Transition, Transition! – Parshat Chukat-Balak 5783

The scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye and the rest of the town sing about tradition really resonates with me, but not for the reasons you might think. While I often accept tradition as the “why” for what we do as a Jewish people, I also question it. For me, this song always had a certain tongue-in-cheek element, satirizing a much bigger moment of “why.”

As Jews, so much of what we do falls under the “we do this because we’ve always done this” reasoning. In large measure, that’s true, but the ways in which we question and then change those traditions are also distinctly Jewish. Consider the example that, for many decades now, we have had women as clergy.

This week we read a double parshah, Parshat Chukat–Balak, which is full of plot twists and new experiences for the Israelites. In both of these stories, we see the Israelite people nervous about what comes next and concerned about what they are responsible for. The lands of Sichon and Og are conquered, both Miriam and Aaron die, and we learn that Moshe will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel. Chukat details the significance of a month of mourning, with a focus on the passing of Miriam and Aaron. Balak asks us to examine our preconceived notions when we view others. And together, they teach us about transition.

Why is there this focus on processing death? Why is transition a necessary part of tradition? It’s partly because in this week’s double portion, the Israelites expose their grief, and God prescribes a way to deal with this loss and move forward. It’s the most human of emotions, with a very human way of responding attached to it. The Torah tells us that when someone dies, we have concrete actions to take. It’s a series of steps: do this, then do this, then do this. The Talmud continues this instruction by adding more specific laws to shiva, the first seven days of mourning, sheloshim, the first 30 days, and then the entire year.

The crux of each of these texts is how we respond to change, and specifically loss. The Jewish traditions of mourning we still practice today originate right here. To be honest, transition isn’t easy for me, and it’s these traditions that are why I love Judaism.

– Rabbi Eve Posen

Source: Transition, Transition! – Parshat Chukat-Balak 5783