This week we read of the death of both of Moses’s siblings, Miriam and Aaron. According to Jewish tradition, throughout the forty years of wandering in the desert the Children of Israel were blessed with a miraculous well of water that followed them wherever they went. It was called “Miriam’s Well,” for it existed due to the merit of Miriam who was the greatest prophetess in Jewish history.
The source of this legend is found in this week’s portion, and flows (pun intended) from the fact that first the Torah tells us, “Miriam died there and was buried there,” and then the very next sentence in the Torah says, “The community was without water, and they joined against Moses an Aaron.” From this juxtaposition of sentences and ideas, the rabbis deduced that Miriam was the source of the water in the first place.
What happens next is one of the most perplexing events in the Torah. When the people complain about the lack of water and Moses brings their complaint to God, he is told to go with Aaron and assemble the community and before their eyes speak to a rock and order it to issue forth water and it will be so. As we all know, what actually happens is that when Moses assembled the community he shouted at them in anger, “Listen you rebels shall we get water for you out of this rock?” and then struck the rock with his rod not once, but twice in defiance of God’s command.
For this transgression Moses is told by God that he has forfeited his right to enter the Promised Land of Israel. Instead he must appoint a successor and must die on the far side of the Jordan without seeing his life’s ambition realized.
Every time I read or teach this section people are perplexed by the severity of God’s punishment to Moses which seems so out of sync with the relative innocence of his transgression. It seems as if God is looking for any excuse to keep Moses out, if this is what God chooses as the alleged reason for the punishment.
Jewish tradition claims there are at least six reasons why this incident proved the inappropriateness of either Moses or Aaron (who dies by the end of this portion) entering the land of Israel.
- Disobedience – they were told to speak to the rock and instead the struck it.
- Inflexibility – Moses used the exact same approach to a new situation that he had used on previous occasions when the people had complained and wasn’t able to adapt to new circumstances which disqualified him as the potential leader to take them into the land where there would be lots of new situations to confront.
- Lack of faith – In the Jewish people themselves, as demonstrated in the words Moses uses to describe them (“You rebels”) in spite of the reality that being without water in the desert is an understandably frightening situation.
- Arrogance – Moses said, “Shall we get water for you,” taking credit himself for whatever miracle was about to occur as if they and not God was the source of the people’s sustenance.
- Failure of nerve – They were simply tired after forty years of leadership.
- Abrogation of responsibility – If Moses struck the rock twice, Aaron should have at least intervened and stopped him immediately after the first strike.
I suppose that all the above reasons might be true, and perhaps may even be sufficient in and of themselves to preclude the entry of Moses into the land of Israel, but this week as I read the portion I felt a tremendous empathy for Moses. What no one seems to address in their commentaries is the grief that Moses and Aaron must have felt as brothers over the death of their sister, Miriam.
After all, in our portion no sooner do their bury their beloved sister when the people begin to badger them and complain as they have for forty long years about one thing or another. Is it any wonder that Moses is short of temper? Is it any wonder that he takes this opportunity with a big stick in his hand and a rock that is impervious to feeling to vent his own feelings of loss, grief, anger and sorrow? As one who has spent a lifetime dealing with those in grief and mourning, his behavior seems perfectly normal and very human.
Perhaps it is in this context that God’s decree makes even more sense. The death of Miriam signals the reality that they are all coming to the end of their lives. This then is an opportunity for God to use this intense display of grief by Moses as the opportunity to signal that his leadership days are rapidly coming to an end.
After all, the real destiny of his life was to lead the people out of slavery and into freedom. Bringing them to the edge of the promised land was the fulfillment of his own leadership challenge which going in itself had nothing to do with. The very real and human glimpse of Moses in this week’s portion is another reminder that the best leadership is to be a role model for others. As Moses allows his own emotions to show in this hour of grief he gives all of us permission to do the same.