The Undeniable Impermanence
by Jhos Singer
As I began to write this musing, the spire of Notre Dame had just fallen in a flamboyant descent, the familiar landmark transforming before my eyes. Moments later, I discovered that the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount had also caught fire. I was flooded with thoughts about life’s vagaries and the undeniable impermanence of humanity and all of our endeavors. Eventually, everything we have painstakingly built will be returned to ash and dust—the Great Pyramids, the Dome of the Rock, the Basilica, the Kaaba, every great synagogue and cathedral, every mosque, dojo, and temple. Every piece of parchment, every holy book, every Michelangelo, Shen Zhao, Titus, Hiroshi Yoshida, Monet, Banksy, Picasso, O’Keefe, every prized bit of human ingenuity, from every corner of the earth and epoch will, one day, return to the one true cloud, just like all of us. It is a fact that leaving this place is the most inevitable truth we know.
And yet as they saw the blazing spire topple into the great roof in a pyrotechnic death drop, the French crowd groaned and gasped—and then they were silent. And then they sang. Spectacular loss amazes, humbles, and moves us. Today’s stunning destruction of potent places, symbols, and examples of architecture reminded me that the runway to Jewish collective identity and worship were paved with similar ruination.
This week’s Torah portion is a special reading for Pesach, Exodus, 12:21-51. It is set in Egypt just prior to the Israelites departure. God gives instructions to Moses to tell the Israelites to kill a goat, and mop its blood on the lintels of their houses as a sign for God to pass them over during the last plague in Egypt.
And it came to pass at midnight, that The Force struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead. And he called for Moses and Aaron by night and said: “Rise up, and go from among my people, you and the Israelites, and go, serve The One, as you have said.” (Exodus 29-31)
Egypt falls, toppled by a tsunami of death. It is the image that lingers in their minds, the sound in their ears, the smell in their noses, and the weight on their hearts as they are birthed out of slavery.
It takes time to coalesce into a free and organized community. Together the Israelites follow instructions to build a place of worship for their nameless, faceless, mysterious and mighty God. With great effort, the collection of precious materials, the skills of master craftspeople, the sweat and brawn of hard workers, they manage to build a worthy gathering place. But again, before they are able to express their faith, they have to stare into the inexplicable, riveting, sensational Power that transforms everything it touches.
The sons of Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it, and they drew close to the face of God with a strange fire that had not been commanded of them. A fire came from before HaShem and consumed them, and they died in front of HaShem. Moses said to Aaron: “This is what God spoke, saying: ‘I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, and in front of all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
It occurs to me that perhaps faith depends on a certain amount of horror. It is said that “there are no atheists in a foxhole”—and Judaism certainly isn’t shy about mixing fear with awe, especially where God is concerned. Judaism invites its adherents to squeeze every moment—those of loss, and liberation, terror and amazement—for the glorious life-affirming energy hiding therein.
May we find the strength, courage, and faith to weather every storm, suffer every loss, and persist through every challenge. And may we have the dignity of Aaron, and the hope expressed in the voices singing in the streets of Paris.