Chukat – Meaning from Mourning

As we were preparing for Ben’s Bar Mitzvah, his father Vlad shared a poignant story.  The background to the story is that both of Ben’s […]

As we were preparing for Ben’s Bar Mitzvah, his father Vlad shared a poignant story.  The background to the story is that both of Ben’s parents, Vlad and Natalie, were born in the former Soviet Union.  It was a place of oppression where Jews faced discrimination and state sponsored antisemitism.  If Judaism was practiced, it was behind closed doors in secrecy. The pain of those years ripples.  But the family came to America and Vlad described that at his Bar Mitzvah, the first in generations, he watched his father, Ilya, shed tears.  Those tears may have been tears of joy, reconnecting to a beautiful past, recommitting to the peoplehood and ethics of which had been deprived.  The tears may have been the expression of pain that had been overcome.

To celebrate Ben’s Bar Mitzvah, with all of his grandparents and his great grandmother, fills us with emotion. We are witness to a generation embracing their Judaism, a generation who, fifty years ago, we would have thought was lost. Reflecting with Vlad and Natalie about being from the former Soviet Union, we discussed the pain of the Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union and how important it is to acknowledge, listen to and integrate that pain which they experienced as we seek to live a life of meaning. Too often we pretend pain didn’t happen rather than to lift it up.

Thinking about Ilya’s tears reminds us that we need to create room for the pain of our past to be acknowledged and learn from it as we seek to embrace our true selves.  When pain is neglected and overlooked, as so many people do, it lingers and plays out through feeling angry or disconnected.  That is what happened in this morning’s Torah portion.  Miriam dies, and nothing happens.  In five quick words: Va’tamot sham Miryam, va’ti’kaver sham/Miriam died there and was buried there, the whole scene is over.  Then we immediately move on to the famous story of Moses being punished for hitting the rock, rather than speaking to it, in order to bring water.  There is no stopping to mourn or tell the stories of Miriam’s life.  There is no comforting of the mourners or communal acknowledgement of what has happened.

In the omission of detail, in this case not mourning the death of Miriam, powerful lessons emerge.  Death requires attention. We can’t simply go one with our business.  Moses and Aaron learn this the hard way.  It may be that, in not acknowledging grief and anger, Moses behaves in ways in which he otherwise would not have behaved.  He disobeys God’s instructions.  He speaks harshly to the people whom he had defended for so long.

Let’s look more deeply at this incident.  Moses had faced lack of water and the people rebelling before this incident and didn’t lose his temper. Furthermore, God told him exactly what to do; he had received the solution. Why didn’t he just follow the instructions?  He calls the Israelite rebels, harsh language.  But it has been decades since there was a rebellion.  This episode is at the end of the forty years in the wilderness.

Something else is going on and it is hinted at in the word Moses hurls at the people.  He calls the people morim/rebels.  But when you look at the Hebrew for “rebels”/morim, the word is spelled the exact same way as his sister’s Miriam’s name, mem, resh, yud, mem.  It is just vocalized differently.  Maybe Moses is crying out “Miriam!” in anguish from the loss he had not acknowledged.  Pain comes crashing out when we try to ignore it or push it away.

Bible commentator Tamar Frankiel suggests we read the verse as “Listen, please, Miriam!  Can we bring forth water from a rock? [as you did?]”  Perhaps we are witnessing Moses’ anguish of grief at losing the sibling who has been at his side for forty years.

In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks words, “Moses had lost his emotional equilibrium.  Miriam was his elder sister.  She had watched over his fate when, as a baby he had been placed in a basket and floated down the Nile.  She had the courage and enterprise to speak to Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest he be nursed by a Hebrew, thus reuniting Moses with his mother and ensuring he grew up knowing who he was and to which people he belonged.  He owed his sense of identity to her. She was his friend and confidant.  She may have been the one who knew how to ground him when he was feeling overwhelmed. She was the one who might have been able to help him from doing something as foolish as striking the rock and lashing out at the people.    When Moses doesn’t take time to grieve, when the Israelites don’t comfort him, his pain leads him to made crucial errors. Here is how Rabbi Sacks describes it: “Bereaved, you lose control of your emotions. You find yourself angry when the situation calls for calm. You hit when you should speak, and you speak when you should be silent. Even when God has told you what to do, you are only half-listening. You hear the words but they do not fully enter your mind.”

