Parshat Hukkat: Why was there no mourning for Miriam?

(I write this to honor the memory of my mother Rachel Miriam Gross, who was called Miriam. Her shloshim coincides with this Thursday, June 25th) – jjg

Two significant deaths  are reported in Parshat Hukkat, the death of Miriam in the Desert of Zin (Bamidbar 20:1), and that of her brother Aaron on Mount Hor in the very same chapter (20:28-29).

Both Miriam and Aaron were admired figures among the Israelites, yet a case can be made for Miriam being the more beloved of the two – certainly among the womenfolk. For it was Miriam who led them in song and dance at the Red Sea, and unlike Aaron, she never seems to have sparked any controversy or bitterness.

And yet, it is odd that the death of Aaron was mourned greatly by the Israelites, yet nary a tear seems to have been shed over the demise of Miriam.

When Miriam dies we are told:

The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh; Miriam died there and was buried there. (Bamidbar 20:1).

Not even one full verse is allocated to this report of Miriam’s death and interment, only a footnote, a mere afterthought in the verse describing the arrival in the desert of Zin and the settling in Kadesh.

By contrast, seven verses are allocated to the death of Aaron, culminating in a prolonged 30 day period of national mourning:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, saying,(23) “Aaron shall be gathered to his people, for he shall not come to the Land which I have given to the children of Israel, because you defied My word at the waters of dispute [Mei Meribah]. (24) Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and ascend Mount Hor.(25) Strip Aaron of his garments and dress Eleazar his son with them. Then Aaron shall be gathered in [to his people] and die there. (26) Moses did as the Lord commanded him. They ascended Mount Hor in the presence of the entire congregation. (27) Moses then stripped Aaron of his garments and dressed Eleazar his son in them, and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. [Then] Moses and Eleazar descended from the mountain. (28) The whole congregation saw that Aaron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days. (29)

This does not make sense – 600,000 Jew mourning over Aaron for 30 days, (and this is just the real men, those over age 20 who have served in the army.) Yet for Miriam, nothing other than the date of her death and the place where she is buried?

However, if we examine the actual context in which Miriam’s death is reported we notice something very interesting:

The verses immediately preceding Miriam’s demise are the ones that introduce the mysterious laws of Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, and the ritual purification rite one must undergo after coming into contact with a dead person.

The ritually clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall cleanse him on the seventh day, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and he shall become ritually clean in the evening. (Bamidbar 19:19)

This purification ritual of Parah Adumah requires copious amounts of water – water to spray the liquefied ashes, water to launder the clothing of the one undergoing purification and, of course, water for ritual immersion.

The verses immediately following Miriam’s abrupt and seemingly unlamented burial tell the famous story of how Moses smote the rock which then yielded water for the Israelites. This seems to be a total non sequitur without so much as a chapter break.

Indeed the very first words after Miriam’s burial (20:3) are:

The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron. (20:3)

I would suggest that indeed the Children of Israel mourned Miriam greatly, perhaps even more than they would subsequently mourn her brother Aaron. So great was their grief that everyone became ritually impure for having touched her bier. Suddenly there was urgent need for a great mass of water in order to purify all those who had come into proximity with Miriam’s corpse. Hence we are told “The congregation had no water”, not that it had no water to drink. All the water they had was insufficient for the ritual purification needed by such a mass of people.

Needless to say the sudden shortage left no water for drinking as well.

Thus we can understand from the context that Miriam’s death was mourned greatly indeed. And when Moses struck the rock and rebuked the Israelites, he was not only disobeying G-d’s very clear orders, but he was heaping uncalled for scorn on a people in deep mourning. And that is no time for harsh words.

Perhaps we can now understand why both Aaron and Moses died alone on top of mountains. Like their sister Miriam, both men died in the desert. Water is always a precious commodity in the desert. And no desert can possibly provide sufficient water for the ritual purification of hundreds of thousands of people.

Without sufficient water in which every mourner can bathe and wash their clothing, the entire social and religious fabric of the society disintegrates. Conjugal relations are suspended. Ritual celebrations in the Mishkan grind to a halt. There can be no Passover. With no oceans, rivers or lakes on the horizon, normal life comes to a total standstill.

This problem first arises with the death of a beloved and massively mourned Miriam. Suddenly there is no water and a miracle is needed. Hence Moses and Aaron must bring water forth from a stone. But miracles must not be habit forming, and the lesson of what can happen under such circumstances has been learned.

Hence, when Aaron dies the Torah makes sure the grief of the Israelites will not result in mass ritual impurity – and thus no need for water – as he ascends Mount Hor and dies there alone.

And the same is true for Moses who must also ascend a mountain where he dies alone in order to forestall a mourning logjam that could paralyze the Jewish People to the point of making any future impossible


About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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