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The Righteousness of Miriam

One of the challenges to learning Chumash is the style of the text. Events are mentioned in a terse way. Often time is condensed leaving us with the impression that the recorded events happened in quick succession, one right after the other. This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, contains this kind of structure. The event involves the death of Miriam, older sister of Aaron and Moshe.

Chapter 20:1-5 of Bamidbar tells us, “The Israelites were encamped in Kadesh and that Miriam died there and was buried there. There was no water for the people; they complained to Moshe and Aaron and gave the familiar complaint: ‘Why did you bring us into the desert, an evil place, no seed or fig or grape or pomegranate and there is no water to drink.’” This complaint leads to the well-known event where Moshe strikes a rock to produce water for the nation rather than just speak to the rock as commanded by God.

One important question that needs to be explored is the connection between the recording of Miriam’s death and the sudden lack of water. Further, what caused the harsh reaction directed toward Moshe and Aaron by the people?

First, you need to consider that the death of Miriam takes place after almost forty years the Israelites lived in the Sinai desert. That means almost 40 years have elapsed since the decree from God that all the men 20 years old and up would not enter the land of Israel. This punishment was the consequence of the national rebellion provoked by 10 of the spies mention only two weeks ago in parshat, Shalach. Keeping in mind this time span is significant. We will get back to it shortly.

To proceed we need to ask, who was Miriam? The Chumash tells us very little about her. She is the one that the Torah tells us stood and watched by the Nile to see what would happen to her baby brother, Moshe. Her mother, Yocheved, had placed him in a basket when she could no longer hide him from Pharaoh’s decree to kill all newly born male infants. The Talmud Sota, 12a, informs us that it was Miriam who was indirectly responsible for the very existence of Moshe. When Pharaoh’s decree came out, in order not to have more male children born , Amram, Miriam’s father divorced his wife, Yocheved. Amram was the spiritual leader of the Israelites in Egypt. If he left his wife as a result of Pharaoh’s decree, all the other men would do the same. Miriam presents to her father 3 very powerful arguments that he was wrong in divorcing his wife. Amram listens to Miriam and remarries Yocheved. Moshe was the product of their reunion.

Other than the time she led the Jewish women in a song of praise to God after crossing the Red Sea, Miriam was a private person, operating out of the public eye to help bring about God’s Will. Nevertheless, she attained prophecy and died by “the kiss of God” as did only Moshe and Aaron. That expression indicates her unique closeness to God.

Miriam’s righteousness was not public. Perhaps her great deeds were not widely known or known at all for that matter. She, together with her mother were the midwives who quietly outsmarted Pharaoh’s decree to kill the male children at birth. Without her, as I mentioned, Moshe Rabbenu, our great teacher and leader might not have even been born. Her quick thinking and intervention at the Nile with Pharaoh’s daughter enabled Moshe to be nursed and tutored by his natural mother during those important early years of childhood and development.

With this background, let me share with you an insight I heard from by good friend and teacher, Rabbi Reuven Mann. Miriam was the paradigm for internal perfection that leads to “hidden righteousness.” In every generation there are people like her who operate in private righteousness. Anonymous donors who provide for the welfare of the community through various contributions. A teacher perhaps, sitting alone planning his lessons, thinking of each individual student and how best to educate them. We may only learn about such the influence of and gratitude for such people at a eulogy or perhaps when an academic award is bestowed, the winner acknowledges the quiet, behind the scenes work done by a teacher.

The Israelites, however, failed to recognize this attribute of Miriam. They did not afford her the proper gratitude and recognition. When she died, and the water suddenly stopped after nearly 40 years, instead of complaining the people should have used her death to reflect on her way of life. They should have realized her perfection was the reason they merited God’s constant protection and miraculous intervention wherever they encamped in the desert. They should have looked at themselves and asked what can we do to merit God’s providence? The Torah records Miriam died in Kadesh and there was no water. There is a philosophic equation here : God’s benefit comes because of merit.

Let us use this Shabbat to begin our own self-reflection and by so doing improve our lives and continue to merit God’s watchfulness over the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan