When the righteous are born, nobody feels the difference, but when they die, many are affected. (Talmud) When we’re born, who knows what we’ll accomplish? It’s only after we die that what we did with our lives becomes clear. That’s probably why we Jews remember the day of the death of our loved ones, their yahrtzeit, not their birthdays, like we do with Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln.
In this week’s parasha Chukat, both of Moses’ siblings die, and Moses himself finds out that he will never be able to step foot in the Land he’d spent most of his life trying to get to.
Miriam and Aaron died in such different ways. Miriam seems to have just simply died. No mourning period, apparently, and no successor named. We can’t tell from the text if she was alone or among others. But, being Miriam, she was probably among women who were tending to her, she who had led them in song and dance. Miriam’s death is described just after the Torah expounds on the rituals surrounding purification and death, and it includes lots of water. After Miriam dies, we read that the community is without water. Midrash tells us that when Miriam died, the well of sweet water that followed the Israelites while Miriam lived, it died also. Her absence was deeply and immediately felt. The people were thirsty. This led them to complain, which led Moses and Aaron to get the word from God that water could come out of a particular rock if spoken to, but perhaps in grief, Moses hit the rock instead. The people got water, but Moses got sentenced: no Promised Land for you, Moses.
Aaron’s death was more elaborately described. He was told he was going to be “gathered to his kin”, and he went up the nearby mountain with his brother Moses and his son Eleazar. While there, Aaron’s priestly clothes were taken off him, and with great pomp, I would think, they were put onto his successor, his son Eleazar. And then he died. Then Moses and the new High Priest came down the mountain, to the waiting multitude, who promptly mourned for thirty days.
Between Aaron and Miriam, we are most aware of how the people react to Miriam’s death. Her absence is felt immediately. The community dries up, literally. With Aaron, we only know they mourned thirty days. Did they feel his absence? Probably not right away; he had left a son to carry on his work. But who carried on after Miriam?
Maybe we only feel a person’s absence as keenly as the people did Miriam’s when there is no one to carry on after them. Maybe Miriam’s death teaches us that whatever work we do in our lives, whatever we intend to leave behind as our life’s legacy, we have to hand it off to someone else, train others, inspire others, leave our wisdom to others. Otherwise, instead of mourning and getting on with it, those left behind will have nothing to do but complain.