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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Parshat Hukkat - Waters of 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 people mourn 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 in the world.

Though he has a wife and two sons (about whom we know very little), the two people who were by his side during the journey, even when they may have disagreed, were now gone. On top of this, the people continue to complain, and do not allow him time to grieve.

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 first published this poem on my blog and dedicated it to the memory of my beloved father, Alvin Nathan z”l, whose  yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) will be observed later this month, and to my grandfather, M.J. Waldman, whose yahrtzeit was observed last month; I also dedicated it to my grandmother, Esther Waldman, my mother's sisters, Mickie Brown and Annette Goldreyer, as well my now ex-partner's  father, Steven Bauer, whom I truly felt was a part of my family, all of whom died during the year and a half prior to that post.  

Since then, other family members, friends and acquaintances, as well as so many others, have left this world.  I would like to take a moment to remember them as well. I especially want to remember my great aunt, Mildred Mittleman Cantor, who died having recently celebrated here 100th birthday.  I was blessed to have officiated at her funeral.  She was the last of her generation in my family.  And so the circle of life and death continues.  May all of their memories be a blessing.

The poem has changed slightly from it's original posting, but it's essence remains the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

grieving waters

I am alone
they are gone

my family
those I knew in egypt
            andthose I came to know as an adult

  in what seems a moment
brother and sister     both gone
   no time to mourn him
       before she was left this world

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     gone
       leaving me broken
 in pieces                  alone

the people      do not understand
they only want
water   food    meat
            the false comforts of egypt

I simply  want them
to leave me   alone

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 simply to be
man brother son  human
not  leader teacher emissary prophet 
but nothing in life is ever simple

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

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

when she died water ceased
       tears screams complaints
            flowed in torrents
     from the people
 replacing its gentle flow
    they want
        they need  more
            nothing ever enough

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 too is gone
    the one who was my voice before pharaoh
          with whom I could always speak
              even after he had turned away from me
          angry jealous frustrated
only to turn return  
to 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 nothing     can comfort me

I want to die
to be with them
    instead I must  be with the people
my people     no     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
 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

Friday, June 22, 2012

Parshat Korakh: From Darkness to Light

This week’s parashah/portion is Korakh (Numbers/Be’midbar 16:1-18:32).  The parashah contains within it the revolt against Moses’s leadership led by his cousin Korakh, along with Datan and Abiram.   These three, and their followers, challenge Moses and Aaron claiming that everyone is holy.  Unfortunately, their revolt was led by ego and hubris rather than by any belief in egalitarianism, and so the earth swallowed as a punishment. 

On the following day, Moses is told to take a staff from the leaders of all the tribes, with Aaron representing the tribe of Levi, and to place them in the ground inside the Mishkan/Tabernacle.  On the next day they return and Aaron’s staff that has sprouted blossoms and almonds to symbolize his and his descendants chosen stature as High Priest. 

These images form the basis of this poetic commentary on the parashah.

blossoming from darkness to light
I am here  in darkness
why      what have I done
I hear voices  screaming  pleading
           seeing only darkness  impenetrable

I am in the ground      swallowed whole
I am not dead     or perhaps I am

why did I do it
   why didn't I run
       why was I afraid of them
   they were so persuasive
            all are holy
            we are holy
            who is Aaron
            who is Moses
            we are all priests
            all can serve God

Yes     we are all holy
       yet all have different tasks
     all can see   and serve   God
each in their own way

I didn't want to be high priest
       above others
          over the community

I don’t know   what I wanted
then I heard    their voices
becoming my voice       proclaiming
we are holy
       you have too much
           we have not enough
you shall see
I saw firepans
    smelled incense
        searing   burning
I knew    what was happening
        I sensed   what might happen
now I can feel and see only darkness

I had seen God’s power before
   moments of glory   and terror
         deliverance at the sea
    plague and death in the desert

I knew the possibilities
yet I ignored my heart
I did not pay attention to its words

I heard only their words
Korakh Dathan Abiram
  I became them    they were a part me
    they became  my unconscious conscience
        voice of unreason
          smoldering incense
transformed into flaming earth
opening up         swallowing us
filling my  mouth ears nose soul
       with the dark smoke of oblivion

now I am here
  forever beneath the surface
I do not know  what is above
 what exists   what is real

remaining still
listening     waiting
seems an eternity
I try reaching out    up
  my hand moves    slightly
it breaks through the earth
       shattering the shell encasing me
   freeing me from living death

