In an almost imperceptible yet seismic shift, this week’s Parshat Chukat jumps us a few decades ahead in the wilderness journey of the Israelites. Maybe we need a movie screen caption that reads, “thirty-eight years later.”
Perhaps the time shift is difficult to notice because not much else has changed. Early in the portion, seemingly from out of nowhere, we read: “Miriam died there and was buried there,” (Numbers 20:1). Although she was the sister of Moses and Aaron, and a leader herself in the Israelite community, no more detail is given of what happened when Miriam died. No cause of death is given, no age at death, no description of mourning. We don’t even know who buried her. “Died and buried” is all Miriam gets for her long years of service.
Or is it? The very next verse tells us “the community was without water” (20:2). This juxtaposition is to teach us, writes Rashi (France, eleventh century), that the Israelites “had water for the whole forty years from [Miriam’s] well on account of the merit of Miriam.” Abraham ibn Ezra (Spain, twelfth century) disagrees, noting an absence of water long before Miriam died (Exodus 17:1, for example).
Whatever the reason, it seems to be their thirst, rather than Miriam’s death, that brings the Israelites to whine and argue with Moses and Aaron. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place?” (Numbers 20:5). Poor Moses, Aaron, God, and us as well, we’ve heard all this before—almost forty years ago and from a different generation. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”1
Perhaps this is why Moses grows so angry, losing patience once more. And the same goes for God. When God tells Moses and his brother Aaron to take the rod and “order the rock to yield its water,” Moses does so in similar fashion to the way God instructed him decades before—he strikes the rock, but this time he does so twice, saying “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Compare Numbers 20:6-12 to Exodus 17:5-6).
Although commentators through the ages argue over Moses and Aaron’s exact “crime,” God’s punishment of them seems harsh: “you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (20:12). Instead, at God’s instruction, Moses leads Aaron up Mount Hor “in the sight of the whole community,” strips off his vestments, and (presumably) watches his brother Aaron die “there on the summit of the mountain,” (20:28).
Unlike when Miriam dies, however, this time, “all the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days,” (20:29).
Is this just a case of male privilege? Or is this a case of the people beginning to learn about mourning and grief? In the middle of the twentieth century, noted psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross taught the world about “stages of grief.” The stage called “bargaining” is described this way: “We become lost in a maze of ‘If only . . . ’ or ‘What if . . . ’ statements. We want life returned to what it was; we want our loved one restored.”2
Here in the wilderness, after the death of Miriam, “the people quarreled with Moses, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Eternal!’ ” (20:3). Maybe the absence of “water” after Miriam’s death is the absence of tears.3 For here in the wilderness, after the death of Miriam, I hear in the angry words of the Israelites what I often hear from grieving mourners: “I wish I were dead too,” or “I wish I had died first and not had to feel this pain.”
Another stage of grief is anger. Could it be grief over the loss of Miriam (her music, her leadership, her longtime presence in their midst) that causes the Israelites to turn on Moses and Aaron? Could it be grief that causes Moses and Aaron to turn on them? Some have noted that the difference between the Hebrew words Miryam (Miriam) and mayim (water) is one extra letter. How poignant it is to read 20:2 not as “the community was without water (mayim),” but rather “the community was without Miriam.”
The dramatic episode of Moses striking the rock occurs at a place, ironically or pointedly, called Kadesh (same Hebrew root as the Mourner’s Kaddish). When Moses hits the rock twice, God says to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (20:12). When God reprimands Moses because he “has not affirmed My sanctity”—L’hak-di-shei-ni—we again encounter the same Hebrew root as Kaddish, a prayer that makes no mention of death, but simply praises God. Is God indignantly (mournfully?) stating, “You did not say Kaddish to me when Miriam died”?
Included in this parashah is a long list of places the Israelites stopped to camp along the way during their forty-year journey in the wilderness. Some of these place names appear nowhere else, yet the text offers no explanation of what happened to make them memorable. Might the names be code or poetry? The midrashists seem to think so when they ponder the place names U’miMidbar Matanah (Numbers 21:18). U’miMidbar—“from the wilderness,” matanah—“a gift” (Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 54a, N’darim 55a).
Among the “gifts of the wilderness” we can find in this portion (and in so many places in Torah) are these tentative, dramatic steps taken in learning how to grieve. How different the story of our people might have been if all of the “characters” had been aware enough of their grief that they took time to mourn the loss of Miriam.
- French proverb used by the novelist Alphonse Karr (1808-90)
- On Death and Dying, (c) 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D.
- In Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to Jewish Holidays, contemporary theologian Arthur Waskow wonders if the juxtaposition of the season’s first prayer for rain with the Yizkor prayer on Shimeni Atzeret isn’t a prayer for the “raindrops within as well as without: the tears that fall . . .” (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1982), p. 73
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D. is the leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. Founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today BCC is an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual Jews, and their families and friends. Rabbi Edwards’ writing appears in books including Kulanu: All of Us (a URJ handbook for congregational inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews) and The Torah: A Women's Commentary, published by URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism.