By Cantor Emma Lutz
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chukat, our leader Moses is confronted with the death of his two siblings and fellow leaders, Miriam and Aaron. A great midrash teaches us how difficult it was for the Israelite people to even contemplate the death of Aaron and only upon seeing his body were they able to acknowledge that Aaron had indeed breathed his last breath (B’midbar Rabbah 19:20). However, it is Miriam’s death that seems to rock Moses himself to the core.
When Miriam dies, the Israelites no longer have access to water. God commands Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water, but instead, Moses raises his hand and strikes the rock until water emerges from it (Numbers 20:11). God sees this rage and inability to follow God’s commandments as an affront, and it is because of Moses’ rage in this biblical scene that he is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. And yet, who among us has not dealt with a rage so burdensome amidst the loss of a loved one? Particularly when we confront the loss of a loved one our age or younger, we not only experience grief but we also face the inevitability of our own mortality.
Our tradition understands well that the death of a loved one can bring forth feelings of shock and anger, and thus, our sages crafted for us meaningful rituals of mourning as avenues for the intense feelings ranging from the Israelites’ shock to Moses’ exasperation (i.e. guarding the bodies of our loved ones, tearing cloth over our hearts, reciting Kaddish, observing shiva). Our mourning rituals help us to grieve in community and to ensure that the fundamental needs of those mourning are met during a time of loss. When we take time to honor the deceased and to comfort those who mourn in sacred community, we can never diminish the loss, but rather, we can enable ourselves to grieve our loved ones with honor and shared memory.