Things end. Good things, beautiful things, things I really enjoy. Things that are good. Relationships, people, places to live in, all of it ends. It’s part of the changing nature of the universe. But it is hard on us. It makes the work we do seem so meaningless. What is the point of all the dishes? They just get dirty again. It’s all futile. In Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes) everything is described as hevel – a breath, a bit of air, nothingness, nonsense. It is the name of the first man murdered, according to the bible, since Abel has the same root. What’s the point of life, his name asks, if you can just be murdered at any point?
Things end, and I hate it. I clutch on to them with both hands, both feet and anything else. It can’t end! This can be salvaged, repaired, resuscitated. The problem is that refusing to accept an end – that’s one way to make a mistake according to the Jewish faith. That’s a way to do it wrong, or, if one accepts the Jewish definition of sin, to miss the target. It’s good to care for the way things are, if you’re Jewish. It’s good to love that and hold on to that, to cherish it and protect it. We are a religion of tradition and continuity, of preservation and safe-guarding. So, holding on is good – it’s an excellent target. However, if it is overdone – if one refuses to acknowledge the hevel, one can find oneself shooting a bit off-target, missing the mark and so, sinning.
Because it’s easy to get stuck. There’s a story about a boy that I read to my students last year – all he wanted to do was to build a snowman. It wasn’t effective, however, because that year was unseasonably warm and there was no snow where he was, month after month. He hadn’t been OK with there being no snow – with that particular end of a pattern of snow in winter. So, he tried to make snowmen out of inappropriate materials – like covering his sister with icing sugar or dumping hundreds of Styrofoam packing peanuts on the lawn and attempting to build with them. He got in trouble, not because there’s anything wrong with wanting to build a snowman but because it was impossible to do so right then and there and he had gotten so stuck that he was missing the mark.
The results can get ugly. This particular kid, when praised for the beautiful snowman he drew got so frustrated that it wasn’t the real thing that he tore his artwork into a bunch of tiny pieces. He didn’t even hear or recognize the praise he had gotten, because his head was full of the impossible, of something that had ended.
What I noticed, however, wasn’t these obvious ways he was missing the mark but the fact that the illustrator had carefully put in another problem with refusing to accept endings into the pictures that wasn’t in the story. Somewhere in the background, there were always kids having fun in other ways, from playing with fall leaves, to baking together, from playing board games to enjoying art. He could see none of that, he could participate in none of it because he was too busy holding on to the snowman he wanted. It ruined his snowman-making of the past, too. Those memories began to be filled with frustration and bitterness, instead of happy thoughts and positive nostalgia.
Endings are needed, much as I hate them, because they make way for beginnings. The year ends so a new one begins. My time in one place ends, so I can learn to live in a new place. An idea, a way of functioning must end so we can have space for a new thought or idea. This is not easy or fun – or always clear: is this a time to hold on to tradition, to be stubborn and persist, to repair? Or is this a time to let go and move on? Because while Kohelet is right and there’s a time for everything, he doesn’t necessarily say how to know what that time is.
So far, for me, there are no obvious answers. I’m a holder-on. I err on the side of tradition, if I can. I know I sometimes miss the mark when I do so. I think that the key is awareness – paying attention to the hints that the world is presenting. The reason I liked the snowman story is because the hint was nice and simple and obvious – there was no snow. One should not be focusing on snowmen when there is no snow. Simple. Most of the time, the hints are more subtle, and it’s harder to know whether this is an obstacle one can jump or a reason to turn back.
I am trying to listen to God – in whatever shape She chooses to tell me – for when it’s time to allow an ending. Through nature, through people, through my feelings, God (or intuition or whatever you will) communicates ending and I know I need to accept. The trick is to do so gracefully. Mostly, the best I can manage this Elul is to acknowledge how often I miss the mark, and try to turn away from those behaviours, to do teshuvah towards a path that includes paying attention to forks in the road and letting go of the ones that I pass and can’t take.