Old Year/New Year: Letting Go

Old Year/New Year: Letting Go

I write these words on the last day my brother and I say Kaddish for our mom, who died 11 months ago.

After reciting the mourner’s prayer more than 2,000 times, the looming prospect of completing this meaningful mitzvah leaves me feeling more adrift than fulfilled.

I am anxious to be relieved of the burden — and yet part of me doesn’t want to let go.

It’s a strange place to be, but on reflection, not a unique one.

So much of our lives, personally and collectively, is spent seeking a balance between moving forward and trying to hold on to the past.

And today, on the cusp of a new year, it seems appropriate to reflect on this sensation and its many tributaries.

This week we turn the Hebrew calendar from 5770 to 5771, reflecting on a year of accomplishments, losses and challenges while focusing on new resolutions and commitments. Will this be a year of personal growth? Will our country right itself on the path toward renewed hope and prosperity?

Might the next 12 months be remembered as the turning point toward Mideast peace?

The current direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and the government in Jerusalem, so long in the making, will turn on whether both parties are prepared to let go — of old hatreds, stumbling blocks, stereotypes and hardened positions.

Creative political and security strategies are needed to resolve such a longstanding, bitter and bloody conflict. But just as vital is an internal process that has been missing until now; only when each side acknowledges and appreciates the other’s narrative can painful memories give way to imagined possibilities.

Similarly, our country is preparing to shift its military might and focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, from attempting to build up a stable and workable democracy in Baghdad to concentrating on defeating the terrorists who caused 9/11 and the spread of militant Islam.

Can we let go of the notion that today’s complex wars — against terrorists rather than armies — can be won decisively? Are our foreign policy goals aligned with a healthy dose of realism, so that we don’t sacrifice more of our young soldiers in the hopes of justifying the deaths of those who came before them?

Here in New York, as a debate over the location of a community center-mosque in downtown Manhattan morphs into an emotional assessment of our true feelings about Muslims, it would be instructive for us to avoid sweeping stereotypes by substituting the word “Jewish” for “Muslim” in hearing ourselves discuss the topic.

Turning inward as we begin the High Holy Day season, we should think hard about our feelings toward our fellow Jews. Consider: One of the few common beliefs most of us share is a deep concern for the future survival and growth of our people at a time when our population is aging, shrinking and growing more distant from traditional beliefs and attitudes. And yet, look at how we act toward each other.

Israel used to be a shared rallying point; now it is at the center of our contentiousness.

How we choose to define who is a Jew is critical, but the debate this summer over a conversion bill in Israel was mired in misunderstanding and emotion, underscoring the gap in the diaspora-Israel relationship.

And surveys now tell us that the age-old concept of collective responsibility — that every Jew is responsible for every other Jew — is no longer a given among young people. That is a sad, if not tragic, reflection of our society today, with some obsessed with the self, and others eager to repair other communities before their own.

Rather than drawing closer together in the face of such threats, we have, increasingly, turned on each other, questioning the motives and logic of those to the left or right of us, religiously and/or politically.

How can we expect others to champion our cause when we narrow our own sights, directing our attention to the fissures that divide us rather than the bonds that connect us?

The liturgy of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur reminds us that prayer is both personal and collective. We gain strength when we pray not only as individuals, but as a People — a message we should take to heart.

For all the solemnity of these holy days, with their pleas and prayers reminding us of our mortality, the underlying theme is one of optimism, and that is a comfort.

“Choose life,” the Torah instructed us this past Shabbat, and on Rosh HaShanah we empty our pockets by the waters for Tashlich, symbolically letting go of our sins — a clean slate for the year ahead. The following week, at Yom Kippur’s end, we pray that we have been not only inscribed but sealed in the Book of Life.

What, then, of those loved ones who were with us a year ago but whose seats in the synagogue and at our table will be empty this year?

By year’s end, I have come to internalize that in time we let go of the Kaddish, but not of the memory of those we mourn.

That haunting prayer that helped sustain and inspire me this past year does not dwell on death — indeed it never mentions the subject. Instead, it praises God’s majesty and prays that abundant, heavenly peace “come to us and to all Israel.”

And we respond, as one, Amen.

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