Linking to the Ancestors

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~rfrey/220balinese_arts_and_dance.htm

The balmy weather and the vivid greenness of surrounding nature in Los Angeles in the last few days (after all, we did have a week of rain about a week or so ago) reminded me of the paradisal gentleness of nature in Bali (if you put aside the heaps of plastic that have accumulated on their once pristine beaches). Surrounded by Muslim neighbors in other Indonesian countries that do not include Judaism among the allowed official religions, Bali is a Hindu country and welcomes people of all religions.

Their own religion places great stress on connection to ancestors. For the Balinese, this beautiful island will always be the land of their ancestors. “Our young people always come back,” an ageing Balinese man told me. “They go away to get educated – doctors, lawyers, teachers – but they always come back to Bali. Because this is where their ancestors are.”

The roads to the main cities and marketplaces may be overcrowded with tourists now, but in at least one remote village, tradition is honored. Once a year the villagers unearth the buried bones of their ancestors and wash them. Then, satisfied they have honored their ancestors’ memory, they rebury the clean bones. In the ancient Balinese way, they are paying respect to those who have come before them.

In rural houses of worship, the large statues that represent the many gods of their Hindu mythology, are draped by the local people with cloaks and hats made of gold cloth or other fine materials. Food and drink are set before them as if they were still present in this world. Of course, the local people “know” that statues are not really gods; they are symbols, representations of their belief system, and they are paying homage to these beliefs.

I bought two shadow puppets made in the traditional way from leather (not plastic, though these were available as well) and hand-painted to represent these mythological gods. They have exotic names and stories that the Balinese people well know and treasure. For the moment, they sit in a tall vase in my home, souvenirs of a country blessed by nature but already caught in the throes of environmental change. Yet the casual tourist, like myself in a brief visit over two days, is likely to feel that Bali will be all right. Because the children will always come back.

During my brief visit, I kept thinking of the opening verses – “Patriarchs” — of the central prayer of the Jewish religion: “The Amidah.” We Jews, too, know where the ancestors are: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.  Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah, a purchase in silver coins recorded in the Torah. Joseph carried his father’s bones back to the Holy Land. And the children will always come back to honor and protect their memory.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved.