This double parasha brings us to the end of the book of Bemidbar. The Israelites stand at the edge of the Promised Land, following Moses' last military campaign. Before the people can leave the wilderness, the soldiers must go through rituals of purification. They must stay "outside the camp for seven days." Everyone who has "slain a person or touched a corpse shall purify himself" (Numbers 31:19). This care for returning soldiers has relevance for today's veterans.
Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge shining and radiant.
In New Orleans, the Jews are the only ones buried in the ground. Others, if their mourners have any means at all, are laid with the expectation of eternal rest in stone crypts to protect them from rising waters. My mother used to say, "Someday, we Jews'll all be floatin' down the river."
Just as in California, where we know that one day "the big one" will come, in New Orleans, we knew that someday the water would overtake us. But the denial overtakes the wisdom, and we stay and build lives. I think of Pompeii. New Orleans was so beautiful.