Mourning the Passage of a Generation

Chukat, Numbers 19:1−22:1

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Susie Heneson Moskowitz

Focal Point

  • The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. (Numbers 20:1)
  • Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Eternal One said 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.” (Numbers 20:10–12)
  • “Strip Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar. There Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead.” (Numbers 20:26)
  • When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days. (Numbers 20:28–29)

D'var Torah

In this, my forty-first year, I have lost my last two grandparents. Each was blessed to have lived ninety-four years and seven months. Since  they were not from the same sides of my family, each had been widowed years ago. Despite having lost their spouses, they both lived full, long lives and died in relative ease compared to the horrors that so many endure. So their deaths were very sad, but not tragic.

For my family, however, this is the end of an era. The roles of matriarch and patriarch have shifted to my parents. There are very few people left to ask about where we came from and what life was like almost a century ago. I feel fortunate to have had grandparents for so much of my life and grateful that they developed relationships with my children. But when you have grandparents for such a long time, it is difficult to imagine them not being here. I have been pondering what this generational shift means to me.

This year I also lost a friend—a contemporary who became ill shortly after his daughter’s bat mitzvah and died a year later. And an eleven–year-old from my congregation, who was also my friend, died after a lifetime of battling illness. 

Each death was different. The mourning practices, while all from the Reform Jewish tradition, were different. The funerals and the way people reacted were different. We see these differences in our Torah portion as well. Miriam dies, Aaron dies, and Moses is told he will die without entering the Promised Land. How are each of their deaths different?

Miriam dies in Kadesh. Unlike Sarah’s passing, about which we are given lots of details, we do not know how old Miriam is, where she is buried, or how the people respond. None of this information is recorded. But since the deaths of most women in the Torah are not recorded in any way, the one line that mentions her death is significant. And we learn in later verses that after Miriam dies, the people do not have enough water. The Rabbis connect her death to the scarcity of water through a midrash that tells of a well that follows Miriam in the desert. While we still don’t know how the people mourn her loss, we are indirectly told how important her life is through this emphasis on what is missing after her death.

When Aaron dies, we learn why he dies (he disobeys God’s command about the waters of Meribah); that the priesthood mantle is passed on to his son Eleazar; and that his death occurs on top of Mount Hor. We also learn that “all the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days” (Numbers 20:29).

Moses does not actually die in Chukat, but the death of his dream to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land is foretold. When he does die at the end of the Torah, we are provided with many details. He dies on Mount Nebo overlooking the valley of Jericho in the land of Moab. God buries Moses in the valley near Beth-peor, but the exact spot is not revealed. Moses is 120 years old when he dies. And the Israelites bewail Moses for thirty days (Deuteronomy 34:5–8).
Both Moses and Aaron are mourned for thirty days. But they are not treated in the same way. Aaron, who is of lesser stature than Moses, is mourned by kol beit Yisrael, the “entire house of Israel,” and Moses, only by B’nei Yisrael, the “Children of Israel.” In Torah Gems, Peninei Torah offers an explanation: 

The reason for the difference is that when Moses dies there were those who thought that they might be given the leadership of the nation, and they therefore did not mourn, whereas in the case of Aaron all knew that the priesthood is hereditary, and there was no one who sought to inherit the role. (Torah Gems, vol. 3, comp. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Y. Orenstein, “Yavneh” Publishing House,  1998], p. 109)

With these three passings, the last of the generation that left Egypt die, and now new leadership can emerge. Why now? Why couldn’t they enter the Promised Land? The Higayon Lev, as interpreted by R’ Y. Nissenboim, suggests: 

The reason that the leaders of the desert generation—Moses, Aaron and Miriam—died in the desert and did not enter Eretz Israel was that all the older generation had already died in the desert. The difference between the leaders and the people was one of three or four generations, and very old people cannot lead very young people. . . .  even Moses, . . .  who was able to accept all the criticism and rebellion of the older generation without losing his temper, reacted when dealing with the younger generation by stating, “Hear now, you rebels” [Numbers 20:10]. It was then that he was sentenced to die in the desert. Aaron, too, who pursued peace and who defended the older generation when it sinned with the golden calf, found no word here to defend the younger generation, and he too was punished. (ibid., p. 105)

It is difficult to know when it is time to pass the torch to the next generation. To help us in this endeavor, God has made us mortal and given us bodies that break down. When the new generation is ready, they often stage a rebellion and break away from the old ways. I hope that each generation is smart enough to learn from the lessons of the generation that came before them. I still have a lot to learn from the deaths of my grandparents. I know many of the lessons that they taught me in life and wonder what I will learn from their deaths. I hope I will remember to make my time on earth count and that I will live my life well.

By the way . . .

  • This is the Torah when a man dies in a tent . . . [Numbers 19:14] The words of Torah do not endure except where a person kills himself for them (Berakhot 63b). Yet, we are told, “‘You shall live by them’ (the words of Torah) and not die by them”? The explantion is as follows: In many cases, a person tries to avoid performing a commandment or good deed because he claims that he is too busy and has no free time. However, when it comes time for a person to die, when he has no excuse, he ignores everything and devotes himself to that great moment. Thus, our Sages tell us, “The words of Torah do not endure except where a person kills himself for them”—only a person who is constantly aware that he is mortal and will eventually die realizes that the question of free time is entirely irrelevant. [italics per Susie Heneson Moskowitz ] (Chafetz Chayim on the Torah, ibid., p. 101)
  • I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community,
    as long as I live, it is my privilege—
    My privilege to do for it whatever I can.
    I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,
    for the harder I work, the more I live….
    Life is no brief candle to me.
    It is a sort of splendid torch
    which I’ve got hold of for the moment,
    and I want it to burn as brightly as possible
    before handing it on to future generations.
    (George Bernard Shaw on

Your Guide

  1. How would you live your life differently if you kept the notion of our lives being finite in the forefront of your conscience?
  2. How do we honor the memories of our beloved dead and allow them to enhance our lives, not overwhelm our lives?
  3. What are you doing to make sure the candle of Judaism continues to burn into the next generation?
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

Originally published: