10 Tammuz 5772 / June 29-30, 2012
In this week’s action-packed portion, Chukat, we learn about the ritual of the Red Heifer (it’s amoosing) and the rules associated with purifying oneself after coming into contact with a dead body, Miriam dies, Moses and Aaron learn that they won’t be permitted to enter the Promised Land because Moses strikes rather than speaks to a rock which then produces water for the people, Aaron dies, the people mourn Aaron’s death (but not Miriam’s….), snakes attack (not on a plane), a couple of battles are fought with enemies, and there are a couple of interesting poems.
The prevalent theme through the portion though, clearly, is death.
For the first time, a couple of weeks ago, I had the experience of preparing a body for Jewish ritual burial. Four of us cleaned the body of the deceased elderly gentleman, ritually purified it, dressed it in white linens, and laid it in the plain wooden casket, wrapped in a prayer shawl (tallit), as is tradition. Dirt from Israel was sprinkled inside the casket, and pottery shards were placed over the eyes and mouth of the deceased (our tradition speaks of man as having come from the dust of the earth and as being molded from clay).
Needless to say, this was a different kind of experience. This was my first time ever encountering a dead body. I started to understand for the first time why the body has often been referred to as a vessel for the soul.
All too often, we feel invincible. We ride bicycles without helmets, in cars without seatbelts, drink to the point of stupidity, and fail to take simple, yet lifesaving, precautions. We take risks, sometimes calculated, but in the moment, often only think about how our decisions impact us, rather than how our decisions impact those around us. You may be willing to take the risk of riding a bicycle without a helmet. But are you willing to take that risk if you also factor in the impact that a closed head injury or premature death would have on your parents? Your friends?
This Shabbat, reflect on the preciousness of life.
Recognize your own mortality, embrace the accompanying humility, and strive to make your time count.
Know that once you are gone, others here will take care of your body and mourn for you.
In return, while you are here, commit to caring for the bodies of others, taking reasonable precautions to preserve your own health and safety, and to understand that your actions rarely, if ever, impact only you.