As we approach the end of the book of Bamidbar ("In the Wilderness)/the book of Numbers, we witness the death of two iconic leaders: Moses' sister, Miriam and Moses' brother, Aaron. The accounts of the deaths of these siblings are stark and thought-provoking. Of Miriam we read: "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." (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:1)
Verse 2 takes us to a new subject: "The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron."
On the surface, it seems as though Miriam's death goes unmarked, she is buried and we move on to the crisis of water. The classic commentators on this passage were moved to associate these two passages and concluded that the people were without water as a result of Miriam's demise, that a well would magically appear wherever Miriam was situated, so that the people always had water as long as Miriam lived. Miriam's Well became a midrashic symbol enriching and entrenching the image of Miriam as the spiritual leader of the people who nourished their souls through her special gifts of song and of water.
Moses and Aaron are depicted as engaged in a defensive position coping with the anger and fear of their parched Israelite charges. The brothers consult with God at the Tent of Meeting and God instructs them:
8 "You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts."
9 Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" 11 And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
Moses does indeed produce water from the rock, but instead of "ordering the rock" as God instructed, Moses "struck the rock twice with his rod." Moses seems to have lost his composure . . . and I think we are given a glimpse of the very human Moses in this moment.
Moses is usually very conscientious about following God's instruction to the letter: in Moses' approach to the Israelites, in his approaches to Pharoah, in the management of the plagues and in orchestrating the Israelite departure from Egypt, Moses did not put his "personal spin" on anything explicitly described by God.
But in this moment, Moses strikes, rather than instructs, the rock that will produce water.
I see Moses in mourning for his sister, Miriam, in this moment: in his grief and in the anger over his loss (an emotion many of us experience after the death of a loved one), in the intensity of having to lead while still mourning, Moses strikes out. The circumstances of this incident could only have deepened his grief: his sister, Miriam, who watched over him when he was consigned to water as an infant; his sister, Miriam, who provided water for the people in the wilderness . . . it is due to her death that he must now produce water himself: he strikes out in grief and anger instead of maintaining his facade of measured, precise leader and obedient servant of God.
Perhaps if Moses were permitted the seven days of shiva which wraps us in an embracing cocoon of family, friends and community when we mourn, he would have been spared his outburst of grief. The wisdom of our tradition, guiding us to put aside even the most pressing professional obligations, abdicating our control of logistics while family, friends and community cook and clean for us . . . all of this is the tangible expression of the insight afforded to us by this moment of Torah: we need time to mourn, to contemplate our loss before we return to the pressing world of work and responsibilty. Even as he mourns and suffers, Moses is our teacher.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.