This week’s Torah portion is Chukat, Numbers: 19:1 – 25:9.
Years ago, my children were curious about how I coped with the many funerals I officiated without becoming sad or depressed. My response was that it was both inspiring and a privilege to learn about the individuals while assisting their families at a time of loss. It is also a mitzvah to comfort the mourners and accompany the deceased to their place of burial.The casting of earth is meant as a gesture of love in covering the deceased.
Chukat begins with the law of the red heifer (19:1-22), and the sidra includes the law banning the kohanim from attending funerals with the exception of their own family (Leviticus 21:2). According to Halacha, we wash our hands upon leaving the cemetery and before entering a residence following a burial as a vestige of the spiritual purification associated with the beginning of this Torah reading.
The clarification that Aaron and his sons are permitted to attend the funeral of close relatives follows the Torah’s simple announcement of Miriam’s death:
“The people arrive at the wilderness of Zin … and Miriam died and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1).
Miriam is the instrument of God, guarding baby Moses, guiding his basket to safety, speaking to Egyptian royalty in order to connect this “gift of the Nile” to his birth mother and family. Miriam is part of and witness to signs and wonders, the splitting of the sea, the defeat of Pharaoh and his chariots. She expresses the feelings of the people through song, dance and poetry in words we sing and pray daily:
Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously …”
The Torah identifies her as neviah, a prophetess. In tractate Taanit 9a, the Talmud states: “Rabbi Jose son of Rabbi Yehudah said the ‘well of waters’ which the Israelites had along with them in the wilderness was given them for the sake of Miriam. …When Miriam died, the well vanished. …Immediately after it says there was no water for the congregation.”
In Numbers 20:2-13, the people complain about the lack of water. Moses after being instructed to speak to the rock, strikes it twice to get water. As a result, God punishes Moses and Aaron. Moses is told he will not enter the Promised Land.
Rashi comments that Moses diminished the miracle by not speaking to the rock. Maimonides suggests that Moses and Aaron spoke as if they and not God were performing the miracle. Aaron was punished for not stopping Moses. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century) suggests that by calling the people who needed water rebels, Moses demonstrates he was out of control.
It might be possible that in being in mourning for his sister, Miriam, Moses no longer had the required patience of a leader (Babylonian Talmud: Pesachim 66b). The spiritual balance which Miriam provided was sorely missed in these moments.
Even though Miriam was not without flaw, her death reminds us that she was the spirit and inspiration of the people from the birth of Moses until they were ready to enter the Promised Land.
Miriam demonstrated the power of God’s love in our epic story from slavery to freedom, leading us in dance and song to God as we traveled through the wilderness, all the while celebrating life’s journey. n
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland, and Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf. He is also rabbi emeritus of Beit Chaverim of Calvert County, and cantor emeritus of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.