Healing the Trauma of Loss
Family Edition

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The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

The most striking episode in Chukat is the moment when the people complain about the lack of water. Moshe does something wrong, and though God sends water from a rock, He also sentences Moshe to an almost unbearable punishment:

“You shall not bring this assembly into the land I have given you.”

Bamidbar 20:12
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It is puzzling why he lost control at that moment. He had faced the same problem before (in Shemot chapters 15 and 17), but Moshe had never lost his temper before. What is even harder to understand is the order of events. God had already told Moshe exactly what to do. Gather the people. Speak to the rock, and water will flow. It is understandable to lose your composure when you are faced with a problem that seems unsolvable. But it makes no sense at all when Moshe had already received the solution. Why was he so agitated that he lost control?

Only after I lost my father did I understand this passage. What had happened immediately before this episode? The first verse of the chapter states: “The people stopped at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried.” Only then does it mention that the people had no water. It seems to me that the deeper connection lies not between the death of Miriam and the lack of water, but between her death and Moshe’s loss of emotional equilibrium. Miriam was his elder sister. She had watched over his fate when, as a baby, he had been placed in a basket and floated down the Nile. She had had the courage and enterprise to speak to Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest that he be nursed by a Hebrew, thus reuniting Moshe with his mother and ensuring that he grew up knowing who he was and to which people he belonged. He owed his sense of identity to her. Without Miriam, he could never have become the human face of God to the Israelites, lawgiver, liberator, and prophet. Losing her, he not only lost his sister. He lost the human foundation of his life.

Bereaved, you lose control of your emotions. You find yourself angry when the situation calls for calm. You hit when you should speak, and you speak when you should be silent. Even when God has told you what to do, you are only half-listening. You hear the words but they do not fully enter your mind.

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Chukat is about death, loss, and bereavement. That is why the parsha begins with the ritual of the Red Heifer, whose ashes - mixed with the ash of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool, and dissolved in “living water” - are sprinkled over one who has been in contact with the dead so that they may enter the Mishkan. This is one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. Death defiles.

With great subtlety the Torah mixes law and narrative together – the law before the narrative because God provides the cure before the disease. Miriam dies. Moshe and Aharon are overwhelmed with grief. Moshe, for a moment, loses control, and he and Aaron are reminded that they too are mortal and will die before entering the land. Yet this is, as Rambam said, “the way of the world.” We are embodied souls. We are flesh and blood. We grow old. We lose those we love. Outwardly we struggle to maintain our composure but inwardly we weep.

And yet we must strive to remember that life goes on, and what we began, others will continue.

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  1. Why do you think Moshe was so deeply affected by the death of Miriam?            
  2. How does the law of the Red Heifer express the value of life in Judaism?             
  3. How does the Torah help us to live with an awareness of our own mortality?

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A Story for Shabbat

Holding it Together

by Jessica Sacks

Rabbi Sacks was my uncle, so it happened a few times that we both grieved for the same person. I remember a relatively quiet moment at the shiva for my grandmother. My father and his other brothers were sitting shiva in Israel, so Rabbi Sacks was the only mourner in his home in London. He sat on his low chair with a number of Rabbis and other very serious people around him speaking of rabbinic and serious things. Meanwhile, in a separate group, some of my grandmother’s nieces, laughing and warm, were sharing funny stories about my Booba.  

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I wondered whether someone coming in from outside would ever guess that those two very different conversations were part of the same event – or that the event was anything to do with the sadness of losing one beloved person. Grief takes many different forms – and so do our efforts to comfort people.  

These shivas also made me think how strongly Rabbi Sacks must have identified with Moshe in this essay. It must be a huge challenge to a public figure or teacher who must keep on leading others while grieving inside.  

In a way we all know a bit about this. We all occasionally have to interact with others and “hold ourselves together” even when we are feeling terrible pain. The same is true of the people around us, though we don’t know when they might be feeling this struggle. Perhaps remembering this can make us kinder.

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The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Jessica Sacks translates and edits for Koren Publishers, helping make Rabbi Sacks’ books for the Synagogue. She is also his niece.

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A Closer Look

Jessica Sacks now reflects on some of the deeper lessons she learnt from Rabbi Sacks.

How could we put Rabbi Sacks’ message about loss into real-life practice?

Grief is unlike any other experience. But we all have people near us who are going through real struggles they can’t avoid. It could be an illness or divorce in the family, being bullied, or even an unbearable sadness they can’t explain, but can’t ignore.     

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We can’t really prepare for these things – but we can prepare ourselves to be comforters. We can practice listening patiently and quietly, so that our friends know they can share their feelings with us without being judged. We can be the kind of people who habitually help out, so that those who find themselves in trouble know that they can turn to us. We can forgive people when they make mistakes or even act nastily, remembering that we don’t know what they are dealing with. Lastly, we can make sure we also have a comforter – is there someone you can turn to when you are unhappy or worried, who listens and understands?    

Can you share something you learnt from Rabbi Sacks himself?

We each have our own missions in life. Rabbi Sacks put it beautifully: “Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done – that is where God wants us to be.”   

Some people’s callings become a career. For others they lead to voluntary roles, creative projects nurtured in spare hours, or the uncelebrated daily actions that hold together friendships, families, and communities. No one can tell you what yours is, but if you look for it, you will find it and the world will be better because you did. 

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Torah Trivia

Q: Can you find a hint to New York City in Rashi’s commentary on parshat Chukat?

Hint: Look at Bamidbar 20:22.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week's answer

Rashi comments on the words Hor Hahar which is the name of the mountain upon which Aharon died. He calls it “a mountain on top of another mountain, similar to a small apple upon a big apple.”

New York City is also known as the “Big Apple”!

Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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