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Chukat 5770

By: Rav Michael Susman

Losing Miriam Without saying so explicitly, our Parsha fast forwards us by close to forty years. Last week we read about Korach's rebellion against the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu, and by extension, the leadership of Hashem, an event which took place immediately after Chet HaMeraglim. This week we read of the death of Miriam, the sin of Mei Meriva and the death of Aharon HaKohen, all events which occurred in the final months of Am Yisrael's sojourn in the desert. When reviewing the Parsha, one can hardly fail to commiserate with Moshe Rabbenu over what must have been a very difficult few months. In addition to events we have already described he must also contend with the refusal of Edom to allow Bnei Yisrael to traverse its land, further complaints from Am Yisrael which lead to a devastating plague, and no less than two wars. Yet, it would seem that the death of his two siblings, along with the shattering verdict delivered by Hashem barring him from entering into Eretz Yisrael must have left Moshe feeling particularly isolated and forlorn. We intuitively understand how devastated Moshe must have been to learn that his lifelong dream of reaching Eretz Yisrael would remain unfulfilled. Similarly, given the vast amount of "coverage" that the Torah gives to the partnership of Moshe and Aharon, it is not difficult to imagine the loneliness that now falls upon him. Instead of having his brother to turn to for support and guidance, his nephew now wears the garb of the Kohen Gadol. A relationship of equals has been replaced by a relationship of mentor and student. But can we say that we have the same intuitive understanding that the loss of his sister, Miriam, might have caused? In order to accomplish that, we must try and first understand who Miriam was and why she was so special. If we look through Chumash, we find that Miriam is mentioned explicitly three times (not including BaMidbar 26:59, where she is mentioned as part of the genealogy of Shevet Levi). The three places are when Miriam leads Bnot Yisrael in singing the praises of Hashem after Kriyat Yam Suf (Shemot 15:20-21), when Miriam and Aharon speak out against Moshe Rabbenu (BaMidbar 12:1-15) and Miriam’s death as recorded in our Parsha (BaMidbar 20:1). In addition, there are two other places where Miriam is not mentioned, but we understand that she is being referred to. When Moshe’s mother places Moshe in the water, the Torah tells us that his sister watched from afar (Shemot 2:1-9). This is a clear reference to Miriam. In addition, according to one approach in the Midrash, the second of the two midwives that Paro seeks to enlist to kill new born Jewish infants was Miriam (Shemot 1:15-21). [Before we begin our analysis of Miriam’s personality as it emerges from the passukim and the midrash, it behooves us to make two notes, specifically in connection with the story of the midwives and Moshe’s being placed into the water. Firstly, it is by no means universally agreed, either in the midrash or by the various meforshim, that Yocheved and Miriam were the midwives, or even that the midwives were Jewish. For the purpose of our analysis we will adopt the view that they were, as the relevant midrashim will shed light on important aspects of Miriam’s personality. The second point is in regard to why the Torah fails to mention Miriam by name when she goes to follow Moshe’s ark in the water. Nechama Leibowitz points out (Iyunim Chadashim B’Sefer Shemot pp 19-21) that until the middle of the second perek of Sefer Shemot no names are used at all. (The exception is the midwives, who might have been Egyptian, and even if they were Jewish, whose names were pseudonyms.) Nechama explains that the Torah is attempting to communicate the status of Am Yisrael at the time, leaderless and floundering, unable to protect themselves from Paro and his persecutions in any way but by stubbornly multiplying and refusing to be subdued.] Let us begin with our assumption that Puah and Miriam are in fact one and the same. The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:13) suggests that Miriam was called Puah because she stood up to Paro (“hofia panim kneged Paro”) and warned him that Hashem would punish him for killing Jewish babies. (Only some quick thinking on Yocheved’s part saved Miriam from Paro’s wrath!) Interestingly the very same Midrash suggests that Miriam earned the name Puah by standing up not to Paro but to her own father, Amram. According to that approach, Miriam was protesting her father’s decision to divorce Yocheved in order to avoid bringing babies into the world only to be murdered by the Egyptians. Of course, the two views in the Midrash do not contradict but actually complement one another. Here we are being introduced to a young Miriam who, when given the choice of respecting authority at the cost of backing down from what she believes is true, or to stand up for her beliefs, does not flinch. It makes no difference if the authority figure is the most evil man of the generation or the most righteous. Miriam tells it like it is. One could argue that it is this very same character trait which leads to Miriam’s (and Aharon’s) sin of speaking Lashon Hara about Moshe Rabbenu. If we accept the approach suggested by the Midrash Tanchuma and adopted by Rashi (BaMidbar 12:1) that Miriam was upset by what she perceived as the unjustified abandonment of Tzipora by her husband, Moshe, then it is certainly logical to suggest that Miriam’s sense of right and willingness to challenge authority (if she was willing to confront her father why should she back down from her “little brother”!) led her to speak against Moshe now. In fact, we could suggest that had she confronted Moshe directly, rather than speaking with Aharon, there would have been no sin at all. Fearlessness in the defense of truth was not the only trait honed by Miriam’s experience as a midwife. Even if she hadn’t openly challenged Paro, Miriam and Yocheved were gambling with their lives by defying Paro and and saving the Jewish infants. Miriam was not willing to sin, even if she would pay the price when confronted by Paro. This was yet another aspect of Miriam’s personality, her ability to steer clear of sin. Miriam, in the words of the Midrash (Shemot Raba 40:1) was an individual who was “sara min hara” one who avoids sin. Yet, as the incident of Lashon Hara indicates, when these two traits clashed, the instinct for Emet overcame the fear of sin. Yet another trait which characterizes Miriam emerges from the initiative she took to lead Bnot Yisrael in song and praise of Hashem after Kriyat Yam Suf. The Midrash (Bamidbar Raba 1:2) suggests that this initiative was somehow linked to "Be’er Miriam", the water source that sustained Am Yisrael throughout their sojourn in the desert, which was provided to Am Yisrael in tribute to Miriam. The Midrash does not explain why the two are linked, but I would like to suggest a possibility. A recurring theme in the behavior of Am Yisrael in the Midbar was complaints about the lack of water, a situation which was ultimately resolved with the appearance of Be’er Miriam, and which returns with tragic consequences after the water source disappears with Miriam's death. In general, Chazal take a forgiving view of Am Yisrael's predicament. How, after all, can they be expected to survive in the desert without water? I would suggest that Miriam adopted a less charitable view. When Bnei Yisrael joined Moshe in praising Hashem for the miracle of Kriyat Yam Suf, Miriam recognized that it was simply unacceptable for Bnot Yisrael to remain outside of the circle. When it comes to praising Hashem, no one is exempt. Therefore, it was important for the women to add their voices to the symphony praising Hashem. But what does this have to do with Be’er Miriam? Chazal ask how Miriam knew to bring musical instruments with her into the Midbar. The answer is that she knew that there would be opportunities to praise Hashem, and she wanted to be prepared. This bespeaks a mindset, one that recognizes our dependence on Hashem and our responsibility to express our gratitude. Miriam rejects the idea that anything is a given. Why should Bnei Yisrael expect that they be given water? Why do they fail to express appreciation when it is given? Miriam's initiative to sing praise to Hashem is a function of her personality. We rely on Hashem and we need to recognize Him for that. As a result, Bnei Yisrael is given water in testament to the individual who epitomizes recognition of Hashem, in the hope that they too will recognize that it is a gift and not a right. With this picture of Miriam, we can understand the acute loss Moshe must have felt when she died. Not only is he now bereft of his older sister, who has watched over him from the day he was born. He and all of Am Yisrael have lost a woman who represents Emet and Yirat Chet, a woman who sees and appreciates Hashem in all facets of life. Shabbat Shalom

 

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