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Hebrew is Magic: Lost in Transition

Dear friends,

I don’t know about you, but transitions have always been hard for me.

The final morning of summer camp? Yep, that was me curled up in the back of the bus, crying like the proverbial baby.

The day I graduated college? A disaster. I was literally sick to my stomach.

And then there’s July 30, 1997 – the day I entered the IDF. The 48 hours leading up to my induction I couldn’t eat, sleep, or carry on a normal conversation. On the way to the Induction Center, I trembled so badly that my buddy Mike had to pull the car over so I could step out and get some air.

Not surprisingly, by the time I got home from camp and college, and into the army, I was fine. It was the transition I struggled with, more so than with whatever came next.

I’m telling you this not because I feel I’m especially unique, but because I know I’m not.

Many of us struggle with transitions. Whether it’s a big one, like getting married or moving to a new country, or small, like packing for a trip, transitions can be harrowing.

But why?

And might there be a better way to think about transitions?

Whenever I find myself looking for insight into the human condition, I turn to Hebrew and the wisdom embedded in Hebrew words…


The Hebrew word for “transition” is ma’avar

Look closely. Do you see any other words embedded within ma’avar, perhaps one you already know?

Indeed, ma’avar is actually a combination of two expressions: ma’

which means “from,” and avar

Hebrew for “the past.”

This, according to Hebrew, is what transitions are: departures “from the past.”

It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word for transition could just as easily have been l’atid

a made-up word that, theoretically, would mean “to the future.”

But instead, it’s ma’avar. And as such, Hebrew is telling us something: that the hardest part of any transition is leaving a situation we’re familiar with.

To see what I mean, go ahead and think about a transition from your own life. What scared you most?

I have a feeling that if you really dig deep, you’ll discover it was leaving behind a world you knew, more so than any fears you had about the future.

This idea is backed up by science. One of the primary motivators of all living creatures, including humans, is homeostasis – our desire to “keep things as they are.”

One of the most common pieces of advice people give to someone going through a transition is to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Personally, I’ve never found this helpful. And with good reason: the question is predicated on the idea that what we’re afraid of is the future, when in fact we’re afraid of leaving the past.

So the word ma’avar can actually offer insight into how to handle transitions.

Namely, that when going through a transition, we should remind ourselves of the many aspects of our lives that are constant and will remain in place: our friends, our families, our values.

The transition from the avar will always be difficult.

But the best parts of our past stay with us. Always.

Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, podcast host, and co-author of Israel 201, winner of the 2023 National Jewish Book Award. You can find out more about his comedy, books, and upcoming tour at, and sign up for his weekly newsletter, Hebrew Is Magic, to learn more about the hidden life lessons in Hebrew words.  

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