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D'var Torah

7/11/2019 by Hazzan Ozur Bass

“The Israelites arrived as a group at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1).

“Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain” (Numbers 20: 28).

In this week’s portion, both of Moses’ siblings die. Without much preamble or ritual, the Torah tells us of Miriam’s death. Miriam dies “there” and is buried “there”. No mourning follows her burial. Aaron’s death, on the other hand, is ritualized, described in detail, and given a reason: “he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah” (20: 24). After Aaron’s death, the Israelites sit and mourn for 30 days.

Both deaths are directly connected to the episode of the waters of Meribah:  Miriam’s death precedes the complaints about thirst. The Sages of the Talmud associate Miriam with a traveling well which dried out as she died (Tosefta to Mishna Sota, 11:1). The complaining led to Moses striking the rock, instead of speaking to it; Moses called on the rock to give forth water, instead of calling on God’s name. Aaron died because Moses did not show faith in God at Meribah, when giving water to the Israelites.

For the majority of the Israelites who died in the desert the Torah gives a reason: because of the episode of the spies, or a plague; because they were gathering sticks on Shabbat or because they blasphemed in public. Moses and Aaron die  before entering the land because they were of the generation before the spies, but the reason the Torah gives is because of their performance at Meribah. But there is no given reason for Miriam’s death. “Miriam died there and was buried there.” Nothing more.

It’s easy to dismiss the Torah’s silence on this subject as cultural chauvinism (which this is), the fact that women did not have the same status as men in olden days. Heck, they don’t have the same status as men now! This, however, is not about women in general: even Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, whose name is onle mentioned once in the Torah, receives a burial and the place of her death is named alon-bachut, the tree of weeping (Genesis 35:8). Women are 2nd class citizens, but this is about Miriam and her leadership role. Sure, Miriam is one of the few named women in the Torah; true, she is one of the few whose death is mentioned. We should expect nothing less regarding one of the pillars of the community who participated in such an active way in the redemption of our people.

Maybe the Israelites, even Moses and Aaron, were uncertain about how to deal with the death of one of their leaders, as Miriam was the first of them to die. There’s also a rabbinic attempt to link the lack of mourning for Miriam with the previous chapter: Miriam dies after the Torah explains that one who touches a corpse or is in the presence of a corpse has to be purified with the ashes of the red heifer. Therefore, the Israelites did not want to be in her presence after her death.

Whatever the reasons, the Torah omits the circumstances of Miriam’s death and the rituals of burial and mourning which most certainly followed. That omission is felt today, when we strive for equality in our society, be it for women, LGBTQA, immigrants and all races and creeds. I pray that Miriam’s death be the banner we carry for equality.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hazzan Ozur Bass

Tue, July 16 2019 13 Tammuz 5779