It never fails that a congregant in mourning mentions how the process of shiva has been healing. There is recognition that taking the appropriate time to reflect — on one’s loss and on the life of the deceased — creates openings for consolation and comfort that could not be foreseen as one entered into the process of mourning.
Most individuals, while not finished with their mourning, are ready to enter back into their regular routines when they get up from Shiva, take a walk around the block and return to their home, not as a place to sit and mourn, but rather as a place to live.
An amazing parallel is found in the parsha of Chukat, which this year we chant as part of the combined reading of Chukat-Balak. In Chukat we learn of the deaths of both of Moses’ siblings, first Miriam and then Aaron. We can contrast the stories that directly follow each passing to see the benefit of a ritualized mourning process.
Miriam’s death is immediately followed by a verse announcing a shortage of drinking water for the people. The Midrash tells us that drinking water had come from a well that traveled with the people through the desert. This well was granted due to the merit of Miriam, and when she died the well disappeared. It is this connection between Miriam and water that leads some to place a “Cup of Miriam” filled with water at the Seder table.
Due to the lack of water, there is rumbling from the Israelites. Moses goes to God, and God tells Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses strikes it with his staff. Many interpretations are given as to why Moses goes against God’s order. I posit that he was still grieving the loss of Miriam. In the text, there is no break between these episodes, no time for Moses to sit shiva, no time for him to be comforted by his community. With this stress and mental cloudiness Moses disregarded God’s decree, either out of anger or confusion, and struck the rock.
We find a different outcome if we look to the story of Aaron’s death. Once Aaron dies, we are informed that, “all the house of Israel mourned Aaron thirty days.” (Deut. 20:29) Following Aaron’s death, as they had with Miriam as well, the Israelites begin to complain: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Deut. 21:5) This is in reaction to their struggles in battles on their journey to Canaan. As punishment for their complaints God sent fiery snakes into the midst of the people. Many people were bit and died. God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, place it on a pole and raise it high for the people to see. Moses did this and those who gazed at it were healed.
Here Moses is able to act in a way that is healing for the people. Moses prays to God on behalf of the people in a levelheaded manner, without the angst that accompanied his approach to God following Miriam’s death. Moses follows God’s command to the letter and does not snap at the people as he did before.
We all carry pain and we all process our grief in different ways, but our sages set up the process of shiva and the subsequent mourning periods as a way for us to go through these tough times with the support of our community, as Moses did following the death of Aaron. God forbid anyone in our community should have to go it alone, as Moses did when Miriam passed. We are all strengthened when those in our community who grieve are able to find strength and return to their routines, having passed through these days with our support.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)