"He that touches the dead, even any man's dead body, shall be unclean for seven days" Numbers 19:11

By Rabbi Miriam Berger, June 30, 2011

It cannot be a coincidence that in one parashah death is dealt with so extensively; Miriam and Aaron both die, Moses is sentenced to a premature death and many of the Israelites are wiped out in a plague. Parashat Chukkat teaches about the complexities of death, beginning with the idea that death is not something we can ever understand or rationalise. The complex details of the strange ritual of the red heifer are baffling and are in stark contrast to the later death narratives from which we can try to draw parallels with our own fears of life and death.

Aaron and Miriam's deaths offer two different concepts of legacy. Aaron's, perhaps the more explicit, demonstrates his desire to have his life's work continue after him. People are often anxious about whether their priorities will remain so for their children: Aaron can feel reassured that his leadership passes to his son Eleazar.

There is no national mourning when Miriam dies or similar inheriting of the role she played in the community. However, through the midrash of Miriam's well, which is said to nourish the community after her death, we can understand that our influence may continue long after our death through the values we have instilled in others.

Moses's death is perhaps the most difficult lesson to emulate but one which runs deep in Judaism. It is best summed up in the familiar statement from Pirkei Avot, "Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor…", "It is not incumbent on you to complete the task, yet you are not free to desist from it."

When we think about our own death, we should not be overwhelmed by the remote nature of the concept of the red heifer but should instead concentrate on our legacy.

Last updated: 11:08am, June 30 2011