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Parashat Hukkat 5779

July 10, 2019
The Life of Miriam
A D’var Torah for Parashat Hukkat
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

In parashat Hukkat we encounter Moses’ sister Miriam for the last time: “Then came the people of Israel, the whole congregation into the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people abode in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1). The description of her death is remarkably brief, comprising just five words (va-tamat sham Miriam, vatikaver sham). Miriam does not even merit her own verse of Torah, as her death-announcement is tacked on to the end of the narrative describing the people’s arrival in Kadesh. And indeed, for a figure who looms so large in our Torah-consciousness, the total amount of biblical text that pertains to Miriam is quite sparse.

In her initial biblical appearance, Miriam is identified not by name but simply as the sister of the baby Moses. She watches as her brother is placed in a basket and hidden, so as to escape Pharaoh’s edict requiring that Israelite babies be put to death: “His sister stood from afar to see what would be done to him” (Exodus 2:4). Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, Miriam speaks to her and then arranges for Moses’ birth mother to be his wet nurse.

We next encounter Miriam right after the newly freed Israelites have successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds: “Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam called out to them, Sing to the Lord…” (Exodus 15:20-21).

She is not heard from again until parashat Beha’alotekha in Numbers Chapter 12, when she and Aaron speak out against Moses, God rebukes them both and then punishes Miriam with skin disease. Then, this week, we read of her death.

In her article “The Silencing of Miriam” in The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn writes, “Miriam has been all but silenced and banished from the narrative. All we are left with is shards, fragments of a tale, hints of a reality that we are left to ponder and dream” (pp. 274-75).  Against the backdrop of the sparseness of biblical text about Miriam, much commentary has been written and many midrashim expand on her all-too-brief story. For purposes of this discussion however, I invite us to let go of the commentary and midrash with which we may be familiar. For I believe that each of the remaining shards of Torah, the four Miriam stories, by their very brevity call out to be noticed for the potential teachings they contain.

When we read about Miriam’s actions on behalf of the baby Moses, we note that God did not command her to ensure Moses’ own mother would become his wet nurse, she did that on her own. There is no indication in the text that she knew he would grow up to be the leader of the Israelite people, yet her actions allow for him to maintain an important connection with his own people. If opportunity knocks, answer. The consequences could be amazing.

When Miriam led the women in dance and song following the Israelite liberation from slavery, their celebration is described immediately following the glorious Song of the Sea. Wouldn’t the Song have been sufficient? We don’t know the reason for the additional celebration. But clearly some people – specifically, the women – chose to follow Miriam, here identified as “prophetess”, with their own singing and dancing. With all life’s misery and uncertainty, celebrate when you can. Then celebrate some more.

When God punishes Miriam with tzara’at (skin disease) after she and Aaron speak out against Moses, the narrative concludes: “So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not travel until Miriam had [re]-entered”(Numbers 12:15). One might imagine that in her forced state of isolation, she might not have known whether they would wait for her. Miriam’s presence mattered – and not just to the women.  In your darkest moments, life might surprise you.

And finally: Your death may be barely noted, but do not take this to mean that your life had no meaning. We remember Miriam. We remember not only the stories and rituals that evolved around her, we remember her through these brief narratives that exist in the Torah text itself.

Still, midrash is compelling. Perhaps then, the announcement of Miriam’s death can be enhanced with a brief modern-day eulogy, brought to us through lyrics made famous by contemporary country singer Lee Ann Womack:

“Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,

I hope you dance.”

Sandy Horowitz (AJR ’14) is an independent Cantor and tutor