To Move or Not to Move: That is the Question

To Move or Not to Move: That is the Question

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In California, we have been experiencing a season of drought-related wildfires that are historically the worst in years. Many people in devastated areas have sadly lost their homes — or worse, their lives. Others a little more fortunate, those with homes that are damaged but not destroyed, and hopefully with their families intact, are questioning whether or not to restore what was once whole. When do you rebuild? When do you walk away? How do you redirect your hopes and dreams?

A small section – known as a tractate – from the Talmud is called Bava Metzia. This section deals, not with life and death issues (although it can be extended to those issues), but with the loss of property, of things. Among other issues, it raises the question of giving up hope of recovery of that property. More than that, it raises these questions: In what circumstances and at what point, do we abandon hope? When do you move on?

The Jewish tradition has a name for the abandonment of hope – despair of retrieving lost property; it is called ye’ush. And there is a further question that is raised. Can we abandon hope without knowing it? This is called ye’ush shelo medat (hope without knowing, unconsciously). And even further, can ye’ush be retroactive? In other words, even if we were unaware of the loss of property at the time it happened – if we had known facts that were revealed only later – would we have given up hope at the time the property was lost?

These questions were famously debated by two Amoraim (fourth-century C.E. Talmudic rabbis) known as Rava (his opinions were always stricter) and Abaye (more liberal opinions). Although the Talmudic decisions on other matters usually favored Rava’s arguments, in the case of lost property, they agreed with Abaye. Much depended on the intentionality of the identified owner in claiming (proof of title) and restoring the lost property. Does he or she want to restore it for comfort (i.e., to live in it, in this case) or profit (to sell or rent it, possibly at a steep hike because so many people are looking for housing in California)? Intentionality is a huge issue in the Talmud.

Also taken into account is the degree of effort required to recover or restore the property, and whether it has the necessary monetary value to make the effort worthwhile. It turns out that it is hard to decide these issues for someone else, because (said the rabbis), although as an individual, I know what my own motives are, how can I assume what motivates someone else? There are too many variables to determine the motivation of an individual. So the question is left undecided, known as teiku in the Talmud.

But it still leaves you, the one who sustained the loss, in limbo. Whether or not to restore your own destroyed property? Only you know what it is worth – physically and mentally, monetarily, sentimentally – to put in the effort and finances to bring it back, to recover the memories. So what has more weight to you and those you love? Do you have the strength or the money to sustain the effort? Can you leave out the sentiment and consider it only from the point of view of practicality? Hard to do. So, in the end, everyone else’s wisdom – even ancient wisdom — is not what matters. Only you know when you can still maintain a deep reservoir of hope. Only you know when it would be better to move on.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.