The reading for this Shabbat includes Numbers chapter 20 which records two deaths. At the beginning comes the brief announcement of the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses. She has featured in a number of dramatic episodes in the Hebrew Bible. When Moses was born and it was no longer possible to conceal him from the Egyptians, his mother placed him in a basket on the Nile. Miriam, his sister, followed its course until eventually it was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam’s initiative enabled Moses’ true mother to wet-nurse him and watch over his earliest years.
Miriam next appears leading the women in song and dance after the Israelites have successfully crossed the sea of reeds. Here she is called a prophetess (Exodus 15:20), though nothing more is said about this title. In a later episode (Numbers 12) she and Moses’ brother Aaron complain about Moses’ leadership. Surely God has also spoken to them as well! As a punishment, Miriam is struck with a disease that makes here skin turn white. Moses prays to God on her behalf and she is cured. Now, in our chapter, without warning, we are told simply that she died.
At the end of the same chapter we learn about the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother. He has been a more prominent figure than Miriam, the first High Priest and the founder of a dynasty of priests. At the court of Pharaoh he was Moses’ spokesman. He shares some of the responsibilities of leadership but seems to have been a less decisive figure than his brother. When Moses was delayed by God on Mount Sinai and the people feared that he would not return, it was Aaron who created the golden calf to give them a tangible god to worship. At a later time, in a tragic moment, Aaron witnessed the death of two of his sons, struck down by a fire from heaven when they tried to come into the presence of God in the wrong way. Now when he dies there is public mourning for thirty days, a sign of his importance and popularity.
The rabbis said that three good leaders arose for Israel: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three great gifts were given through them: the well of water, the cloud and the manna. (Ta’anit 9a) The cloud led them through the wilderness and the manna was their food. But the first thing listed, the well of water, is related by the rabbis specifically to Miriam. Our chapter simply records that she dies and was buried. But the sentence that follows starts a new subject entirely. It tells us that there was no water and the people held a public protest against Moses and Aaron.
One of the methods used by the rabbis when they interpreted the Bible was to try to understand why two seemingly unrelated passages are placed next to one another. In this case, they tried to understand the connection between the death of Miriam and the absence of water. This led to the idea that during her lifetime a well of water accompanied the Israelites on their journeys through the wilderness, appearing every time that they encamped. So when she died the well disappeared.
Our chapter contains one other major dramatic event. When faced with this latest protest of the people about the lack of water, Moses turns to God for support. He is told to take his staff, with which he has previously worked miracles. He is then to speak to a prominent rock in the wilderness and God promises that water will flow from it. Moses takes his staff, but instead of simply speaking to the rock he vents his anger and frustration on the people. ‘Listen, you rebels,’ he says, ‘shall we bring water out of this rock?!’ Then he strikes the rock with his staff just as he had done once before (Exodus 17:6). As promised by God, abundant water flows from it. But God is angry at his behaviour. As a result both Moses and Aaron, like the whole of that generation, are condemned to die in the wilderness and not enter the Promised Land.
A great deal has been written about the severity of this judgment on Moses by God. Also many theories exist as to exactly what it was that Moses had done wrong. But since we are discussing the sequence of events in this chapter, perhaps there is another question to be asked. Why is it that despite all his leadership experience and all the crises Moses had successfully faced in the past, he made such an elementary mistake this time? Why not just speak to the rock as he was told? And why lose his temper with the people? Could it also have something to do with the death of Miriam?
Of the three leaders, Aaron dealt with ritual matters and the cult. Moses spoke directly with God and defined the general purpose and direction of the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land. However, someone else had to deal with the practical day to day issues raised by the people. Perhaps that was the particular role played by Miriam. After all, she had shown her practical skills when she saved Moses. That she and Aaron shared some kinds of responsibility is clear from the time when they complained about Moses’ leadership. Why was he the prominent one when they were also special? This typical argument amongst siblings becomes much more serious when the brothers and sisters are also the leaders of the nation.
In our chapter people complain about the absence of water as they have done in the past. Perhaps until now Miriam had been the person who dealt with these day to day concerns of the people. She was the one who encouraged them, offered practical solutions for their problems, or simply acknowledged the legitimacy of their fears and concerns. She was the one of the three leaders to whom the people could turn, the one who listened to them. She in turn would be the intermediary who would bring these issues to the attention of Moses. But in doing so she could present them in such a way that Moses did not feel personally attacked and could understand what was needed. He could then deal with the problem with the right degree of detachment and effectiveness. Without Miriam, Moses was now directly confronted with the anger and fear of the people, and his judgement was affected. Without her calming presence as a buffer, he felt threatened and over-reacted.
Is there any evidence for this suggestion? Possibly in the title ‘prophet’ that Miriam has been given. One task of the prophets was to be intermediaries, standing between the people and God. To the people they convey God’s will, often criticising their behaviour, but also consoling them in times of trouble. The great prophets, like Moses himself and Jeremiah, stood before God and tried to represent the needs and weakness of the people. They pleaded for mercy on their behalf. Miriam may have played such a role in the life of Moses. She helped him cope with the challenges and demands of leadership by protecting him from the direct attack of the people. With her death a key figure in the governance of the people was lost. And an essential support for Moses was taken away. At the first new challenge to his leadership, Moses, without Miriam, failed. The well of water that had sustained him for so long was no more.
Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.