"To whom shall I turn when the clouds of the present eclipse the rays of tomorrow?... I enter the sanctuary, again, to await the echo of your promise. — Rabbi Harold from “When I Cry”
Unlike the preceding Parshat Korach and others, such as Yitro and Chayeh Sarah, this parshat does not begin, nor is it titled, with the name of a person. However, not one, but two, foundational Biblical characters, Miriam and Aaron, die here.
Although it has become Jewish custom to remember and call out the names of our deceased, Miriam and Aaron’s names are embedded within this parshat, rather than being part of the introduction and, by extension, the title. Why is this the case? Might Torah be telling us that the deaths of Miriam and Aaron have greater implication than respective, individualized lessons? Might the end of their lives become some sort of spiritual, super-charged fuel that moves an entire people over time and space? Might that really be the “Decree?”
We do not know how Miriam died and there is minimal reference to circumstances surrounding such a profound communal loss. The biblical text indicates that Miriam died and was buried in the wilderness of Zin. In the absence of this remarkable giver of water, the people suffered, once again, for lack of water. More detail is given to the death of Aaron in terms of location upon a mountaintop, along with the ritual of removing his priestly garments, which were given to Eleazar, the representative of the next generation to carry on the priestly duties. Furthermore, a month of public mourning was commanded upon his death. This biblical reference establishes our initiation into Jewish tradition’s rituals surrounding end of life.
The death of a loved one sends the winds of change blowing fiercely through the lives of survivors. Regardless of how one may have felt during the lifetime of the deceased, nothing will ever be the same. If we look at death in relationship to other kinds of endings, such as graduations, termination of a job or the parting with a significant other, we discover a different sort of holy ground. This ground may feel unstable, unfamiliar and indeed almost unmanageable from a feelings perspective. Additionally, this ground may be understood as much less desirable than that which buttresses the familiar and the predictable.
Rabbi Anne Brenner speaks about a name for God, “HaMakom” or, “The Place.” While embracing significant change, it can be helpful to address the Divine Presence as a place of meeting, or a place where God surrounds us and holds us. In her discussions about life cycles, Rabbi Brenner applies another, related name for God: HaMakom Y’nachem, The Holy Place of Comfort. Change can be a call for healing. Healing, when it is done well and when it allows for the thorough release of psycho-spiritual toxins obstructing restoration, draws forth improved quality of life. HaMakom Y’nachem, The Holy Place of Comfort, facilitates wholeness, closing the gap between what was and what will be, so that any improvements can securely stand.
Jewish tradition demands our presence. The gift of presence makes us vulnerable to change. Our vulnerability causes us to simultaneously pay attention and take action. Timely action enables us to dance with change upon the sacred ground that supported our ancestors. In the enterprise of living, sameness lacks sustainability. But sacred ground endures and this ground gives us the courage to survive, reconfigure and thrive in new and untold ways. Fear not, my friends, for Divine Comfort is at hand and the best is yet to be. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder is the spiritual leader of Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff.