The time of death was 6:55 pm, last night. The patient was 2 weeks old. Her name means “journey,” her mother explained. As the doctor and nurses prepared to detach the tubes and wires from her tiny body, her tearful family gathered around. In a soft voice, the head nurse told the family that after the extubation, they would bathe the baby’s body, so the mother could hold her. Suddenly, one of the aunties looked up and said, “And you said I could help bathe her.” The nurse agreed firmly.
I looked at the tiny body, oozing and bloody, yet inconceivably pure and innocent. I thought of Psalm 51.7: “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”
As we work through this month of Elul, preparing each in our own way for those trembling Days of Awe in which we confront our mortality and lead others in confronting their own, I pondered the relationship between love and washing. The well-known drash on the name of this month, “Ani l’ Dodi, v’Dodi li,” underscores the sentiment that we approach God with love, not fear, as we search ourselves and inventory our transgressions. Coming up with this list of smudges and soot what are we to do now?
Not until last night, could I fully conceive of what the relationship between forgiveness and love might feel like, what might it look like? Love bathes. Love washes away- like a warm basin, like a soapy washcloth, like a gentle waterfall.
Showering with a lover, drawing a bath for a child, performing taharah – love cleans.
As we prepare for these Yamim Noraim only weeks away, let us go about the gut wrenching and the mundane, the trivial and the sacred, the parts we like and those we don’t, knowing that God’s gentle hands are already gathering perfumed soaps and oils, warm towels and holy loofahs, in anticipation of washing us clean.
Rabbi Leah Cohen Tenenbaum, D.Min, C’2000 serves as a chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital.