Miriam’s Death

Balak Hukkat By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 16, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary | Gender

Biblical narrative begs for reader participation. Time and again we come across a story short on context, background and human emotions, traces of an event barely recalled and crying out for elucidation. This week’s parasha contains a gem of an example.

We might think that the Torah would give us more than eleven brief verses on the sudden crisis which dramatically ends Moses’s leadership. We’re not ready for what’s coming and surely bewildered when its over. Moses has been the towering figure in the liberation of Israel, and in forging it into a cohesive and powerful new nation. Yet without warning, he offends God and is told that he will be denied the joy of completing the task. Like his flock of former slaves, he too will not enter the Promised Land. One midrash comments that the only reason the record of his slip is even preserved is so that we might not think that Moses was punished for the same sin as Israel.

The story is maddeningly cryptic. The people are again without water to drink and, as usual, turn on Moses and Aaron with malice and venom. God instructs Moses to produce water in abundance by speaking to a rock, but instead Moses, gripped by anger, strikes it twice, though with the same results. Instantaneously God cuts short the career of both men: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them (Numbers 20:12).” That’s it! No protest by Moses and Aaron; no further explanation by God. The untold labor of forty years is not enough to offset the paltry weight of a single infraction.

In an effort to enlarge the canvas of the story, the midrash will often look at its setting in the Torah. Does the unrelated material which immediately precedes or follows connect in some subtle way to the narrative we are trying to fathom? Our parasha offers a striking instance of how this rabbinic interpretive strategy – to pay attention to the sequence of passages – can open up vistas of unimagined meaning.

The Torah itself takes no special note of the significant fact that is reported directly before our story begins: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon (of the fortieth year), and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there (Numbers 20:1).” However, many centuries later a fertile rabbinic mind posited a nexus between Miriam’s death and Moses’ wrongdoing. The sudden lack of water was a direct consequence of her demise; for, said Rabbi Yosi the son of Rabbi Yehuda, as long as Miriam lived, God graced Israel with a well that accompanied the people throughout the wilderness. When she died Israel found itself without water. The sequence of the two events implies a causal connection.

Rashi, in his talmudic commentary, elucidates the link still further. “It really was a water–flowing rock which rolled alongside of Israel wherever it went. This was the rock that Moses struck, because he did not want to draw forth any water for Israel, because Miriam had died (Taanit 9a).” Rashi supplies the psychological touch missing in the Torah. What impact did the death of Miriam have on Moses? Rashi suggests a great deal. The well had not run dry; rather, Moses, overwrought by the loss of his sister, could no longer bear the murmurings of his people. Affected adversely, he intentionally disobeyed God’s instructions.

I find Rashi’s insight enticing. Miriam must have meant a great deal to Moses. He owed his very life to her. When his mother had him hidden as a baby in the bulrushes of the Nile, it was Miriam who protected him and persuaded Pharaoh’s daughter to have him nursed at home. Indeed, another midrash attributes Moses’ birth to Miriam’s faith and fortitude. When Pharaoh had given the order to kill every newborn male Israelite, her father Amram, the national leader, divorced her mother Yoheved. Moses had not yet been conceived. But the king’s cruelty had crushed Amram’s resolve and he gave up the struggle to survive, as did all other married men in the community who followed his lead. It was Miriam who reversed her father’s despair. She argued with him that his example was more devastating than Pharaoh’s decree. Pharaoh’s action would kill off only the boys; Amram’s, all Israelite children. Pharaoh’s action would deprive the boys only of life in this world; Amram’s of life in this one and the world–to–come. Finally, since Pharaoh is a wicked man, Miriam suggested, there is no guarantee that God will permit his decree to stand. But given the purity of Amram’s righteousness, there can be no doubt that God will honor his wishes. Amram acceded and remarried Yoheved with the birth of Moses (and Israel’s redemption) soon to follow.

With or without the midrash (and I am intrigued by it, because it implies that women handle adversity better than men), Moses could not fail to appreciate Miriam’s role in his life. In a way, Miriam’s presence framed Moses’ life. She guarded him at birth and exulted with him at the Sea of Reeds and, when she died, he lost his poise and capacity to govern.

And what was the key to that capacity? The ability to love his people unconditionally. A remarkable midrash dares to identify the verse from Eshet Hayil (A Woman of Valor) “that a woman to be praised is one that fears the Lord (Proverbs 31:30)” with Moses. When the question is raised, “How is it possible for the midrash to compare prophets to women?” the following response is given: “Just as a woman is unashamed about demanding the needs of her children from her husband, so the prophets are unashamed to demand the needs of Israel from God’. In other words, the midrash claims that the essence of prophecy is the courage to intercede with God in behalf of Israel, a courage sprung of love and primarily identified with women. How often did Moses stay God’s wrath at Israel’s constant backsliding! Biblical prophecy is as much about defending Israel before God as it is about delivering God’s will to Israel. With Miriam’s death, Moses had lost the compassion essential to his role as intercessor. His bitter words to a thirsting Israel – “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) – leave no doubt about his true intentions: to let the people continue to suffer as if God were impotent. That was the sacrilege of which God spoke (Numbers 20:12) and the evidence that Moses had grown weary and callous.

The death of Miriam was both the symptom and cause of Moses’ condition. Her departure had stripped him of the emotional state necessary to mediate between God and Israel.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Pinhas are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.