Posts Tagged ‘Aaron’

MY NEW FAVORITE WORD

People become attached to certain words. They—particularly slang words—can help someone display distinctiveness or demonstrate belonging to a group. Many decades have produced cool, dig it, boss, bitchin’, yo, wassup, Bart Simpson’s partee and the now widely accepted— and often-used F-word. For some years, I’ve been partial to grace and dignity. Now, I have a new favorite word—and it isn’t English.

My new fave appears in the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1ff). For it, I’m indebted to Cantor David Frommer of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and last week’s citing of commentary by Rabbi David Fohrman.

Our story: God becomes angry at the “stiff-necked” Israelites after they compel Aaron to make a young bull of gold to replace Moses, still meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. Knowing of the calf, God says He will destroy the children of Israel and make a great people of Moses’ descendants. Moses’ response: Why? Why be angry at Your people? Why enable Egypt to say You freed Your people only to slaughter them in the wilderness? What will that do for Your reputation?

The Hebrew word used here for why is lamah (rhymes with mama). Yet there’s another word for why in the Torah—madua (ma–doo-ah). Why (madua) lamah?

According to Rabbi Fohrman, “Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. … When Moses looked at the burning bush … [he asked] what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present.”

Lamah,” Rabbi Forhman explains, “is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.”

I’m into lamah. When I get angry or down, when some disappointment induces me to react negatively, I ask myself, lamah? Not why I feel angry, down or disappointed. That’s a madua question. Rather, what purpose will be served by lashing out at someone—or myself?

Lamah constitutes more than a lesson in linguistics. We’re talking real life. Berating others might make us feel better momentarily when we feel questioned or put down. But how will we feel later if we damage or sever a relationship? How many times do we fly off the handle only to regret our words and deeds? Often, we apologize. Maybe the offended person forgives. But does that person forget?

Most of us learned the wisdom behind lamah as children: Think before you speak. If you get angry, count to ten. But in adults, the desire to get in the next word or the last—and do it immediately—often overpowers our learning and judgment.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered gossip—lashon hara—and negative statements sins akin to murder. They kill the soul. Thoughtless words, they advised, resemble arrows. Once released, they can be regretted but not recalled.

If only we, from the humblest citizens to those at the pinnacle of power, could remember daily that lamah can prevent fomenting confusion, resentment, hatred and violence. That words matter. That measuring our responses to others’ words can defuse rather than fuel challenging situations.

If only.

This post marks number 350 since I began since September 2010. It marks a good time for me to take a lengthy break and focus on some other things for a while. The post will resume on April 20.

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MAKING WAY

My cousin Howard called me on Wednesday. It was great to catch up with him. Better yet, it was great that Howard is still here. He had a brain tumor. An operation and radiation have given him clean readings so far, and he’s pretty much back to normal. If, having had a tumor, life can ever resemble normal again.

But as Howard said in so many words, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” Yet how we go makes a big difference. An uncle of mine, 96, hasn’t long. Hospice has been arranged so he can die at home. I hope this comes to pass. My friend Yury died of pancreatic cancer in a hospital two years ago. Neither of us would have chosen that path.

If death is on my mind this week, it’s only natural. Yesterday marked the 76th anniversary of my parents’ wedding, somewhat sandwiched in between the anniversaries of their deaths. And this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) brings us two significant deaths. The first is that of Miriam. We know little about it. “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 (Num. 20:1).” A quiet death we presume and hopefully a dignified one.

The second death is Aaron’s. And while Aaron’s passing is seemingly peaceful, it has always disturbed me. After the Israelites arrive at Mount Hor, God instructs both Moses and Aaron, “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:24).” Earlier, Moses had struck a rock rather than speaking to it to bring forth water. God was not pleased. For now, Aaron must pay the price.

Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son Eleazar, his successor as High Priest, ascend the mountain. Moses strips Aaron of his vestments and puts them on Eleazar. Aaron dies. No farewell tour. No parties. No speeches and toasts. And of course, no video tribute. It all seems so callous. Seemingly without emotion, one generation hands off its duties to the next. The Israelites only realize what has happened when Moses and Eleazar come down. They wail for thirty days—equivalent to today’s Jewish mourning period known as Shloshim.

What can we say? We all die. How else can we make room for our children and grandchildren? And our end will not be glorious. A funeral. Some kind words (true or not). Maybe an obituary in the newspaper (exaggerated or not). Hopefully for Jews, Kaddish recited and a yarzheit candle lit on each anniversary of our passing until no one is left to remember.

But the story of Aaron’s death is also the story of his life. With it all, he died with dignity. And the Sages tell us that Aaron—who pursued peace and sought to bring people together—was beloved where Moses, our great teacher, was feared.

As for me, I’m not prone to worrying about when and how I’ll die. I’d much rather focus on how I’m living.

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