Thursday, April 24, 2008

Kri’at Chayim – The Parting of Life

By Julie Seltzer
Verse Per Verse

The Hebrew phrase we use to refer to the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea is קריעת ים סוף (Kriat Yam Suf). It’s an interesting verb choice – kria, usually translated as “splitting,” or “parting,” literally means “tearing,” or “ripping.” This year, the word קריעה kria had a whole new association for me. A week before Pesach began, I performed קריעה kria, the ritual ripping of one’s garment that marks the beginning of a seven day mourning period.

The Hebrews journeyed towards the sea from מצרים (mitzrayim), Egypt, a place of מיצר (meitzar), suffering. My mom was also in מיצר (meitzar), slave to her own body, no longer able to perform the tasks we generally take for granted. Leaving this suffering to enter the limitlessness of the desert, the place where her spirit would be free from the confines of her body, was a tough tear. The midrash speaks of the ripping of the sea as a miracle of utmost difficulty (Sanhedrin 22a). To go from slavery to freedom, or in essence from death to rebirth, is to completely reverse the known state of affairs. Likewise, to go from life to death is a miraculous ripping apart from everything that was previously known or understood. My mom’s body had never before been parted from her soul. And I had never known what it was like to exist in the world without her.

The Torah, in describing the exodus from Egypt, uses the phrase בעצם היום הזה, (b’etzem hayom hazeh) (Exodus 12:17), translated by JPS as on “that selfsame day,” but also understood by commentators as “at the height of the day” [literally, in the strength – עצם(etzem)—of the day, ie, at the time when the sun is its strongest]. Rashi discusses this phrase at some length, and explains that the power of the exodus was so strong that we could depart in the middle of the day, with no fear of being stopped. The breaking free had such energy, such strength unto itself, that no thing and no one could hold it back.

Rashi mentions another instance when this same phrase is used – at the time of Moshe’s death. Moshe dies not in his sleep, but בעצם היום, at the height of the day, because as much as the people wanted to hold on, they no longer could. The necessity of his death had such strength unto itself that Moshe could take his leave to die in broad daylight, in front of his entire nation, and no one had the power to hold on to him.

My mom also died בעצם היום, in the middle of the day. Over the last few months there were many cries of Let Me Go, interspersed with a fierce desire to continue living. The plagues came one after the other: a blood clot, swollen hands and feet, a feeding tube, despair. Finally, Let Me Go had such strength that even the strongest Pharaohs, including the ones who loved her so much, were powerless.

The word referring to the “strength”of the day is עצם (etzem), not the more common word for strength, חזק (chozek). This more common word חזק (chozek) is related to להחזיק (l’hachzik), to hold onto something, to grasp. But עצם (etzem) hints at strength of a different kind. עצם, which also means bone, is solid, stable, and lasting. It’s not a forceful grasping – its power is not exerted by holding desperately on to something external, but emerges from the deepest place within, from our very bones. It’s a strength that lasts and sustains us through the generations, just as the strength of Joseph’s עצמות (atzamot), bones, accompanied the Hebrews from the moment of our departure from Egypt until our arrival at freedom. May we all derive עצמה (otzma), strength, from my mother’s memory, Vicki Seltzer, זכרונה לברכה, zichrona livracha (may her memory be for a blessing), זכר ליציאת מצרים, zecher litzi’at mitzrayim (a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt).


  1. Julie, thank you for illuminating "kriah" so elegantly. What a beautiful drash on the pain/joy of lifecycles and liberation for all sides.

  2. Julie - how from the depths of your pain you dole out this pearl of a teaching, deep from inside the sea, red with tears and impossible partings.
    Kriaa - the ripping apart, so much like Yachatz - the breaking of night into dark and darker. Thank you for sharing the courage to remember and honor your mother and link it so powerfully to the rituals of our life at this time of year. I will never think of the ripping apart of the sea in the same way again. May your mother's life, love, memory and meaning be a blessing to you - and all of us.

    and this coming Shabbath, when the Sea is Split - i hope you continue to find comfort in the friends, fellow egypt leavers that surround you as you cross further.
    much love (from the Redwoods)

  3. Julie,

    This is one of the most stirring, gorgeous writings I've read. I want to reiterate Amichai's comment: How, from out of the depths, you were able to weave such complex wisdom so simply, so elegantly, is beyond me. I love you. I wish you peace and comfort. I learn from you.

    THANK YOU for sharing.


  4. Julie...this is so beautiful and grounding. I especially love the part about the different kinds of strength, grasping or solid. this is such an important and meaningful distinction. my thoughts are with you, and i truly appreciate your words of wisdom.