Category Archives: Musings

just that — musings on the world around me

A Year of Kaddish Draws to a Close

Mom playing Broadway tunes.

Mom playing Broadway tunes.

Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother.

In Jewish tradition, Kaddish, a prayer whose Aramaic text mentions nothing of death but instead offers words of praise to God, is recited for eleven months by the adult child who has lost a parent or other close relative. One of the purposes of reciting Kaddish is to elevate to God’s side the soul of the deceased.  A Kaddish year actually only lasts eleven months, the philosophy being no one is so lacking that his or her soul needs intervention for a full year.

Viewed from the outside, reciting Kaddish can seem like an enormous burden. The mourner is commanded to attend synagogue twice daily, morning and evening. In the course of these two daily services (three actually, unless the afternoon and evening services are folded into one another as is done in my community), the mourner rises to recite the Kaddish prayer. Those present echo their responses and amens at the proper time. The presence of ten Jewish adults is a requirement for the Mourner’s Kaddish to be said. No ten, no Kaddish.

When my rabbi asked me, before my mother died, if I planned on reciting Kaddish for her, I recoiled. Mine had been a Jekyll-Hyde mother for so much of my life, the last four years being especially searing. Was she entitled to another year of my life and my psyche? Why not just cut my losses and move on? Did I really need to hang on?

In my heart of hearts, I knew that the rabbis who created our Jewish mourning rituals were a hell of a lot wiser than I was. I would participate to the best of my ability, maybe not daily but surely several times a week. As I have done with other Jewish rituals that are now a part of my life, I gave myself over to reciting Kaddish and found comfort and wisdom in its practices. The Children of Israel accepted the Torah with the phrase We will do and [thus] we will hear [understand.] (Exodus 19:8) So, too with Kaddish.

Mom and me, Miami, 1957

Mom and me, Miami, 1957

There is no word in the English for what transpired between my mother and me the last years of her life. Illness, unemployment, poor decisions, age, lifelong mentally fragility, and more came together, unraveling her life as she had lived it. I found an independent-living apartment situation that was ideal. She was grateful for my research and moved in with the help of one of my sisters. She made a good life for herself there, more active and socially engaged than she had been for years.

But before she moved in, she turned on me. She had played this dynamic before, not infrequently, and for much less reason. Whether it was buyer’s remorse, the impending loss of certain freedoms, the inevitability of her illness, or maybe just the irrational need to blame someone for the upheaval, I became the target for her atomic fury. She would have nothing to do with me, threatened me with a restraining order if I called or wrote, and with one volley that I doubt even Faulkner could have penned, told me she couldn’t wait to die so she didn’t have to know I was on this earth. I ceased and desisted.

Abandoned. Exiled. Threw me out. None of those words described my mother’s refusal to acknowledge me during those final years. A friend suggested amputated. That fit perfectly, for amputation’s intimation of violence, for its truth of irrevocable loss, for its reality of phantom pain—feeling and mourning the severed limb of my mother’s love and delight, her presence and our deep connection despite all the rest.

No one gets out of life unscathed; this was simply my refining fire. We grow the most from the experiences that devastate us, that force us to go deep within to face our truths, challenging us to emerge stronger, wiser, more resilient. Teachers come in many guises. My mother was a magnificent teacher and I mean it when I say that I am grateful for the lessons learned. Ultimately we found our way back to one another. The anger never left her, but her volleys became less frequent and vicious. Better still, I ceased to allow them to land. When her final day came, my sister held the phone to her ear so I could say my goodbyes. I expressed my love for her and my gratitude. “Go, Mommy, be at peace with God.” My sister said a shadow of a smile crossed her lips when I began to speak.

I waver sharing even this much, lest I be judged as petulant, unforgiving, an unrepentant daughter determined to sully the memory of a loved one who can no longer defend herself. None of that is my truth. Those of us raised by Jekyll-Hyde parenting belong to a singular club. If you’re not a member, it’s hard to fathom. A fellow member told me that when someone would say to her I can’t believe this she would simply reply Be thankful you cannot.

