The bulk of the parshah tells the story of the “rebellion” or “sin” of Moses and Aaron. About Miriam, one of the great leaders of the Exodus, the text simply says “Mirian died there (Kadesh) and was buried there.” It is written as a footnote. There are many biblical characters whose death is not given much importance, but simply stated factually as part of the narrative. This death, however, is told particularly briefly. Later in the same parshah, after Aaron dies, we know he is mourned thirty days. Miriam’s death is given no such fanfare. Miriam’s important contributions are dismissed and her voice is silenced, thus mirroring the experience of women in Judaism throughout the ages.
The aftermath of Miriam’s death is that the people are lacking water (we recall that Miriam had been the one to bring forth the waters previously). Once again the people complain to Moses and they wish they had died or had not left Egypt which would be better than facing yet another calamity (by now this is a familiar refrain). To show Yahweh’s power, Moses and Aaron are told to assemble the people and, in front of them, order a rock to give water. This is meant to highlight God’s power and also to reassure the people that they will continue to be provided for. Moses and Aaron assemble everyone, but then instead of commanding the rock to give water, Moses strikes the rock with his rod. Water comes forth and the people are happy. But then, in a shocking turn of events (narratively speaking), God tells Moses that because he did not “trust” God enough to sanctify him in front of the people, Moses will never enter the promised land. This is one of those moments at which it seems easy to criticize the idea of God, and certainly the idea that God is benevolent and loving. The God figure here is depicted as being vengeful and mean-spirited. It is unclear that Moses ever meant to defy him, hitting the rock instead of asking the rock to produce water seems to be a very slight mistake. Some commentators suggest that the transgression is that when Moses asks of the people “shall WE get water?” before striking the rock, that this leads the people to believe it is Moses and Aaron who are their protectors and saviours, not God. This is what provokes his fury. The text is therefore making a comment about leadership. It is not enough that Moses and Aaron have to wander in the desert for forty years, listen to the people’s kvetching, perform the will of God etc. But they must do all of this exactly how God demands and always in public praise of him. The lesson is that obedience to God is everything. A Chassidic friend of mine told me that this is her understanding of this moment in the text: “we have to do God’s work on God’s terms” is how she phrased it.
For Humanistic Jews, there are lessons that come from exploring the character of Moses and what it means that he can never reach his goal. Many people feel as Moses does; they struggle to bring their people somewhere wonderful, even if not reaching it themselves. This is the story of the Jewish immigrant to North America who struggled hard to provide an education and standard of living for their children that they knew they could never enjoy themselves. This is the story of those working to cure diseases or discover scientific advances that they know will only benefit future generations. This is the story of people who plant trees so that their grandchildren will enjoy their fruit. Moses and Aaron are meant to lead the people to their freedom, but they are servants – yes, they are meant to serve God, and when they transgress they are punished. But they are also leaders par excellence of their people: their work is for the benefit of others. This is something laudable with which many of us can identify.
For Aaron’s part of the punishment, he is left to die. God tells Moses to ascend the mountain with Aaron and his son Eleazar, to take Aaron’s “vestments” and give them to Eleazar, and to leave Aaron there to die. It is notable that Moses had argued with God on behalf of the people numerous times, pleading with him for mercy and to spare the innocent, he does not try to save his brother. In fact, the next thing that happens is that the people once again complain about God’s provisions and God sends serpents to bite them. They appeal to Moses to help them and he speaks to God to help the people (by creating a copper serpent that would provide solace – something approximating idolatry, some point out). Moses’ seemingly easy acceptance of Aaron’s death is troubling, especially in light of how quickly he comes to the aid of the others. There is a lesson here that sometimes we focus on helping our broader community so much that we become deaf to the concerns of those closest to us. Or perhaps as servants of the people, Moses and Aaron feel it is inappropriate to advocate for themselves. The harshness of the way Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are treated certainly suggest something about leadership and community. At this point in the text it is clear that it is the people as a group, not any individual (even ones as central and revered in the text as Moses and his siblings), that matters. The people will enter the Promised Land. Israel will survive, even though its deliverers will not. It is the community that is important.
Here we have yet another rebellion – this time mostly aimed at Aaron. Korah, the leader of this anti-Aaron movement, argues that the whole community is holy and therefore all should perform the same rites. He rebels against the priests being a class above all others, asking “why are you different from and above us?” The parshah makes clear that a rebellion of this nature is not to be tolerated. Moses tells those rebelling that they’ve gone too far and that God will deal with them – which he does. All of those who rebelled are swallowed up by the earth and taken to “sheol” and/or consumed by fire. Doubting the order of things is not only frowned upon, but the narrative inscribes a real sense of danger: to question authority is to die. Yet many of us might really identify with Korah. We do take issue with the idea that some within Judaism – first priests who handled the sacrifices and then the rabbis who superseded them after the temple destruction made central sacrifices impossible – are above all others. We want members of our community to be empowered. Indeed, we believe that no one is intrinsically worth more than any other.
Traditional interpretations of this parshah suggest that an individual who tries to seize power instead of going along with community can be dangerous. Included in the analyses of the parshah are questions and discussions of how much it is fair to punish the group for the actions of one individual, or a few. Do we bear guilt for one another’s choices? Where does individualism infringe on the rights of the group and vice versa? The text wrestles with the power balance between individuals and community. Its answer is adhering to strict hierarchy to keep the peace. This is not our answer, but these are still our questions.
In this parshah, the Israelites once again doubt that they will see the Promised Land. A team (often called spies, but this isn’t quite accurate) is sent to survey the land and to report back as to any challenges or dangers. Most return saying that conquering the land will be impossible. Caleb and Joshua, however, feel differently and think they should proceed. Some of the people complain that it would be better to have stayed in Egypt, even to die in the wilderness, than to face what they perceive to be certain violent death in battle for the land.
There are many readings of both the optimism of Caleb and Joshua and the fear of the people. Many liken the former to the Zionists who helped create the modern state of Israel. But it is tough to grapple with the harsh treatment of the people who doubt. Those who do not believe they can defeat their enemies are doomed to die in the desert. Yet I have sympathy for those who have suffered under tyranny and wish to avoid meeting a similar fate. It is possible to both laud Caleb and Joshua as heroes and seek to understand the mentality of those who could not follow them.
There may be times when we face circumstances that seem daunting or even impossible. Optimism in the face of adversity can be a wonderful tool – not just for oneself but for others. Like the brave and daring Zionists who created the state of Israel, Caleb and Joshua established themselves as leaders who could inspire others to embark on a difficult but wonderful journey. Not all of us are Calebs or Joshuas. Sometimes fear is reasonable and even useful. But the world needs those who can rise up to a challenge and help those less hopeful to join them on the journey.
In this parshah, the people commemorate the Passover. This is the first such event in the desert, thus marking the time between Sinai and the wandering. Some in the camp (the JPS translation calls them “riffraff” but the implication is that they are those outside of the Israelite tribes who chose to join the exodus), begin to complain that there is no meat. Moses, in utter exasperation, becomes angry with God and says he would rather die than have to face leading these people. He also suggests that if God created the people than maybe he should deal with them. For this, partly as punishment and partly to provide him with aid, some of Moses’ spiritual gifts get transferred to 70 leaders who will aid him in the task of leading the people. This parshah therefore offers lessons in leadership and our struggles in life. Sometimes we are faced with situations in which we must care for or carry those who do not appear to be pulling their weight. Many of us work with people who complain and expect miracles to happen to ease their discomfort. Moses shows that leadership is hard; the people are never satisfied. And his criticism of the God-character – that if he created all of these people why can’t he deal with them – shows the kind of chutzpah that Humanistic Jews love. Moses is a good leader because he questions authority as much as he embodies it.
The 70 leaders become like prophets. Joshua – who we will learn has warrior tendencies and personality – feels Moses should resist competition and be the sole leader. But Moses knows that strong leadership is a team-effort and that if he shares the load he will not burn out as quickly. This is excellent instruction for anyone in a leadership position, from teachers to parents to office managers etc. But beyond the idea of leadership is the idea of community. Many hands make light work and sometimes all that is needed to face a challenge is some company. Moreover, Moses shows us that it is ok and sometimes even necessary to ask for help.
As if Moses is not having a tough enough time, Miriam and Aaron begin to chide him for marrying a Cushite woman. This is one of the passages that tells us either that intermarriages were frowned upon, or that intermarrying was commonplace and the writers of the text hoped to “correct” the practice. In some passages, such as this one, intermarriage is portrayed as negative. In others, such as the Book of Ruth, intermarriage is no issue at all. The issue of intermarriage in the text here is a bit of a red herring. The real sin is “lashon hara” or gossip/slander. Miriam and Aaron should not shame or speak negatively to Moses. Many Jews take very seriously the idea that we should not shame others, even when we disagree with their choices. Miriam is punished by getting leprosy (or some disease that produces white scales on her body) and must be excised from the group for a week. This punishment from above seems, again, rather harsh.
In this week’s parshah, we see examples of people faltering which, in fact, is a reminder that these narratives are about the fundamentals of humanity. All of us may feel ourselves to be in the position of Moses – that we cannot face the challenges before us. Asking for help is hard but when we get help it can change everything. Community is important. Many of us may feel ourselves to be Miriam – we speak out against what we think is wrong and then we are the ones to get punished. The biblical characters portray many truths about human nature, and this is how we learn from them. Humanistic Jews do not believe that we will be punished by a God for our transgressions. But we do believe that when we rise up to face our challenges, when we learn to speak more gently with our loved ones, when we find ways of dealing with the kvetchers in our midst, we can become the best versions of ourselves.