We are told that “when the entire community saw Aaron had died, they mourned in memory for 30 days” (Numbers 20:22-29). And when Moses died (Deuteronomy 34:8): “The Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for 30 days.”
Yet there was a different response to Miriam’s death. We are simply told: “Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water.” Why was there a fleeting mention, a lack of mourning? Is she not deserving of the respect her brothers are given? In these simple words of Torah, I hear a depth of grief for Miriam which should be truly respected, especially at this time.
While Covid-19 is still restricting numbers at funerals and changing the nature of shiva houses beyond recognition, it’s important to recognise Miriam was mourned.
With Moses and Aaron, we experience what we are accustomed to. A community, a wider group of family and friends, coming together to express grief and sadness together.
However, perhaps it’s the mourning of Miriam to which we should all aspire. Immediately her loss is expressed by her absence in people’s lives. Torah expresses it as “thirst”. She was a leader who nourished people and her absence made them feel lacking in life-giving waters. When we mourn, recognising the legacy someone leaves and the absence felt in our lives is showing greater respect than all the public displays of grief ever could.
Within this month of Elul, perhaps reflecting on how our absence would be felt in other people’s lives is the best way of “cheshbon hanefesh”, an accounting of the soul and recognising how we can be the best version of ourselves. May we hope for a time we can mourn as we did for Aaron and Moses, as a whole community.
But may we also live our lives ensuring we are mourned like Miriam, by our absence feeling tangible.
- Rabbi Miriam Berger serves Finchley Reform Synagogue