*                  *                  *

Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother. In these last forty days, I have moved from several times a week to daily attendance. Like Noah I have ridden out this storm of grief and will soon walk upon new land. By nightfall my identity as a mourner will be nullified. When the minyan leader calls, “all those in mourning or observing a yahrzeit please rise” I will remain seated. My presence will now enable others to stand.

I am grateful for this wise and healing ritual. In Jewish tradition, another name for God is HaMakom, The Place. Minyan became where I placed my grief within God’s care. In place of the love and presence I so wanted give my mother during her final years, I have offered daily respect for her memory, reawakened appreciation for all she gave me, and attained a wiser love for her and the good times we shared. Rest well, Mom. Rest and be comforted that you are remembered.




The text of the Kaddish prayer:

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.

May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he — above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.

The Year in Review

Dear Friends,

Some of you have written wondering where I have been, why the silence and lack of posts. As many of you know it’s been an overwhelming year. My mother died in March, sealing a relationship of many complex, loving, and fractious decades. There is much to process, what remains within the chambers of my heart and my journals. I have been reciting Kaddish and that period of mourning will soon draw to a close. In and of itself, this tradition merits reams of reflection.

©Cotton Love Studios

You may kiss the bride

As you also know, our son’s wedding followed soon after Mom’s death, and we officially welcomed our wonderful daughter-in-law Elizabeth into our family. The words “a weekend filled with love and celebration” do not even come close to capturing all that we felt and experienced as so many friends and relatives came from all corners to join us in celebrating Elliot and Elizabeth’s marriage. My sister Abby and her husband Brian gave birth to a son (Brian, you were  a mighty coach!) and so a new nephew was born on the cusp of these other family milestones. Life in the first half of the year was rich, bestowing the full arc of human experience.

We strove for calm in the summer. Martin and I moseyed around Saugatuck and went “up north” to Michigan’s beautiful spots of Petoskey and Harbor Springs. When we first moved here three decades ago, the locals kept raving about “up north,” how Lake Michigan was so beautiful and the sand dunes were so amazing. As Easterners who grew up bouncing in the waves of the Atlantic (and I who had also built sand castles out of the Gulf Coast’s sugary powder) we couldn’t really imagine how a lake could evoke such enthusiasm. We begin going with our kids and realized, yup, “up north” is pretty amazing.

It still is. Martin and I  hadn’t visited in years, and it was deeply nourishing to immerse ourselves in the land of Petoskey stones, sailboats, Kilwin’s ice cream and long walks along the shores of quietly lapping water. PekoskeyThe colors remain heart-catching shades of turquoise, emerald and midnight blue. There was a lot of nostalgia in those walks. New dreams surfaced along the water’s edge, dreams of taking our kids back there one day soon and maybe some years in the future, grandchildren.

She was amazing!

She was amazing!

Elizabeth’s father and step-mother invited us to visit them in South Lake Tahoe, where Elizabeth grew up. More beautiful water and good times. We went hiking, touring about and got a taste of wake surfing. Since my bout with water ski-ing didn’t end too well a few years back, I stayed on the boat. Elizabeth is a regular pro and Elliot managed to stay aloft for a few triumphant moments. Where our son gets his athletic genes I have no idea, but I love this shot of him just after he returned to the boat post ride.

Does this say joy or what?

Does this say joy or what?

Daniel, Stella, and Tammy in Pittaburgh

Daniel, Stella, and Tammy in Pittaburgh

Fall was a blur of the Jewish holidays. We marked them with so many of the beloved friends with whom we celebrate the turning of the Jewish wheel of time. We hosted what was I think our 26th or 27th Yom Kippur break the fast. I marked my first Yizkor (memorial service) standing this time in memory of my mother. We made a spur of the moment trip to Pittsburgh to visit with my brother Daniel, his wife Tammy and our niece Stella. We were there for Sukkot. Daniel and Tammy live in Squirrel Hill, a predominantly Jewish enclave within the city. As Shabbat dinner drew to a close, we could hear all the families up and down the street sitting in their sukkahs like we were, singing and enjoying the cool fall night and the blessing of the holiday.

