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Behind the Great Moses? An Equally Great Miriam
Just as our ancestors made their way through the desert long ago, we make our way through the book of Numbers now. When we read this portion, we are journeying through the month of Tammuz, which often includes the hottest days of the year, when walking on hot sand burns the soles of our feet, when our lips become parched and our throats dry.
Numbers' Chapter 20 begins: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh." This phrase then continues with five Hebrew words that alter the course of Israelite history: "Miriam died there and was buried there." The text continues, "The community was without water."
We first encounter Miriam as the unnamed sister of Moses who waits at the edge of the Nile, watching as the current carries her brother's reed cradle into the arms of Pharaoh's daughter. Miriam is named as she grows into womanhood, and leads the women in dance and praise of God at the shores of the Red Sea.
According to legend, the Israelites followed Miriam through the desert, for she knew the location of wells that quenched their thirst and watered their beasts. Now, as Miriam dies, "the community was without water."
And when she dies, the community turns upon Moses and Aaron, as they have again and again on their difficult journey.
Distraught, Moses and Aaron implore the Holy One for help. After God tells them to "assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water," Moses lashes out at the rock, and "out came copious water."
Dealing With Loss
Our sages have long puzzled over Moses' interpretation of God's charge - an "order" that becomes an assault. Few commentators, however, have explored the depth of Moses' grief at the loss of his sister.
Moses, who was separated from his mother while still an infant, is accompanied by his sister throughout his life. Miriam may have been his playmate and companion, his primary connection to his Israelite identity as he was educated to become the prince of Egypt.
When Moses takes his place as the leader of the Israelites, he is accompanied by his siblings, Aaron and Miriam. The three form a strong triumvirate as the mixed multitude begins to develop a shared identity. When Miriam becomes ill on the desert journey, Moses' powerful cry to heal her pierces the firmament. When she died, he lost his life's companion.
When a sibling dies, part of our past dies with them. We share a precious and irreplaceable connection with those with whom we share our childhood. Surviving siblings live with both the blessing and responsibility of the unfinished work of their brothers and sisters lives.
Did Moses strike out at the rock in loss and confusion, attempting to take Miriam's place as the one who finds life-giving water for the people? Or did he strike out in anger against God? "Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank."
But the waters become bitter. They are named Meribah, "waters of quarreling." Instead of restoring strength to Moses, they become a sign of his exile from his people and his dreams.
The portion continues as the Israelites search for a route through the wilderness, but before they can find another path, Aaron dies. Moses and the people are once again plunged into grief and confusion.
Each of us experiences irreplaceable loss. We, too, quarrel when our hearts are heavy and our souls parched. Like our ancestors, may we be refreshed by unexpected sources of renewal throughout the summer, through these days of Tammuz.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as director of the Union for Reform Judaism Pennsylvania Council and the Federation of Reform Synagogues of Greater Philadelphia.