I feel air on my hand
my body remaining submerged underground
 my soul      my heart
remaining shrouded  in darkness     uncertainty
again I reach     out
     I grasp something
           it pulls me up from the earth  toward the light
       the darkness pulls me down
    wanting me to remain caught
torn        in between
  eternal liminality

    where do I belong
under here   or up there
   with them  or with the others
I simply do not know

the force continues pulling me upward
           powerful unstoppable
leading me toward my unknown destiny

I emerge   birthed from my tomb
dirt falling  off my clothing
  the light     the sun
 I sense the shimmering
 fire and cloud
     of Divinity
 all blinding me still

unable to see
I hear a voice calling out a name
 is that me   I am bewildered
           then I realize
       that is the one pulling me up from the ground
telling me that I have been saved

 dazed and puzzled
I look around me
I see the people     my people
surrounding staring frightened wondering
why did I survive
I hear a voice whisper the answer
I have a mission

in that moment I know
  I must show the people
   we are all one
 none of us is
 special   holy chosen
unless we all are

then I notice I feel  what saved me
      what I had grasped before
        my destiny  still in my hands
     shielding my eyes from burning light
I begin to feel the warmth of the Divine
     in my heart and soul
 in my hand  I see a staff blossoming
          I smell sweetness of almond blossoms
 awakening me     reminding me of who I am
        what I must do
 how I must show  those remaining   the truth
            we are One we are holy
I have been saved to save all of us
to help me to see  to know   to show everyone
 the truth  others could not

that is why
  they are underground
           devoured by their gods
ego  hubris pride greed jealousy
that had blinded them to the truth

I am here  where I know belong
  not knowing why I was chosen to play this role
           to open my heart to God to holiness
   for all to see
so we can all join together
 opening our hearts   as One
       moment by moment
        soul by soul
          holy community
            holy life
              blossoming for God
               exquisitely delicate
                 divinely human
                     so all will see
                       all will know
                        the truth
                        the beauty
                         of the One
                             of us all

Friday, June 15, 2012

Parshat Shelah-Lekha - How to Make Ourselves a Holy Community

In this week's parashah/portion, Shelah-Lekha (Bemidbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41), Moses, at God's command, chooses one leader from each of the twelve tribes to serve as spies. Their mission is to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and bring back a report about the land to the people. "See what kind of country it is.....investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests, and bring back some of the fruit of the land,” they are told. When they return, they do bring back huge bunches of grapes and other fruits, but ten of the twelve spies also bring back a report that, though the land is flowing "with milk and honey," it is filled with large fortified cities, "giants" so huge that they made the 10 spies feel “like grasshoppers.” Only two of the spies, Yehoshua/Joshua and Calev/ Caleb, bring back a positive report and remind the people that God is with them, and so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy.

Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the negative report of the negative majority and wonder if Moses brought them this far out of Egypt only to die in the desert. As punishment for following the negative report of the ten spies, God declares that the Israelites will wander in the desert for forty years until this generation of adults dies. Joshua and Caleb will be the only ones of that generation allowed to enter the land.

I would like to think that, at first glance, most of us would be incredulous when reading this story. For how could the people have listened to the negative reports? After all God had done for them, why couldn't they trust God? However, I believe that most of us could in some way relate to the 10 spies' reaction and the response of the people. For they are very human. There is a tendency within many, if not most, of us to expect – or believe – the very worst when in a difficult or unknown situation. In spite of all the miracles that God provided us the people were still unwilling to accept the positive assessment of Joshua and Caleb, but more than willing to accept the words of the 10 spies, what the text calls an eidah ra’ah, or evil community.

The use of this phrase to describe the spies has always fascinated me. The Torah doesn't merely call them a group of bad or misguided people, but an evil community! For they were not merely 10 individuals acting alone, but they were ten who banded together as one to mislead the people. In fact, the Talmud uses this phrase and this story as the main proof text for needing ten people for a minyan (a community of prayer). For just as it took 10 acting in concert to create an evil community, so too it takes ten to create a holy community. The number 10 represents the power of community to create or destroy, to bring holiness or chaos into our world.

