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Memory, Mishkan and Learning to Let Go

Fifteen years ago, at 63, I moved to another country to live with and eventually marry a new partner. In young-old age I found it especially challenging to feel at home in his city, as cosmopolitan as it was. One way that I managed my homesickness was to surround myself with an array of small, carefully curated objects that resonated with my past life —  an ash tray stolen from a Paris hotel when I was 18, a statue of the Goddess Shiva given to by my San Francisco boyfriend in 1987, a 1995 plaque identifying me as gay educator of year from a professional organization.

As I packed for a recent trip I felt a familiar emotion: an anticipatory regret about leaving this emotional archive and relinquishing, even temporarily, the comforts of home and the routines that mark daily life with David — the shopping and cooking, our frequent exchanges about the whereabouts of our aging cat, and the work projects that take us into our separate studies and into other worlds. This usual apprehension about leaving home was heightened by the plethora of regulations that constrain our travel these days and which sent me scurrying to the computer each day to check for changing regulations and document requirements.  

Arriving at my destination and much to my surprise, that regret did not materialize as homesickness. The small, spare white cottage I’d rented in Southern California offered a stark contrast to home. Flooded with sunlight, windows and glass doors on three sides, and furnished with clean-lined mid-century-modern furniture, it held not a jot of history, not a book to read nor an idiosyncratic object to incite curiosity. In respect for its tabula rasa, I put my belongings away, leaving only the most necessary in reach, so as not to mark the space as even temporarily mine. I experienced its blank neutrality as a relief, a release from a weight that I hadn’t known I was carrying. I settled into a meditative calm.

In Toronto those carefully curated objects were both inspirational and charged with the history to which I am heir. My great-grandparents pictured in 19th century Vilnius are an intimidating pair. With ample grey beard, bowler hat, long buttoned coat, he stands by the chair in which she is seated, similarly stiff, buttoned into an austere black dress that reaches from her chin to her toes. They both look forward unsmiling, not a whit of interaction between them. I try to imagine the life they led and the hardships they endured in the Pale of Jewish Settlement. On a nearby shelf sit the cup and plate with a charming blue and red line drawings of a curly-haired child and the words proclaiming — For a Good Little Boy — from which my parents once fed me. Long after their deaths, I regularly explain to them that while my life resembles little of what they could have imagined, still it’s one from which they might shep nachas galore. And over the couch a large rectangular woodcut of a soaring bird crafted at age sixteen expresses all of my hopes for taking flight once I graduated high school. 

Social scientists distinguish between places that have been imbued with social meanings, like my house in Toronto, and spaces that have yet to be marked with human significance. The warm weather casita was a space waiting to be layered with meanings that would accrue over time, transformed into my deliciously cool refuge from 90-degree heat, where I made three meals a day for five weeks and entertained briefly visiting family from LA I valued its blankness, even as it took on the meaning of a place to let go of the past, a liminal space of unknown possibilities. I did not read the coolness of the space as coldness but rather as an invitation to forget — and to look at my life with fresh eyes.

Part of the exhilaration that I felt in this unmarked space was doubtless relief to be on the move again, after twenty-four months of pandemic at home in an all-too-familiar place. But another part had deeper roots in the human condition. We learn by remembering and by forgetting, the former enabling us to acquire new skills and ideas and the latter helping us make room for the novel and unrehearsed. Both have their downsides. Remembering can tether us to the past and prevent us from imagining life differently, while forgetting may leave us feeling lost and disoriented, unmoored from the certainties that help us to stay grounded in the world.

Forgetting, or more aptly, mindful letting go, is a crucial process for those of us far closer to the end of life than the beginning. In infancy our first task is learning to hold on, literarily and metaphorically, and to trust that our needs will be met. At the opposite end of life, a primary task is letting go of behaviors and perspectives that we have acquired and are no longer adaptive. We are challenged to modify our aspirations to realign with our lived abilities. As in infancy, we must learn once again to trust that the people we love and the situations in which we have invested will provide for our basic needs–now far more aware of all that can go wrong.

Intentional attempts at forgetting are always incomplete, haunted by the faintest echos and weakest shadows of what we would erase from our memories. But living in a new and neutral space, I found letting go easy, leaving behind thoughts of what I have accomplished in life and how I have fallen short. The space also evoked other places that afforded similar opportunities, prominent among them the weekly shabbat services that I attend at a small conservative synagogue during summers on eastern Long Island.  

Although Jewish thought and practice is most obviously filled with commands to remember  — to recite the Shema, pray in a minion, commemorate the Holocaust, and pass on the tradition from generation to generation — we are also prompted to forget. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us there is a time for everything — a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up. The strict structure of our mourning rituals allows time for remembrance and also time for letting go, for finding out who we will want to be in the future. A religion that accommodates no fewer than four New Year celebrations, along with extensive observances for welcoming each new month, speaks to the human need for renewal, to leave behind the old and begin again.

I am especially sensitive to this tension between remembering and forgetting because the weeks preceding my trip coincided with the Torah readings focused on the construction of the Mishkan that the Jewish people were commanded to build after the fiasco of the Golden Calf. Despite the best efforts of our rabbi, a wise and compelling storyteller who can wrest meaning from the most arcane parshiot, I struggled to find relevance in the detailed descriptions of the tents, their contents, and the ritual sacrifices to be made there. 

Persevering through these discussions, however, I found myself increasingly curious about the Mishkan’s temporariness. Constructed and reconstructed according to the directives of a god who would not be pinned down to one place, it was intended for a people on the move, emblematic of their restless, wandering life. Yes, there were awe-inspiring furnishings and spaces on the inside, but the structure itself had no permanence. Rather, the Mishkan offered continuity and meaning amidst alien landscapes, ultimately marking them, albeit momentarily, as a place with social meaning, a place where the Jewish people erected their portable sanctuary in which to renew their covenant with the Divine.   

I try to absorb this knotty message about our fate from the biblical texts themselves and the history that followed: while we instinctively long for a “promised” land, a sustained life of peace and prosperity, we are destined to lives of questioning and seeking, rather than finding and settling. Indeed, the unsettled life may more accurately reflect the experience of people who are in a dynamic relationship to their spiritual beliefs and practices. While aspiring to be at home in the world, we are also drawn to the interrogative stance that comes with the life of the outsider.

At its core, the story of the Mishkan asks us to consider what it means to be at home in the world. Is it possible to be at home even as we find ourselves without a homeland? Do we place ultimate value on where we live or on how we live, on the possession of things and places or on the ethics of right living in a committed community?

Perhaps by no accident, the small conservative synagogue to which I belong doesn’t have a permanent sanctuary, nor did the synagogue that I previously attended. The leaders of my current congregation see this as an opportunity, a release from the burden of maintaining and staffing a building, while the leaders of my former congregation viewed it as an unfortunate inconvenience, emblematic of a failure to thrive. In both instances, the absence of a permanent home shaped the ethos of the institution and the programmatic decisions that sustained the social fabric.

My time immersed in the Mishkan and its lore impressed on me that we are a people who both love the comfort of rituals and special places and who understand that home is an achievement, something that we can make and remake as necessary. It is as much a place inside of us as outside, as much about our spiritual life as our material well-being. 

Granted my travel had little to do with the Biblical Jews wandering in the desert. I was moved by choice rather than necessity, compelled by desire for adventure rather than a search for a home. And yet as I arrived at my destination and began to settle in, I found that I had unwittingly packed the parshiot about the Mishkan in my psychic baggage, and they proved essential to exploring the connections between remembering and forgetting, holding on and letting go.

The Mishkan was a place of remembering, constructed to remind the Jewish people of their covenant with God. With its awe-inspiring grandeur and formal panoply of ritual sacrifices, the Mishkan promoted a distanced relationship to the Divine that contrasted with other traditional texts in which our first leaders tried to draw close only to find that they were forbidden to look directly on G-d’s face. This tension, between drawing close and maintaining distance, between language and silence in relationship to the Divine, resonates for me today. In synagogue I wrestle with the desire to seek meaning in prayer, to be in conversation with unknown parts of myself and the relief of leaving language behind and allowing myself to be enfolded in the chanting that elicits unnamable emotions.

Did people who entered the Mishkan experience it as a contemplative space that elicited unnamable emotions? We cannot know. It is reasonable to hypothesize that worshippers might have relinquished their daily preoccupations in the presence of the Divine and of priestly celebrants in their ceremonial garments. Just as I have learned to give up a search for narrowly cognitive understanding in synagogue, so might visitors to the Mishkan have given over their lives to those officiating in the complex sacrificial rituals.

I left Toronto in search of warmth and respite from the COVID constraints that have narrowed all our lives. At first my home and the away space seemed opposites, the former filled with prompts to keep the past ever present, and the latter a blank canvas inviting fresh thoughts and a release from the burdens of history. But while grappling further with the story of the Mishkan, holding on and letting go seemed more closely connected than I had assumed. For in sacred spaces, no matter how provisional, it is the embedded history and ritual that offer a safe container in which to relinquish our rational selves and experience what may lie inside us, yet daily hidden from view.

Within the architecture of Jewish time and space, untethered from our mundane lives, we experience moments of timelessness and transcend the boundaries of physicality. Perhaps it is only fitting that these transitory moments take place in temporary places that confirm the existential reality of human impermanence. We are here but for short while, called upon to be benevolent caretakers of a world that we have neither made nor approve of. We are grateful for the opportunity and must prepare to give it up when the moment comes. We learn to hold on and then we learn to let go. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

About the Author
Jonathan Silin is a Fellow at the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto. Formerly a member of the Bank Street College Graduate Faculty, he is the author/editor of 4 books including his most recent, Early Childhood, Aging and the Life Cycle: Mapping Common Ground. His occasional essays have appeared in the NYTimes, Tablet and the Chronicle of Higher Eduations.
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