Slow, Structured Process Invaluable for Dealing with Grief

What can we glean from these various episodes to help us better frame our own ways of dealing with the end-of-life and other important transitions?

Parshat Chukat
I am ever-amazed by the ways in which Jewish traditions to mark the end of life are so incredibly useful.
They provide a structure for mourners to emerge out of their grief in stages over the course of a year and help to frame the loss through giving tzedakah and doing other life-affirming actions in the deceased’s memory and honor.
End-of-life themes animate much of the narrative in this week’s parshah, Chukat. The parsha connects to death in at least four different ways: It recounts the biblical purification ritual used by someone who came into contact with a corpse; it describes the Israelites’ longing for death rather than face the tribulations in the desert; it details the death of Moses’ brother, Aaron, and his burial atop Mount Hor; and it ends with the enigmatic episode featuring God’s agents of death, the seraph serpents, as punishment for the people’s disobedience and doubt.
What can we glean from these various episodes to help us better frame our own ways of dealing with the end-of-life and other important transitions?
From the accounts of the purification ritual and the communal grieving over the loss of Aaron, we are reminded that ritual is a helpful and even necessary medium for processing personal and communal grief. The enforced seven-day impurity and ablution rituals in Numbers 19 forces the mourner to acknowledge his/her feelings of loss, just as we do today during the seven-day shiva period. Similarly, the 30-day public mourning by the people after the loss of Aaron (Numbers 20:29) allowed the Israelites time to grieve and adjust to the new reality before embarking again upon their journey.
The Torah’s report of this mourning process echoes the modern practice of shloshim, which provides mourners an extra 30 days of semi-mourning to ease back into their regular lives. These Jewish traditions that require mourners to step back from their normal routines create important space for conscious and unconscious processing of loss.
Anger, another element of dealing with loss, is also central to the parsha. Throughout the Torah, we read about the “kvetchy” Israelites complaining during their journeys and, in Numbers 20:3 and 21:4-5, it happens again. While one might judge the Israelites as petty or immature, another way to understand their continual turn to complaint is as a result of their need to acknowledge the loss and displacement they experienced leaving Egypt.
Responses by God and Moses to stifle anger through plague may not allow this part of the grieving cycle to run its course. This being said, we also learn from the parsha that uncontrolled anger can be toxic. As one early modern commentator, the Or Ha-hayyim notes, the seraph serpents that God unleashes can be understood as the mirror reflection of the people’s unmanaged negative speech against Moses and God. Many of us may have experienced instances when families turn on each other after the passing of a loved one — a way in which pent-up anger is vented without control.
The stories in the parsha reinforce the notion of how difficult it is for people to change their patterned responses to hardship and loss. The Israelites can’t seem to turn off the complaining. Moses seems stuck in his anger (as when he strikes the rock for water), and even God seems to have a very short fuse of patience.
But the parsha also points to redemptive outcomes for people struggling with loss. It notes the importance of time as a healer. It emphasizes the importance of giving structure to a mourning period. And it cautions us to remember our own fragility and range of emotions that we experience during a mourning period.
In her chapter on “Jewish Rituals Across the Life Cycle” in the book A Guide to Jewish Practice, Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein writes that ritual “provides a structure that can help us to fully embrace new realities, transporting us to an experience of holiness (kedushah) beyond the realm of words and helping us to connect with the spiritual and emotional significance of the transition.”
By allowing ourselves to slowly move through transition and loss in a structured way — whether in seven days, 30 days or whatever the right amount of time — we can create a path to holiness and perhaps avoid some of the pitfalls that our ancestors encountered in leaving Egypt and wandering toward the unknown.
Rabbi Nathan Martin is the director of student life at RRC and associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel of Media. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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