Brownies in the Wilderness (Chukat 2014)

My Papa was a pretty unassuming guy. He was quiet and sweet and relatively humble. So I think he would have been pretty surprised to know that his Yahrtzeit would fall on Shabbat Chukat, and thus his death will be recalled each year along with those of Miriam and Aaron. This week, in the hazy fog of grief, I found myself reading the text of the parasha with a new perspective.

I have studied and taught many commentaries about how the episode of Moses striking the rick is connected to his grief over his sister’s death, and how the people’s rebelling over the lack of water was also connected to their loss of her. Miriam, legend tells us, was skilled in finding water in the wilderness. Without her, the people fear they will die of thirst (forgetting that it is ultimately God who provides water).
I can relate though. When I found out my Papa had died, one of the thoughts I kept having was, if Papa’s dead, who will make brownies for the shiva? (Answer: me). It didn’t occur to me that people would inundate us with baked goods (God will provide!), all I could think about was that someone had to make brownies, because there are always brownies, because Papa always makes them, so we can’t not have brownies.
So I understand the anxiety Moses and Aaron must have felt, suddenly called upon to produce water, and knowing that the person who best knew how to produce water was gone. You feel inadequate. You feel anxious and sad and angry. You forget that the water, or the brownies will be provided. You feel like you HAVE to be the one to provide them, even if you know it’s not your area of expertise.

So Moses is sad and angry and frustrated because Miriam is gone and his water producing skills aren’t as good as hers were and everyone is clamoring for water and it only makes him miss her more, so he gets mad and hits the rock. It makes perfect sense to me now (although I have to say, I managed to get some pretty decent brownies on the table, but perhaps if a mob had been clamoring for them it might have been a tougher order to fill).

Another insight.

I noticed Plaut’s commentary this week, that no period of mourning is observed for Miriam. This surely plays into the problem. Do Moses and Aaron not have a chance to “sit shiva” because the people rebel and they have to respond, or do they fail to respond effectively to the people’s grief and fear because they haven’t properly processed their own?

The latter option seems likely, and sends a powerful message to us about the importance of time-bound mourning rituals. We need those 7 days to do nothing but mourn, because in all likelihood, we will fumble anything we try to do while in the haze of grief and loss. Judaism is brilliant in the rituals it provides us. 7 days, 30 days, a year … Slowly, slowly we ease back into life. We don’t get lost in our grief but we don’t hide from it either.

But this week, I feel more connected to Moses and Aaron who may not have had the luxury of time to mourn because of the needs of their community. On Wednesday I had only an hour or two to absorb the shock of my loss before I had to head into the office. Of course I could (and probably should) have canceled the meetings I had but it wasn’t really an option. There were things that absolutely had to get done before I left town in order for my community to be able to operate smoothly while I was away. Sure, it wouldn’t have been world-ending, but I would have felt like I was dropping the ball or leaving them in the lurch. So off to work I went. And now, only two days after burying my Papa, my rabbi-hat is right back on as I board a plane to Israel, leading the group I’m committed (and excited) to lead.

So no Shiva for me this time. No time to properly ease into or out of mourning. Mourning, it seems, got squeezed into the brief time I could carve out. And it’s not ideal, and it does compromise my ability to lead at my best, and its’s probably not the best model of self-care, but it is what it is. That’s the hand I got dealt this time and sometimes you just have to play the cards you have in your hand and make the best of it.
My Papa wouldn’t have wanted me to cancel my trip (although that was hardly an option), nor would he have wanted the shadow of grief to darken my excitement about returning to Israel. Miriam likely wouldn’t have wanted Moses and Aaron to withdraw from leading the people either. She would have wanted them to do what they do best – what they were called by God to do.

I think the trick is self-awareness. Perhaps Moses and Aaron underestimated how their grief would affect their leadership. I’m going to try not to do that. It’s the best I can do at this point. If I try to push past it, then eventually I’ll hurt myself or someone else. But if I own my grief, and lead with honesty, then I think calamity can be avoided.

At least I know everyone in the group brought a water bottle with them. Not sure where we’re going to find brownies in the desert though….
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