Parshat Chukat

Torah Reading for Week of June 9-15, 2013

“Grieving Miriam”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, President of AJRCA

One of the many puzzling episodes in the Torah appears in this parsha, the story of Moshe hitting the rock and then, as a result, not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel.  A variety of explanations are offered by commentators:  it was the way he spoke; it was because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it; Moshe lost control of his temper; and more.

Commentators have also pointed out that the reason for the Israelites’ complaint was the lack of water; and the Midrash connects that with the death of Miriam which immediately preceded.  As long as Miriam was alive, they always had a well from which they could draw water.  Now, after her death, it was gone.

But the connection between the episodes goes deeper.  We have to ask, why was Moshe so upset about this incident?  After all, they were out of water.  And he calls them “rebels,” but it has been decades since there was a rebellion – this episode is at the end of the forty years in the desert. 

The word he uses to address the people is morim which, vocalized differently, is Miriam.

Something else is going on besides anger at rebelliousness.   Perhaps we could read the phrase, “Listen, please – Miriam!  Can we bring forth water from a rock? – as you did?”

Perhaps we are witnessing Moshe’s anguish of grief at losing the sibling who has been at his side for forty years.  Yes, they had a fractious moment when Miriam criticized Moshe’s relationship with his wife and perhaps his leadership.  But when she was chastised by G-d with tzaraat, Moshe immediately and passionately pleaded with G-d for her healing.

We do not know much about the bond between Moshe and Miriam.  She had saved him from death as an infant and, six years his senior, may have been an object of his admiration.  Surely, the song they both sang after the splitting of the Yam Suf represented a moment of glory and gratitude for both of them.

In some ways, the story may remind us of the Akeidah.  Avraham torn between his love of his son and the commandment of G-d is paralleled in some way by Moshe torn by his grief and yet trying to attend to G-d’s command and the needs of the people.  There is no resolution of moments like this.  We can only open our hearts to hear, as best we can, the deep human experiences recorded in the Torah.

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