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Friday, June 27, 2014

Parashat Hukkat: Mourning Becomes Eternal

The early 20th century Jewish existentialist philosopher Franz Rosenzweig believed that the knowledge of our mortality is the ultimate negative force in our lives.  The fact that we know we shall eventually die hangs over us like a cloud, if we let it.  However, it is love that is the ultimate positive force in our lives.  It is the existence of love that allows, and even compels, us to live life in spite of the knowledge of our mortality.

Hopefully, most of us don't spend our lives constantly thinking about our ultimate end.  Rather, Rosenzweig believed that the ultimate goal is to live a life dedicated to the love of God.  This goal is achieved, in good part, by loving our fellow human beings.  In loving,  we are able to find goodness and hope. 

I agree with Rosenzweig in the power of love to create meaning in our lives in spite of the knowledge that we will die.  However, it is also true that we all eventually begin to face our own mortality as we age.  In part, this process begins as we start facing the death of those whom we love.  For if we love, we shall indeed be destined to mourn and grieve the loss of our loved ones. And this reminds us our our own eventual demise.

In many ways, I see this as being at the heart of this  week's parashah, Hukkat  (Bemidbar/Numbers 19:122:1).  The parashah 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 become tamei/ritually impure (for lack of a better translation) through contact with a corpse.  And so, our ancestors were prepared for the process of purification that would take place after literally handling death in the community and in their families.

Immediately following this we read of the death of Miriam the prophet, sister of Moses and Aaron. After her death the people cry out to Moses that they have no water to drink. This passage may well be one of the origins of the ancient rabbinic legend of Miriam’s Well.  This was a well of fresh water which would spring up by Miriam's tent wherever the people camped.  It was water from this well, a reward for Miriam's role in the redemption from Egypt, which sustained the people through their years in the desert.  However, it would seem, that the water ceased to flow following Miriam’s death.

As the people cry out for water to the bereaved Moses and Aaron, God instructs them to speak to a rock in order to bring forth water. Instead of following God's instructions, Moses and Aaron gather the people together and then Moses strikes the rock with his rod to bring forth water. It is because of this that God punishes Moses by forbidding him 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 the people begin to complain again that they should have remained in Egypt rather than living such a harsh life in the wilderness. 
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.
It is true that he has a wife and two sons, but the two people who were by his side during the journey, even when they may have disagreed, were now gone. Beyond this, the people continue to complain, and do not allow him time to grieve.

In the poetic commentary below, 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 have published this poem twice before on this blog.  Yet, each time it is a little different, just as our own mourning over loss changes over time and even from moment to moment.
I first published this poem on my blog and dedicated it to the memory of my beloved father, Alvin Nathan z”l (may his memory be a blessing), whose  yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) will be observed later this month.  Since then, other family members, friends and acquaintances, as well as so many others, have left this world.  Many of these deaths took place during July and August. Perhaps that is why each year when we reach this parashah I am drawn back to the poem.  Actually, I haven't written an original commentary on this parashah in many years for that reason.

And so, I dedicate this poem not only to the loved ones I have lost, but to the communal losses we have felt this past year.  I dedicate to the victims of war and terror attacks, including the far-too-many killed in schools, malls and movie theaters.  To those killed by hurricane, flood and tornado and to all who have left this world since the last time I published this poem.  May their memories always be a blessing.

The poem may change slightly from year to year, but it's essence remains the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

waters of grief

I am alone  they are gone
my families
those I knew in the palaces of  egypt
            and those I came to know as an adult are no more
  in what seems like a single unending moment
both brother and sister    are gone
   I had no time to mourn her
       before he then left this world
leaving me     utterly    infinitely   alone

closing my eyes   I can see water
      life-giving waters
  death-cleansing waters
water bringing death to egypt
      water gushing from the rock
          water in the tears streaming down my face
two holes pierce my heart and soul
   two wholes are no more   they are gone
       leaving me broken    in pieces        in solitude

the people      do not understand
they only want     need     desire    demand
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 tearsshe received her reward      as did the people
      as the waters of her well sustained us all

when she died    the well dried up    the water ceased to rise
       instead 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 from the heart
              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 20, 2014

Parshat Korakh: Giving Birth to Compassion

This week's parashah/portion is Korach (Bemidbar/ Numbers 16:1-18:32).It begins with the rebellion against the leadership of Moses led by Korach, Dathan, and Aviram. These three tribal leaders question the authority of Moses and end up being swallowed by the earth. The parashah then ends with a reminder that the first born of every human being and animal is meant to be dedicated to God. However, the first born [male] of each human being is instead to be redeemed by the priests and replaced by the Levites, who are to serve in the Mishkan/Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Furthermore, the first born of impure (unfit) animals are also to be redeemed, but the first born of cattle, sheep and goats are not to be redeemed, for they are to be dedicated to God through ritual sacrifice.

