Four people had gone on a long hike in the summer, and had gotten lost, so the hike took longer than expected and they hadn’t carried enough water to make up for the length of time they were gone…
The Brit states, “I’m so thirsty, I must have some tea.”
The Frenchwoman demands, “I’m so thirsty, I must have some wine.”
The German notes, “I’m so thirsty, I must have a beer!”
The Jew: “I’m so thirsty, I must have diabetes!”
Everyone else is focused on the remedy for their thirst, and we are worried about the disease that caused it. The whole kvetching thing is a long time Jewish behavior. We kvetched our way through the 40 years in the wilderness, and sometimes, it drove Moses crazy…
But the kvetching was the outward expression of our inward fears. Why did you bring us out of the safety of slavery to have us die here? Every time we got a little freaked out, we reverted to our perennial cry, you brought us here from our place of safe slavery to this unsettled place.
And this week’s torah portion, Chukat (ritual laws) is almost the epitome of the kvetching that comes from a place of deep pain.
Before we get to the story, God sets the stage by teaching Moses a few important ritual laws, or chukim, about what happens to the people who come in contact with a corpse: the people in the chevra kaddisha, or the family, or the grave diggers, or the caregivers.
These people are considered tamei, which is usually translated as unclean, certainly ritually unclean. Ritual impurity is also imparted through exposure to bodily fluids that might be said to have to do with life: menses, semen and childbirth. What these all seem to be related to are the source of Life and Death. When one is tamei, one has been in contact with life forces or death forces, and so needs to be separated from the community for awhile and from the mishkan, from the center of holiness. It’s as though it is all just a little too powerful and dangerous.
So those are the rules, for, I think, everyone’s safety.
Then, part way through the parasha, Miriam the prophetess dies and is buried. And that’s it. No more mention. The death ritual is – dead and buried and moving on.
How did this work out for us?
Immediately afterwards, we started to kvetch again: we were thirsty. The midrash connected to this moment is that Miriam had been granted access to a well of living waters during her lifetime, for all those moments of righteousness, a well that sustained us for those long years in the wilderness. Upon her death, the well disappeared and we were thirsty. And scared and sad.
And what did we do with these emotions?
We gathered against Moses and Aaron, to the point where Moses called us morim, or rebels.
But the interesting thing, pointed out by my teacher, Tamar Frankiel, is that morim and Miriam use the same consonants and so, in the torah, look alike. Was he really calling them rebels, or had he accidentally called out to his sister in his grief?
This seems to me such a poignant moment. Miriam, who had been with them for 38 years in the wilderness, had provided them with water, had led singing and dancing, had helped to organize them out of slavery, was dead and now everyone was on agitated edge, had no patience, acting the way people in grief often act. And so they ganged up on their leaders: Why aren’t you taking better care of us? Are we going to die of thirst right here in this wilderness? Do something!
And so Moses called out to God, who gave him the instructions about the rock and its miraculous water giving powers. We drink, Moses gets in trouble, by reacting in his own grief: remember, he hit the rock rather than softly speak to it, as God had instructed.
So everyone is handling grief as though we had not processed it well. We all know of experiences like that: families lashing out at each other; people with unresolved grief, still being challenged by their grief issues, even years or decades later so that it leaks out in weird moments.
So the end of this parasha is quite revelatory: now it is Aaron’s turn to die, and this time, we do things completely differently: Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son Eleazar are instructed to climb the Mt. Hor, in full view of the people and Moses removes Aaron’s priestly garb and puts it on Eleazar, who will become the head priest. They create a ritual for the succession, they let everyone see it. They stay with Aaron until he dies, up on the mountain top. And the people stay in place and lamented or cried for him for a full 30 days, what we call shloshim.
This is one of those moments when I think – wow, the Torah is really teaching us a number of valuable lessons:
1. First, learn from your mistakes. That first death of a leader didn’t go so well for us, maybe we need to find a new way to do it. Evolving new and better ways is a good thing, just as Jewish tradition evolves continuously, even in the torah itself, as we see here.
2. Second, take the time you need to mourn properly. Don’t short-change yourself. Or the others around you. And by the way, treat it not unlike the oxygen masks on an airplane: deal with your grief first, but do NOT forget to help the young ones around you to deal with it either.
3. Third, ritual helps in those moments of transition, and public ritual is all the better.
Early in our history as a people, we recognized the importance of being careful and thoughtful and taking the time we need when we come close to new life and end of life, those all powerful transitions into and out of the world we know. At the memorial service I officiated this week, the sister of the deceased gave her hesped, the Hebrew term for a eulogy, which is Greek for good words. We aren’t so stuck on “good words” – we go for the full picture, the full lament, the honesty. We don’t pretend that someone was wholly good, because who is? And we don’t pretend that we are in a space to celebrate one’s life: we understand that we are mourning. We can tell happy stories – indeed we are encouraged to tell the full range of stories – about the person. But celebrating? Not so much.
As always, it is about knowing ourselves, knowing from our family history – our very long family history – what has worked well, and what has worked less well, and building on that.
When we’re thirsty, we worry. That’s in our blood and our genes. When we’re faced with a problem, we try to learn from our mistakes. And when we face loss, we take the time to be with it: no running off to work, or to play, just sit and be.
May we continue to learn from our mistakes and grow to embrace the changes that work.