Torah reflects the human condition in a multitude of ways. Lest we forget what is real, the cycle of life is often repeated, and lessons about living in the space between birth and death are highlighted.
Parshah Balak informs us about a moral code where following orders without conscience results in a reversal of fortune. Curses are miraculously transformed into blessings. Here, Balaam and his remarkable talking donkey startle us awake.
We see how hatred and the cold, calculating pursuit of power over others may appear dominant for a time, but not forever. Instead, God ensures us that loving kindness toward people and animals prevails.
We are also reminded how death remains an inescapable consequence of being human. Two significant biblical characters die in Parshah Chukat: Aaron makes his departure (Num. 20:23-29) only after he relinquishes his role and vestments, literally and figuratively clothing the next generation of priests.
Although Miriam’s storyline concludes with her death (Num. 20:1), the ramifications of her departure are problematic. She was the bringer of water and her absence created a void and a life-threatening challenge. The people became afraid. Where will the water come from now?
Questions abound as Moses and B’nai Yisrael confront the locus of loss and change.
About 25 years ago, while facilitating a psychodrama workshop, I referenced particular biblical characters, including Miriam HaNavia and Aharon HaKohen Gadol. I asked the participants to imagine what about their lives was most meaningful to them.
Following a series of their suggestions — “saving baby Moses,” “surviving the sudden death of Nadab and Abihu” and “managing conflict with Pharaoh” — we acted out various scenarios. The purpose of this exercise was to investigate the healing power of meaning following a loss, whether it be because of death or other forms of separation.
Recently, I began a small group at Sun Health attending to loss. The addition of COVID-19 regulation masks and social distancing did not diminish the quality of engagement, nor the expressed pain of losses. Early on, we reviewed and discussed Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief.
I introduced the sixth stage identified by Kubler-Ross and her protégé, David Kessler: finding meaning.
Inspired by the work of Viktor Frankl, Kessler completed a book on this topic following the expected death of Kubler-Ross and the sudden, unexpected death of his own son. I emphasized that, as with the other stages, meaning is not achieved right away, nor is it discovered just once.
Rather, it unfolds over time and many times.
Our Jewish tradition gifts us with ancestors from whom we can learn and grow. In their stories, we are taught that in life, minutes are valuable and not to be wasted, especially because people can die at any age: Miriam and Aaron were older, while Rachel and Abel were younger.
Furthermore, we learn that the spirit, unlike the corporal body, is eternal. We activate enduring connections between Earth and Heaven when we honor a person’s spirit by remembering them.
In every Torah portion, we remember our ancestors. At every Yahrzeit, we remember our loved ones. Through the art of interpretation, we find meaning in the building blocks of their character and lessons from the arc of their life story.
In these ways, our quest for meaning outlives death, every time. Once we are able to identify that which is meaningful to us, we are enriched and we can heal.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to take some time in deep reflection and identify that which is meaningful. Listen carefully. Let your spirit soar, in union with new understandings. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder serves as the rabbi and chaplain for Sun Health Communities.