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Water Women - Parshat Chukat

This week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Chukat, speaks of water more than any other parsha. Twenty-four times, the parsha mentions water. It talks about water for purification, water for drinking, water for miracles, water in war. There is definitely lots of water in this parsha. The ultimate water issue, however is in Chapter 20:1 when the Torah tells us of the death of Miriam:

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל-הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר-צִן, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם, בְּקָדֵשׁ; וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם
And the children of Israel, the entire congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people dwelt in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.

At the end of this chapter, in verses 23-29, we read about the death of Aaron. In this section, God tells Moses that Aaron is going to die and that he and Eleazar, the son of Aaron, should take Aaron to the top of Mt. Hur in the sight of all the people. There, Moses is to remove the garments of the Cohen Gadol and put them on Eleazar to show succession. Then Aaron died, and Moses and Eleazar came down together from the mountain. Then the Torah says:

וַיִּרְאוּ, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, כִּי גָוַע, אַהֲרֹן; וַיִּבְכּוּ אֶת-אַהֲרֹן שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם, כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל
And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.

Numbers 20:29

Interestingly, there is no mention of any mourning following the death of Miriam. In fact, what follows immediately upon her death is the typical grumbling of the Israelites. The water that had been provided over 40 years to the Israelites was due to Miriam (see an earlier blog post). When she died, the water immediately dried up, and the people’s thirst led them to yet another rebellion against Moses. In response, God told Moses to take his rod and speak to the Rock (Miriam’s Well) in order to bring forth water. At this point, Moses and Aaon gathered all the people, and in an uncharacteristic moment of anger and frustration, Moses cried out:

שִׁמְעוּ-נָא הַמֹּרִים--הֲמִן-הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה, נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם
Hear now, you rebels; are we to bring forth water out of this rock for you?'

At this point, Moses struck the Rock twice, and water came forth from the Rock. Unfortunately, it was for this action that Moses was punished and not allowed to enter the Land of Israel because he was supposed to speak to the Rock in order to show the power of God, not strike it.

There are so many questions in this parsha, I almost don’t know where to begin. When Aaron died, he was succeeded by Eleazar, and the people mourned for 30 days. When Moses died, he was succeeded by Joshua, and again, the people mourned for 30 days. When Miriam died, there was nothing but complaining. Why were there no 30 days of mourning for Miriam? Why was there only complaining? Why was there no successor to Miriam?

The answer to these questions can be found in Parshat Shelach Lecha, which we read a few weeks ago. Our tradition teaches that only the men of that generation died in the wilderness because of the 12 spies who brought back an evil report about the Land of Israel, while the women merited entering the Land. According to Numbers Rabbah 21:10, “In that generation, the women built up the fences, which the men broke down.” The passage from Numbers Rabbah is too long to quote but it points to the fact that the women did not participate in the building of the Golden Calf or accept the Council of the Spies not to enter the Land of Israel. The following is the conclusion of the passage. “Against this congregation, the decree (not to enter the Land) was issued, because they had said: ‘We are not able to go up.’ The women, however, were not with them in their counsel.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his comments to this passage in Numbers Rabbah, said that as a result, the women, as grandmothers and mothers, were able to go with the new generation when it entered the Promised Land and to bring with them into that new future their personal recollections of their past in Egypt and of the momentous events they had witnessed in the wilderness under the protection and guidance of God.

Thus, the women were given the opportunity to inspire their children and grandchildren with their personal recollections of everything they witnessed in the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The fact that the women were so deeply and thoroughly imbued with the Jewish spirit may be ascribed in no small part to Miriam, who set them a shining example.

While some might point to the lack of mourning following the death of Miriam to be yet another example of chauvinism in the Torah, it is perhaps more a reflection of the simple fact that we mourn what we have lost. We mourned the loss of Moses because no matter how great a leader Joshua was, he would never be another Moses. We mourned the loss of Aaron because no matter how great a leader Eleazar was, he would never be another Aaron.

The greatness of Miriam was that she was the embodiment of the honor, the glory, and the courage of the women of Israel. She saved Moses from Pharoah by setting him afloat in the Nile, ensuring his safety. She saved our entire people by providing them with water during forty years in the desert. She was the protector and provider of water. Our ancestors did not mourn for Miriam because they knew that, although she died, they had not lost her. For the essence of Miriam is still contained within every Jewish woman.

And for those of us who are not Jewish women? As the protector and provider of water for our People, the courage and strength of Miriam guides us in our fight to protect the water of the World and everything in it.


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