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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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    06/15/2010 10:34 am

    My mother, a little girl, came to the US from Belarus (specifically, Staradub) with her family in 1923. We kept asking about her family and she always said they perished in WWII. I can’t find a map just now, but wonder how far it is from Grodno. I agree, it doesn’t really matter whose relatives’ bones were found, but I regularly thank my deceased US relatives for immigrating, the US government for opening its doors to immigrants, and even the Soviets for temporarily opening the doors to immigration in the 1920s. That’s my personal world. As for the larger picture, the horrors of WWII are too much to imagine. This mixture of death and water remind us again; we will and should never forget.

    As for Moses’s fate brought on by water, I think Hashem was harsh. Water is seductively healing. Moses was given so much power and he was usually so modest, unlike most of the powerful. Why wasn’t he allowed to err just once? Hashem could be talked out of his harsh position toward the Israelites on numerous occasions. Why was his most dedicated spokesman not forgiven? Was his arrogance equivalent to that of the Belorussians complaining about the inconvenience of bones in the melting snow (for which I doubt they were punished)?

  2. sue swartz permalink*
    06/15/2010 12:41 pm

    The traditionalists say that Moses was punished because he took credit for God’s miracle of bringing water forth. You – if you are God – can’t have this kind of mistake happening just at the point when the people are headed into Canaan and are in need of divine intervention in order to through out the inhabitants. Or maybe this was just an excuse: it was time for Moses to retire. Seems kinda crappy to me, though… heaven? promised land? Which is the better deal?

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