Life has a way of telling you that you should have done something you didn’t. So does the Torah. There’s a lot of “cautionary tale” teaching going on in the Torah – think Golden Calf and picking favorites among your children.
This week’s parasha, Chukat, is like that, too, with devastating results. We deal with death a lot in this parasha. Both Miriam and Aaron die, and Moses knows he’s going to be dying, too. But how these deaths are dealt with say a lot about the community and about unintended, or unacknowledged emotional consequences.
Miriam was the eldest of the leadership siblings, older by far than Aaron and baby Moses (basket in the Nile, remember?) She was a prophetess and leader in the community. She is associated with water in Rabbinic midrash (commentary/tales) – the river Nile, where she guarded and guided her brother to safety, dancing and leading the women in song after crossing the Sea of Reeds – and one of the most powerful midrashim comes from this week’s text: “…and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water…” (Num 20:1-2) The sequencing of those sentences strongly suggest to the rabbis that the miraculous well that followed the Israelites through their journey in the wilderness dried up as soon as she died.
There was no mourning for Miriam. Instead, there was a social crisis for the grieving brothers, Moses and Aaron, to deal with. The people immediately start complaining about wanting water. Moses and Aaron are told by God to take the rod, gather the people, and order the rock to produce water. Moses explodes against the people, “Listen you rebels (morim – see the connection to Miriam? Same consonants…fodder for another discussion), shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Moses struck the rock twice, and got lots of water for the people. And quite quickly, God took Moses to task for that outburst, condemning him to die before actually reaching the Land – harsh punishment, indeed.
Compare that with how Aaron died. There is a very public, very elaborate ceremony in which Aaron and his son Eleazar go up Mt. Hor with Moses. There, in the sight of the community, Moses takes off Aaron’s Priestly vestments, puts them on Eleazar, clearly indicating the passing of power. Eleazar and Moses come down from the mountain, the community knows that Aaron has now died, and they mourn for 30 days. When Moses finally dies, the community mourns for 30 days, also, but not until they have been informed of Moses’ successor, too: Joshua. Only Miriam dies without an heir to her role in the community.
There is a teaching in the Talmud (Bavli, Tractate Ta’anit 9a) that says the three siblings represented three essential things the people needed on their journey: food, water, and shelter. The food was manna (Moses), the water was Miriam, and the shelter was the cloud, Shechinah’s presence, that followed the community (Aaron, as High Priest.) The food and the manna were pretty miraculous, both coming from the sky for all to marvel at. But the water was just always there, quiet, unassuming, keeping the people alive; much like Miriam herself. Her miracle wasn’t flashy, but it sustained the people. Everyone saw it, just as everyone saw Miriam die, but they just didn’t acknowledge how important she was until she was gone. Water, they realized, held great power, even though it sometimes wielded it drop by persistent drop. Moses realized he needed to do what Miriam could always do: provide water for the people, but he didn’t know how. He had never learned her secrets, never learned her quiet, persistent, invisible ways.
There are many quiet leaders among us, leaders who make life-sustaining miracles. The cautionary tale here is to acknowledge them, not push them aside, the way Moses and Aaron did with their grief over Miriam’s death. Rather than mourn for her, they denied their sadness, which then exploded in anger, like a rock pouring forth water. The water quenched the thirst at first, but look what it cost Moses. Finally he saw how Miriam worked: quietly, but with the purity that comes from the deepest, sweetest water.