Learning to Let Go

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 29, 2021 / 23 Cheshvan 5782

Summary: This week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, as well as mid-autumn, provides us opportunities to reflect on how to let go of things, feelings, and even people.

Reading Time: Four and a half minutes

For long years, my favorite season was the fall. Maybe it’s because I was an autumn baby. Or perhaps it’s related to my love of sweaters and hats and the coziness that the cooling days offer us. It might also have something to do with growing up in the Northeast, where the forests are predominantly deciduous and where the frost burnishes eighty percent of the autumnal landscape to a scarlet and ochre frenzy. Each year, though, this frenetic explosion of color slowly dropped, leaving exposed boughs everywhere. In a moment, the thick fall environment turns into the sharp-limned outline of bare limbs.

Deciduous trees provide a powerful lesson in letting go. After investing two seasons each year growing their spectacular head of hair, the trees liberate their leaves with passionate abandon.

I don’t think any of us are born knowing how to let go. It’s been said that a baby enters the world with clenched fists, yet when we pass from the world, our hands are relaxed and open. This brings to mind the old saying, “too little too late.”

The Torah provides numerous examples of letting go as well as how difficult it is to do so. It took ten horrific plagues before Pharaoh could hear God’s call to “let my people go.” On the other hand, the Sabbatical year, in which we find ourselves, is all about letting go. In fact, the Hebrew word for the Sabbatical year is shemitah, which means release. Allowing the land to lie fallow and unworked releases the earth from its conscripted labor. It also requires the farmer to “let go and let God.” For those who practice a traditionally robust Shabbat, each Friday offers another opportunity to let go. Maybe that’s why the rigors of this spiritual practice can appear so daunting.

Why is it so hard to let go?

Why is it so hard to let go? Change doesn’t come easily to most of us. We are attached to the past, in part because we normally identify ourselves by who we have been, rather than who we might become. We tend to be comfortable with what is, even if it isn’t so pleasant. Some people find letting go to be especially challenging. My sister is a professional organizer. Because we have a hoarder in the family, she’s sometimes shared articles about this condition with me. For people who struggle with hoarding, many of the objects they hold on to represent unlived possibilities. Meanwhile, those who are burdened with low self-worth are often afraid of making a mistake or disappointing others. That also makes it hard to let go. Fear of missing out, which is not so different from the hoarder’s impulse, is another challenging aspect. Regardless of where we fall on the spectrum, letting go is difficult for most of us.

Learning to let go: Lessons from nature and the Torah

Once again, deciduous trees can school us. What looks like profligate abandon on the outside (how can you waste all those leaves!) is actually an act of wisdom, because on a biochemical level the bodies of trees are reabsorbing their expensive chlorophyl. In other words, deciduous trees know what should be kept and what is inessential to their well-being.

What comes naturally to trees (or so it appears to us) requires some effort by us. That’s where clarity about who we are, and what matters to us, can help us in letting go. If we keep returning to our values and our potential, it becomes easier to allow ourselves the freedom of a little shemitah. In place of a tree’s instinct, many of us need to remind ourselves why letting go is so helpful and necessary for our well-being.

This week’s parshah is Chayei Sarah. It recounts the death of Sarah as well as Abraham’s extended negotiations to secure a permanent resting place for his wife and for future family needs. Throughout the reading, we encounter intimations of, and lessons in, how to let go and what to hold on to. After Sarah dies, the Torah, which doesn’t always allow us to witness the emotional lives of our ancestors, tells us that Abraham eulogized Sarah and then cried for her. Only after he has moved through these stages of grief is he prepared to enter negotiations for burial real estate. In this, we see a healthy portrayal of mourning, release, and memory—which, after all, is that process by which we both hold on and let go.

But Abraham’s lessons to us don’t end here. For immediately after Sarah’s death, Abraham renews his connection to the future. He does this by instructing a household employee, whom the Talmud identifies as Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac. From this we learn about Abraham’s capacity to delegate, which is itself an act of letting go, and his understanding that the best way to honor Sarah’s memory was to ensure that their work in founding a family and a nation would continue.

One of the most important 20th century poets was Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote eloquently about loss and letting go. One haunting, ironic, and telling poem about these themes is “One Art.” That title is a reminder that the great task of our lives is learning how to let go to the inevitability of loss so that we can be equally open to the inevitability of spring.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What do you find is easy to let go of? What is difficult to relinquish?
  2. Do you have a favorite season? If so, why do you like it so much?
  3. If you had to get rid of all but five possessions, what would you keep? Why?

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