Surprisingly, there is a connection between these two parts of the parashah. This common thread is the concept of "opening." In the rebellion narrative the earth 'opens up its mouth' to swallow the rebels. In the latter passage the first born is referred to simply as "pehter rechem" - the one who 'opens up' the womb.

Korach's demise can be viewed as an instance when the earth – from which God created (gives birth to) human beings in Genesis - opens up its mouth to swallow, or destroy, human beings. The image of giving birth is also that of an opening, but in this case, it is to bring life into the world. Though different Hebrew words are used, the image bears a striking similarity, albeit of polar opposites. One image is of destruction and the other is of creation. Yet, it is an opening that allows the powerful force of the Divine to enter the world in both cases to either destroy or create life.

In addition, the phrase, pehter rechem (one that opens the womb) can be interpreted another way. Though rechem is the word for womb, it is also the root of the word rachamim/ compassion. Keeping this in mind, I believe pehter rechem I would like to interpret the phrase as "the opening of compassion." This way, I would interpret verse 18:15 as "All things that open up compassion to all living creatures shall be yours to bring near to God." It is opening up to the womb-like quality of compassion within all living creatures that brings us near to God. It is our ability to be compassionate that elevates us, like an offering, to the realm of the holy.

This type of opening is the antithesis of the opening that swallowed Korach and company. In that part of the narrative, the opening is not a natural one, like birth or compassion. Rather, the Torah tells us that the death of the rebels is caused by something that is decidedly outside of the natural order. For the earth to open and destroy human beings is not only outside of the natural order, it is the antithesis of compassion!

The swallowing of the rebels can actually be seen as a reversal of the processes of birth and opening to compassion. For what brings about the opening in the earth is not a natural birthing process or a drive towards creation or compassion, but rather the rebels' excessive drive towards control and domination. However, the rebels are clever, for they couch their demands in the language of egalitarianism: " You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why do you [Aaron and Moses] raise yourselves above the congregation? (Numbers 16:3-4)” However, what they actually desire is not equality, but more power for themselves.

It is their obsessive desire and drive towards power and control that eventually brings about their demise. It is the power of their desire that eventually creates a fissure in the natural order and that causes the earth to split open and devour the source of this negative energy.

In both cases, the image of opening is central, and yet the words used in the text point to different types of opening. In the rebellion narrative the rebels are warned that the mouth of the earth will "burst open" (p-tz-h). The earth is then described as "tearing open" (k-r-') to swallow the rebels. This is clearly a violent and intense response to the violent and intense passion and obsession of the rebels. The intensity of their need to control begets the intensity of their destruction, which ultimately represents their lack of control.

In describing birth, which we know is an intense, and even violent, physical experience, the verb pehter implies a sense of separating, removing or setting free. In other word, the opening of the womb separates the fetus from its mother, but it also sets it free to live as a unique human being. This is peaceful and embracing, as is the language of compassion. For when we separate ourselves from the ego's need to control, we then open ourselves to the others and allow compassion to go forth from within; we are set free into the world as a force meant to heal, comfort and be compassionate.

In the rebellion narrative the opening is actually a closing that ultimately destroys. Pehter rechem, the opening of the womb, is a true opening that brings life, compassion and holiness into the world.

We are each capable of opening up to the compassion within and to birth it into our world. This is what it means to bring God into our world and our lives. We are also capable of focusing so much on ourselves and our ego that we separate ourselves from the compassion within us.  We then focus instead on the ego-driven need to control. In doing so we risk forcing an opening to occur which in the end destroys us and those around us, closing us off from the world.

It is all a matter of choice and free will, as is everything. May we each use the God-given power within us wisely. May we choose compassion over control, creation over destruction, holiness over ego. In doing so we can then truly say that we have learned our lesson from Korach and his followers.

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