Telephone Torah Study: Embracing the Gift of Grief


This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Num. 19:1-21:1), records Miriam’s death in one pithy verse, Miriam died there and was buried there. Unlike the 30 day mourning period for her brother Aaron, who dies later in the Torah portion, neither her brothers nor the community formally observe Miriam’s death.

Even though the Torah declares Miriam a “prophet,” a designation never bestowed on Aaron. Instead the Torah quickly turns to a seemingly unrelated topic: the heated quarrel between Moses and the Israelites over the absence of water and its dramatic fallout, God banning Moses from entering the Promised Land.

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Rabbi Lisa Edwards believes these seemingly unrelated events are linked. In her URJ commentary on Chukat, ‘The Gift of Grief,’ she argues that unaware grief and unresolved loss can lead to grave consequences as in this case.

In an almost imperceptible yet seismic shift, this week’s Parshat Chukat jumps us a few decades ahead in the wilderness journey of the Israelites. Maybe we need a movie screen caption that reads, “thirty-eight years later.”

Perhaps the time shift is difficult to notice because not much else has changed. Early in the portion, seemingly from out of nowhere, we read: “Miriam died there and was buried there,” (Numbers 20:1). Although she was the sister of Moses and Aaron, and a leader herself in the Israelite community, no more detail is given of what happened when Miriam died. No cause of death is given, no age at death, no description of mourning. We don’t even know who buried her. “Died and buried” is all Miriam gets for her long years of service.

Or is it? The very next verse tells us “the community was without water” (20:2). This juxtaposition is to teach us, writes Rashi (France, eleventh century), that the Israelites “had water for the whole forty years from [Miriam’s] well on account of the merit of Miriam.” Abraham ibn Ezra (Spain, twelfth century) disagrees, noting an absence of water long before Miriam died (Exodus 17:1, for example).

Whatever the reason, it seems to be their thirst, rather than Miriam’s death, that brings the Israelites to whine and argue with Moses and Aaron. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place?” (Numbers 20:5). Poor Moses, Aaron, God, and us as well, we’ve heard all this before—almost forty years ago and from a different generation. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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Torah Passage of the Week

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. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of Adonai! Why have you brought Adonai’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place; a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 20:1-5).

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