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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

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