Thursday, 12 Nov 2020

Written by Eleanor Davis

If you want to know whether the world is full of cause to hope or to despair, Heathrow airport might just be the place to look – at least according to one film.  In the opening monologue of Love Actually, heart-warming scenes of real people filmed at Heathrow’s Arrivals gate show travellers reuniting with their families and friends, hugging, kissing, and crying tears of joy as they leave together, while the voiceover reminds us that love, in all its infinite varieties, is actually all around.

If they had filmed in the Departures gate, however, it might have been quite a different film.  There are still embraces and tears, but the mood is quite different in the place where everyone leaves without someone.  Anyone who has family living abroad may have experience of how anxiety over the impending separation can affect even seasoned travellers who manage the practicalities without stress: tempers may flare, tears often last long after hands have to let go, and words may come out sharper than intended or not at all.  We may not actually love each other any less than in Arrivals, but in Departures we may have to work a little harder to let it show in our farewells.

Departure gate tension probably existed long before airports, perhaps even including in Parashat Chayyei Sarah, where the often-criticised Laban and his family actually manage to move past it to demonstrate a good farewell.  Abraham’s servant has been on a mission to find a wife suitable for Isaac and proved successful, yet as the time to separate draws near, her family become querulous and argue to delay her departure.  Finally it is time for Rebekah to leave with the servant towards her new life:  “So they sent off their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men.  And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, ‘O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads; may your offspring seize the gates of their foes’ ” (Genesis 24:59-60).

The farewell blessing that Rebekah’s family offer her is now more famous for its adoption into wedding rituals:  at the Bedeken ceremony, it is used to express hopes for a fruitful future for modern brides leaving one family to form another, however literally or metaphorically they understand fruitfulness.  In Genesis it ensures that whatever else had passed between them, some of it fractious or selfish, the words that will echo in Rebekah’s mind as she leaves her family are words of blessing.

Recognising their significance, our tradition provides other examples of what we might say as we part company with someone.  In the Babylonian Talmud, one tradition teaches that we should always take our leave of each other with words of halakhah, so that after parting we will remember the person along with the new halakhah that we learned from them (Berakhot 31a).  If that sounds impractical for a phone call to anyone but your rabbi, then Rabba’s account of how the Sages part from one another in Pumbedita may be a more useful model:  they say, ‘May the One Who grants life to the living grant you a long, good, and established life’ (Yoma 71a).

These two ideas, of something to remember in connection with whoever you’re parting from and of wishes for their future well-being, perhaps make for parting words that are a little more comforting than a simple ‘goodbye.’  Notably they do not focus on when you might meet again, perhaps reflecting our awareness that however much we may hope for it, there are rarely any guarantees that our future will be shared.  In this pandemic year, too many of us have painfully learned that our firmest plans can be overturned in a moment, that chances to meet again are far from certain and that our lingering memories of ‘the last thing they said to me was…’ may be tinged with sadness at the love we did not express.

Perhaps this should remind us that goodbyes don’t only matter at the grand separations, at airports or weddings:  even our words of parting on apparently small, insignificant occasions matter, for careless or angry words that become final may haunt us, while kind words are never wasted.  From the chance encounter on the street that ends with “it was good to see you” to the rhyme my father finished every school run with (“…and have fun!”); taking just a little care over our farewells makes our parting sweeter, whether it is for a lifetime or only the rest of the day.

Goodbyes linger in our memory, troubling our minds long after the moment of parting or comforting us while we are apart.  Whatever our anxieties or sadness as we say our farewells, may the words with which we part express as much love and joy in each other’s company as the words with which we welcome one another, and may we all have many more opportunities to be reunited. Shabbat shalom!

Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.