Come November we did something we’ve never done — rented an apartment in  Brooklyn and played like we were New Yorkers again. We spent Thanksgiving with my sister-in-law Helene, she of the coolest job on earth and then trundled back to Park Slope where Helene once lived and where the kids became New Yorkers in their own right.

Our little garden apartment (an efficient 700 square feet) was blocks from Helene’s old building. It was a hoot shopping at the market we used to, surfacing from the same subway line, settling into the same corners we once called home. It was a fortnight filled with memories and non-stop visiting with a lifetime of friends and family.  We saw four shows between us, and more art exhibits than I could enumerate here.  We ate more than we should have, a fact that we can enumerate on the scale, alas.

New York magic

New York magic

The energy was electric, the buildings climbing ever higher, the Christmas windows at Saks were witty and wonderful. Watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center was like being in a movie strip that spans decades. Across the street, Martin got his umbrella stolen at St. Patrick’s cathedral; he also went to a special taping of the Meredith Vieira show.

The Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower in the background

The Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower in the background

We spent an entire day at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island. Quite moving to imagine the thousands and thousands of immigrants who came through those great halls, their fear and confusion, their hopes and the dreams. Could I have summoned the courage and fortitude to do what my grandfather did? Martin’s mother sailed to America on the Ile de France, the same ship Lindbergh booked for passage after making his historic trans-Atlantic flight. She told the story of their ship steaming into the harbor to fireboats shooting water into the air. A young teen at the time she thought, “Boy America sure does welcome immigrants with a lot of fanfare!”

We used tokens; she has a Metro Card!

We used tokens; she has a Metro Card!

Best of all we spent glorious amounts of time with Emma, easing into a rhythm of seeing one another that made us all rue the miles that separate us. She took us on a wonderful tour of Williamsburg where she lives. It’s hip, it’s gritty, there are pockets of charming quiet and scores of funky shops and bistros. Her corner grocery store looks like a typical New York City bodega from the outside. Once you enter, it just keeps going and going and going. Whole Foods meets Alice’s rabbit hole.

To top all of this off, Elliot made a surprise visit! He had a conference we hadn’t heard about. He and Emma cooked up the surprise, keeping a lid on it for weeks and weeks. One Sunday evening Emma insisted that we stay in and order out Chinese. There was a lot of flurrying on the phone as she spoke with the take-out place.

Best take-out order ever!

Best take-out order ever!

The bell rings, Emma goes to the door and says our food has arrived. In walks Elliot. It took us quite a few moments for our minds to believe what our eyes were seeing.

And now it’s December 31st. The secular wheel of time will tick into a new year in a few hours. It’s been the best of times and it’s been the worst of times. Those of you familiar with Bob Mankoff’s classic New Yorker cartoon will hear the editor’s challenge to Charles Dickens: ‘I wish you would make up your mind, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or the worst of times? It could scarecely have been both.’

We all know that in life the best of times and the worst of times often ride upon one another heels, if not sit in one another’s laps. It was a wonderful year and it was a challenging year. I am glad to have moved through it in one piece, hopefully with grace and spirit. I am grateful for this past year of life and look forward to 2015. Hopefully it will be less dramatic yet one of good health, spent with those whom I love, and new adventures for body and soul.

Wishing all my loyal readers the same and more. Not sure what the new year will bring where these missives are concerned, but at an estate sale I found the most delightful book that I cannot wait to share with you.  So I will probably start there one day soon.



Entering the New Year Freshly Restored

Baylinson beforeThe restoration of a painting is as good a metaphor as any this time of year. Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday evening.  We are in the waning days of the month of Elul, a time given over to introspection as Jews prepare not only for the New Year but for Yom Kippur’s day of atonement ten days hence.

I inherited the painting at the left from my mother. It was done by a Russian emigre painter – A. S. Baylinson – in 1939.  He was an artist of some note in his day, and had shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, here at the Detroit Institue of Art and elsewhere. The Metropolitan in New York has some of his work in their collection. How my grandfather came by this painting, I do not know. Perhaps he bought it outright. Perhaps he took it in trade for medical care. Or maybe his and Baylinson’s connection was personal.  Perhaps they were landsmen, Russian emigres both who came to America early in the 20th century in search of a better life and much distance from murderous Cossacks. Maybe the painting was a gift from one grateful American to another. It hung in my grandparents’ home and then in my mother’s.

