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When One Emotion Just Isn't Enough
PINCHAS, Numbers 25:10-30:1
"Emotions, in my experience, aren't covered by single words," explains the protagonist, Cal, in Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex. "I don't believe in 'sadness,' 'joy' or 'regret.' I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions … constructions like, say, … 'the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy' … 'the sadness inspired by failing restaurants.' I've never had the right words to describe my life."
Life is too complex for simple description, experiences too complicated for a single emotion.
As we approach the conclusion of the book of Numbers, we anticipate the beginning of the end of Moses' life. At the conclusion of Deuteronomy, we will witness Moses' fate just before the people Israel enter the Promised Land. As we know, Moses' protégé Joshua takes on the task of leading Israel following that major event.
When Parshat Pinchas pronounces Moses' forthcoming death, the text does not simply say that Moses will die. No single term completes the description. The Eternal One says to Moses: "View that land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was." (Numbers 27:12-13)
The Torah teaches that Moses will be "gathered to his kin." His impending experience cannot be covered by just one word. The text might evoke feelings of sadness and regret, yet the construction expresses a hybrid of emotions, and is filled with more complex meaning.
"Gathered to his kin" is a term reserved for Israel's forefathers: for Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron. The construct means that one will be reunited with one's ancestors in "Sheol" - the afterlife. Rashi teaches that Moses actually yearns for a death such as his brother Aaron's.
Something complex will happen when Moses is gathered to his kin. Such a description enables Moses' death to transcend more simple emotions such as loss or sadness. Moses' death will involve the honor of the forefathers and his reunion with loved ones. His death will evoke loss and sadness, but also comfort and hope.
The Heights and Depths
The biblical term, "gathered to kin" may be reserved for Israel's forefathers, but the afterlife of Sheol is open to us all. The understanding of this particular Jewish image of the afterlife is embedded in the Hebrew.
One tradition teaches that "Sheol" shares a root with she'elah, meaning "question." Sheol is the home of our ancestors, the place to which we direct our questions. In turning to Sheol, we reunite with our ancestors.
With such wisdom, we understand that even death involves a mix of emotions. We do not have just the right word to describe Moses' death. Yet we have Torah, which brings us to the heights and depths of our people's experience.
May we find in loss not only pain, but also comfort, not just sadness but hope.
Rabbi Jill L. Maderer serves as associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.