Chukat 5782 – What About Miriam

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Parsha Chukat is about mortality. After describing the confusing purification rite of the Red Heifer, we skip ahead 38 years. We are hit with three successive tragedies: Miriam dies, Moses is given a death sentence and is banned from the Promised Land and Aaron dies. We are told virtually nothing regarding the death of Miriam. Our tradition says she was a prophet in her own right. The midrash gives her standing and power as she is the source of the life-giving water that sustains the Israelites for their long journey the desert. But the Torah text dispenses with her in just six words, in the last third of the first sentence of Chapter 20 – “Miriam died and was buried there.” Six Hebrew words. When Miriam dies, the story immediately continues. There is no account of the people mourning for her.  Not even Moses or Aaron stops to mourn.  By contrast, seven verses are allocated to the death of Aaron, and there is a 30-day period of national mourning. We know that right after Miriam’s death, the Israelites show remarkable insensitivity, complaining to Moses and Aaron about the lack of water. Not mourning Miriam was a mistake. It probably contributed to Moses striking the rock.

Although the Bible preserves only a few direct references to Miriam, her importance to the Israelites’ story shines through even this leanest of biographical sketches. We know that Miriam saved her brother when he was in the wicker basket drifting down the Nile River. She had the courage and the ingenuity to approach Pharaoh’s daughter on Moses’ behalf. Miriam persuaded her father to annul his decree that the husbands should divorce their wives and have no more children which led to the birth of Moses and other Jewish children. The midrash implies that this six-year-old girl had more faith and wisdom than her father who was the leading Rabbi of the generation.

We remember Miriam for several other reasons. First, as mentioned, she is called a prophet, although prophetic teachings are not recorded. Second, she sings and leads the women in song to God following the people’s safe passage across the Red Sea. Third, she and Aaron speak out against Moses’ wife and his authority. Fourth, because of speaking out, she is sent out of the camp when she is stricken with a skin disease.  It is telling that the Israelites refused to move on until she returns.  The time outside the camp verifies her cleanliness but does not restore her to wholeness. Miriam remained a condemned woman. After her punishment, she never speaks, nor is she spoken to. She disappears altogether from the narrative until the announcement of her death and burial at Kadesh. These few references to Miriam are but clues to the larger story of her life and its importance.

As the Jews wandered through the wilderness, lacking adequate water would have been fatal.  However, the power of Miriam’s integrity, piety, and caring was such that God provided a moving well of water to follow the people through their wanderings until the moment of her death. Without Miriam, there was no more water. 

On the face of it, the first and subsequent sections of the parshah do not seem connected. However, if we examine the actual context in which Miriam’s death is reported, we noticed something very interesting: the verses immediately preceding Miriam’s demise are the ones that introduced the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer which is the ritual purification rite one must undergo after coming into contact with a dead person. This purification ritual requires copious amounts of water – water to spray on the liquefied ashes, water to launder the clothing of the one undergoing purification and, water for ritual immersion. The first words after Miriam’s burial are: the congregation had no water; so, they assembled against Moses and Aaron.

In an article by JJ Gross, he suggests that the children of Israel mourned Miriam greatly, perhaps even more than they would subsequently mourn her brother Aaron. So great was their grief that everyone became ritually impure by touching her coffin. Suddenly there was an urgent need for a great mass of water to purify all those who had come into proximity with Miriam’s corpse. Hence, we are told” the congregation had no water”, not that it had no water to drink. All the water they had was insufficient for the ritual purification needed by such a mass of people. The sudden shortage left no water for drinking as well. Thus, Gross says, we can understand from the context that Miriam’s death was mourned greatly. Without sufficient water in which every mourner could bathe and wash their clothing, the entire social and religious fabric of the society disintegrates. This problem first arises with the death of a beloved and massively mourned Miriam. Suddenly there is no water, and a miracle is needed.

The story of Miriam’s well suggest that her death left a void that stretched beyond the lack of material sustenance. Miriam added a dimension of creative thinking and artistic, active, joyous participation within the Exodus narrative. Miriam’s legacy of leadership is that she modeled for the recently released slaves how to escape their former identity, and to take pleasure in what free people have time, energy, and desire to do – join together in song and dance. By using musical instruments to encourage broader participation, Miriam demonstrated the importance of building consensus.

The Israelites needed a leader who would not do the work for them but who would instead inspire them to do the work themselves.

Though Moses did not regard his leadership role as requiring a close connection to the people – a doubtless source of friction – this is precisely where Miriam excelled. Miriam’s leadership was guided not by stressing her individuality but by forming a network of human relations. It was Miriam who enabled dialogue with the people. Through her unique brand of feminine leadership, Miriam was able bridge the gap between the grumbling masses and their “distant” leader.

In their book, “Multipiers”, Wiseman and McKeown describe multipliers as leaders who do not pretend to have all the answers or stifle the creativity of those with whom they work. Instead, multipliers consistently strive to make everyone around them smarter by unleashing others’ full potential and empowering the broader problem-solving abilities of the entire organization. A multiplier believes that most people in organizations are underutilized and that their capabilities can be leveraged with the right kind of leadership.

As a natural leader such as Miriam doesn’t tell you how to think and what to do but rather connects to your inner self, enables you to better understand your own feelings and empowers you to realize your true potential without being afraid of losing control.

Miriam’s prophecy was one of the deeds. Rather than stirring speeches or administration of justice, Miriam focused on teaching her people how to sing in moments of joy, and she saw to their sustenance during their period of exposure and fragility. Miriam’s example, paralleled by countless women after her, is one of action – deeds of love and support. This parshah offers an opportunity to honor Miriam and her legacy of Jewish leadership. The fact that Jewish women were so deeply and thoroughly absorbed with the Jewish spirit may be ascribed, in no small part, to Miriam, who set for them a shining example as a prophetess.

Many women quietly provide wells of nurturing and support without public attention or commendation. Only when they are no longer able to serve are their services noticed. Why didn’t anyone notice Miriam or her well when she was still alive? Miriam’s death should motivate us to recognize people today who provide nurture and support. Let Miriam’s brief death notice provoke us into raising up for honor Jewish women of all ages and places as they deserve.