By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman
When death comes to your beloved parent, partner, sibling, child or friend, you feel hollowed out.
Nothing makes sense. You are disoriented — as simple a task as fitting a key in the lock may be more than you can manage. What usually gives you delight — a walk in the woods, a moment with a friend — leaves you cold. You don’t know what to do, where to turn.
This is what I have seen in working with hundreds of bereaved families. It is what I have experienced in living through my own losses. It is also a focus of concern that threads through this week’s Torah portion, Chukat.
The Jewish people, still wandering in the wilderness after close to 40 years, lose two of the three central leaders. They are also given a ritual for purification after contact with death. As we examine the Israelites’ encounters with death and its aftermath, we can perhaps glean wisdom to guide us when death comes to our dear ones.
The parshah opens with an enigmatic instruction: The priests are to slaughter a red heifer and burn it to ashes. They must mix these ashes with water to sprinkle on people who have had contact with a corpse, in order to purify them. The priests who have handled the animal or its ashes are, however, rendered unclean.
Throughout history, rabbinic commentators have wrestled with this inscrutable and paradoxical ritual — how can the same substance render those who are unclean clean, and those who are clean unclean? One very common answer is that matter is beyond our comprehension.
It is not clear how often this ritual was performed. Maimonides states that only nine red heifers were ever used in this manner. Perhaps we can learn from the red heifer simply that this ritual mirrors the illogical, unfathomable nature of grief.
Later, the Israelites have a disastrous experience in the wake of death. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron, dies and is buried.
Rashi, the medieval commentator, suggests that the death of Miriam and the paucity of water are connected — the water supply that had nourished the people until now came through Miriam’s merit.
Rabbinic legend goes even further, suggesting that wherever Miriam went, a miraculous well accompanied her and provided water for the community. Miriam was thus a nurturer and an inspiration.
Miriam’s death is not acknowledged publicly. “Miriam died and was buried there” is all the text tells us. Afterward, the people are cross and disoriented. They complain and blame Moses and Aaron for their suffering. God instructs Moses to take his rod, gather the people, and “speak to the rock, and I shall bring forth water from the rock for the people and their flocks.”
Moses does not follow the instruction. Rather, he admonishes the people, saying, “Listen here, you rebels, do you think we can get you water from this rock?” He strikes the rock twice. Water emerges from the rock, but at a huge cost. Moses and Aaron are punished for their lack of faith; they will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land.
The emotional reactions — anger, confusion, blame — depicted in this account of Miriam’s death are nearly universal responses to death.
God tells Moses that it is his brother Aaron’s time to die, and instructs him to bring Aaron and his son, Elazar, to the top of the double mountain. Once there, Moses is to divest him of his priestly clothes and to put them upon his successor, Elazar. Then Aaron will die.
Moses follows these instructions precisely. The people watch the three men set off and see only two return. They weep for their beloved leader, Aaron, peacemaker, and they observe a 30-day period of mourning.
Taken together, these three elements offer different models for responding to death.
The red heifer represents ritual commemoration, but without community and connection to memory. Miriam’s death represents the costs of failing to grieve: anger, alienation and broken relationships. Aaron’s death shows the power of acknowledgment and community.
The culture we live in is always trying to draw us into being productive. The deaths in Parshat Chukat draw us toward very important realizations: We need to take time to grieve and ritual helps us to hold powerful emotions as we mark loss.
Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman is the author of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older; Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife. She offers spiritual direction and pastoral care to people beyond midlife. www.growingolder.net. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.