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Torah Commentary
Chukat (July 16, 2016)

Jessica Ingram, Director, Member Services

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, is heavy with grief, in many shapes and forms, permeating every element of the narrative. We first learn of the death of Miriam. There is no mention of a burial or communal mourning, but immediately following the announcement of her death, we read that there is a scarcity of water. The Sages of the Talmud created a beautiful midrash from this juxtaposition: Because of Miriam’s integrity, enthusiasm and courage, a well followed her throughout the desert, and upon her death, the well dried up.
The people, tired after so many years of wandering, and now thirsty, begin to complain. They lash out at Moses and Aaron, wondering why they were brought out of Egypt only to perish in the wilderness. This leads to the well-known story of Moses striking a rock to produce water, rather than speaking to it as God has commanded. Subsequently, Moses and Aaron are told they will not enter the Promised Land.

The Israelites ache with thirst after Miriam’s death, and what mourner has not felt a similar pain when dealing with the loss of someone whose passion for life made us feel more alive? Moses disregards God’s command regarding the rock, letting his anger and frustration get the better of him, but who among us has not been overcome with emotion, letting impulse guide our actions or words?

Aaron’s death later in the reading is quite different from Miriam’s: The entire community gathers, and Moses and Aaron ascend to a mountain top, where Moses takes Aaron’s priestly garments and puts them on Aaron’s son Eleazar, who will carry them literally and symbolically into the next generation. Aaron dies, and the people of Israel mourn for 30 days.

And yet, loss and grief are not limited to death. We might criticize the Israelites for complaining about the challenges of their newfound freedom, but it is impossible to deny that they are, in many ways, grappling with the loss of stability they once knew. In Egypt there was an order amidst the chaos; they knew what to expect and how to brace themselves for it. As they approach the Promised Land, their trusted leaders are dying, and how much is uncertain and unknown becomes more clear and unnerving.

Moses too, must come to terms not only with his own mortality but also the loss of having worked so hard to achieve a dream that will remain just beyond his grasp. Another midrash teaches that in his last hours of life, Moses prayed for the opportunity to enter the Land of Israel. When God refused, he begged to just be able to live, even on the other side of the Jordan. That too was refused, but Moses did not give up, instead begging to live not as a man but as a bird.

As Jews, we find comfort in reading each Torah portion every year, finding new meanings depending on where our lives have taken us and what is going on in the world. I write this reflection on a morning when I, too, am heavy with grief and see so much of the loss and anguish described here reflected in our country and our world. I hope that this week’s parashah gives meaning and purpose to our lives by helping us to be aware of and sensitive to the grief of Moses and the Israelites and the grief of so many families who are waking up today with an empty place in their homes and hearts. I hope we can honor the legacies of our story’s leaders by living the ideals they embodied: Miriam’s integrity and enthusiasm for life, Aaron’s dedication to tradition and the transmission of our values to the next generation, and Moses’ unwavering commitment to the pursuit of freedom in the Promised Land.

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