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Mourning Miriam

Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

June 21, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Moshe was one of a kind. "None ever rose again like Moshe."

At the same time, in very powerful ways, Moshe and Miriam were two of a kind. Their personalities and passions overlapped generously. And despite being separated over decades during Moshe's extended sojourn in Midian, their destinies and their souls remained intertwined. When one of them left this world, the other descended into grief-stricken crisis.

It's not just that Miriam -- and Miriam alone -- watched over 3-month-old Moshe as he lay among the bulrushes on the Nile. It's that (as the text and the Midrash co-mingle) Miriam was the first of the two siblings to boldly confront authority, and to fight for the preservation of her people. When, under the boot of Egyptian oppression, her father Amram publicly declared his intention to desist from having any further children, it was Miriam who forcefully objected.

"Father, you are worse than Pharaoh," she said. "For Pharaoh declared death only upon the Israelite boys who would be born. But you have pronounced sentence upon both the boys and the girls."

Amram accepted his daughter's critique, and Moshe was born shortly thereafter. She prophesied that this baby would be the redeemer of Israel. When the baby was left in the water, she stood guard both over him and over the dream of freedom.

The impression that Moshe and Miriam were mirrors of one another is conveyed unmistakably at the very moment that the dream of freedom is realized. With the Egyptian horsemen at the bottom of the sea, Moshe leads the men of Israel in song, as Miriam leads the women. "I will sing to God for He has acted mightily" is the refrain they each inspire.

Later, when Miriam is stricken with tzara'at (often translated as "leprosy"), Aaron pleads with Moshe that he pray for her. According to the standard translation, Aaron pleads, "Let her not be as one who is dead ... with half her flesh eaten away."

But the medieval sage Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi's), realized that the pronouns in Aaron's sentence are not necessarily female. In fact, he says, they are male. And Aaron is pleading with Moshe to pray for Miriam's recovery so that he -- Moshe -- not be as one half of whose flesh is eaten away. For Aaron saw and understood that Moshe and Miriam were in many ways two halves of a whole, with lives and passions that were overlapping and interlocked. If Miriam dies, Moshe would be half-dead himself.

All of this helps explain the astonishing and tragic turn of events described in today's parsha. When the well in the desert runs dry, and God instructs Moshe to speak to the rock and elicit its waters, Moshe furiously lashes out against the people for their rebelliousness, strikes the rock with his staff, and incurs the Divine punishment of being barred from the land. What accounts for Moshe's fury?

Rashi, deeply rooted in the Midrash, points out that the event immediately prior to the water crisis is the death of Miriam. For 40 years a particular rock had traveled with the people and, in Miriam's merit, miraculously gave forth water. With Miriam's death, the rock dried up, rolled away and found its place within the anonymity of the thousands of rocks in the desert. God's command to Moshe that he "speak to the rock" set Moshe off on the seemingly impossible mission to locate that old familiar rock. The people grew weary and said, "What difference does it make from which rock you bring forth water?" Are not all rocks the same for God?

The people were right. But Moshe lost his temper. Not because God couldn't bring water out of any rock that He wished. Not because the people weren't legitimately thirsty. But because Moshe was heartbroken over the loss of his sister. And he didn't want to find just any rock. He wanted to find her rock. To feel her presence, to be comforted over her death. Moshe's fury wasn't born of anger. It was born of grief.

We all encounter people who are sometimes angry. Often these angry people are those whom we care about deeply, and we are hurt by their anger. The story of Moshe and Miriam reminds us that anger is often not really anger that we are witnessing, rather an expression of grief over the loss of something important -- a relationship, a belief, a hope, a dream. Each of us experiences loss differently. But we all need the same kind of understanding and patience from our friends. Even Moshe needed some.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B'nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

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