At one time or another in our lives each of us has suffered loss. And at one time or another each of us has had the opportunity to receive comfort and to offer solace. Having walked in the shoes of sorrow we know how important it is to stand by someone else who is now suffering.
Most of us have experienced Shiva; either visiting someone in a house of mourning or receiving comforters. We know the pain and emptiness. We know the challenge of trying to find the right words when none exists and the dread of being left alone after people leave even when we desperately need to be left alone. Entire books have been written about the power of Shiva; the importance of community members’ bringing food to the mourners and insisting they eat because mourners, left to their own confusion, will forget to eat. Each of us works through grief in a particular fashion but support by others is essential for us all.
This week’s Parsha, Parshat Chukat, ushers us into two very different Shiva experiences. Within the very same Parshah, Miriam the Prophet and Aharon the Great Kohen die. Remembering that Miriam guarded baby Moses floating in a river and led the women in celebratory song after crossing the Sea, we see her pivotal role in safeguarding the Israelites’ future by being active near water. No wonder that the Rabbis crafted a compelling and inspirational Midrash which describes a miraculous spring of water as appearing at every stop throughout the wilderness, providing Israel with water, because of the merit of Miriam. Yet, unlike the outbreak of weeping over Aaron’s death a bit later in the Parshah, the Israelites do not appear to weep or grieve at all over the death of Miriam (Numbers 20:1). Immediately after the mention of her death we can almost hear across the divide of 3,300 years the desperation of the Israelites who themselves are thirsting for water to such an extent they seem to be at death’s door. Might it be that they are so focused upon their own physical needs that they cannot even see that their leader Miriam has died before their very eyes?
Some paragraphs later her younger brother, Aaron, is described as dying and the entire nation of Israel weeps for 30 days (Numbers 20:29). Having slaked their thirst with the water brought forth form the rock and now standing nearly at the edge of the Promised Land the Israelites are in a different mental and emotional condition. Their eyes are open to their loss and they weep. As a community no longer facing a grave threat of extinction they are now able to grieve together.
Perhaps we can learn from these two different Shiva experiences. As members of a community we have a communal obligation – to share our perspectives with others who may be so preoccupied with their emergency needs that they are incapable of appreciating the losses we all share. A community grows in strength by being a community of caring and sensitivity.