By the time the painting came to me the canvas was torn, yellowed with age and discolored by decades of cigarette smoke. It was large, dingy, costly to restore, and I wavered about what to do with it. Relegate it to the basement? Hang it as is? Put it out on trash day? It carried memories of a woman whose mothering ran more to Dali than Cassat. Happily, restoration won.

Ken Katz of Conservation and Museum Services did a masterful job in bringing the Baylinson, as it was always called at home, to life. Carefully, painstakingly, he and his staff worked over the summer removing varnish and nicotine, patching a gash in the canvas, damage that likely occurred during one of my mother’s moves. They matched paint and brushstroke so well that I cannot tell where the canvas had even been torn. It was quite exciting to unwrap the painting when Martin brought it home last week. The dahlias seem to dance in new brilliance, their petalled faces crimson and proud. The marigolds are lively once again, no longer weighted and wan beneath varnish and nicotine. And surprise! The vase on the pie crust table is not green but a silvery white. I wish I could show my mother and ask if this how she remembered the painting growing up? I’m sure it hung in the living room.  Did she read on a couch within its view? The Baylinson now hangs in the entry way of our home. I smile every time I see it. She looks good, this painting, hopefully as beautiful as the moment in 1939 that Mr. Baylinson looked at his work, declared, “It is good,” and laid down his paintbrush.

All of which brings me to the work of Elul, Rosh Hashana and restoration. This has been a cataclysmic year.  My mother died. My son married eleven days after her funeral. I was in a car accident two weeks ago (not my fault.) Last week I needed emergency dental work. My jaw still hurts. My heart is mending. My soul still soars at the memory of Elliot’s and Elizabeth’s wedding. As this Jewish year draws to a close, there are hurts to forgive and forgiveness to ask for. There is a patina of pettiness and impatience to wipe away and the hope that the face I show in this new year will project kindness and welcome. Instead of relegating my missteps to my inner basement or sending them to the trash unexamined, I strive for restoration. Even if no one can see where we’ve been patched, the rips remain just beneath the surface. I embrace this month of Elul, for Elul invites us to restore ourselves, to take long walks and think back over the past year. Elul reminds us that restoration is possible. Even if we are torn, even if we have been dragged hither and yon and none too gently, even if our faces are clouded with care and grief, we can do the necessary work and restore our personal canvas.

And so a still life painted by a Russian emigre, owned by another, then his daughter and now his granddaughter, has a new home. She is once again bright and gleaming. May we all be so as we move into this New Year.

Baylinson after



Go See Boyhood!

imagesIt’s a rare summer when Mr. and Mrs. Darvick see two movies in a month. This is that rare summer and Boyhood is the latest movie we have seen. And loved.

Funny how both movies we’ve seen run to themes of family bonding with sons at the center. (For those of you who missed it, we saw Chef, too.)

Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over 12 years, capturing actor Ellar Coltrane’s yearly development from childhood to adulthood. The film opens with young Coltrane as a 6-year-old and progresses until his high school graduation at 18. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play his parents; Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei plays his sister.

The movie was mesmerizing. Each year was its own tightly spun vignette caught up in whatever milestones and miseries are there to be lived at the time. Each year segues into the next at just the right moment. And because the scenes fit together so seamlessly, it was sometimes startling to see Coltrane’s character Mason mature before our eyes. In this time-lapse growth, I found myself watching the movie alongside memories of my own son’s transitions. Any mom of a son will connect with 10-year-old boy innocence, when they still smell sweet, when they will still cuddle with you, when they are still playful as puppies. She will also remember the turbulent times, and then recall those tentatively hopeful times when the ground seems to have solidified again, as if overnight.

The movie stayed with me for quite a few days and the more I thought about it, I began to feel almost, well not embarrassed exactly, but awed in a way that I had seen such an intimate portrait of a child’s growth to adulthood. I wasn’t expecting that feeling. This wasn’t a movie in the way we go to the movies expecting to experience a story. What I experienced in Boyhood‘s two and a half hours was a life unfurling before my very eyes. And while there was a script, it was loosely framed. In part, Linklater drew his scene plotting for each year’s filming from whatever might have been happening in Ellar Coltrane’s own life.