This lesson applies to us in our individual pain, and also to our communal pain.  Things cannot return to normal now that people are vaccinated.  We have experienced trauma and have to lift it up.  This also applies to the pain of racial hatred that has been part of our country’s history and may be why the new holiday of Juneteenth is so important.  Pain unprocessed will find expression in some way or another, and it will pass on to the next generation.  Let’s learn to stop avoiding, denying and sweeping pain aside.

Our portion teaches us the importance of taking time to grieve. When you do, you discover alternatives.  You find others to comfort you and share your pain.  You find compassion for yourself as you acknowledge what is real. Purpose, meaning and connection emerge.  We see those lessons play out later in the portion.  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.

After Aaron’s death, time is taken to grieve. “And the people mourned for Aaron thirty days – all the House of Israel.”  You can imagine people sharing stories and lessons, tears and comfort.   As pain is lifted up, there is an opportunity for healing and reflection. Before he dies, Aaron passes down his legacy, in the form of his priestly garments, to his son, Eleazar. Aaron is connected to his brother Moses as he dies, surrounded by love. In describing Aaron’s death, the text says “Yay’asef Aharon el amav/Aaron gathered to his people.  In Etz Chayim, it interprets that Aaron’s good qualities now enter into the souls of this who knew him and those qualities were not lost even after his death.

Death is always painful, the pain never leaves. But when you allow it to be acknowledged and felt; you come to insight. You find that there may be ways to transform it into purpose, which brings dignity and purpose.  Today I want to lift up the memory of Jeff Astor, his parents Steve and Merry, his sister Beth, and other family members are joining us today.  Jeff worked at Camp Arazim when I directed it. He was also in youth group when I worked on the staff at regional events. At camp, he was Mr. Fix It.  We had purchased a run-down site that needed so much work, tent foundations to lay, benches to build, so much to do!  And there was Jeff, with his tool belt, hammer and a big smile.  He was kind and caring.  He had a light and gentle spirit which lifted up those around him.  Jeff died in a plane crash thirty years ago at age twenty-four.

Steve and Merry formed the Jeff Astor Foundation to continue Jeff’s legacy, by contributing to organizations and causes they think would have been meaningful to him.  They have supported sports programs and venues at Jewish summer camps.  They have supported the Israel Goldstein Youth Village in Jerusalem and programming for children with special needs at Friendship Circle.  They purchased a Magen David Adom ambulance and for this thirtieth anniversary of his death, they are sponsoring a campaign to raise $100,000 for Israel’s fourteen Tennis and Education Centers for Underprivileged and Special Needs Children. The Tennis Centers are more than just courts to learn how to play; they are places where underprivileged children receive mentoring and love.  Through sports, connections are made and confidence is gained.  Mimi and I are supporting the campaign as a way of acknowledging the pain of Jeff’s loss and allowing his legacy to continue by engaging in acts of love which transform lives. There are flyers available so you can join us, and the website is – www.jeffastorfoundation.org.

When someone we love dies, we feel that pain.  The pain is always there. As we grieve and reflect, tell the stories, and think about how to honor their memory through our actions; pieces of healing begin to emerge. We learn that memory inspires. We allow the values of our loved ones to live through our acts done in their memory.  We discover that underneath pain we find the most genuine and compassionate pieces of ourselves.

Can we transform loss into kindness and loving acts to honor memories?      Can we take suffering and use it to rededicate ourselves to meaning and purpose?

The losses of Miriam and Aaron, the inspiration of Vlad and Natalie’s families after suffering persecution, the goodness done in Jeff Astor’s memory, all remind us to respond to pain by being a blessing.  We can never restore what has been taken. The ache is always there, but we can allow it to bring us to new paths, dreams, purpose and deeper love, and there is healing in that truth.