From Fear to Resolve: Mourning Miriam in Parshat Chukkat

Ancient wellHow much time was given to mourning Miriam?

Not enough. There certainly was enough energy for resistance and rage, though. Miriam dies and the Israelites waste little time in attacking Moses and Aaron. Again. There’s no water, they complain. We are thirsty, they say.

Moses and Aaron must be anguishing over their loss. Miriam, who saved her little brother, who co-led Project Israel, a singer and dancer, a giver of life. Their own people offer no comfort. Quite the contrary. Instead, the Israelites, who have busily brought pitcher after pitcher of poison to force down Moses’ and Aaron’s throats, brew up more of the same.

“Why have you brought YHVH’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt…?” (Numbers 20: 4-5).

More complaints, more indictments. Two generations’ worth, now. You made us try to be free. You forced us to become a people with a spiritual purpose, with a divine promise to fulfill. You. You. You.

They exhaust me, those Israelites. Can’t they give it a rest? Are they really so dependent on Moses and Aaron, really so selfish that they can’t manage to take care of themselves – just this once? Or better yet, why not consider taking care of Moses and Aaron? Did they consider that?

Miriam, the tradition goes, brought water. Without her, Miriam’s well vanished. No wonder the people were frightened. No wonder they noticed their thirst with such force; without that well, they might die parched, burning from the inside out.

Why don’t they remember Miriam leading them in dance, invoke her joy and her hope, and go looking for sustenance in her name? They could have honored her and their own loss. They could have comforted Moses and Aaron, banded together to face their grief instead of indulging in fear.  Instead, they let fear rule. They used their fear like weapons.

Cruel. They cut and they wounded men who had been sliced open again and again.

Theodor Adorno wrote that you are only loved where you may show yourself to be weak without provoking strength. If that is the measure of love, then the Israelites did not know how to love at all.

I cannot blame Moses for striking out himself, for wounding the earth, for the exhaustion of his rage. When YHVH’s compassion is most necessary, it, too, fails. God pronounces judgment, and Aaron and Moses are to be denied the right to lead the Israelites into the promised land.

In Chukkat, we stand in a scorched wilderness composed of grief and rage and resistance.

Now, another task. Another grief. YHVH insists: Moses must walk his brother up Mount Hor. There, Moses himself must take the vestments from his elder brother’s body, transfer authority to Aaron’s son, watch as his brother dies. This time, the whole community mourns. For one month they grieve their High Priest.

Perhaps Moses found their grief cold comfort. The complaints will, after all, come again soon enough. One wonders why he does not abandon the project, walk up the mountain and lie down with his brother.

But he goes on and the people come to Beer. YHVH tells Moses to gather the people so that they may be given water. They assemble. Suddenly, they act – hopefully, joyfully. They sing the song they should have sung after Miriam died. “Spring up, O well,” they chant. “Sing to it” (Numbers 21:17). You might translate this verse: “Spring up, O well – sing to her!”

Is the well Miriam – her nefesh, her ruach, her life-giving force? Are the Israelites remembering Miriam’s song at the Sea of Reeds when she danced the first dance of freedom? Az yashir it reads in both places of our Torah scroll, “then [they] sang.”

But in Exodus 15:1 it is Moses and the children of Israel who sing (az yashir Moshe u’v’nei Yisrael). Here, in Numbers, only the Israelites are mentioned (az yashir Yisrael).

Moses, perhaps, observes, listens as they sing to the feminine, life-giving source of strength of the well, of its water, in honor or memory, perhaps, of Miriam, the prophetess.

Does this song offer Moses, who is now without brother or sister, a moment of healing? Does this song renew his spirit, make it possible for him to go on after all? In this moment, are the Israelites finally acting like a people – mature, considerate, able to be responsible for creating what they need?

If, at last, time was given to mourning and honoring Miriam, then it might have been enough. Grief could give way to hope; fear to resolve.

May it always be so.

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