But, what exactly made the spies actions so “evil?” Couldn't they just have been so overwhelmed that they blurted out what they saw out of fear? The Gerer Rebbe, a great hassidic teacher, taught that the evil wasn't the thoughts of the 10 spies, but their actions. It was the fact that they delivered the bad report even after they had time to calm down and think it through. Even after they told of all the good things in the land. In this reading their actions were quite intentional. Nehama Leibowitz, a 20th century Israeli scholar and teacher, expands this by teaching that the spies knew exactly what they were doing. They drew the people in by telling them of all the bounty in the land. Only then did they hit them over the head with the negative fear-mongering report. And using such hyperbolic words as “grasshoppers” and “giants,” they did indeed instill fear in the community.

For me, what made the group an evil community was the moment they said to the people, “we felt like grasshoppers ourselves, and so we must have appeared to them (the giants in the land).”

For they didn’t simply say “we must have looked like grasshoppers to the giants of the land.” The primary focus of their comment is their self-perception and lack of self-confidence. And if they, as tribal leaders, felt this way, then who were the people to disagree? And so, if this was intentional, as the commentators say, this was the verse that clinched it.

It seems that even after all the miracles that God did for the people, the main stumbling block was a slave mentality that caused the people, to still view themselves as inferior and powerless. Feelings that may have lurked beneath the surface, but when their leaders gave them the report they emerged into the light. It didn’t matter that God was on their side. What mattered was that they did not believe that were up to the task

So many times in our life we are faced with a dilemma similar to that of the people. Do we trust in God, in some Higher Power, in the force for goodness in the Universe (whatever you choose to call it) or do we give in to our natural human fears? Do we take a step forward into the unknown, afraid by still in faith, or do we stay where we are (or even go backwards)? Do we believe the evil fear-mongering and hatred that we hear or do we follow the voice in our heart?

If we look at those who fought against tyranny and oppression, even when they were outnumbered, we are looking at those who would have listened to Joshua and Caleb rather than to the other 10. We see this in someone like Rosa Parks or others who fought in the civil rights movements but were not Dr. King. Everyday people, who could have seen themselves as grasshoppers, but instead saw themselves as human beings with a soul and inalienable rights.

It may be true that Parks and those like her did have Dr. King and the other leaders pointing the way, but they also had elders in their community who were afraid to “rock the boat” for fear of violence and retaliation (and understandably so). This is true in every great revolution or fight for civil rights that has ever taken place. It is the partnership of visionary leaders and ordinary citizens with heart, soul and faith that make a change. The Israelites had two visionary leaders among the spies, but they did not have the heart, soul or faith to hear them. And so they listened to the others. And their punishment from God was that they would wander in the desert for 40 years until they all died, except for Joshua and Caleb. That way, it would be the next generation that would enter the Promised Land.

There are so many ways in which I could apply this to our world today. For there are so fear-mongering leaders trying to tell us that if we follow a certain path we will surely meet our demise. Leaders who believe that they, themselves are indeed giants and that they can make the people believe that they are grasshoppers. And that, as grasshoppers, they should be afraid of others who are trying to take away their rights or change their world for the worse.

We must not allow ourselves to listen to those voices. We must pay attention. We must be mindful. We must listen to the voice of our soul. If we do that, we will find the Joshuas and Calebs in our world, and within us, and we shall listen to them.

These are indeed frightening and difficult times. But listening to the hatred and fear-mongering, whether in the guise of political discourse or religious dogma – will only lead to us becoming part of an evil community and not a holy community.

Today especially, we must remember what happened to our ancestors and try to follow in the footsteps of Joshua and Caleb in forming our communities and in working towards changing our world, rather than wandering through it aimlessly. We must remember that anything is possible if we use the power within us that comes from the Divine. In fact it is our duty to make God’s presence manifest in this world by doing mitzvot/ commandments (or good deeds), by healing the world, and by fighting injustice and lies masquerading as truth. Only then can we be like Joshua and Caleb, and so many others.

Our ancestors were unable – or unwilling to do this – but hopefully we are. This is an important message for us to remember as we face the difficulties, and the possibilities, of life one moment, one day at a time.

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