I recently got back from a trip to Israel, which was thrilling on many levels. First, the joy of being able to travel to the Holy Land, after so many months of not knowing when we’d be able to go back, made the trip all the more sweet. As one of the attendees remarked, “You know how you get a Jew to Israel? Tell him he can’t go to Israel.” Also, I was privileged to travel on a Momentum tour, which is an organization that takes Jewish mothers to Israel on a free trip to explore the land, their Judaism, and themselves. It’s always supercharged to experience our land through the eyes and hearts of these inspired women. Finally, I stayed five extra days to spend time with my daughter Hindy who is at Meohr seminary — five days of pure nachas.
The transition from part one of this trip (Momentum) to part two of the trip (Hindy) was stark. For the first week, I was a VIP staff member. I wore a nametag that identified me as staff and gave me access to venues with a telling yellow lanyard. I had my own suite in the hotel and worked with a staff person who helped me with all logistics. Whatever I needed or wanted for my job was supplied, from food, drink, details, transportation, down to which kind of microphone was preferred (handheld wireless, thanks).
And then, on Monday night, the trip ended. I got back to the hotel. I took off the nametag and discarded it — it no longer meant anything. I took my detailed itinerary with my copious notes, which I had consulted multiple times a day, and likewise, discarded it. After all, it had no instructions past Monday night. If I was hungry, I had to figure out what to do. If I wanted to get somewhere, I took public transportation like everyone else. No more VIP. No more status. No more detailed itinerary telling me where to go and what to do every moment of every packed day.
My transition was complete.
I felt the change so viscerally, but something else was tickling the edge of my mind. This meant something deeper, but what? And then it hit me: This is the journey from this world to the next. The journey we will all take.
In this world, we thrive on the outer trappings of status. We drive a certain car, live in a certain neighborhood. We have our busy schedules telling us where to go and what to do and we run around like busy bees. We may have certain titles or communal statuses, or be related to certain people or get attention for the accomplishments of self, spouse or child. These things often change how others think about us and certainly how we think about ourselves. We get distracted by the details of the “microphone” we prefer (phone, simchas, clothing) and by the access we have to various experiences or venues.
And then one day, sometimes suddenly and sometimes expectedly, the “trip” is over. Clothing no longer matters. Our busy schedules become obsolete overnight. There are no more instructions. Our indispensability shows itself to be false. Our little preferences over cars and clothes and statuses suddenly seem silly. How much people do or don’t pay attention to us, or for what, is irrelevant. The only thing that matters now is the choices we’ve made, the moral compass we’ve developed, the person we’ve shown ourselves to be.
Shlomo Hamelech said, “Grace is false, and beauty is vain, but a woman who reveres Hashem should be praised.” We need to be taught these truths, and we need to learn and review them over and over, precisely because they are so easy to forget. The seductive pull of the status-driven life is beyond strong, and if we’re not paying attention, our default mode is to get sucked in.
How can we remind ourselves that none of that stuff actually matters? How can we own the truth that beauty is vanity? There are stray comments all around us that seem so in line with reality, that reinforce the lie that beauty matters, that honor is worth pursuing, that money and status are true currency.
But these are lies, and the more we remind ourselves that they are, the freer we will be.
I like to say, “Take out your garbage down here, so you don’t have to take it out up there.” We all have our detritus, packed nicely into bags, that we choose to ignore in this lifetime: the mistakes we’ve made, things we’ve said, relationships we have neglected, people we’ve mistreated. It’s easier to pretend it isn’t there, because we’re so busy doing other things, running around, checking off our boxes. But our stuff doesn’t disappear. We don’t take the silly stuff with us to the next world, but we do take our unfinished business. We take along the garbage we never took out to the trash.
Then what happens? We have to unpack our junk in olam haba. And by then it’s too late. Too late to fix, too late to apologize, too late for regrets. The goal is to travel light to the next world and not carry our heavy burdens. We want to only take along our good choices, our personal transformation.
So these ruminations of my trip, while heavy, and maybe hard to think about, and maybe you’re wondering why I’m being such a downer today, are actually profoundly important. Let’s think about taking off the nametag. Let’s go there. Because if it will help me, or you, or even one person, to think a bit more deeply about this journey as a human being in a finite experience, if it will help even one of us to be a bit more humble, then it’s worth sharing.
The nametag never defines the person; it’s the person who defines the nametag. Yup, I just made that up. Feel free to steal it. Because, hey, we all need reminding.