Around this time last year, my grandma Dorothy was in her final days. She was 98 and a half years old, at peace with the world and her life, and ready to go. And yet, as is often the case with someone who has spent so long in their body, it was incredibly hard for her to let go. She lived in between worlds for weeks, without food and then without water. Simply existing neither here nor there.
There are moments in your life where you just know you need to go. Get on a plane. Be somewhere. This was one of those moments. I booked a ticket and in merely 14 hours I had left the bright, warm springtime Jerusalem air and entered the middle of Minnesota winter, in my grandma’s apartment, holding her hand. Once I had arrived, and my brain settled, the question occurred to me for the first time: what was I there to do? Sing to her, yes. Pray with her, sure. But in truth my job was much simpler than that, it was just to bear witness. To honor her life with my presence, attention and love.
This week, the Mishkan is complete and the Israelites are ready to set out on their journeys with the presence of G!d surrounding them by a cloud in the day and fire at night. The Mishkan is called by a new name this week, מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת, the Mishkan of Witness.
The Sfat Emet asks and answers the question, “Why did the Israelites need a witness?” He explains that, after the Golden Calf, the Israelites did not believe they were worthy to be close to G!d. They had fallen so low in their own eyes that it just wasn’t fathomable that they could have a real relationship with the Divine. Perhaps you have experienced this, when you feel like crap for one reason or another and someone says, “You’re awesome!” And all you can say inside is, “Yeah, yeah.” That’s how the Israelites must have felt, after having fallen so immensely and disappointing G!d and Moshe, and now building this beautiful Mishkan so that they could have a daily relationship with G!d. I can almost hear them saying sarcastically, “Yeah, yeah. Sure. I get to have a relationship with G!d.”
What they needed in this fallen state more than anything was a witness. Something bigger that can testify to their goodness, and yet not as big as G!d. Something tangible that can hold a bigger, wider perspective about who they were as full human beings, beyond the moment of the Calf. In some ways, the Mishkan took on the role of therapist, reminding them, as the Sfat Emet explains, “not to fall too low in [your] own eyes, for by teshuva we really are restored to what we were before.”
So, over 5 days, I bore witness to my grandmother’s leaving this world. It was a gift, an honor, and I do believe that the witnessing helped her let go.
I went back to Jerusalem feeling complete and broken at the same time. I needed a ritual to mark what had just happened. Even as an almost-Rabbi I often forget what rituals are out there to mark transitions. Oh right, I thought, Mikvah.
I asked my married friend if she would accompany to the Mikvah. For those of you who don’t know, we are very lucky here in Boston to have Mayyim Hayyim. Most Mikva’ot grill you to make sure you are married (because G!d forbid you should use the Mikvah for a different purpose). My friend agreed to protect me, and I apologized in advance to myself and Hashem for lying. We walked in, saw the Mikvah lady, and, as predicted, heard the words, “אתן נשואות?”/ “Are you two married?”
My friend, bless her heart, responded in the most suspicious way possible: “No, no. Not to each other!” I sighed. “כן אני נשואה” “Yes, I am married.” The Mikvah lady looked at me with harsh suspicion. In an effort to protect me from the mikvah lady and be my shomeret for the immersion, my wonderful friend continued to make matters worse, “Can we go into the mikvah together?” This time the mikvah lady’s eyes got huge. “ביחד במים!?”/ “Together?! In the water!?” “No, no, as my shomeret,” I explained. With a watchful eye, she did let us go into the Mikvah room together. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most relaxing welcome, and my kavannah was only half there. But, as I let myself be completely immersed by the living waters, I heard a voice say something simple and clear, “כשר,” suitable, fitting, worthy. With the waters and my friend bearing witness, I was able to let go of all that had been until that moment, and able to move forward in my wanderings in this world.
May we be blessed with many witnesses, human and otherwise, to remind us of who we are. To remind us that we are good. To remind us that as human beings we deserve connection, no matter how we may have messed up. May we carry these witnesses with us as we wander.