Miriam and the Missing Leadership of Women: A Commentary on Chukkat (Parashat Chukkat)

After a lacuna in the Torah text of thirty-eight years, the narrative resumes once again in Parashat Chukkat, Numbers chapter 20 verse 1, with the death of Miriam.

What do we know about Miriam?

First: Big sister (unnamed), she helps her mother to save her baby brother, whose life is threatened by the Pharaoh’s decree condemning Hebrew baby boys to death (Sh’mot, Exodus 1:4-8).

Then, she turns up briefly with a name, after the slaves have fled Egypt, as ‘Miriam, the prophet’ (n’vi’ah), leading the women in a dance with song and timbrels after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (B’shallach, Exodus 15:20-21)

Next, a curious, less well-remembered story, during the second year of their journey in the desert, about how Miriam – and, to a lesser extent, middle sibling, Aaron – challenge the authority of their younger brother (B’haalotcha, Numbers 12:1-16).

Finally, a brief account of Miriam’s death in the first month of the fortieth year of the wilderness wanderings.

So that’s it: twenty-nine verses about Miriam in all, in the whole of the Torah – plus a reference to her in the context of an injunction concerning the plague of ‘leprosy’ (Deuteronomy 24:8-9), and a chronology that is very telling (Numbers 26:58-59):

… the family of the Korachites: K’hat begot Amram. / And the name of Amram’s wife was Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore to Amram, Aaron and Moses, and Miriam their sister.

Miriam was, indeed, the sister of Aaron and Moses – their elder sister. And yet, the Torah relegates her to third place, and provides the reader with only brief snippets of her life.

The account of Miriam’s death in Chukkat (Numbers 20:1) is also very telling:

The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Tzin, in the first month; and the people dwelt in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.

Thirty-eight years have elapsed, and this is all that the Torah has to say about the death of one of the three sibling leaders of the Exodus, the elder sister of Moses! The brevity of this single verse is made all the more apparent when we compare it with the account of the death of Aaron in the same chapter, which runs to eight verses, concluding (Numbers 20:29):

When all the congregation saw that Aaron had expired, they wept for Aaron thirty days, the whole house of Israel.

Similarly, when Moses dies, the Torah relates: “The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab, thirty days” (Deuteronomy 34: 8).

So, why no thirty-day mourning rite for Miriam? Significantly, no sooner has Miriam died and been buried, then we read in the very next verse (Num. 20:2):

There was no water for the congregation: so, they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.

The sages made a connection between these two events: the death of Miriam and the lack of water. From this crucial conjunction emerges the legend of Miriam’s Well, which sustained the people, providing them with the water they needed to survive, throughout their forty years in the wilderness, and then dried up when she died. For example, in the Talmud, tractate, Ta’anit, which deals with ‘fasts’, which were frequently related to drought, we read: ‘Israel had a well in the desert in Miriam’s merit’ (Ta’anit 9a).

But the legend of Miriam’s Well is more than a d’rash, more than an exegetical interpretation that arises from the curious conjunction between Miriam’s death and the lack of water. Since Miriam was both the elder sister of Aaron and Moses – in that order – who became one of the sibling leaders of the Exodus, and, even more significantly, a n’vi’ah – a ‘prophet’ – why does the Torah say so little about her? The rabbis found evidence of Miriam’s powers of prophecy, in the way that she waited by the Reeds of the River Nile – after Moses’ mother had placed her baby son in a basket there – ‘to know what would be done to him’ (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:22). According to rabbinic interpretation, Miriam foresaw the future redemption of the people (M’gillah 14a).

The rabbinic sages filled in the missing pieces of the Miriam story, and brought out the significance of the role she played as a leader in the Exodus and wilderness narrative.

Let us engage in another creative exercise and imagine that rather than being the first of the three sibling leaders to die, Miriam was the last.

So, with both Aaron and Moses gone, how might Miriam have counselled the congregation encamped by the River Jordan (Chukkat, Numbers 22:1) concerning their entry into the land beyond?

Perhaps, reminding them about how she stood watch over Moses, when he lay in a basket at the water’s edge and arranged with Pharaoh’s daughter for her mother to be the baby’s wet nurse, Miriam would have counselled the people to negotiate with the other peoples, when they entered the land and find a way of living peaceably together.

Perhaps, reminding them about how she had led the women with songs and dances and timbrels, Miriam might have instructed that, instead of ‘600,000’ men (Exodus 12:37) marching forward for battle and sounding trumpets of alarm (Numbers 10:9), the 600,000 women, whom the Torah does not mention, should lead the way, singing and dancing and playing their timbrels.

Perhaps, reminding them about how they had waited for her when she was excluded from the camp for seven days after speaking out against Moses (Numbers 12:1ff.), Miriam would have counselled the people to be patient and not to allow their unruly emotions to get the better of them when they faced the unknown challenges that lay ahead.

Of course, this is all mere fantasy, but what a powerful image: a joyous band of women leading the way into Canaan with songs, dances and timbrels! Perhaps, if women were the leaders in Israel and Palestine today, a path towards peaceful coexistence might be found…

About the Author:
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah is the rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue in Sussex, England. She has her own website and can be found on Facebook and Twitter @rabbiellisarah.