Saying 'Goodbye' and Resisting Opportunities: Why Is Change So Hard?

As I count the Omer and prepare to start a new job, I find myself at times resonating with what must have been a bittersweet experience for the Israelites who left Egypt to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The movers will be arriving to collect our things the day after Shavuot. As I count down to our move to Georgia, where I will begin my new job leading a congregation there, I find myself reflecting on the counting of the Omer, and the ways that this 50-day period will be so significant in my life. As we count the Omer over the next few weeks, my family will spend time celebrating, saying our goodbyes, making arrangements, and packing many of our personal items into boxes. My synagogue is graciously honoring me the Shabbat before I leave. We will celebrate Shavuot. Then, after our things are packed, we will say goodbye to Livingston, where we have lived for the past six years, and board an airplane to the next chapter in our lives.

My family is very excited about the move, as are my present and future congregations. It’s a big step forward in my career and a wonderful opportunity to serve a fabulous community. So why, at times, do I find myself feeling bittersweet about this transition?

There’s an old Jewish joke that while non-Jews leave a party without saying goodbye, Jews have a tendency to say goodbye and never leave. Part of notion — which I am feeling to be so true in my current situation — is connected to this idea of counting down. For a people who throughout our history have been forced to leave places in a hurry (read: the Passover story), we tend not to be very good with transition. It’s hard to be mentally checked into one space while physically remaining in another. We even have a word in Hebrew, lehitraot, that roughly translates to, “See you later,” because we never want to say that we are going to depart completely, or permanently, even when we know life is moving forward.

Our rabbis teach that the counting of the Omer is based on the 50-day journey that the Israelites took when they departed slavery in Egypt and traveled to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. And as I’ve begun to count the Omer, I find myself at times resonating with what must have been a bittersweet experience for those Israelites. While their lives in Egypt had been bitter, they had also lived there for 400 years, spanning several generations. Were there Jews who were eager and excited about the journey to Sinai, but who also at times could feel apprehensive about the unknown expanse going forward? Given the number of narratives of complaint that appear in the Book of Numbers, as well as the story of the Golden Calf, it should come as no surprise that there were people whose emotions ran the gamut. In some cases, there were folks whose anxiety about transition ran so deep that they longed for the leaks and onions in Egypt, and forgot all about the misery of slavery. 

Today, there are cell-phone apps (like MyOmer) that make it a little easier to remember to count the Omer. Yet what I have always found is that Omer counting is by no means an easy mitzvah. Many Jews choose not to do it, perhaps, because remembering to count is burdensome. If you miss a day, you traditionally can’t say the blessing and no longer get the credit. It’s not exactly a “sexy” mitzvah. Yet, I suspect that part of our subliminal hesitancy is because the process of counting down toward a new journey is one that raises many questions surrounding notions of transition.

Over the years, I’ve heard various rabbis over-explain that the period of the Omer can be both a quasi-mourning period as well as a time of optimism, due to our opportunities for personal growth. And perhaps this is a fair assessment of how I feel counting down to a moment of life transition. As a family, we are optimistically looking forward to the day we arrive at Sinai, ready to receive the Torah. Yet, perhaps at this stage in the journey, like the Israelites departing Egypt, in our present physical space we sometimes have our moments where we find ourselves like Jews at a party.  

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the associate rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. In July, he will assume the position as senior rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim, in Marietta, Georgia.