The Rabbi's Study

Miriam Gets Her Due

Unequivocally, Miriam deserved better. She’s only mentioned by name (when we are introduced to her she is referred to as Moshe’s sister) a handful of times, and other than her leading the women in song at the Splitting of the Sea, she only speaks a couple of times. Despite being the only woman in Torah explicitly named as a prophetess, most of the narrative dedicated to her in Scripture is about her punishment for speaking ill of Moshe and his wife. But nowhere is the short shrift more evident and more egregious than in her death which occurs in Parashat Hukkat.

The Torah says:

The children of Yisrael, all of the community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people resided at Kadesh; Miriam died there and she was buried there. There was not water for the community and they gathered against Moshe and against Aharon. (Num. 20:1-2)

The juxtaposition of these verses produced a wonderful array of midrash about Miriam’s well, and that folklore is important and meaningful. However the tragedy of her death is not in her having died; rather it is in what the people did not do – unlike her siblings, Miriam is not mourned in her death. This glaring omission is recognized by one, yes, only one, traditional commentator: the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619, Poland and Czechia). His indignation is palpable and righteous. Here is his the beginning of his comment:

There was not water for the community – The lack of water is a punishment for their not having mourned her appropriately. Regarding Moshe and Aharon, it is said that the Children of Yisrael cried, but here it does not say they cried for her, it merely says she “died there and she was buried there.” She was buried immediately in the place that she died, but then it is as if she was forgotten, like she was dead from the heart, it is as if they did not feel her absence at all, and so this is why they lacked water, as a means of informing them retroactively that the well was by virtue of the merit of Miriam.

The last concept, that the well was by virtue of the merit of Miriam, is a foundational midrashic concept developed in the early generations of rabbinic interpretation and even found within the Aramaic translation of Targum Yonatan. But the Kli Yakar’s original insight, that the lack of water is a punishment for their not having mourned Miriam, is something very significant.

It also sheds light on another foundational rabbinic interpretive move as it relates to Miriam. The Rabbis pick up on another discrepancy between Miriam and her siblings in their deaths. When Aharon dies, it says his death was “by the mouth of Hashem,” and when Moshe dies at the end of the Torah it says his death was “by the mouth of Hashem.” But here, it simply says, “Miriam died there and she was buried there.” Yet, we learn in the Talmud (Moed Katan 28a):

Rabbi Elazar said: Even Miriam died by a kiss. It says, “there,” and it says “there” regarding Moshe. So why is it not said regarding Miriam, “by the mouth of Hashem”? Because it would be inappropriate for such a thing to be said.

At Moshe’s death, it says: “Moshe died there…” and here it says “Miriam died there,” therefore, according to Rabbi Elazar, the occurrence in both instances of the word “there” teaches that they both died in a similar fashion, “by the mouth of Hashem.” Apparently, though, for the worldview of the Rabbis, having the Torah explicitly state that Hashem kissed a woman was, apparently, unseemly.

What Rabbi Elazar shows us is the healing and damaging power of interpretation. In one stroke he simultaneously gives Miriam her due as a significant figure in the narrative of Torah, while also diminishing her honor by subjugating her and objectifying her. Yet, for me, the righteous indignation of the Kli Yakar sheds an interesting light on this other interpretive move. By naming that the people were punished for their not having mourned Miriam, it seems to me, then, that in a certain way we are punished by not having the fullness of her story and her voice. Just as the people lacked water, we too lack. Rabbi Elazar’s submitting to the misogyny of the day aside, he also redeemed Miriam, reminding us that her greatness deserves our attention.

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