Now wait just a durn minute here. This doesn't sound right.
At the start of chapter 20 of Bemidbar, Miriam dies, and the well dries up. The only moaning, wailing and weeping on the part of the Israelites is for the lack of water. (Bemidbar 20:1-2)
At the end of chapter 20, Aaron dies, and all of Israel mourns for thirty days. (Bemidbar 20:29)
A while back, Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses, and only Miriam was punished. (Yes, one can read the text such that it was really only Miriam who spoke against Moses, but I'm not convinced by that argument. And one can also argue that, in the end, Aaron was punished, as he didn't get to enter the promised land either. It still seems unfair to me.)
Just more evidence of a misogynist redaction of the text? There are surely scholars who might argue so, and who am I to disagree. Yet, I wonder if there is more going on here?
Of course, while there is no evidence of mourning and beweeping Miriam's death, the text is structured to have us believe there was a connection between her death and the lack of water.
In connection with Aaron's death, we have only a small ritual of transfer of power (in the exchange of clothes) and thirty days of mourning. Now I don't know about you, but for me, a month of weeping and wailing for a departed leader sounds a lot better than being deprived of water in the midst of the desert.
Or was it really the water that the Israelites were being deprived of? Let's think on that.
The work of Aaron as high priest needed to be carried on by a successor. And all that is provided for by the elevation of Eleazar. (Lucky Eleazar-if brothers Nadav and Avihu hadn't gotten a little tipsy that one night, it might not be Eleazar who became the high priest.) A little exchange of vestments and voila: "the high priest is dead, long live the high priest!"
So now the appropriate sacrifices can continue. Now the people can be assured that, despite their usually wayward and oppositional ways, their sins will be atoned for, the community cleansed and redeemed in Gd's favor.
Miriam, however, is gone forever, and gone with her is her spirit, her healing touch, her prophetic voice. The Israelites seem not to mourn her passing, as though they won't be missing any of these gifts of Miriam. Or so they think.
It's clever, this Torah, that it doesn't have the Israelites connect the absent water with Miriam's death--yet still leaves the reader or listener to the story wondering, because of the juxtaposition of these two happenings, if the wells went dry because of Miriam's passing, and the removing of her spiritual spring from the community.
However, the community cannot go on without its water, can it? And so Gd provides water. Moses, forgetting perhaps briefly, that it is Gd who will bring a renewed source of water from the rock, makes a bad judgment call and invokes Gd's punishment. Yet is it really only water that came forth from the rock, or is a metaphorical component here as well - the renewal of the spirit that Miriam brought to the community of Israel. The lesson being that Gd will not allow the people to go physically or spiritually thirsty? Thus, through Miriam's death, the absence of water and the subsequent renewal of the font, we see yet again Gd's promise, Gd's kindness, Gd's mercy. In Aaron and Eleazar, we see only the simple transition from generation to generation of the leadership of a symbolic, ritualistic caste. Thus, the apparent absence of mourning upon Miriam's death actually becomes of greater significance than the thirty days of mourning that followed Aaron's death.
One could say that while, in life, Aaron appeared to assume the greater role, in death it is clear that the greater role was to be Miriam's. For it is through her death that we learn yet again of Gd's greatness and Gd's concern for this people, Israel.
The spirit of Miriam lives on. Each and every time a font spurts forth water, whether real or metaphoric, to nurture the Jewish people, it is the spirit of Miriam, the prophetess,that Gd allows to renew and refresh us. Though we may not mourn Miriam, let us thank Gd for this everlasting gift that is Gd's present to us upon her death.
©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester
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