Home movies are one thing—you see a birthday party, you relive a graduation or a recital. Boyhood was something entirely different. It made me wonder what it would have been like to see my own life stitched together in such fashion.

Nah. Better to leave this to Hollywood. Although I can see a new industry being born—the “boyhooding” of all those troves of family videos.

Reviewing Chef: a real feel-good movie

Chef Movie Poster

Reading Ross Douthat’s essay, The Parent Trap, reminded me of another reason I liked the movie Chef so much.  (Requisite spoiler alert here: I’m going to spill everything. If you haven’t seen it and plan to, close your computer and head to your local theater. Now.)  I’ll get to Douthat’s essay in a minute. For now, here’s what I loved about Chef:

It was delightful. Basic premise—a once cutting-edge chef finds himself out of work due to creative differences with the owner of his restaurant and a bitter Twitter exchange with a food critic that goes viral. He is also a divorced dad who doesn’t quite have the knack of spending four-star quality time with son.

His four-alarm chili of a Latina ex-wife has been encouraging him to open a food truck. When the shitake hits the fan at the restaurant, Chef accompanies his ex-wife and their child on a family visit to Miami where her second ex-husband (Chef being the first) stakes him to a run-down food truck. He and his son (along with a sous-chef from the restaurant) make a cross-country trip back to LA, serving up kick-ass Cubano sandwiches every stop they make. The son cooks and texts, tweets and vines the whole way, ensuring hungry crowds wherever they go. By the end, father and son are tight as bagels and lox, he remarries his wife, and the food critic stakes him to opening his own restaurant.

I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. I kept waiting for that air-tight never-to-be- compromised plot device where the hero is held back from achieving his goal, where he faces huge conflict and betrayals, where he loses big before learning the ultimate lesson. But there were none. Chef never falters or screws up. His son never cuts off a finger with the set of knives his dad buys him; the department of health never cites them for infractions; his former co-worker remains an integral part of the team, never once trying to wrestle away his success.

What also never happens is that social services doesn’t bring the dad up on child abuse charges for employing a minor and/or sequestering him in an unwholesome and potentially dangerous fire-hazard environment. This is where Douthat’s essay comes into play. Douthat wrote about the increasing way parenting (as we once knew it) is coming under fire. Parents have been brought up on neglect charges for letting their kids walk home at dusk, for leaving an 11-year-old in a car while dashing in to pick up a quart of milk, and most outrageous, police were called when someone saw a five- and seven-year-old run across a parking lot alone. Their parents didn’t know; the parking lot was near the kids’ houses. Really. Someone called the police.

I guess this is what I loved best about Chef: a father and son have an adventure replete with sharp knives, hot flames, serving food to strangers, driving long distances without bathroom stops (this definitely wouldn’t have worked with a daughter), making friends and rebuilding their relationship mile after mile. And no one says Boo.

I say Yay. And even if I’ve spoiled the movie, go see it. Even spoiled, Chef will leave a great taste in your heart.

Happy Birthday, Elliot

Elliot, five minutes old

Elliot, five minutes old

My boy has a big birthday coming up soon. How did the years fly so swiftly?

Decades ago, soon after my pregnancy was confirmed, I began getting boy vibes. This was confirmed by everyone once I began “to show” (quaint  last-century euphemism for this century’s  “baby bump.”)

I carried high. A boy! one neighbor predicted. I was glowing. Definitely a boy, declared Aunt Ruth. You NEVER contradicted Aunt Ruth, and so I began thinking up boy names. As the weeks progressed and the bump turned into a bulge and then a behemoth, it felt like my abdomen had been invaded by rock ’em sock ’em robots. Boy, definitely boy, said a co-worker whose wife’s second cousin had three sons and who swore each one behaved as if her uterus were Madison Square Gardens boxing ring.

As the eldest of three sisters and the daughter of one of three sisters, boys never registered for much of my youth. They were pretty much an alien species until sixth grade when I developed a huge crush on Edward Lamb. What if my intuition, the neighbor, Aunt Ruth and that second cousin who named her sons Evander, Sonny and Tyson were right? What would it be like to raise a son?

