Hukkat 5770: Who Mourns with Moses?

We read this week:

1 And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. 2 And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people strove with Moses, and spoke, saying: ‘Would that we had perished when our brethren perished before the LORD! 4And why have ye brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, to die there, we and our cattle? 5 And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.'[Numbers 20]

Once again we have mumbling in the camp. Yet this time there is another element: Miriam has died. Tradition tells us that the two events were related. From early in the exodus Miriam was responsible for the micracle of a continuous water supply for the people. With her death, the water stops.

Moses, as Miriam’s brother, is probably distraught. While for much of the rebellions we have seen in the book of Badmidbar be keeps an even temper even in the face of a very angry God. Yet here, he loses his temper, and in the aftermath he loses the privilege to go into Israel.

8. Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink.’ 9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He commanded him. 10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them: ‘Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?’ 11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. {S} 12.And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them. [Numbers 20]

The interpretations of this event have been many, but here I stick with one of the simplest and most emotional: Moses was not allowed to mourn for his sister. Additionally, the people were too busy complaining to pay respect to Miriam. While they showed her respect when she was ill with Tzarat by keeping the camp near her, in this case she was totally ignored. Or was she?

At the time of her illness, the people were not respectful but selfish. Their aim was simple: stay close to the water supply. It had nothing to do with honoring Miriam, but honoring the water she supplied. They liked their infrastructure but never really gave the person a second thought. This was what angered Moses. Not only was everyone complaining, which was nothing new, they did not honor either Miriam, Moses or Aaron as people. They did not honor Miriam’s memory by giving Moses space to grieve. So, as many of us would probably do, Moses lost his temper.

I started to write this last week about this at the same time someone I knew in college died of a sudden heart attack. While I did not know him very well, he was part of that circle of people who I spent time with. For some reason, this death hit me very hard. I cried when I heard it, and could not stop. For some reason, I needed to grieve. I’ve realized we often have different levels of grief for people who are varying distances from us. Immediate family and spouses we of course we grieve the most. Friends we grieve for too. But as we get further away, this are a bit more spotty in our grieving process. Some who died halfway across the planet we hardly give a second thought to. As I found this week, sometimes we just need to grieve, we need to release the feelings we have about Death. Some do this by burying them, some release them. I needed release. I needed something to do. With no address of his widow, I did the best thing I could think of: I wrote the blessing for bad news on my deceased friend’s Facebook page: Baruch Dayan HaEmet. I then wrote to his closest friends, who were also friends of mine and gave my condolences to them on their pages. It did in some way help. I also cried, before I left my office to take the long drive home. I cried some more on several occasions during that evening.

That reminded me of another friend of mine from college. We were in the same dorm freshman year, the year he pledged to a fraternity. As pledges they had to put on a party and he was in charge of a lot of it. Suddenly his mother had a dangerous relapse of cancer. Instead of being there for support him in his time of crisis, the other pledges were only yelling at him to get things done for the party. Not only was he hundreds of miles away from his mother, but getting grief from his pledge brothers to put the party together. Following a bit of advice from me, he ended up quitting the fraternity over the lack of support he got.

Moses and Aaron must have felt this way, with all the responsibilities on them. Always in the spotlight and required not by just the people but by God to be something other than human. While God seems to punish Moses and Aaron for their crankiness, thinking of my friend, I believe the dynamic here my be something else. There is point when we do need to grieve and deal with our personal emotions. We cannot be Moses and Aaron all the time. Even Moses and Aaron cannot be Moses our teacher and Aaron the High Priest all the time. There are personal moments they need for themselves and their own emotions. Sometimes the only thing we really need at that point is just to have someone listen, to have people give us the permission and the space to grieve. I remember calling my friend one summer break when his mom did succumb to the cancer. While he talked for an hour, I remember one sentence he told me form that conversation. He was grateful that I just sat on the other side of the phone and let him unload everything he was thinking. I just listened, not consoled or any thing else, just listened.

No one listened to Moses and Aaron when Miriam died. Water is a critical component of tears. Maybe the water stopped flowing because the people didn’t flow water from their own eyes for Miriam. Why did God say to speak to the rock? God directions was a very deep, healing wisdom. Like I typed my grief and mourning into an inanimate keyboard to some Facebook database, when we are grieving, and there is no one to listen we can even talk to a rock.

8. Take the rod, and gather the assembly together, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their beasts drink.[Numbers 20]

The text does not say what they were to say, if there was an incantation or formula for bringing for the water from a rock. Not apparent in the English is that God commands both Moses and Aaron to speak — the “you” is plural. The Brothers of Miriam were to speak of their pain to the rock, because the people were not listening nor empathizing with it. Their job was to eulogize Miriam on that rock and let the tears flow from everyone, and then the rock would flow water.

They may not have learned many lessons in their time in the desert, but this idea of mourning they did learn. We read at the end of the chapter:

28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount; and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount.29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel. [Numbers 20]

This time, with Moses the people mourn thirty days.Today we have learned to mourn differently.From the funereal to the seven days to the thirty day to the eleven months there are different stages of mourning. There is saying Kaddish, and there is the responsibility of the community to visit the mourners during shiva, the seven days. As part of that tradition I gave my friend probably the greatest gift — a shiva call of just listening, something that is so rare these days in most of society. There are immense numbers of commentaries on this portion, trying to figure out why Miriam, Aaron and Moses died when they did, never to see the Promised Land. I believe it was to teach their very last very important lesson: to grieve with the mourners.

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