I despise packing and moving. I suspect that I am not alone in this feeling. Having just packed up every item that I own in moving from Queens to Ridgefield, CT, I quickly remembered how much I detest the process of making boxes, figuring out what to keep and what to throw away, and trying to get everything done before the movers arrive.
Out of the dozens of boxes that I packed, I had 3 or 4 from childhood. I did not even bother to open those boxes. They stayed sealed, the movers put them on the truck, and they came with us. These are my memory boxes. They are filled with greeting cards and old art projects. Within these boxes are my kindergarten class picture and a series of letters that I wrote to a good friend from elementary school who moved away.
Then there were the baseball cards. Hundreds of them. Cards that my dad bought in the 1950s and ones that I bought in the 1980s. The baseball cards are a family tradition that my dad and I share, each buying them when we were boys. My wife would rather part with the cards, but I keep reminding her that they might be valuable some day, although in truth I doubt it. The sealed memory boxes that never got opened or looked at, are currently sitting in our third bedroom, just as they sat in a storage locker in Queens before that.
I suspect that the reason that I held on to these childhood boxes for so many years is that I want to hold on to the past. The boxes are heavy, I look at their contents maybe once a decade, but it does not matter. They symbolize the experiences that I had as a child and in college. To throw away those boxes would feel like throwing away the memories themselves. I suspect that we all try to on to the past in some way, like carrying boxes with us from house to house.
Judaism teaches that it is fine to bring things with us in our travels, even if they can get heavy and burdensome. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert for 40 years, they actually brought not one but two arks with them. One ark contained the shattered pieces of the 10 commandments that Moses broke after the Golden Calf. The other ark contained the second set of tablets, a whole set, that Moses received from God. Why did the Israelites carry around that broken set of tablets for 40 years? Why not leave them behind and take the new set only?
Perhaps our ancestors carried the broken tablets to remind them of their mistake in worshipping the calf, so that they would not repeat it. Or maybe the broken tablets were now a part of their story, a part that they would not want to leave behind. Just as the Israelites carried those shattered tablets with them, our memories, both positive and negative, are a part of who we are.
However, the problem with holding on to the past is that it can get heavy. There is value in getting rid of old things and starting fresh. As my wife and I packed boxes, we threw away a lot. Being an environmentalist, I recycled as much as I could, especially old papers and files. There was something cathartic about getting rid of stuff, even mementos, so that we could travel lighter, and let go of the past.
There was a story in the newspaper about a couple who moved every few years. Each time they went to a new apartment of house, they literally threw everything away, their furniture, silverware, plates, and linens. Then they would buy a fresh set furnishings and kitchen supplies and start from scratch. You would certainly have to be well off to live like this! Nonetheless, there is something tempting about the idea of starting completely fresh. The article did not say if the couple threw away all of their files, papers, memories and mementos. I would think not.
In dealing with our past, we are constantly being pulled in two directions, the desire to keep or to throw away, the desire to remember or to forget. Judaism counsels us to cherish the past, but just to be careful not to let it become a burden. We all carry boxes that we move from house to house without ever opening. We also hold on to regrets, guilt and some bad memories. Just as the Israelites carried around those two arks, one with the whole tablets, and one with the broken, it is ok for us to hold on to the memories of our successes and struggles, as they make up the true story of our lives.
A friend of mine’s mother is in her 80s. He was in her basement recently, in the house where she has lived for decades. The basement is full of boxes, memories and stuff that had not been looked at in years. Peering at the large piles, my friend thought about how, hopefully many years in the future, he will have to go through all of that stuff and decide what to do with it. He was not looking forward to that job on many levels. My friend told me that maybe it might bring back some good memories too.
Like most of us, I think that I will probably end up like my friend’s mother. I will have a basement someday full of stuff that my children or grandchildren will have to clean out. But when they go through the writings, and mementos and pictures, I hope that they will smile. I hope that they will enjoy seeing part of my journey on this earth and that it will make them feel good.