Chukat 2016 - 5776
Post date: Jul 15, 2016 4:00:44 AM
Parshat Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
There is much loss in this week’s parsha, for Moses and his family, and for the Israelite people. Both Miriam and Aaron die in the wilderness before reaching the Land of Israel. As if it were anticipating that loss, the Torah portion begins with a discussion of the red heifer as a sin offering, most importantly to purify those who have had contact with the dead.
The parsha then continues with the death of Miriam. After her death, the Torah tells us, there was no water for the people of Israel. The legend of Miriam is that wherever she was, there was also fresh water, but when she died, that well dried up. As they had done many times previously, the people came against Moses and Aaron, asking, “Why have you brought us into this wilderness, to die here?!”
In chapter 20, we have the famous story of Moses striking the rock to get water at Me’ri’vah. God tells Moses to speak to the rock, and it will give water to the people. Moses does not do as God commands, but rather hits the rock with his rod. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks rightly asks the question, what made Moses lose his temper at this point? Throughout his life, he had never defied God, but on this occasion, Moses acts on his own, defying God’s explicit command. Rabbi Sacks ties it to the death of his sister, Miriam. Moses was still grieving for the loss of the sister who saved his life as an infant.
Water comes forth for the people, and it seems that they are satisfied. At this point, God says to Moses and Aaron that they will not be permitted to enter the Land of Israel, because they have not believed in God and have not sanctified God to the people of Israel.
As a side note, this is an interesting form of punishment. God has been quite explicit about wanting all of the generation that had experienced life as slaves in Egypt to die before the community would be permitted to enter the Land of Israel. Moses and Aaron living to enter the Land would be an incredible display of either favoritism or elitism.
Shortly after the pronouncement from God that neither Moses nor Aaron would be permitted to enter the Land of Israel, Aaron dies. God reiterates that Aaron is dying without entering the Land because of Moses striking the rock for water. (Another side note – their behavior is described as m’ri’tem – rebellious – a play on the name of the location where this took place – me’ri’vah.) Aaron’s death does not come as a surprise. In fact, his death is clearly planned out by God.
God tells Moses that he should bring Aaron and Eleazar, Aaron’s son, up to Mount Hor. Aaron is to be stripped of his priestly garments, and the garments placed on Eleazar. After this, Aaron will yei’a’sef – cease to exist – and then will die. Moses does as God commands – taking Aaron’s priestly garments and placing them on his son – and Aaron dies. This happens in front of all the people of Israel. When they see that Aaron has died, the whole community mourns for thirty days.
The response of the people of Israel to Aaron’s death – an entire month of mourning – shows how powerful a leader Aaron was. What is interesting about his death, though, is not the aftermath but rather the preparation. The preparation for Aaron’s death includes both God’s clear instructions about how leadership will be passed on, as well as the very public nature of this transfer of leadership.
Why does God set up Aaron’s death in this manner? Why does God ensure that all the people watch as Aaron is stripped of his garments and the priesthood is handed down to his son? I think this is an important lesson in how we confront and handle loss.
We have the innate understanding that loss happens. We realize that people age, become ill, and suffer tragic accidents. For our own sanity, we push these realities away most of the time – if we did not, we would be consumed with anxiety and fear. However, there are times when loss is imminent, and pushing aside this reality is no longer useful.
When we know that someone is to leave us soon, it brings up both pain and fear – what will life be like without them? How will I manage? Will feelings of loneliness be overwhelm me? It is easy in this kind of circumstance to push away the knowledge that someone is dying. Our instinct may be to try to forget about it and live “normally.” The challenge with this approach is that death is not a normal part of life – it is the end of life. This means that we must treat dying differently than we treat living.
I think that this week’s parsha shows this lesson clearly. God realizes that the loss of Aaron will devastate the community. God understands this, and therefore prepares the community for this loss of one of their leaders. By bringing Aaron in front of the community and taking away his priestly robes, God is showing all the people of Israel that something tremendous is about to happen. It is not a typical or normal act to strip Aaron of his garments – rather, it signifies to all the people watching that something is changing. Loss is a terrible kind of change. But, like all other change, pushing it aside and pretending it will not happen only makes the change more traumatic.
In order to make the transition from Aaron to his son Eleazar, God shows the community clearly and without question that Aaron is dying. God does not hide or sweep away this loss, but rather makes the loss as public as possible. The result of God’s actions, in this case, is that the community is able to mourn together, and the priesthood is transferred seamlessly from Aaron to his son. Confronting loss and making it public allows us to come together, and to move forward as a community. In the famous words of Bill Withers, “No one can fill those of your needs that you won't let show.”