D’Var Torah Parshat Chukat-Balak (The Ritual Law) by Ray Young

Parashat Chukat-Balak (The Ritual Law) Numbers 19:1 – 25:9

12th of Tamuz, 5780 – July 4, 2020

Let’s start with an executive summary of the contents of Chukat-Balak.

  • The laws of the red heifer to purify a person who has had contact with a corpse are given.
  • The people of Israel arrive at Zin. Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, dies and is buried there.
  • The people complain that they have no water. Moses hits a rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to it.  God tells Moses and Aaron they will not live to enter the promised land.  
  • The king of Edom refuses to let the people of Israel pass through his land. Aaron’s priestly garments are given to his son Eleazer, then Aaron dies.
  • Israel complains about a lack of bread and water for which they are punished. The people show remorse and are victorious in battle against the Amorites and the people of Bashan, whose lands they capture.
  • Balak, the king of Moab, tries to persuade Balaam (the prophet) to curse the Israelites so that they may be defeated and driven away. Instead, Balaam blesses Israel and predicts that Israel’s enemies will fall.
  • G-d punishes the people of Israel with a plague for associating with the Moabite women and their deity. The plague is shelved after Pinchas kills an Israelite man and his Midianite woman.

Studying Chukat-Balak, it was the matter-of-fact chronicling of the end of Miriam’s life that registered with me.  From the reading, “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh.  Miriam died there and was buried there.”  The blunt fact wasn’t enough.  Something was missing.  And as I dug into a little more of Miriam’s history among the Jewish people, the more I felt it important to reflect on her life and her perhaps delicate superhero-like (it seems to me) contributions to Israel. 

Miriam’s influence is largely eclipsed by text devoted to the descriptions of her brothers Aaron and his younger brother Moses.  Their contributions were enormous and do not need to be elaborated upon here.  However, it is as if in spite of her important deeds and her active leadership in aggregation with her male siblings, she has in Chukat-Balak been relegated to little more than a footnote in the primary history of our people. 

The following are extracts from Miriam’s past.

From Exodus:  “His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him” (after the baby was placed in a vessel on the Nile).  The reference to the sister is commonly accepted to be Miriam.  And we are given to understand that after Pharaoh’s daughter found the infant, it was Miriam who arranged to have her mother, Moses’ mother, nurse and care for the baby (her brother Moses) in Pharaoh’s household.  Had Miriam not daringly stepped in, Moses would not have had a Jewish family bearing to nurture how he saw the world and instill Jewish beliefs and values (as they had evolved to that point in time).  Might Moses not even have survived but for Miriam’s operational leadership? 

Again, from Exodus:  “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.  Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted.  Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’ ”  Miriam led the people in worship of G-d with music and with dancing after the successful crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) showing her true devotion.  And the reference to Miriam in this passage as a prophet is special.  Yet, I do not believe there are any written accounts of her insight or educating as prophet beyond the mention.  Was she concealed or overshadowed by the predominance of those who controlled the construct of the religion around G-d’s commandments, led the fighting forces and recorded our history?

From Numbers:  “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ They said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’ The LORD heard it.”  Again, from Numbers:  “As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales!  When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales.”  Responding to their presumptuousness to speak out against Moses, Miriam and Aaron received a beautiful elucidation from G-d, but Miriam was singled out for punishment.  (The consequence for Miriam was abated through the intervention of Aaron and then Moses.)  While Miriam consistently demonstrated genuine belief in G-d she had the intrepidness to question authority where she thought it warranted.  In Judaism, we do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not for the purpose of attracting reward or recognition; or deflecting ill judgement against us.  Was the basis for Miriam’s questioning not profoundly wanting to offer more?

Even with relatively scant descriptions of her contributions, one can advance that Miriam’s life was of watershed significance.  This is borne out by the reaction of Moses and the people Israel to the news of her death.  Though Torah is silent about the response, commentator Louis Ginzberg describes how Miriam’s death plunged all into deep mourning.  Moses and Aaron wept in their apartments and the people wept in the streets.  According to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki) as a consequence of Miriam’s death, Moses apparently wept for six hours straight, oblivious to the fact that his people lacked water.  This leads to the next observation.  Chukat-Balak also includes a song reminding us of Miriam’s well that provided water for the people and miraculously accompanied Israel through the desert.  When Miriam died, so did the well and thus, the source of water. 

Perhaps there are additional, elusive yet thoughtful tributes to Miriam.  These may be found in the meaning of her name and the name of her burial place.  The Hebrew word for water is mayim (Miriam) and Miriam is buried in Kadesh which translates into English as sacred.

The prophet Micah recognized all three siblings, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, as Israel’s leaders when he proclaimed in the name of G-d, “In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”  And so, Miriam was a leader alongside her brothers.  At the same time the limits around leadership appear to have been clearly defined (maybe for all three of them) and at least for Miriam, the delineation seemed quite narrow and she may have struggled with that. 

Notwithstanding the level of profile given Miriam, she was a hero of the Jewish people and is worthy of heartfelt tribute. 

In our century we clearly witness the roles of men and women in Jewish society being examined on an ongoing basis, debated and, in some cases, redefined.  What can the prophet Miriam through her known actions contribute to such discussion?  I think it is this.

Miriam’s leadership responsibilities and unqualified love of G-d were paramount to her.  Similar standards may be emulated by many among the women who lead congregations in today’s world and by men who lead and accept unequivocally the strength of women in the Jewish community.  Her standards and her love, it seems to me, are Miriam’s sacred gifts to us.

Shabbat shalom!

Ray