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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

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