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First We Grieve, Then We Move Forward

In yesterday’s weekly newsletter, Frank Bruni from The New York Times writes: 
A heartbreaking and unacceptable number of people didn’t survive the coronavirus. They’re gone — their own lives cut short, their loved ones still grieving their absence. But for others, the pandemic was more of an inconvenience, and for a few, it wasn’t all that inconvenient. When they talk about how excited they are about eating in restaurants again or how eager to see a movie in a theater, their voices and manners aren’t weighed down by the recognition of what the United States and other countries have been and are going through. Of the body count. Of the ruined businesses. Of the depleted bank accounts. They mostly just sense that we’re turning a corner, and they’re looking forward, not backward.
I can resonate with his description of turning a corner. I share the glee and rapture of returning to the conveniences, and luxuries of years past, of children being packed up for camp, of spontaneously going out to a favorite restaurant, of hugging friends and wishing everyone a “Shabbat Shalom.” I am taken aback about the obviousness of Bruni’s cautionary note. We have this unfortunate, American tendency to avoid even talking about the hundreds of thousands who died.

If we do not figure out how to grieve for them and how to mourn our collective losses, then we will be unable to march forward.

This week we read that Miriam and Aaron die. We also read that Moses is destined to die in the wilderness, at the edge of fulfilling his life’s mission of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. The reason why he will not cross over into the land is because he becomes angry at the people when they complain (yet again) about the food and in particular the lack of water. He strikes the rock two times rather than commanding it as God instructed him.

God commands, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.” (Numbers 20) Instead Moses hits the rock and says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" Because Moses does not follow God’s command, because he hits the rock in anger, because he speaks with malice towards the Israelites, he is punished. God tells him that he will not reach the Promised Land. Instead, Joshua and Caleb will take the people into the land.

Immediately preceding this event, the Torah reports the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister and the woman largely responsible for saving Moses when Pharoah decreed that all first-born Israelites are to be killed. “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.”

There is no mention that mourning rituals are observed for Miriam, or that Moses grieved. The Torah appears to suggest that there was little time, that the exigencies of the moment demanded otherwise. The leader could not stop. “We have to move forward!” Moses did not pause to mourn. He did not stop to grieve. And the people’s complaining became louder and more persistent.

It is understandable that Moses lost his temper. When people are grieving their emotions are raw. Even the smallest of things can throw them curveballs. They shout at the smallest of inconveniences. They cry at the tiniest of misadventures. I understand Moses’ pain.

Then again, when people do not take the time to grieve, when they suppress those feelings of loss, and longing, in what is too often deemed, a noble effort to move forward, they hamstring their futures.

If we do not mourn, if we as a nation do not allow ourselves to grieve, we will not get to that promised land. If we do not take stock of the frightening realization that we are not immune to nature’s dangers, if we do not undertake a full accounting of the failures that contributed to more deaths than otherwise would have been the case, then we will likewise curtail a brighter future.

Open restaurants and bars are not the promised land. It is instead a fairer and more equitable society in which each of us is indeed responsible for our neighbor, and quite literally our neighbor’s health and well-being.

We can only get there, we can only cross over to this promised land, if we pause to remember.