Friday, June 22, 2007

Soul Shower: Cleansing Yourself after Touching Death (Hukkat)

“Whoever touches the corpse of a human soul which dies, and he does not cleanse himself … that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” (Num. 19:13)
Death is not unnatural, or negative, or removed. For some of us, it’s closer than others. It is a constant shadow to a sunny day. Death is in fact, an integral part - a stark reminder - of life, and can be the impetus for moving the important aspects of life to the forefront of your existence. Is it contradictory to command a “ritually clean person,” one without blemishes, innocent to the wrenching sorrow of loss, to deal directly with death and then have them be considered unclean, set apart, quarantined, for seven days? Nope. How could you have understood the black stain of heartache without first experiencing it?

Maybe the lesson that G-d is trying to impart in this week’s Parsha, Chukkat, is that after facing death we have to cleanse ourselves and relinquish our reluctance to move on. We have to live. We have to accept death as a facet of life and pledge to ourselves to live life harder. With more passion.

It is so important to cleanse yourself after touching the darkest depths. Not just the death of someone or something that you love, but the contemplation that there is nothing left for you to live for. My roommate told me that true meditation is to breathe in the good and the bad around you — all of the stressful, painful things that your coworker said to you, your Facebook crush didn’t say, or your mind is screaming at you. This way when you breathe out, you’re putting positive energy back into the world. So if air can cleanse your mind, maybe water can cleanse your soul.

In Chukkat, God commands anyone that has touched a dead human soul to become clean by sprinkling water on themselves. You can take a painful experience, like death, and cleanse yourself to live a more positive life. Think about all those times you stood out in the summer rain just to get soaked. Maybe your soul just needed washing. Maybe you weren’t breathing, and instead holding your breath. Waiting for the bad part to be over instead of reveling in the intense experience of grief and the astonishing outpouring of comfort from those around you. Maybe you were holding your breath to get through the stench of pain because yes, sometimes life stinks. Sometimes all you have to eat is “rotten bread,” but then maybe you start getting bitten by venomous snakes and you realize, hey that bread wasn’t such a big deal.

The people spoke against God and against Moses:
"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread." The Lord sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He remove the snakes from us." So Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Num. 21:5-7)

A friend of mine recently broke up with his long-time girlfriend, and in an intense moment of despair told me that it actually made him realize how many other people had gone through so many terrible things in their lives and he had never been able to understand before just how terrible they were. And that he was sorry. Because unfortunately, loss can be so many things. It is not just the death of your mother. It can be the death of a relationship, of an ideal, of hope. And you realize at that point, so alone in a crowded room, that things weren’t so bad before. That no one really cares if you made a B+ in physics. But like my sister told me after our mother died - the perspective that we earned isn’t anything she would wish on anyone else. And I wouldn’t. But I do think it’s important to find the positive in an unimaginable negative.
“Blessings that your own heartbreaks open your heart to still greater compassion.”
--Rabbi Arthur Waskow

My dance teacher told us once that we all hold our breath much more than we realize. Stop and think about it. Are you waiting to get to the other side? To figure out what you want to do with your life? How about the scenery along the way? And the company? Maybe you’ll get frustrated and hit a rock, and maybe in the midst of your anger, a miracle might just happen. Because friends are exactly that. I bet your phone will ring just when you’re getting down. And someone will say - though maybe not in so many words - “Hey, I love you. Let’s live life”.

Without accepting that love, those helping hands from the community, without cleansing oneself from the wallowing in despair, that soul “shall be cut off.”

The Israelites “circle the land of Edom, and … became disheartened because of the way.” (Num. 21:4) The circle is so significant. It is the process. They are so obsessed with achieving an unknown end that they cannot accept the journey for what it is. Some of them won’t make it any farther than the journey. Life is hardship and struggle punctuated by surprising happiness and joy. How often are we, as young professionals, caught up in the angst of a generation that demands instant satisfaction? Then suddenly, something earth shattering happens, your cell phone rings and your life changes in an instant. A deep breath in and a flash of fast-forwarded images. Death, or whatever the loss may be, puts life into perspective.
“And I find myself in a fleeting moment traveling through far and wide to the great big open, things are coming into focus, things are coming into focus.”
--Heartless Bastards


TB said...

This is a great blog. I'm Jewish, too.


The Brooklyn Boy said...

tb - Glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks for dropping by, and we'll do our best to keep you coming back.