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.