I recently read an ad online for a training workshop titled, “How to deliver bad news.” What a great idea! I know of too many times when someone needed to share such news, but could not quite find the right time. So the person anxiously waits, and waits, and when what appears to be the slightest opening, they seize it, give the news and walk away, relieved, only to find out later, what worked for them did not work at all for the person receiving the news. As one who has been on the receiving end myself, I know how challenging this can be, both to absorb the information and to accept how the news was delivered.
And so I believe it is with God and Moses in this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, deep into Bemidbar (In the Wilderness, or Numbers, the fourth of the Five Books of Moses). Moses’ and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, dies, and the people bury her, and then they cry for thirst. They do not just cry, they surround the grieving brothers and demand relief. It is an ugly time in the wilderness, with no one at their best: the grumbling mob, Moses, or even the Holy One. Moses has to be in a state of mourning for Miriam, and then the people come to him with one more complaint, one that reflects their own grief at the loss of her leadership and presence. Yes, they are thirsty, but surely the thirst cannot be only physical. She–who the midrash tells us was responsible for the well of pure water that followed them throughout their wanderings–must have provided them spiritual sustenance as well.
So, the people, and especially the brothers are grieving, but do not know how to treat each other well. How very painful these scenes are to read: we know so many people whose families wander lost in the wilderness of grief, and turn on rather than to each other. Traditional Jewish rituals around death and dying offer us specific guidelines to offer help, rather than harm at these vulnerable moments.
But it is God’s role that is the most perplexing, I find. Moses, in his own state of grief, confronted by an angry mob, acts out and does not follow precise instructions–and for this, God tells him he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land? Much commentary has been written on the topic, because it is such a mystery. And this is why I wonder: was this God’s “slight opening” to tell Moses, the faithful servant, that it was never to be that he would enter the land? Is it possible that his life’s task was to deliver us to the border, and turn the reins over to Joshua? Would Joshua have been able to take up the mantle of leadership with Moses next to him as the emeritus leader? It is not the crowd-pleasing ending to the story, but it is a realistic one.
Maybe the text is telling us that while Moses was likely considering his own mortality after his sister’s death, God thought this was the opportune moment to deliver the news. Maybe we are witnessing an example of the difficulty of sharing the truly painful parts of life. Even the Holy One could not find a graceful way to break the news. May we, as we study Hukkat, consider the loving care required when sharing the pain of life. And may we, on the receiving end, gain compassion for the one who is trying. Let the training begin!