Grappling with Death and the Need to Mourn

Chukat, Numbers 19:1−22:1

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

A single lit candle“The whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last” (Numbers 20:29). In the Midrash, we read:

When Moses and Elazar descended from the mountain, all the people gathered against them and demanded of them, “Where is Aaron?” They said to them: “Dead.” They replied, “How could the Angel of Death touch him, a man who stood up against the Angel of Death and stopped him, as it is written, he stood between the living and the dead (Numbers 17:13)? If you bring him [back to us], good; if not, we will stone you!” At that moment, Moses stood in prayer and said, “Ruler of the world, free us from suspicion!” Immediately, the Blessed Holy One opened the cave [where Aaron lay dead] and showed it to them, as it is said, the people saw that Aaron had breathed his last. (B’midbar Rabbah 19:20)

What an amazing midrash.

Parashat Chukat is in the middle of the Book of Numbers, and its narrative spans 38 of the 40 years in the wilderness. It is also full of death, and the human struggle to comprehend it.

Chukat opens with the ritual of the red heifer, to provide an avenue to purify those who have had contact with the dead. Then, in quick sequence, Miriam dies; Moses and Aaron strike the rock for water and are condemned to die in the desert; Aaron dies; and many Israelites are killed by divinely-sent serpents, to punish them for their endless complaints. Yet all this death is paired with an existential disbelief. How can Aaron die — Aaron, who himself stopped death when he was saving the Israelites from the plague that followed Korach’s rebellion? This question is not just existential; it is eternal. We still ask: How is it that the people who we love die? How is it that we ourselves are mortal? As a rabbi, I have officiated at countless funerals. But whether I am at the graveside of a centenarian or a stillborn child, the fact of death still astonishes me, and the pain of mourners continues to break my heart.

The two essential teachings of Judaism around death are kibud hameit, “honoring the deceased,” and nichum aveilim, “comforting those who mourn.” Both of these can be found woven into the narrative of Chukat.

The ritual of the “red heifer,” parah adumah, has long been the subject of debate (Numbers 19:1-10). The classic Rabbinic response is that it is a chok, a divine “law” with no explanation; in other words, we do it because God said so and we cannot hope to understand. The scholarly theory, developed by Jacob Milgrom,1 is that it is the vestige of a pre-Israelite exorcism ritual, tamed and transformed to be integrated into the sacrificial system. My own suggestion is simply that the ritual teaches us that both life and death require contact, and that the contact with mortality has consequences. Who has not felt the impact of being in the physical presence of death? We know that the demand for this purification ritual was high throughout the time of the Second Temple, and even after its destruction.2 We see its vestiges when we wash our hands after attending a funeral or going to the cemetery. The first lesson of Chukat is that contact with death requires attention. We do not simply go on with our business.

Moses and Aaron seem to learn this the hard way. Miriam dies, and the story goes on (Numbers 20:1). There is no account of the people mourning her. Not even Moses and Aaron stop to mourn. It is not clear whether this is due to their own ignorance or on account of pressure from the people. We do know that right after this loss, the Israelites show a remarkable insensitivity, complaining to Moses and Aaron: “Why have you brought the Eternal’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?” (Numbers 20:2). They do not understand the basic rule of shiva calls: that the focus is on the mourner, not the visitor. Abarbanel (Portuguese, 15th century) notes that their complaint comes “just at the time when they ought to have comforted them [Moses and Aaron] for the loss of their sister.” No wonder Moses and Aaron act out and strike the rock, leading to a harsh reminder of their own mortality: God’s edict that they will not live to see the Promised Land. Not mourning Miriam was a mistake with many consequences. It is a double loss for her family and her people. Not only are they missing her wisdom (Gersonides observes that as the eldest sibling and a prophet, Miriam would have kept her brothers from doing anything so stupid as hitting the rock), but also they are missing the opportunity for healing and reflection that mourning can bring.

Strikingly, when Aaron dies, his loss is handled very differently (Numbers 20:22-29). This could be understood as sexism: all too often, the Miriams among our leaders are passed over in both life and death, while the Aarons get the glory. This may well be true. But it is also true that we can find a learning curve in this parashah, as the Israelites learn to navigate death. They may not want to believe that Aaron has died, but once they see it, they mourn him.

Aaron’s passing is presented as the ideal of a good death. He gets to pass down his legacy, in the form of his priestly garments, to his son Eleazar. His brother Moses is with him when he ascends to his deathbed, stretches out his hands, closes his mouth, closes his eyes, and dies. There is a light by his deathbed, and the Divine Presence is felt. He is not alone. Rashi writes, “at that moment, Moses longed for that self-same death” (Rashi on Numbers 20:26). Indeed, we are later assured that God tends to Moses when his time comes, and his people mourn him.

The Chasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim,2 said on his deathbed: “All of life is but a preparation for death, and a person must study for his entire life in order to know how to die.” Hundreds of years before, Moses Ibn Ezra put it more poetically:

A man should remember, from time to time,
That he is occupied with death,
That he is taken a little further
On a journey each day —
Though he thinks he is at rest,
Like a ship’s passenger lounging on deck,
Being carried by the wings of the wind.

Chukat gives us guidance as we grapple with this fundamental truth.

  1. Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990], excursus 48, pp.438-443)
  2. Ibid., Milgrom, p. 161
  3. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg compiled, quoted by Y.Y. Tronk of Kutno in Torah Gems, v.3 (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1998), p.102

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis. 

Evolving Traditions Around Death and Mourning

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Hands hold a picture of the departedOur emotional responses to death and loss, discussed so beautifully by Rabbi Grushcow in her d’var Torah on Parashat Chukat, are as varied as we are, and therefore evolve as sensibilities change. But not all changes truly meet our inner needs.

Jewish tradition constructs a scaffolding of rituals and customs to help mourners grieve, protect them from emotional intrusion, and ensure that their needs are met by caring people. Early in the Rabbinic period, the seven-day period of shiva was established to relieve mourners of worldly responsibilities during their most intense period of grief. For seven days they remained home. The community brought them food and prayed with them so they could say Kaddish without leaving home except on Shabbat. Visitors were instructed not to speak until the mourners addressed them. This created a quiet, respectful environment for the mourners; for visitors, it alleviated the pressure to think of something to say. Sh’loshim (the first thirty days) is a less intense but significant period of mourning for the family. Following shiva and through the 30th day, mourners slowly returned to work and activities of life without the burden of participating in parties and entertainment. The yahrzeit, the first anniversary of the death, saw them return to all the activities of life. Each subsequent anniversary and Yizkor permitted mourners to grieve but also gauge their progress in the mourning process.

The Babylonian Talmud (Mo-eid Katan 27) established communal standards in response to practices of the day that caused mourners pain. Funerals had become so expensive that families unable to afford the costs abandoned the body of their loved one. The Rabbis further instructed that food be brought to mourners both rich or poor in simple wicker baskets and drinks in inexpensive glasses — rather than gold and silver trays and fancy white glass as had been the custom of the rich — so as not to embarrass poor people. Rabban Gamliel, the wealthy leader of the Rabbinic community instructed that he be buried in simple, inexpensive linen shrouds, thereby setting a new Jewish standard that has remained to this day. That is why a modest wooden casket is preferred.

As a hospice rabbi who frequently officiates at funerals and shiva services, I see families curtailing or even foregoing shiva for two primary reasons. First: though Jewish tradition requires the community to feed the mourners, but not eat in the house of mourning, I often see mourners (or their surrogates) providing trays of food for those who come to help make a minyan. Often, the result is that the shiva house takes on the feel (and noise level) of a party. Many mourners have told me they don’t feel comfortable hosting a social event each evening while in mourning. Second: some shorten or forego shiva altogether because they feel they cannot take the time away from work and life. Yet the early Rabbis understood, as psychologists affirm, that grieving takes time and emotional damage can ensue if it is short-circuited. We would do well to adjust our practices to meet the emotional needs of mourners who need time and quiet, gentle love and support.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman serves at the Jewish Hospice of Howard County in Columbia, MD.

Reference Materials

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
Haftarah, Judges 11:1-33
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,268-1,271 Revised Edition, pp. 1,043-1,046

Originally published: