by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
The other day I was looking for last of the kosher for Passover cakes at the local grocery store. I was in a rush, but as I ran to the check out counter, I stopped to grab two yarzheit candles without thinking.
In the car, I questioned the last minute grab, and then with sudden heaviness I remembered that last June I lost both my cousin Jamie and uncle Alec to cancer. These were two people whose passion and vitality could fill up a room. And yet, last summer and the months that followed I’ve tried to make sense of how a body once so alive can deteriorate so rapidly. Daily life is now full of big holes. I want to make a phone call, share a story or just check in, and they are simply not here. It’s what I imagine when people speak about a lost a limb that echoes old sensations. The last minute grab for those yarzheit candles was a strange reminder that my body seemed to know more than my mind. I physically craved an action to remind me that their spirit was still here, even though their bodies were not. The light of the candle is just one way of marking that. In today’s blog post, I hope I can explore some examples of the way our written and oral Torah has wrestled with the tension of loss among the living, as well.
Last year, while studying some of the halachot (Jewish laws) of death and mourning, I learned about what Rabbinic Judaism refers to as a goses, someone who is about to die. Jewish law, which so often asks what is right in life’s most tenuous moments, discusses the idea that in all ways, we must treat the goses as if he or she is fully alive. The text I read in Masechet Smachot, a minor Talmudic tractate, euphemistically called, ‘Happy Things’ offers one view: We don’t prepare their casket, we don’t plan their funeral, we cannot speak of them as though they are about to die. The bioethical sticking point comes fully to the surface in the subsequent discussion of whether we are allowed to do anything to hasten the death, or remove an impediment to dying.
Now, many months after my loved ones have passed, I understand how hard it can be to internally and externally uphold this kind of separation. Watching your loved one suffer in front of you could naturally pull you towards imagining their relief and yours. Yet there is something comforting in knowing that we choose life. The goses may be ill beyond recognition, but as long as their neshama, their soul, is within them, we must afford them the same honor as when they were a healthy person. Much can also be said of the extreme care afforded to the dead through our traditional burial rites, called Tahara. Whether in the process, or final stage of death, our tradition offers a path to mark loss among the living.
As the parshiyot (chapters) Tazria-Metzorah approach, my mind has been wrapped up in another form of spiritual separation.
In Tazria-Metzorah, the Torah describes a skin affliction called tzarat, similar afflictions of clothes and home, a mother who is post-birth, and all kinds of bodily fluids. As it has been said in other modern commentaries, all of the above physical experiences are aspects of life leaving the body naturally (childbirth, menstruation, seminal emission) and others which are irregular, (afflictions and irregular emissions). These physical states render the person tamei, or in a state of spiritual impurity. Hence, there is a direct correlation to your physical body and your relationship with God and holiness because being tamei literally means you can’t make an offering to God. The Torah’s protocol for addressing this ritual unreadiness depends on what created the tumah, but generally it involves waiting a certain number of days, washing your clothes in water, and then make an offering of various animals, and/or flour and oil. Later on, our Rabbinic tradition interpreted the lines referring to washing our clothes in water to mean immersion in a mikveh.
Like the goses, whose life hangs in the balance but who we are obligated to treat as fully alive, here is a healthy person who has just had a temporary experience with their own human fragility. Illness, a woman who has held life and released it, a discharge of bodily fluid that had the potential for life, but created none; we spare no effort to restore a ritual balance. It’s almost as though we are screaming L’CHAIM (to life) at the top of our lungs. We sense our power; we can create life. And we sense our precariousness; our bodies can falter, and they do. We are both potential partners with God in creation, and also completely helpless. The choice is clear, we choose life, but we don’t fail to mark death by recognizing a separation. In these parshiyot, the separation is space, time, and an offering to God on an altar.
To be honest, I don’t think I’m that good at acknowledging the fragility of my own life. I can exist for long bouts of time in my mind, at my desk, in my every day material concerns. When I think of God, It is a limitless presence that is within everything, but Its presence is diffuse and abstract. Dare I say, easy to ignore? By contrast, the world that our written Torah speaks of is a deeply physical one. The Israelites knew physical labor in a way I never have, and the amount of exercise they got during those forty years in the wilderness….well, you get the picture. Moreover, the God of Bamidbar (the wilderness) had an appetite. The smell of incense and burnt offerings, the mixing of choice flour and oil. Spring water, hyssop and the sight of blood appeased and atoned. All of this happened in what one might call a bayit, a home, a place where God physically dwells (mishkan, or tabernacle, comes from the root for the word to dwell, and the Beit Hamikdash, the temple that stood in Jerusalem, was just that, a bayit, a house). While I’m not advocating for a return to our sacrificial system, I want to point out the obvious; on our path towards modernity, we’ve lost touch with the way our bodies and the bodies of all living things are a pathway to holiness.
A turtledove, a lamb, flour and oil, a sprinkling of blood; these powerful symbols of life restored our connection to God. Later on, our Rabbinic tradition understood that, mayyim hayyim, living waters, were part of what restored our relationship to holiness as well. What makes these waters alive? It’s not just that they come from nature, it’s that they come naturally, unaided by human hands. The waters of a mikveh cannot be mayyim sheuvim, drawn waters. Whether it’s a spring in our backyard, or our very own mikveh, those waters are connected to a source that is beyond our intervention, beyond our own transitions from one state of being to another.
It all makes for quite the paradox. Our bodies are formed, we are told, in the image of a changeless, eternal God, yet we grow up, we get sick, we experience loss or death, we cycle through these shifts in our body until our last day on earth. At each point, we have a choice. We can ignore it, or we can pause to marvel at our body’s precarious brilliance. We can try to honor these fragile moments by reaffirming our connection to something far greater than us, and although we don’t have a physical home for God as we once did, our own bodies, our prayers and the warm waters of the mikveh have become a new kind of home. As we read the upcoming parshiyot, Tazria-Metzorah, I hope for many of us, we will be able to reflect on our own and others’ moments of fragility and think l‘chaim, as we often say, and remember that we really mean it.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She enjoys theological discourse and sharing long toasts during festive meals that end with a murmur of people mumbling “l’chaim!”