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Jul 25 2014

The Miracle of Life Begins with Housework

By at 12:06 pm

Mopping floor

This post is part of our Torah commentary series. This Shabbat we read Parashat Masei. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

Baby #2 is due any day now. Since I never went into labor with my daughter–long story short: “failed induction” ending in a c-section–in a way, I feel like this is my first birth. So, now I’m back where I was a couple years ago during the last weeks of my pregnancy with Sylvie: curious, nervous, excited, wondering what it will be like, and reading a lot of birth stories to try and prepare.

The first time around, reading these birth stories, I was just trying to get a handle on the process. Transition, timing contractions, pushing…it was all new information. This time, even though I haven’t experienced those things, I know about them, so I’m focusing a little less on those details and more on the overall stories. And I’m noticing a common thread, which surprises me:

The miracle of life begins with housework.

What I mean is that these birth stories, especially those of moms-to-be who already have other kids, often start with the mama going into labor and immediately setting to work around the house. She cleans up, makes her kids breakfast, gets them to school, cooks some food for later, and tackles one last organizing project. Only later, when the contractions get more intense, does she retreat into her own world.

Why does this make such an impression on me? I guess I always imagined giving birth as such a big deal that the moment labor began, everything else would just fall away. And it’s true, that often does happen, later in the process. But early on, these mamas stay in their ordinary lives, taking care of business as long as they can, even though they’re on the threshold of this life-changing experience.

I love how strong these women are. And I love how there is such a fine line between the ordinary work of daily existence–cooking, cleaning, answering e-mails–and the hugely transformative, life-and-death moments.

This week’s Torah portion, Masei, is also a combination of daily housekeeping and life-and-death moments.

On the housekeeping side, there’s a long list of all the locations the Israelites stopped at in the desert, some details about inheritance rights, and a clarification on the legal difference between murder and manslaughter.

On the other hand, one of the great Israelite leaders dies. In the Torah’s words: 

Aaron the Priest ascended Mount Hor at God’s command [literally “by the mouth of God”] and died there, on the first day of the fifth month in the fortieth year of the children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Aaron was 123 years old when he died at Mount Hor.

Aaron is an important guy–brother to Moses and Miriam, and the first High Priest of the Israelites. So the fact that his death is mentioned almost casually, in just a couple sentences, seems strange. Especially when the Torah has just spent a whole bunch of lines on a detailed desert travelogue of the Israelites’ wanderings.

Maybe that’s why Rashi, one of the most important commentators on the Torah, takes a moment to focus on Aaron’s death. Rashi notices that strange phrase, “by the mouth of God,” and interprets it to mean that Aaron died by “the Kiss of God.” I’d never heard of this Kiss of God before, but apparently it’s a thing in Judaism: a peaceful, painless way to die, experienced by very holy people or martyrs.

I find it very moving to, just as I’m immersed in birth stories, happen upon Aaron’s death story. Just like the birth tales, this portion starts with a lot of work: in this case, wandering through the desert. And like the mamas in early labor, Aaron does his job, taking care of the Israelites right up until the moment of transition. Only then, when it’s really time, does he climb up the mountain alone and bravely face the unknown future.

And I love this idea of God: a compassionate guide across the border between life and death, whose kiss can ease the crossing. There are many versions of God in the Torah. This one feels like a midwife, a healer, and definitely the one I hope to guide me on my own journey.

Now, I just need to get a little more housework done before this baby comes.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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