Take a moment and call to mind someone you know personally, and greatly respect. Maybe it’s a parent, a teacher, a child, a co-worker, a partner or spouse. It can be anyone, as long as it’s someone you know well.
Picture them in the most dignified or kind moment you can remember or imagine with them.
Now, take that same person, hold that image in your head and ALSO try to remember at least one time you saw them completely lose it.
Now, don’t share names – but can you nod or give a thumbs up if you were able to think of both images for one person?
It shouldn’t be hard to call to mind such dual images, because most people we truly know – we know well enough to have seen in good moments and stressful ones. And even great people have moments when they completely and utterly implode, especially if they don’t take the time to take care of themselves. This is not simply something we know from life, it’s also something we read about in this week’s Torah portion.
Parasha Chukat contains the famous story of Moses hitting the rock in anger in order to bring forth water, instead of speaking to it and crediting God. And for this he is punished and told he will not be able to enter the land of Israel. This severe punishment comes as a result of Moses acting out of anger. He didn’t simply hit the rock – he lost a bit of himself for a moment. He had enough of the community and their complaining and he had a melt down.
Even though we know people lose their temper from time to time, we’re left surprised that our great teacher, Moses, could make such a mistake. But reading the story in context, I’m not surprised at all.
Even though this is a fairly well known part of the Torah, few people are aware of the texts in this chapter that sandwich the story of the Israelites wanting water and Moses hitting the rock for it. Through the context provided in these stories, we learn an important lesson about treating ourselves kindly and making sure we are aware of our own emotions and needs before serving others.
You see, the incident with Moses hitting the rock is told right after our text shares that his sister, Miriam, died. There’s barely time for us as readers to take a breath before the turmoil begins. Miriam’s buried and Moses is immediately off dealing with a water shortage crisis.
Of course Moses wasn’t his best self. Of course he was less patient and prone to mistakes. His sister just died, and he barely acknowledged it. So in anger, he accidentally strikes the rock.
We know he learns from this mistake though, because at the end of this chapter, when we hear about Moses brother, Aaron, dying, the narrative describes how the community took time to mourn him.
This is the “a ha” moment for us as readers – this is what Moses forgot, or did not yet know how, when his sister passed away. He hadn’t taken the time to feel what needed to be felt, to be present in the moment and honest about his thoughts. He went from burying a loved one to immediately handling the chaos of his job, and a big mistake was made. So the next time he suffers a loss, when his brother dies, he makes sure to pause and be present in the moment before jumping back into other aspects of his life.
The often overlooked deaths of Miriam and Aaraon, and the different way Moses responds to them are actually the most important part of this story in my opinion. In them, and the way they’re described, we learn the importance of taking time to mourn when we lose a loved one.
Most of you may know, I lost my grandfather this past week. I was so grateful to Temple Sinai for giving me the space to go home and be with family during this time. Last night, after the final shiva ended, my father asked what he was supposed to do with the shiva candle that was burning on his mantel. He’s not very religiously observant. There had even been a small debate earlier about whether or not to cover his mirror, which was also a work of art, in his entrance way. By the way, that was resolved by having it covered on the first night for me, and then uncovered the next night for him. But I instructed him to let the candle keep burning – and not because of the religious obligation to do so, for I knew that such an answer wouldn’t speak to him – but rather, so that it could serve as a reminder to him to take time and be gentle with himself. I asked him to let it keep burning, to remember this loss was fresh, and he needed to operate with a little extra kindness towards his own soul.
This week, our Torah portion is like that shiva candle, burning brightly as a reminder for all of us to take the time we need to be truly present in our lives.
We all need to learn how to live in a way that we check in with ourselves.
We need to turn off our inner dialogues of work and disappointments long enough to truly feel and participate in important moments of our lives.
If we’re at a celebration – we need to allow ourselves to experience joy.
If we’re frustrated, we need to be honest about what’s upsetting us.
And most importantly, if we have a loss, we must allow ourselves to grieve.
Our Torah is telling us not to simply rush through life, but to take time to live each step of the way. Be present and in doing so, strive to notice the moments – big and small. Take time to mourn, to celebrate, to live fully;
and in doing so you’ll take care of yourself and others.