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Reacting to Loss

In Genesis 50:10-11, Joseph observed a seven-day mourning period for his father Jacob, mourning bitterly and loudly. When the Caaanites witnessed this, they observed that the people were holding “a solemn ceremony of mourning.” From this we derive the practice of shiva where we observe a specific period of mourning for those close to us. After the mourning period was over, Joseph and the mourners returned to Egypt to resume their daily lives.

In this week’s parsha, Hukat, Aaron dies and “all the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.” (Num. 20:29) Eleazar, Aaron’s son, becomes the High Priest and the journey continues. Later, when Moses dies “… the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. So the days of weeping and mourning for Moses ended.” (Deuteronomy 34:8) We are taught that the time for mourning has a definite ending, 30 days. Joshua, Moses’ successor, then takes on the task of entering and conquering the Promised Land. From these deaths we learn the practice of shloshim, the thirty day period when we continue our mourning, still with restrictions but less so than during shiva.

There is one more death to note. We also learn this week that the People arrived in Kadesh and “Miriam died there and was buried there.” (20:1) There is no ceremony, no mourning; and there is no person stepping up to take Miriam’s unofficial function. How do the People react? By doing what they usually do when faced with hardship: they kvetch about something that may or may not be related to Miriam, the lack of clean water.

So what do we learn from Miriam’s death? Were the People at this time hard-hearted fools, unable to experience the pain and loss of Miriam? I don’t think so. I believe the message here is that that life goes on. That people will react differently to the same circumstances at different times. Even circumstances as familiar to us as the loss of an important person in our lives.

For some people, the loss of a loved one causes life to stand still, creating a sort of paralysis that precludes engaging in our normal daily activities for a period of time. For others, a similar loss causes internal feelings and reactions that we don’t understand and are not comfortable with. So we resort to a behavior that we engage in when we are not content, when there is something bothering us that we don’t know how to cope with. In this case, the complaining and whining that characterized B’nei Israel’s years in the desert.

What lesson do we derive from all this? We are fortunate to belong to a tradition that gives us a framework for coping with loss. It recognizes the different stages people go through after losing someone close and, like a protective cloak, gives us the extra security to gradually reemerge into the reality of living our now changed daily lives. But our religion is also a practical one. It recognizes that we are human and fallible and therefore quirky. We might lose someone important and because of our fallibility we cannot mourn “properly.” Perhaps we are afraid, perhaps the loss is too large to comprehend straight away or ever. So, as in the case of Miriam’s death, we revert to behaviors that are not noble but are certainly human. And then, once the reaction has subsided, life continues on.

  • Think back to times when you experienced the loss of a loved one. Did the traditions of mourning work for you or did you find yourself in need of something else?
  • Given the different reactions to the deaths of characters in the Torah, do you think the Torah is providing commentary on the importance or place of that person in the lives of our people?

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