Death flows like a stream throughout Parashat Chukat —from the laws about repurification after contact with a corpse, to the death of Moses’s sister Miriam, to the death of his brother, Aaron.
Immediately after Miriam’s death, the Israelites quarrel with her brothers Moses and Aaron for lack of water. On the surface, they seem to take little or no time to grieve. Some commentators relate the lack of water to a magical well that had followed Miriam around throughout her life, drying up with her death. By linking the phrase, “Miriam died there . . .” (Numbers 20:1) with “The community was without water . . .” (Numbers 20:2), Rabbinic imagination ties the community’s apparent apathy to Miriam’s death, equating grief with thirst, comfort with water.
The urgency and anger of the people toward their leaders for bringing them out of Egypt into an arid wilderness drive Moses and Aaron to respond in anger as well, striking the rock twice and declaring, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). God in turn decrees, “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 . . .” (Numbers 20:12). One might conclude that the community’s resistance to properly mourning leads to a chain of anger and pain extending all the way to heaven. When Aaron dies at the end of the chapter, the community bewails him thirty days. Perhaps by then the Israelites have learned something.
People cope with grief in many different ways. Some need to “move on” as quickly as possible, turning with intensity of purpose to whatever task readily presents, getting back to school or the office. They respond as the Israelites did to Miriam’s death, ready to charge at life instead of quieting into the stillness of being. Others respond in anger, lashing out at those who remain alive. They resemble the Israelites who, having lost their “mother,” rail against their “father” and his shortcomings for not quenching them. Some can find no outlet for their grief and, like Moses and Aaron, strike out against the rock, their foundation, filling themselves up with their own power rather than facing their own smallness in the face of great loss.
Even Moses, our greatest prophet, who knew God face-to-face, raged against the dying of the light. According to midrash, in his last hours of life, Moses prayed for the opportunity to enter the Land of Israel. When that was refused, he begged to be able to live, even on the other side of the Jordan, and he did not desist from begging for his life, even if he were to live not as a man at all, but as a bird. Even after his last prayer to God was denied, he did not stop:
Moses now raised up his voice in weeping, and said, “To whom shall I go that will now implore mercy for me?” . . . Then a voice sounded from heaven and said, “Why Moses, dost thou strive in vain? Thou hast but one half-hour more of life in the world.” Moses, to whom God had now shown the reward of the pious in the future world, and the gates of salvation and of consolation that He would hereafter open to Israel, now said: “Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, a people saved by the Lord!” He then bade farewell to the people, weeping aloud. He said: “Dwell in peace, I shall see ye again at the Resurrection.…” (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956], pp. 494–496)
It always fascinated me that the prophet to whom all rewards of the afterlife had been revealed would still weep over the end of his life. Being a rabbi in many ways is lifelong exposure therapy to death and mourning, and with all of my belief in God and the soul’s immortality, when I despair I remember Moses—I remember that faith does not necessarily eradicate fear. Our religion is so doggedly life-affirming and life is so beautiful that we loathe relinquishing it. Even Moses’s parting message to his people as told in the midrash above, “I shall see ye again at the Resurrection . . . ” is also a proclamation of faith in the triumph of life over death, that the day will come when physical and spiritual will renew their vows, and love, live, and learn in this garden of delights once again.
Our Torah portion softly asks us to confront our own feelings about mortality, and to find ways to comfort ourselves and quench our thirst, that the eventual Sabbath of our life be sacred and not fill us with dread.
The Death of a Rabbi
On the altar of my desk
there is a miniature altar
that receives offerings daily.
It surrenders half an inch a day
to misting eyes,
and then my black metal garbage can
receives those holy tears
and mascara streaks,
and the custodian at the end of the day,
like the ancient priest who would clear
the glowing ashes from the altar
with his silver shovel,
takes the bagful of little white ghosts
along with whatever
envelopes and crumbs
to their final resting place.
On the outskirts of some landfill,
rolling lightly like tumbleweeds
amidst the scattered reeds
to be caught in a fragrant updraft
When I dream of my death
I do not fantasize about the glorious,
fiery chariot that scooped Elijah to God’s throne.
I want every tissue
that has been wept upon in my office,
thousands and thousands of tissues,
to assemble themselves,
a million butterfly wings,
into a soft cottony sleigh,
each tear still dewy and sparkly,
like Austrian crystals
on the bodice of a wedding gown,
to sweep me away.
To consider what we fear as forbidden relieves us of the burden of avoidance. Yet, connecting the two passages mentioned by Rabbi Klein (repurification after contact with a corpse and Miriam’s death) offers us a different juxtaposition of fear and prohibition: “Just as the ashes of the red heifer atone for sin, the death of a righteous person does the same” (Babylonian Talmud, Mo-eid Katan 28a). Miriam’s death occurring at Kadesh (the place of holiness) hints at a momentary convergence between impurity and sacredness.
The Hebrew word for “fear”— yirah —also means “awe,” evoking the awareness that death is both fearful and awesome. When loved ones die, we may be called upon to identify their physical remains. As we approach their lifeless body, fear seizes us; how can we embrace the holiness in this transition? Members of the chevrah kadisha (literally, “holy society”), who are responsible for preparing the body for burial, recite prayers during their work that remind us of the body's former splendor, as the vessel for the soul: “His hands are like rods of gold set with emeralds, his belly is polished ivory, overlaid with sapphires” (Song of Songs 5:14). The foundation of this mitzvah, known as chesed shel emet , “a deed of mercy and truth,” is paraphrased from Genesis 47:29, where Jacob asks Joseph not to bury him in Egypt, saying, “Treat me with faithful kindness” ( v’asita imadi chesed ve-emet ). This is a deed of goodness that cannot be returned by the recipient. As a hospice chaplain, I see over and over again how the fear of contact with physical remains can transform into a personal experience of awe.
Fearing death holds us within the biblical understanding of spiritual impurity; embracing the holiness in death opens us to awe-filled experience. Honoring the physical remains of those who have passed on can inspire us to live righteously ourselves, so that like Miriam, our own death might bring t’shuvah and healing to our world.
Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 915–936