. Lee monument on Monument Ave in Richmond, Virginia. (richmond.com, DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DISPATCH)

And of course, because this is #2020, there are impassioned debates that argue both for and against the monuments. Some explain that these statues are “monuments to ignorance, to denying responsibility, to the romanticization of a history without reckoning with the dehumanization and violence that came with it.”

Meanwhile, others say that these same monuments “serve a purpose — just because these men …were wrong about slavery does not excuse us today from the burden of trying to understand what motivated them.” Meanwhile, the city of Atlanta is maintaining most of their monuments, but, adding “context markers … that will offer a fuller and more honest accounting of the South’s history and its legacy of slavery and racism.”

What do we do with monuments to troubled times in our past?
Do we keep them where they are? Do we destroy them?
Or can we find a new way to understand them?

No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we agree that none of us are in favor of a return to fundamentally racist Confederate values. And, I think we can all understand why a monument to someone who oppressed our ancestors is painful.

This is why, as Jews, we blot out Amalek, and boo for Haman. This is why some Jews refuse to drive Volkswagons, or patronize companies that support the Arab boycott of Israel. As Americans, we honor and understand our complicate history. And, as part of an historically oppressed people, we also understand why reminders of persecution — any persecution — are triggering.

What is the best way to confront the symbols of a difficult past without aggravating old wounds?

It is, in so many ways, like our own mementos.
What do we do with the engagement ring, when the engagement doesn’t last?
What do we do with old diaries — the ones that remind us of our own poor behavior?
What do we do with our crosses and Christian bibles when we choose to live our lives as Jews?
Where do we put the photos that capture old friendships?
And what do we do when these mementos cause us pain?

We have all fought battles, large and small. And we all build small monuments to the journey. But, no box is big enough to hold our whole story.

And so, inside of ourselves we keep a vault to store the darker chapters.
There, we keep our grudges and excuses.
We store our addictions and our defenses.
We keep our secrets, our shame, and our rage.
This is the monument we build to the parts of ourselves that we are not ready to throw away, but we don’t need to see.

Until Yom Kippur that us. Teshuvah opens the box. We break into the vault.
We consider the monuments we’ve built to the people we used to be. Today, we look hard at all we have held and decide: Are we ready yet to let go?

None of us are without flaw. Even Moses had a problem. On more than one occasion he loses his cool. You may remember him coming down the mountain after a forty-day visitation with the Holy One, only to find the Israelites worshipping a Golden Calf. Angrily, he smashes the tablets onto the ground. And they shatter to pieces.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, Gustave Dore (1832–1883)

And so, God makes Moses a second set of tablets. Talmud teaches that the broken tablets were placed into the ark beside the new ones (Berachot 8b). And the Israelites carried them until they reached the promised land. The broken tablets became a monument: a reminder of both the Israelite betrayal, and Moses’ anger. And as they walked, the broken tablets clanged. A constant retelling of the story.

We carry so much.
The ways we’ve hurt and the ways we’ve healed.
We carry these mementos like broken tablets, hauling them through each new phase of our lives.

Poet Roger Kamentz imagines:

“How they must have rumbled,
clattered on the way
even carried so carefully through
the waste land,
how they must have rattled
around until the pieces
broke into pieces, the edges
crumbling, dust collected at the
bottom of the ark…”

Do we still need to carry our broken monuments once they have turned to dust?

Art historian, Erin Thompson, explains “We have as humans been making monuments to glorify people and ideas since we started making art, and since we started making statues, other people have started tearing them down.”[1] In other words, the destruction of the monument is as much a part of our history as the construction is.

A story:
Wernher von Braun, a German aerospace engineer worked for the Nazis designing rockets. Prisoners in the camps were used as slave labor to build his rockets — a plan that was not his design, but that he also did not protest. After the war, he surrendered to the United States. Here, he continued an esteemed career as one of NASA’s preeminent minds. Among his many honors, was a school in Bavaria that named themselves for him in 1979. Sixteen years later, students and parents began to question whether they should glorify a man who was a genius in his field, and, a Nazi. The school committee decided to keep the name, but to address Von Braun’s complicated legacy within the school curriculum.

They carried the broken pieces of history next to the whole. They allowed them to clatter, allowed the students to struggle with the heavy weight of their namesake.

And then, in 2012, after the truth had been honored and questioned and carried so far and so long that the edges had crumbled, and the shards turned to dust, Von Braun’s name was removed from the school. The explanation given was that a Nazi was “no role model” for the students.

As we stand before the holy tribunal today, we knock on our hearts. They open like a box of memories. We are the tattered cardboard, the forsaken monument, the locked vault that holds the past.

Let’s clear out what remains.
Here are the movie stubs and the birthday cards.

Here are the grudges and the promises.

Here are bittersweet reminders of our loss, and our love, and our youth.
And, here are the darker things, too.

Our monuments are physical, and they are metaphorical.
We can feel both shame and pride, for who we were and how far we’ve come.

On Yom Kippur, consider:
Which broken shards do we still need to hear, clattering as we carry them?
And which have we carried so long that they have become dust, ready to sweep up, and cast away?

We do not reach the promised land if we cherish the vaulted darkness within us.
We do not reach the promised land until we are ready to sweep away the dusty remains.

Once we have learned what to celebrate and what to denigrate… we no longer need to see the memories that cause pain. On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves: are we ready yet, to let them go?

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, 9.27.20
Yom Kippur Morning
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale Arizona



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Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.