Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Hukkat

Parashat Hukkat

June 21, 2007

Parashat Hukkat
By Michael G. Kohn

This week’s parashah is noteworthy for a number of reasons, but what caught my eye are the deaths of Moses’ two siblings ‘ Miriam and Aaron. The account of Aaron’s death, not surprisingly, is more elaborate, with its description of Moses’ transfer of the vestments of the kohein gadol (High Priest) from Aaron to his son, Elazar. Yet Miriam’s role, though not formalized in the manner of her brother and nephew, was, and remains today, just as important, if not more so, to the Jewish people.

The role of the kohanim (priests) in general and the kohein gadol in particular, was a very public one. In their work in the Temple, they acted on behalf of the populace in preparing and offering the various sacrifices ordained by Torah. Even today, in those congregations that maintain the practice of dukhanen ‘ where the kohanim pronounce the Birkhat HaKohanim (three-fold priestly blessing) ‘ during the musaf amidah (supplementary prayer service) on the three pilgrimage festivals, their role remains a public one.

By contrast, the Torah simply announces the fact of Miriam’s death: ‘va’tamot sham Miryam va’tikaveir sham’ (‘and Miriam died there and she was buried there.’ Num. 20:1) Unlike the thirty days during which the entire Israelite congregation wept for Aaron after his death, the Torah recounts no mourning practice for Miriam. However, after Miriam’s death, ‘the community was without water.’ (Num 20:2) M. Avot 5:8 identifies ‘pi ha’b’eir ‘ the mouth of the well’ as one of the ten things that were created on the eve of the Shabbat of creation and a legend in Sefer HaAggadah identifies this as the well of Miriam which followed the Israelites during their forty year journey in the wilderness. (Rashi on this verse, based of BT Ta’anit 9a) And so, at her death, the well closed.

Water, of course, is required to sustain life. And Jewish education is required to sustain Jewish life. Today, the bulk of visible Jewish education is a public endeavor. It occurs in day schools, supplemental schools, adult education programs, such as Melton and those offered by Jewish Community Centers and Y’s, and, of course, in the synagogues. And like the role of the kohanim, public Jewish education fulfills a specific role in our modern Jewish communities.

However, I would suggest that as important as public Jewish education is, the most valuable locus of Jewish education is that which takes place in the home. It is in the home where Jewish life is nurtured and where lessons learned in schools, JCC’s and synagogues are put into everyday practice. Shabbat dinners, discussions of issues of Jewish concern, Jewish music, holiday celebrations, kashrut, etc., all play a role in sustaining Jewish life. And when the flow of Judaism inside the home ceases, so does Jewish continuity. Today’s Jewish home is Miriam’s well ‘ without it, we are left parched and with nothing to sustain us.