Parash Chukat

Parasha Chukat

by Nancy Coren

July 9, 2022

In today’s parasha, chukkat, there are two significant deaths.  Both Miriam and Aaron die, removing two-thirds of the leadership that the Israelites had depended upon since leaving Egypt.

Miriam was noted for her role in helping preserve the life of her infant brother, Moshe.  She placed him in a basket on the Nile when Pharoah decreed that all male Hebrew infants were to be killed.  She followed him along the course of the river and found a nursemaid for him.  Her actions made it possible for Moshe to survive and eventually lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

At the Sea of Reeds, she led the women in song and joyous dance with her timbrel, buoying their spirits after the water closed over the Egyptians.

An analysis of Miriam’s name reveals that it contains the letters found in the word Mayim (water) and the word ROM which means elevated.

Miriam is also credited with having been granted a well that followed the Israelites in the wilderness. It was the source of life and refreshment for the Israelites, given on the merit of her deeds.

So, let’s take a look at a description of Miriam’s death (Numbers,chapter 20: 1-5)

Does anything strike you as being missing?  Notice that the people did not mourn her death…they merely start grumbling?  Why?  How is the grumbling about being thirsty related to her death?

Now let’s look at a description of Aaron’s death (Numbers,chapter 20:24-29) How does it differ from the description we read about Miriam’s death?    Why do you think the Torah describes the fact that people mourned Aaron?

According to Rashi, when it says “The entire assembly saw that Aaron had perished,” it really was referring to the fact that when Aaron died, the clouds of glory that sheltered them during the day, covering the Mishkan, departed and as a result the entire assembly was seen (became more vulnerable).  Just as Miriam was known for bringing water to the wanderers, Aaron was known for bringing the cloud that guided them during the day (sheltering them from the harshness of the wilderness).

We also learn in this parasha that Moshe’s fate is also sealed because he strikes a rock to bring forth water when he had been instructed by G-d to speak to the rock in order to bring forth water.  As a result, Moshe is told that he will die before entering the land and when that section of Torah occurs in Deuteronomy we see that he was mourned just as his brother was mourned.

Rabbi Michael Hattin, with whom I have studied in Jerusalem at the Pardes Institute, wrote the following in his commentary about Chukkat: “Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: The people of Israel had three excellent leaders – Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.  Three good gifts were extended to the people of Israel on their behalf – the well, the clouds, and the manna.  The well was provided due to the merit of Miriam, the clouds of glory because of Aharon, and the manna on account of Moshe.  When Miriam died, the well disappeared, as it says: "The people of Israel, all of the congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, and the people dwelt in Kadesh.  Miriam died there and there she was buried."  Immediately afterwards, the text states: "The congregation had no water, and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon…"  When Aharon died, the clouds of glory disappeared…when Moshe died, all three were gone… (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Ta'anit 9a).

The well, clouds, and manna represented the three essential items that the people needed for their survival; water, shelter, and food and they became the symbols of the combined leadership of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. G-d responded to these leaders even when the Israelites angered G-d.  G-d allowed the nation to survive even though it was decreed that the older generation would die out prior to entering the land.  Each of the siblings, Miriam, Aaron, and Moshe was totally devoted to ensuring that they worked on behalf of their people while serving G-d.  Each worried less about their own well-being than about the continued survival of their people.  They had a goal in mind and pursued it hoping for a brighter future, even though they were not to be part of that future.  Perhaps that is the key to Jewish survival.  One must always pursue a goal of developing a faithful community even beyond the time of one’s own existence; caring more about the well-being of the group than about one’s own glory!

In the words of my teacher, “Like all great leaders, then, Miriam, Aharon and Moshe were condemned to pass from the scene before the destination was reached, in order to drive home the point that the best of them labor for their people and care little about their own personal attainments.  Whether or not these three figures reached the Promised Land did not concern them nearly as much as whether the people of Israel would one day reach it.  And with that spirit of loyal service, they did their quiet work even as the people sorely tried their patience and stamina.  May Israel merit having leaders of their caliber to guide them.”

May all nations, have leaders of that caliber to guide them.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parasha Chukat

by Shellen Lubin

July 9, 2022 (Daniel's birthday)

For Village Yontif/Daniel Neiden 

In Parasha Chukat, three leaders’ fates are sealed. Miriam and Aaron die, and Moses is denied entryway into the promised land because he has chosen to do something differently than the way God intended it to be done. Moses is still willful and has his own way of seeing things. Aaron is flawed and imperfect because he has a disability. And Miriam and Aaron both have questioned Moses at times, going with the restless people against God and his plan for the Israelites. So they, too, have their own way of seeing things. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are all willful in their own ways and are punished for it by God, but all three of them are great leaders and have brought the Jewish people out of slavery and towards a better future. But, also, Miriam is a woman. Being a woman itself is considered an imperfection, because perfect beings are men.

In fact, Miriam is not mourned. Aaron is mourned and missed, but Miriam dies, and the people are thirsty. They miss, not her, but the endless well of water with which she has provided them their entire time in the desert. They miss what she has given them, what she has done for them. In fact, at this point, no one spoke to her, and she was allowed to speak to no one, as punishment for speaking out against Moses. Aaron and Moses were punished for their mistakes, but she was completely ostracized.

Let’s talk about Miriam for just a minute. She has made this entire journey possible, because she saved her brother’s life. It was she who prophesied her brother’s birth and his destiny as the savior of their people. who followed the basket down the river with the baby Moses and kept him safe until Pharaoh's daughter found him. It was she who suggested that her mother be brought as wet nurse to the palace, keeping Moses connected to the family as much and as long as possible. It was she who created a song to keep up the people’s spirits as they made their way across the dried-up seabed of the Red Sea, ensuring they reached the other side. It was she who played the tambourine and sang and danced with the people when they needed their spirits raised. And it was she who provided unlimited water from her infinite well.

Miriam was a prophet, a caretaker, a singer, a musician, a dancer, and a water-provider. But she was not mourned when she died.

They just thirsted. They needed her, but they did not fully appreciate her, and whoever wrote these stories down also did not fully appreciate her. In fact, in Chukat, there is a song of praise for the well which sustained the Jews throughout their time in the desert, but not for Miriam who was the provider of that well.

But all three of these flawed, brilliant leaders made mistakes, and those mistakes cost them dearly, and yet all three of them brought us out of slavery and towards a better future. They did the work of bringing us forward, whether or not they would ever see that future. Not just important for the Jewish people, but for all peoples.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from them as well as himself and so many others in that role when he said on April 3, the day before he was shot and killed. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

I have been thinking a lot recently about what it means to do the work without seeing the end. This is particularly vivid for me as I am getting older and, yes, more easily tired, and my children—both my literal and figurative children—are taking up the gauntlets they see as most needed in this world. But I’ve also been thinking about it because of the setbacks - the recent Supreme Court rulings, the political pushback against real equality and freedom.

It is Daniel’s birthday, and it seems a fitting time to honor him as one of those people who may not see the metaphorical promised land—none of us may if the forces of retrogression have their way—but is always trying to make the world a better place.

Sometimes it is a little world—family, friends, community, collaborations—sometimes it is the larger world—our city, our country, all the countries of this Earth—but all of it moves us forward, or at least makes the forces that want to pull us back have to work a little bit harder to do so. Sometimes that’s all you can do. But still you keep your vision, you keep your faith in something, and you go on. Daniel is one of those who does not just do it himself, but helps others to keep their vision, and their faith, and their ability to go on. It is a beautiful and worthy mission, wherever we get—and a powerful way to live.

The Village Yontif. Yontif means holiday, or literally “good day” in Yiddish—not Hebrew, like our service, but Yiddish, the language of so many of our families before—and even after—they came to this country. And on holidays, holy days, we celebrate. So it is fitting that in the days of the pandemic, and these dark political times, Daniel has helped us find a way to celebrate all year round, week after week, service after service, all a celebration of our individual lives, and our individual brands of Judaism, and our common humanity. With his spirit, his intelligence, his commitment, his generosity, and his beautiful voice, he makes all we do a celebration. And we need to have these celebrations however and wherever we can, so thank you for that. It may be your birthday today, Daniel, but any day we get to spend with you is a Yontif, a holiday, a celebration, a good day …

Let’s celebrate that.