Change: the Constant of the Universe

Some years back I rafted the Youghiogheny River with a friend who thankfully is an experienced rafter. My job was to respond to orders: “lean left,” “paddle hard on the right,” “just sit there.” At first, I dreaded every corner we rounded, fearing what lay beyond, but eventually I came to realize that what lay ahead was a challenge to be met and an opportunity to succeed.

In the space of three chapters in the Book of Numbers (chapters 19-21), Miriam and Aaron die and their brother, Moses, is sentenced to die before reaching the Promised Land. The well of Miriam, which has followed the Israelites throughout the wilderness dries up, leaving the Israelites in the desert without a reliable source of water. The generation born in slavery is dying out, giving way to the generation born in the freedom of the wilderness. It is an unnerving transition, and the Israelites are fraught with fear and anxiety.

In between these accounts is the law of the Red Heifer, as recondite a biblical law as ever there was. In the ancient world, contact with death conveyed a state of ritual impurity that precluded participation in the sacrificial cult. The ashes of a pure red heifer were used to affect ritual purification, a need that would have arisen often in the normal course of events.

Chapters 19-21 of the Book of Numbers present two types of life transitions: Those that occur once, bringing wholesale change (the transition from one generation to another), and those that occur many times in life (the transition from impurity to purity).

Perhaps the message of the mysterious law of the red heifer is that all of life involves change. Just when we become comfortable and accustomed to a course of life, the familiar pattern gives way to a new and unsettling universe. It has been said that change is the only constant in the universe, but writer Christina Baldwin put it more elegantly: “Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix.”

Baldwin’s formula reminds us, as the ashes of the red heifer teach, that we do best when we recognize change and transition as inherent and natural parts of life. They are often unavoidable, so even if they are frightening or painful, we do best to pick up our paddles and steer our lives in a positive direction, rather than cling to the sides of the raft.

Every individual, family, congregation, institution, and society undergoes change. How we approach and handle the change depends on us: Are we dragged along the river, struggling to keep our noses above the water, and swept onto the rocks, or do we approach life knowing that change and transition are inevitable, and therefore chart a course around the rocks, choosing our strokes and setting out with confidence and faith? If we recognize that changes is the way of the world, it will be far easier to choose the latter course.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.