I could have never imagined over those nine months the myriad of unexpected delights that awaited me—the thrill of watching utter physical abandon as my son raced across fields, his childhood obsession with tools, his lifelong passion for cars, a spur-of-the-moment jump into a lake to dog paddle with a Labrador Retriever. Elliot and Lab

There was the nightly heart-brimming joy of peeking into his room to watch him sleep, and the pride of watching him graduate from high school and then college. There was the frantic trip to the emergency room to stitch up the cut to his inner cheek when he decided to play trampoline on the toilet seat. There were dandelion bouquets, endless readings of Richard Scarry books, and a Mother’s Day poem a few years back whose pages I bound within beautiful paper and keep by my bedside. There was also that tumultuous fifteenth year when querulous aliens possessed his body. They departed as swiftly as they arrived, returning to us the familiar kind, thoughtful, funny, creative son who suddenly needed a razor and had an unending affinity for Polo aftershave.

My boy has a big birthday coming up soon. Aunt Ruth and the others never told me about the singular sweetness of boys and a mother’s astonishment at their manliness. How did such a big man come from me? I have watched my son triumph in achievement, and grieve as some dreams were set aside.  He has never allowed the former to swell his head nor the latter to curtail his future. My hopes for him expand to include his sweet and beautiful wife. And a baby bump one day?

My boy has a big birthday coming up, and so I wish for him the realization of all his dreams and more. May he be blessed with health and long life, with laughter and good deeds. May he come to know the joy of parenthood and to remember, should aliens ever possess his teen-aged children, they will depart as swiftly as they arrived.

Elliot fifteen million minutes and then some

Elliot, fifteen million minutes old and then some

Like Water from the Rock

Darvick-Chukkat-water-from-the-rockFrom time to time I have been invited to give the weekly Shabbat sermon at synagogue. Each Shabbat has  name, which is drawn from the weekly Torah portion that is read at services, in part on Monday and Thursday mornings and more fully on Saturday morning. This week’s portion is called Shabbat Chukkat. It is most widely known for the laws about the red heifer, a perpetually mysterious ritual of expiation for sin.  

However, when I sat down to write my sermon other events to explore in the portion piqued my curiosity — the death of Moses’ siblings Aaron and Moses and Moses’ fateful striking of the rock to bring forth water.  Grief has been a  prominent emotion these days (alternating with the still resonating joy of our son’s wedding), making this perhaps a good time to revisit the sermon. Thanks to Martin, as always, for the perfect image.

Two elements in Parshat Chukkat are rich with possibilities for exploration. The ceremony of the red heifer has kept scholars busy for centuries. This parasha is also pivotal in that the generation that left Exodus by foot is dying out. Rashi goes further, interpreting the phrase “kol ha eda/the entire community” to mean that all of those who were meant to die in the wilderness have died. Only Miriam, Aaron and Moses remain.

But as I read through these chapters again, something else caught my attention, and that is what I would like to explore this morning. Chapter 20 begins thirty-eight years after the red-heifer commandment. It opens with this verse: “The Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin and stayed at Kadesh.” And then the last half of that verse: “And Miriam died there and was buried there.” Vatamat sham Miriam vatikaver sham.

Boom. Five words, not even an entire verse, and one of the three siblings upon whose shoulders this journey has rested, is gone. There has been no foreshadowing of Miriam’s death. No instructions from God as to the disposal of her body. No explanation or rationale for her death, either. And most striking (no future pun intended), no mourning.

Twenty-three verses later both Aaron and Moses get a heads up from God that Aaron is about to be “gathered to his kin.” There is ritual as Aaron’s vestments are taken from him and are placed upon his son Eleazer. Aaron dies on the summit of the mountain. Moses and Eleazer come down from the mountain (where we could assume they spent time mourning the death of their brother and father) and we are told, “the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last breath. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

Miriam’s death was recorded with none of this: no ritual passing on of her legacy as was done in transferring Aaron’s vestments to his son; no assumptive mourning by her siblings. And who in the community bewailed Miriam’s death? No one it seems. The text gives no evidence that anyone did, for a day even, much less thirty.

