Bamidbar Twenty: The Death of Miriam and Aaron

The people keep wandering, and arrive in Kadesh, in the desert of Zin. There, Miriam dies and is buried. Immediately following this update, it says “The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:2).” The connection between these verses is picked up on in midrash, where commentators say that Miriam had a special well that followed the people around throughout her lifetime, but once she died, the well was gone too. Miriam is honored today at Passover seders with a cup of water known as Miriam’s cup, which symbolizes the water and sustenance that she provided for the people in the wilderness.

So, Miriam is dead, and the people are rebelling against Moses and Aaron once again. Now, they’re wishing they had died with Korah and his rebels, instead of being parched in the desert. Moses and Aaron ask God what to do in order to appease the people. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink (Numbers 20:7-8).” The instructions are pretty straightforward in terms of laying out what Moses is supposed to do in order to get water from the rock. However, in a rare moment of rebellion, Moses doesn’t do exactly what he is told, and instead of talking to the rock, he hits it. It still works – the rock produces water, and the people are satiated. but Moses has made a huge mistake in not listening to God closely.

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them (Numbers 20:12).” This is the moment when Moses and Aaron lose the right to finish the journey that they started, and are told that they will never make it into the Promised Land. It’s a devastating, life-altering moment, and yet we aren’t told about either of their reactions. They don’t apologize, or fall on their faces, or fight with God, or even state that they accept His judgment. We have no knowledge of how this turn of events impacted them as leaders, and as people. Instead, the story immediately moves on.

Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom, identifying the Israelites as his brothers, and asking to pass through the Edomite land. However, Edom refuses to let the Israelites pass through his land, so they have to find an alternative route. This route leads them to Mount Hor, which is also on the border to Edom. “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, saying, Aaron shall be gathered to his people, for he shall not come to the Land which I have given to the children of Israel, because you defied My word at the waters of dispute (Numbers 20:23-24).” It doesn’t seem fair that Aaron is being punished so extremely when it was Moses who hit the rock, so I have to wonder what exactly Aaron was doing at that time. We aren’t told of his actions, so we are left to speculate about whether or not he encouraged Moses, tried to stop him, or just stood aside, and is being punished for his inaction at that moment. Moses takes Aaron and Eleazar up Mount Hor, and takes the garments of the high priest off of Aaron and puts them on his son. Then, Aaron dies on top of the mountain, after which Moses and Eleazar come down alone. “The whole congregation saw that Aaron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days (Numbers 20:29).”

This chapter starts with death and ends with death. By the end of it, Moses is left without either of his siblings. The close proximity of their deaths begs for comparisons to be made. Miriam’s death doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by the people, while they actively mourn Aaron. What does this say? Does it mean Miriam was less important? Or, as some feminist commentators speculate, is it that she was even more important, and mourning for her continued indefinitely? If we follow the thought process of the midrash, in which Miriam’s death leads to the lack of water, then her death was a direct precursor to Aaron’s, which is a result of Moses hitting the rock in search of water. What is this link meant to teach us?

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