David Lerner

Ends and New Beginnings

I’ve had a bit of a tough week.  I know it’s Shabbat and I should not be dwelling on negative matters.  As our liturgy states, “Shabbat hi mi’liz’ok — Shabbat is not a time for crying out for things,” it’s not a time for complaining, but….

On Sunday, I was watching the United States’ World Cup game against Portugal (that’s a soccer game, for the Americans here!)  The US was playing a beautiful match and was about to win when Ronaldo, Portugal’s skilled striker made a perfect pass to his teammate who headed the ball in for the tying goal with 20 seconds left in the five minutes of stoppage time that was added on at the end of the game.

Oy vey.  It was so disappointing.  The feeling of deflation.

And I don’t even like soccer!!

Alright, I guess I am getting into more right now.

On Tuesday, I woke up at 3:30 AM  to take our daughter Talya to Logan for her flight to Colorado to attend Ramah’s Outdoor Adventure camp.  That was more sad than disappointing, but it left me (and I know many other parents who have been taking their kids to camp this week) feeling a bit bereft.  (Those of you who send your children for the second month have some more time before you feel this.)

There were other minor annoyances.  I was invited to the Jewish Labor Committee’s advisory board meeting, excited to join politicians, Jewish leaders and union leaders to discuss the goals and next projects for this important organization that works diligently to protect workers’ rights.  The meeting was held in the Carpenter’s Union building on the South Side.

The GPS said 25 minutes; I knew that was wrong and left at 4:15 for a 5 PM meeting.  An hour and half later I pulled up!  That was kind of frustrating.

* * *

It turns out that this week’s parashah, Parashat Hukkat, is also filled with difficult moments, but these are truly sad and disappointing — not like the ones I just shared.

This reading is a vital transitional parashah in the Torah.  Here the spotlight shifts from the Exodus and Sinai to the Land of Israel.  The Jewish people begin this narrative in the wilderness; but, by the end of the parashah, they are just a few miles from Israel.

But the transition is not an easy one.  Think of the vignettes in the parashah: there is the strange ritual of the Red Heifer,
the death of Miriam, the lack of water, the people complaining about the lack of water, Moses’ hitting the rock instead of speaking to it and being denied permission to enter the land of Israel,

James J. Tissot, “Moses Strikes the Rock” (1896-1900), watercolor, Jewish Museum, New York

the Edomites do not allow the Israelites to pass through their land to get to Israel, Aaron dies, and then the people complain followed by a serpent attack.  It’s tough stuff.

There is a theme that weaves its way through the text: ends and new beginnings.

The parashah opens with the the mysterious ritual of the ashes of the Red Heifer.

While we do not fully understand how the ceremony was effective, we are told why it needs to be done.  It purifies someone who is impure — how do you become impure?  By being in contact with a dead body.

So while this ritual is still a mystery in practice, its placement in this parashah makes sense.  This is a parashah where there is death — there is loss: Miriam, Aaron, those killed by the serpents who attack the people later in the narrative, those who die in the wars.

This is a parshah about death, but it is not merely about that; more importantly, it is about how to cope with death, how to heal from loss.  It is not naive — we do not fully heal when we lose someone, but its insights help us move forward in our lives, leaving us with new beginnings, not merely an end.


The rituals.

To me, the most important aspect of the ritual of the Red Heifer was that there was a ritual, that a ritual was required.  Why?  Because after you have been in contact with a dead body, one needs a way to transition out of that experience.

Our new Community Hevra Kadisha does this after the volunteers perform the tohorah the ritual washing of the dead body, preparing it for burial. There are steps at the end of the ceremony to help make this transition.  For example, when leaving the deceased who has been lovingly placed in the aron, the coffin, we do not turn our back on them and thus we leave the room backwards, demonstrating our respect and saying goodbye.  Then, the volunteers gather to reflect on the experience.

While we no longer participate in the Red Heifer ritual, there is a custom to wash, to pour water over one’s hands after visiting a cemetery.  It is not merely for after a burial — anytime we conclude a visit to a cemetery, we help ourselves return through this pouring of water.  It helps us mark the moment, acknowledging the fact that a place of death and a place of life are fundamentally different and when we move from one to another, we need to pause and reflect on that.

We are taught to take a period of time to mourn.  After Aaron dies, the Torah tells us that all of house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days.

We can imagine the power of that.  I was living in Israel when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and one could feel how the entire country was in mourning.

Former US Presidents: Jimmy Carter, George H. Bush, and Bill Clinton attending funeral of Yitzak Rabin

And it’s good to be emotional — the people cried.  As the song says, “It’s alright to cry.  Crying gets the sad out of you. It’s alright to cry.  It might make you feel better.”  Many times, I feel that we do not always let our emotions out.  We are too afraid of what we perceive as acceptable etiquette.  I say forget whatever that is and be emotional.

(That goes for in shul as well — we should not be embarrassed to feel deeply — but more on that in another sermon).

The Shloshim, the thirty day period of mourning is still with us.  We have shiva — the seven days of mourning, which then leads to the shloshim, the thirtieth day after burial, followed by a year of mourning — all steps on a journey.

* * *

But the parashah is not merely about death, about ends, about mourning; it is also about new beginnings.

For example, after Moshe is told he will not lead the people into the land, he moves on.  He does not dwell on the negative.  He does not get mired in his own sadness.

Moses goes right back to work — he sends messengers to the king of Edom, asking for permission to cross their land.

And then when Aaron is told he will “be gathered unto his kin,” reunited with his ancestors, that he will die, he does not let that overwhelm him.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) and Followers, The Death of Aaron, c. 1896-1902, Gouache on board 7 7/8 x 10 3/8 in. (20 x 27.8 cm), The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of the heirs of Jacob Schiff, X1952-200

In fact, he understands that he is a part of something much larger than just him.  This language of joining one’s ancestors understands that one is part of something that stretches back in time.

The Torah also presents us with the steps of removing his clothes and placing them on his son, Eleazar.  Moses and Aaron both understand that their work, their lives are not merely related to their time, but continue into the future.

Seeing ourselves  as part of something that is much larger than us has been vital to the Jewish experience over millenia.

But there is more than that.

We must have the ability to reflect and renew ourselves.  While our reading seems replete with the people complaining and that is accurate, they also demonstrate the ability to change.  Perhaps after the thirty days of mourning for Aaron and the illness and death surrounding the serpent bites, the people are able to transform themselves a bit.

Suddenly, we find them singing — they are singing to the well as their thirsts are sated with water.  It strikes me as wonderful resilience that they can be infused with a new sense of being in the world.  “Spring up O well — sing to it — The well which the chieftains dug, which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs.” (21:17-18)

Well in Israel

Presumably, there was a melody to that, but it got lost in the annals of time.

But, if I had to pick one part of the parashah that is about this new beginning amidst these endings, it is the last line.  The Israelites march on and arrive across the Jordan River opposite Jericho — they are almost in Israel.  They can almost taste the Promised Land.

Jordan River Valley near Jericho

While ostensibly about death and loss and complaining, this parashah is also about hope.  It is about a new beginning.

And this year, this point is driven home for us even more clearly in today’s haftarah.  The confluence of Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh highlight these days as moments of reflection and relaxation — times when we can reset and restart ourselves, providing new opportunity and a new beginning.

As we think about the challenges in our own lives and in the world, as we look at the moments of difficulty, these “end moments,” we can take solace in the fact that they also open up new beginnings.

May this summer be a time of rejuvenation for us all and, who knows, maybe some more US soccer victories!

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.