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A project outliving its creator
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A project outliving its creator

Hukat | Numbers 19:1-22:1

Look up “gaudy” in a dictionary and you will find: “garish, showy, vulgarly colorful,” from the Latin gaudere, “to rejoice.” Barcelonans may be forgiven for linking it to their architectural genius, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), whose outrageous riot of form and color fills the city.

In 1883, Gaudi began work on his Basilica of the Holy Family, which will not be finished until 2026. Gaudi died knowing his plan would continue for a century; he would not make it to the promised land of the cathedral’s completion, but others would pick up where he left off.

This idea of a project outliving its originator goes back to the Bible, particularly Moses, who dies knowing that Joshua will follow him. But it applies to Aaron also; the Malbim puts it beautifully when he notes that the description of Aaron’s death seems to be in reverse order: “Aaron shall be gathered to his ancestors and die there,” says the text (Numbers 20:25), whereas it ought to have him dying first and then being gathered to his kin. But, explains the Malbim, Aaron’s soul actually passed over to its afterlife before his body perished, because he was so eager to leave his earthly life behind — because he knew he had fulfilled his life’s purpose, which would be carried forward by his descendants.

Moses follows him in this regard, and although we know less about Miriam’s death, we should imagine her dying the same way, since our rabbis give her pride of place in this sedra as well, allotting to her (as to Aaron and Moses) 30 days of mourning, rather than the usual seven.

It is the Bible, then, that establishes the concept of a life’s project that we inaugurate and then pass along to our spiritual heirs; the rabbis add to the equation by picturing us dying satisfactorily — by a kiss from God — because we have intuited our life’s task as something greater than we could complete on our own, leaving us free to rejoice in merely beginning it.

But the Bible and the rabbis part company with Gaudi in the nature of the human project. Gaudi defined his life’s work by a church towering high into the heavens to declare the greater glory of God. Remember Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, who famously described Shabbat as a cathedral in time, noting the lack of Jewish cathedrals in space. It is not that Jews do not value beautiful art and architecture; it’s just that rabbinic aesthetics have never sought to demonstrate Jewish superiority by a physical presence that dwarfs everything else. Jewish tradition is more apt to see that kind of edifice as a Tower of Babel.

Moses devoted his life to freedom. Miriam is remembered for providing a life-giving well for those in thirst of life, Aaron for establishing peace where there was strife. These are the Jewish projects that outlive us: water for the thirsty, freedom for the enslaved, and a society that lives in peace.

Most Christians today have abandoned the model of a triumphant religious imperialism — and good riddance. By contrast, the spiritual ideals of life-giving water, freedom, and peace remain forever.

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