Often ritual acts are performed in remembrance of long since abandoned, or even forgotten, practices.
We place a shank bone on the Passover seder plate. We do so in remembrance of the Passover sacrifices offered in the ancient Temple. The Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago yet the tradition insists that we continually remember its power and grandeur. Likewise we salt the Shabbat hallah in order to remember that the sacrifices were salted. Despite the fact that we continue to observe these customs few people explain these customs with words about the Temple and its sacrifices.
The rituals surrounding death and mourning offer even more examples. We wash our hands after returning to the shiva house from the cemetery. Its origins are found in this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat. “When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be impure for seven days… A person who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there… The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying him by the seventh day.” (Numbers 19:14-20)
Once the Temple was destroyed we could no longer perform such intricate purification rituals. Yet we still wash our hands following the funeral. Often this ritual is given different meaning. It is explained as a symbolic cleansing. We wash to move from death towards life. We no longer believe that death defiles or renders us impure. Yet its presence requires restorative powers. We summon our strength. We rely on our rituals.
In this week’s Torah portion as well Moses buries both his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam. I imagine that Moses had to summon all his strength in order to persevere after suffering these personal losses. But how could he perform the rituals that would help him move from death to life? His brother Aaron was the priest who alone was commanded to perform these purification rituals.
And Miriam as well was associated with water. According to legend while she was alive wells miraculously appeared wherever the Israelites camped. When she died the Israelites were without water. In fact immediately following her death the Torah reports that the community was without water and complained against Moses. How could Moses then mourn his sister? How could Moses perform the rituals that would aid in his recovery?
Our situation is similar. We no longer have a Temple. Sometimes we no longer even recall why we perform these acts. Yet they still help us move from death to life. Water helps restore the soul.
Every time I walk through the doors of a shiva house past the pitcher of water (may such days be infrequent) I do not think of the ancient sacrifices. I offer instead a silent prayer. May the waters Miriam brought to her people bring healing to today’s grieving family. May this family soon arrive to the day when their tears no longer sting their cheeks.