“Death and Mourning”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, BCC, ‘07
Chukat presents a provocative narrative that illuminates aspects of death, grief and mourning. We discover the roots of some of our rituals: sitting Shivah (for seven days), mourning through Shloshim (for thirty days), and washing our hands after leaving a cemetery. While the import of the ritual of the Red Heifer remains somewhat of a mystery, the power of its legacy remains with us in our rites of spiritual passage from one state of being to another through death, and also in our understanding of sex and birth being linked to mortality.
When we have been in contact with death, God tells us how to cleanse ourselves with the waters of niddah, which combine mei chayyim (living waters) with the ashes of an unblemished red heifer that has been ritually slaughtered and cremated. After contact with death, we remain unclean for seven days and we are purified through the ritual of washing with the waters of niddah, corresponding to the seven days of Shivah and the ritual of washing our hands upon leaving a cemetery and a house of mourning. (Using flowing water as a purification rite also leads to the mikvah/ ritual bath that is used as a purification method when we move from one state of being to another.)
We begin with the waters of niddah as the antidote for contact with death. Then, Miriam dies. Then, Aaron dies. And we know that Moses will die as well. The generation that brought the Israelites through the desert is deserting them. However, through God’s Grace, the Israelites are given lessons that teach them how to deal with death.
Biblical Midrashic stories reiterated through feminist commentary, contrast the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. When Miriam dies, the people become angry and upset. There has been no succession and Miriam’s Well that provided water disappears with her. Clearly, Moses is distraught at her death and the disturbance it has raised. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock, to access water, and Moses instead hits the rock. God is so angered by this that God informs both that neither will enter the Promised Land. This is huge failure of succession. Thus, when Aaron is about to die, God makes sure that the succession is clarified. Moses deliberately passes the high priesthood from Aaron to his son. When Aaron dies, the Israelites grieve for thirty days, corresponding to Shloshim the ritual second stage of mourning rituals.
Through this set of ritual and rites of passage, the Torah gives us the foundation for establishing our roadmap through death, loss, and grief. We deeply mourn for seven days, understanding that we are in a period of “tomei” of impurity. We have passed from one stage of life to another and are in a liminal state of separation. It is fascinating that the Hebrew word ‘niddah’ means separation as does ‘kaddesh’, the root of the word sanctification and the prayer for the dead (and the name of the place where Miryam is buried). It is interesting to ponder the nature of those separations. They don’t signify isolation and they don’t imply exclusion. They merely indicate that when people are in the state of mourning, they need to be separated from the normality of their lives.
Symbolically, one has to separate from death through the waters of niddah, through a ritual that breaks through the pattern of deep grief into mourning. In the period of shloshim, we mourn, but we go about our life, with a new consciousness. Our lives shift. Our relationships change. We are taught to prepare for these shifts, through succession and through knowing where our wells are, both physically and spiritually, lest we allow anger to cloud our judgment of how to behave.
With our mourning rituals, we can relate back to this enigmatic parashah that discusses death and its aftermath and gives us the mayyim chayim, the living waters, and the mai niddah, the water of separation, and the curious sacrifice of the red heifer. We are given a way to transition from ritual impurity to purity and whatever meaning we attribute to the transformation from one state of being to the other.