June 30, 2023 / 11 Tammuz 5783

In this week’s double Torah reading, Chukat-Balak, we read of the deaths of two great heroes of the Torah. In parshah Chukat specifically, we read five succinct Hebrew words that inform us that “Miriam died there and was buried there [in the desert of Zin].” (Numbers 20:1) Similarly, later in the same chapter (verse 28), we are again informed in only five brief Hebrew words that “Aaron died there on the summit [of Mount Hor].”

At first, the brevity in which the Torah describes both deaths seems counter to these heroes’ positions of leadership, and to their impact on the people throughout their journey from Egypt to the borders of the Promised Land. In fact, in both descriptions, we are told that each one died “there” (שׁם). And although the two “there[s]” are different, in both cases, the “there” signifies a distant location, already foreshadowing how they have been removed from the community, suggesting that each one no longer has any direct bearing over those left behind.

There is much rabbinic discussion and even modern Jewish burial ritual drawn from the lessons and descriptions of these two deaths, but what is undoubtedly understood is that although the physical burial and location of the death are “there,” the memories, influence, and lessons learned are very much retained “here” by those left behind.

In fact, immediately after Miriam’s death, the very next verse opens with, “The community was without water” (Numbers 20:2), to which Rashi explains, that the connection of these two verses teaches us that during the entire forty years of wandering in the desert, that the Israelite’s access to water was through Miriam’s merit. Similarly, the rabbis also explained that after Aaron’s death, the daily pillar of smoke that led and protected the Israelites through the desert dissolved and left the encampment.

Our tradition has many lessons to be learned, rituals to fulfill, and laws by which to abide. But it is the relationships that we ourselves nurture that are what we truly own, and what is the highlight of this week’s reading.

This lesson was made even more clear to me only a few brief months ago when I was contacted by a chaplain at a local hospital. The non-Jewish chaplain reached out to the Jewish Federation, explaining that a woman, whose husband was about to be taken off life support requested a Jewish rabbi to say a few final prayers with her husband before his death. This brief call set our community in motion, which did not end with the bedside prayers. Rather, during the conversations that ensued, we became aware of the couple’s financial struggles and their inability to pay for a proper Jewish burial.

In looking back at this experience, although the burial took place over “there,” the outcome of this story was that our local congregations and agencies, with the deep care and commitment to ensuring that any Jew, no matter his or her engagement, level of practice, or personal history to the community, will be taken care of by the agencies and congregations of Jewish San Antonio. And even more so, as needs are identified, our Jewish infrastructure responds. I want to thank JFS (Jewish Family Service), Congregation Rodfei Sholom, and Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning, for their specific involvement in this example, and to also recognize all our local congregations and agencies for being part of this network to take care of those who need help across our community.

Today, and as a direct result of these collaborative efforts, we are proud to announce that the Jewish Federation of San Antonio has created a specific fund, seeded by a generous anonymous gift, for indigent Jewish burials. We will be sharing more about this important fund in the coming months and look forward to getting the word out across the community so that those in need, who are still “here” can gain access to our resources and not be left to feel like they are over “there.” Because we are…


Shabbat Shalom,