The Kiss of God
(On the Yahrzeit of my beloved mother, Beatrice Kaplan)
One of the obstacles to learning Chumash, “The Five Books of the Torah,” is that it is written in a very condensed fashion. For example, the account of Moshe running away from Egypt, after it was discovered he had killed an Egyptian, and the account of his settling in Midian are written one event right after the other. In fact, there were decades of time between them. The Ramban says Moshe was between 13 and 20 when he ran away. Meeting his eventual wife, Zipporah, and setting down with her father, Yitro, happened about 50 to 60 years later.
This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, includes another such example. The major topic of last week’s parsha, Korach, dealt with an event that took place in the 2nd year after B’nei Yisrael left Egypt. However, chapter 20 of Sefer Bamidbar picks up the story of Bnai Yisrael 38 years later with the death of Miriam. What happened to the nation during this gap of recorded history? What were they doing?
The essential pursuit of the nation during these 38 years was learning. Moshe gave classes every day. The Talmud records that anyone from the nation, men, women, and children could come into his tent to hear and discuss with him directly, the day’s lesson. In short, during these 38 years, the nation was engaged in the study of the legal and philosophic systems of Judaism.
It was also during these 38 years that all those men from the age of 20 and older, at the time of the rebellion led by the 10 spies, died in the desert. From chapter 20 onward, the Torah only records the events of the last year in the wilderness and the mitzvoth transmitted by Moshe during that time.
Chapter 20 begins with one brief verse. It tells us that Miriam, sister of Moshe and Aaron, died. The recording of her death juxtaposed to the command of the Red Heifer has deep significance. Our Sages teach, “Just as the offerings bring atonement to the nation, so does the death of righteous people.” What exactly do our Sages mean by this enigmatic statement? Is there some mysterious way that this works? Can someone die for me, to purify me? There is a religion that, in fact, professes this idea. Such a notion is popular and quickly embraced because it implies that the doer of wrong actions does not have to take responsibility for those actions. So and so died for me, to cleanse me. A thinking person can readily see the shallowness of such an idea but it remains attractive to our psychology.
Judaism has a completely different approach. The doer of wrong can attain atonement for wrong actions or thoughts but only via personal introspection, recognition of the error and change. In a word we call this process, “teshuva.” When a person dies, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on how the person lived. Interesting is the Torah’s notion of a righteous person. It is not someone who never did or said anything wrong. On the contrary, our idea of a truly righteous person is someone who made a mistake, even a very serious one, was called out about it, admitted it, and changed.
Miriam was a great person responsible for saving the nation of Israel. The Talmud, Sotah, 12a, records a crucial encounter, a serious debate that took place between Miriam and her father, Amram, leader of the Jewish people enslaved at that time in Egypt. She presented three arguments why the people should continue to marry and have children, notwithstanding the already promulgated edict by Pharaoh to throw all males born into the Nile.
She buoyed the spirits of her parents, when she looked after her baby brother, Moshe, sent adrift in the river after being placed in a flimsy wicker basket. She arranged for Moshe’s mother to nurse him and to raise him during his formative years of early childhood. Moshe’s survival was due solely to the efforts of Miriam. Later she leads the women of Israel in song and praise to God after the crossing of the Red Sea. Miriam, we are told, was the person responsible for the nation having a well of life-sustaining water that miraculously traveled with them in the wilderness. This miracle ceased with her death.
However, Miriam sinned grievously. Later she is struck with the plague of “tzaras,” when she spoke “lashon harah,” about Moshe. This event is recorded earlier in Bamidbar, Chapter 12. Miriam didn’t deny her evil speech. It was based on an erroneous comparison of her and Aaron’s level of prophecy to that of Moshe’s. Rather, she accepted her punishment and used it as an opportunity for introspection and positive change. Recording her death causes us to think about how she changed and corrected a serious personal flaw. Then we as well can and should do the same. In that sense, the death of a righteous person is an atonement for us.
In his “Guide for the Perplexed,” Part III, chapter 51, Maimonides describes the advancement people make toward perfection. Toward the end of that chapter he quotes our Sages. Concerning the death of three people, Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam, “…their death was nothing but a kiss by God.” This expression signifies attainment of the closest relationship one can have with God. The Torah openly mentions this fact by Aaron and Moshe but out of modesty conceals this expression here in our pasha with regard to the death of Miriam.
Miriam achieved the highest level of perfection possible for a human being but not by always being perfect. That notion is a fantasy. Rather, she used every event in her life, even a serious mistake, to reshape it and to advance in her relationship with mankind and ultimately with God.
May her death and life truly bring us atonement. In in this way may we merit God’s protection and watchfulness over the nation of Israel, Jews and God-fearing people worldwide.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan