Water & Death
This is a week of death and water. First, the ritual of the “red heifer,” a cow on which there is no blemish and there has never been a yoke. Too bad for the cow, actually, as it is slaughtered in the first paragraph of the parsha and its ashes used to purify those who have been in contact with the dead. Everyone that comes in contact with a dead body is considered unclean until spring water is mixed with the ashes and sprinkled just so (read about the complete ritual here.).
Next up: the death of Miriam at Kadesh in the Tzin desert. With her death, the miraculous springs she called forth stop flowing, and the predictable fear & complaint is again taken up in the next paragraph: why did you bring us out here to die?
Moses then makes his fatal mistake. Instead of doing what God instructs – hit a rock and make water flow – he gets really annoyed. Listen you rebels, he yells out to the assembled Israelites, watch us get water from this rock! Watch us get water from this rock. Ooops. With those handful of words, Moses seals his fate: for this act of chutzpah and taking credit for a miracle, he will not live to see the promised land. Aaron dies soon after, and the people take off on a whirlwind journey, a disappointed Moses in tow, from Kadesh to Moav, conquering the inhabitants along the way (and complaining yet one more time about the lack of water and food, thus bringing down a plague of serpents. Will they never learn?).
Water and death. It is this intersection that caught my attention one day in 2003 while browsing the New York Times. That year in Grodno, Belarus, during the Spring melt, an odd thing happened. Residents of the town began to notice pieces of human bone and gravestone floating down the street in the melting snow. Turns out that a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Soviets after WWII to make way for a sports stadium (soccer on the remains of the dead, anyone?) was coming back to haunt them. Renovations badly needed after decades of use caused the dirt under the stadium to turn up here and there, unexpected and certainly unwanted. People complained – not about dead Jews being dead, but about them being inconvenient and rather unattractive.
I became obsessed. Days were spent researching the Jews of Grodno (15,000 or so of whom were killed by some mixture of German soldiers, Russian soldiers, and Lithuanian civilians). There were – as is so often the case – mass shootings and burnings as well as deportation. After the war was over, Jewish survivors who returned were usually not allowed back into their homes; 2 of the 3 cemeteries were destroyed; and garden variety anti-Semitism carried on as before. This was of particular interest because my family – all of whom left this old country before 1920 – lived not far away, in Minsk. As luck would have it, this was not our fate.
The Water Finds Its Way is my attempt to tie together the ritual of the red heifer and the discovery of those floating bones. What ritual might cleanse the streets of Grodno? What about its inhabitants? Just to be clear: I am not interested in simply adding to the loud and all-too-comfortable chorus of “they done us wrong.” Were the bones & gold teeth those of another people besides mine, I would be asking the same questions.
P.S. This piece is soon to appear in one of my most favorite publications ever, Jewish Currents.