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Friday, June 18, 2010

Parshat Hukkat: Poetic Commentary on Loss and Grief

This  week's parashah, Hukkat  (Bemidbar/Numbers 19:122:1),  begins with the description of the ritual slaughter of the red heifer by Eleazar the priest. The ashes of the heifer are then to be mixed together with water, hyssop, crimson thread and other ingredients in order to make a solution that will be used to purify those who have becometamei/ritually impure (for lack of a better translation) through contact with a corpse.

Following the description of the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, we read of the death of Miriam the prophet, sister of Moses and Aaron. Immediately following her death the people cry out to Moses that they have no water to drink This passage is most likely the origin of the ancient rabbinic legend of Miriam’s Well, that sustained the people through their years in the desert and dried up following Miriam’s death.

As the people cry out to the bereaved Moses and Aaron for water, God instructs them to speak to a rock in order to bring forth water. Instead, Moses and Aaron gather the people together and then Moses strikes the rock with his rod and water gushes forth. God then tells Moses and Aaron that because they did not trust in God and simply speak to the rock, neither of them will be able to enter the Promised Land.

Following this episode, we then read of Aaron’s death, for which the peoplemourn for thirty days. After the period of mourning ends, the people once again complain to Moses that they should not have been brought out of Egypt simply to die in the desert. God then sends a plague of snakes to attack the people. Only looking upon Moses’ staff, upon which he has placed a copper snake figure, can heal the wounds of the people. The Amorites and people of Bashan and Og then attack the people, but the Israelites are victorious.

This parashah is one of great loss for Moses. Not only does he lose his only siblings, but he also loses the right to enter the Promised Land at the end of the journey. Suddenly, Moses comes to realize how alone he is.
Though he has a wife and two sons (about whom we know very little) the two people who were his support during the journey, even when they might disagree, were now gone. On top of this, the people continue to complain, and do not allow him time to grieve for very long.

In this poetic commentary, I imagine how Moses might have felt at the moment when he was finally left alone by his complaining people and allowed to face his loss and his grief.

I dedicate this poem to the memory of my beloved father, Alvin Nathan z”l, whose tenth yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) will be observed later this month, my grandfather, M.J. Waldman, whose 19th yahrtzeit is this month; I also want to remember my mother's sisters, Mickie Brown and Annette Goldreyer, as well my partner David's father, Steven Bauer, all of whom died within the past 14 months.  May their memories be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

grieving waters

am alone
are gone

those I knew in egypt
            those I came to know as an adult
  in what seems a moment
      they are both gone
brother and sister
   no time to mourn him
       before she was gone

closing my eyes
I see water
         living waters
      life-giving waters
  death-cleansing waters
water bringing death to egypt
      water gushing from the rock
          water streaming down my face

two holes pierce my heart
   two wholes
       leaving me broken
 in pieces

the people
do not understand
they only want
            return to egypt

I do not understand
I want them
to leave me

I want to mourn
                   I  want to wail  
          to tear at my hair  flesh  clothes
  to scream
     or simply to weep
in this moment
  I want to be
man brother son  human
leader teacher emissary prophet

I wish
     to drown myself
         in waters of sorrow
emerging cleansed
              perhaps someday

miriam understood
     her name     bitter waters
    she knew the bitter and the sweet
prophet leader singer visionary
            jealous judgmental unyielding
      always passionate and caring
she received her reward
       waters of her well sustained us all
she received her punishment
        skin white as snow
cleansed only by isolation
    and bitter salt water tears

when she died the well dried up
     water ceased
       tears screams complaints
            in torrents
     from the people
 replacing its gentle flow
    we want
        we need
               always more

God said to me   to aaron
      speak to the rock
         it will give you
what they think they need

still in mourning
I   we cannot talk
      to people or rock
I   we can only
          scream in silence
      strike the rock
   bringing forth living water
sealing  our fate   our death

now he is gone
    the one who was my voice to pharaoh
          with whom I could speak
              even after he had turned away from me
          angry jealous frustrated
only to turn return  and forgive
each other

no water can cleanse my grief
through eyes filled with anger  pain   isolation
     I see red
         heifer hyssop thread
              blood life death
      mixed with miriam’s water
 divine magic
        purifying those who
touch feel witness death

I cannot be purified
death has touched
not merely   my body
        but   my soul
    I thirst
for life
for water
for them
but there is nothing
to comfort me

I want to die
to be with them
    instead I must
be with the people
my people
        god’s people
until we reach the jordan’s waters
  only then will I finally rest
      only then can I be me
        brother son father husband
     no longer alone
dwelling with God
      with them
   our souls immersed
      in holy waters
         of the divine spirit
   God’s shekhinah
birthing me
         into new life
   with them
  with all
at One
for eternity

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