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Avi Baumol

Parshat Chukat: A National Epitaph

The Dash Poem
by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning to the end.

He noted first came the date of the birth and spoke the following date with tears.
But he said what mattered most of all was the dash between the years.

For that dash represents all the time that they spent life on Earth.
And now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not how much we own, the cars, the house, the cash.
What matters is how we live and love, and how we spend our dash.

So, think about this long and hard. Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough to consider what’s true and real,
and always try to understand the way other people feel.

Be less quick to anger and show appreciation more,
and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy is being read with your life’s actions to rehash,
would you be proud of the things they say about how you spent your dash?

 

I don’t recall when I heard about this beautiful idea called ‘the dash’. It struck a chord in me thinking that such a minor stroke of a pen, or chiseling of a stone can produce so much meaning when looked at from a certain perspective. That dash speaks volumes about a life led, and especially at a funeral when one attempts to summarize an entire existence in a few short paragraphs, the dash reflects the entirety of one’s life without resorting to derivative adjectives and platitudes. My life should not be summed up by what I did, or even whom I touched; it should not be summed up at all! Every detail counts!

The average Israeli lives 83 years (79 for an American–another reason to make aliyah)– equalling 30,000 plus days; 727 thousand hours; over 43 million minutes. That’s a long life, with infinite details and encounters, every one of which can be remembered, shared, and extolled. The dash tells of it all, and yet nothing is really recollected. I once asked my Zayde, how he wanted to be remembered, “How?”, he exclaimed; “I just want to be remembered at all!” was his retort. Fifteen years after his death and I recall just snapshots: a brilliant drasha, an emotional breakdown, a knowing glance, a silent grief-stricken sigh, a soul-radiating nigun, a herculean determination to keep walking despite the pain.

Each snapshot of that dash is but a drop in the ocean; and what of his life in Buczacz? His experiences moving to Lemberg, his relationship with the Lubliner Rav? The Chortkover? His concerns about going to New York in the thirties and starting his life anew; his last words with his father, brother, mother; his trials and tribulations as a new young rabbi in Crown Heights…the list goes on and every detail is a world onto its own. His dash was 95 years of highs and lows, tragedies and victories, endings and beginnings, companionship and aloneness, pain and joy, artistry and poetry—how do you constrict that into one epitaph? Perhaps it is better left unsaid, represented by a dash, a sign of the unknown, a sign of the infinite!

The book of Bemidbar describes the fateful events of the children of Israel which take place in the second year since the Exodus. A date is given, and a time clock starts; we count time together with them as they embark on that great journey to the promised land. Then, the unthinkable; regression instead of progression, retreat rather than attack—a metaphor for the whole generation. As the nation licks its wounds and struggles to accept their new reality of a forty-year jaunt in the desert—suddenly, in parshat Chukat, without warning, with not even a dash, the fortieth year appears.

Where did the 38 years go? How are they recounted? How should we eulogize the generation when nothing save a dash (or a colon for a new verse) is there to represent their lives? Consider the elder generation paying for their sin of rejecting God and His land–they are told their children will inherit the land, but they will not. Were they bitter until their dying day? Or did they come to terms and accept their fate while simultaneously reveling in the notion that their offspring will fulfill the dream, conquer the land, return home?

I can’t prove it, but I believe that in the end, they were proud of their children, encouraged them, advised them, and cautioned them about their future. ‘Don’t go down the path we took; choose life, believe in God, believe in yourselves, don’t denigrate your leaders, raise them up’! Perhaps, dare I say, their last years were heroic, in preparing their children for a future they lost and encouraging generation two to be the better versions of themselves!

All of this is poetically encapsulated in a national dash for the generation who left Egypt: “Here lies generation one: ‘the years before the Exodusmoments before the conquest of Canaan’. They missed one opportunity on their own but rallied to cultivate the next generation to exceed their wildest dreams”.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible--https://theisraelbible.com/bible/psalms. In summer 2019 Rabbi Baumol published "In My Grandfather's Footsteps: A Rabbi's Notes from the Frontlines of Poland's Jewish Revival".
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