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Journey East
By Rabbi Rita Leonard

Whenever we determine to leave our island home and head for the mainland (we live on the slopes of Mauna Loa, an active volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii), a great process is set in motion. Not just the travel arrangements and the things needing attention to make the journey happen, but something more mysterious. We've never journeyed east without this happening.

When I think about it, is very much like what happens in the Hebrew month of Elul, a time rabbis gather their strength from deep within. For the Jewish people it is a time of great reflection and preparation. In ancient times the shofar was blown each morning of Elul to awaken all to what would always follow: the first ten days of the month of Tishri. The Jewish High Holy Days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, ending with Yom Kippur.

The month of Elul is wrought with anticipation and surfacing fears, as are the journeys to hometowns, old friends and loving or scorned relatives. Both become a time of deep personal questioning, consideration of making amends, and God willing, the process of healing spiritual, and often physical, wounds.

This past summer I made that journey east, much like the journey from Elul to Tishri. The events of this summer held the beauty of never really knowing an outcome, and the gifts of living with hope, and the strength of love.

The journey east was initiated by a cry of desperation on the part of my sister-in-law who has been the sole caregiver to her husband (my husband's brother) and was facing burnout. He has had multiple sclerosis most of his adult life, almost all of their married life. My husband and his brothers, traveling from all parts of the country were determined to meet in Florida to see if they could resolve the crisis.

You can well imagine the anguish preceding this event. These were times of overwhelming and unbearable pain for the family. Each person was questioning their true feelings and commitment to their brother. Weighing responsibility against guilt, obligations against love, inner strength against silent fears. When the brothers met they agreed that a particular facility they were considering was a surprisingly good alternative, with caring staff who treated their brother with kindness and respect. My sister-in-law is able to take him out several times a week for activities he has always enjoyed, like fishing and bird watching. And, out of this seemingly hopeless situation, the brothers reunited. They had a wonderful time together, swimming with dolphins and watching their brother feeling free in the water--loving and supporting each other as a family. They have determined to continue meeting like this; rekindling their connection, expressing their love.

During this same pilgrimage, we visited my relatives in the north. My cousins were celebrating their anniversary. It was a joyous time. Then suddenly in the middle of the night, my cousin died of a massive heart attack. It was an incredible shock, no warning signs. He just went to sleep and never woke up. He wasn't ill a day in his life and was the source of strength and admiration to all who knew and loved him.

I was asked to do the eulogy, then shiva (period of a week of mourning) began. That was the beginning of the Elul atmosphere for us, as a family. I remember the evening the closest members of the family decided to retreat up to his room. His pocket change was still out on the side of the bed, his clothes, his widow and children bearing witness to his physical departure. About 18 of us were there. We talked, wept and hugged each other.

The mystery began to reveal itself again: the Divine light within us all, the love that binds our souls, the eternal truth that is not physical but ethereal and otherworldly. My husband's brothers connected with it in the hardship they faced, as did my family in their grief and loss. These are the days of awe, all the days of our lives that cannot be erased and serve to strengthen us in our darkest hours.

May all caregivers and their loved ones know abundant blessings. May they be renewed with courage and strengthened by the healing power of unconditional love.


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