Numbers When Mourning Is Not Yet Done (Parshat Hukkat, Numbers 19:1-22:1)
Shabbat can function as a break from the unbearably real. We spend our week not only consumed by our personal struggles, large and small, but also tuned to the news, sometimes stunned by, sometimes merely inured to, the near-constant reminders of how broken is the world in which we dwell. Then come the 25 hours of respite that Shabbat provides. For those, me included, who have the practice of disconnecting from electronic devices for the day–the troubles of work and of the world, of personal spats and reports of war on other continents, all fade to the background, replaced by the routines of ritual and community, prayer and schmoozing.
I am embarrassed to admit that that is how this past Shabbat largely functioned for me. After spending the week glued to my Facebook and Twitter feeds, stunned by the murders of Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, and the five police officers shot in Dallas, I drifted into a ritual-induced forgetfulness of how the world around me was on fire.
But this coming Shabbat provides no such respite, because Parshat Hukkat is all about death. It begins with the law of the red heifer, a complex and detailed ritual involving multiple sprinklings of water and laundering of clothes. This ritual takes one who has been in the presence of mortality from a state of un-readiness that the Torah calls tamei (more commonly rendered “impure”) to the restored status of tahor (ready, or pure), prepared to reenter social life and participate in the community’s central institutions.
But the parashah also tells the tale of two deaths—Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses. Indeed, the death of Miriam follows immediately on the heels of the red heifer ritual, and this juxtaposition exacerbates what I already feel as a painful brevity in the Torah’s description of Miriam’s demise. The Torah does not relate any preparations for the death of this prophet, nor do we read of any mourning for her. The Torah simply relates that “The Israelites, the entire congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin…and there Miriam died, and she was buried there” (Numbers 20:1).
Thankfully, the rabbis expand on this single-verse description. Connecting Miriam’s death with the purifying force of the red heifer described immediately prior, they claim that her death demonstrates the redemptive power of the death of the righteous. Turning their gaze forward to the verses following (“There was no water for the congregation…”), they describe the well that followed the Israelites through the wilderness, providing them with water, given specifically through her merit. With Miriam’s passing, the well vanished, leaving the people thirsty in the desert.
Miriam’s well, in this rabbinic tradition, is one of three dedicated gifts that Aaron, Miriam, and Moses provided. Because of Aaron, this midrash continues, the Jewish people received protective clouds of glory. Like Miriam’s well, these too departed when their patron passed away. But the merit of the remaining living siblings restored these gifts, such that Miriam’s well and the clouds of glory continued to support the Israelite nation in their journey to the Promised Land. Only when Moses, the special sponsor of the manna, died, were all three gifts irrevocably retracted.
This slow creeping progress of death points up another development: with each death, the people are getting better at responding to loss. Above, I noted the jarring terseness of Miriam’s death. Aaron’s death receives a more dignified description; when the people hear of his death “the whole House of Israel cried for Aaron for thirty days” (Num 20:29). Unlike the case of Miriam’s death, here the people respond with mourning.
But when we reach the conclusion of the Torah’s narrative in Deuteronomy, we find an even more developed reaction: “The Israelites cried for Moses…for thirty days, and the days of crying, the mourning of Moses, were concluded” (Deuteronomy 34:8). The burial that Miriam received was not sufficient; nor were the tears the people shed for Aaron. Mourning is not done, the Torah tells us, until it’s done. It takes time, and it takes more than just tears—after the crying, there is something, an action, which must bring it to its close.
Perhaps that’s why those special gifts that Aaron, Miriam, and Moses brought us were finally taken away with Moses’ death—the Israelites’ responded to death with more than just a perfunctory burial, with more than mere emotion, but with a completed and concluded process of mourning signaled that we finally got it. Even a single death is a loss of enormous consequence, something that demands our full attention.
Indeed, that is the whole point of the opening of our parashah, that long and complex description of how to become pure when death has made you impure. We read elsewhere in the Torah about how to go from tamei to tahor, but no such process is as long and involved as that to be performed in the face of death. Because when even a single human life is lost, when we encounter that loss, see it face to face, it’s not enough to cry—we need to engage in real action to help move ourselves and those around us from a place of un-readiness to readiness. And that process takes time—you can’t rush it, you can’t do in one day what must take seven, you can’t transform through one statement or action what requires an ongoing commitment and continued performance to be transformed.
We’re now in the week after—after the news kept us glued to our screens, after being unable to avoid thinking about how cruelty and a failure to see another person’s humanness destroyed human lives, there before our eyes. This is the week when, at least for those of us whose privilege of race and class allow it, we might begin to exit the charged moment of crying in the face of loss, of the violent taking of life, when we might settle for the tears we shed last week.
Don’t do that. There has not yet been enough crying, and there has not yet been enough responding. This weekend will come, this Shabbat will come, and some of us—again, those of us whose social positions make our activism only a part of our lives, rather than the whole of them—some of us will start to calm down, to step back from the ledge we’ve been on. But when we read Parshat Hukkat this week, we must remember: We have not yet cried enough, and our mourning is not yet done. And the action–and activism—it demands has barely begun.
Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg is an assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School. Interested in social justice? Learn about the Rabbinical School’s new Spirituality and Social Justice Certificate, open to rabbinical students & alumni, clergy, and community members who make social justice central element of their work. Community members may choose to take a single course, a few courses, or complete all the courses in the track to earn a certificate.