And not only does the community not bewail Miriam’s death as they will soon do for her brother, but they forget about her completely. The very next verse tells us, “The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron.” The Children of Israel do what they have always done when their comfort is compromised: they complain. They blame. They pine for Egypt where it was comfortable and cozy and filled with pomegranates and figs.

If we follow Rashi’s insight that none of the original community was left, then those who are griping immediately after Miriam’s death are the progeny of the former slaves. They learned the lessons of their elders to think only of themselves when the going gets tough. “There is not even water to drink!” they wail without ever thinking why their life-sustaining source of water is no more. Not one lamentation such as: “Oh woe. Our sister Miriam is gone. And so is our water.” They don’t even bother to connect the dots between Miriam’s absence and this sudden absence of water. The depth of their self-centeredness is enough to make you want to strike a rock.

I imagine Moses at the end of this journey, aging and tired, grieving for this sister. Water has bound them together since his infancy when she set him afloat upon the Nile to save his life. Through her merit, the Midrash teaches, a well of water accompanied the Israelites throughout their journey. Was Moses given time to mourn this sister whose merit was so great God provided for the children of Israel a portable well of water? No, Moses is immediately set upon by the community to provide water, to take his sister’s place, or at least her role in providing water.

Grief can make you do strange things. It’s not uncommon for anger to follow upon grief’s heels. Anger at God for stealing our loved ones or robbing us of our own good health. Anger at our own bodies for betraying us. Anger, even, at the one who has left us behind, crushed, spent and devoid of all hope. Moses, whom we have not even seen rend his clothes in grief, has to take up the mantle of leadership and serve his people once again. But this time he falters. Or maybe he has had enough.

Instead of following God’s directive to speak to the rock to bring forth water, Moses speaks to the people, addressing them as rebels, morim. In the Women’s Commentary, Ora Horn Prouser notices that the consonants in morim and Miriam are identical. Perhaps here is Moses’ anger, directed not only at his people, but at his beloved sister for leaving him behind. His own eyes devoid of tears, dry as his sister’s well, Moses makes the fatal misstep. He strikes the rock, not once but twice.

I imagine this act as Moses’ kriyah. We never read that he rent his clothes; we do not hear the sound of cloth tearing. But we can imagine the sound that Moses’ staff made against the rock. If the striking of the rock stands in for Moses’ kriyah, perhaps the water flowing from the rock stands in for his tears. That water, flowing copiously we are told, carries with it Moses’ fate. For not obeying God’s instruction, he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

What are we to learn from this punishment? It is as puzzling as the red heifer story. How can Moses be punished for such a seemingly small, and infinitely understandable diversion? What was he really being punished for? Not listening? Getting angry with his thirsty crabby tribe? Rabbi Gail Labovitz imagines that God punishes Moses for misdirecting his anger onto his own people instead of onto God’s own self. It was this failure of faith in his relationship with God, Labovitz posits, a lack of confidence on Moses’ part that God could comfort him in his grief that led God to keep Moses from entering the Promised Land.

Whether that sits well with you or not, it still doesn’t answer the question why Miriam’s passing receives the barest of notice. My first thoughts ran along feminist paths. Women’s work always gets short shrift. It’s so invisible, so basic. Everyone looks at the machine and thinks that’s where the importance lies. No one considers the silent and invisible oil that keeps the gears turning so they can run the machine. And while I don’t necessarily want to graft upon this text feminist plaint, I will suggest that the silence about Miriam’s death is a reminder not to take for granted the most basic of gifts in our lives: good health, food, a warm and clean place to sleep, the love given us from family and friends, the reality that here in America I am free to explore Torah with you on a Saturday morning and you are confident that you can roll out of bed and come here. Or not.

The metaphor between water and Torah is strong. Our thrice-weekly reading is based on the teaching that since our physical body cannot go more than three days without water, our soul cannot go more than three days without Torah. If Miriam’s gift of water was so easily taken for granted, perhaps the lesson of the silence upon her passing is to caution us against taking for granted God’s gift of metaphoric water — Torah.