We've recently finished reading the whole Torah. I love the ritual upon the liturgical completion of a biblical book. We stand tall in the synagogue and recite three words out loud asking for renewed strength: "Hazak Hazak Ve'nitchazek." We hope with the close of one book and the opening of another, we retain our sacred energy and amplify it. We say a dignified goodbye to what we've read. We hope that the words soon to be read will also jump from the scroll and into our lives, that this text is not static but electric. This is all the more so when we complete the entire Torah. I confess. I always feel a bit proud and weepy when we do this together.
Judaism does endings well, whether it's finishing a biblical book or the intricate laws of shiva that frame how we say farewell to those we love. I feel sad for my non-Jewish colleagues and friends who don't have such closing rituals, who go to work the next day because - well - what else is there to do? We end the shiva week by rising and walking around the block, signifying that we must also say goodbye to mourning. We don't rush it, but we don't stay in that dark place for so long that we can't remember the light.
These rituals of beginnings and endings help us manage the transition time in between. A few years ago, my husband bought me a book by Harvard professor Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. He knows I admire her writing, although it's just a little weird when your husband buys you a book called Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free. I didn't take it personally. But what I did take to heart is what she wrote in that book about the way we say goodbye. She contends that in contemporary society we celebrate beginnings more than endings. The way we offer small goodbyes, she believes, are often connected to our capacity or incapacity to end larger chapters of our lives in an authentic and meaningful way.
One of the smoothest leadership transitions in the Bible is unexpected. When we closed the Five Books, we said goodbye to Moses, a prophet who Deuteronomy 34 tells us will never have an equal. We can only imagine, therefore, that the next leader will face insurmountable difficulty in establishing credibility. That's not the case. When we open the book of Joshua, we encounter a repeated expression that mirrors our close of biblical books. The people keep telling Joshua to be strong and of good courage, imbuing him with the confidence that they never offered to his predecessor.
I've been thinking a lot about that goodbye and hello lately. As I write this, we are eleven days away from November 8. The polls opened yesterday. Pollsters have commented on the unusual uptick of early voting this election. Why? People are sick of this presidential campaign, and even though it's not over when they vote early, it is over for them. They need the psychic reassurance that their own part in it is done and gone. What's even scarier is the thought of the day after the election, the predicted violence or the questioning of the integrity of the voting system. How will we heal?
There will be no smooth leadership transition. In actual fact, after the president is sworn in in January, she or he has about six hours to move into the White House. The Secret Service moves one president's personal belongings in and another's out the week before the inauguration, following a detailed floor-plan created by the new president and family. Even if the move goes smoothly, the country is in such a deep state of fragmentation, it seems impossible to imagine all the bad feelings swept under the Oval Office rug.
I, too, thought of voting early, disgusted by the tenor of the debates, the meanness, the cult of personality trumping the discussion of policy and the strange October surprises. I cannot wait for November 9.
But I decided, nevertheless, not to. I love voting as a community. Any student of Jewish history must celebrate the rights of citizenship. I kvell when putting in my ballot and happily wear an "I voted" sticker all day. No ugliness is going to take away this ritual, even if this election has been the worst in my memory. I just hope we can say goodbye and hello with more dignity. Politicians, please learn from the Jews. We know how to exit well.