Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Time to Grieve

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven....a time to weep...." (Kohelet 3:1,4). In this weeks parsha of Chukat we are told of two times that warranted weeping. Yet, from what we can discern, only on one of those occassions did our ancestors in fact weep. Why?

Aharon dies in this weeks reading. In the aftermath of his death we read, "And when all the congregation saw that Aharon was dead, they wept for Aharon thirty days, even all the house of Israel." Yet earlier in the very same reading we are told Miriam died. On her death all we are told is that she was buried in the place of her death. There is no mention of mourning or of grief. What follows Miriam's death is the story of the drying up of the nation's water supply and their complaints to Moshe and Aharon. That leads to the sin of Moshe and Aharon at the "waters of quarrel" which caused them to have to die in the wilderness and not enter the Promised Land.

Why did the Israelites not cry and mourn Miriam? She too, like Aharon and Moshe was a communal leader. In fact, the miraculous well that gave the nation water all the years in the wilderness was in her honor. Our sages taught that the lack of water that followed Miriam's death was due to the fact that in her absence the well dried up. She was the one who led the women in song by the sea. It is for her, we read several weeks ago, that the nation waited before travelling when she was stricken with 'tzaraas' and left outside the camp. Why then no tears? Why no national mourning?

There is one commentary that says the reason the water supply dried up after Miriam's death was as a punishment for the People's failure to grieve her. He explained that G-d said to the Israelites, "Measure for measure. You failed to tear for Miriam. The well then will not tear and produce moisture for you."

What the commentary struggles to answer is why did the People not cry for Miriam. Why did they cry for Aharon and not her? While he offers an answer it does not seem satisfying.

I would like to suggest a different approach, one that emerges out of my years of providing care for those who go through loss. We know in our tradition its a mitzvah to cry for our dead. We are mandated to sit shiva and mourn. Its also a mitzvah for the community to support the mourners in their time of loss. We are called upon to see to their needs, that they have food and attention. We are charged to make sure that that their world is safe enough for them to let go, that they need not fear to be vulnerable enough to cry and lament their loss. I suggest that the people did not cry at Miriam's passing because immediately on her death they were thrust into a crisis. They had no water. It is not possible to grieve when one is in the midst of a battle for one's life, when one's world feels unsafe, when one is overwhelmed with fears. When Aharon died the nation also lost a great gift. Tradition tells us the Clouds of Glory ceased to hover over the camp. That too was a loss,but a loss not near as immediately felt as the absence of water felt on the passing of Miriam.
For Aharon the nation could feel safe enough to grieve. Not so for Miriam.

My understanding of the story is in concert with the Rambam's understanding of Moshe's sin at the well. He explained that Moshe's sin was in becoming angry with the People and inappropriately saying to them "Listen you rebels....." Rambam noted that we do not find that G-d had expressed anger at the People for their complaint. Moshe had no reason to chastise them. Yet we might understand Moshe's anger in the context of the story. Here his beloved sister died and he and Aharon are the only ones mourning. The People not only do not grieve, they come disturb his grief period with boisterous complaints. Its fascinating that the word Moshe used when he put down the nation is "rebel" in Hebrew "morim". The four letters of the word, mem resh yud mem are the same as the letters of his sister's name Miriam. Indeed from the Torah text itself the word rebel could be read Miriam. It seems clear that Moshe was troubled by the failure of his People to pay proper respect to his sister on her passing and why not?

Yet G-d did not hold the nation at fault here. He understood, as Kohelet taught us, "there is a time to grieve..." When we are overwhelmed by fear and anxiety we cannot be expected to cry. It does not mean the loss was not significant nor that our sadness is not real. It simply means now is not the time!

This is a most important concept to take to heart when we consider our own reactions to loss and the reactions of others. My daughter lost her mother to cancer when she was thirteen. Her tears were few. I struggled to understand her limitted reaction. I knew she loved her mother. Many young people don't grieve as we expect, whether it be a death or the break-up of the family through divorce. We often are surprised by their lack of emotionality. Yet we need know that the lack of tears and anger does not mean a lack of feeling or care. What is means is that their world feels too unsafe for them to allow themselves to be vulenrable. Often they fear their feelings if expressed will overwhelm them. They sense a need to wait for the time when they feel they can let go. It maybe months, it maybe years, or maybe never.(Of course these dynamics are not something the young person is conscious of. One cannot simply ask the young adult or child what they are feeling and why and expect a response).

And we too, as adults, are not different. The woman who after years of abuse breaks away from the offending husband, taking her children with her, will not likely feel the anger or sadness the dissolution of the family warrants. Its not that she does not have the feelings inside, nor is it that they don't need expression. But now she is fighting the battle of her life. She is seeking to secure a new future, provide for the family's needs. Its not a safe moment to take time-out and mourn for what was and is no longer. She will need to do it at another juncture in her life when the world feels safe and life has come to a place of repose.

We need to learn from the story of Miriam's passing to be gentler with ourselves and others in the aftermath of loss. We need to know that each of us has our own time to grieve, and our own time to hold-back tears. The lack of tears does not mean a lack of care. It simply means the time for us is not yet!

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

  1. Israel you have touched upon a topic I have given much thought to over the course of my volunteering for Pastoral Care. I have seen how people approach and then handle their grief in so many different ways. So true that just because there are no tears does not mean the person is not feeling the loss and experiencing the grief.I learned that because I may grieve in one way does not mean everyone else does too. Thank you for once again writing such a meaningful blog! Shabbat Shalom!