November 11 carries much meaning for many people. In the United States it’s Veterans Day, a day to honor those who fought in past wars. In the United Kingdom it’s Armistice Day and in Canada it’s Remembrance Day — both serving similar purposes by marking the end of World War I, which officially concluded 100 years ago today, at 11am on November 11, 1918. In spiritual and metaphysical circles 11:11 is viewed as a powerful gateway, a portal to new spiritual awareness.
Even as I experience all these larger meanings in my life, 11:11 also carries a particularly personal significance. That was the date of my bar mitzvah, a potent portal of its own in the Jewish tradition. Traditionally, it’s a ritual that marks a young man’s transition from boyhood to adulthood.
I remember nothing of my childhood birthdays. I don’t remember parties, though there must have been some. I don’t remember presents, though I know I received them. You would think that I would remember my eighteenth birthday — a landmark in any journey to adulthood. It’s a blank. My 21st only stands out because that’s when I moved into my first apartment. But I don’t recall any celebration surrounding it.
The only early birthday it would be impossible for any Jewish boy to forget was my 13th — not the day itself, but my bar mitzvah, six weeks later on November 11; ironically, Remembrance Day in Canada. Apart from the blur of wobbly knees and congratulatory hugs from people I barely knew, my clearest memory is of my father watching me intently from his wheelchair, a white-clad orderly at his side. By then, nine months to the day before his death, he was already a full-time resident of Montreal’s Grace Dart Convalescent Hospital, and this was a rare day away for him.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of that birthday event was the week’s Torah portion, the one I had spent months learning in a bearded rabbi’s dark study: Lech L’cha, the third Sabbath reading of the Jewish year. In it, God commands Abram (not yet renamed Abraham) to “lech l’cha,” to “go forth” to a strange land: “The Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” At 75, accompanied by his wife, Sara, and nephew Lot, Abraham left all that he knew and followed that higher imperative into unknown territory. I couldn’t know at 13 how fully that call would play out in my life...and on future birthdays, beginning with my fortieth.
After weeks of nonstop, panic-free activity — shedding my possessions and shutting down my life in Toronto — I woke up in my New Brunswick bed and breakfast on October 3, 1994 to a queasy stomach. Anne Fawcett, whose Comforts of Home B&B guide had been my Nova Scotia travel bible during my summer visit and who was now hosting me in her own B&B on my final night’s journey, had prepared a generous hot breakfast for this chilly Maritime morning. I barely touched it. I couldn’t. Instead, I shoved my overnight things back into my overstuffed Dodge Caravan and hit the road. I barely noticed the fiery fall colors along one of New Brunswick’s most scenic river drives. I was beyond stressed. I was numb.
I remained numb all the way to the Saint John ferry terminal and halfway across the Bay of Fundy. For the other half of the three-hour sailing, I was mildly nauseous. I wasn’t seasick. I was terrified. I sat in the cabin and stared glassy-eyed at the ocean, unwilling to give my fearful mind any space. My fearful mind fought back. Within moments of driving off the Princess of Acadia ferry at Digby, I had pulled into a Shore Road picnic area, windows rolled up to keep anyone from hearing my soul-shaking sobs.
What have I done? I’ve moved a thousand miles from a comfortable home to a place where I know no one. What will I do here? What will I be here? Who will I be here? WHY am I here? WHAT HAVE I DONE?
For 15 minutes, questions like these fired through me with staccato urgency as, white-knuckled, I gripped the steering wheel. Then, depleted by my tears and with no answers, I started the car and turned onto Highway 101 toward Yarmouth and the Pubnicos.
Whatever it meant, I was home.
Adapted from Acts of Surrender: A Writer’s Memoir © 2012, 2013 Mark David Gerson
My move to Nova Scotia may have been my first major lech l’cha, but it would not be my last. I would return to and leave Toronto two more times before another “go forth” landed me in the United States on the start of a new series of journeys. Since then, I have taken three open-ended road journeys (the longest lasted nearly three years), lived in Sedona, AZ (twice), Hawaii (two different islands), Albuquerque, NM (three times), Southern California and, now, Portland, OR. Who knows where lech l’cha will land me next!
“A dynamic read for the creative spirit within each of us. Positive inspiration at its best!”
– Hank Bruce, Author of Peace Beyond All Fear: A Tribute to John Denver’s Vision