Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Passages in the Wilderness

This week's Torah portion is Parashat Chukkat  Numbers  19:1-22.1

Passages in the Wilderness

This week’s parashah – Chukkat -  includes a wealth of materials.  We read of the story of the red heifer; the disappearance of the well which accompanied the Israelites on their journey; Moses’ striking the rock for water to pour forth; and the story of successful military battles.  There is also an introduction to the transition of leadership from the generations of Israelites who left Egypt to those who arrived in the Promised Land.

In Chapter 20:1 we read, “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh.  Miriam died there and was buried there.”

Shortly thereafter (Chapter 20:22-29), Aaron dies.  We read that the Eternal tells Moses and Aaron that Aaron will be “gathered to his kin” for disobeying His command by striking the rock for water.  The sequence is described:  Moses and Aaron will ascend Mount Hor; Aaron will be stripped of his vestments which will then be worn by Aaron’s son Eleazar; Aaron will die.  When Moses and Eleazar descended from Mount Hor, “the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last.  All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

And so the transition to a new generation of leadership begins.

When we study Torah, we are encouraged to notice what is NOT said, as well as what IS said.  In this single chapter, there appears to me to be a significant silence.  

Miriam died. There is no explanation of why she died or under what circumstances her death occurred, contrary to the later explanation given for Aaron's death.  There is no mention of mourning her, unlike the grief expressed upon Aaron’s death.   When Miriam dies, Miriam's Well disappears and the Israelites complain that they are dying of thirst.

And so I wonder:  were there no tears recorded for Miriam because her death was the first of the leaders' deaths? Or was it because it was easier to focus on the loss of that which she brought (Miriam's Well) than it was to focus on the loss of Miriam herself? Much of our own grief focuses on loss as it impacts on us -- "who will listen to me?", "who will rejoice in my good news?", "how will I keep on going?"

The Women's Torah Commentary suggests the following:  Perhaps they were so stunned by the loss of Miriam that they [the Israelites] were unable to express their grief directly.  Instead, they cried out against Moses and Aaron, projecting and transferring their grief onto Miriam's brothers.  Or perhaps they did not react to Miriam's death in such a way that would give comfort to her brothers.  They seem to care only that there was no water, and acted as if Miriam's death were unimportant.  We can imagine that Moses and Aaron were deeply shaken by the loss of their sister, and this may have been the reason that Moses reacted with such anger toward the people when he struck the rock, instead of speaking to it, as God has commanded.  In grief mixed with rage -- such a normal reaction -- Moses lashed out at the rock to produce what Miriam could have produced with only her presence.  (p 300)

As Moses' big sister, Miriam helped raise him: she protected him and watched over him.  Moses may have felt that he lost not "just" a sister, but a surrogate mother.  Did the Israelites (as a community) also see her as a surrogate mother?

For Moses and Aaron, Miriam's death makes all too real their own mortality -- in a way that the death of a parent or friend can't.  Someone who grew up in their home, someone of their generation, someone who shares their collective memories and growing-up experiences in a way that even a "best friend" can't -- if she has died, so too will they. For all that they have managed to accomplish, they are vulnerable.

And ultimately, after the mourning period, what do we have left?  We have our memories and the legacy that gets transmitted from generation to generation.  That legacy sometimes comes from the generation that knew the loved one… and sometimes from generations which follow. 

When I think of Miriam, I think of courage and joy.  That’s due in large measure to the song “Miriam’s Well” by songwriter and singer, Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory.  Debbie took a few lines from Exodus, heard what wasn’t said, and provided many of us with a new vision of the character of one of the pivotal women in our history. Without Miriam, Moses would probably not have survived. Or, if he had survived, would not have been linked to his heritage.

And that’s Miriam’s legacy:  nurturer, supporter, and joyfilled celebrator.  

Questions to consider:1.  What legacies have been transmitted to you by your family? How are they transmitted?2.  What is the legacy of various communities to which you belong?3.  What would you like your legacy to be?  What actions are you taking to ensure that legacy will be transmitted?

Mary F. Meyerson is the founder of Morah Mary Consulting, LLC.


janaki said...

I so love this post!! I am contemplating what legacies I want to leave: honesty, integrity, genuineness. And, yes, Love - at the end of the day, what else are we left with?

thanks for this question - it informs my preparation for shabbat!!

Morah Mary said...

Janaki - thanks for your comment. I think about legacies quite a bit: those I've inherited; those I wish to pass on; and those which seem outside my grasp right now!