This week’s parshah, Chukat, includes the ritual of the red heifer, that mysterious rite for preparing a concoction to purify those who have become ritually impure. This passage has long puzzled Jewish scholars, but there are other significant elements to the narrative here. When the people arrive at the wilderness of Zin, the community (once again) complains to Moses and Aaron that there is no water. God commands Moses to take his rod and order the rock to yield water, but instead he strikes it. Because of this single act of faithlessness, Moses and Aaron are told that they will not enter the land with the people.
Parshat Chukat also includes the deaths of two of the key figures in the narrative of the Exodus and the wanderings in the wilderness: Moses’ sister, Miriam the prophetess, and brother, Aaron the high priest. In particular, the way in which the Torah describes Miriam’s death is very instructive not only in how we look at dying, but in how we look at living.
Of Miriam, we are told simply that she died and was buried at Kadesh. No mention is made of mourning on the part of the community. (By contrast, the community mourns for 30 days following Aaron’s death). Because her death immediately follows the description of the red heifer, the Talmud teaches that “even as the ashes of the red cow cleanse from transgression, so does the death of the just” (Moed Katan 28a). Even in death, Miriam plays an important role in tending to the Israelites during their wanderings.
Given that the people immediately start complaining about the lack of water, both traditional and contemporary sources often draw a connection between Miriam as an exemplar of women and water as life-giving. The Talmud teaches that when Miriam died, the well that had provided water for the people in the desert disappeared (Ta’anit 9a). For this reason, many people place a Miriam’s cup filled with water alongside Elijah’s cup on the seder table. Indeed, Miriam is a significant figure in the Bible; her song at the Reed Sea is one of the few examples of active female leadership and participation in the narrative of the Torah.
While Moses and Aaron got to talk to God, it was Miriam who tended to the everyday needs of the people. The complaining against Moses and Aaron can then be seen as the people worrying about how they will live without Miriam to care for them. By commanding Moses to speak to the rock, God was trying to draw the connection between the sometimes obscure aspects of ritual purity (such as the red heifer) and the everyday importance of faith.
With Miriam’s passing, the people will need to take a more active role in taking care of themselves. There is water available if they can but look for it themselves.
In foreshadowing the deaths of Aaron and then Moses, Miriam’s death points to the trajectory of growth the Israelites must undertake in order to successfully inherit the land of Canaan. In each case, there is an increased need for each person to maintain his or her faith and to seek out God’s presence.
Just as we each grow from the instruction of our parents to our own faith, so to the Israelites had to grow from the care of Miriam, Aaron and Moses to being able to take care of themselves. PJC
Rabbi Howard Stein is a rabbi at Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek in Lima, Ohio. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.