The things we carry

Two Buddhist monks are walking through the countryside. They come upon a woman who is unable to cross a stream. One of the monks offers to help. He picks her up, carries her, and deposits her safely on the other side. After she thanks him, the monks continue walking in silence. After several hours, the other monk finally says something.

“You know it’s not right for people like us to come in contact with women.” The monk who had helped the lady replies,  “Are you still carrying that girl? I put her down five hours ago.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose funeral took place earlier this week, used to tell this story. It spoke of the power of letting go. Not forgiving. But, letting go as a favor we do for ourselves. Forgiving would be something we’d do for somebody else. And often someone who wrongs us doesn’t deserve such a favor. Indeed, poisonous people who don’t deserve a place in our lives, don’t deserve to keep living in our heads. 

And yet, letting go is so much easier said than done. I know this intimately well, more personally than I’d like to admit. And let’s say you are determined to let go, but you have a problem. You cannot erase the person from your life. Why? Because you share an office at work, a house next door, or children you once brought into the world together. 

This week’s portion makes the Sabbath very prominent. Just as when a biblical name gets repeated for emphasis, as in “Abraham, Abraham”, or “Moses, Moses”, this week is the only time in the Bible when we meet the phrase, “On the Sabbath Day, On the Sabbath Day” (Lev. 24:8). It launches a series of chapters where every Festival is renamed Shabbat, and Sabbaticals for the land and for debt relief are introduced.

But it also invites a pause to appreciate a core meaning of the Hebrew word Shabbat, meaning cessation. Two mentions of the Sabbath Day can signify more than two ways Shabbat is presented in the Ten Commandments (remember and guard watchfully). Cessation is active and soul-restoring (la’asot, and vayinafash) (Gen 2:3,Ex. 31:17).

Rabbi Kushner taught us how to make ideals practical. So let’s apply the making of Shabbat cessation to the vacating of troubling people from our lives. How can we do it?

For me, when I journal, that is, when I put down in writing what is so maddening about somebody’s misconduct, it helps me, quite literally, put it down. Or, a friend recently suggested, “When you think about them, make an effort to do the opposite of what they’d do.” That’s how you reverse their influence, how you put it in retreat: by defiantly acting in favor of what they reject. 

None of these suggestions make letting go easier. But the pause in this week’s portion to add emphasis on the work of making Shabbat real in our lives, can serve to remind us how much a greater effort can yield a deeper reward.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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