My father of blessed memory did love to write. His handwriting was elegant, precise, and unique. I know it well. Because, for 23 years – from the day I left home until the day he died – my father wrote me a letter almost every day. After he died, his letters showed up in my dreams. Here’s a dream from 2007.
I go up into the attic of my house. It’s a long narrow room, filled with pews. In one pew, I find a copy of the bright blue New Kehilla Machzor. A prayer book on the themes of forgiveness and new beginnings. I open to a random page, and there’s a post it note, with a message from my Dad. But I can’t read it. I don’t know what it says.
When I wake up, I realize this is nuts. My father’s handwriting is perfect. Obviously, he’s left a clear message. So, if I can’t read it, then I’m not seeing clearly.
But what am I not seeing? I know my father meant well, but he was so controlling. So, when I left home at 17, never to return, he made sure to send me written instructions every day. And here he was, still nattering on from beyond the grave.
But, by now you are all laughing at me. Because you know why my Dad wrote all those letters. And you know what the note in the dream says. You know why I found it tucked into High Holy Day prayers. You did not have to wait 13 years to decode the dream.
The note says — say it with me — “I love you.”
Finally, this love has brought me great inner peace.
But if you think I was slow, check out Abraham. He leaves his father’s home, too…when he is 75 years old. According to Torah, God tells him, “Leave your father’s house, and become a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-2).
Midrash suggests that Abraham and his father disagreed about religion. But Abraham’s own behaviour suggests something much worse. Because Abraham himself has no idea how to be a good-enough father. In fact, he’s rather abusive. He solves a family conflict by kicking his older son Ishmael out of the house. And, to pass what he thinks is a spiritual test, he tries to ritually sacrifice his younger son Isaac.
Where did Abraham learn these parenting skills? Maybe in his own family of origin? If so, it is no wonder he tried to get away. And, it’s no wonder that Abraham’s sons try to get away from him. After trying to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Abraham returns alone to Beersheba. Isaac goes to Be’er Lahai Roi, where his brother Ishmael lives. Most likely, they live together. And Torah never shows them speaking to their father again.
So, when Abraham’s wife Sarah dies, he is alone. His only friends, it seems, are paid employees. So, he sends one to find Isaac a wife. Isaac marries and falls deeply in love.
And then, Abraham marries Keturah. Together, they have six sons. When these sons grow up, Abraham gives them all generous gifts. They are not his legal heirs, but he helps them anyway. Clearly, Abraham has changed. He can love his family like he never has before. You might say: Abraham has finally left his father’s house. He has finally become a blessing.
Abraham’s psychological journey is not unique. We all travel a similar road.
Family systems theory says: we become who we are within a family system. As children, we respond to gesture, tone, feeling, action. We figure out our role, and we adapt. We develop a persona. A face, so to speak, or an interface, for others. Within our family’s world, this persona helps us survive. And, if we are lucky, it helps us thrive.
But – again, if we are lucky – we grow up. We enter a larger social world. But this social world is not our family. Instead, it’s a weird cacophonous group of people. All with personalities formed in their own family systems. So, inevitably, at some point, our persona fails. We make big interpersonal mistakes. And we may not have the skills to repair them. But we press on.
Until, maybe, bit by bit, our mistakes wear us down. And we begin to feel unwell. Tired, angsty, depressed, anxious, unsettled. Or maybe, we press on until a close relative dies. The last surviving person comfortable in our family system. And we feel disoriented. As if our life map is wrong.
But it isn’t. Instead, as psychologist Carl Jung might say, we are entering the second half of life. Not in terms of age. We might be 17 or 75. But in terms of psychological growth. We set out on an inner journey to let go of our early persona. Because it is just a young version of ourselves. A fraction of who we are and who we could be.
But where do we find our resources for the journey? Obviously, from the psyche itself. From the soul and its many layers.
Closest to our awareness is a conscious level. The self we know. The skills and information we draw on as we think and feel our way through daily life.
Flowing below that awareness is the personal unconscious. Just out of reach but very influential. Personal experiences, half-remembered. Powerful emotional tangles. Fragments of old dream-images. Sometimes it bubbles up and surprises us. Like it surprised me with a challenging dream. And it surprised Abraham with a rote repetition of family pain that he thought he had left behind.
Deeper still is the collective unconscious. Cultural patterns for managing the human life cycle. For giving it meaning. Ritual, story, symbol, and religion. The tools that helped both Abraham and me interpret our journeys.
Beyond even that, is a kind of undifferentiated psychic energy. A metaphorical space of possibility. Where God lives in us.
These deep energies push our persona to crack. To open to existential questions. Reject familiar answers. And wait. Wait for the new.
But, while we wait, life goes on. So, what do we say to co-workers who expect us to be strong and reliable? To friends who bring soup to heal our every sadness? To family, who depend on us to stay the same? Or to anyone who tells us just to chin up and count our blessings?
We can’t say much.
Because we don’t yet have the words. We need to wait, and let the soul do its work. Be open to dreams and memories from our personal unconscious. Stories and symbols from the collective unconscious. Surprise appearances of God in the ever-present flow of divine energy. Weird appearances, where we may discover that all our religious beliefs have changed.
We need to invite all levels of soul into the conversation. Like we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. With our conscious mind, we make lists of sins and the steps to repair. We chant prayers about a God who knows our unconscious personal secrets better than we do. We tell cultural stories that give shape to our spiritual journeys, like the story of Abraham’s turning point. And we take moments of silence, so we can be still as God stirs inside us.
That’s the work of the second half of life. A deep work of teshuvah – reflection, repentance, repair, and return. If we are lucky, we return to love.
Here’s a letter for all of you to slip into your machzor (prayer book). My father wrote it in 1986.
Here it is, next to the last day of the year, and we are working just as hard, or as much, as if it were the first day. And soon it will be that too.
We hope that your efforts will be crowned with success, and that your efforts will continue to be buoyed with good health and strength.
There is more work here than any person, even yourself, can do.
I just can do nothing but keep working. There is no other way.
Luck and love to you for the New Year.
Love, Dad and Mom
They wish you all a shanah tovah — a happy new year.
My sermon from Rosh Hashanah day two, offered at Or Shalom.