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Hukat 5778

June 21, 2018

Miriam’s Obituary:
A D’var Torah for Hukat
by Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’10)

“The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh.  Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Numbers 20:1)

The descendants of Miriam wish to advise you of the passing of our beloved ancestral mother, during the reading of this week’s Torah portion.

While the Biblical version of Miriam’s passing is limited to a short mention in this week’s parashah, we, the inheritors of Judaism’s oral tradition, would like to tell you more about her life and her legacy.

Additional stories, contained in the Midrash, Talmud and other commentaries, provide additional layers to her story.  These teachings from our oral tradition are important, as we eulogize her today.

Miriam was born in Egypt during a time of slavery and persecution.  Without Miriam’s intervention, it is conceivable that Moses, our greatest leader, may have never been born, or have survived his childhood, or have succeeded as leader.

The Midrash explains that following Pharaoh’s decree that all Israelite male newborns be cast into the Nile, Miriam’s parents – Amram and Yokheved – decided to divorce.

They concluded that there was no reason to remain together if they could not produce more children.

But Miriam, who was barely six years old, confronted her father, noting “father, father, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh.  Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you have decreed against both the males and the females.”

The Talmud notes that the subsequent reuniting of Amram and Yokheved – and the ultimate birth of Moses — was initiated upon the counsel of young Miriam (Sotah 12b).

Miriam’s influence did not end there.  The Talmud says that when the rest of Israelites observed the reuniting of Amram and Yokheved, they too remarried (Sotah 12a). This resulted in the revitalization of the Jewish people.

And so, even at six years old, Miriam displayed an incredible ability to unite people for good.

Our Sages also posit that Pu’ah, one of the Egyptian midwives identified in the Torah, was actually Miriam. Pu’ah according to the Midrash, possessed a unique ability to coax and comfort an expectant mother, and could cause a newborn baby to utter its first cry. (Exodus Rabbah 1:13).

Both Pu’ah (Miriam) and Shifrah disobeyed Pharaoh’s decree, making it possible for Jewish males to survive.  This act of civil disobedience played a major role in assuring the survival of the Israelites in Egypt.

The oral tradition speculates that Miriam was married to Caleb, a man of integrity and principle, and one of the twelve spies chosen to survey the land of Canaan

She was survived by children who would become sages, kings and persons of influence.  One of her descendants was Bezalel, the architect of the Mishkan – the Israelites’ travelling sanctuary.  The Midrash adds that the wisdom of the Tribe of Judah can be attributed to Miriam’s merit. (Exodus Rabbah 48:4).

Miriam can also be credited with introducing the song and artistic expression to our tradition.  Following the successful crossing by the children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds, she led the women in song and dance.

This led our rabbis to call her Aharhel – asserting that all the women “followed her” (“ahar”) in dance. There are many other names Miriam is mentioned in our oral tradition.

While our tradition gives much credit to Moses for spiritually guiding the Israelites, our Rabbis note that it was Miriam who physically led the people, as she possessed the God-given ability to procure water in the wilderness.

We refer to eternal source of water as Miriam’s Well.

Soon after her passing, Moses displays difficulty in finding water.  In her absence, it seems Moses loses the benefit of her counsel, and soon after arouses God’s ire.  Moses is subsequently forbidden from entering the Promised Land.

Her influence and wisdom was so profound and meaningful, our Sages tell us that the Angel of Death had no power over her, and that she died with a kiss from God – a kiss reserved only for the righteous. (Bava Batra 17a). The Midrash also notes that Miriam was one of only seven over whom “worms had no power” (Masekhet Derekh Eretz 1:17).

While the Torah notes the passing of her brothers Aaron and Moses in more detail, Miriam’s passing is mentioned with a minimum of description.

Yet her influence in our tradition does not end there.  Miriam was a leader, a visionary, a counselor and a prophet who not only was responsible for Moses’ birth, and his placement into the house of Pharaoh, but also his success as leader of the Israelites.

Aside from a brief period in the desert where she suffered from a skin disease, Miriam suffered a long and healthy life.

She died at age 126, according to Rabbinical tradition, at Mount Nebo on the tenth of Nissan. (Sotah 13b, Seder Olam Rabbah 10).

She is survived by a grateful people, many whom over the past thirty-three hundred years have been inspired to adopt her name.

Her life exemplifies strength, wisdom, prophesy, sensitivity and a devotion to song and dance.

May her memory inspire us to delve deeper into our oral text, as we explore additional meanings and interpretations within our tradition. This is especially true for the stories of women, who are often passed over within the written Torah. For indeed, as it is for Miriam and many others in the Torah, there is more to the story.

May the name Miriam always be for a blessing.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’10) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.