by Sally Charnow & Hannah Henderson-Charnow
This week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, (Bamidbar. 19 through 21) has the interesting confluence of two major sections that concern themselves with death: the passing of Miriamn and Aaron and the Israelites response to those losses comes toward the end of the parsha.
The parsha begins with a cryptic instruction: A person made "unclean" through contact with a corpse is to be sprinkled with "water of lustration" made from the ashes of a sacrificed "red cow without blemish." The ritual is elaborated for five full verses and described as "a law for all time."
We are told in verse 5 that for those who have become impure - tamei - by contact with death, a red heifer is slaughtered and burned in red fire with red wood and red dye in a great cloud of red smoke for / before the eyes of the priest. Then the ashes of the burnt heifer are mixed with water, to sprinkle over anyone who has touched the dead body of a human being. Even the priest who kills the heifer and the one who burns her body and even the one who gathers up her ashes are all made tamei by the process. This sprinkling takes away the tumah of that touch, and it must be done before such a person can enter the Temple area - the site of communal holiness. This ritual is the gateway; after passing through it, the newly purified are allowed to reenter the community (symbolized by the Temple area..)
In the Torah, the state of tum'ah, often translated as impurity, refers to a kind of defilement that is temporarily brought on by sex, childbirth, death and other natural bodily functions. We modern folks usually find this language offensive and downright misogynistic.
Nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted a similarity between the wordtum'ah and timtum, "confusion"--a connection which suggests that the intensity of a physical experience, rather than its innate yuckiness, is what renders a person "impure" by virtue of his or her being emotionally overwhelmed. Taking Hirsch’s idea further, the state of tumah suggests one of deep individual interiority quite distinct from the state we experience as we participate in communal life.
The intensity of these experiences - giving birth, touching death, menstruating, having sex - bring us deep within ourselves – though not necessarily alone. They may bring us closer to a child, a parent, a lover. But to the minds and hearts of our forebears here, they set us apart from the tribe.
To move back into the community, we must recalibrate through one or another ritual not because we are impure but because we need some passage way from our deep selves back into social life. It’s not about judgment, this interpretation goes. The practices are, well - practical. For death-contact, the formula involves a red heiffer.
As a modern society we have become further and further away from touching death…people die in hospitals or nursing homes. We make it remote from a society hell-bent on youthfulness.
But I’ve known death. I lost my mother. I lost my husband and I lost my best friend. I slipped my mother’s ring off her finger just after she drew her last breath. I held Gary’s body in my arms. In a way, their deaths still live within me – in the rhythms of mourning and memory, of trauma and loss.
And yet – somehow - here I am – I (found )my way back with the red heifer, the ritual that asks you to look hard at death.
Hukkat offers the burning cow as a spectacle, literally, of redness for the priest to stare at hard, as if to say: “ Look hard at all this red, at the death. “
Purification for Death Ritual with a Red Heifer
A red heifer
Red like the bleeding sunset
Thousands of wavelengths scattered across the evening sky
Scarlet like blind anger
Flushed like the ritual wine
Red like blood when exposed to the air
Trembling flesh, only red when the
Carefully woven fibers of skin and sinew are sliced by the unknown
A red cow, descendent of Geryon’s herd that Hercules kidnapped in his tenth labor
A red cow racing along the line of history
A red cow feeding off the grasslands of ancient lore
Who are you?
Has someone rubbed red dye across your pelt?
Why are you singled out?
Tail flicks impatiently, smacking gadflies left and right
Rosy cow, red like a newborn
Precious as a ruby
First gasp, breaking out of the film of viscous lava
Born in pain, then breath
And killed in fire and remembrance
A spectacle like that of birth, full of frenzied crying
Except with a pyre, embers smoldering like stars
One thing is for sure
Tied among ochre logs
You, red heifer, are entering the next world as you entered this one
For me staring into death offers a different way of living, an acute sense of aliveness, a reckoning with fear: I’ve seen death. I’ve touched death. I know to the depths of my bones the rich embrace of life.
The ritual of the red heifer ritual is deeply tied the occurrence later in the parsha of the deaths and burials of Miriam and Aaron. The Torah doesn’t make much of Miriam’s death: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there" (Numbers 20:1).
But the impact of her death transcended words devastating the community of Israelites with a sudden lack of water in the wilderness. Rabbi Shefa Gold explains: “Miriam had a way with water. This is the death of the woman who brings spiritual nourishment and sustenance with her during the entire desert journey literally represented in the well that travels with the people. She could touch the depths with her song and call forth spiritual nourishment. She carried with her the feminine wisdom that could not be written down.”
In Gold’s image we see how, in Miriam, the material (water) and the spiritual –her song and her dance – intertwine. They feed each other. Upon her death we are given a spiritual challenge: to reclaim the source of her wisdom, to discover the song in our voice and the dance in our step. I looked death in the face
As I said, the torah doesn’t say much about Miriam’s death. But my mother was named Miriam and she shared some of the matriarch’s qualities, so I’ll share some images of her death.
It was April 12th 2003. My sister and I entered her home, she lay dying. She was, unconscious but her heart beat just a little faster when she heard our voices. There were many people there, eating, laughing, telling stories. They were playing my mom’s favorite operas. She would pass listening to voices she loved. I slid the ring she wanted me to have off her finger, I kissed her. I looked death in the face and began my journey back into life.
We looked death in the face, and Death stared back through lidded eyes. Eyes, glassy like a human’s. Death inhales, a ragged tired breath. We exhale, a breeze cooled by tears.
It was a wet morning the day of her funeral. Wet like the life-giving water she brought to our lives. Soaked like the bubbling springs of joy she created, so easily with a wave of her hand, or a word from her lips. Suddenly we felt thirsty. Leaves flutter in the wind. Difficult to take our eyes off them, for they moved like dancers. Frolicking on the ancient tide of the sky. Dewdrops melt as we stepped on the grass.
An open coffin lies above a fresh grave
Fresh like her cool skin in the veiled light of her open window, that night when she went to sleep
Hole made by blessed shovels, heaving up the earth
A dusty bedroom
A dusty hallway, connecting the world of living to that of the unknown. How could we confront the abyss that we send her to, without this funeral, without an attempt at explanation? Having nothing would not hurt her already empty body, only our fragilely filled ones. It is not for her, but for us. An attempt to glimpse her passing. It is in that moment of the throwing of the dirt. The moment of the soft thump against the coffin, that science is forgotten for the sake of life. In that moment we as a species purposefully forget that: Hope clouds observation.
There are graves in our hearts. Not closed, not resting. But open. As blood pumps through veins, as feet run through life, the graves sit neatly in all our ventricles. Lifeblood, red blood, is pumped through forcefully by a rhythmic contraction and dilation. Dilating like her pupils that night, of fresh skin. We feel those holes often; they are etched into our, our, our, hearts. They do not leave; they are not an injury that mends, but a mutilation to live through. To glory in the scars. It was a wet morning the day of her funeral
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