Parashat Chukat is bound up with the theme of death. The parashah starts out with a set of regulations for the ritual of the red heifer, which is intended to purify a member of the Israelite community from the contamination incurred through contact with a dead body. Almost immediately after this the Torah reports the death of Miriam, the prophetess and sister of Moses and Aaron, and not long after this Aaron too is called to his death, leaving Moses alone to lead the people during this last phase of the journey to the land of Canaan.
Two deaths, two significant and very different deaths.
Given the prevalence of death throughout, it seems significant that its name is Chukat. Chok, from which chukat is derived, is one of a trio of terms used by the Torah to refer to mitzvot commanded by G-d. We’re used to talking about positive and negative commandments, but another of the traditional ways of talking about mitzvot is to divide them into mishpatim, edot and chukim. According to the rabbis, mishpatim are rational commandments–things we would be able to know were right or wrong independently of the Torah, purely through the power of reason. Edot are commandments intended to memorialize or represent something, such as eating matzah on passover to remember the haste with which the Israelites were forced to depart Egypt–not derivable a priori without the text of the Torah to serve as a guide but nevertheless rationally connected with the historical narrative contained therein. Chukim, however, are commandments with no logical basis, not grounded in any apparent external justification save for the transcendent word of G-d breaking forth like lightning through the clouds of the rational order.
In a sense, the death of Aaron is similar to a mishpat: Bound up with G-d’s decree that neither Moses nor Aaron will live to cross over the Jordan to set foot in the land, it seems to follow logically from the episode almost immediately preceding in which the brothers stumble in the matter of the waters of Meribah. What is more, his death is decreed ahead of time by G-d. Aaron is given the chance to prepare, emotionally as well as practically, for his own death, and clear instructions are given for the transfer of priestly authority from him to his son Eleazar.
Not so with Miriam. Her death seems to come out of nowhere, interrupting the normal flow of life like a clap of thunder from a cloudless sky:
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. (Numbers 20:1)
No warning, no clear justification, no chance to prepare. And no clear mention made of anybody, whether the people as a whole or her brothers Moses and Aaron, mourning her. Aaron the people mourn for thirty days, but for Miriam, not a peep. What we get instead is an immediate narrative jump to an account of the people panicking because they are thirsty and there isn’t any water. Given what we know about the importance of juxtaposition in biblical narrative, this shift is too sudden for us to be without suspicion that there’s a connection, and indeed the rabbis are with us in our suspicion. Because as it turns out there is a tradition in the midrash that associates Miriam with the supply of water that kept the people from dying of thirst in the desert. As one midrash has it, the manna that fed the people was provided on account of the merit of Moses. Aaron’s merit was responsible for the pillar of smoke that guided the people through the wilderness. But it was on account fo Miriam’s piety that the people were able to find water. Some accounts talk of a miraculous “Well of Miriam” that followed the Israelites wherever they went, springing up from the ground every time they made camp. These stories aren’t so far-fetched when we consider that Miriam’s most significant moments are associated with water–waiting by the banks of the Nile to observe and intervene in the fate of her infant brother, and leading the women of the people in song and dance on the shore of the Sea of Reeds in praise of G-d’s miraculous deliverance of the people from the clutches of Pharaoh’s army.
So, Miriam, the largely unsung prophetess who has been responsible for ensuring that there is water for the people to drink dies suddenly, without warning or any indication from G-d as to how this important responsibility is going to be handled in her absence. The people are understandably upset, especially given that as far as we can tell the water pretty much immediately dries up after this. Moses and Aaron seek G-d’s help, and are instructed in what to do. But–instead of simply following G-d’s instructions and commanding the rock to bear water “before the very eyes” of the community, Moses peevishly berates the Israelites, calling them “rebels,” and strikes the rock twice with his staff. A subtle variation between intent and execution, its seeming insignificance is belied by the harsh judgment attendent on it–that neither Moses nor Aaron will ever set foot in the promised land.
So what, exactly, is the failing that prompted this judgment? There are many opinions about this, but here’s one interpretation in light of what we’ve surmised about Miriam’s role: The sudden and unexpected death of an important and respected member of the community would understandably come as a great shock to the people. It’s significant that in this instance G-d does not begrudge the people for their fear and confusion. Moses’s accusation in this case is unjust–the people are understandably and deservedly upset. But rather than confidently and compassionately stepping forward and demonstrating to the people that life will go on, that despite the great loss of her passing others will step forward and shoulder the responsibilities she held, Moses, whether out of grief or his own sense of frustration at having yet another responsibility thrust upon him, lashes out at the complainers in anger. And Aaron, who might have remonstrated with his brother and made him see that the people were more deserving of his sympathy than his anger, remained silent, perhaps too bound up in the chamber of his own grief to respond to the emotional needs of others.
If this is so, then perhaps it explains why Miriam, unlike Aaron, goes unmourned in the text. Moses and Aaron, too bound up in their own highly personal responses to their sister’s death, are unable or unwilling to externalize their grief, share it with the community and begin moving along the painful path from despair to healing. If so, their stumbling at this crucial juncture is a powerful reminder to us of the importance of coming together in the wake of a disaster, of forging a collective response to the sometimes incomprehensible decrees of G-d that, in the depths of our isolation, can only ever appear starkly meaningless.