8 Tammuz 5781

June 18, 2021

I officiated at a wedding about three and a half years ago. Okay, it was actually only about fifteen months ago; but with the Corona Virus, it seems like a lot longer. It was a beautiful wedding filled with love. There were lots of hugs, handshakes, and kisses of Mazel Tov. When the ceremony was over, dinner was served, and then, of course, came the music and the dancing.

During the height of the pandemic, I had the pleasure of being with some families for life cycle events. However, we didn’t shake hands, we didn’t hug, and there were no kisses going around. Instead of a big crowd of people, like  the wedding, there were only a few people in attendance. It was at that moment that I realized something else was missing that there was plenty of at the wedding I did. There was no music and, there was no dancing. All of a sudden a song came to my head. Many of you will remember it. It was written by Don McLean:

“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance and maybe they’d be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver,
bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.
I can’t remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride,
but something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”

I’ve always loved that song. McLean’s lyrics got many doing what we are taught to do when we study Torah; as people listened over and over again to the words and tried to delve deep into their meaning and tried to find things held within the words that they had not seen before. As with our weekly Torah study, different people come up with differing interpretations as to what, and who, those words were really about. 

I can tell you that when I returned from that wedding there was, indeed, “bad news on the doorstep”. The Corona Virus Lock-down was about to begin. Later, more bad news that would bring about huge protests all around the country.

“I couldn’t take one more step”. Each of us realized that we wouldn’t be able to step outside for quite a while. We remembered the joy of our regular, everyday lives that we, so often take for granted. We became thankful that we were able to breathe freely.

Some of the interpreters of McLean’s lyrics say that those words are about a trio of great music people who died, not from a pandemic, but in a plane crash. Other’s have other theories. But, as a I reviewed this week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), I couldn’t help but see those words in a very different light. This is the week that we read about the death of Miriam. Miriam was one of the three leaders of the Israelites along with her brothers, Moses and Aaron. Each had their own jobs. Each had their own unique qualities. And each had their own way of relating to the people. Because of their unique positions, the people felt very differently about each of them.

Moses was the judge. He had to make rulings that some people were none too pleased with. And, being as busy as he was, he was, perhaps, more than a little aloof. Aaron was the High Priest. He was also the peacemaker. He had a way of making people feel better about themselves and about others. And then there was Miriam. Miriam was many things, but what stands out for me is Miriam as the First Cantor. It was Miriam who led the people in song. And it was Miriam who led the people in dance.

When we read about Miriam’s death this week, we read nothing about the people mourning. But I can just imagine how they must have felt inside. Life may have gone on, but for a while there, for the Hebrews, the day of Miriam’s death was, “The Day The Music (and the dancing) died”. For a while, it would seem, that the Children of Israel hide their grief by wearing masks. Not masks like we are wearing to protect ourselves and others from the Corona Virus, but they would mask their’ facial expressions to hide their grief for a while.

Moses no longer has his beloved sister. And, in the midst of the pain of losing her, the Children of Israel complain to him about the lack of water. And again, I would like you to take a moment to assume that it is not drinking water they are complaining about….what if they were complaining about a lack of tears?

God speaks to Moses and tells him to speak to a particular rock and that the waters will begin to flow. In grieving for his sister, he doesn’t exactly do what God tells him to do. Instead of talking to the rock, Moses lashes out, he hits the rock. I understand that move on Moses’ part. I have seen people who lash out in anger in the midst of the loss of a loved one. I have seen people lash out at God, at the Doctor, at a family member. 

As I try to picture Moses lashing out at the rock, I can picture his eyes starting to water as he hits the rock; and, the people, instead of seeing Moses as weak because he cries in front of them; see him teaching them that it doesn’t matter how big a position you hold; you are still human and, sometimes, it is okay to cry. Even more so, perhaps in the future, when someone lashes out at you, you will take a moment to wonder what is causing him or her to behave that way. For instance, are they in the midst of grieving the loss of someone they held very dear. And maybe, just maybe, that water that fell from Moses’ did what rain water so often does; it made a peaceful musical sound that helped to calm the people from the loss of their beloved song leader.

Just like our people in the wilderness were trying to prepare themselves to live a new life in a new world, this pandemic has us trying to learn to do the same. This is a time for our human ingenuity to be seen. And this is a time for each of us to think, not just about ourselves, but about each other as we try to find ways to express our grief, let us also find ways to live again, to love again, and, in Miriam’s memory, let us not forget to find new ways to sing and dance in harmony with one another.