Moreover he saw a skull floating on the face of the water. He said to it: because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned.
A bit strange, how this sense of karma or perhaps justice is presented. It evoked images of Hamlet holding a skull, and brought to mind strange accounts of justice mentioned in the Gemara. From a literal sense, the image of a skull, on the “face” of the water suggests perhaps a transformation to the guf (body) on the one hand, juxtaposed with the flowing permanence of water.
My questions was: How or why is the word for skull — גֻלְגֹּלֶת (gilgolet) — connected to the other permutations of גִילָה or גִילוּי? The most obvious, yet obtuse connection may be the word גִילְגוּל )gilgul(, a reincarnation. Other terms mentioned included the words for waves (which might even connect to the skull floating on the water), or circles and wheels (life cycle). It even came up last night in Rabbi Weinberg’s shiur on Chelek (Gemera Sanhedrin), in a discussion on Yehoyakim, sons and fathers, and portions in Olam Ha-Ba.
When it comes down to it, though, a skull is one of the most powerful and clear representations of a person. It once held the person’s physical control center: the brain, as well as the receptors for four primary senses—eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. And the mouth is not just a receptor, but integral into what makes us human, the power of speech. So all in all, the skull is a pretty good representation of a person, which helps me better understood another use of the word גֻלְגֹּלֶת:
This is what Hashem has commanded: Each household shall gather as much as it requires to eat—an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each household shall fetch according to those in its tent. (Shemot 16:16)
The Ibn Ezra suggests that the word גֻלְגֹּלֶת is used rather than רֹאש (head), to emphasize that a person should only take what they need because any leftovers would dry up (kind of like a skull).
I’d like to suggest another way to consider the גֻלְגֹּלֶת on this, the 17th of the Omer, the day of Tiferfet She’b’Tiferet… the most beautiful or truthful of days? As incredible as the beauty that we can perceive in the physical world is, the skull, while representing the physical—or loss of it—reminds us of the beauty of the neshama that was contained behind they eyes and nose, behind the guf. And perhaps this connects to the lesson of the Ibn Ezra, the need for a mindfulness for what is important and to not seek what is not essential. As we ponder this and the nature of life—the wheels that turn and life cycles we experience—we can use this to focus on all the beauty that is within all those around us and within ourselves. After all, it all springs from the third partner in the creation of a person.
May we all always have access to the infinite beauty which Hashem imbues in each of us, and may that access guide us in our prayers and interactions in Olam Ha’Zeh, so that we all, together, can cast a good reflection b’Einei Hashem, in the ‘eyes’ of Hashem.