Hol HaMoed Pesah 5783

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A D’var Torah for Hol HaMoed Pesah
By Rabbi Ira J. Dounn (’17)

The Passover story, which we recount in our seders this week, highlights Moses (on behalf of G-d) telling Pharoah to “Let My people go!” (Exodus 5:1)

And yet I wonder: What are the things that we are holding onto? What do we need to let go of in our own lives?

The pre-Passover purge might indicate that we’re not too shabby at letting go of things. The spring cleaning that features the throwing away, giving away, or selling of our hametz is a reminder to us that it’s good to let things go.

But anyone who has had the unenviable job of cleaning out the home of a loved one who has passed away might find the task more daunting. In this instance, the only physical thing we have left of the person are their things. Letting them go can feel like losing our loved one all over again.

On the March of the Living trips (which, incidentally, is now fully running again for the first time since the pandemic!), we would tour the Jewish ghettos in various towns. Invariably, the tour guide would ask our students: Imagine being able to only take 1 suitcase with you. What would you take?

As you can imagine, my hoarding tendencies balked at such a question. I’d rather not even contemplate it – it’s just too hard, too distressing. And yet, this too is the experience of the people once they were let go. They had to take only what they could carry and hastily leave Egypt before Pharoah had a change of heart.

Surely, it’s only stuff. For those of you who have Marie Kondo-ed your way to happiness, I applaud you! As for me, I find myself so nostalgic over stuff that I cannot bear to let it go.

I admit that it’s not only stuff that I cannot bear to let go. If I’m honest with myself, it’s really the people who have passed away who I cannot bear to let go. I find that our tradition has a mixed relationship with this. On the one hand, we have yahrzeits and say kaddish and yizkor and we make their memories into blessings. We make sure to remember those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and we say: “Never Again.” And we have a Shabbat Zakhor in which we remember what Amalek did to us – we do not forget! Perhaps this is the sort of Jew that I am – a zakhor Jew – someone who clings to the past and the people for fear that if I let go, they’ll be lost forever. Like in the movie Coco, it’s as though all memory of the person on earth is gone – and they properly disappear even from the next world. I would argue that so much about Judaism is holding so tightly onto the past and not letting it go.

On the other hand, there are moments when we must be looking at the present and the future, even at the expense of the past. There is only so much room in our basements or storage units. New stuff is always getting made or being purchased, and sometimes it needs to replace the old stuff.  We, too, will pass on and whatever we’re clinging onto will pass on with us. As they say, you can’t take it with you. Various 12 step programs say it with an eloquent phrase: Let Go and Let G-d. There’s wisdom to letting go of the things that make our lives less livable. If only it were so easy and straightforward.

In Billy Crystal’s stunning and nostalgic memoir 700 Sundays, after an entire book focusing on stories that take place in his childhood home, 549 East Park in Long Beach, Long Island – he spends some time talking about selling the home after his parents pass away. I don’t have the book anymore – indeed, I let it go! – so I will paraphrase it instead of quoting it. Billy Crystal said that he has his memories of all the times at the house. And no, they don’t own the house anymore, but the memories are what are valuable now. For whatever reason, having seen him talk beautifully and nostalgically about his home throughout the entire book and then to let it go made it easier for me to stomach too. I’m grateful to him for giving me the example – sometimes all it takes is seeing the person in front of you do it. I suppose the same was true of the people leaving Egypt – the difficult task was made easier because we weren’t doing it alone.

So on this holiday of letting go, may you be blessed with the ability to let go of the things that need to be let go of in your life. And may you be blessed to cling onto the things that need clinging onto in your life. And may you have the wisdom to know the difference.

Hag kasher vesameah!
Rabbi Ira J. Dounn is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Center for Jewish Life – Princeton Hillel, and the teacher of AJR’s Experiential Education course this semester. He was ordained from AJR in 2017, and lives with his wife and children in Highland Park, NJ. He can be reached at [email protected].