Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – 24th June 2020
Forgetting Miriam: A commentary on Parashat Chukkat
What do we remember? What do we forget? Memory is tricky. We don’t so much remember what happened to us as tell stories of our past. It’s not that we are making it up. When we weave our tales out of the fabric of our past lives, we are making meaning; trying to make sense of where we have come from and where we are going – and, most crucially: who we are.
What is true for individuals, is also true for communities. When we open the Torah, for example, we find the stories that have been transmitted orally and then recorded. Of course, telling tales is not the same thing as writing them down. Recording is a more deliberate act. As progressive Jews, who do not believe that the Torah is literally the word of God dictated by the Eternal to Moses at Mount Sinai, we have a responsibility to consider how the Torah got to be written. Then, of course, after the writing, comes the editing. Critical scholarship of the Bible has revealed that the Bible was recorded and redacted (edited) over hundreds of years.
Until forty years ago, biblical scholarship, like scholarship in general, was mostly a male enterprise. Since then, the work of women rabbis and feminist biblical scholars in general, has revealed that whoever was involved in telling tales of the past, recording and redacting was mostly in the hands of men.
This is nowhere more evident than in the story of Miriam, which concludes in this week’s parashah, Chukkat, after a 38-year lacuna – gap – in the narrative (Numbers 20:1):
- 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.
The first month – that is the first month of the fortieth year. Thirty-eight years have elapsed since the story of the rebellion of Korach, Datan, Aviram and On related in last week’s parashah, and this is all that the Torah has to say about the death of the eldest of the three sibling leaders of the Exodus!
The brevity of the passage is made all the more apparent when we compare it with the eight-verse account of the death of Aaron (Numbers 20:22-29), which concludes (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 (Deuteronomy 34:8):
- The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab, thirty days.
So, what about Miriam? Why no mention of a thirty-day mourning rite for her? Significantly, no sooner has Miriam died and been buried, then we read in the very next verse (Numbers 20:2):
- There was no water for the congregation: so, they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.
The rabbinic sages, puzzled by the absence of any reference of mourning rites for Miriam, made a connection between these two events: the death of Miriam and the lack of water. From this crucial conjunction emerges the rabbinic legend of the Miriam’s Well that sustained the people, providing them with the water they needed to survive, throughout the forty years that they wandered in the wilderness. (Talmud, Ta’anit (9a):
- Israel had a well in the desert in Miriam’s merit.
The sages filled in the missing pieces of the Miriam story, and brought out the significance of the role she played as a leader. And so, noting that when her name is mentioned for the first time, she is also called a prophet, n’vi’ah (Exodus 15:19-20), they found evidence of Miriam’s powers of prophecy in the first Torah tale where she is introduced as the sister of the baby Moses, assisting their mother in saving his life (Exodus 2:1-10) (Talmud, M’gillah 14a).
However, the sages were limited by their own imagination, and failed to do justice to the key text at the heart of the Torah’s account of Miriam; Numbers chapter 12, which begins (12:1-2):
- Miriam spoke [Va-t’dabbeir] – and Aaron – against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married: for he had married a Cushite woman. / And they said [Va-yom’ru] ‘Has the Eternal indeed spoken only by Moses? Has God not spoken also to us?’ And the Eternal heard it.
Both Miriam and Aaron had reason to be aggrieved concerning their baby brother’s special relationship with the Eternal. However, since Aaron already had a significant leadership role, we can imagine that as the marginalised elder sister, Miriam had even more reason to object to the pre-eminence of Moses. Certainly, the last verses of Numbers 12 make it clear that Miriam alone was punished – with a temporary plague of leprosy (:9-10). But the opening Hebrew word of Numbers 12 suggests that it was principally Miriam who objected to Moses marrying the Cushite woman: Va-t’dabbeir – ‘She spoke’.
So, why did Miriam object? Significantly, there is no mention in the Torah of Miriam being married – making her unlike any other female character in the Torah. Uncomfortable with her unmarried status, the rabbis married Miriam off to Caleb (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:17), who together with Joshua, did not join in the rebellion following the tribal leaders’ reconnoitre of the land (Numbers 13:30 and 14:6-9).
Moses was already married, of course, to Tzipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-22). For the rabbis, the Cushite woman mentioned in Numbers 12 was Tzipporah (Talmud, Mo’eid Katan 17b). But that doesn’t explain Miriam’s belated objection. Perhaps, Miriam objected to Moses’ marriage because the Cushite woman whom he had married, was her woman?
We can only speculate. Indeed, taking our cue from the sages who created tales in response to gaps and puzzles in the text, the 38-year lacuna in the Torah narrative invites us to use our imaginations. Perhaps, the gap in the record was motivated by the need to censor the story of Miriam’s relationship with the Cushite woman? Certainly, when we assess everything that is related about Miriam in the Torah – just 31 verses in all – we are left with the curious fact that the eldest of the sibling leaders of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings barely gets a mention.
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