Packing up after 19 years in Montreal

Old Port of Montreal. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Packing up a home when you’re downsizing is an unnatural task. Humans instinctively accumulate possessions and resist eliminating them. Despite consulting the best-selling advice of Marie Kondo, we find it a tough task to discard items that are theoretically essential, but practically forgotten.

Yet decisions must be made, and possessions must be relinquished. And as I stand surrounded by boxes and packing tape, it’s hard not to wax philosophical and wonder: what do we really need to pack?

This question is one Jews have asked themselves multiple times while wandering in exile: what can you pack at a moment’s notice? The answer was simple: pack hearts and minds. Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer said the “guiding sentence” of the Jewish mission is: “Omnia mea mecum porto,” “All my things I carry with me,” – that is, that character and wisdom are the only assets of enduring value and are all you ever need. After packing up too many times to count, Jews have learned that it’s not what’s in your suitcases that really count, it’s what you pack in your heart.

And what we pack (and unpack) in our hearts defines our lives. Zak Ebrahim, the son of El Sayid Nosair (the man who assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane), tells of his mother’s reaction when he confided that he no longer accepted his family’s radical views: “She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said, ‘I’m tired of hating people.’ In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold hatred inside of you.” After a lifetime of packing their hearts with hate, Zak and his mother realized that it had weighed them down.

Zak is not unique. It’s quite common for people to cling to beloved hatreds. Nelson Mandela, who was a genius at unpacking hatred, said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” We treat old hatreds as precious possessions and let them ruin our own lives instead.

In place of hatred, others choose to pack their heart with love. Seth Mandell runs camps for children who’ve lost a family member to terror (his own son, Koby, was murdered in a terror attack in 2001). Seth told me a story about one girl who was so grief-stricken that she had begun to cut herself on the wrist. The first day of camp, her counsellor saw the girl’s cut and remarked that “time heals all wounds.” 

The girl reacted angrily and said, “It does not,” a reply that was a reference to all wounds, both psychic and physical. But the counsellor persevered in befriending the girl, and the girl had a wonderful time at camp. By the end of the camp, the girl had stopped cutting herself and the wound healed. Noticing this, the counsellor lightheartedly remarked, “I guess time does heal all wounds.” The girl responded: “No, it does not… But love heals all wounds.” Love is magical, and packing even more love into your heart is always a good idea.

As we pack up our house to leave Montreal, we are also packing with us inspirational memories. I’ll pack the memory of the cancer patient who refused to let her disease take away her optimism. I’ll pack the memory of the Holocaust survivor who was our synagogue’s “candyman,” determined to make the world sweet for the next generation. I’ll pack the memory of the man who ran to greet each new person in the synagogue and made them feel at home. And I’ll pack the memory of a Holocaust survivor who every time there was a celebration, hoisted a l’chaim with a twinkle in his eye, in a moment of personal triumph and joy.

These uplifting memories have changed me, and I will carry them with me forever.

Goodbye Montreal. I’m packing you up with me.