Mourning ritual: Need to always be prepared

Rabbi James Gordon

By Rabbi James Gordon, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Chukat (Numbers 19:1−22:1)

What do you get when you add three kippot s’rugot (crocheted), two velvet yarmulkes, two black hats and one purple Northwestern University baseball hat?  (I was the guy wearing the purple cap.)

If these head coverings are being worn by Jewish men, the sum of this equation is — 80% of a Minyan.

This is the predicament in which I found myself last month about 30 minutes before boarding time at Ben Gurion Airport.  The sun had set fifteen minutes earlier and I wanted to make sure that I davened Maariv before boarding the aircraft.  While all Jewish men are obligated to daven Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv – ideally with a Minyan – this sacred quorum is a necessity for a mourner to recite the Kaddish Yatom. Now in my eleventh month of mourning (and final month of reciting Kaddish) for my father, Rabbi Nathan H. Gordon, I would not allow myself to miss a Minyan – especially at the primary airport of our Jewish Homeland.  Running out of candidates who were planning on davening without any need for persuasion, I started looking for two “Jewish faces” to complete our ten.

First I approached a college-aged man wearing a University of Georgia hat and asked: “Do you know Roquan Smith?”

“I do,” he responded. “Roquan lives in my apartment building, and he’s a real nice guy.”   

Having established that we shared a special bond (Georgia’s Smith was the Chicago Bears #1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft), I then inquired what he was doing in Israel.  The young man stated that he stayed after a Birthright trip. I then invited him to join the “elite eight” to help make a Minyan.  “Happy to,” he responded, “so long as you don’t call on me to lead.”  

Now, who was going to be our tenth man?  

Time was running out and I did not see any new kippot, yarmulkes, or black or purple hats.  So I began walking around the gate’s waiting area listening-in on conversations.  As soon as I heard a man speaking Hebrew, I approached him and asked: “Ooh-lye efsher la-azor li.  Ani avel v’tzarikh ode ish echad l’Minyan – – Perhaps you can help me.  I am a mourner and I need one more man to complete a Minyan.”  

The man responded – “Aval ahni lo dati – but I am not observant.”  

To which I said, “Lo tzarikh lihyot dati, rahk Y’hudi – You do not have to be observant, only Jewish.”  

So we got our Minyan, boarded the plane on-time, and I was back in Chicago the next morning — in enough time to make a Shacharit Minyan.

Every Kaddish-committed mourner can share similar stories.

After we lose a parent, while we grieve, we also must go on and honor the memory of our mother or father while perpetuating their legacy.  As a rabbi, when meeting with families before a funeral, I provide the advice given by countless rabbis on how to be best prepared spiritually for the mourning process.  I remind the soon-to-be-mourners of the importance of making sure that Kaddish is recited thrice-daily for eleven months as well as dedicating to the memory of their loved one traditional learning, the performance of specially-designated Mitzvot, and the giving of Tzedaka.  Not only do these holy activities help elevate the neshama (soul) to higher levels of Olam HaBa (the World to Come), but many mourners also find them comforting and therapeutic in nature.

Along with the Para Aduma (Red Cow/Heifer) and Moses’s striking the rock, in this week’s Sidra/Parashat Chukat we read about the deaths of two of the greatest leaders in Jewish history – – Miriam and Aaron.  While Moses and his two older siblings all passed away in the fortieth year since emancipation from Egypt, the surviving Israelites publicly mourned for Aaron and Moses, but not for Miriam.

Regarding Aaron, the Torah (Numbers 20:29) states: “VaYiru kawl ha-Eda ki gava Aharon va-yivku eht Aharon sh’loshim yom kawl Beit Yisrael – And the entire congregation saw that Aaron had died and the entire House of Israel mourned Aaron for thirty days.”

When Moses died (Deuteronomy 34:8) we learn that Israel (“B’nei Yisrael”) mourned for thirty days.  (The Sages note that more Israelites mourned for Aaron than Moses since, as the final arbiter of Jewish law, Moses made decisions that only pleased one of the two parties.  Aaron, a mediator, brought disputants together. Hence, he was more popular.)

However, when Miriam died (Numbers 20:1), the Torah does not record any acts of mourning by the Israelites.  A Midrash does state that Moses and Aaron mourned the loss of their sister.  In the verse following Miriam’s passing, the Torah tells us that the Israelites immediately began to complain to Moses and Aaron (in the midst of their sitting Shiva) that there was no water.  This led to the debacle of Moses striking the rock (twice) instead of speaking to it as commanded by the Almighty.  

Why didn’t the Israelites mourn for their matriarch Miriam as they did for Aaron and Moses?

One answer is that Aaron and Moses were more visible to the Israelites whereas Miriam worked more so “behind the scenes.”  The Israelites did not appreciate Miriam nearly as much as they did her brothers. In fact the K’li Yakar opines that, because the Israelites did not immediately mourn the loss of Miriam, they were punished by not being supplied with fresh water.

Another response is that, while the Israelites were adequately prepared for dealing with the losses of Aaron and Moses, they were not spiritually ready for the loss of Miriam.

The Talmud (Taanit 9a) teaches that HaShem rewarded each of these three remarkable siblings with a special miracle.  During their lives the Israelites were followed by a well of fresh water (Miriam), protected by Clouds of Glory/An’nei Kavod (Aaron) and nourished by Manna (Moses).  When Miriam died, the well dried up and the Israelites could not find water.  Although these three phenomena disappeared completely after the deaths of each of these leaders (according to one school of thought), the Israelites were better equipped to deal with the passing of their father figures since they were beginning to adjust to the new reality of not having to rely on such extraordinary miracles.  

Additionally, before both Aaron and Moses’s deaths, their successors (Elazar and Joshua) were in place, thus ensuring a seamless transition.  Miriam did not have a successor.

Because the Israelites were adequately prepared spiritually by their “national” fathers, they were able to properly mourn for both Aaron and Moses.

While I still grieve the loss of my father and miss and think about him every day, I am grateful that my Dad was an active part of my life until my “Mosaic” middle age (Moses lived to 120) and that he prepared me so well that I could properly mourn for him.

Rabbi James M. Gordon is the author of ‘PRAY BALL 2! Spiritual Insights Into Sportsmanship’ (Team Spirit Press, 2018).

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