Now wait just a darn minute here. This doesn’t sound right.
At the start of chapter 20 of Bamidbar, Miriam dies, and the wells dry up. The only moaning, wailing and weeping on the part of the Israelites is for the lack of water. (Bamidbar 20:1-2)
וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃
The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon,and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.
At the end of chapter 20, Aaron dies, and all of Israel mourns for thirty days. (Bamidbar 20:28-29)
וַיַּפְשֵׁט֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֜ן אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיַּלְבֵּ֤שׁ אֹתָם֙ אֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֣ר בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֧מָת אַהֲרֹ֛ן שָׁ֖ם בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְאֶלְעָזָ֖ר מִן־הָהָֽר׃
Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain,
וַיִּרְאוּ֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה כִּ֥י גָוַ֖ע אַהֲרֹ֑ן וַיִּבְכּ֤וּ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים י֔וֹם כֹּ֖ל בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.
A while back, Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses, and only Miriam was punished. (Yes, one can read the text such that it was really only Miriam who spoke against Moses, but I’m not convinced by that argument. And one can also argue that, in the end, Aaron was punished, as he didn’t get to enter the promised land either. It still seems unfair to me.)
Just more evidence of a misogynist redaction of the text? There are surely scholars who might argue so, and who am I to disagree. Yet, I wonder if there is more going on here?
Of course, while there is no evidence of mourning and beweeping Miriam’s death, the text is structured to have us believe there was some connection between her death and the lack of water. for following the terse statement of Miriam’s death, we read in the next verse:
וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן׃
The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. (Bamdibar 20:2)
No geshrying about the death of Miriam, just a complaint to Aaron and Moses at the lack of water. More on that in a bit.
In connection with Aaron’s death, we have only a small ritual of transfer of power (in the exchange of clothes) and thirty days of mourning. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, a month of weeping and wailing for a departed leader sounds a lot better than being deprived of water in the midst of the desert.
Or was it really the water that the Israelites were being deprived of? Let’s think on that.
The work of Aaron as high priest needed to be carried on by a successor. And all that is provided for by the elevation of Eleazar. (Lucky Eleazar-if brothers Nadav and Avihu hadn’t gotten a little tipsy that one night, it might not be Eleazar who became the high priest.) A little exchange of vestments and voila: “the high priest is dead, long live the high priest!”)
So now the appropriate sacrifices can continue. Now the people can be assured that, despite their usually wayward and oppositional ways, their sins will be atoned for, the community cleansed and redeemed in G”d’s favor.
Miriam, however, is gone forever, and gone with her is her spirit, her healing touch, her prophetic voice. The Israelites seem not to mourn her passing, as though they won’t be missing any of these gifts of Miriam. Or so they think.
It’s clever, this Torah, that it doesn’t have the Israelites connect the absent water with Miriam’s death–yet still leaves the reader or listener to the story wondering, because of the juxtaposition of these two happenings, if the wells went dry because of Miriam’s passing, and the removing of her spiritual spring from the community. How can one read the Torah and not make the connection? One wonders why the Torah chose not to be explicit here? Is it once again related to G”d’s (or redactors’) desire to not elevate Moses and Miriam to a point they might become objects of worship? Was there, at one time, explicit text that the priestly redactors chose to omit that treated Aaron in the same de-emphasizing way?
The community can go on with Aaron, because Eleazar has taken his place. However, the community cannot go on without its water, can it? So G”d provides water. Moses, forgetting perhaps briefly, that it is G”d who will bring a renewed source of water from the rock, makes a bad judgment call , strikes the rock instead of just speaking to it, and invokes G”d’s punishment. Yet is it really only water that came forth from the rock, or is there some metaphorical component here as well – the renewal of the spirit that Miriam brought to the community of Israel? The lesson being that G”d will not allow the people to go physically or spiritually thirsty? Thus, through Miriam’s death, the absence of water and the subsequent renewal of the font, we see yet again G”d’s promise, G”d’s kindness, G”d’s mercy. In Aaron and Eleazar, we see only the simple transition from generation to generation of the leadership of a symbolic, ritualistic caste. Thus, the apparent absence of mourning upon Miriam’s death actually becomes of greater significance than the thirty days of mourning that followed Aaron’s death.
One could say that while, in life, Aaron appeared to assume the greater role, in death it is clear that the greater role was to be Miriam’s. For it is through her death that we learn yet again of G”d’s greatness and G”d’s concern for this people, Israel.
One wonders how much greater Miriam’s role might have been had not the text been redacted over the centuries by those with clear misogynistic biases, and clear pro-Aaronic priesthood bias.
The spirit of Miriam lives on. Each and every time a font spurts forth water, whether real or metaphoric, to nurture the Jewish people, it is the spirit of Miriam, the prophetess, that G”d allows to renew and refresh us. Though we may not mourn Miriam, let us thank G”d for this everlasting gift that is G”d’s present to us upon her death.
אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ׃
Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it—
©2018 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Chukat 5777 – Still Not Seeing What’s Inside (Plus Bonus Thoughts)
Chukat 5775 – Wanting To See More Than Just The View From The MountainTop (Revised from 5759/61)
Chukat5774 – What a Difference a Vowel Makes (Revised from 5767)
Chukat 5773 – Biblical “Jodies”
Chukat 5772 – Your G”d, Our G”d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What’s Inside
Chukat 5764 – Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam