We learn about Miriam’s death in just one short line, all the Torah tells us is that “Miriam died there, and was buried there”; there are no details of how the community mourned her, but it is clear that her loss is felt by the community and by Moses.
The Israelites complaining about conditions in the desert and longing for Egypt is not new. Throughout Numbers the Israelites are quick to complain to Moses and long for the delicacies they had in Egypt. In this case we might excuse their complaints as insecurity. They are grieving and they are uncertain about the future -- what if the well was only there because Miriam merited it? In their sorrow, the community falls back into their old pattern of complaining. They forget about all the other miracles in the desert and myopically only see the current crisis. Grief narrows their vision to only the negative. When Miriam was alive they danced and praised God; after her death they are quarrelsome.
Moses and Aaron are also changed by grief. At first they respond to the people’s complaints by appealing to God, but when the time comes to bring forth water from the rock Moses loses his temper. Moses calls the people rebels – the Hebrew word is morim, a word that sounds very much like Miriam. Is it possible that Moses was still thinking about his sister this “Freudian slip” is what came out of his mouth instead of the order to the rock? Ora Horn Prouser, in “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” suggests that while the Torah does not directly state how Moses is feeling, that his mishandling of the demand for water indicates that he is still struggling with his sister’s death. Prouser goes on to suggest that Moses learns to take the time to grieve because later in Hukat, when Aaron dies, the Torah tells us that “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”
If Moses did react to the people in anger, out of grief, God’s punishment of denying Moses entry into the promised land seems even more harsh. Moses, who has been shepherding these admittedly difficult people through the desert for 40 years, is denied entrance into the promised land because he hit a rock instead of speaking to it? It is not even unreasonable that he hit the rock; when they first got to the desert God ordered Moses to strike a rock to deliver water to the people. Wouldn’t we expect God to recognize that Moses is grieving and to comfort him instead of punishing him? Perhaps God recognized that grief had so profoundly changed Moses and Aaron that they were no longer capable of leading the people into the promised land. Moses had already begun to do some damage to the people — insulting them and setting a bad example by not following God’s exact instructions. The brutal nature of grief is that it can change us in ways we do not want to be changed.
Hukat begins with a description of the ritual of the Red Heifer, that Water of Lustration that purifies those who come in contact with death, Moses’ reaction to the death of his sister reminds us that sorrow can not be washed away so easily.
Written 2010 for the Board of Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torah